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.
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.
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.
Link to original photograph source.
“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!
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.
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.
The Origin Of Corn
I think it’s time for retelling another myth, Cehualli-style. Chronologically, this one follows immediately after the tale about how Quetzalcoatl recovered the bones from Mictlantecuhtli in the great cycle of creation myths of the Aztecs. In this story, the age of the Fifth Sun has just begun, and the humans have just been brought back to life. So now there’s dry land, light, and living people again, but the recreation of the world isn’t done yet, for the people have nothing to eat. The legend of the Origin of Corn shows how the Teteo solve this last problem and complete the restoration of Earth.
The Origin Of Corn
As told by Cehualli
The Teteo stepped back to admire their work. They looked up to the sky and saw the Sun, radiant and majestic as He moved across the turquoise-blue sky. They looked down below and saw the jade-green earth, full of life, bounded on all sides by the Sacred Waters of the sea. They saw the newly-reborn humans, gazing back at Them with awe and gratitude for what They had done. Then the gods realized that Their work wasn’t done yet.
“We’ve brought the people back to life, but it will all be a waste if they don’t have something to eat! Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl will Themselves die of laughter if the bones They covet so badly return to Them this quickly,” said Xolotl, shaking His canine face in dismay.
“The different kinds of food that we’d given the people in the previous four Suns won’t be right for these, for these are true humans,” said Tlaloc, the Lord of Rain, His voice a rumbling growl like a jaguar. “We need to find the real corn for our new servants.” His words were correct, for in the past ages of the world, only lesser plants that mimicked corn existed, just like how real humans weren’t yet made.
Quetzalcoatl stroked His feathery beard, deep in thought, His eyes downcast. Right when He was about to speak, His gaze fell upon a tiny red ant… which was carrying a single kernel of corn. “I think We may have just found the true corn…” And with that, He descended back to the mortal world, leaving Tlaloc and the rest of the gods to watch what happened next.
“Wise ant, where did you find this corn?” Quetzalcoatl politely asked the tiny creature. The ant looked up at the god, surprised to see a Teotl talking to her, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she just kept on walking, not relaxing her grip on the corn at all. Undeterred, Quetzalcoatl turned himself into a black ant and followed after her.
At last they came to the foot of a soaring mountain. The red ant walked up to a tiny crack at the base and gestured to it with her antennae. “This is the Mountain of Sustenance. Corn, beans, chili peppers, and everything else that’s good to eat is stored inside.” Quetzalcoatl thanked her for her guidance and entered the mountain. Once inside, He gathered up some corn and brought it back to the heavenly world of Tamoanchan.
The rest of the gods were delighted by Quetzalcoatl’s discovery. “Our servants will live after all. Quick, let’s give them the corn!” They said. Quetzalcoatl took the maize and chewed it until it was soft, then gently placed it in the mouths of the newborn humans who were weak with hunger. Strength returned to the people, who praised the gods.
Meanwhile, Tlaloc and His ministers, the Tlaloque, were walking around the Mountain of Sustenance, examining it. “Now, what should We do with this?” He murmured to Himself, a hint of greed in His thunderous voice.
Quetzalcoatl broke open the mountain and admired the bounty within. “We’ll give it to the people so they’ll thrive and worship Us.”
Tlaloc frowned, His long jaguar teeth showing frighteningly. “No, I think I have a better idea.” And He suddenly ordered the Tlaloque to scoop up the food inside, and together They spirited it back to Tlaloc’s own realm, Tlalocan. Tlaloc admired His prize, running His fingers through the piles of food. “Why should I just give the humans all this for free? I should get something in return. I’ll water the earth and make the food grow, but only if they worship Me and offer blood. If they don’t, then I’ll send drought and storms until they keep their end of the bargain again.”
And that is how the right kinds of crops for humans came to be.
Danza Azteca — Quetzalcoatl’s Descent to Mictlan
Here’s the video of the Aztec dance performance of part of the story of Quetzalcoatl’s descent to Mictlan, the Land of the Dead, to retrieve the precious bones so that humans can live again. It’s a nighttime performance, which is a perfect fit for the setting. Mictlan was described as a place of perpetual darkness, coldness, and night. The lighting is mostly from the bonfire and a few lamps, so it’s very moody looking and the shadows and light accentuate the motions and costumes of the danzantes.
Go HERE to watch the dance, as YouTube seems to have yanked the plug on embedding this particular video.
Quetzalcoatl is portrayed by the dancer in the birdlike, beaked mask who’s carrying the serpent, while Mictlantecuhtli is played by the dancer with the lion’s-mane-like headdress with a skull in the center of the fan of feathers. Mictlantecuhtli’s servants are creatively portrayed by children in skeletal costumes. You’re probably wondering “Why kids? That’s not scary!” I think they’re echoing the myths that portray Tlaloc’s helpers, the Tlaloque, as miniature versions of the goggle-eyed Rain God. If Tlaloc’s assistants are mini-Tlalocs, then why not have the Lord of the Dead’s be miniature Mictlantecuhtlis? Either way, it’s a nice casting choice.