General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Question for June 2011

Did the Aztecs carve eagles and jaguars on their drums as messengers (like the owl): the eagle as messenger to the sun, the jaguar as messenger to the underworld? Asked by Holy Trinity CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno.

Pic 1: The famous huehuetl of Malinalco
Pic 1: The famous huehuetl of Malinalco (Click on image to enlarge)

(Professor Aguilar-Moreno kindly sent us a longer, more academic answer to this question, which we’ve condensed; but it’s still pretty complicated...!)

The Huehuetl of Malinalco

In the town of Malinalco resides a wooden Mexica tlalpanhuehuetl or war drum which was still used in some ceremonies until 1894, when it was transferred to its present location in the Regional Museum of the City of Toluca (Pic 1).
This huehuetl (vertical drum) contains the date Nahui-Ollin (4-Movement). The Ollin symbol was used to represent the movement of the Sun and the dynamic life of the world. From the word ollin derives yollotl (heart) and yoliliztli (life). Inside this particular ollin symbol is a ray emanating from a solar eye and a chalchihuitl (precious stone). The Sun was considered to be the “Shining One”, the “Precious Child”, the “Jade” and “Xiuhpiltontli” (Turquoise Child). The date Nahui-Ollin alludes to Ollin-Tonatiuh, the Sun of Movement, the present world that will be destroyed by earthquakes, and to the festival of Nahui-Ollin, in which the messenger of the Sun was sacrificed.

Pic 2: Eagle and jaguar warriors depicted on the huehuetl drum from Malinalco
Pic 2: Eagle and jaguar warriors depicted on the huehuetl drum from Malinalco (Click on image to enlarge)

To one side of the date Nahui-Ollin, the artist carved the outstanding figure of an ocelotl (jaguar) and to the other a cuauhtli (eagle), both dancing (Pic 2, top). These images represent cuauhtli and ocelotl warriors, distinguished orders of the Aztec army. These warriors carry the flag of sacrifice (pamitl) and wear a headdress with heron feathers (aztaxelli), a symbol of hierarchy.

In the lower sections that support the Huehuetl, there are two more jaguar warriors and one eagle warrior (Pic 2 bottom).  From the mouths and beaks of the warriors and around their paws and claws, appears the glyph Atl-Tlachinolli, or Teuatl-Tlachinolli, which means “divine water (blood)-fire”; it signals the call of war and is sometimes represented as a song and dance of war. Atl-Tlachinolli is expressed as a metaphor in sculpture, carvings, and the codices as two intertwined rivers, one of water and the other of fire.  The stream of water ends with pearls and conches, while the stream of fire ends with the body of the xiuhcoatl (fire snake) who is emitting a flame.

Pic 3: Detail of the jaguar warrior crying
Pic 3: Detail of the jaguar warrior crying (Click on image to enlarge)

All the warriors depicted on the Huehuetl have in one of their eyes the sign atl (water), which indicates that they are crying while they sing (Pic 3). This sign reveals the duality of feelings before the sacrifice. One of the jaguar warriors has behind a paw the sign atl combined with an aztamecatl (rope), indicating that he is a uauantin (captive striped in red) who will be sacrificed on the temalacatl stone. The cuauhtli warriors have obsidian knifes (tecpatl) hanging among their feathers, symbols of human sacrifice.

A band divides the two parts of the Huehuetl and portrays shields (chimaltin) with bundles of cotton and arrows (tlacochtli), sacrificial flags (pamitl) and a continuous stream of the glyph Atl-Tlachinolli. All of these are metaphors of war and sacrifice.

Pic 4: Eagle and jaguar warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 4: Eagle and jaguar warriors, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Interestingly, the Huehuetl represents a real event in Malinalco: the festival of Nahui-Ollin, which included eagle and jaguar warriors singing, dancing, and crying. It ended with the dance of the messenger of the Sun who would be sacrificed. This event is depicted in the drum through images of Cuauhtlehuanitl (Rising Sun) and Cuauhtemoc (Setting Sun).

The Sun was considered a young warrior that every day at dawn fought in the heavens to defeat the darkness, stars and moon (metztli), using the xiuhcoatl as a weapon. In this way he ascends to the zenith, preceded by Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the morning star (Venus).

At dusk, the Sun, preceded by Xolotl, the evening star (Venus), sets in Tlillan Tlapallan, the Land of the Black and Red, and descends to the underworld transformed into a jaguar to illuminate the world of the dead. The next dawn, in an endless cycle, he will repeat his cosmic fight to bring a new day to humankind.

Pic 5: The eagle warrior ascending to the Sun
Pic 5: The eagle warrior ascending to the Sun (Click on image to enlarge)

On the center of the Huehuetl, Cuauhtlehuanitl’s face is emerging from the beak of the eagle and he has a turquoise jewel (yacaxihuitl) in his nose. Under his chin appears the sign cuicatl, that indicates that the deity ascends singing. The feathers of the eagle are stylized in a way that resembles the precious feathers of the quetzal (Pic 5).

Cuauhtlehuanitl is accompanied by the xiuhcoatl (fire snakes), who carry him during his daily cycle. They are also the embodiments of the solar rays. The heads of the xiuhcoatl featuring open mouth with fangs, solar eye and a horn can be seen. One of them has a realistic shape, while the other is portrayed with more abstraction, but shows the same characteristic elements.

The quality of the Aztec sculpture and carving applied to this Huehuetl is so precise and refined that it is comparable to the amazing and powerful expressive art of the codices.

Pic 6: Modern copy of an Aztec ‘teponaztli’ tongue drum
Pic 6: Modern copy of an Aztec ‘teponaztli’ tongue drum (Click on image to enlarge)

Teponaztli of a Feline

The teponaztli, a horizontal type of drum still in use today, was another popular instrument used by the Aztecs. The drum is a sort of double-tongued xylophone. The tongues are made out of slits positioned in a hollowed piece of wood that works as the sound box. Sticks with rubber tips served as hammers to hit the tongues, thereby producing the tones and melodies of the drum.

Pic 7: Teponaztli with feline features, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: Teponaztli with feline features, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

A teponaztli from Malinalco is in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City (Pic 7). After the Spanish conquest, the missionaries prohibited traditional indigenous ritual practices and they often destroyed artifacts belonging to those rituals, so it is fortunate that this teponaztli survives.

The animal carved on this horizontal drum is either a crouching coyote or a type of jaguar with its tail next to its left side. It could represent the nahualli (soul or double) of a coyote or jaguar warrior; however, the curls on the head of the animal have led some scholars to identify it as an ahuitzotl, or a “water-thorn beast”. Amazingly, this horizontal drum still has the original canine teeth and molars placed inside the mouth to make the animal look more realistic and ferocious.

This teponaztli points to the military and sacrificial nature of the rituals performed at Malinalco.

Pic 8: The glyph for codex on the drum (L); Aztec scribe, Codex Mendoza fol. 70r (detail, R)
Pic 8: The glyph for codex on the drum (L); Aztec scribe, Codex Mendoza fol. 70r (detail, R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-

• All photographs by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• B/W graphics scanned from our own copy of Dances of Anahuac by Gertrude Prokosch Kurath and Samuel Martí, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, New York, 1964
• Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London.

Study the Malinalco huehuetl war drum in more detail...

Learn more of the atl tlachinolli war symbol...

Learn more about the teponaztli drum...

Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno has answered 3 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs mark the landscape in any way (like our cemeteries) when someone died?

Did the Aztecs like symmetry?

Did the Aztecs carve eagles and jaguars on their drums as messengers (like the owl): the eagle as messenger to the sun, the jaguar as messenger to the underworld?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: As far as we’re aware, it’s the Mexica glyph for book or codex - see pic 8 above. In the Codex Mendoza the scribe ‘paints a document that is drawn, appropriately, in red and black. These were the colours that represented the wisdom contained in the Aztec pictorial manuscripts’ (Frances Berdan and Patricia Anawalt, The Essential Codex Mendoza, p. 227).