In honor of the springtime finally rolling around after this seemingly-endless winter, I’d like to introduce you to a mysterious creature which the Aztecs said dies and rises with the seasons.
“In the winter, it hibernates. It inserts its bill in a tree; [hanging] there it shrinks, shrivels, molts. And when [the tree] rejuvenates, when the sun warms, when the tree sprouts, when it leafs out, at this time [it] also grows feathers once again. And when it thunders for rain, at that time it awakens, moves, comes to life.”
What is this mysterious creature that defies death?
It’s the hummingbird (huitzitzili in Nahuatl).
Incidentally, remember that the hummingbird is Huitzilopochtli’s symbol, and note that many hummingbirds, including several species in Mexico, have the brilliant blue-green color of divinity for their plumage, just like another sacred bird, the resplendent quetzal. These feathers, believed to have been shed like dead leaves in the fall, are linked to fresh, living plants by Sahagun’s informant, called into existence after the warmth of the sun, power of the sky gods, works in tandem with the watery might of Tlaloc and the other earth and vegetation gods, spiraling together to burst forth in life and movement. Thus, a bird that’s possibly the perfect representation of the sky with its ability to hover and move at will in the air, shows its other face as a facet of the earth/water/plant divinity complex, a deity web that also extends into the realm of the dead. Thus, this tiny little winged jewel is a microcosm of the vast world around it and the deities interwoven in the system.
“Canto del Colibri,” courtesy of jjeess11
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 XI, pp.24.
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.
In honor of the approaching end of the 13th baktun on December 21, per the famous Mayan calendar, I’d like to write about a piece of ironclad historical evidence contradicting the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense. That particular piece of evidence lies in the ruins of Xultun.
Xultun was once a flourishing Mayan metropolis, and its importance continues to the present day as the site of a series of murals of great significance to clearing up an archaic misunderstanding of the great calendar. More specifically, painted on the walls in a house that appears to have been a workshop for scribes and astronomers, is a series of complex astronomical tables extending well past the end of 2012. In other words, the Mayan astronomers of the ninth century C.E. most certainly didn’t think the world would end when the thirteenth baktun did, but instead carried on with their work charting planetary and stellar activities well beyond the supposed end of the world. “So much for the supposed end of the world,” quips William Saturno, one of the present-day (re) discoverers of these scientific calculations.
Another of Saturno’s comments sums up the contrast between Western pop culture’s misconceptions and Mayan thought nicely, in my opinion — “We keep looking for endings… the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.” (National Geographic, 5/10/2012)
After the above excerpts, you might be interested in getting a look at Xultun and these murals for yourself. If so, you’re in luck!
If you click HERE, you can view National Geographic’s “Giga Pan” high resolution photographs of some of the murals.
If you’d like to explore the beautiful stone stelae (carvings) that dot the city, you can click HERE to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard’s website cataloguing a bit of the site’s history, its carvings, and their locations around the town. (The diagrams of the carvings are in the list on the lefthand side of the page.)
Finally, National Geographic has also prepared a short video on the discoveries at Xultun for your viewing pleasure, which you can view HERE if you have trouble viewing the embedded version below.
In honor of the spring equinox, I’d like to share an interesting article by Ivan Šprajc that explores some theories regarding possible astronomical associations of the architecture of the Grand Temple. Mr. Šprajc is a Slovenian archaeoastronomy specialist with an interest in the ancient astronomical practices of the Aztec, Maya, and Teotihuacan peoples. This paper, “Astronomical Alignments at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, Mexico” is the result of the studies he conducted at the excavation site of the Huey Teocalli in Mexico City.
In this paper, Šprajc agrees with his predecessors Aveni, Calnek, Tichy, and Ponce de Leon that the Templo Mayor was indeed constructed to align with certain astrological phenomena and dates. This initial concept is partially based on some clues recorded by Mendieta that the feast of Tlacaxipehualiztli “fell when the sun was in the middle of Uchilobos [archaic Spanish spelling of Huitzilopochtli].”
The more traditional position, held by Aveni et al and supported by Leonardo López Luján in “The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan” (2006) holds that the festival’s beginning was marked by the perfect alignment of the sunrise between the two sanctuaries atop the Temple on the first day of the veintena according to Sahagun. To wit, Sahagun recorded that the festival month began on March 4/5 (depending on how you correct from the Julian to Gregorian calendar) and ended shortly after the vernal equinox.
Unlike his peers, Šprajc concludes that the festival of Xipe Totec was marked by the sun setting along the axis of the Teocalli. At that time, the sun would seem to vanish as it dropped into the V-shaped notch between the two shrines of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. His conclusion partially stems from a slightly different measurement of the orientation of the temple than the other archaeologists, and his preference for Mendieta’s dating of the start and end of Tlacaxipehualiztli, which would start right around the vernal equinox and then end on about April 4th.
Who do I think is correct? I think the jury is still out. Both the sunrises and sunsets were marked by the priests with copal offerings and music, and both were involved in the flow of various festivals, so we know for sure that the scholars and clergy of Tenochtitlan assigned significance to both. Given the issue of varying estimates of how much the Templo Mayor has settled into the soft soil of the remains of Lake Texcoco, and differing theories on how much the structure has warped due to intentional destruction and pressure from the layering of Mexico City on top, and it becomes hard to present a bulletproof argument for either side.
Šprajc presents some additional interesting possibilities for alignments with Mount Tlamacas and Mount Tlaloc nearby, and a potential method of tracking the movement of the sun that possesses regular intervals of 20 days (matching an Aztec month) and 26 days (two Aztec weeks) that are intriguing. However, I generally consider Sahagun more reliable than Mendieta, as his research methods were among the best at the time, and modern study has tended to vindicate his records over those of historians working at a greater remove in time after the Conquest. There’s also the issue that Šprajc seems to be quite outnumbered when it comes to support for his alignment, and some of those who disagree with him, like Leonardo López Luján, have devoted decades of their lives to studying the Templo Mayor specifically. I’d also like to close with the possibility that everyone could be wrong — the tendency to see astronomical alignments under every rock and bush that were never intended by the people they’re studying has plagued archaeology for a very long time, and in the end, it could be the case here as well. Regardless, the debate is interesting and well worth reading, and the journal article contains a number of useful photographs and diagrams of deep within the layers of the Templo Mayor that are rewarding in and of themselves.
To download a full-text PDF copy of the journal article for free from the Inštitut za antropološke in prostorske študije (Institute of Anthropological and Spatial Studies), please click HERE. Alternatively, you can read it on-line at Issuu in simulated book format straight from your web browser by clicking HERE.
As a bonus, I’ve embedded a beautiful video recorded by Psydarketo below. It’s footage of the sun rising and aligning in the central doorway of the sanctuary atop the Mayan temple at Dzibilchaltun on March 20th, 2011 — last year’s spring equinox. It’s a similar technique to what I discussed above at the Templo Mayor, except that the sun is framed in the doorway rather than in the V-shaped space between twin sanctuaries. Close enough to help give a picture of how things would have looked in Tenochtitlan, and wonderful to watch in its own right.
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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.