Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “supervivencia

Alarcón: Prayers For Protection From Evil While Sleeping

Among the populace of the Aztec empire, the line between religion and magic often blurred in day to day life.  While the priestly class held a great amount of power in mediating between the people and the gods, and by extension had a powerful influence on directing orthodoxy, folk practices flourished within the family household.  One of these was the practice of offering prayers and desirable substances (often copal incense, tobacco, and sometimes blood) to the lesser spiritual beings inhabiting everything from the trees to the crops to the tools by which people lived.  While these animistic entities were less grand than the mighty cosmic lords like Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, with their broad power over the universe and the state, these local spirits had their own gifts.  This influence carried extra weight for the humble individual due to its intimate proximity — while Tezcatlipoca’s wrath could lay waste to the entire kingdom, the fury of a small farmer’s sole cornfield could prove just as deadly for that individual as his livelihood dried up.

In this post, I’ll share with you a set of three of these short folk prayer-spells, collected by the inquisitor Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in his “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” in the early 17th century.  These incantations were intended to guard a sleeper against evildoers invading his or her home in the night, and to express gratitude in the morning for a safe rest.  Note that the supplicant in these prayers is actually praying to the spirits of their bed and their pillow, rather than a more familiar high god like Tlaloc.  Incantations are quoted from the excellent English translation of Alarcón by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig.  Incidentally, if you can read Spanish, I found a full text copy of the Paso y Tronsco fascimile online at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, viewable by clicking HERE.  Commentary about each prayer is my own material.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you who lie opening your mouth toward the four directions.  You are very thirsty and also hungry.  And already the villain who makes fun of people, the one who is a madman, is coming.  What is it that he will do to me?  Am I not a pauper?  I am a worthless person.  Do I not go around suffering poverty in the world?

The supplicant here calls upon his bed (“jaguar mat”), a mat made of reeds and palm fronds to protect him from the nocturnal sorcerer, the nahual.  This particular flavor of witch was greatly feared throughout the region due to his ability to control minds, paralyze, and shapeshift.  He was believed to often indulge in robbery like a cat burglar, breaking into homes in the dead of night to bewitch and rob his prey.  Sometimes, he would violate and kill his victims.  Interestingly, Quetzalcoatl was noted by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex to be the patron of this supernatural lawbreaker.

The structure of this prayer is double-layered — the supplicant begins with calling on the spirit of his bed to protect him, but then shifts to make a declaration of his extreme poverty and worthlessness as a robbery target.  Perhaps he had in mind a subtle defense here — rather than asking the spirit to try to destroy or disempower the witch, which might be unlikely to work as they were considered to be quite strong, he’s asking it to trick the burglar by convincing him that there’s nothing of value in this house, better go somewhere else.

The bed itself is described in an interesting way.  It reaches out towards the four directions, thus anchoring it very firmly in physical space, but also possibly linking it to the greater spiritual ecosystem, as a common verbal formula of invoking the whole community of the divine is to call to all the directions and present them with offerings.  It also reminds me of the surface of the earth (tlalticpac) which similarly fans out as a flat plane towards the cardinal directions, making the bed a tiny replica of the earthly world.  The reference to gaping mouths, hunger, and thirst acknowledges that the spirit of the bed has its own needs and implies that the speaker will attend to them.  In the Aztec world, nothing’s free, and a favor requested is a favor that will have to be paid for.  Alarcón doesn’t note what offering is given to the mat here, but in other invocations of household objects recorded in the book, tobacco and copal smoke come up repeatedly.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar seat, O you who are wide-mouthed towards the four directions.  Already you are very thirsty and also hungry.

This prayer is the companion of the one discussed above, except directed to the sleeper’s pillow (the “jaguar seat”).  Incidentally, you might be wondering why these two objects are named “jaguar.”  Andrews and Hassig speculate in their commentary that it may have been inspired by the mottled appearance of the reeds making up the bedding.  I think it may be a way of acknowledging that these simple, seemingly-mundane objects house a deeper, supernatural power.  The jaguar is a creature of the earth, of the night, and sorcery in Mesoamerican thinking, and in particular is a symbol of Tezcatlipoca.  It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that a nocturnal symbol is linked to things so intimately tied to sleep and being interacted with in the context of their magical power.  The adjective “jaguar” also appears elsewhere in Aztec furniture as the “jaguar seat” of the kings and nobles, which is often used as a symbol of lordly authority.  The gods themselves are sometimes drawn sitting on these jaguar thrones, including in the Codex Borbonicus (click to view).  Once again, another possible link to ideas of supernatural power and rulership — authority invoked to control another supernatural actor, the dangerous witch.

O my jaguar mat, did the villain perhaps come or not?  Was he perhaps able to arrive?  Was he perhaps able to arrive right up to my blanket?  Did he perhaps raise it, lift it up?

This final incantation was to be recited when the sleeper awoke safely.  He muses about what might have happened while he slumbered.  Maybe nothing happened… or maybe a robber tried to attack, coming so close as to peek under the blanket at the defenseless sleeper, but was turned away successfully by the guardian spirits invoked the previous night.  Either way, the speaker is safe and sound in the rosy light of dawn, alive to begin another day.


Ruiz, . A. H., Andrews, J. R., & Hassig, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp.81-82

The Bancroft Dialogues: Advice On Good Manners

Today I’d like to introduce you to an important little book commonly referred to as the Huehuetlatolli – Discursos en Mexicano, or by its English nickname “the Bancroft Dialogues.”  It’s a collection of early post-Conquest speech from the Aztec nobility, probably collected sometime in the late 16th century.  It’s valuable both to linguists for its preservation of numerous samples of elite, upper-class speech , and to anthropologists for its social content.  Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart produced the only English translation of the book in 1987 (out of print and difficult to find these days, I’d scan and post my copy for all to read if I could).  If you can read Spanish, you may be able to acquire Angel Garibay’s edition, published in volume 1 and 2 of the journal Tlalocan in 1943.

The extract I’ve chosen to share is a short speech given by an older nobleman to some youths under his care about how to behave well, both in public and private.  As the text identifies the listeners as “boys,” it’s possible this advice was given by a teacher at the calmecac or telpochcalli schools discussed in one of my earlier posts.  Without further delay, here it is!

Advice on good breeding from an old man to some boys

Let us go to the house of our Lord to pray and hear His holy offices.  Go along spread out in front of me, don’t go shoving each other, go along properly, don’t go looking sideways and making faces.  People will say the devil has gotten into you.  And if you meet someone somewhere, greet the person and speak to him.  If it is one of the nobles, or one of the lords your progenitors who rule the city, or an old man or an old woman, you are to stand to one side until they pass by and bow down to them.  Don’t shove people or knock them down.

Listen, my youngest ones, much sleeping is bad, for it makes people fall ill and grow idle.  Get up early in the morning, and that way you will live in health and not be heavy with sickness.  Were not the rulers who left you behind brought up in the same way?  How was it that it was said that I really spied and saw them?  (I.e. I know what I am talking about?)

Immediately the elder  begins with an exhortation to attend to worship.  At the time this speech was collected, he would have been referring to the Christian god, but the original pre-Conquest form of the dialogue would have referred to the traditional Aztec gods.  This inclusion of an emphasis on good relation with the divine is pretty typical of many of the huehuetlatolli I’ve read, even for ones that aren’t specifically about religious practice.  It descends from that lofty subject to more mundane instructions on what not to do so they won’t be scolded as little brats.  As the Aztec community was a heavily class-conscious society, much of the deference the children are told to display is directed at the aristocracy — you’ll note that all nobles are to be bowed to without any requirements of age, but only the elderly receive special honor without concern for their class.  Men and women alike are to be honored.

The elder leaves behind the instructions in etiquette and the external benefits from good manners to advise the kids on habits that will benefit them as individuals.  However, he reinforces the personal benefits of moderation in sleep by citing tradition, as their ancestral role models supposedly followed these habits.  In other speeches recorded in the Bancroft Dialogues, we see a recurring emphasis on health — many of the different greetings revolve around formalized questions as to how someone’s health is, and concern with avoiding illness and physical discomfort.  Linking this concern with vitality to the need for moderation hints at the key virtue of temperance in Mexica culture, something I’ve explored in more depth in an older post if you’re interested.


Lockhart, James. & Karttunen, Frances E. & Bancroft Library.  (1987).  The Art of Nahuatl speech : the Bancroft Dialogues.  Los Angeles :  UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, p.137

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.

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.


Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.

Joe Laycock & Santa Muerte

I’ve been keeping an eye on the alleged human sacrifices in honor of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Nacozari, Mexico, since the news first broke a bit over a week ago.  Since the initial story hit, it’s been a rather vexing (if not surprising) slog through the misinformation and tedious sensationalism, with the usual suspects coming out of the woodwork to push a new version of the tired “Satanic Panic” trope.  I’m pleased to inform however, that a friend of mine, Joseph Laycock, just posted a story regarding the killings on the Religion Dispatches.  With his usual wit, Dr. Laycock deconstructs that bit of irritating nonsense, and provides a nice bit of work tracking how this meme is rapidly developing.  I highly recommend popping by and giving it a read.

If you’re wondering why I’m taking a moment to post news relating to human sacrifices offered to a Catholic saint, you might want to swing by Dr. Laycock’s other article on Santa Muerte.  Among other interesting data of note, he comments on the theory that Santa Muerte is a syncreticism of Catholicism with Mictlancihuatl (aka Mictecacihuatl), the pre-Columbian consort of Mictlantecuhtli and Queen of the Dead.  (Her names translate literally as “Lady of the Land of the Dead” and “Lady of the Deadlands People,” respectively.)  The first time I came across information relating to Santa Muerte, I had the exact same thought come to mind.  Both entities appear as skeletal feminine figures draped in sacred garb.  While Santa Muerte’s dress most obviously echoes a combination of Saint Mary (and by extension, the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is herself a syncretism of Tonantzin) and popular depictions of the Grim Reaper, her functions remind me far more of Mictlancihuatl.  Both grim ladies have power over material blessings and fortunes, as well as life and death.  This combination of dominion over material wealth and death is a signature of the Aztec earth/death deities (the powers of the earth and the force of death are inseparable in this cosmovision, when one gets to the root of it) such as Mictlancihuatl, Tonantzin, Cihuacoatl, and Tlaloc, among many, many others.  The offering of blood and human life to Santa Muerte seems to hint that at least some others see this connection between the new saint and the ancient goddess, the tragic manifestation of this understanding in the case of the Nacozari murders aside.

With that said, I do encourage you to check out Dr. Laycock’s informative articles on Santa Muerte HERE and HERE, and give the ill-informed and sensationalistic tripe from non-experts floating around on the web a miss.  Stay tuned for an upcoming post to stay with the subject of death while linking back to my prior post on the two major anthologies of Aztec poetry.

White Santa MuerteThe White Santa Muerte, Courtesy of Daemondice and Cuautlis

Two Aztec Censer Photos

While browsing links and foraging for data, I came across an excellent pair of photos on Flickr that tie in nicely with yesterday’s post on pre-Conquest Aztec censers.  Both photographs were taken by Lin Mei in 2006 at the Museo del Templo Mayor (Museum of the Grand Temple) and adjacent excavation site of the Huey Teocalli itself in Mexico City.  They are hosted on Rightstream’s Flickr photostream as a part of his Templo Mayor set of images.  I recommend taking a look at the full set in addition to the two I’m highlighting here, as the photos are very good quality and provide a good look at many of the fascinating examples of Mexica art and architecture uncovered by the Templo Mayor archaeology team.  My thanks to Leo and Lin Mei for generously allowing their work to be shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The first photo is a beautiful example of a ladle-type censer, intended to be carried in the hand and used to incense places, people, sacred images, etc.  It’s the design Walter Hough described as being derived from a basic tripod incense burner design, where one leg is elongated into a handle, producing a ladle form.

Aztec Ladle Censer

Image 055 in Rightstream’s Flickr photostream, photograph taken by Lin Mei in 2006

Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License

The second image is a picture of the large, stationary stone brazier Hough described as being used for burning incense, offerings, ritual implements and paraphernalia, and as vessels for sacred temple fires that were never allowed to go out.  The popochcomitl in the photo below is beautifully preserved, and a great amount of sharp, clear detail is apparent.  Look closely at the narrow waist of the hourglass shape, and you’ll see the belt-like knotted bow I discussed yesterday.  It’s a much better example than the grainy turn of the century photograph available in the linked article.  You’ll also notice a beautiful monolithic serpent head nestled between the two braziers.  The alternating brazier – serpent – brazier pattern continues over large sections of the stepped pyramid.  It’s a logical motif when one remembers that the Grand Temple, at least on the southern side where Huitzilopochtli’s sanctuary was, is a man-made replica of the Coatepetl (Snake Mountain) where Huitzilopochtli was born and defeated the jealous Southern Stars.  If you’d like to read that story, you can click HERE for my retelling of that exciting narrative.

Tlexictli Brazier

Image 001 in Rightstream’s Flickr photostream, photograph taken by Lin Mei in 2006

Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License

Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America

While doing some research on different types of censers (incense burners) used in Mesoamerica, I came across a useful article on the subject by Walter Hough, entitled (creatively) “Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America.”  The article dates from 1912 and doesn’t have the benefit of recent excavations at the Huey Teocalli in Mexico City, but I still found it valuable as a solid overview of the major types of incense burners (popochcomitl in Nahuatl) used in precolumbian Mexico and neighboring regions.  It’s a well-organized and reasonably-concise article, and contains a good number of photographs of examples for each of the major shapes and style variations by broad ethnic groupings.  To read “Censers and Incense of Mexico and Central America” by Walter Hough via GoogleBooks, please click HERE. A full-text PDF of the article can also be downloaded, as the article is in the public domain. (A warning note — unsurprisingly, given its age, Hough’s article is marred by some obnoxious ethnocentric language common to writing from the period.  Fortunately, it’s less pervasive than what I’ve seen from some of his contemporaries, so hopefully you can look past it to benefit from the real meat of the essay.)

I’d like to comment briefly on some of the most interesting parts of the article.  I’ll start with some thoughts about the large, stationary “hourglass” type censer he mentions, which were permanent installations at the temples (depicted on page 9 of the PDF, page 112 in the original numbering).  Called tlexictli, or “fire navels,” they instantly bring to mind Xiuhtecuhtli (also called Huehueteotl), the ancient Lord of Fire, who is said to dwell in the “navel” of the universe, as recorded throughout the Florentine Codex by Sahagun.  Also according to Sahagun, these large braziers provided not only continual light, warmth, and a place to burn copal, but were used in the disposal of some offerings and ritual implements.  The objects to be cremated were burned in a tlexictli, and then the ashes were buried at certain holy sites on the edge of bodies of water (Hough, PDF p.11).  It’s a fascinating variation on the theme of water meets fire that pervades traditional Aztec thought, here manifesting in a team effort of the two opposing forces in destroying sanctified objects that are due to leave the physical world for the spiritual realm.

Staying on the subject of the tlexictli a moment longer, I’d like to call your attention to the photo on page 44 of the PDF, which shows one of the “fire navel” braziers.  Around the narrow waist of the censer is a knotted bow.  These bows frequently show up in Aztec art, either tied around objects that are being offered or tied around people, animals, or gods.  Quetzalcoatl is often shown in the codices with these bows tied around his knees and elbows, such as in plate 56 of the Codex Borgia.  Mictlantecuhtli is wearing the pleated paper bows around his joints as well.  To my knowledge, we don’t yet fully understand the complex meaning behind these bows, but they’re definitely associated with priestly activity and sacrifice. In that light, it seems appropriate to see these bows appear on the tlexictli.

Moving on to more familiar territory, Hough’s paper covers the ladle-type censer commonly depicted in the hands of priests offering incense in the codices, as discussed in my earlier post on the subject of daily copal offerings by the clergy.  In his scheme of classification, it is labeled as a type of “gesture”popochcomitl, so called because it’s intended to be held in the hand and used in various motions during ceremony to direct the sweet smoke towards its intended recipient(s).  According to the author, this ladle-like shape is a signature of gesture censers among the Nahua peoples, and isn’t as prevalent among groups to the north and south of Central Mexico.  This seems to be reflected in the surviving codices, as the majority of the examples I can recall offhand are that shape.  I’ve seen a few examples of a bowl-shaped vessel with copal in it as well in the ancient books, which may match the small bowl-type censers he notes as being universal across Mesoamerica.

Gesture censers in varying shapes were used outside of temple activities, as Sahagun notes that the duty to offer copal was shared by everyone in the Aztec empire, which Hough comments on in the household context a bit.  Sahagun also recorded that copal was offered before performances of song and dance at the houses of the nobles, which presumably involved small censers that could be manipulated with a hand in at least some cases.  I mention that possibility because it’s a custom still widely in use today, as seen among the danza Azteca groups around the world, and one that I can show you as I wrap up today’s post.

The video below is a recording of a dance for Tonatiuh, the Sun, and the dancers have several goblet-shaped censers that they use to offer copal smoke to the four directions.  Once the offering is finished, they place the censers back among the other objects of the dance altar spread out on the ground, letting the copal continue to burn and smoke as they dance.  Thanks go to Omeyocanze for posting this lovely video.

Courtesy link to Omeyocanze’s page on YouTube for this danza video.


*Apologies for not having the citations for Sahagun’s Florentine Codex in just yet, but it’s quite late and I must call it a night before getting up for work later.  I’ll add them in when I get the chance soon.