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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 24 Jan 2017/4 Eagle
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John Bierhorst

Why did the Aztecs dance when they fought? asked St Thomas of Canterbury RC Primary School. Read what John Bierhorst had to say.

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Article suitable for older students

Aztec pulque god’s gold adornment

Found! The pulque gods’ ‘golden section’...

For years scholars have pored over images - mainly in the Magliabechiano and Tudela codices - of the great family of ‘countless’ gods associated with pulque, the alcoholic drink sacred to the Aztecs/Mexica. What IS that adornment on the forehead of each god? Well, at last an actual archaeological example has been found... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The leading pulque god Tezcatzóncatl, Codex Magliabechiano folio 54. His name glyph (shown in front) is ‘Hair-Mirror’ or ‘Countless Mirrors’
Pic 1: The leading pulque god Tezcatzóncatl, Codex Magliabechiano folio 54. His name glyph (shown in front) is ‘Hair-Mirror’ or ‘Countless Mirrors’ (Click on image to enlarge)

In his detailed and masterly 1994 study of Aztec/Mexica gods, Enciclopedia Gráfica del México Antiguo: Los Dioses the Mexican scholar Salvador Mateos Higuera was forced to describe the mysterious gold piece, shown adorning ten different pulque gods, variously as ‘seemingly gold leaf, unlike any other known figure’, ‘indefinable, seemingly of a metallic material, possibly gold leaf’, ‘whose figure is not understood’, ‘unintelligible shape’, ‘complicated figure’, ‘indecipherable’... The adornment appears at the front of what looks like a garland of herbs - possibly those used in the fermentation of the ‘honeywater’ (cactus juice) that becomes pulque - tied around the forehead by a red leather strap.

Pic 2: The gold leaf forehead adornment, found in Ofrenda no. 125 at the Templo Mayor
Pic 2: The gold leaf forehead adornment, found in Ofrenda no. 125 at the Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

Mateos Higuera’s imprecision was understandable: no-one had found a real example of this piece. The details in the illustrations of the pulque gods (or god impersonators) in the codices are too small to be successfully interpreted. Then, in 2007, a stone casket (Ofrenda no. 125) - part of an offering to Mexica gods - was discovered in a shaft buried to the west of the giant Tlaltecuhtli earth goddess monolith, unearthed in 2006 by a team of archaeologists at the Templo Mayor site in the centre of Mexico City. The box (pic 3) revealed, amongst a wealth of other items, dozens of gold ornaments, including... an example of the forehead piece (pic 2)! Measuring just over two inches square, the piece, ‘made with hammered, embossed and highly burnished gold sheets’, contains what to us appear to be the knots of tied loincloths (or of reed bundles) and it exhibits to some degree the plaited surface of natural materials woven together (learn more from the link below).

Pic 3: Ofrenda no. 125, Templo Mayor. What can you spot in the bottom left hand corner?!
Pic 3: Ofrenda no. 125, Templo Mayor. What can you spot in the bottom left hand corner?! (Click on image to enlarge)

Leonardo López Luján, leader of the Templo Mayor Archaeological Project, describes the rich contents of Ofrenda no. 125 as ‘a miniature image of the universe’, since the physical layout - in layers - of the offerings to the gods within may represent some of the levels passed through by Aztec souls on their journey to the underworld. The gold ornaments were found at Level 1 (the highest), and their position suggests links to extraordinary personalized sacrificial flint knives (that inspired our animated Aztec character Tec, who you can see in our Kids pages), depicting the gods of the Morning and Evening Star Venus - and the moon god of pulque. You can learn more of the ‘sacred agave’ from the link below...

Pic 4: Some of the 14 gold pieces recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site, on display for the first time, in the Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 4: Some of the 14 gold pieces recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site, on display for the first time, in the Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Incidentally, have another look at the image of pulque god Tezcatzóncatl (pic 1). Mateos Higuera suggests that his name glyph (floating on the page, in front of him), ‘Countless Mirrors’, may allude to the innumerable bubbles (‘mirrors’) that form on the surface of fermented pulque. The ‘hair’ glyph above the mirror was an Aztec symbol for the number 400, often interpreted as ‘countless’.

Further information:-
Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, British Museum exhibition catalogue, Eds. Colin McEwan and Leonardo López Luján, 2009 (Epilogue)
Enciclopedia Gráfica del México Antiguo by Salvador Mateos Higuera, (Vol. 4, Los Dioses Menores), Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Mexico City, 1994
National Geographic magazine, November 2010 (‘Unburying the Aztec’ by Robert Draper)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: scanned from our own copy of Enciclopedia Gráfica... (op. cit.)
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Maglabechiano, Graz, Austria, 1970 (arrow added!)
• Pix 2 and 3: courtesy Proyecto Templo Mayor
• Pic 4: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

NOTE: Special thanks to Dr. Matthew McDavitt for drawing our initial attention to this piece.

‘Woven Heaven, Tangled Earth’ - how Mesoamericans envisioned the cosmos

‘Sacred agave’

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