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Mexicolore contributor Elodie Dupey Garcia

Colour and Culture Among the Aztecs (2)

This is the second part of this most illuminating study of the meanings underlying the selection and uses of materials that coloured the pre-Columbian world by Dr. Élodie Dupey García, Researcher in the History of Religions at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas at UNAM, Mexico City.

Pic 1: Toci with a black plotch that simulates rubber on her mouth. Codex Laud, plate 15 (detail) (top) and (bottom) with a red plotch - probably of blood - on her mouth, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, plate 32 (detail)
Pic 1: Toci with a black plotch that simulates rubber on her mouth. Codex Laud, plate 15 (detail) (top) and (bottom) with a red plotch - probably of blood - on her mouth, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, plate 32 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The analogy between the vital fluids of humans and plants stems from both their physical properties and their similar functions: both blood and sap circulate within organisms and spring forth when the skin or bark is cut, coagulating to form scabs. At the same time, these substances share the status of human and divine food in Pre-Columbian ideology. The Aztecs believed that semen nourished fetuses as they grew in their mothers’ wombs, while milk fed infants as they drank from their mothers’ breasts. As for blood and rubber, they were burned as incense to sustain the gods. These nutritive virtues help explain why some divinities were painted with rubber. In fact, it was most often the lips that were covered with this material, a practice that brings to mind the custom of smearing the mouths of the gods’ statues with the blood of sacrificial victims. The relationship between blood and rubber as coatings for lips is made evident in codices, where the black splotch that simulates rubber on the goddess Toci’s mouth is occasionally replaced by a red mark; this insinuates that her lips could be covered either with rubber or with spots of blood (pic 1).

Pic 2: Sacrifice of a water goddess on a pile of ripe ears of corn during a planting festival. Codex Borbonicus, plate 31 (detail)
Pic 2: Sacrifice of a water goddess on a pile of ripe ears of corn during a planting festival. Codex Borbonicus, plate 31 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Apart from explaining its presence on the mouth of divinities, rubber’s association with blood, semen, and milk suggests this material was regarded as a fertilizing fluid. This is supported by the similar use of blood and rubber to increase agricultural yields. It is not by chance that melted rubber was applied to ears of maize before they were sown, while blood from a sacrificial victim was scattered on a pile of corncobs before a new crop was planted pic 2).

Pic 3: A captive that personified mature corn being scratched during the “Gladiatorial Sacrifice”. Codex Zouche-Nuttall, plate 83 (detail)
Pic 3: A captive that personified mature corn being scratched during the “Gladiatorial Sacrifice”. Codex Zouche-Nuttall, plate 83 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

A comparable procedure took place with captives who personified mature corn during the festival of the flayed god. As mentioned above, they were striped with rubber during the preparatory procession of the festival, and then scratched until they bled in the “gladiatorial sacrifice” (pic 3). The treatment inflicted on these victims resembles the incisions made on rubber trees during latex extraction, a practice known as “bleeding” in contemporary Mexico (part 1, pic 19).

Pic 4: Tlaloc appearing in the form of a tree. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 42v (detail)
Pic 4: Tlaloc appearing in the form of a tree. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 42v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The fertilizing quality of rubber explains its use in painting the members of the pantheon responsible for plant growth. These deities included Toci, “Our Grandmother”, and other mother goddesses, whose personalities articulated the notions of maternal and plant fertility: as the mothers of the gods and of men, they were considered incarnations of the earth, which the Aztecs imagined as a huge womb from which life emerged. At the same time, rubber served as a coating for the god Tlaloc, who was conceived of as the fertilizer of the earth because he scattered the rains. In fact, Tlaloc’s role in vegetal fertility was such that Sahagún’s informants describe him [Florentine Codex vol. 1] as the god who causes “trees, grass, [and] corn to flourish, germinate, become covered with leaves, bloom, [and] grow”, while codex painters render the same idea giving the god a tree-like appearance (pic 4). This conception of Tlaloc clarifies why rubber was the ideal material to be smeared onto divinities responsible for plant fertility: Among black substances, it was the only one extracted from a tree.

Pic 5: The god Tlaloc with two different black materials on his face and his limbs. Tonalamatl Aubin, plate 7 (detail)
Pic 5: The god Tlaloc with two different black materials on his face and his limbs. Tonalamatl Aubin, plate 7 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

3.2. Soot-based ink

While Tlaloc was at the heart of the above discussion devoted to rubber, this does not conclude the analysis of his body ornamentation. The decoration of this deity was indeed more complex than it might seem, because it was composed of a double black coating. Sixteenth-century texts state that Tlaloc’s face was blackened with a soot-based ink as well as olli, and some painters of codices employed two distinct dark tones to color the rain and earth god. In the Codex Telleriano Remensis, for instance, Tlaloc displays a shiny black mark on the lower part of his face and a gray mark on the upper part. In the Tonalamatl Aubin, the same colors are distributed on his limbs and face (pic 5), and it is logical to interpret these dark tones as the two black substances applied to Tlaloc’s body.

Pic 6: The fire god Xiuhtecuhtli with his chin painted with soot-based ink. Codex Borbonicus, plate 20 (detail)
Pic 6: The fire god Xiuhtecuhtli with his chin painted with soot-based ink. Codex Borbonicus, plate 20 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs called soot-based ink tlilpopotzalli, a name derived from the noun tlilli, which refers to soot or black ink, and the verb popotza, which means “to produce smoke”. In Pre-Columbian times, black inks were made from diverse mineral and plant materials, such as copper sulfate and tree bark. As a term that refers both to ink and to the residue of wood combustion that originated it, tlilpopotzalli is a redundant word: the presence of the verb popotza indicates the ink’s origins in soot, information that is already transmitted by the word tlilli. This redundancy is an indicator of the importance the Aztecs granted to the igneous nature of this ink.

Pic 7: The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca with their bodies painted with soot-based ink. Codex Borbonicus, plate 22 (detail)
Pic 7: The gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca with their bodies painted with soot-based ink. Codex Borbonicus, plate 22 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In addition to being semantically significant, tlilpopotzalli was the coloring material most frequently used in Aztec society to blacken human and divine bodies. Apart from Tlaloc, soot-based ink ornamented the faces of major deities such as the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli (pic 6), as well as the creators Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (pic 7). Furthermore, this substance adorned the participants in the festivals dedicated to Tezcatlipoca and to Xiuhtecuhtli, in particular the teachers from the telpochcalli, the school where the children who were to become warriors were educated (pic 8).

Pic 8: Teachers and children of the telpochcalli painted with soot-based ink and dancing in a fiesta. Codex Borbonicus, plate 28 (detail)
Pic 8: Teachers and children of the telpochcalli painted with soot-based ink and dancing in a fiesta. Codex Borbonicus, plate 28 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

It is interesting to stress that these boys were also darkened with black ink as they made their entrance into this school (pic 9), after which point they stood under the protection of Tezcatlipoca. The same occurred with the children who entered the calmecac, where future priests were trained under the protection of Quetzalcoatl, another god painted with tlilpopotzalli. During their religious preparation, they, too, were covered in soot ink (pic 9), ornamentation that they continued to use when they became adults and joined the priesthood. Colonial texts coincide in describing Pre-Columbian priests as individuals smeared with soot or ink (pic 10).

Pic 9: The children educated in the calmecac (in the upper register) and the telpochcalli (in the lower register), and their respective teachers. All are painted with soot-based ink. Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (detail)
Pic 9: The children educated in the calmecac (in the upper register) and the telpochcalli (in the lower register), and their respective teachers. All are painted with soot-based ink. Codex Mendoza, folio 61r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

For purposes of reconstructing the symbolic values of tlilpopotzalli, the application of this ink on specific members of Aztec society is suggestive. Priests and future priests, as well as warriors and their apprentices reproduced on their bodies the decoration of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, their respective protectors. The ink ornamentation served, then, as a sign of their relationship to these gods. Taken together with the importance of the igneous origins of tlilpopotzalli, this invites inquiry as to what bound Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca together, and what associated them with soot and burned things - especially since the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli was also painted with this ink.

Pic 10: Fire priests painted with soot-based ink while they perform self-sacrifice of the tongue. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 55r (detail)
Pic 10: Fire priests painted with soot-based ink while they perform self-sacrifice of the tongue. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 55r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec mythology presents Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca as two enemy brothers who inspired and orchestrated the creation of the world. The myths also explain that as a result of their success, the primordial deity converted them into lords of the stars. This metamorphosis offers a valuable clue for interpreting the soot body paint used for these demigods. Indeed tlilpopotzalli is a product that was linked to fire because of its origin, and darkness because of its color, while the stars were conceived of as fires lit in the night sky. The characteristics of soot-based ink thus make it an ideal material to refer to fires that burn in the darkness.

Pic 11: The god Quetzalcoatl, with his legs and arms painted black and adorned with gray concentric circles. Codex Borgia, plate 19 (detail)
Pic 11: The god Quetzalcoatl, with his legs and arms painted black and adorned with gray concentric circles. Codex Borgia, plate 19 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The stellar association of this ink is supported further by the iconography of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. In the Codex Borgia, these gods sometimes display a black body adorned with a design consisting of gray concentric circles that, apart from their color, are identical to the star-eye motif characteristic of the night skies in this manuscript (pic 11). Applied to the body of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, the motif identifies them as star divinities, while at the same time indicating that they are painted with tlilpopotzalli because, just as the stars, this ink evoked light and darkness.

Pic 12: The god Mixcoatl with his “star painting”, that is, his eye sockets blackened with the ashes of a goddess. Codex Vaticanus B, plate 70 (detail)
Pic 12: The god Mixcoatl with his “star painting”, that is, his eye sockets blackened with the ashes of a goddess. Codex Vaticanus B, plate 70 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The relationship between fire and stars is reinforced by Aztec mythology, in which celestial bodies are burned things, and the night stars are beings whose faces are covered in ash. The Anales de Cuauhtitlan describes the star deity Mixcoatl as having eye sockets blackened with the ashes of a goddess, an adornment that the Aztecs called “star painting” (pic 12). Moreover, the myth of the creation of the Fifth Sun reveals that the rain god’s son was pushed into the ashes of the fire where the sun had been created; he then emerged as the moon, with his face “ashy”. This mythical episode also relates that the jaguar’s spots appeared when it leaped into the founding bonfire, where his body became scorched and covered with burns. The Aztecs conceived of these burns as stars, because they believed an image of the starry sky was “printed” on the jaguar’s pelt (pic 13).

Pic 13: Jaguar with a succession of stars on his back. Codex Vaticanus B, plate 87 (detail)
Pic 13: Jaguar with a succession of stars on his back. Codex Vaticanus B, plate 87 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Coming back to tlilpopotzalli, in addition to expressing Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca’s connection to the starry sky, the capacity of this ink to refer simultaneously to obscurity and to light helps explain its application to Tlaloc’s body. Although the rain and earth deity is clearly not a star, he is associated nonetheless with the appearance of light in darkness by being the wielder of another celestial fire: lightning. Like the stars, the celestial fire of lightning shines in the midst of the stormy sky, which Pre-Columbian peoples equated with darkness. The relationship between the stars and lightning is also observable in the iconography, where the spots of the jaguar’s pelt sometimes adopt the shape of a flattened “S” that represents Ursa Major (pic 14), but also a simplified version of the lightning bolt held by Tlaloc (pic 15).

Pic 14:  Jaguar with the spots of its pelt in the form of a flattened “S” that represents Ursa Major. Codex Zouche-Nuttall, plate 50 (detail)
Pic 14: Jaguar with the spots of its pelt in the form of a flattened “S” that represents Ursa Major. Codex Zouche-Nuttall, plate 50 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

This reconstruction of the symbolic values of tlilpopotzalli is corroborated by an examination of the materials that sometimes took the place of this ink to blacken the gods. The Aztecs used mosaics of lignite and of black stones called teotetl and tezcapoctli to decorate objects and masks made of wood or bone that represent Xiuhtecuhtli and Tezcatlipoca. These black mosaics were applied precisely in the areas where these deities normally displayed tlilpopotzalli (pic 16). Although the identification of the teotetl and tezcapoctli stones is a delicate matter, Molina and Sahagún employ the term “jet” to translate their names. This is due to the fact that the friars perceived jet as an intense, brilliant black stone, while the teotetl and tezcapoctli stones stood apart, according to the Aztecs, for the deepness of their black color and for their luster. As for lignite, this material is a fossilized carbon, just like jet. The Aztecs undoubtedly saw these elements as ideal substitutes for tlilpopotzalli, because, much like soot-based ink, they simultaneously referred to darkness and to light.

Pic 15: The god Tlaloc holding a lightning bolt in the form of a flattened “S”. Codex Borbonicus, plate 23 (detail)
Pic 15: The god Tlaloc holding a lightning bolt in the form of a flattened “S”. Codex Borbonicus, plate 23 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

4. Conclusion
The significance of the materiality of color in Aztec culture is verified by the fact that the value assigned to the materials used to fashion colorful adornments were as important, if not more so, than the colors themselves. Different sorts of black materials had different meanings, which explains why the god Tlaloc had a combination of two black substances applied to his face: soot-based ink and rubber. This is due to the fact that the natural elements employed to make adornments were themselves bearers of identity and conveyors of meaning.

Pic 16: Human skull covered with stone mosaic, representing the god Tezcatlipoca. The black stone is lignite, the green is turquoise. British Museum
Pic 16: Human skull covered with stone mosaic, representing the god Tezcatlipoca. The black stone is lignite, the green is turquoise. British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

The construction of this identity could rest upon the physical characteristics of a given material, but the origins and provenance of the substances were also significant. There is little doubt that rubber was selected to paint Tlaloc - the rain and earth god responsible for plant growth - because this black substance was made from the latex extracted from a tree. Also, the procedure through which natural resources were transformed into coloring materials could also inform their identity: This is especially the case with the process of combustion undergone by soot, which was then associated with light and heat.

Pic 17: The Maize God holding in his hands ears of ripe corn painted with two parallel bars of rubber. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 44r (detail)
Pic 17: The Maize God holding in his hands ears of ripe corn painted with two parallel bars of rubber. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 44r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Beyond demonstrating the significance of the materiality of color, this study exemplifies the refinement and dynamism of the Aztec worldview. When they selected materials to fashion body ornamentation, the Aztecs displayed the complex identity of gods and men, their place and their relationships within the cosmic order, by means of the qualities of the materials and the ideas they evoked. At the same time, as flexibility and interchangeability were dominant features of Aztec ideology, associations between human or divine individuals and specific natural elements were not irrevocably fixed. Black and lustrous stones could stand in for soot-based ink when the face adornment of Xiuhtecuhtli and Tezcatlipoca was represented on wood or bone supports.

Pic 18: A modern-day scribe hand colouring a section of a codex page
Pic 18: A modern-day scribe hand colouring a section of a codex page (Click on image to enlarge)

Ultimately, this approach inspires a new way of looking at corporal ornamentation and, more generally, at colors in Mesoamerica. Although color and chromatic compositions are important in and of themselves, it is high time to explore more deeply and systematically the meanings underlying the selection and the uses of the materials that colored the pre-Columbian world.

Picture sources, Part 1:-
• Pic 1: Drawing by Jesús Quiroz González
• Pix 2, 4 & 6: Photos by Élodie Dupey García
• Pic 3: Image by and courtesy of Tomás Filsinger
• Pic 5: Scanned from our own copy of Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico City, 1951, p.197
• Pix 7, 9. 11 & 12: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 8 & 20r: Images scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 10: Image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 13, 15, & 14 (centre): Images scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1993
• Pic 14l: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 14r: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Magliabechiano, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 16: Image scanned from Durán, Diego, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme. Conaculta, Mexico City, 1995
• Pic 17: Image from the Tonalamatl Aubin, Loubat facsimile edition, downloaded from and thanks to www.famsi.org
• Pic 18: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pic 19: Photo from Wikipedia (Natural Rubber)
• Pic 20l: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Vaticanus A, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979.

Picture sources, Part 2:-
• Pic 1 (top): Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Laud, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pic 1 (bottom): Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pix 2, 6, 7, 8 & 15: Images scanned from our own copy of the Codex Borbonicus, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 3 & 14: Images scanned from our own copy of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987
• Pix 4, 10 & 17: Images scanned from our own copy of the Codex Vaticanus A, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pic 5: Image from the Tonalamatl Aubin, Loubat facsimile edition, downloaded from and thanks to www.famsi.org
• Pic 9: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Mendoza, James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 11: Image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pix 12 & 13: Images scanned from our own copy of the Codex Vaticanus B, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Pic 16: Photo © and courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 18: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 12th 2015

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