A Few Aztec Riddles
Watching the Hobbit in theatres last weekend got me thinking about riddles. Not only are they amusing, but the figurative language and ideas contained within them can point to interesting tidbits of culture. I’ve pulled a few of my favorites from the Florentine Codex and included them below, in slightly more informal language. After each riddle and its answer I’ve added some of my own notes and interpretations of the concepts they nod to (the commentary is my own work, not that of Anderson and Dibble).
Q: What’s a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?
A: It’s the sky.
Mesoamerican cosmology divides the universe into sky and heavens (topan) above, the earth’s surface like a pancake or tortilla in the middle (tlalticpac), and the underworld (mictlan) below. Though all three have their own distinct and separate characteristics, they interpenetrate to a certain degree, and this riddle hints at that in a playful manner. The gourd itself is a product of the earth and its underworld powers, doubly so as it’s a water-filled plant (and is often likened to the human head), as is popcorn. In fact, first eating corn is the moment where an infant becomes bound to the earth deities as it takes of their bounty and starts to accumulate cold, heavy “earthy-ness” within its being. It’s also the start of a debt to the earth and vegetation gods — as They feed the child, one day that child will die and return to the earth to feed Them. I covered some aspects of this idea in my Human Corn post, if you’re curious to read more.
Q: What’s the little water jar that’s both carried on the head and also knows the land of the dead?
A: The pitcher for drawing water.
The land of the dead is traditionally conceived of as a place dominated by the elements of earth and water, filled with cool, oozy dampness. Rivers, wells, springs, and caves were places where the underworld power was considered to leak through to the mortal realm. Not only did this power seep through to us, but we could sometimes cross through them to reach the underworld as well (the legendary Cincalco cave being one of the most famous of these doors). Thus, thrusting the jar down into a watering hole or a spring, breaking through the fragile watery membrane, was sending it into Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue’s world in a way.
Q: What lies on the ground but points its finger to the sky?
A: The agave plant.
The agave plant, called metl in Nahuatl and commonly referred to as a maguey in the old Spanish sources, is a plant loaded with interesting cultural associations. Its heart and sap is tapped to produce a variety of traditional and modern liquors like pulque, octli, and tequila, linking it to the earth-linked liquor gods like Nappatecuhtli, Mayahuel, and even Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl in their pulque god aspects. Additionally, each thick, meaty leaf is tipped with a long black spine that’s much like a natural awl. This spine was one of the piercing devices used by priests and the general public alike to perform autosacrifice and offer blood to the gods. Lastly, the beautiful greenish-blue color of the leaves of some species (like the blue agave), is the special color traditionally associated with beautiful, divine things. Take a look at a photo of the respendent quetzal’s tailfeathers — they’re just about the same color as the agave.
Q: What’s the small mirror in a house made of fir branches?
A: Our eye.
The Aztecs strongly associated mirrors with sight and understanding. Several gods, most notably Tezcatlipoca (the “Smoking Mirror”), possessed special mirrors that would allow them to see and know anything in the world by peering into them. Some of the records we have from before and during the Conquest record that some of the statues of the gods had eyes made of pyrite or obsidian mirrors, causing a worshipper standing before them to see themselves reflected in the god’s gaze. In the present day, some of the tigre (jaguar) boxers in Zitlala and Acatlan wear masks with mirrored eyes, discussed in this post and video. One last point on mirrors — in many of the huehuetlatolli (ancient word speeches), the speaker implores the gods to set their “light and mirror” before someone to guide them, symbolizing counsel, wisdom, and good example. The comparison of eyelashes to fir branches is rather interesting, as it reminds me of the common practice in many festivals of decorating altars with fresh-cut fir branches. The two elements combine to suggest a tiny shrine of enlightenment, the magic mirror nestled in its fragrant altar like a holy icon.
Q: What’s the scarlet macaw in the lead, but the raven following after?
A: The wildfire.
I included this one simply because I thought it was exceptionally creative and clever. I’m pretty sure it would stump even a master riddler like Gollum!
Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.236-239.
Introduction To The “What” Of Sacrifice
As I said in my previous post on the “why” of sacrifice, I’d be writing one soon on the “what.” Next time, it’ll be “how and when,” and we’ll be good to go on the basics of the cornerstone ritual in worshipping the Teteo.
The people of the Anahuac valley offered a wide variety of different goods and services to the gods. Most of them can be fit into three quick and dirty categories: blood offerings, property offerings, and services.
Blood offerings are the best known, and they come in several forms. There’s the classic heart extraction and other types of lethal human sacrifice, of course, but no one’s going to be doing any of those, so don’t even think about it. More important to modern-day practitioners, people would offer small amounts of their own blood to the gods. This is called autosacrifice, and everyone would do it, priest, king, and commoner alike. Finally, the last type of blood sacrifice is animal sacrifice. Quail were the most common choice, though I have found references to turkey hens and specific festivals where snakes, lizards, toads, and other small animals were offered. Anyway, quail offerings were mostly done by the priests and nobility, partially because meat was scarce and expensive in the days before the current style of large-scale industrial farming.
The second major category of offerings are those of property. The Aztecs gave a dazzling array of material goods to the Teteo, ranging from food and drink to clothing, incense, and art. Incense was the backbone of property offerings, and was burned for the pleasure of the gods very frequently. The particular type used was a resin made from tree sap, and is called copal. Copal comes in many different types, and has a wonderful sweet smell. I encourage you to check out one of the external links I have to an entire article on copal. Everyone would burn it, and its use wasn’t restricted to particular festivals or the like. Similarly, people would often offer flowers, and they weren’t just for the godesses. The gods like them too!
Different foods were offered, such as tortillas, tamales, amaranth dough cakes, and fresh vegetables like corn or chia. Drinks were also provided for the gods, especially a liquor called pulque or octli. Sometimes people would give well-made articles of clothing to the gods to show their devotion. Amate paper was often burned for the gods. This may sound strange to many people, as most of us in the West these days don’t exactly think of paper as sacred. Not so among the Aztecs. Paper was rare, expensive, and hard to make, so it was highly valued and reserved for religious use and the writing of sacred painted books, called Codices today. (FAMSI has a lot of them online that you can look at, check them out HERE.)
Speaking of rare, expensive goods, artwork and other related precious objects round out the list of property offerings. Excavations in the remains of the Templo Mayor (a.k.a. Huey Teocalli in Nahuatl, Grand Temple in English) in Mexico City have uncovered caches of beautiful art that were apparently given to the gods. The objects range from jewelry to statues to feathercrafts and harder to describe things. So if you have an artistic streak, this might be a wonderful way for you to make offerings. Beautiful feathers and precious stones (especially turquoise and jade) were also prized as offerings.
The last category is services, offering by doing stuff. Sweeping and cleaning was actually a devotional activity back in the day, as it was a form of clearing away chaos and decay. All sacred spaces were routinely swept, whether they were the imperial temples or the humble household shrine. Finally, music, dance, song, and poetry were often done for the enjoyment of the Teteo, and certain instruments were considered to be favored by certain deities. For example, the conch shell trumpet was linked to Quetzalcoatl, the flute was Tezcatlipoca’s preferred instrument, and I’ve seen a reference or two to the huehuetl, the big drum, being Huitzilopochtli’s instrument. Music and dance were very important ways to worship in Mesoamerica, and many of the festivals would culminate in most of the town gathering to dance and sing. Sacred dance is still done today, either as worship or for secular reasons of love of culture. Today it’s called danza in Mexico, and if you hit YouTube or GoogleVideo you can find recordings of some of the danzantes performing. Very beautiful!
That’s the end of this article exploring the kinds of things that were traditionally sacrificed. Next time, I’ll get down to discussing how and when to do some specific kinds of offerings.