In the spirit of the aphorism “a picture is worth a thousand words,” I recommend stopping by the British Museum’s Aztec collection online. They have available 27 photographs (well, 26 if you ignore the crystal skull that’s been proven to be a hoax) of beautiful Aztec and Mixtec artifacts. Among them are statues of Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Mictlantecuhtli, Tlazolteotl, Tlaloc, Xochipilli, and Xipe Totec, as well as a rare mosaic ceremonial shield, a turquoise serpent pectoral, and a sacrificial knife. The images are thought-provoking and intense, as these objects speak wordlessly the vision of the Nahua peoples without Colonial censorship.
As a bonus, I located an excellent photograph of a jade mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, God of Time and Fire, which is a part of the British Museum’s collection but is not on their website. Thank you Z-m-k for putting your fine photography skills to work on this worthy subject material and for your kindness in sharing it under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 License.
I’ve had a long day today and am very tired, too much running back and forth across the state, so today’s update will be a quick one. There will be a big new article coming soon though, I had plenty of time while sitting on the train to plan out a nice big feature on Aztec ethics and moral worldview. Watch for those two in the near future. In the meantime, I have another nice danza video for you to enjoy, courtesy of a YouTuber by the handle of Alexeix.
This particular video is a solo performance by a young danzante named Miguel Rivera. He’s performing the dance of Tezcatlipoca, the mercurial “Smoking Mirror.”
This particular video is interesting not because of elaborate costuming or intricate instrumentation, but because Señor Rivera is demonstrating the full sequence of dance steps and movements in great detail, and you can clearly hear the specific drum rhythm for Tezcatlipoca being played in the background. Thus, for those of you who are interested in learning some of the traditional dances and/or drum rhythms, his video should be a useful source of information.
Incidentally, if you listen, you’ll hear a rhythmic jingling sound that’s in time to his movements. It’s coming from the “bells” around his ankles. Those “bells” are actually a specific type of seed pod/nut shell that is native to Mexico. When dried out and sewn to leather or cloth wraps that are worn around the lower legs, they make that beautifully distinctive jingling sound. I’d tell you what they’re called, but I’m completely blanking on it at the moment. I’ll update this post with it when I remember. (UPDATE: they’re called ayoyotes.) Anyway, you’ll hear that sound in practically every Aztec dance recording out there, and now you know what makes it.
There shouldn’t be an issue with this embedded video going dead like the Quetzalcoatl one did for a little while, since it doesn’t look like the person who uploaded it on YouTube is opposed to embedding. (You can visit their YouTube page for this video by clicking HERE.) If it does cut out, just post a comment and let me know so I can fix it.
A change of pace for today, because I’m in a storytelling mood and I even found a kickass danza video to go with it. Today I’ll tell the legend of how Quetzalcoatl brought humanity back to life by stealing the precious bones from the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantecuhtli.
This version of the “Quetzalcoatl goes to Mictlan” tale is a composite of the several different variants of the myth that exist, and the wording of it is completely my own. I fleshed it out a bit in order to try to restore some of the richness and “naturalness” that gets lost when you try to take an oral tradition that was typically performed with song and dance and try to move it to the written page, especially if you have to translate it to boot.
As a bonus, I found a danza video showing a beautiful dance rendition of the story! I’m going to put that in its own post so the formatting doesn’t get all awkward. So, let’s get started!
Quetzalcoatl’s Descent To Mictlan
As told by Cehualli
It was the beginning of the Fifth Sun. Newborn Tonatiuh shone His light over the earth below. His rays revealed the beauty of the recreated land and sea, yet the gods were unhappy with what They saw. Why? The world was empty of life.
The gods gathered to share Their sorrow at the absence of Their creatures. “We’ve brought the earth and sky back together and made them whole again, but what good is it all without anyone to live there? Who will worship Us? We can’t let things go on like this!”
But the humans were all dead, killed when the Fourth Sun fell in a torrent of rain. And the dead were far away, hidden deep in Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the Lord and Lady of that cold, dark, silent realm, now kept their bones as treasures. Without the bones, there could be no more humans.
The Teteo continued, “We must give life back to the humans, our faithful servants who We first created long ago. But We need their bones to recreate them, and they are lost in Mictlan. Someone must go down to the Land of the Dead and persuade Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl to give them back to Us. But who among Us is best suited for this dangerous quest?”
After a few moments of deliberation, Quetzalcoatl and His twin, Xolotl, nodded to each other and stepped forward. Xolotl, the god with the serious face of a great hound, said, “I am Xolotl, the Evening Star. Every night, I lead the Sun down to Mictlan to die. I know the way to the Land of the Dead and will guide us there.”
Quetzalcoatl, His wise old face wreathed with a beard of brilliant feathers, said, “I am Quetzalcoatl, the Morning Star. Every morning, I lead the Sun back out of Mictlan to be reborn with the dawn. I know the way out of the Land of the Dead and will guide us back home to sweet Tamoanchan.”
The rest of the gods heard Their brave words and thought the plan wise. Tezcatlipoca said, “Though We may fight and compete for glory, Brother Quetzalcoatl, I too want to see the humans brought back from Mictlan. May You succeed in bringing back the bones.”
With that said, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl set out from Tamoanchan, descending towards the Land of the Dead. The other gods watched Them go with great concern, for They knew that Mictlantecuhtli was a proud and cunning king who wouldn’t give up the bones willingly. They gathered around Tezcatlipoca’s smoking mirror, a device of wonderful power through which the god could see everything, to watch the progress of the twins and wait.
Xolotl led the way down to Mictlan and through the nine layers of the Realm of Death. They retraced the path that the Sun took every night down into the depths of the underworld, all the way to the palace of the Lord of the Dead. “We must be careful,” Quetzalcoatl said. “I know Mictlantecuhtli will not be pleased by Our request. He is a wily god and may try to trap Us.” Xolotl agreed, and They cautiously proceeded to the throne of the Lord and Lady of the Dead.
Mictlantecuhtli was waiting for Them. “Welcome to My kingdom, gods from the bright realm of Tamoanchan. What brings You so far from your home?” Scattered around the royal chamber were heaps of the bones of the humans, piled up like treasure.
Quetzalcoatl spoke respectfully, one god to another. “We have come for the precious bones of the humans. We have need of them in Tamoanchan.”
Mictlantecuhtli eyed the two gods. “And why do You need my lovely bones? It must be very important if You came all the way to the Land of the Dead.” Already He seemed to be planning something.
Quetzalcoatl replied, “The Fifth Sun has dawned, and it’s time for humans to walk the earth and bask in His rays again. We need those bones so we may bring them back to life.”
Mictlantecuhtli frowned, and the chill in the air deepened. “And how do I benefit from this? No, I don’t think I’ll give up my splendid bones. If I give them to You, I’ll never get them back and I’ll be poorer for it. No, You can’t have My bones.”
Quetzalcoatl had anticipated this. “Oh, no! You misunderstand Me. We don’t intend to keep the bones, We just want to borrow them. The humans would be mortal, and would eventually return to You, just like how everything else is born and eventually dies, even the Sun itself. Only we Teteo live forever. You wouldn’t really lose anything in the end, and in the meantime, Your fame would grow.”
Mictlancihuatl looked pleased by these words. Mictlantecuhtli considered them, then spoke. “Hmmm. An interesting idea. All right. You can have the bones…” Xolotl began to move towards the bones. “IF” continued Mictlantecuhtli. Xolotl froze. “IF You can play My conch-shell trumpet and circle My kingdom four times in honor of Me.”
“Of course,” said Quetzalcoatl. Mictlantecuhtli gave Them His trumpet and watched Them leave His throne room. He smiled, satisfied that He wouldn’t have to give up those bones after all…
Xolotl looked at the trumpet in dismay. The conch shell had no holes and couldn’t make a sound. “He’s trying to trick Us!”
“I’ve got a plan,” said Quetzalcoatl. And He called the worms and other gnawing insects, and ordered them to chew holes into the conch shell. Then He took the shell and held it up, and summoned the bees to climb inside through the holes and buzz loudly. The sound echoed through the shadowy realm like a trumpet blast.
Mictlantecuhtli hid a scowl when Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl marched proudly back into the throne room. “We’ve done what You asked, Lord of the Dead. Now, give Us the bones as You agreed!”
“Very well then,” said Mictlantecuhtli, calm again. “You can have them for now. But the humans will not be immortal. They must die again someday and return to me, just as You had said earlier.” The Morning and Evening Star agreed, gathered up the bones, and left.
Mictlancihuatl looked horrified. “Our treasure! We can’t let Them carry it off!”
“Of course We won’t. I may have said They could have the bones. I never said They could leave My kingdom with them.” And then He ordered some of his servants to dig a pit along the path that the two gods must take to escape, and others to chase after Them.
Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl saw the army of the Lord and Lady of the Dead in hot pursuit, and ran as fast as They could, up towards the way out of Mictlan. Looking back at the mob chasing them, They didn’t see the pit ahead.
Suddenly, a flock of quail burst out of hiding, surrounding the two gods and startling Them. Quetzalcoatl slipped and fell into the pit, then Xolotl heard a sickening crunch of breaking bone. “What happened?” cried Xolotl, running over to help.
Quetzalcoatl was looking in horror at the bones. They had shattered into pieces, and some of the quail were gnawing on them. He chased away the quail and sifted through the bones, weeping. “They’re ruined! Now what will We do?”
Xolotl said, “Maybe they will still work, and We can still make this turn out for the best. It’s the only thing We can do now.” And He helped Quetzalcoatl gather up the broken bones in a bundle and escape with them.
They got back to Tamoanchan and showed the rest of the Teteo the ruined bones. Cihuacoatl looked at the pieces thoughtfully, then smiled. “We can still bring the humans back to life.” Then She took the shattered bones and ground them up like corn in a clay bowl, turning them into a fine powder. Then Quetzalcoatl bled His penis into the bowl, and the rest of the gods also gave blood. The blood mixed with the ground bones, and immediately living humans formed.
The gods rejoiced. “We’ve succeeded, the macehuales (literally, “those gained by divine sacrifice”) are born! The earth will be filled with humans once again. They will worship Us, and We will be their gods.”
And that is the story of how Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan and brought back the precious bones so that humans could be reborn into the age of the Fifth Sun.
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.
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!