General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Aztec Tlaloc pot

Potty about pots

Most children in the UK are now familiar with party piñatas; but even if you can find a good ‘proper’ one made of papier maché, few are aware that the oldest Mexican piñatas were always made of paper-covered pots... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Traditional Mexican piñata-breaking
Traditional Mexican piñata-breaking (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City is the suggestion that piñata-breaking could go back to the days of the Aztec rain-god clay pots (with the face of Tlaloc on the front): on major festive days dedicated to the twin gods of water and rain, the tlaloque (servants of Tlaloc) filled these pots with water and proceeded to invoke rain and fertility by upturning them and emptying the contents over the earth below. The manuscript Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas records that, if (accidentally) broken, the noise ‘sounded like thunder’. The famous English author D H Lawrence described a storm in Mexico (in The Plumed Serpent) like this: ‘Down came the rain with a smash, as if some great vessel had broken.’ Several of these pots (usually containing jade beads and amaranth or chía seeds) have been found in recent years, intact but almost always lying on their side, near the Templo Mayor.

Clay Aztec pots in the Templo Mayor museum, Mexico City
Clay Aztec pots in the Templo Mayor museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In pre-Hispanic days pots were believed almost to be sacred: they had the power to store and bear life and the elements that make life possible - they could represent the warm, wet interior of a mother’s womb or even the moon, which was often compared to a giant pot containing the sacred drink pulque (a gift from the gods).

Whilst it would be naive to claim any pre-Hispanic ancestry for the piñata - for which we have no evidence - the parallel between symbolically and ritually emptying Aztec rain pots and the practice of upturning (unbroken) piñatas - originally made of clay pots - in an equally symbolic and evocative act of sharing remains an appealing and intriguing one...

Thanks to Dr. Leonardo López Lujan for contributing valuable information on this topic.

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

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Mexicolore replies: Intriguing, Ana! Many thanks for offering this insight.