Painted Skin

FIGURE 17. Painted zones of the udzavui face.

FIGURE 17. Painted zones of the Ñudzavui face.

FIGURE 18. Priest with blacked body, from page 11 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 18. Priest with blacked body, from page 11 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 19. Sacrificial scene with the victim wearing a black horizontal strip across his eye, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 19. Sacrificial scene with the victim wearing a black horizontal strip across his eye, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 20. The warrior on the right wears Toltec-style face paint, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 20. The warrior on the right wears Toltec-style face paint, from page 12 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 21. Zapotec-style face paint, from page 34 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 21. Zapotec-style face paint, from page 34 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 22.

FIGURE 22. “Wind” face paint from page 30 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 23.

FIGURE 23. “Maguey” face paint, from page 25 of the Codex Vienna.

FIGURE 24.

FIGURE 24. “Sun” face paint, from page 1 of the Codex Selden..

FIGURE 25. Lady 9 Reed with blue-painted jaw, from page 51 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 25. Lady 9 Reed with blue-painted jaw, from page 51 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 26. Lady 6 Monkey with red-painted jaw,  from page 6 of the Codex Selden.

FIGURE 26. Lady 6 Monkey with red-painted jaw, from page 6 of the Codex Selden.

Although practice of applying makeup may seem trivial, it is a practice constrained by cultural traditions. The contemporary West, for example, defines certain parts of the face as loci for the application of pigment—the lips (lipstick), the cheeks (rouge), the rims of the eyelids (eyeliner). Westerners generally do not accentuate the rims of their nostrils, or the patch of skin between the eyebrows.

Ñudzavui people, too, had culturally-defined zones to which makeup could be applied. These areas either divided the face into regions (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) or were centered around some feature of the face (the eye, the mouth, the cheek, the eyebrow, the nose, the temple). Styles of Ñudzavui face paint may be composed of only one painted area, or of several in combination (Figure 17).

The meanings that these different combinations of patterns take can vary. They can indicate social roles and statuses. A face and body painted in black and grey, like that worn by the man in Figure 18, marks a member of the priesthood.6 A horizontal black band painted across the eyes indicates that the person so ornamented is a prisoner or a sacrificial victim, as seen in Figure 19.

Face paint can also indicate ethnic identity. The blackening of the area around the eye and nose, as worn by the man in Figure 20, indicates that that individual has ties to the Toltec peoples living in the north of the Mixteca. This style of face paint is probably related to the Ñudzavui name for the Toltecs: sami ñuu , “people with burnt faces.”7

Another example of face paint indicating ethnic identity is seen in the complex style worn by the man in Figure 21. Consisting of a face divided horizontally into red and gold halves, with a black and white vertical eyestripe, is another ethnically-based style of face paint. This style indicates that this man has ties to the Zapotec rulers of Zaachila in the Valley of Oaxaca.8

A third category of face paint designs take their meanings through their association with particular deities. Individuals wearing these styles may be the gods themselves, deity impersonators, or elites who are being associated with a specific divine being.

The style associated with Lord 9 Wind, the Ñudzavui deity/culture hero, divides the face vertically into gold and grey halves, and paints the area around the mouth red. The man in Figure 22 is not Lord 9 Wind, but he wears a common form of the 9 Wind style (which includes a black eye stripe).

The style associated with Lady 2 Flower and Lady 3 Alligator, the goddesses of pulque and the maguey cactus, divides the face horizontally and paints the lower half blue. This may be in reference to artistic representations of the leaves of the maguey cactus, in which the lower halves of the leaves are also painted blue. Both face paint and maguey plants can be seen in Figure 23.

Two styles are associated with the sun gods, Lord 7 Flower and Lord 1 Skull. Lord 7 Flower’s face is usually divided horizontally, with the lower half of the face painted red. Lord 1 Skull may also wear this red jaw style. Additional styles specific to Lord 1 Skull include a vertical black eyestripe or, as shown in Figure 24, white and black bands on the cheek and eyebrow.

This discussion of Ñudzavui face paint will end with two caveats. First, the interconnections linking different Mesoamerican deities were complex. Thus although certain styles of face paint (the wind and maguey styles just mentioned, for example) are usually associated with particular gods and goddesses, they may be worn by other divinities, indicating complicated conceptual connections that we only partially understand (see also the discussion of Central Mexican deities in the Life in Beside the Water Nahua tutorial). The blue-jaw style worn by the maguey goddesses is also worn by Lady 9 Reed, the Ñudzavui Birth Tree goddess (shown in Figure 25). The red-mouth style worn by Lord 9 Wind is also worn by several other deities. There is therefore not necessarily an exclusive, one-to-one correlation between a particular god and a specific style of face paint. The appearance of a blue-painted jaw on the face of a noble woman does not necessarily mean that she is being directly linked to the maguey goddesses—but it does suggest possible connections that need further study.

Second, although specific styles of face paint are usually found in the same contexts throughout the corpus (a blackened face and body always signifies the priesthood, for example), in some cases the meanings of styles of face paint may change from screenfold to screenfold. As discussed above, a red-painted jaw is usually associated with the male solar deity Lord 7 Flower. In the Codex Selden, however, this style is exclusively worn by mortal women, as shown in Figure 26. This suggests that for the scribe of the Selden a red-painted jaw had specifically gender-female associations, and was not a style intended to refer to the male solar deity.

Text by Byron Hamann
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6 Dahlgren 1990, 126; Pohl 1994a, 31-32.

7 Pohl 1994a, 93-96.

8 Paddock 1983, 47-82.