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|Pic 1: Life and death entwined... (Click on image to enlarge)|
Did they fear death? No. They knew it was inevitable: in the words of the ruler-poet Netzahualcóyotl -
Even jade will shatter,
Even gold will crush,
Even quetzal plumes will tear.
One does not live forever on this earth:
Only for an instant do we endure.
There was a certain fascination with death (so clearly still visible today in the Day of the Dead) - after all, it was a relief from the harshness and suffering of this life.
|Pic 2: Death bundle with gifts, Codex Magliabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)|
Did they believe in an afterlife? Definitely! Life and death were inseparable parts of the same great cosmic cycle of energy. You simply cannot have one without the other... Life gives way to death and vice versa: in death your body and spirit nourish the Earth and provide roots for new life (such as a flower) to be born (Pic1). Life and death were simply two sides of the same reality (Pic 3): life will follow death as surely as sunrise will follow sunset and the moon will wax and wane.
|Pic 3: Duality - in the form of life and death - has been a common feature of Mexican masks for centuries (Click on image to enlarge)|
The simple fact that grave goods (Pic 4) have been found throughout the region proves that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica have believed in life after death for thousands of years. At the same time, the Aztecs were troubled by the sheer uncertainty of what was to follow death:
Are flowers carried to the kingdom of death?
Is it true that we go. is it true that we go!
Where do we go? Where do we go?
Are we dead there or do we still live?
Do we exist there again?
|Pic 4: Grave goods found inside a stone casket, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)|
Did they believe in Hell? No. Though there was a strong link between your behaviour in this life, the way you met your death, and what/where your final destiny would be in the next ‘world’, Aztec religion was NOT one based on salvation/damnation.
|Pic 5: ‘Alligator’ (the Earth), no. 1 in the cycle of 20 calendar signs (Click on image to enlarge)|
Did they believe in Heaven? Yes - 13 of them! The Aztecs saw the Earth as a giant flat circular disk (sometimes imagined to be an enormous alligator, whose scales were mountains), surrounded by water as far as the distant horizon, where it joined the sky. Their world was at the centre of the 4 great cardinal regions of the universe (N,S,E,W), plus the crucial 5th. central direction/dimension of up and down.
|Pic 6: One of the double-page sections of the sacred calendar, Codex Cospi (Click on image to enlarge)|
Each world direction had linked to it not just a god but a sacred colour, tree, bird... even human beings and days of the sacred 260-day calendar round: this most ancient calendar was divided into 4 equal parts of 65 days each. If you open one of the sacred screenfold ritual books at the calendar section and count the day-signs, each double page spread shows exactly 5 rows of 13 days; 5 x 13 = 65 x 4 = 260 (Pic 6: click, count and see!)
|Pic 7: The 9 underworlds and 13 heavens (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, adapted from the Codex Vaticanus A) (Click on image to enlarge)|
Above the earth rose 13 levels of ‘heavens’ and below the earth were 9 levels of ‘underworld’ (Pic 7). After death, ‘ordinary souls’ - who had died an ordinary death - had to make a hard, 4-year journey down through these levels to reach their final resting place, Mictlan. This really was... the end of the road! We get the impression that Mictlan may well have been a fairly grimbo place, ruled by a suitably grim-looking god, ‘Lord of Mictlan’ - Mictlantecuhtli (Pic 8). Among the offerings buried with you by your family (Pic 2) were valuable gifts to be handed to him as he welcomed you to Mictlan!
|Pic 8: Students meet Mictlantecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)|
So who went up to the Heavens?! Essentially this depended on how you died and - consequently - on which god came to earth, ‘took possession’ of your body, and snatched ‘you’ away. The Aztec people had been moulded largely out of two ancient ways of life: as Jacques Soustelle described them ‘the first element hunters and warriors, worshippers of a sun-god, and the second settled peasants whose deity was the god of the rain’. This is so clearly reflected in the twin temples atop the main temple of Tenochtitlan, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (right) and to Tlaloc (left) (Pic 9).
|Pic 9: Miguel Covarrubias’s reconstruction of the Great Temple of the Aztecs (Click on image to enlarge)|
A warrior who died in battle, or as a sacrificial victim, became a privileged ‘companion of the eagle [Tonatiuh - the sun]’, accompanying Tonatiuh every morning on his journey to the midday zenith. After 4 years he was reincarnated as a humming-bird or butterfly. The warrior’s heaven was shared by women who died in childbirth and by merchants killed while on trading expeditions.
|Pic 10: Aztec Sun - illustration by Phillip Mursell (Click on image to enlarge)|
Those who died by drowning, or were struck by lightning, or from an illness believed to be related to the gods of water (such as dropsy or gout) went to Tlalócan, Tlaloc’s paradise, a place of abundant food, peace, growth, eternal spring, and where suffering was unknown. Finally, babies who died in infancy went to a fourth heaven, near Tlalócan, where a tree dripped milk from its branches, and where the infants waited to be given a second ‘chance’ of life, after the present world had been destroyed.
|Pic 11: Tlaloc, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)|
So the two greatest paradises (for humans to go to) seem to have been strongly associated with SUN and RAIN deities.
|Pic 12: Life and death go hand in hand: it’s Death that cuts the umbilical cord, so Life can begin...! (Codex Laud, original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)|
Every individual in the afterlife had a duty to carry on doing his or her part in the cosmic process (you weren’t going to a rest camp!) - to help bring rain, cure diseases, honour the Sun, make flowers bloom - all of which would help in the long run to keep the human race alive. The idea of reincarnation was close to Aztec beliefs: every living creature had an indestructible divine-like ‘heart’ - on its journey to the next world it ended up more or less as a divine seed, ready to be re-planted/re-used (by the gods) in the creation of another being...
|Pic 13: Colour illustration by Phillip Mursell (Click on image to enlarge)|
Was this your ‘soul’? Yes, but only one of them! The Aztecs believed our bodies have 3 ‘spirit centres’, each linked to a different level of the universe (Pic 13). Your heart (‘yollotl’) is the home of the TEYOLIA (the essence of human life) - this was the only spirit that travelled to the afterlife, and was associated with the world above the earth. Your brain (‘cuatextli’) is the home of the TONALLI (the force of love and heat) - this stayed on earth to be kept by your family as ashes in a box with a tuft of your hair, and was associated with the highest heavens of the cosmos. Your liver (‘elli’), being full of blood, is the home of the IHIYOTL (courage, the soul, the engine of passions but also the force of cold) - this was dispersed after death in winds, spirits and illnesses, and was associated with the underworld.
|Pic 14: Mixtec goblet with skull relief, painted top and bottom with stars (half-open ‘eyes of the night’) (Click on image to enlarge)|
Did the Aztecs have their own ‘Day of the Dead’? Yes - in fact, they had several Feasts of the Dead, two of which (in our month of August, the 9th. and 10th. festival ‘months’ of the Aztec farming year) bore the names ‘Feast of the Little Dead Ones’ and ‘Feast of the Adult Dead’. A Spanish friar (Diego Durán) witnessed these festivities, a few decades after the Conquest, at the time of Allhallows/Saints/Souls in the Catholic calendar (ie when it is now) and wrote of his suspicions that ‘... the feast has been passed to the Feast of Allhallows in order to cover up the ancient ceremony’. It was a time of preparing great flower garlands and of offerings of ‘chocolate, candles, fowl, fruit, great quantities of seed, and food’ on both days.
|Pic 15: A skull-faced goddess with attendant, and a chain of cempaxóchitl and other flowers, Codex Borbonicus, p.28 (Click on image to enlarge)|
The 10th. Aztec ‘month’, known as ‘Xocotlhuetzi’, included the pole-climbing ceremony (follow the link below) and involved plenty of music and dancing - two elements which, alongside the flowers (the yellow cempaxóchitl - Pic 15), food, incense and paper ornaments are common to both ancient and modern Day of the Dead festivals. Offerings of food and drink, laid on tombs, carried on for 4 years after a person’s death, to give sustenance to the soul travelling (generally) to Mictlan.
|Pic 16: Death, no. 6 in the cycle of 20 calendar signs (Click on image to enlarge)|
At the end of the day, even though the Aztecs saw themselves as a ‘chosen’ people, their arts reflect a deep sense of melancholy, sadness, anguish, doubt, even pessimism - at least about their life here on Earth:-
We only came to sleep,
We only came to dream,
It is not true, no, it is not true
That we came to live on the earth.
We are changed into the grass of springtime;
Our hearts will grow green again
And they will open their petals,
But our body is like a rose tree:
It puts forth flowers and then withers.
’Misterios de la vida y de la muerte’ by Alfredo López Austin in ‘Arqueología Mexicana: La Muerte en el México Prehispánico’, VII, 40 (Nov-Dec 1999)
’The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico’ by Chloe Sayer and Liz Carmichael (British Museum Press, 1991)
’The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso (University of Oklahoma Press, 1958)
’Daily Life of the Aztecs’ by Jacques Soustelle (Stanford University Press, 1961)
’Aztec Thought and Culture’ by Miguel León-Portilla (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963)
’Everyday Life of the Aztecs’ by Warwick Bray (Dorset Press, 1968).
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