A quick look at: Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death and lord of the underworld.

Mictlantecuhtli was believed to live in Mictlan, the cold, damp and gloomy underworld of the Aztecs, or lower part of the cosmos, where the remains of humans were kept.

This Templo Mayor Museum figure of Mictlantecuhtli, which is perhaps one of the most famous representations of the god, was found in the House of Eagles. Here he wears a loincloth, and stands grinning. Some have suggested that this grin of Mictlantecuhtli, who once harassed Quetzalcoatl on his journey to the underworld, may suggest his desire to torment. His claw-like hands are posed, as though ready to attack someone.

The holes on his scalp would have once been filled with black, wavy hair -which the Aztecs associated with chaos. Parts of his flesh has been teared off, and his liver falls from his chest cavity. This organ was connected to Mictlan, and housed the Ihiyotl soul (see Aguilar-Moreno 2007, chapter 7). Recent residue analysis has found traces of human blood on the statue. 

Artefact courtesy of the Museum of the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Photos taken by Travis: oosik.

Recommended reading: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno. This is a very good overview and introduction to the Aztec culture, and expands on many of the points I briefly mentioned here.

The Mesoamerican archaeological site of Tula, located in Hidalgo, approximately 75km north of Mexico City, Mexico. 

Tula is thought to have been the historical capital of the Toltec state. Pictured in the top photo are the 16’ high colossal atlantids atop Pyramid B. These atlantids depict rulers or warriors armed with spear-throwers and darts. To date we actually still do not know a great deal about the Toltecs (their name meaning “makers of things”), whom the Aztecs claimed to have descended from.

Photos taken by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

Aztec masks.

The Walters provides an excellent overview of the significance of skeletal masks to the Mexica, which I have included below.

Throughout Mesoamerica, the wearing of masks was central to the performance of religious rituals and reenactments of myths and history. The face is the center of identity, and by changing one’s face, a person can transcend the bounds of self, social expectations, and even earthly limitations. In this transformed state, the human becomes the god, supernatural being or mythic hero portrayed.

Masks of skeletal heads, whether human or animal, are relatively common, for death played a central role in Mexica religion. Death was one of the twenty daysigns of the Mexican calendar, indicating its essential place in the natural cycle of the cosmos. Death also was directly connected to the concept of regeneration and resurrection, which was a basic principle in Aztec religious philosophy.

A key Mexica myth recounts the journey of Ehecatl, a wind god who was an aspect of Quetzalcóatl (“Feathered Serpent”), a powerful Mesoamerican deity. Ehecatl travels to Mictlán, the land of the dead, where he retrieves the bones of long-dead ancestors. He grinds their bones and mixes the powder with his blood, offered in sacrifice. With this potent mixture, the god formed the new race of humans who, according to Mexica cosmology, inhabit the present fifth age of Creation. Thus, death and rebirth are intimately connected in Aztec thought and religious practice.

The mask represents the concept of life generated from death with visages animated by lively eyes and painted skin. The mask was probably worn during rituals, covering the performer’s face or attached to an elaborate, full-head mask, and transforms the person into a new being that symbolizes the pan-Mesoamerican belief in life springing from death as a natural, and inevitable, process of the mystical universe. (Walters)

Courtesy of & currently located at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA, 2009.20.1212009.20.1.

These discs are from the collection of offerings found in El Castillo at Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico. Chichen Itza, pictured in the second photo, is a city built by the Maya people, and was one of the greatest Maya centres on the Yucatán peninsula.

The disks shown are courtesy of & currently located the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. This photo was taken by Kim F, the second is by Tony Hisgett.

The Stone of the Sun.

The one sculpture which identifies the Mexicas above all others is the Stone of the Sun, discovered in December, 1790, in the Plaza Mayor of the capital of New Spain. Because of its symbolic content, with the names of the days and the cosmogonic suns, it was incorrectly identified as the Aztec Calendar.
This is a large gladiatorial sacrificial altar, known as a temalacatl, which was not finished because of a deep crack that runs from one side to the center of the piece at the rear. Despite the fracture, it must have been used to stage the fights between warriors in the tlacaxipehualiztli ceremony.
In the design of the disk, the face of Xiuhtecuhtli - emerging from the earth hole, holding a pair of human hearts and showing his tongue transformed in a sacrificial knife - can be recognized; he is surrounded by the four suns that preceded the Fifth Sun, in turn inscribed in the sequence of the 20 day signs. framed with the figure of the Sun with its four beams symmetrically accompanied by sacrificial sharp points. The star is surrounded by two Xiuhcoatl or “Fire serpents”, which carry it across the heavens.

Courtesy of & currently located at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico. Photo & description by Travis S.

The Stone of the Sun.

The one sculpture which identifies the Mexicas above all others is the Stone of the Sun, discovered in December, 1790, in the Plaza Mayor of the capital of New Spain. Because of its symbolic content, with the names of the days and the cosmogonic suns, it was incorrectly identified as the Aztec Calendar.

This is a large gladiatorial sacrificial altar, known as a temalacatl, which was not finished because of a deep crack that runs from one side to the center of the piece at the rear. Despite the fracture, it must have been used to stage the fights between warriors in the tlacaxipehualiztli ceremony.

In the design of the disk, the face of Xiuhtecuhtli - emerging from the earth hole, holding a pair of human hearts and showing his tongue transformed in a sacrificial knife - can be recognized; he is surrounded by the four suns that preceded the Fifth Sun, in turn inscribed in the sequence of the 20 day signs. framed with the figure of the Sun with its four beams symmetrically accompanied by sacrificial sharp points. The star is surrounded by two Xiuhcoatl or “Fire serpents”, which carry it across the heavens.

Courtesy of & currently located at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico. Photo & description by Travis S.

Dogs represented in ancient Mexican art at the LACMA (Part 2)

The first dog is shown to be on a wheeled platform. This artefact is from Veracruz and dates to AD 450-650. The rest of the shown artefacts are from Colima and date to 200 BC- AD 500. The 2nd dog has a turtle shell on its back, and the final artwork shows dogs playing.

Courtesy of & currently located at the LACMA, California, USA, via their online collections (AC1996.146.40M.86.296.157, M.83.217.26, M.86.296.207). As you may have already noted, the LACMA houses a lot of really interesting art from ancient Mexico. Here is Part 1 of the dog representations. 

The presentation of captives to a Maya ruler. This is taking place within a palace throne room, as indicated by the curtains to the top of the panel.
This carved relief was found in the Usumacinta River Valley, Mexico. It dates to c. AD 785 (Late Classic), and is made of limestone. It was likely used as a lintel over an entrance, or as a wall panel within a Maya building.

The five figures are the Yaxchilan king, seated at top left, his sahal (a military chief) on the right, and three bound captives in the lower left. The glyphic text, which gives a date of 23 August 783, records the capture of a lord and a sacrificial bloodletting three days later under the auspices of the king. The three prisoners may be scribes; the one in front holds a “stick-bundle” associated with Maya scribes, and all three wear headdresses with hun (book) knots. All figures but the leftmost captive are identified by name.
The inscription on the throne front, of special interest, is carved with the king’s name and titles; the glyphs are inscribed in reverse order, from right to left. The name of the artist responsible for sculpting the relief appears on the vertical panel of four glyphs under the sahal’s outstretched arm. Signed works of Maya art are rare, and the signature on this relief suggests that it was considered of great value in its time.

Courtesy of & currently located at the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas, USA. Photo taken by FA2010, in the public domain. AP 1971.07.

The presentation of captives to a Maya ruler. This is taking place within a palace throne room, as indicated by the curtains to the top of the panel.

This carved relief was found in the Usumacinta River Valley, Mexico. It dates to c. AD 785 (Late Classic), and is made of limestone. It was likely used as a lintel over an entrance, or as a wall panel within a Maya building.

The five figures are the Yaxchilan king, seated at top left, his sahal (a military chief) on the right, and three bound captives in the lower left. The glyphic text, which gives a date of 23 August 783, records the capture of a lord and a sacrificial bloodletting three days later under the auspices of the king. The three prisoners may be scribes; the one in front holds a “stick-bundle” associated with Maya scribes, and all three wear headdresses with hun (book) knots. All figures but the leftmost captive are identified by name.

The inscription on the throne front, of special interest, is carved with the king’s name and titles; the glyphs are inscribed in reverse order, from right to left. The name of the artist responsible for sculpting the relief appears on the vertical panel of four glyphs under the sahal’s outstretched arm. Signed works of Maya art are rare, and the signature on this relief suggests that it was considered of great value in its time.

Courtesy of & currently located at the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas, USA. Photo taken by FA2010, in the public domainAP 1971.07.

Earflares from ancient Maya.

Earflares were used in ancient Maya to stretch and be worn in the ear of the user. Some of their designs are similar to today’s ear plugs or tunnels.

Worn by the elite, jade earflares were a mark of power and wealth. In ancient Maya, jade was the most precious of all stones. Wearing jade earflares, such as those displayed above, heightened the individual’s social prestige. Due to the lengthy amount of time taken to properly stretch the ear, they were also a sign of discipline and patience.

All of these artifacts are either from Mexico or Guatemala, and made of jadeite. The flower-shaped earflares in the first photo date to 550-850, while the other two date to 600-900. 

Artifacts shown courtesy of & currently located at the LACMA, USA, via their online collections (1, 2 & 3).