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Quetzalcoatl doing penance and blood-letting, Florentine Codex Book 3

Synchronized blood-letting

“Like father, like son’, as the saying goes...
If Christians developed over the centuries what some would call an obsessive, indeed scary, legacy of guilt - based on the idea of ‘original sin’ - the Mexica were obsessed in a different way with the concept of what Professor James Maffie calls ‘original debt’: owing their very existence to the sacred (‘teotl’), they were obliged from birth to offer their (our) most precious liquid, blood, to the world of the sacred. Through ‘auto-sacrifice’ they constantly strove to pay the gods back for the gift of life. In this image from Book 3 of the Florentine Codex Quetzalcóatl does penance by piercing his leg with a cactus spine. Aztec novice priests took this duty VERY seriously indeed... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Bran Flakes? No! Bowl of cactus spines used in Aztec self-sacrifice, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Bran Flakes? No! Bowl of cactus spines used in Aztec self-sacrifice, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

As part of their tough training, young Aztec priests ended up pricking themselves with painful regularity, following a schedule that some scholars believe was set long ago by the steady movements of the stars in the night sky. Trainee priests didn’t sleep too well at night, that’s for sure: the twelve hours of night were divided into six watches of roughly two hours each. During the course of 24 hours, at each of the 18 Feasts in the year, penance had to be paid - ie blood let - a total of seven times during the night and five in the day. One Franciscan friar known as Motolinía managed to work out that, over his four-year period of training, a young priest would end up getting through 17,280 cactus spines! That’s a hell of a lot of skin-piercing... so how did he work it out?

Carrying a load of cactus spines, Codex Mendoza folio 62r
Carrying a load of cactus spines, Codex Mendoza folio 62r (Click on image to enlarge)

First, two more useful facts: no thorn could be used twice, and a fresh spine had to be used - and blood offered - for each of the four cardinal directions of the earth. OK, so here’s the maths:-
• 17,280 spines ÷ 4 years = 4,320 spines per year
• 4,320 spines ÷ 18 Feasts = 240 spines per Feast
• 240 spines ÷ 4 directions = 60 spines per direction
• 60 spines ÷ 12 times per day = 5 spines each time.

Now, were those five piercings done on five different parts of the body? Or made by different thorns each time (apparently some cactus spines have four thorns on them)? Did the regular pricking in some way run in sympathy with the movement of stars in the sky (according to Aztec informants after the Conquest, it was the constellations [of stars] that decided how and when the thorns should be applied)? And was this rhythm linked in some way, in Professor Gordon Brotherston’s words, to ‘the schedule that synchronized heartbeats with the coursing of the stars above’? Thorny questions indeed... What do you think?

A young helper carries ‘other things for the sacrifice’ (what do you think they are?) behind a fully-fledged Mexica priest, Codex Mendoza folio 63r
A young helper carries ‘other things for the sacrifice’ (what do you think they are?) behind a fully-fledged Mexica priest, Codex Mendoza folio 63r (Click on image to enlarge)

Each thorn, by the way, was soaked in the priest’s blood, and then kept in large sacrificial balls of straw, ‘as a visible symbol of the priests’ devotion’ (Berdan & Rieff Anawalt). Not surprisingly, the Spanish were amazed to find huge numbers of these thorns ‘so carefully kept and preserved’.
All in all, yet more evidence for the fact that the Mexica felt duty bound to make offerings to the gods, to Nature, to the sacred - teotl - as constant gestures of thanks, aware that, whilst on earth, ‘humans must live in balance and harmony with the forces of nature’ (Maffie).
Sounds to us like a lot healthier a concept than guilt, that’s for sure...

Info sources:-
• Brotherston, Gordon: Feather Crown: The Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year, British Museum Research Publications, 2005
• Maffie, James: We Eat of the Earth then the Earth Eats Us: The Concept of Nature in Pre-Hispanic Nahua Thought, Colorado State University, n.d.
• Berdan, Frances and Rieff Anawalt, Patricia The Codex Mendoza Vol. II, University of California Press, 1992.

Picture sources:-
• Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Bowl of cactus spines: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, 1938.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 13th 2011

emoticon Q. What was the worst thing to call a Mexica trainee priest?
A. Spineless!

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