General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Nov 2017/7 Movement
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See you later, Alligator...

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To the Aztecs, Mother Earth was not only a god(dess) but also a gigantic living creature: to some a fantastic giant toad armed with tusks and fierce claws, to others a monster alligator, floating in a huge sea, whose spiny back formed the world’s mountain ridges.
‘Alligator’ is Number One in the cycle of twenty calendar or day signs in the Aztecs’ sacred calendar.
The Earth was sacred, the very centre of the Aztec world, with the power both to give life (to humans, animals and crops) and to take it away...
While the earth monster slept, humans enjoyed the fruits of the earth - look for the ears of maize growing from the back of the monster!
When, however, the creature awoke and stretched, the Aztecs experienced sudden, deadly movements in the earth itself - earthquakes!
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Aztec calendar daysign for Alligator

See you later, Alligator...

To the Aztecs, Mother Earth was not only a deity (with both male and female aspects) but also a gigantic living creature: to some* a fantastic giant toad armed with tusks and fierce claws, to others* a monster alligator/caiman, floating in a huge sea covered by water lilies, whose spiny back formed the world’s mountain ridges, and whose sign (main picture) was, appropriately, Number One in the cycle of twenty calendar or day signs. The Earth was sacred, the very centre of the Aztec world, with the power both to give life (to humans, animals and crops) and to take it away... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Corn - ‘backbone’ of the Mexican diet... (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 27)
Pic 1: Corn - ‘backbone’ of the Mexican diet... (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 27) (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the (horizontal) earth space itself was called in the Aztec language of Náhuatl cem-anáhuac (‘the place surrounded by water’), the name for the giant earth creature was cipactli. Whilst the earth monster was asleep, humans enjoyed the fruits of the earth - ears of maize can clearly be seen growing from the back of the monster in the Codex Borgia image (Pic 1). When, however, the creature awoke and stretched, the Aztecs experienced sudden, deadly movements in the earth itself - in other words, earthquakes.

Pic 2: The figure of Cipactli, Codex Borgia, plate 21
Pic 2: The figure of Cipactli, Codex Borgia, plate 21 (Click on image to enlarge)

Even today, Zapotec Indians call the caimán the pichijlla, meaning ‘the spiny one’. According to Donald Cordry, a renowned 20th century ethnographer and expert on Mexican masks, The Indian names for the earth monster assume great importance in relationship to modern Caiman masks when one notices that the Caiman step-in figures in the Caiman Dance in Guerrero have spines from the pochote [also known as the ‘silk-cotton’ or Ceiba] tree on their backs that are remarkably similar to the representation of the spines growing from the back of the cipactli, and Caiman masks also have pochote spines. From certain drawings in the codices, one wonders whether effigies [figures] in pre-Hispanic times were made using pochote spines as now.

Pic 3: The thorny Ceiba tree, considered by the Maya as the central world tree
Pic 3: The thorny Ceiba tree, considered by the Maya as the central world tree (Click on image to enlarge)

Being the giant spikes of the earth monster, mountains held a special meaning for the Aztecs: forming part of a sacred landscape, mountains were the source of the earth’s life force, food and sustenance. The Aztec word for city, altépetl means ‘water mountain’ or water-producing mountain, and spells out the deep awareness and sensitivity the Aztecs showed for the close links between key forces in their natural world. Our understanding today of the ‘food chain’ and the ‘water cycle’ is rooted firmly in the wisdom of ancient peoples, who were only too aware of the cyclical forces at the heart of our universe.

Pic 4: ‘In a while, crocodile...’
Pic 4: ‘In a while, crocodile...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

As the giver of life, the Earth was also, in Manuel Aguilar-Moreno’s words ‘the ultimate recipient of all that grows and moves on the surface.’ Everything that emerged from the earth eventually and inevitably returned back to it, in a never-ending cycle of giving and taking, living and dying, feeding and being fed by, breathing in and breathing out...

Pic 5: A corn ‘tree’ that symbolizes the axis mundi, a sacred point that pierces and connects the heavens, earth and underworld (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 53
Pic 5: A corn ‘tree’ that symbolizes the axis mundi, a sacred point that pierces and connects the heavens, earth and underworld (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 53 (Click on image to enlarge)

In Picture 5, from the Codex Borgia, a large green maize plant produces ears of corn as its fruit. The tree grows out of the earth monster alongside two huge ears of corn. The figures of two gods perform self-sacrifice on either side, spilling blood onto the base of the tree. The whole image beautifully illustrates the idea of ‘the people feed the earth their blood and their bodies, and in return the earth feeds the people by yielding maize’.
Above it, a human figure descends into the mouth of the earth monster (with a particularly rectangular, architectural look about it).

Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Deities of the earth were closely ‘related’ to deities of night and death, since life and death were - and are - inseparable: one look at Tlaltecuhtli shows his hair curled just like the gods that ruled over the world of the dead; and, as Alfonso Caso writes Centipedes, scorpions, spiders, serpents and other nocturnal and poisonous creatures which were constant companions of the gods of death generally are shown in the god’s hair. In a similar way, the colossal statue of the earth goddess Coatlicue (‘lady of the skirt of serpents’) (discovered by the Spanish close to the Sunstone at the heart of Mexico City in 1790 - and quickly reburied by them!) is a fantastic portrayal of the all-important dual function of the earth as creator and destroyer. (More on Coatlicue another time...)

Pic 7: Tlaltecuhtli (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, plate 16)
Pic 7: Tlaltecuhtli (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, plate 16) (Click on image to enlarge)

Images of Tlaltecuhtli - similar to the one in Picture 6 - were often carved on the undersides of Aztec monuments so that they would face directly, and reflect, the surface of the Earth Monster itself. The great earth deity, both male and female, was commonly shown in a squatting position with knees bent, similar to the traditional position of native Mexican women giving birth. The open jaws of the monster, ready to consume its victims - described by Esther Pasztory as ‘one of the most powerful images of Aztec art’ - were imagined to be the entrance to the underworld, and the Sun Tonatiuh was believed to be devoured by the Earth Monster every evening - to be reborn thankfully the next morning out of the Monster’s womb.

Pic 8: Great statue of Coatlicue, Earth Goddess, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 8: Great statue of Coatlicue, Earth Goddess, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

According to the person’s status, an Aztec’s dead body would either be cremated or buried, so returning finally to the interior, to the womb, of Mother Earth. The body or ashes stayed in the soil, nourishing and feeding Tlaltecuhtli/Coatlicue, whilst the soul generally travelled to one of four paradises or final resting places, determined largely by the way in which the person had died. For most, the journey to the underworld (Mictlan) was long and hard, and involved a series of 9 obstacles or challenges, each governed by one of the nine Lords of the Night - seen by some scholars as matching the 9 months/moons of human pregnancy, but in reverse, a return journey, the completion of the cycle. As my grandson Luca would say ‘We made it, Nana!’ Home sweet home!

Pic 9: A quail’s head in the jaws of the earth monster (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 71)
Pic 9: A quail’s head in the jaws of the earth monster (adapted from the Codex Borgia, plate 71) (Click on image to enlarge)

*The Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas depicts the earth as the ginormous spiny monster Cipactli, whereas the Historia Eclesiástica Indiana by Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta depicts it as the giant toad Tlaltecuhtli, that ‘swallows the sun in the evening and spews it forth at dawn’. Both are respected 16th century sources.

Sources/further reading:-
Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry (University of Texas Press, 1980)
The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso (University of Oklahoma Press, 1958)
The Flayed God, the Mythology of Mesoamerica by Roberta H. Markman & Peter T. Markman (Harper Collins, 1992)
Aztec and Maya Myths by Karl Taube (British Museum Press, 1993)
Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (Facts on File, 2006)
The Codex Borgia by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers (Dover Publications, 1993)
Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory (Harry N. Abrams, 1983)
The Mask of Death by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (GV Editores, 1988)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: illustration designed exclusively for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 1: scanned from ‘Los Días y los Dioses del Códice Borgia’ by Krystyna M. Libura, Ediciones Tecolote, 2000, p. 10
• Pic 2: scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 3: from Wikipedia (Ceiba)
• Pic 4: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: scanned from ‘The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993 (Plate 53)
• Pic 6: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 7: scanned from ‘The Aztecs, People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso (lllustrations by Miguel Covarrubias), University of Oklahoma Press, 1958, p. 52
• Pic 8: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 9: scanned from ‘The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993 (Plate 71)

emoticon When the great earth monster Cipactli awoke and stretched - causing the earth to quake - Aztec parents rushed to stretch their children quickly by the neck, to encourage them to grow!

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