December 12, 2013 Raul Zamudio

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Pantheon of Mesoamerica

Ben Price

December 12, 2013

Raul Zamudio

Objects as History

Creation myths throughout Mesoamerican cultures are varied due to their oral traditions and the appropriation of Gods and myths by other Central American cultures. However, the most popular creation myth is the story of the five suns. According to myth, there have been four prior attempts to create the human race and five suns for each attempt. The first race of people was created by the first gods, the children of Ometeotl, whom created itself. Ometeotl was good and evil, male and female, light and darkness, fire and water: the god of duality. From this god came his four children who presided over the four cardinal directions. It was these four gods who eventually created all the other gods and the world as it is today. The four Tezcatlipocas descended the first people who were giants. This race was eventually eaten by jaguars due to sibling rivalry between the Gods, and was then replaced by normal sized people who were less civilized and whom stopped showing proper honor to the gods. The Gods weren’t happy so they turned the people into monkeys and blew them from the Earth with a hurricane. The next people experienced a great drought due to the sun’s grief over an adulterous wife, and then in a rage of annoyance over the prayers for rain he heard from the people on earth, he rained fire down upon the people. The next sun cried blood for the next fifty-two years due to an insult by the previous sun, causing a horrific flood that drowned everyone on Earth. Quetzalcoatl would not accept the destruction of his people and went to the underworld where he stole their bones from the god Mictlantecuhtli. He dipped these bones in his own blood to resurrect his people, who reopened their eyes to a sky illuminated by the current sun, Huitzilopochtli (Miler and Taube).

There are four major Gods involved in creation of mankind and the universe. Tlaloc is the deity of water, fertility and storm; Quetzalcoatl rules priests, merchants, the wind and transgressions between the earth and the sky; Tezcatlipoca is the omnipotent deity of rulers, sorcerers and warriors; and Huitzilopochtli reigns as the supreme deity of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan: the deity of sun, fire, war and the ruling lineage (Miller and Taube). The Aztecs are known for showing their appreciation for the gods by honoring them with a blood sacrifice or the sacrifice of a human soul. The sun, Huitzilopotchli, is offered the nourishment of human sacrifices along with Tezcatlipoca in fear of his judgment. Quetzalcoatl opposes fatal sacrifices, and so he is offered blood in thanks of his blood sacrifice for them. Many other gods receive sacrifices for other reasons such as the harvest or for fertility purposes; however, if these sacrifices cease, or if mankind fails to please the gods for any other reason, the fifth sun will go black, the world will be shattered by a catastrophic earthquake, and the Tzitzimitl, the gods of the stars, will slay Huitzilopochtli and all of humanity (Miller and Taube). In order to stay away from the destruction of the fifth sun, the ancient people of Central America participate in elaborate rituals and morbid ceremonies that would hopefully ensure their continued existence.

The religious practices of Mesoamerica are very unique to the world. Traditions of blood-letting, human sacrifice, and magic are very macabre and mysterious, yet they are forms of worship none the less that were well-respected and practiced for centuries. The Aztecs were particularly fond of violence for the sake of religion. Usually after a battle, those who were left alive as prisoners of war were taken to the capital and sacrificed in honor of Huitzilopotchli. One 15th century burial site at the Great Aztec Temple in Mexico City holds the remains of forty two children whom were sacrificed as a precious offering to the rain god Tlaloc. Many shrines and statues would be covered in human and animal blood as decoration, and there are numerous stories of people dressing in suits of flayed skin and bleeding out infants (Carrasoc). Tenochitlan itself was designed based upon religious ideals of order and hierarchy with an emphasis on sacrifice and shamanism. The four cardinal directions, ruled by the four Tezcatlipocas, were divided in the city by each deity’s power. The underworld was represented in the northern half, and many structures and buildings related to the underworld, such as tombs, are often found in the city's northern half. The southern part represented life, sustenance and rebirth and often contained structures related to the continuity and daily function of the city-state (Carrasco). Ceremonial death and the architecture of the underworld were very important socially, religiously, and politically. It inspired both fear and awe in the people and constructed order within the hierarchy of the Aztec kingdom. A sort of mystical, cosmological, magic was emphasized in Mesoamerican religion as well. Sacrifice held mystical power with the Aztec people, and it was believed that through a sort of magical battle between good and evil, sacrifice would save the earth from destruction (Faiella). Religions across the world are filled with magic, but human sacrifice is unique. Martyrs and religious war fill the pages of the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran, yet the mass sacrifice of enemy soldiers, women, children, and animals is unique to Mesoamerica.

Many artworks depict sacrifice, magic, and the levels of the underworld through etchings, reliefs, and sculptures. For example, the 15th century stone statue “Earth Monster” (fig. 1) depicts the great sea creature that allegedly holds the earth upon its back, according to many Mesoamerican cultures. This design shows the monster in a splayed position with its mouth gaping open with a split tongue lolling out and a sacrificial knife held between its teeth. According to legend sacrificial victims were devoured by the monster, and it supposedly devoured the sun every day at dawn. The monsters legs are in a position that was assumed by Aztec women and is considered symbolic of fertility. The monster is a terrifying bringer of death as well as a symbol for life and the caretaker of the world (Heilbrunn). Religious and mythological subjects pervaded almost all art and forms of design throughout Mesoamerica. Many were very anthropomorphic in appearance which shows the pull towards the magical and fantastic along with the grotesque. Combining parts of animals, humans, and magic is a common theme in Mesoamerican religion and shows the duality between man, nature and spirit. This type of creature is most prolific throughout the Americas during this time in the form of the feathered serpent deity. This was believed to be the embodiment of the underworld as well as a ruling deity in both Aztec and Mayan cultures, and he is accredited with the creation of mankind. In Aztec culture, Quetzalcoatl, or the feathered serpent deity, relates to both the god and as a title for the twin Aztec high priests. Quetzalcoatl is associated with light, mercy, wind, and justice. His appearance and importance varies throughout all of Mesoamerica but it remains clear that the feathered serpent is phenomenally important in Mesoamerican culture in general. The fact that his form is carved into the side of a bowl from the 6th century (fig. 2), which was used in daily life by people of high social status, shows that this deity was so ingrained in their culture that even their plates and cutlery were embossed with his image (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The final piece (fig. 3) is another example of cutlery in Aztec culture. The sacrificial knife is made of chalcedony, a form of silica, with a carved wood handle that is decorated with a finely laid mosaic of four different types of shell, malachite, and turquoise. The mosaic decorates the carved wooden man and turns him into an eagle warrior, a prestigious order of warriors known as the “fighters of the daytime”. However, the hafting is too shallow to be used for any functional purpose, so its ceremonial use must have been symbolic (British Musuem). All three pieces of art are related to death and violence while also containing religious mythological elements. This duality of sacred violence, light and dark, peace and war, comes through all aspects of Mesoamerican art and culture.

Even the afterlife of Mesoamerican culture lacks any semblance of distinction between good and evil, such as seen in Christian ideology. The underworld, according to many cultures, is supposedly the exact opposite of the world above with a niche for everyone, except for those that died violently. The Mayans referred to it as Xibalba, or “place of fright”, and believed that it connected to the earth through caves. The underworld represents the dark, dank, terrifying, and violent side of the cosmological coin of Mesoamerica. It is believed that without the underworld the universe would be thrown into disorder and the earth would stagnate (Read and Gonzalez). Life cannot exist without death. In Mayan legend, the hero twins travel to the underworld in order to conquer death, and they themselves end up sacrificing themselves multiple times and eventually become the sun and moon. Both the sun and the moon disappear below for half of the day and travel through the sky during the other half. The two realms are inextricably linked (Read and Gonzalez). This universal contrast is reflected in all religious beliefs of the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, and Toltec people. Violence leads to fertility and peace, sacrifice results in life, and darkness is essential for light to exist. This idea starkly contrasts with Christian concepts of good and evil being starkly separated and other religions such as Islam that simply renounce evil. The ancient religions of Central America are dark and morbid and they celebrate death and human sacrifice and blood letting, yet they also see that these are essential for the rejuvenation of the earth and the appreciation for life and peace. Whether it was wise or sadistic will remain a point of debate, but it is hard not to see the beauty of the Mesoamericans recognition of the paradox of man and all his flaws.

Works Cited

  1. Miller, Mary Ellen., and Karl A. Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

This book was in the library and gave a very interesting illustrated account of Mesoamerican mythology. The New School and NYU only carry credible, peer-edited journals so I believe this to be reliable.

  1. Faiella, Graham. Mesoamerican Mythology. New York: Rosen Central, 2006. Print.

This book gave me further info on Mesoamerican mythology and is a edited, published, and reliable text.

  1. Carrasco, David. City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization. Boston: Beacon, 1999. Print.

Ritual violence and the play of religion in Mesoamerican society was highly documented in this book and comes from a reputable source.

  1. Read, Kay Almere., and Jason J. González. Mesoamerican Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs of Mexico and Central America. New York [u.a.: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

More information on Mesoamerican Mythology was provided in this text. Oxford is a very trustworthy and academic source for scholarly information.

  1. "Earth Monster Relief.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History [Mexico; Aztec] (00.5.36). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2006. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is always reliable and well-researched in its accounts of history and analysis of art so the information provided for this piece was very helpful and well backed-up.

  1. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Carved Bowl." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is always reliable and well-researched in its accounts of history and analysis of art so the information provided for this piece was very helpful and well backed-up.

  1. "Knife with a Mosaic Handle and a Chalcedony Blade." British Museum. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

The British Museum is a very good source for art and art history and helped me in my research of tools used for ceremony and sacrifice.

Fig. 1

carved bowl

fig. 2 fig. 3

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