General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
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Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Question for September 2008

Did the Aztecs mark the landscape in any way (like our cemeteries) when someone died? Asked by Morgans Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno.

Aztec death bundle, Codex Tudela, folio 60
Aztec death bundle, Codex Tudela, folio 60 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs did not exactly have cemeteries: the ashes of the dead were buried near a temple, in the countryside or on the peak of a mountain where the dead person was accustomed to offering his sacrifices. The ashes of the nobles, placed inside a coffer, were deposited in the towers that crowned the temples. In the Aztecs’ manuscripts (codices), the dead were always represented wrapped in ‘petates’ [reed mats] with their legs flexed to their chests (the so-called ‘foetal position’), making a compact package.

‘Views of a foetus in the womb’ by Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1512
‘Views of a foetus in the womb’ by Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1512 (Click on image to enlarge)

According to the ‘Anonymous Conquistador’, when the bodies were buried, they were seated on a low chair together with all of the paraphernalia of their rank or office, and then placed in a deep grave. The soldiers were buried with their shields and swords; women, with a spindle, a broom and kitchen utensils: the rich, with jewels and gold. This was why the Spaniards plundered the tombs: because of the great riches they could obtain from them.

Stone monoliths depicting Coatlicue and Tlaltecuhtli, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Stone monoliths depicting Coatlicue and Tlaltecuhtli, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The bodies of the dead, either burned or buried [generally rich people were cremated, poor people were buried], were swallowed by the earth. This means that the earth, the great mother goddess, represented by Coatlicue, took into her stomach the bodies of all the dead. This same function was performed by her male counterpart, the god Tlaltecuhtli, the monster of the earth. He is represented as a figure with an enormous open mouth with fangs, clawed hands and feet, and curly hair, wearing skulls as ornaments. The dead person’s body or ashes would remain in the earth, as nourishment for Tlaltecuhtli and Coatlicue.

Picture sources

Codex Tudela image scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002

Foetal position illustration from Wikipedia

Photos of stone figures by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore

Learn more about the ‘petate’

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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