You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Apr 2017/8 Dog
Text Size:

Screen with scenes from the conquest of Mexico - Aztec musicians and dancers in a canoe

Click to see the latest Artefact in the Spotlight!

link of the month button
What IS the origin of the term ‘Maya’?
Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.7.10 - 1591 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!

Dr. Caroline Dodds Pennock

Did they allow divorce? asked Ibstock Place School. Read what Dr. Caroline Dodds Pennock had to say.

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article more suitable for mature students

Mexicolore contributor Professor Cecelia Klein

Aztec Masks

We are honoured and privileged to be able to upload this second fascinating essay written specially for us by Dr. Cecelia F. Klein, Professor Emerita of Art History at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).

Pic 1: Stone sculpture of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, British Museum
Pic 1: Stone sculpture of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Like many Mesoamerican peoples, the Aztecs headquartered in Central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest made extensive use of masks. They were, in other words, what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss termed a “mask culture.” Early colonial period writers describe numerous Aztec events involving masks as well as many different ways in which masks were put to use. Some of these are depicted in early colonial period painted manuscripts and book illustrations, and a number of pre-conquest Aztec stone statues represent masked beings as well (pic 1). Confirmation of the importance of masks in Aztec culture comes from the dozens of surviving Aztec masks in museums today, the majority being in Mexico City, which lies atop the ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Mexican mask collections have been greatly augmented since 1978 by the dozens of masks found in dedicatory offerings excavated from the foundations of the former Templo Mayor, or “Great Temple”. Because the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan was the largest and most sacred Aztec temple-pyramid in the Valley of Mexico, the presence of so many masks among the offerings buried there proves that masks, whether they were large or small, new or ancient, were highly valued by the Aztecs.

Pic 2: Turquoise mosaic serpent mask of Tlaloc, British Museum
Pic 2: Turquoise mosaic serpent mask of Tlaloc, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Masks were valuable because they were thought to be powerful. They derived some of their power from the materials used to make them. The most powerful and prestigious masks were made of the rarest, most costly materials. Of greatest value was turquoise, which was often cut by mask makers into small pieces (Greek: tesserae) which were then glued onto a wood backing, a technique known as turquoise mosaic (pic 2). Turquoise, like jadeite and greenstone, was thought to attract moisture; it symbolized breath and thus life itself. The Nahuatl word for turquoise was xihuitl but the very finest turquoise was called teoxihuitl, which incorporates the word for divinity or that which is sacred, teotl. Aztecs interviewed by the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún described teoxihuitl as “the property, the lot, of the god.”

Pic 3: Detail of Codex Mendoza, folio 40, showing tribute items in turquoise, including “10 faces” (masks)
Pic 3: Detail of Codex Mendoza, folio 40, showing tribute items in turquoise, including “10 faces” (masks) (Click on image to enlarge)

Although there is reason to suspect that there was at least one local source of turquoise in the Basin of Mexico, most, if not all of it had to be obtained from communities in southern and western Mexico, which imported it from mines in the southwestern United States and, to lesser extent, northern Mexico. The Codex Mendoza shows us that turquoise reached Tenochtitlan as tribute paid in the form of both raw material and already crafted turquoise masks (pic 3).

Pic 4: Small jadeite mask, 11.4 cm., Museum für Volkerkunde, Basel
Pic 4: Small jadeite mask, 11.4 cm., Museum für Volkerkunde, Basel (Click on image to enlarge)

Jadeite, used for some smaller masks and maskettes, also came to Tenochtitlan from a considerable distance away, perhaps conveyed by traders known as pochteca (pic 4). To date the only known source of jadite is in southeastern Guatemala.
Gold, another precious material used by Aztec mask makers, was thought to be the sun’s excrement, an identity that marked it as sacred. Thin layers of gold (gold leaf) were used to gild some wood masks (pic 5). Although to date only one silver mask, a tiny “maskette,” has been found, we know that silver, which was perceived as the sun’s urine, was likewise highly valued (pic 6).

Pic 5: Wood mask with traces of gold leaf, paint, and hermatite, 20.5 cm., The Art Museum, Princeton University
Pic 5: Wood mask with traces of gold leaf, paint, and hermatite, 20.5 cm., The Art Museum, Princeton University (Click on image to enlarge)

There were no natural sources of gold and silver in the Valley of Mexico; both metals, whether raw or worked, had to be imported. Once gold and silver had arrived in the capital, they were kept in the hands of the nobility. There any unworked metals were fashioned into prestige items by the most skilled metalworkers in the region, some of whom were housed in the royal palace. Much of the goldwork found the Basin of Mexico was obtained from the Mixteca region in southern Mexico, where the finest metalwork in all of Mesoamerica was produced. Even gold objects that were probably crafted in Tenochtitlan by Aztec metalworkers reflect the influence of Mixtec metalworking.

Pic 6: Silver maskette from offering 34, Templo Mayor, 4.9 cm., National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Silver maskette from offering 34, Templo Mayor, 4.9 cm., National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

As the foregoing indicates, the most prosperous and politically powerful individuals in Aztec society possessed and used the most powerful masks, which were denied to members of the larger commoner class as well as war captives and slaves. The Aztec ruler, for example, dressed as the ancient fire god Xiuhtecuhtli on the occasion of his investiture and his second-in-command, the man who bore the title of cihuacoatl, appeared in public at certain times costumed as the goddess of that same name, whose cult he had appropriated from conquered neighbors on the mainland (pic 7).

Pic 7: Detail of Codex Borbonicus, folio 23, depicting the ‘cihuacoatl’ dressed in the costume of the goddess Cihuacoatl, glossed in Spanish as “papa mayor” (high priest)
Pic 7: Detail of Codex Borbonicus, folio 23, depicting the ‘cihuacoatl’ dressed in the costume of the goddess Cihuacoatl, glossed in Spanish as “papa mayor” (high priest) (Click on image to enlarge)

Similarly, many Aztec priests dressed as deities for important ceremonies. The early colonial Codex Borbonicus, page 34, depicts a New Fire ceremony celebrating the successful conclusion of a fifty-two cycle akin to our century (pic 8). There a file of priests impersonating gods are seen processing to a flaming hearth at the top of a large hill called Huitxachtecatl (today, Cerro de la Estrella, Hill of the Star). Like four other priests known as fire priests, each wearing the distinctive eye mask of the water and fertility god Tlaloc, they will approach the hearth to light their bundle of faggots, which they will use to spread the new fire throughout the region. A Tlaloc costume possibly once worn by an Aztec fire priests was found in Offering 102 at the Templo Mayor. By assuming the costume of a deity, priests, like the costumed ruler and the cihuacoatl, showed not only that they were entitled to that god’s patronage but that they had acquired the god’s powers as well. Like the ruler and the cihuacoatl as well, priests had the exclusive right to wear those masks that represented the most important, most powerful deities in the Aztec pantheon.

Pic 8: A New Fire Ceremony, Codex Borbonicus, folio 34
Pic 8: A New Fire Ceremony, Codex Borbonicus, folio 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

Because the nobility and the government depended heavily for their support on war booty and forced tribute extracted from conquered communities, it is not surprising that many masks were made for (and possibly by) Aztec warriors These masks also derived much of their power from the material of which they were made. Those that have survived are made of the frontal part of a human skull, some with holes at the sides or top for strings. The skulls, which once belonged to defeated and sacrificed enemies, served their captors as war trophies at the same time that they empowered their new owners (pic 9).

Pic 9: Human skull mask embellished with shell and bloodstone eyes and flint knives for the tongue and nose, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 9: Human skull mask embellished with shell and bloodstone eyes and flint knives for the tongue and nose, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

So too did other masks, too perishable to survive the centuries, which were reportedly made of skin flayed from a sacrificed enemy’s face. The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

Pic 10: Xipe Totec, detail of Codex Borbonicus, folio 14
Pic 10: Xipe Totec, detail of Codex Borbonicus, folio 14 (Click on image to enlarge)

This helps to explain the Aztec practice of flaying the dead bodies, including the faces, of war captives sacrificed during the month ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “Flaying of Men.” Tlacaxipehualiztli was held in honor of the war god Xipe Totec, “Our Lord the Flayer,” who appears in artworks dressed in a human skin (pic 10). Tlacaxipehualiztli was a time when victorious warriors presented to the ruler tribute in the form of living captives who would then die on the sacrificial stone. Once the victim had been flayed, the captor hired another man to wear the skin for twenty days while collecting “gifts” from the captor’s friends and neighbors (pic 11).

Pic 11: Hired man dressed in flayed skin of sacrificed war captive during Tlacaxipehualitztli, from Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Bk 2, folio 19v
Pic 11: Hired man dressed in flayed skin of sacrificed war captive during Tlacaxipehualitztli, from Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Bk 2, folio 19v (Click on image to enlarge)

At the same time, the victor’s military prowess was being publicly advertised by yet another mask. This second mask was attached to one of the sacrificed captive’s thighbones, which had been wrapped and then hoisted high on a pole in front of the captor’s house. At the end of the twenty-day period, the skins were deposited in a receptacle at a local temple and the bundled thigh bone was hung inside the captor’s house, where his wife could petition it to look after her husband in future battles. During Tlacaxipehualiztli, the paramount rulers Axayacatl and Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin (Moteuczoma II) danced in the skin of the most valiant warrior slain. Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin is depicted in the Codex Vaticanus A (Ríos, folio 85v) wearing a flayed skin under the costume of Xipe Totec as he goes to war against Toluca and had his portrait carved into cliff wall at Chapultepec in the same costume (pic 12).

Pic 12: Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin going into battle against Toluca dressed as Xipe Totec and wearing a flayed skin, detail from Codex Vaticanus A (Codex Ríos), folio 83v
Pic 12: Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin going into battle against Toluca dressed as Xipe Totec and wearing a flayed skin, detail from Codex Vaticanus A (Codex Ríos), folio 83v (Click on image to enlarge)

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises, which is how we tend to think of them. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face. At the time of the conquest, a person who claimed to be the living embodiment of another being was referred to as an ixiptla(l), one who represented, or was the image of, that being. Masks were means of advertising the wearer’s special association with the god and may have even temporarily transformed into the god.

Pic 13: Masked bundle of burning sticks, Mixtec, detail of Codex Vindobonesnsis (Codex Vienna), folio 26
Pic 13: Masked bundle of burning sticks, Mixtec, detail of Codex Vindobonesnsis (Codex Vienna), folio 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

Even when a mask was placed on an inanimate object, it was understood to animate it, to give it life, energy, and an important identity. This would have been the case, for example, for the mask placed on a simple wood frame that was to represent Xiuhtecuhtli. Only the mask, or the ‘face,’ was needed to materialize the god. In the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis (Codex Vienna), page 46, we can see a mask tied to a flaming bundle of sticks (pic 13). Like some, if not all, of the masks destined to be a temple altar or offering, this mask may have never been intended for wear by a living person. This would explain why a surprising number of Aztec masks do not have openings for a living person’s eyes, nose, and mouth.

Pic 14: Death and burial of a P’urépucha ‘caçonci’ (ruler), ‘Relación de Michoacán’, folio 39
Pic 14: Death and burial of a P’urépucha ‘caçonci’ (ruler), ‘Relación de Michoacán’, folio 39 (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec belief that a mask could animate a lifeless object is nowhere made clearer than in reports of royal funerals. When an Aztec ruler died, his bundled corpse was dressed prior to cremation in the costume of one or more deities that each included a mask. A funerary mask, painted blue and described in the accompanying text as made of turquoise, appears on the bundled corpse of a deceased P’urépucha (Tarascan) ruler (cazonçi) in the Relación de Michoacán (pic 14). Whether the funerary mask was buried with the dead ruler’s ashes or retained as an heirloom by his descendants is unclear, but if the latter was the case, his heirs probably reused it four days later to animate a masked funerary effigy of the deceased. The funerary effigy of the cremated Aztec paramount ruler Axayacatl, like that of his successor Tizoc, was adorned with five layered costumes, four of which represented deities and included a mask. An important function of these effigies was to “receive” sumptuous presents from leaders of the state’s allies who had come to Tenochtitlan to honor the deceased. We can assume that the presents, as well as the effigy masks, were retained by the dead man’s descendants, demonstrating once again that masks were used for personal gain.

Pic 15: Olmec mask, from offering no. 20 at the Templo Mayor
Pic 15: Olmec mask, from offering no. 20 at the Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

As the above indicates, many masks were inherited, in some cases passed down through the generations. Others seem to have been passed down through the centuries. A number of masks discovered in the offerings at the Templo Mayor date back to much earlier civilizations; at least two are Olmec in style and another mask seems to have been carved at Teotihuacan (pic 15). Some of these may have been heirlooms that, like the turquoise masks listed in the Codex Mendoza, were likely received at Tenochtitlan as tribute items. An owner could also willingly give or loan one of his masks to someone else. This was the case for Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin, who gave his Xipe Totec costume to his brother when he made him supreme commander of the army against Huexzotzinco. Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin, we know, also sent five costumes representing the most powerful Aztec deities as “gifts” to Hernán Cortés shortly after hearing of the Spaniards’ landing on the coast of Veracruz. The real motive, however, was to persuade the unwelcome visitors to leave. This shows that masks could be given to a potentially dangerous enemy in order to appease its wrath, just as other masks were used to warn potential foes of a likely military action.

Pic 16: Toci-Tlazolteotl wearing a flayed human skin, detail of Codex Borbonicus folio 13
Pic 16: Toci-Tlazolteotl wearing a flayed human skin, detail of Codex Borbonicus folio 13 (Click on image to enlarge)

A mask made during the month festival of Ochpaniztli from the thigh skin of a woman dressed as the Aztec goddess Toci was buried in an enemy’s field to provoke a battle. The practice of ritually flaying a woman representing Toci presumably explains her appearance in the Codex Borbonicus, page 13, where she wears a human skin (pic 16). We can also be fairly certain that masks were given to some people as rewards for service to the state. Other masks, we are told, were simply stolen or obtained through bribery, while the practice of converting part of a defeated enemy’s face into a trophy shows that many masks were forcibly taken. We saw an example of the latter in the cihuacoatl’s appropriation of the goddess Cihuacoatl’s costume. Sahagún provides a legendary prototype for this kind of behavior when he relates how the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli, having triumphed over his seditious siblings at Coatepec, took their costume and insignia “for himself.” He did so because, Sahagún adds, he saw them as “his due.”

Pic 17: Commoner dressed in beggar’s “Tlaloc” mask for Etzalcualitztli, ‘The Tovar Calendar’, (Juan de Tovar 1951), plate VI
Pic 17: Commoner dressed in beggar’s “Tlaloc” mask for Etzalcualitztli, ‘The Tovar Calendar’, (Juan de Tovar 1951), plate VI (Click on image to enlarge)

In one way or another, then, most Aztec masks appear to have served the interests of the state; they operated in ways advantageous to the militarily enforced tribute economy that was most beneficial to the nobility and the government. Whether commoners also had and used masks, and if so, what those masks may have been made of, is much less clear. During the month of Etzalcualiztli, however, which was dedicated to Tlaloc, Aztec farmers - who would have been commoners - placed grass hoops over their eyes that served as a poor man’s mask of Tlaloc (pic 17). With these simple, inexpensive masks in place, the beggars went from house to house demanding ‘recompense’ for their labors and threatening to destroy the owners’ homes if left unsatisfied. What they usually received for their trouble was a simple stew (etzalli) made of maize and beans. Nonetheless, because the homeowners never failed to comply with the maskers’ demands, we can assume that the threats were made with higher approval. By tolerating, perhaps even encouraging this annual reversal of normal practice, in which the rich and powerful used the most powerful masks to take from the poor and weak, the state normalized, and thus reinforced the notion that people who wear masks in the name of the gods have the right to take from others. Within this ideological system, all masks, even those made of grass, could empower their owners, but those made of the most precious materials and representing the most important and powerful deities were controlled and kept in the hands of a few.

Suggestions for Further Reading:-
• Dorsinfang-Smets, A. 1977. “Masques et masques en Amerique indienne”. Academie Royale des Sciences D’Outre-Mer 1:130-8. Brussels.
• Hvidtfeldt, Arild. 1978. Teotl and Ixiptlatli: Some Central Conceptions in Ancient Mexican Religion. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.
• Klein, Cecelia F. 1986. “Masking Empire: The Material Effects of Masks in Aztec Mexico.” Art History 9.2 (June):136-67.

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 and 2: © The Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London 1938
• Pic 4: IVb 666 Mask of the Puebla-Tlaxcala, Tizatlan, Tlaxcala, Mexico. Jadeite 11.6 x 9.2 x 6.8 cm. Gift out of the estate of Lukas Vischer (1780-1840). Photo: Peter Horner. © Museum der Kulturen. Basel, Switzerland
• Pic 5: Late Postclassic Aztec mask ca. A.D. 1500. Wood with traces of gesso, gold leaf, and hematite. H. 20.2 cm., w. 20.5 cm., d. 11.5 cm. (7 15/16 x 8 1/16 x 4 1/2 in.). Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Gerard B. Lambert. y1970-111. Photo: Bruce M. White
• Pix 6 and 15: photos courtesy Proyecto Templo Mayor
• Pix 7, 8, 10 and 16: images from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 9: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 12: Image from the Codex Vaticanus A (Codex Ríos) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pic 13: Image from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 14: Image from the Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobernación de los indios de la provincia de Mechuacan (Edited by Moises Franco Mendoza) scanned from our own copy of the El Colegio de Michoacan facsimile edition, Mexico, n.d.
• Pic 17: Image from ‘The Tovar Calendar’, (Juan de Tovar 1951) courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 30th 2012

Feedback button