FIGURE 9. The god Tlaloc holding a digging stick, from folio 20r of the Codex Borgia (a prehispanic screenfold almanac probably painted in Tlaxcala).
FIGURE 10. The sacred bundle of Tezcatlipoca in the main temple of Texcoco (upper right-hand corner): Cell 41 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 11. The god Camaxtli, from folio 25v of the Codex Borgia (a prehispanic screenfold almanac probably painted in Tlaxcala).
FIGURE 12. Cholula: Cell 11 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. The temple of Quetzalcoatl is to the left, marked by a snake and a long feather. Priests are indicated by their grey skin, darkened with soot.
FIGURE 13. The goddess Mayahuel, from folio 68v of the Codex Borgia (a prehispanic screenfold almanac probably painted in Tlaxcala). Her body is superimposed over the pointed blue and red leaves of a maguey cactus, its roots exposed below.
FIGURE 14. Tonanycacan: Cell 25 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.
FIGURE 15. Andesite statue of Chalchiuhtlicue, “She of the Jade Skirt,” goddess of water and childbirth. London, British Museum, Registration Number Am,St.373.
FIGURE 16. Late Postclassic clay figurines from western Morelos. Temple: YPM ANT 257094, 5 9/16” length, 3 1/4” width. Woman: YPM ANT 257083, 2 5/8” length, 1 7/16” width. Warrior: YPM ANT 257417, 3 1/2” top to bottom, 2 1/2” arm span. Photos courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
FIGURE 17. Late Postclassic clay figurine of Tlaloc from western Morelos. 9 1/2” length, 3 1/8” width. Photo of YPM Ant 257095 courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
People throughout Mesoamerica worshipped very similar gods with similar attributes, although these divinities had different names in different places. In Nahua-speaking lands, for example, the Rain god was called Tlaloc. To the south, in the Oaxacan lands of the Ã’udzavui, the Rain god was called Dzavui. In both places, however, he wore blue goggles around his eyes, and had a distinctive curving blue lip (Figure 9).
Despite this regionally-shared pantheon, individual communities would often place special emphasis on one or two deities—much in the way that antique Greek city-states would build their most important temples to one or another of the gods of Olympus. In the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, for example, the main pyramid was topped with two separate temples, each honoring a different deity. On the left was the temple was dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain. On the right was a temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird-on-the-Left”), the war-loving patron god of the Mexica. Seldom represented, he wore a hummingbird helmet on his head, and seems to have been guarded within his temple as a sacred bundle. According to the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, the main temple of the lakeside town of Texcoco—one of the three partners in the Triple Alliance—housed the sacred bundle of the stripe-faced Tezcatlipoca, (“Smoking Mirror”), god of rulership and divination (Figure 10). To the east, in the Valley of Puebla, the main temple of the Tlaxcalan altepetl of Ocotelulco was dedicated to Camaxtli, god of war and the hunt.22 His skin was striped red and white, and he wore a dark mask of face paint around his eyes and nose (Figure 11). Some thirty kilometers to the south of Tlaxcala, in the sacred city of Cholula, the main temple was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”). Closely linked to Ehecatl, the wind god (whose red-beaked buccal mask he often wears), Quetzalcoatl was said to have created humans at the beginning of the fifth age of creation (Figure 12).
Of course, not all Central Mexican deities were male. Mayahuel, her jaw painted blue, was goddess of the maguey cactus (Figure 13). Xochiquetzal (“Flower-Quetzal” was a goddess of fertility. Cell 25 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala shows the conquest of Tonanycacan, a place name that means “On the Face of Tonantzin” (Figure 14). Tonantzin, “Our Reverend Mother,” was general title applied to a number of different female deities—and, with the arrival of Christianity, to the Virgin Mary as well.23 The embracive title Tonantzin points to an important feature of Central Mexican—indeed, Mesoamerican—gods and goddesses. Iconographically, these gods and goddesses are usually identified by their face paint, jewelry, and clothing. However, a number of studies have shown that styles of face paint and jewelry and costume are often mixed together from one deity to another, so that the boundaries between different gods and goddesses are often blurred.24 In addition, although most Central Mexican deities were represented in human form, their names often referred to natural forces and substances (Ehecatl as “Wind,” Tonatiuh as “Sun”). The shifting, mixing nature of Mesoamerican divine costume may have been meant to capture the shifting and interconnected qualities of natural phenomena. Wind can come as a soft breeze or a hurricane. Rain can be a gentle shower or a torrential wind-swept downpour. The sun can warm, or burn, and looks very different at dawn, midday, and sunset.
The presence of these deities was experienced by ancient Nahuas in a number of different ways. Natural forces themselves—the wind, the rain—were the most elemental manifestations of the gods. Deities were also worshipped as anthropomorphic images of stone, wood, and clay (Figure 15). Some of these images were left exposed to view, but others were wrapped in yards and yards of cloth to form sacred bundles (such as the sacred bundles of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca discussed above). Opening these bundles to reveal their contents was a dangerous act: one sixteenth-century source claimed that opening a sacred bundle from Tenochtitlan could cause death.25 Finally, Nahua gods and goddesses were made manifest through living representations. Men and women were dressed up in the costumes and face paint of certain deities, and thus were transformed into those deities. Often, these living gods were manifested in order to be sacrificed, thus reenacting sacred Nahua stories about divine self-sacrifices that helped create the world at the beginning of time.26
Human sacrifice is the most famous—and most sensationalized—feature of Postclassic central Mexican religion. But it was only one of many ways to honor the gods and goddesses. Nahua priests—their bodies blackened with soot, their hair dirty and clumped into sacred dreadlocks—would worship the gods by fasting, or by drawing blood from their own bodies—tongues, ears genitalia—with spines of maguey and bones (Figure 12, above). They would make also offerings of animals (especially by decapitating quail), incense smoke, burning balls of rubber, dishes of food.
Most of what we know about Central Mexican religion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries comes from the images of prehispanic sculptures and books, and from alphabetic and pictorial documents created in colonial New Spain. These are elite records, and they record elite views of religion. Only occasionally do alphabetic texts speak of non-elite religious practices. For example, around 1540 the Franciscan friar Motolinía—who spent a lot of time living in Tlaxcala—described how “each day women awoke early with a smiling heart and placed their offering to the gods on an altar in the courtyard of their house. On the altar was a round brazier with burning coal, and there the woman offered incense to the same fire kept in honor of the god, or in honor of the sun and the other gods…”27 Motolinía’s comments here are unusual. Fortunately, however, recent archaeological excavations in the houses of common people have given us glimpses of more humble forms of religious life in the Valleys of Mexico and Morelos.
Common people, like priests in the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, used long-handled incense ladles to offer sweet smoke to the gods (ceramic fragments of these have been found in the trash middens next to commoner houses). Where elite and urban religious practice often used monumental statues of the gods made from stone and wood, excavations in the houses of common people have revealed the central importance of clay figurines, which probably had a religious purpose. Most of these depict women, slightly fewer depict men, and the rest depict a range of subject matter, including temples and animals (Figure 16). Sometimes these women and men wear costume elements clearly marking them as pan-Mesoamerican deities (such as the use of the buccal mask in figurines of the wind god Ehecatl, or the round goggle eyes and pointed teeth of Tlaloc; Figure 17). But more often, these clay women and men appear to be just that—mortal humans, mothers and warriors. Perhaps such simple representations were meant to represent mere humans. Or perhaps they represented sacred spirits different in kind from the pan-Mesoamerican gods we know so well. Despite a great deal of interest in the use of figurines in commoner households, we still have a lot to learn about these enigmatic forms.28
Community and Household >
22 Motolinia 1985, 108-109; see also Gibson 1952, 34.
23 Burkhart 2001, 10-11.
24 Nicholson 1971; Townsend 1979; for Maya parallels see Houston and Stuart 1996; Vail 2000.
25 Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City, Inquisición, Libro 37, Expediente 3, 21v.
26 Hvidtfeldt 1958; see also the Clothing: Skirt, Huipil Nahua tutorial.
27 “Cada día se leuantauan muy de maÃ±ana en rriyendo el alua, y ellas mismas ponían su ofrenda a los dioses sobre vn altar que thenían en los patios de sus cassas. En aquel altar estaua vn brasero rredondo con sus brasas y allí la seÃ±ora ofrescía su ynçienso al mesmo fuego que los thenía por dios, y tanbién o en rreuerencia del sol y de los otros dioses” (Motolinía 1996, 433; translated in Smith 2002, 98.)
28 Brumfiel 1998; Smith 2002; Brumfiel and Overholtzer 2009.