General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Where were deerskin strap masks worn?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Jules Haldenby: My daughter is learning about Aztecs at school this year and she would like to know how the masks that have deerskin straps attached to them were actually worn; did they actually wear them on their faces or on top of their head or elsewhere?? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Turquoise skull mask of Tezcatlipoca, British Museum
Turquoise skull mask of Tezcatlipoca, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

We assume you’re thinking here of the famous turquoise mosaic mask usually associated with the creator god Tezcatlipoca, in the Mexico Gallery of the British Museum. This mask was made from a real human skull and has two long deerskin straps attached to it. Experts believe that these were used to tie the mask around the waist, at the back, and that the wearer was probably an impersonator of the god - a common feature of Aztec festivals. The evidence for this comes from codices, such as the Telleriano-Remensis and the Zouche-Nuttall. On page 39 of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall (a Mixtec manuscript held at the British Museum) is a depiction of a godlike figure wearing a skull mask exactly this way.

Codex Zouche-Nuttall (folio 39) showing a skull mask worn on the back of a deity
Codex Zouche-Nuttall (folio 39) showing a skull mask worn on the back of a deity (Click on image to enlarge)

This doesn’t mean that all masks were worn in this way. Masks were often placed over funerary bundles of rulers to represent the godlike features of the rulers themselves: in ancient Mexico masks often represented the boundary between the ‘real world’ and ‘the invisible world of ancestor spirits and deities’. Stone, clay and wooden masks were used in religious rituals inside temples. Several world-famous pre-Hispanic masks made of turquoise and other precious materials such as gold and jade have survived to this day (the British Museum houses some of the best!) and they indicate that the peoples of ancient Mexico must have placed huge importance on masks generally. Religious uses of masks were certainly high up on the list, but they were also worn in warfare - to impress and scare enemy warriors.

Re-enactment of Aztec funeral ceremony, Templo Mayor Museum, by the group Amoxpoani
Re-enactment of Aztec funeral ceremony, Templo Mayor Museum, by the group Amoxpoani (Click on image to enlarge)

Another use to which masks were put was protection - from bad spirits and illnesses. If you click on the link below and visit our Mexican Masks gallery you will see at the top an image from the Aztec New Fire Ceremony in which spectators (in particular pregnant women) of this all-important ritual that happened every 52 years wore maguey-fibre masks to avoid being harmed by the forces of darkness at this critical time.

Further info:-
Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico by Colin McEwan, Andrew Middleton, Caroline Cartwright & Rebecca Stacey, British Museum Press, 2006
Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1980

Picture sources:-
• Tezcatlipoca mask © The Trustees of the British Museum
• Codex Zouche-Nuttall image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Photo of funerary bundle with members of Amoxpoani by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

Our Mexican Masks photo gallery

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