General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Mar 2019/13 Lizard
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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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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Here Professor Aguilar-Moreno is writing about Aztecs in general. With regard to the bodies of sacrificial victims, things get complicated! Remember there were several different forms of ‘human sacrifice’ among the Mexica, each with its own rituals and meaning, and your fate as a victim could depend on your status (for a start, the bodies of high-ranking enemy warriors would be cremated rather than buried). Prof A-M explains more in his book ‘Handbook to Life in the Aztec World’:-
’The sacrifice ended with another sequence of rituals. First, an effigy [to a deity] was offered nourishment, then the bodies of the victims were thrown down a stairway. Next, the heads of ixiptla (god impersonators) were cut off and placed on the tzompantli (skull racks). Some victims were then skinned and used to dress xixipeme (warriors who wore their captives’ skins, emulating the god Xipe Totec). After this the bodies were offered to the ritual priests.
’Bodies of the sacrificed were prepared and cooked under very strict procedures and shared in a banquet. This cannibalistic event was a deeply religious and spiritual occasion where family and relatives were invited and honoured. It was a time for socialising with distinguished members of the community and for increasing one’s prestige... This was done with the belief that it was actually the gods partaking of the sacrificial victim through their human manifestations and was therefore an opportunity to commune with the gods.’
In some festival rituals, victims’ bodies were placed in earthenware jars and dedicated to particular deities. Lisa Overholtzer gives one example in ‘The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs’:-
’17 of the 30 juveniles (and one adult) sacrificed to Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl at the civic ceremonial complex at Tlatelolco during the 1454-1457 drought were buried inside large cooking jars that were often covered with upturned... dishes and basins’. Very likely the cooking jar was perceived as a hollow, dark and humid place akin to a womb or cave - particularly sacred spaces for the Aztecs.