Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “offering

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.

Aztec Art Photostream by Ilhuicamina

Happy New Year’s!  Instead of fireworks, let’s ring in the new year with a superb photostream from Flickriver user Ilhuicamina.  This set is of exceptional quality and covers many significant artworks excavated from the Templo Mayor and safeguarded by INAH at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  Take a look!

Click HERE to visit Ilhuicamina’s Aztec Art Photostream!

Quiquiztli: The Conch Shell Trumpet

It’s the ending of the old baktun and the dawning of a new one, and I’d like to greet both the new era and the return of the Sun on this Winter Solstice with the blowing of conch horns!

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

The Aztecs named the conch shell trumpet quiquiztli, and the musicians who played them “quiquizoani.”  This is the instrument that Quetzalcoatl played to defeat the devious challenge of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead, and reclaim the ancestral bones of humanity at the start of the Fifth Sun.  I have seen some speculation that the “mighty breath” blown by the Plumed Serpent to set that newborn Sun moving in the sky was actually a tremendous blast on a conch horn.  It’s the trumpet the priests played to call their colleagues to offer blood four (or five) times a night in the ceremony of tlatlapitzaliztli, and also during the offering of incense, according to Sahagun in the Florentine Codex .  Tecciztecatl, the male Moon God, is sometimes depicted emerging from the mouth of a quiquiztli.  The sound of the instrument itself was considered by the Aztecs to be the musical analog to the roar of the jaguar.  Like the twisting spiral within the shell, the associations are nearly endless, doubling back on each other in folds of life, death, night, dawn, and breath.

The quiquiztli appeared in two offerings at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (offering #88).  One shell was found on Tlaloc the Rain Lord’s side (not at all surprising, given the overwhelming watery connotations of the instrument).  A second one was found on Huitzilopochtli’s side of the manmade replica of Coatepetl.  If you would like to actually hear one of these very trumpets being played, you can click HERE to visit the International Study Group on Music Archaeology’s page for these trumpets.  You can directly download the MP3 recording by clicking HERE.

I also found a beautiful photograph of an Aztec or Mixtec conch trumpet (covered in intricate carvings) currently in the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston.  If you’d like to view the photo and see their notes on the artifact, please click HERE.  If you’d rather jump right to the full-size, more detailed image, click HERE instead.

Want to learn more about the trumpet and its uses in Mesoamerican cultures past and present?  Head on over to Mixcoacalli and read Arnd Adje Both’s excellent 2004 journal article called “Shell Trumpets in Mesoamerica: Music-Archaeological Evidence and Living Tradition” (downloadable full text PDF).  It gives a valuable introduction to the instrument in Teotihuacan, Aztec, and Mayan societies and includes numerous interesting photos and line sketches as a bonus.  I couldn’t find a direct link to the article on his site, but I did find it on his server via Google.  As a courtesy, the link to his homepage is here.  There is some other interesting material relating to the study of ancient Mesoamerican music on there, so I recommend poking around.

What about South American cultures?  I’m a step ahead of you — why not go here to read an interesting article on Wired about a cache of 3,000 year old pre-Incan shell trumpets found in Chavin, Peru?  Includes recordings and photos.

Finally, if you’re curious for an idea of how the Aztecs and Maya actually played the quiquiztli, including how they changed the tone of the instrument without any finger-holes or other devices, you can view a demonstration by ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter below.  If you noticed that the trumpeter in the codex image I embedded earlier has his hand slipped into the shell, you’ll get to see what that actually does when the horn is played in the video.

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B) — Vol. 1

Back on January 29th of this year, I spotted on GoogleBooks the full text of Volume 2 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773, otherwise known as Vaticanus B.  I said I’d be watching for Google to finish scanning Volume 1 and post it… and guess what, it’s finally up in its entirety.  It can be read online, or the full text can be downloaded as a PDF. Volume 1 is on the obverse (front) side of the scroll-like book, while Volume 2 is about the reverse (back).  I’ve also updated my Codices page with the link to Volume 1.

Thanks Google!

Click HERE to read Volume 1 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773


Click HERE to read Volume 2

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli Over Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli (Codex Vaticanus B, Plate 76)


After a round of reading, digesting, and refreshing, the brain is revitalized and it’s time to get back to work posting.  I’ve been wanting to start tackling Nahua ethics in earnest the past couple of months and have finally settled on an approach I hope works, starting with the cardinal virtues and moving from there.  Previously I discussed the cardinal virtue of charity, and today I’m going to write about the virtue that appears to me to be the lynchpin of the whole system — temperance.

Temperance Defined

I define temperance here reasonably closely to the traditional Greek concept of temperance, or sophrosyne.  In a nutshell, this concept traditionally meant moderation in word, deed, and thought, guided by self-knowledge.  The Delphine “Nothing in excess” and the Roman counterpart, “Moderation in all things” are well-known mottoes expressing this ideal.  There is evidence that the Aztecs conceived of temperance in a similarly broad sense, and I think it reasonable to include the role of self-knowledge as a part of their concept. The most direct way to find and learn about the Nahua virtue of temperance is to go to the huehuetlatolli we have left to us in the wake of the Conquest.  Many of these ethical speeches touch on this topic, and I’ve picked out some particularly useful examples from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex to discuss next.

“Moderation In All Things” In Mesoamerica

“On earth it is a time for care, it is a place for caution.  Behold the word; heed and guard it, and with it take your way of life, your works.  On earth we live, we travel along a mountain peak.  Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss.  If you go over here, or if you go over there, you will fall in.  Only in the middle does one go, one live.”

The Florentine Codex, Book 6, Ch.19, p.101

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

This beautiful and evocative speech gives us a taste of the Nahua take on temperance.  The speaker, a noble father addressing his daughter, emphasizes the critical importance of moderation.  The peak and the abyss are traditional metaphors for disaster in Aztec rhetoric, and illustrate the dire consequences of going to wild extremes.  This admonishment is very general, and for good reason, as this principle of moderation is to guide all actions, from personal demeanor to concrete practicalities.  For example, youths are instructed speak calmly and clearly, without either excessive ornamentation or crudity (p.100).  They are to carry themselves tranquilly, avoiding both excessive pride and excessive humility, disdaining hate and favoring a joyful demeanor, but knowing the value of well-timed and appropriate anger (Id. at 100-101).   People are to travel purposefully and prudently, neither rushing about restlessly nor strolling around pompously (Id.).  However, they are to be wise and know when haste is appropriate (Id.). And of course, a healthy mean in eating, recreation, sex, and clothing are also to be pursued.

To Excess — When Appropriate

Even these quick examples show that Nahua temperance wasn’t just a robotic defaulting to a middling response regardless of the circumstances.  Disruptive or more extreme behavior can be good as well, so long as it’s practiced appropriately.  This last point is absolutely crucial, as it shows the underpinning of temperance in Mesoamerica is balance.  More disruptive or extreme behavior isn’t necessarily bad, it’s only bad when misused.  Returning to an above example, anger isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins or one of the Three Poisons here.  Sometimes its the right thing to feel and express.

A second example is the quaquachictin or Otomi warriors.  These warriors were men so recklessly fierce they were known to throw themselves into battle with a berserk fury devoid of planning or restraint.  Described as “wicked but brave…furious in battle” these men exemplified a virtue (bravery) gone to excess, becoming a vice that denied them the right to exercise leadership over others (Id. at 110).  Yet, instead condemning them as hopeless reprobates, their foolhardy ferocity was channeled into an appropriate avenue as awe-inspiring shock troops.  Thus the virtue that turned into a vice was turned back into a virtue by putting it into a context where it could benefit society.  Dr. Burkhart described this something like “taking this violent, chaotic strength that otherwise could have destroyed society and channeling it into a form that would protect it” in Slippery Earth.  (Excuse my horrible paraphrasing, I can’t recall the exact point in the book where she discusses this.)

This balancing of extremes and skillful application of them in the appropriate context is a thread that runs throughout the entire Aztec worldview to my eye.  Growth and death, eating and being eaten, chaos and order, etc.  Nearly everything in this system links opposites that struggle in creative (and destructive… and creative again) tension.  The great rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl is the same battle writ in the persons of the gods themselves.

The Role of Self-Knowledge

While this segment is a little more speculative than the others, I think it’s reasonable to see a parallel of the Hellenic inclusion of self-knowledge in temperance when looking at the evidence.The need to identify time, place, and manner for applying varying levels of moderation points to a need to understand oneself and one’s place in a greater context.  If a person doesn’t know their own nature and how they fit into society and the cosmos, they can’t possibly apply temperance intelligently and effectively.  It also requires an understanding of how opposing forces interact, balance, and unbalance themselves and the world.

This applies in both the mundane and the metaphysical.  If you don’t know how others think and view you, you won’t know if anger will prevent or cause contempt.  Looking to a metaphysical example, I wonder if the core message underlying the story of Quetzalcoatl’s flight from Tollan was really about a failing of temperance.  In the story, His soft-hearted refusal to make the “human payment” (an excess of affection) would have had the effect of jeopardizing the fabric of the cosmos.  Viewed in this light, Tezcatlipoca’s seemingly cruel attack on His brother’s happy kingdom was the best thing to do, for it restored the balance and ensured the continuation of existence for all.

Conclusion: The Power Of Balance

This conceptualization of temperance as a balancing of extremes as well an endorsement of the median is incredibly robust and life-affirming.  This built-in flexibility and sensitivity to context avoids the rigid, unrealistic, and frankly inhuman dogmatism of many other systems.  It guides the individual through difficult behavioral choices without eliminating the need for reason or leading her/him astray with a one-size-fits-all rule that doesn’t really fit at all.  Additionally, I argue that it leads to a healthier individual and society.  Impossible standards breed hypocracy, dysfunctional psychological states, and needless suffering.  Realistic standards offer everyone a fair chance to live up to them, and a just reason for chastisement where violated. Finally, this virtue of temperance is a light in the darkness, with all that implies.  It’s a guiding principle to follow, but determining exactly where to puts one’s feet on the path it draws us down requires us to think carefully and act responsibly if we don’t want to veer off into the ravine on either side.

Tigre Boxing In Acatlan: Jaguar & Tlaloc Masks

Up today is another video about the Mexican Tigre combat phenomenon I discussed  a few weeks ago.  This one shows a style of fighting practiced in Acatlan.  Instead of rope whip-clubs as in Zitlala, these competitors duel with their fists.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

A particularly interesting feature of this video is the variety of masks.  Not only do you see the jaguar-style masks, but you’ll also see masks with goggle eyes.  Goggle eyes are, of course, one of the signature visual characteristics of Tlaloc, the very Teotl this pre-Columbian tradition was originally dedicated to.  (And still is in many places, beneath the surface layer of Christian symbols.)  If you look closely, you might notice that some of the goggle eyes are mirrored.  The researchers behind ArchaeologyTV interviewed one of the combatants, who said that the significance of the mirrors is that you see your own face in the eyes of your opponent, linking the two fighters as they duel.

This idea of a solemn connection between two parties in sacrificial bloodshed was of major importance in many  of the pre-Conquest religious practices of the Aztecs.  It can be seen most clearly in the gladiatorial sacrifice for Xipe Totec during Tlacaxipehualiztli.  During this festival, the victorious warrior would refer to the man he captured in battle as his beloved son, and the captive would refer to the victor as his beloved father.  The victim would be leashed to a round stone that formed something of an arena, and given a maquahuitl that had the blades replaced with feathers, while his four opponents were fully-armed.  As the captor watched the courageous victim fight to the death in a battle he couldn’t win, he knew that next time, he might be the one giving his life on the stone to sustain the cosmos.

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B)

I just had an incredible stroke of luck.  I just discovered an English translation of Dr. Eduard Seler’s commentary on the Codex Vaticanus 3773, a.k.a. Codex Vaticanus B.  Well, half of it anyway.  The complete English text of the second volume of Seler’s commentary is available to read and download as a PDF via GoogleBooks.   This volume is devoted to the reverse side of the codex.  Volume 1 is about the obverse side.  I dredged Google and determined that they’ve scanned Volume 1 but don’t yet have it available to read.  I hope they’re planning on making it fully available soon, and not doing something sleazy like keeping it locked down.  Might be a good idea to petition them for this one if you’re feeling frisky.  I’ll be watching for it to go up at any rate.

Speculation about Google’s intentions aside, I’m pleased to be able to point you to an excellent commentary by one of the premier luminaries of Mesoamerican religious studies.  A quick link to the book is below, and I’ve updated my Codices page with this link as well.  Incidentally, this volume includes a complete black and white scan of the codex as Appendix A, with Seler’s notes.  Visually not as nice as viewing the high-resolution color scans on FAMSI, but quite useful.

Click HERE to read Vol. 2 of Dr. Eduard Seler’s Commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

UPDATE 9/21/09:  Google’s posted Vol. 1 now!  Click HERE to get it too!

Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B
Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B

Tigre Rope Fighting In Zitlala

Following up on last week’s post discussing the survival of Precolumbian gladiatorial combat in honor of Tlaloc in Mexico, I’ve got a video today that actually shows part of a Tigre whip match at Zitlala.  Now that this activity has come to my attention, it’s something I’ll be watching for videos of in addition to Danza Azteca.  It’s interesting getting to actually see the story behind the jaguar mask and contemplate the deeper meaning behind the fighting.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

In case you’re wondering, the special rope club used by Tigre fighters in Zitlala are called cuertas.  The modern cuerta itself is actually a “friendlier” version of heavier rawhide and stone clubs used previously, which in turn were descended from stone and shell clubs used when the battles may well have been lethal.  For obvious reasons, the present-day trend has been away from fatal contests, though the underlying meaning of giving of oneself to Tlaloc for a plentiful harvest endures today among those who remember.

Tlaloc In Zitlala

Came across an interesting photograph recently that’s quite interesting, as it shows an aspect of a Pre-Columbian ceremony still surviving today in Zitlala, Mexico.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associate Press/Eduardo Verdugo.  Used without permission.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associated Press/Eduardo Verdugo. Used without permission.

Link to original photograph source.

Original Caption:

“A man dressed as a tiger carries a small whip made from rope in Zitlala, Guerrero state, Mexico, Monday, May 5, 2008. Every year, inhabitants of this town participate in a violent ceremony to ask for a good harvest and plenty of rain, at the end of the ceremony men battle each other with their whips while wearing tiger masks and costumess. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)” [Cehualli’s note — “tiger” is a common mistranslation of “tigre,” when the context makes it apparent a jaguar or other large cat is meant.]

Now…there’s a lot more going on here that the photographer doesn’t get into in his note.  Specifically, that this is a modern survival of traditional indigenous religious practices.

Why do I think this?  Let me explain.

There’s a certain ancient god of rain in Mesoamerica who has traditionally been associated with jaguars… and that’s Tlaloc.  In the codices, if you look carefully you can see that He’s always depicted with long, fearsome jaguar fangs.  The growl of the jaguar resembles the rolling of distant thunder, and the dangerous power of such an apex predator fits the moody, explosive-tempered Storm Lord quite nicely.  The jaguar as a symbol of Tlaloc is a very ancient tradition that appears across the whole of Central America, whether the god is being called Tlaloc, Cucijo, Dzahui, or Chaac.

The whip-club is another hint.  Flogging has been done as part of rain ceremonies for Tlaloc for centuries (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s symbolic of lightning).  Additionally, though the photographer didn’t mention this, one knows what happens when people strike each other hard with whips like the one the man in the photo is shown carrying — you bleed.  A lot.

In Prehispanic Mexico, one of the important rituals for Xipe Totec, the Flayed Lord, god of spring and new growth, is called “striping.”  Striping involved shooting the sacrificial victim with arrows for the purpose of causing his blood to drip and splash on the dry earth below, symbolizing rain that would bring a good harvest.  Similar rituals specifically devoted to Tlaloc were also done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the gladiatorial combat done for Xipe Totec had the same basic idea in mind, sprinkling blood over the ground done to call the rain.

The next part is due to my good friend Shock and her impressive knack for research.  While we were discussing this photo, Shock directed me to an excellent article about this phenomenon known as “Tigre Boxing” that still exists all throughout Mexico today.  It even discusses this specific form of battling with whips in Zitlala that this photograph is of.  I highly recommend checking it out, as it’s loaded with more information about the surviving practice of gladiatorial combat for rain, complete with many excellent photos of the jaguar masks, sculptures, and even videos of the combat!

Click HERE to go to the Tigre Boxing article.

Operation Circle Care

In the spirit of yesterday’s post on charity, I’m highlighting a Pagan charity that addresses an issue dear to my heart.  Namely, it’s Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care, and they put together care packages for Pagan troops in the military.  This is a moving cause to me as many of my relatives have been in the military, the most recent of which is my younger brother.  (In case you’re wondering, he finished 2 tours of duty in Iraq with honor, and has since joined a private security contracting firm and is back in Baghdad under their banner.  He’s doing all right, is healthy and in one piece.)  Plus, we all know Huitzilopochtli has a special place in His heart for soldiers.

I strongly encourage you to stop by Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care page and check it out.  They welcome a wide varierty of forms of support for the troops, from money and goods to prayers and rituals.

Click to visit Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care page.


“Respect the unfortunate old men, the unfortunate women, the miserable, the poor; take pity upon them. Give one somewhere perchance a poor, worn, breech clout, a miserable netted maguey cape; tie, wrap them about him; give him something to drink. For he is the representative of the master, our lord. For this thou shalt be given life on earth…”

The Florentine Codex, Book 9, Chapter 12, p.56-57

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

The above lines are from a speech given by the elder merchants to a younger one during the festival month of Panquetzaliztli.  I’ve chosen to share this segment of one of the huehuetlatolli, or moral speeches as part of a discussion on Aztec virtues and ethics.  This article will focus on the virtue of charity, with an analysis of the speech above used to sound out what the Mexica thought about this moral precept.

I’ve decided to bring up charity at this time for several reasons.  The first and most obvious —  information on traditional ethics and its intersection with religion is of eminently practical use.  Second I live in the USA, so the majority of the population here is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, and the issue of charitable giving is at the forefront.  The final reason ties into the second — with religion in the air at the moment, I’ve been seeing a lot of bigotry and outright slander of non-Christian ethics lately. I’m sick of it, and decided it’s time for me to respond to that foolishness by setting the record straight.  So, let’s begin!


The context of the lines I quoted from the Florentine Codex is in the veintana of Panquetzaliztli.  A young merchant has thrown a banquet for his elders, complete with gifts of food, tobacco, and clothing.  At one point he explains to his guests why he’s done this — he’s received the wealth of “the master, the lord,” as the fruits of his labor.  He acknowledges this wealth is actually a blessing of the gods, specifically Huitzilopochtli.  (Page 55 makes it clear that “the master, the lord” here is Huitzilopochtli, and not Tezcatlipoca, despite the similarity of the title to some commonly used for the Smoking Mirror.)  Because he realizes this wealth is a blessing, he wishes to seek the presence of Huitzilopochtli.

Seeking The Face Of God: Charity As A Duty

The young merchant shows the reader that one way to find this Teotl’s presence is through the wisdom of his elders.  He pleads with them to “reveal the secrets of the master, our lord, the portent, Huitzilopochtli” (Sahagun, 55).  His elders proceed to unveil these secrets — they are actually various ethical precepts, in addition to the ritual banquets specifically prepared by the merchants to honor the god and share their prosperity.  Particularly emphasized among these precepts is charity.

The language in this speech is especially interesting, given how closely it parallels one of the most beautiful parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 25:34-46.  These are the verses where Jesus tells his disciples “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In these huehuetlatolli lines, we see a striking parallel, right down to the injunction to give the needy food, clothing, and drink, and the revelation that the poor are actually humble representatives of the god.  In both, the reward of loving charity is life.  Finally, Matthew indicates that the reason for this duty is because the good things being given were first granted to the donor as divine blessings.  A blessing carries with it a responsibility.

I find a similar responsibility in the words of the young merchant and his elders in the Florentine Codex.  On page 55, the youth acknowledges his wealth is really that of Huitzilopochtli, and the god is described as “showing” the riches to him.  This is a common way of describing prosperity — it’s not truly self-earned by the person, but is actually on loan from the gods, a blessing.  The young merchant expresses a desire to use it well, to return a portion of it as offerings, and the elders indicate that the right course of action is to share it with the poor as well.  It doesn’t take much effort to realize that the same kind of responsibility attaches to the gifts Huitzilopochtli gives as well as those Jesus speaks of in the book of Matthew.  In a nutshell, the god says to the wise man, “I give so that you shall give.”  It’s only the foolish man who disobeys.

Jesus’ parable continues to indicate that those who shirk their duty of charity insult the deity and will be punished.  The Aztecs held similar views.  If because the merchant gives generously he will be “given life on earth,” there’s clearly an unspoken corollary of if he doesn’t, he’ll lose his life.  Though left unsaid here, in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, it’s made explicit.  In some of the speeches there, the elders and priests admonish a newly-elected ruler to humility, not to be proud of the wealth and status he’s received.  This wealth and status really belongs to Tezcatlipoca, and if he offends the god, Tezcatlipoca will surely take it back and destroy him for his arrogance.  Huitzilopochtli seems to have a similar sense of propriety.

Christian Influence?

Due to the similarities between this passage and the one in Matthew, some might think that it’s a piece of Christian doctrine absorbed by the Aztecs after the Conquest from the Spanish friars.  “Surely these heathens couldn’t have such good morals and a concern for the poor!” people like that might think to themselves, convinced in their ignorance that only Christianity is a source of loving ethics.  To them, I say you’re dead wrong, and should repent of your arrogance.

Though I’m not a professional anthropologist, I doubt this passage is an example of Post-Conquest syncretism for two main reasons.  One, Sahagun is generally one of the more reliable Post-Conquest sources, and Book 9 in particular contains detailed ritual information that would’ve been prime candidates for being censored, yet he didn’t.  Not censoring such explicitly pagan religious practices makes it harder for me to believe that this one has been tampered with.

Two, the passage identifies Huitzilopochtli as the key player involved in these moral precepts.  Why is that so significant to me?  It’s because Huitzilopochtli has to be one of the most intensely villified and suppressed of the Teteo after the Conquest.  Elizabeth Hill Boone in her monograph, Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe , discusses the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Him by the Spaniards and how they worked damn hard to try to erase Him from the memory of His people.  Not too surprising, for if you want to subdue a proud, martial people, you’re going to want to eliminate their tutelary god, the high god that exhorts them to feats of heroic strength and military prowess.

Thus, Sahagun had every incentive to scrub this passage for its positive portrayal of this maligned deity, and I can’t imagine he could’ve missed the similarity to Matthew 25, something at least some of his bosses would surely have found to be blasphemous.  (I.e., the old “the Devil counterfeiting Christianity to deceive” argument that dates back to Justin Martyr, if I recall correctly.)  Yet… he didn’t do this, strengthening my thought that this is a genuine Precolumbian practice.

Those are just a couple of reasons why I trust the passage is genuine, without taking a lengthy detour into textual criticism that’s better left to the experts to write.

Practical Implications

So, we’ve established that traditional Aztec morality holds up charity as a noble practice, and has a religious basis underlying this ethical precept.  This has implications that are immediate and plain.  Playing Captain Obvious, we’re clearly to be generous to those in need, not to be greedy with the gifts we’ve been given by the gods, but to share them with others.  I’d been somewhat working under the concept before that the gods weren’t necessarily moral lawgivers, but, having read this very blunt chapter linking Huitzilopochtli with charity trashes that idea pretty thoroughly.  I’ll admit it, I stand corrected on this one.  Whoever you guys were who were recorded by Sahagun, 450 years later this American thanks you for the clarification, your counsel is still educating people.  I’ll have to chew some things over in my mind some more.

Shield Flowers

I was reading through the ninth volume of the Florentine Codex recently, and came across an interesting tidbit giving more information on some of the flowers offered to Huitzilopochtli.  Even better, Sahagun points out these flowers were offered during Panquetzaliztli!

What flowers am I talking about?  Well, it’s a particular kind of flower called a chimalxochitl, or “shield flower.”  It’s a very large flower that was carried both by celebrants and by bathed slaves who were to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.  As one might guess by the name, it represented a warrior’s shield.  This is particularly fitting, as the bathed slaves who were offered to Huitzilopochtli during Panquetzaliztli were the vaguard merchants’ equivalent of captured warriors.  Instead of capturing them phyiscally on the battlefield, the vaguard merchants, who fulfilled military purposes as well as commercial, captured them with their wealth, which was likened to the spoils of war.  I’ve discovered that these merchants were almost a paramilitary order during the Aztec Empire, something quite fascinating which I will get around to writing about one of these days.

Anyway, back to the flowers.  These shield flowers were carried by worshippers, they were carried by sacrificial victims.  They were strung into garlands which would decorate the temples of Huitzilopochtli, they were placed on the altar, and ornamented the idol sometimes.  They were everywhere during this Teotl’s festivals.

But what were they exactly?  Well, I’ll give you a couple of hints.  They’re huge, bright yellow, and their English and scientific names even reference a certain celestial body associated with Huitzilopochtli…

Give up?

They’re sunflowers!

Yes, sunflowers.  Helianthus annuus to be specific.  At least, the sunflower is the species that’s the top choice for the chimalxochitl among scholars.  Dibble and Anderson identify the flower in footnote 7 on page 34 of their English translation of Book 9: The Merchants, of the Florentine Codex. It pays to read footnotes!

You might be wondering why Huitzilopochtli’s so fond of flowers.  Well, quite a few reasons.  Flowers in general were symbolic of blood and warriors who died in battle.  In Aztec poetry, one frequently encounters descriptions of rains of flowers on the battlefield, indicating the warriors in their bright regalia dashing about like blossoms swaying in the wind, eventually falling like cut plants and watering the earth with their blood.  The dead soldiers would then live forever in Huitzilopochtli’s paradise, the House of the Sun, where they would enjoy the scent and color of beautiful flowers.  Eventually they would be reborn as birds and butterflies, living leisurely lives flitting from flower to flower.

“Flower and song” was a phrase meaning sung poetry, a common pastime of warriors both alive and dead.  The “flowery death” was death on the sacrificial stone, and the “Flower Wars” were ritual battles to capture men for sacrifice.  Finally, the first flowers of the year were reserved for Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlicue, and none might pick or smell them until She had been given some.

Anyway, I thought I would share my discovery and Panquetzaliztli-oriented thoughts on it, in the spirit of the season.



Photo taken by Wajid Uddaim and generously put into the public domain. Thanks Wajid!

Happy Panquetzaliztli!

Well, my numerous, intractable, and incredibly frustrating network/Internet connectivity problems resolve just in time for Panquetzaliztli! A lovely coincidence.

Why am I so excited? Panquetzaliztli is Huitzilopochtli’s main festival month, that’s why! I’ve been particularly waiting for this veintana to roll around, as it’s the perfect opportunity for me ramble on about this very special Teotl. I’ve been hoarding research relating to Him just for this month, and will be doing my damndest to pour it out as much as I can, come hell, high water, third-rate cable companies, or exceptionally crappy workweeks. Books have been accumulating tabs like feathers just for this special event…

So… get ready!

To whet your appetite and kick things off on the right (or left?) foot, I would like to draw your attention to the material I have already accumulated on this blog that relates to Huitzilopochtli.

My static page introducing the reader to the god.

A quick intro, a bit about His nature, and a codex image.

Mexicolore’s downloadable feature on Huitzilopochtli.

Includes many artifact photos, pictures from codices, etc. Also includes other interesting tidbits on the god, such as His birthday (1 Flint Knife), his festivals, his sacred animals (the hummingbird and the eagle), and much more. They place Panquetzaliztli a bit later in the year than most calendar correlations I’ve seen, but that’s a minor quirk.

Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe

Elizabeth Hill Boone’s excellent monograph on Huitzilopochtli. The only full-length English study of this particular god available at this time. Full text available to read via Google Books.

The Battle of Coatepec: Huitzilopochtli Defeats the Moon and Stars (As told by Cehualli)

This is my retelling of the important myth about Huitzilopochtli’s birth and how He protected His mother, Coatlicue, from Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua at Coatepec.

Hymns To Huitzilopochtli

Grace Lobanov’s English translation from her Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. The book is still under copyright and so you can’t read the whole thing, but fortunately this particular hymn in its entirety can be reached via Google’s Limited Preview.  This link will take you to the “About This Book” page.  Look for the “Search This Book” box, type in “Huitzilopochtli hymn,” and click on the link to page 65 that it will turn up.  That’s the song for the Portentous One.

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli

Human Corn

Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.

“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?

“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.

In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.

Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.

Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.

The Implications of “Human Corn”

So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.

It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.

Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.

As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia

A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.

Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?).  [Edit — It’s Ursa Major.  Thanks, Shock!]  Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.

My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel

Study Of A Contemporary Huaxtec Celebration At Postectli

I came across an interesting article by Alan R. Sandstrom on FAMSI the other night. It is a summary of his observation of a modern Huaxtec ceremony honoring one of the Tlaloque, a rain spirit named Apanchanej (literally, “Water Dweller”). This festival took place in 2001 on Postectli, a mountain in the Huasteca region of Mexico.

A bit of background — the Huaxtecs are an ancient people, neighbors of the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they spoke and still speak Nahuatl, making them one of the numerous Nahua peoples. To this day they still live in their traditional home, one of the more rugged and mountainous sections of Mexico. They have retained more of their indigenous culture than some of the other nations that survived the Conquest due to their remoteness and the rough terrain that inhibited colonization. This includes many pre-Conquest religious traditions, even some sacrificial practices.

To read the short article summarizing Sandstrom’s experiences at the ceremony:

If you would like to read the article in English, please go HERE.

Si desea leer el artículo en español, por favor haga clic AQUI.

Some Highlights Related To Modern Practices

This article includes discussion of several details of particular interest to those interested in learning from the living practice of traditional religion. Of special note are photographs of the altar at the shrine on Postectli, including explanation of the symbols and objects on it (photograph 12). Also, the practice of creating and honoring sacred paper effigies of the deities involved in the ceremony is explored in some depth. Paper has traditionally been a sacred material among the Nahua tribes, and paper representations of objects in worship is a very old practice indeed. Additionally, there is some detail on tobacco and drink offerings, as well as the use of music and the grueling test of endurance inherent in the extended preparation and performance of this ritual.

Contemporary Animal Sacrifice

A key part of the article’s focus is on the modern practice of animal sacrifice and blood offerings that survive among the Huaxteca today. These forms of worship have by no means been stamped out among the indigenous people of Mexico, as Sandstrom documents. (Yes, there are photographs in case you are wondering — scholarly, not sensationalistic.) Offering turkeys is something that has been done since long before the Conquest, and from what I have read they remain a popular substitute for humans in Mexico. It’s fitting if you know the Nahuatl for turkey — if I remember right, it’s pipil-pipil, which translates to something like “the little nobles” or “the children.” If I’m wrong, someone please correct me, as I don’t have my notes on the Nahuatl for this story handy at the moment. They got that name because in the myth of the Five Suns, the people of one of the earlier Suns were thought to have turned into turkeys when their age ended in a violent cataclysm, and they survive in this form today. I doubt the connection would have been lost on the Aztecs when offering the birds.

Closing Thoughts

To wrap things up, Sandstrom’s article was a lucky find and is a valuable glimpse into modern-day indigenous practice . I strongly recommend stopping by FAMSI and checking it out, as my flyby overview of it can’t possibly contain everything of interest. On one last detail, I strongly encourage you to read the footnotes on this one — a lot more valuable info is hidden in those.

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

Daily Priestly Offerings Of Incense

I feel like talking about the ritual of offering copal incense today. More specifically, I’d like to go into more detail about how the tlamacazqui (priests) used to offer incense each day during the height of the Aztec Empire.

Copal was burned for the Teteo almost constantly in the temples. Sahagun records in Book 2 of the Florentine Codex that the priests would offer incense nine times each day. Four of these times fell during the day, five came at night. The four during the day were when then sun first appeared, at breakfast, at noon, and when the sun was setting. The five times at night were when the sun had fully set, at bedtime, when the conch shell trumpets were blown, at midnight, and shortly before dawn.

Sadly, we don’t have exact clock times for these nine offerings. Granted, some of them, such as the offerings at sunrise and sunset, would’ve drifted with the change in light levels as the seasons passed, while those like noon and midnight would’ve been fixed. The Spanish commentary in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex does state that one of the nighttime offerings was at 10PM. My guess is that one would’ve been either the one that coincided with bedtime or the blowing of the trumpets, as it had to be one of them between sunset and midnight. I would also bet that the offering at full dark is the one where the prayer to greet the night I discussed earlier took place. This would’ve been when the Fire Drill constellation rose into the sky.

Incidentally, it seems that the midnight incense offering was the most important of the nine. Sahagun specifically points out in some places that every priest was to wake at midnight and join in the offering of incense and blood via autosacrifice. This ritual was so important that the most trustworthy of the young priests were given the duty of holding vigil at night and waking their colleagues for this ceremony. Not only that, but those who failed to wake up and join in were punished severely, frequently by additional bloodletting or by a beating. The Aztec priesthood took its duties very seriously, and lapses in function were dealt with harshly.

Furthermore, many of the huehuetlatolli (“ancient words,” or moral discourses) recorded in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex make reference to the midnight offering of incense. The especially devout people, the “friends of Tezcatlipoca,” were dutiful in their observance of this celebration. They’re described as scorning sleep to rise and worship, sighing with longing for the presence of the god and crying out to Him. Judging by these references, it appears that the midnight incense offering was also important to the general nobility as well. Not too surprising, I suppose, as most of the nobility were educated in the calmecac school, the same school that trained the young priests. In a sense, every nobleman did a stint in seminary, though not everyone went on to become professional tlamacazqui.

The incense burner typically used by the priests was ladle-shaped and made of fired clay. The long handle was hollow and filled with pebbles, so it would rattle as the priest would move about. The handle was frequently sculpted to look like a snake, an animal commonly appearing in depictions of sacred things and beings. The hot coals and copal resin would go into the spoon-like cup on the end.

Who exactly received these nine offerings of incense is currently unknown to me. At many points in the Florentine Codex, where an incense offering is described in detail, the Four Directions are noted as receiving the sweet scent and smoke, in addition to any other deities being specifically addressed. Thus, the ladle would be raised to each direction, the prayers of the priest accompanied by the rattling of the stones in the handle. Sahagun notes that some of the nighttime offerings were directed to Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of Night, and the dawn offering went to Tonatiuh, the Sun. The midnight offering typically shows up in the context of prayers to Tezcatlipoca, at least in the huehuetlatolli I have access to.

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

Identity Of The Fire Drill Constellation

Good news! My dear friend Shock answered my plea for help regarding the identity of the Fire Drill constellation that was discussed in my article on greeting the dusk. She’s studied the scholarship on Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy extensively and kindly popped in to shed some light on this issue. This is what she had to say regarding the identity of the Fire Drill:

“Anyway… About the fire drill constellation. It’s Orion’s Belt, clear as day if you look at the evidence. The Pleiades couldn’t possibly be it. It’s a seven/six star cluster within Taurus and used as a reference point for the Fire Drill in the primary source material. Taurus itself couldn’t be it for these same reasons and the fact that its other noticeable stars aren’t in a straight line. The Cygnus idea makes little to no sense considering that Sahagun clearly states in book 7 of the Florentine that the constellation is near the Pleiades. Cygnus is NOWHERE near the Pleiades in the night’s sky. In book 7, look up two parts. First, the fire drill part in Nahuatl and then Sahagun’s commentary in Spanish under Castor and Pollux. Several things are clear; the Fire Drill needs to be by Gemnini and it needs to be by Taurus. It also has to be a straight line of three bright stars. The straightness is reiterated in the Nahuatl text numerous times. And what’s right by both of these, with three bright stars? Orion’s belt. And then you have the comparative ethnography stuff from FAMSI, plus there’s more stuff similar to that which is closer to Mesoamerica.”

So, it does look like the best candidate for the Fire Drill constellation is the stars of Orion’s Belt!

Also, apparently the guy who favors the Northern Cross as the Fire Drill is a poor-quality “scholar” associated with the atrocious “” site, so I’d recommend ignoring him beyond the value of knowing what the crap arguments are out there.

Thanks Shock!

Incidentally, I have updated my other post with this important information for convenience and clarity.

Greeting The Dusk

The Starry Night Sky

The Starry Night Sky

“Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of the Night, Yacahuitzli, has arrived! How will his labor go? How will the night pass and the dawn come?”

Following up on my earlier article on how the priests greeted the dawn, above is my rendition of the traditional prayer saluting the dusk. It is a modernized composite of the two variants recorded by Sahagun and Tezozomoc. (To read Dr. Seler’s translation of the Tezozomoc version, click HERE and search within the book for youaltecutli. The only hit is on page 357, containing the prayer in question.)

This prayer was traditionally offered around sundown, as a particular constellation called mamalhuaztli, the Fire Drill, rose from the east into the darkening sky. It was accompanied by the offering of incense, being another one of the nine times a day the priests would offer copal to the Teteo.

You may be wondering exactly what constellation mamalhuaztli is, as its rise was the traditional signal to perform this rite. The bad news is. . . we’re not sure. Partially because the records suck, partially because the constellations have drifted in the sky over the past millennium or so. We have enough information to know that this constellation was in the vicinity of the Pleiades, and apparently some scholars think the Fire Drill was three stars that are part of them. However, the stars in Orion’s belt are another popular theory, and at least one guy seems to consider the Northern Cross a candidate, though his credentials are suspect at best. The link above to the original language of the prayer includes some of Seler’s deductions regarding the identity of this constellation, though sadly the whole thing isn’t available. Go HERE for a very brief discussion on the Aztlan mailing list hosted by FAMSI regarding the Orion vs. Northern Cross debate if you’re curious.

Due to this uncertainty, I’d advise taking the obvious route of observing this prayer either at sunset or right at full dark. It’s not perfect, but it should be in the ballpark I’d think, and archaeoastronomy isn’t my strength. So, good enough for me, and it seems a reasonable alternative for modern practice in the face of a gap in our knowledge. However, if anyone does have a good background in this branch of astronomy and can help out, I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about the identity of the Fire Drill constellation.

UPDATE 10/2/08:

Well, my dear friend Shock answered my plea for archaeoastronomy help on this issue! This subject is one that’s close to her heart, and she’s studied the scholarship on this area extensively. This is what she had to say regarding the identity of the Fire Drill:

“Anyway… About the fire drill constellation. It’s Orion’s Belt, clear as day if you look at the evidence. The Pleiades couldn’t possibly be it. It’s a seven/six star cluster within Taurus and used as a reference point for the Fire Drill in the primary source material. Taurus itself couldn’t be it for these same reasons and the fact that its other noticeable stars aren’t in a straight line. The Cygnus idea makes little to no sense considering that Sahagun clearly states in book 7 of the Florentine that the constellation is near the Pleiades. Cygnus is NOWHERE near the Pleiades in the night’s sky. In book 7, look up two parts. First, the fire drill part in Nahuatl and then Sahagun’s commentary in Spanish under Castor and Pollux. Several things are clear; the Fire Drill needs to be by Gemnini and it needs to be by Taurus. It also has to be a straight line of three bright stars. The straightness is reiterated in the Nahuatl text numerous times. And what’s right by both of these, with three bright stars? Orion’s belt. And then you have the comparative ethnography stuff from FAMSI, plus there’s more stuff similar to that which is closer to Mesoamerica.”

So, it does look like the best candidate for the Fire Drill constellation is the stars of Orion’s Belt!

Also, I’ve been informed that the guy who favors the Northern Cross as the Fire Drill is a third-rate “scholar” connected to the godawful “Mayalords” site, so I’d recommend ignoring him beyond the value of knowing what the crap arguments are out there.

Thanks Shock!

If you’re particularly interested in this subject, I recommend watching the Comments on this post for more.

Greeting The Dawn

The Sun Disk

The Sun Disk

“The Sun has come, has risen, the Shining One. How will He fare today? What will He do? Maybe disaster will strike us, His people. O Lord, go and do your noble duty! Bring light to Earth’s Surface!”

Above is my version of one of the traditional Aztec prayers to greet the sun, modeled upon the one recited each morning. (To read the original that inspired this, go HERE and type Tonametl in the “Search in this Book” field. A professional translation of the source prayer is the only hit on page 50, so you can’t miss it.)

Traditionally, a prayer like this was offered right at sunrise, as the Sun, Tonatiuh (literally, “He Goes Forth Shining”), climbed into the sky. It was a daily duty of the priests, and they accompanied their prayer with the beheading of quail, burning copal incense, and possibly autosacrifical bloodletting as well. While the daily offering of quail was generally reserved for the priests and not the general populace, prayer, incense, and autosacrifice were things accessible to all.

The basic structure is simple, and some of its features appear in the longer, more elaborate festival prayers. It has an invocation and a recitation of the god’s name(s), and parallel repetition of phrases. The repetition is a common feature of what was called “lordly speech” in Imperial times, and was a formal style of rhetoric used by nobles and by people addressing the aristocracy. As the Teteo are depicted as the nobility over humans, the same type of formal language is used in prayers addressing them, as all humans would be commoners or macehuales to Them. These techniques combine to show the respect the worshipper has for the gods.

The second half of the prayer consists of contemplation of the future, including the realization that our world is an uncertain, unstable place, and our fortunes could reverse at any time. I wouldn’t be surprised in this context if it is not only a statement of the fragility of mankind, but a subtle plea to Tonatiuh to not be slack in His duties of warming and lighting Tlalticpac (Earth’s Surface). Finally, the prayer closes with a double exhortation to the Teotl to shine with vigor upon the world, the petitioner literally cheering the god on.

If you wish to become more familiar with how the Aztecs composed their prayers and hymns, I recommend visiting my Hymns & Prayers section on the Sacred Texts section of this blog.

Images Of Autosacrifice

I knew I’d come across images of autosacrifice in the codices before! I’ve included two below so you can see how the Aztecs depicted themselves performing ritual bloodletting to benefit the gods.

Tongue Piercing

Page 9, Recto, of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

A worshipper piercing his tongue, p.9R, Codex Telleriano-Remensis

 The image above is taken from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, a Post-Conquest religious text painted by Aztec artists in a style that is a hybrid of Mexican and European art. The worshipper is piercing his tongue and letting the blood flow as a gift to the Teteo. The tool in his hand looks like a pointed stick, rather than a thorn, bone perforator, or obsidian shard, so I believe this painting may be depicting the practice of “drawing straws through the flesh” I mentioned in my article on traditional forms of autosacrifice. If anyone’s got more information on this particular image, I’m all ears.

Numerous Piercings

Page 79, Recto, of the Codex Magliabecchiano

Autosacrifice in the Codex Magliabecchiano, p.79R

This second image comes from the Codex Magliabecchiano, another Post-Conquest codex drawn in a European-influenced style and speaking of religious subjects. This picture shows a group of worshippers doing many different forms of autosacrifice. One is piercing his tongue, while the other is piercing his ear. The green coloration of the objects they’re using to bloodlet makes me wonder if they’re either exaggerated maguey thorns or perforators made of jade. Given the traditional use of maguey thorns for this purpose and the association of jade with blood (as both are exceedingly precious), I could go either way. Again, if anyone knows more, please drop me a comment.

Additionally, we can see that these two worshippers have already completed more rounds of bloodletting than the forms they’re in the middle of in the picture. See the blood on their arms and legs? They’ve either been piercing in those places, or have nicked themselves with shards of obsidian or flint. Incidentally, the bag-like objects slung over their arms are traditional incense pouches. They were often made with paper and beautifully decorated, and would be filled with copal resin to be burned for the gods.

A Brief Survey Of Historical Aztec Autosacrifice

Today I’m going to give a quick overview of the types of autosacrifice performed by the Aztecs during the days of the Empire in order shed some additional light on this very important religious practice.

Traditionally, the Aztecs would collect blood from their ears, lower legs (calf, shin, or just above the ankle), lip, tongue, or penis. The tools and methods used would vary depending on the worshipper’s preferences, the ritual context, and in at least some cases, the instruction of a priest.  The Florentine Codex records the rite of confession to Tlazolteotl, and according to Sahagun, the confessor priest would prescribe required penances to atone for the disclosed sins — these penances often included various forms of bloodletting.

The most common methods of getting the blood were by pricking the flesh with a sharp instrument. Maguey (agave) spines are the tool most frequently mentioned in the historical texts, though slivers of obsidian and special perforators made from a spike-shaped piece of sharpened bone were also used. (Incidentally, Quetzalcoatl, the First Priest, is often shown in the codices holding a bone perforator or two.) From what I’ve read, it seems that maguey spines were particularly associated with piercing the ears and the legs, probably because their large size would be sufficient to draw blood from the legs. The individual would pierce himself or herself in the chosen location, and once the thorns were sufficiently bloodied, would carefully arrange them on a bed of cut fir boughs, or stick them into a ball of dried grass.

Alternatively, the Aztecs would nick their earlobes with an obsidian knife, and the blood would be allowed to drip on the ground, be sprinkled into a fire, or flicked towards the sun, symbolically giving the life-energy to Tonatiuh.

Finally, there was a final type of personal blood offering, that of passing straws or cords through the body. This rather severe form of autosacrifice was a multi-step process. The person would first select a place to pierce. In the texts I’ve read, the tongue seems to be the most common choice for this kind, though the ears, legs, and possibly penis were used as well. (I haven’t the slightest idea of how that last one worked, it’s definitely not something the Spanish friars would’ve recorded the details of!) Then they would poke a hole with a sharp sliver of obsidian, and pull a number of straws or thin cords through the hole. This sacrifice was typically done in a temple or at the side of the road. Wherever it was done, the bloodied straws were left behind as offerings. Interestingly, this practice was apparently only done on days that had a proper sign according to the ritual calendar (tonalpohualli), but I’ve never come across what daysigns those were. Finally, this practice of drawing straws is usually listed as a priestly activity, not something done by ordinary people, though occasionally the nobility appear to have done it as well. Priests who did this often were obvious, as their tongues would be extremely scarred, damaged to the point where they were said to have had difficulty in speaking.

Quetzalcoatl Holding Bone Perforators, Codex Borgia

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.

Why Sacrifice?


This is probably the first thing that comes to many minds when someone says the words “Aztec religion,” followed immediately by Hollywood horror movie-esque pictures of hearts being ripped out of chests. I’m going to get it out of the way now: yes, they did human sacrifice. No, that’s not what I’m going to be talking about here. Instead, I’m going to talk about the philosophy behind making offerings, or nextlaoaliztli in the Nahuatl language. I’ll talk about the “what” of offerings in one of my next posts.

Nextlaoaliztli translates roughly to “the giving of what is right/proper.” It has a strong sense of duty and a concern with “doing the right thing.” The right thing to the Aztecs was making offerings to the gods (Teteo) on a regular basis, of course. It was the lynchpin of their worship rituals. But why was it the right thing to do?

Well, it was right because it was thought that the gods gave things to humankind at the very beginning. They formed the world out of the primordial chaos by reshaping the Cipactli monster into the land, and gave life to people. Both of these acts came at a cost to the gods – Tezcatlipoca lost His foot to Cipactli’s hunger, and Quetzalcoatl shed His blood to bring life to the first man and woman. Not only that, but the Aztecs believed that many good things were created for them by the gods, such as delicious foods and drink, beautiful art and music, learning, and more. Since the Teteo had generously bestowed such favors upon humankind, it was only proper that humans should give gifts back to the gods. The concept of reciprocity and “one good deed deserves another” was central to the ethics of the Aztec people. Golden Rule on a cosmic scale, anyone?

Sacrificing the right kinds of things was also the correct thing to do because the gods were thought to need some of them, like blood. Blood contained vital power, called teyolia, which was thought to strengthen the gods who received it. Since the gods not only created the world, but sustained it, sacrificing was a way of preserving the cosmos for all. Other sacred substances, like copal, were also viewed as food for the gods.

Offerings could also be payments. The Aztecs believed that the gods would answer prayers for assistance if They wished to, and They tended to expect gifts in exchange for Their help. The idea of “no free lunch” fits pretty well here. Of course, the gods could choose to help someone without asking for anything in return, but it was up to Them to make that choice. Anyway, in many of the ancient prayers we have preserved in various writings, such as in the Florentine Codex, you see people giving things to the gods when they want some divine favor, either up front or when the help was received. Sometimes blood was given, though material goods seem to have been very popular, especially sacred paper.

In closing, I think that we should all meditate carefully on the logic behind nextlaoaliztli and how this pattern of mutual gifting and obligation appears at each level of life, like the ever-dividing branches of a tree or the twisting arms of a fractal pattern.

That’s it for now for discussing the “Why?” behind sacrifice, next time I’ll talk about the “What.” Stay tuned!