General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Nov 2017/6 Vulture
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.17.16 - 1797 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Presione para ir a la versión en español Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Researchers Alejandra Aguirre and Ximena Chavez

Personified knives

We are most grateful to Drs. Alejandra Aguirre and Ximena Chávez, full-time INAH researchers and archaeologists at the major Templo Mayor site, Mexico City, for writing specially for us this article on the extraordinary ‘personified knives’ adorned as deities, recently discovered within the hugely important ritual offering no. 125.

Pic 1: Offering 125: golden eagle bones and costumed knives
Pic 1: Offering 125: golden eagle bones and costumed knives (Click on image to enlarge)

The idea held by experts of the flint knives deposited in many of the ofrendas (offerings) in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan changed radically as a result of the latest excavations carried out at the foot of the staircase leading to the Templo Mayor of the Mexica capital. All this was thanks to the discovery of Offering 125, a ritual deposit in which Mexica priests had buried thousands of objects – amongst them 27 knives, decorated as deities, bearing attributes characteristic of Aztec priests and warriors.

Ofrenda 125
This ritual deposit, buried during the reign of Ahuítzotl (1486-1502CE), was found within a staircased monument representing an entrance to the underworld. Ahuítzotl was the Mexica ruler who extended the Aztec empire further than any other, thanks to his conquests of distant lands. The offering itself consists of a container of volcanic rock blocks (tezontle), in which were found 3,800 pieces, distributed over six vertical levels.

Pic 2: Archaeologists Aguirre and Chávez hard at work excavating at the Templo Mayor site
Pic 2: Archaeologists Aguirre and Chávez hard at work excavating at the Templo Mayor site (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to research carried out by archaeologists we can now describe an important ceremony undertaken by Mexica priests. After constructing the stone box, the priests placed the body of a dog adorned with necklaces and earrings. It was surrounded by 19 flint knives dressed as gods. All these items were covered by thousands of marine and fresh-water organisms, such as crustaceans, fish, shells, conches, sea urchins, corals and mollusks. These creatures represented the aquatic level of the universe, and above them the priests placed eight decorated knives, the bodies of two golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), an object made of spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) hair and three gold ornaments associated with pulque gods. At the very top they placed several fragments of copal incense and covered the box with stone slabs and a rich layer of mortar. The offering remained sealed until discovered by archaeologists more than 500 years later.

Pic 3: Sea creatures often associated in Mexica offerings with the aquatic underworld
Pic 3: Sea creatures often associated in Mexica offerings with the aquatic underworld (Click on image to enlarge)

The decorated knives from Offering 125
These extraordinary objects were found deposited both at the bottom and top of the box. As ritual offerings are, in Leonardo López Luján’s words, representations of the cosmos (‘cosmograms’), the placing of these objects on two levels may refer to their location within the universe. Hence the knives buried under the marine animals may have been placed there to represent the underworld, and those buried next to the eagles represented the heavens.

Pic 4: ‘Underworld’ knife representing Techálotl with his sceptre (L); richly decorated knife in its copal base representing Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl (R)
Pic 4: ‘Underworld’ knife representing Techálotl with his sceptre (L); richly decorated knife in its copal base representing Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Their association with different levels of the cosmos is reflected in the many differences in their adornments. The knives representing underworld figures lacked faces, possibly because dead people were depicted by the Mexica with their eyes closed. They also had very irregular copal bases – or none at all. In contrast the knives found beside the eagles, which may have represented star warriors, stood on copal bases shaped like truncated pyramids, allowing them to stay upright as if standing alone. Unlike the former, these knives bore eyes and teeth, and all carried miniature weapons made of wood, flint and shell.

Despite their differences, the knives from both layers of the box share several common features. Their apparel indicate that they were images of the gods Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, Xochipilli and Techálotl. However some of the knives bore simple garb that do not link them directly to any deity, but rather to activities relating to war or religious ceremonies.

Pic 5: Attributes of the wind god found on one of the knives depicting him in Offering 125
Pic 5: Attributes of the wind god found on one of the knives depicting him in Offering 125 (Click on image to enlarge)

The gods represented by the knives were found to be the following:-

Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl. Wind god, also associated with war. The knives that represented him bore several features characteristic of this deity. Among these are the ‘wind jewel’ or ehecacózcatl (truncated shell carried on the chest), a curved sceptre (ehecatopilli) a marine shell necklace, earrings in the shape of speech marks (epcololli) a headdress representing star eyes, the image of a bone needle made of gold leaf (symbolizing autosacrifice), monkey fur and a duck-shaped pendant – both animals identified with this god.

Pic 6: Attributes of Xochipilli found on one of the knives depicting him in Offering 125
Pic 6: Attributes of Xochipilli found on one of the knives depicting him in Offering 125 (Click on image to enlarge)

Xochipilli. God of music, flowers, games and dance. The knives representing this god were identified thanks to the oyohualli or drop-shaped pendant, made of mother-of-pearl. Although also used by other deities such as Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Ixtliltzin, Huehuecóyotl and Techálotl, it is an element most often worn by Xochipilli, and one considered to be a solar symbol carried by beings associated with music, flowers, games and dancing.

Techálotl. This god was linked to the most important ritual drink, pulque. In the codices he is depicted with an obsidian sceptre with a spherical crown, always carried by this deity.

Pic 7: The ‘anáhuatl’ shell disc with codex representation
Pic 7: The ‘anáhuatl’ shell disc with codex representation (Click on image to enlarge)

Though it was impossible to identify for sure which gods the other knives represented, we know that some depicted Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli, following clues such as the presence of a disc made of shell (anáhuatl).

Pic 8: Projectile points and other artefacts of war
Pic 8: Projectile points and other artefacts of war (Click on image to enlarge)

The remaining knives bear not so much features of deities as weapons identifying them as brave warriors – weapons such as a wooden pectoral in the form of a bow (cuauhnacochtli), a dart-thrower (atlatl), and projectile points. The first of these was used in funeral ceremonies honouring the memory of fallen nobles and soldiers, as mentioned in the work of Adrián Velázquez Castro (El simbolismo de los objetos de concha del Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán, México, INAH, 2000). For its part, whilst it was used both for hunting and in war, the dart-thrower or atlatl seems here clearly to be linked, like the projectile points, to weaponry, particularly when we take into account the other objects present.

Pic 9: Quetzalcóatl, Codex Tudela, folio 42
Pic 9: Quetzalcóatl, Codex Tudela, folio 42 (Click on image to enlarge)

Other knives bear outfits reminiscent of priests’ garb, such as in the case of three knives adorned with gourd containers used by priests to hold tobacco used in ceremonies.

Finally, some knives were almost devoid of decoration (or this was lost through the passage of time); as a result linking them to gods or particular activities simply isn’t possible.

Without doubt, the most important god to be represented on the knives was Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, one of the leading deities in the Mesoamerican pantheon of gods.

Pic 10: One of the Wind God knives from Offering 125, now on display in the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 10: One of the Wind God knives from Offering 125, now on display in the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This god was a wanderer who believed he could move seamlessly between different levels of the universe; moreover, it was he that descended to the underworld to retrieve the bones from which humanity was created. It was he that introduced the century-plant cactus, maize, and autosacrifice. He had much in common with his twin or nahualli, Xólotl, who was represented as a dog, the animal that guided human spirits towards the land of the dead, Mictlan. Just as Xólotl symbolized Venus as the evening star, Quetzalcóatl represented the morning star. We believe the knives from both offering layers represent the god of wind. The monkey was associated with Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, resembling air currents and whirlwinds with his great agility, hyperactivity, superb balance passing from tree branch to tree branch and his elongated spiral tail. One of the knives associated with the heavens bore a pendant in the form of a duck, an animal also considered to be a nahualli of this warrior god.

Pic 11: Techálotl and the distinctive sceptre found in Offering 125 beside one of the knives
Pic 11: Techálotl and the distinctive sceptre found in Offering 125 beside one of the knives (Click on image to enlarge)

Another deity personified on the knives is Xochipilli-Macuilxóchitl, patron of nobility, of palace dwellings, and of the cardinal point East. He is one of the four forms of the planet Venus and is associated with music, games, human pleasures and of drink.

Finally, another god clearly represented on the objects is Techálotl, who sometimes bears attributes of war, and sometimes ceremonial knives. This god was associated with caves, the underworld, dance and games and was considered to have a mocking character. He is identified by the sceptre he bears, and in pictographs he can be found close to a squirrel, a creature also given the name of Techálotl.

Pic 12: Detail of one of the Wind God knives, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 12: Detail of one of the Wind God knives, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

As we have shown, apart from being used in sacrificial ceremonies, flint knives were buried in offerings in order to represent different deities. Studying their presence will be of great help in understanding the meaning of these ritual deposits that were so integral to the religious practices of the Mexica.

NOTE: The restoration of the knives from Offering 125 was carried out by Ana Miramontes and Erika Robles.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo courtesy Leonardo López Luján, Proyecto Templo Mayor, Mexico City
• Pix 2 & 3: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Photo L courtesy Leonardo López Luján, Proyecto Templo Mayor, photo R by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 5, 6, 7 & 8: courtesy Alejandra Aguirre and Ximena Chávez
• Pic 9: image from the Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pix 10, 11 (far R) & 12: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 11 (main): courtesy Alejandra Aguirre and Ximena Chávez.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 27th 2011

emoticon Q. What was the name of the Wind God’s messenger?
A. Blade runner!

Aztec microphone? (Techálotl’s sceptre)

Meet Tec, our own animated Mexica character based on these knives...

Feedback button

Here's what others have said: