Making Humans, Making Gods

FIGURE 1. St. Francis receives the stigmata on the frontispiece to Alonso de Molina’s 1555 Castilian to Nahuatl _Vocabulario_.

FIGURE 1. St. Francis receives the stigmata on the frontispiece to Alonso de Molina’s 1555 Castilian to Nahuatl Vocabulario.

FIGURE 2. Tlazolteotl as costume elements on folio 12r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

FIGURE 2. Tlazolteotl as costume elements on folio 12r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

FIGURE 3. Flayed human skin in the place sign for Ehuacalco, “In the House of Skin,” on folio 10v of the Matrícula.

FIGURE 3. Flayed human skin in the place sign for Ehuacalco, “In the House of Skin,” on folio 10v of the Matrícula.

FIGURE 4. Cell 14 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

FIGURE 4. Cell 14 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

Clothing and hairstyles in today’s world are often seen as trivial and superficial.1 The word ‘superficial,’ of course, means ‘above the face’ or ‘above the surface.’ People put on clothing and craft hairstyles in order to change their outward appearance. The choices made in selecting clothing and hairstyles are one way people can express on the outside their inner natures and desires.

In other times and places, however, clothing and hairstyles were not seen as superficial. Clothing and hairstyles were often strictly regulated by social rules. Who you were determined what you could wear, and you could be punished for dressing inappropriately. Both sixteenth- century Europeans and sixteenth-century Nahuas created laws that limited certain kinds of
clothing to people born into noble families. In some cases, wearing the wrong clothes could be punishable by death. Clothes and hairstyles were expressions of broader social norms, not of individual whimsy.2

Yet clothes did more than represent the social order. Both sixteenth-century Europeans and sixteenth-century Nahuas believed that clothes and hairstyles could shape the wearer. If, today, clothes and hairstyles are often seen as expressions of one’s internal self, in the sixteenth century clothes and hairstyles were often thought to transform one’s internal self. An example of this, from the European tradition, can be seen on the frontispiece to Alonso de Molina’s 1555 Castilian to Nahuatl Vocabulario (Figure 1). There, a printed woodcut shows St. Francis kneeling and receiving a vision of Christ on the cross. Five lines connect the hands, feet, and side of St. Francis to the hands, feet, and side of Christ. The human saint is being marked with the wounds of the Passion.

As St. Francis kneels in ecstasy, he wears a distinctive costume and hairstyle. The top of his head has been shaved, leaving only a circular fringe of hair. This hairstyle is called a tonsure in English, and a corona (‘crown’) in sixteenth-century Spanish (the word tonsura is more common today). St. Francis’ body is covered in a long hooded robe, tied at the waist with a knotted cord. He does not wear shoes. This costume was referred to as a habit in English, a hábito in Spanish, and a habit in French. In all of these languages, ‘habit’ also has a second meaning, related to customary behavior. To be ‘in the habit’ of doing something, to be habituado, means doing something regularly, almost unconsciously. The connection in these three different languages between ‘habit’ as a monastic garment and ‘habit’ as a form of regular behavior is no accident. Monastic habits were thought to encourage behavioral habits. Wearing certain clothing was thought to help monks and nuns transform their inner selves. By dressing like St. Francis, Franciscan monks hoped to become like St. Francis. Habits habituated.3

Parallel beliefs in the transformational power of ‘superficial’ accoutrements existed throughout Mesoamerica. Clothes and hairstyles had the power to transform their wearers, often in radical ways. Clothes and hairstyles could shape unsexed, asocial newborns into actual human boys and girls. Clothes could also transform men and women into incarnations of the gods themselves.

According to sixteenth-century alphabetic sources, when Central Mexican children were born they were thought of as shapeless raw materials that needed to be ‘crafted’ into adults. The gender of these young beings was uncertain. Nahuatl used a number of terms to divide children into different age grades. Until adolescence, however, these terms lacked gender-specific forms. In contrast, after adolescence different terms were used to speak of the ages of men versus the ages of women.4 Similarly, Central Mexican boys and girls were given the same style of haircut until they were around ten or eleven. With the onset of adolescence, boys and girls began wear different hairstyles, further shaping them into differentiated men and women.5 Children, in other words, were not automatically considered to possess a specific gender at birth. They had to be shaped by their parents and other adults into boys and girls.

This process of ‘boying’ and ‘girling’ began very early in life. Shortly after birth, a child was ritually washed and received his or her calendrical name. (Significantly, calendrical names were shared by both men and women: they were not gender-specific; see the ‘Counting’ Nahua tutorial). As part of this bathing and naming ritual, miniature copies of adult clothing were prepared for the infant. For boys, a tiny cape and loincloth were created; for girls, a tiny skirt and blouse (huipil). After the infants were washed, and the appropriate speeches given, they were dressed in these baby-sized clothes.6 These were only temporary costumes. For many years, boys wore only a cape (without a loincloth). Girls wore only a huipil (without a skirt).7 In the years which followed, the bodies of infants were shaped in various ways. Their ears were pierced, they received articles of adult clothing, and their bodies were taught to perform tasks appropriate for men or for women. Even when adulthood was reached, the transformation of the self through the transformation of costume continued. Where young women wore their hair long, married woman tied it up into two tight buns. Young men passed through a series of military ranks, and over time they gained the privilege of wearing different hairstyles and different warrior costumes.8

Clothing and hairstyles shaped Central Mexican infants into adults, and then shaped adults into different kinds of men and women. But perhaps the most radical transformation made possible by costumes and hairstyles was one that turned humans, and often human prisoners, into manifestations of the gods. One of the central concepts in Central Mexican theology was the idea of the ixiptlatl (image, replacement, representative) or teixiptla (the image, replacement, or representative of a supernatural).9 A teixiptla could take many forms: ‘a human being, a figure of dough, or a wooden frame provided with a mask.’10 A teixiptla served as a stand-in, a representative for a divine force. By creating a teixiptla, humans were able make divine forces present on the earth.

On one level, the idea of the teixiptla is not so unusual. Many religions use statues or paintings of deities to make those deities present. But in Central Mexico, living humans could be turned into living teixiptla, animate embodiments of the supernatural. In other words, when a man or woman dressed in the clothing of a supernatural being, he or she became that supernatural. Clothing and hairstyles, then, could transform a mere human into a god or goddess. For this reason, several images from Central Mexican art depict gods and goddesses by drawing only articles of clothing. Consider folio 12r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, painted around 1562. The image drawn in the center of the page (and surrounded by an L-shaped red grid) represents the goddess Tlazolteotl (‘Filth Deity.’) Her face and body are not drawn: she is represented only by her costume elements. These include her hair, headdress, curved gold nose ornament, and black, mouth-covering face paint (Figure 2).11 What images like this reveal is that, for Central Mexicans, clothing was a medium through which the sacred could be summoned.

Another famous example of dressing as divinity involves the god Xipe Totec, ‘Our Lord the Flayed One.’ This supernatural was impersonated by skinning a sacrificial victim, and then dressing a priest in that victim’s holy skin. By covering the priest’s body in a new surface, a new skin, Xipe was made present on the earth. One of these flayed skins, yellow with a lumpy layer of fat, appears on folio 10v of the Matrícula as part of the place sign for Ehuacalco, ‘In the House of Skin’ (Figure 3).

It may seem extraordinary to think that a god or goddess could be manifested through pieces of clothing. Perhaps even stranger is that many of these living teixiptla were created to be sacrificed. Humans dressed other humans in the clothing of the gods in order to be able to sacrifice, not a human, but a god. This practice of sacrificing manifestations of the divine probably reenacted events that took place at the beginning of the present Age of Creation. Central Mexican accounts of the beginning of the world tell how the gods sacrificed themselves in order to create the sun and moon and set them in motion (These narratives are discussed in more detail in the ‘Counting’ tutorial).

As an example, the month of Toxcatl (which lasted from around May 20 to June 8) was dedicated to the god Tezcatlipoca (‘Smoking Mirror’). As part of this month’s rituals, a flawless young man was chosen and trained for a year to perform the role of the teixiptla of Tezcatlipoca.12 This role culminated in the young man-god’s sacrifice.

The rites of Tezcatlipoca during the month of Toxcatl had an important role to play in the events surrounding the conquest of Tenochtitlan. In late May of 1520, Hernán Cortés was dealing with a rebellion on the Caribbean coast. He left his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado, in charge of the European and Native American troops in the Aztec capital. Tragically, Alvarado panicked during some of the festivities performed to honor Tezcatlipoca. He ordered the massacre of hundreds of Aztec worshippers. The aftermath of this slaughter is depicted in Cell 14 of the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. The striped face of Tezcatlipoca looks to the right as Aztec warriors lead a counter-attack against the Tlaxcalans and Europeans (Figure 4). The Toxcatl massacre started a chain of events that led to the death of emperor Moctezuma II, and to the flight of the Europeans and their Native American allies from Tenochtitlan on June 30, 1520. In sum, Central Mexican costume was neither trivial nor superfluous. The following paragraphs explore this complex world of dress in more detail.

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1 The subtitle to this tutorial (Skirt, Huipil) is a translation of the sixteenth-century Nahuatl metaphor for woman: in cueitl in huipilli. See Montes de Oca Vega 1997, 35.

2 Durán 1967, vol. 2, 211-13; Sempere y Guarinos 1788, vol. 2, 1-94; Jones and Stallybrass 2000, 187-190.

3 Jones and Stallybrass 2000, 6; Asad 1993, 62-64.

4 López Austin 1988, vol. 1, 285-290.

5 Berdan and Anawalt 1992a, vol. 3, folios 58r-60r; Joyce 2000, 479-480; Hassig 1988, 31.

6 Sahagún 1969, 201-207 (chapters 38 and 39).

7 Joyce 2000, 476; McCafferty and McCafferty 1991; Berdan and Anawalt 1992a, vol. 3, folio 58r.

8 Anawalt 1992, 112-130; Hassig 1988, 31, 36.

9 Hvidtfeldt 1958; Lockhart 1992: 237-238.

10 Hvidtfeldt 1958, 97.

11 Quiñones-Keber 1995.

12 Klein 2001, 219-228.