General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
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Aztec wedding ceremony illuminated by pine resin torches

Pine torch

The Spanish chroniclers left vivid descriptions of brightly burning, sizzling pine torches illuminating Mexica (Aztec) rituals and ceremonies - from weddings to major monthly festivals... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Woman torch bearer at an Aztec wedding; Codex Mendoza, fol. 61r (detail)
Pic 1: Woman torch bearer at an Aztec wedding; Codex Mendoza, fol. 61r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The main image above is a detail from folio 61r of the Codex Mendoza, depicting the most important event in a Mexica (Aztec) woman’s life - her wedding (usually at the age of 15). The wedding ceremony would begin at night with a torch-lit procession in which the bride would be carried on the back of a matchmaker to the house of the bridegroom.
Each woman bears a tlepilli, or ‘large bundle of resinous pine for illuminating’. A pine torch was in effect the only form of lighting in Aztec homes. The Codex Mendoza tells us that pine torches were delivered to the Aztec capital from the northern province of Atotonilco el Grande, probably in large quantities, as Spanish chroniclers such as Durán and Sahagún noted that ‘immense quantities’ of pine splinters were brought to Mexica festivals, and that ‘great thick torches’ were made of them.

Pic 2: bundles of ‘ocote’ pine splinters, still used today in Mexico for fire starters
Pic 2: bundles of ‘ocote’ pine splinters, still used today in Mexico for fire starters (Click on image to enlarge)

The pine tree in question was the ocotl (ocote in Mexican Spanish), a species of conifer native to Mexico and Central America, described in the Florentine Codex as ‘tender, very verdant... it is a provider of light, a means of seeing, a resinous torch’. The flammable resin drops from it are said to burn and sputter, and the description the Codex gives of warriors carrying heavy pine torches in the festival of Huey Tecuilhuitl (Feast of the Great Lords) is nothing if not graphic:-
[The torches] went burning, they went sputtering, they went crackling. And as the young seasoned warriors carried them in their arms, they were much weighed down... And the resin, as it were, fell in large drops, and the live coals went scattering one by one on the ground, went spreading... And the [charred] pine fell bit by bit to the ground...

Pic 3: Examples of pine torches depicted in Mexican codices: Primeros Memoriales fol 252v (L), Telleriano-Remensis fol. 29r (centre), Vaticanus A fol. 84v (R)
Pic 3: Examples of pine torches depicted in Mexican codices: Primeros Memoriales fol 252v (L), Telleriano-Remensis fol. 29r (centre), Vaticanus A fol. 84v (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

So easy to burn are resin-impregnated ocote splinters that they are often used today as firelighters. Bob Mrotek, an American with long experience of living in Mexico, writes on his blog:-
In the old days people used to light their streets with a handful of ocote resin impregnated sticks interspersed with dried ribs of the organ cactus and tied in a bundle. They would attach this to a post and it would burn for two or three hours with enough light for the people to see their way. They would also use a handful of burning ocote as an old time “flashlight” when walking down a dark path.

Pic 4: Monument to ‘El Pípila’, Guanajuato
Pic 4: Monument to ‘El Pípila’, Guanajuato (Click on image to enlarge)

Every Mexican child knows the legendary story of a brave miner known as El Pípila who helped speed up Mexican Independence from Spain by single-handedly burning down the doors of a Spanish garrison in Guanajuato, under withering musket fire from the Spanish soldiers, with the judicious use of ocote pine shavings. Follow his story below...

One thing that we can’t represent visually here is the rich aroma of ocote pine - hardly uppermost in the thoughts of El Pípila a couple of centuries ago, but used today as a selling point on the internet in adverts for ocote firelighters. You’ll just have to go to Mexico to get the full ‘flavour’...

NOTE: It’s interesting that the Mexica, whose language Náhuatl was full of metaphors and poetry, defined a tlamatini (wise man) as ‘a light, a torch, a stout torch that [illuminates but] does not smoke...’

Sources:-
The Essential Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia R. Anawalt, University of California Press, London, 1997
Florentine Codex Books 2 and 11, translated from the Aztec into English, with notes and illustrations, by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1963
Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Photo of bundles of ocote splinters from http://mexicobob.blogspot.co.uk/
• 3 small images of pine torches from codices - please look for references to these (facsimile edition sources - see pic caption) elsewhere on this site
• Photo of monument: from Wikipedia.

Learn about the ocote tree (Pinus Montezumae)
Learn about El Pípila’s story
Learn more about how ocote is still used today in Mexico
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