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‘The Mourner’s Dance’
‘The Mourner’s Dance’
by Katherine Ashenburg, North Point Press, 2002
Mexicolore contributors Ian Mursell, Katherine Ashenburg and Mª Rosa Valdesogo

The art of Aztec mourning

The Aztecs employed professional women mourners to help the bereaved to grieve: in a way that allowed grieving families to ‘get it all out’ and then to move on, in the healthiest possible way. By contrast in Britain we tend to bottle up our grief, to hide it away from the public gaze and as a result we often find it particularly hard to ‘move on’. Perhaps we could learn from the Mexica? After all, the use of ‘professional lamenters’ to manage grief is a tradition found all over the world... This article is a joint effort between Mexicolore Director Ian Mursell (1), prize-winning non-fiction author, lecturer and journalist Katherine Ashenburg (2), and lecturer and Egyptologist specialising in the funerary rites of ancient Egypt María Rosa Valdesogo (3).

Pic 1: Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1
Pic 1: Aztec ritual weeping; Florentine Codex, Book 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

1. The Mexica (Aztecs) and Mourning
We all know that crying, like laughing, is profoundly good for us. Both processes release endorphins, natural chemicals that act as painkillers and help us to feel better in ourselves. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Aztecs were past masters at ‘ritual weeping’ - for example, offering tears (and in particular those of child sacrifices) to invoke rain, one of several instances of profound Mexica ‘correspondences’ between the human body and the universe.
Indeed, they seem to have cried much more openly and frequently than the Spanish invaders, crying symbolically for help in front of a judge or to express their community’s gratitude for a gift of land.
Thanks to the efforts of Spanish historians and friars keen to document native ways, we also know that the Mexica evolved ways to channel emotions such as private sadness into public ritual, thus sharing natural human feelings with others, and in so doing preventing that emotion from ‘becoming an obstacle to communal success and future prosperity’ (Caroline Dodds Pennock); in other words, turning a negative into a positive...

Pic 2: Stone Mexica urn depicting the god of death; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: Stone Mexica urn depicting the god of death; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

It was the Dominican friar Diego Durán (c. 1537–1588) who perhaps documented most thoroughly the role of Aztec professional women mourners in his History of the Indies of New Spain (also known as the Codex Durán). He first mentions their prominence when describing the funeral ceremonies for emperor Ahuitzotl in 1502 - an event accompanied by ‘frightful weeping and moaning’, led by ‘the mourners, women who were hired [and whose ‘sole profession’ was] to wail at the death of kings and noblemen and for those who died in war’. It is in regard to this latter role, consoling the widows of warriors killed in battle - one supposes a common occurrence in those days - that the most telling details emerge...

Pic 3: Women mourners, Codex Tudela p. 52
Pic 3: Women mourners, Codex Tudela p. 52 (Click on image to enlarge)

The widow, her family, and the hired mourners were told of the death in battle by a senior warrior (cuauhhuehuetl, or ‘Old Eagle’), whose duty it was to follow up with a speech celebrating the dead warrior’s life and death. In all likelihood, of course, there would have been more than one to commemorate, and after all the names had been read out and the individuals praised, the mourners brought out of their homes the widows and their children, all wearing the clothes and jewellery of the deceased, took over local public spaces and began to wail and cry, howl, chant laments and even dance, in a very public and unrestrained showing of their grief. It must have been quite a spectacle, the women’s long hair hanging disheveled and matted as they cried and wailed non-stop.

Pic 4: The Aztecs took great pains to prepare the dead for their (often lengthy) journey to the next world - one of 9 underworlds and 13 heavens... (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 4: The Aztecs took great pains to prepare the dead for their (often lengthy) journey to the next world - one of 9 underworlds and 13 heavens... (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Four days after the announcement of a death, small effigies or images of the dead person were carefully made and their praises sung with great devotion. At dusk the same day these figures would be burnt in a special ceremony, after the professional mourners had made and given offerings; they sang during the day of the ‘tears and filth that accompanied mourning’. In the evening gifts would be given to the singers and local elders would give speeches of both encouragement and praise. The next day the widow(s) would enter what some scholars refer to as a period of deep ‘lunar mourning’, lasting 80 days. During this time they were prohibited from washing their faces, heads, bodies, hair or even their clothes. Mixed with the tears of daily weeping, it’s easy to imagine that they ended the period filthy dirty, a layer of muck covering their bodies - reminiscent of the ritual dirt of priests engaged in periods of human sacrifice. In both cases Mexica citizens were privileged to be accessing part of the sacred world, the portal for which was believed to be ‘extreme’ dirt.

Pic 5: Aztec funeral rites; Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 67 (detail)
Pic 5: Aztec funeral rites; Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 67 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

After 80 days, this period of ‘deep’ mourning came to a sudden and symbolic end: the cuauhhuehuetl would return to re-visit the widow in her home, and would proceed to scrape ceremoniously the accumulated dirt from her face, gather and wrap it carefully in amatl paper, and take it to be thrown into a sacred space designated for the purpose (Yahualiuhcan, outside the city). With this simple ritual act of closure, the widow became free of all weeping and sadness, free to return to normal domestic life, happy and consoled. Her mourning was officially - and effectively - at an end.
A new stage then began: that of ‘solar’ mourning. Every year, for four years, the family of the deceased would mourn for exactly four days, weeping and making offerings of food, song and dance to a (new) effigy of the dead person. (Many of these elements survive today in the great Mexican Day of the Dead festival tradition...) It was during these four years, incidentally, that the deceased’s (three) spirits were expected to carry on working on their journey to the afterlife - curing illnesses, invoking rain, honouring the Sun...
Finally, after four long years, not forgotten, but left to rest in eternity, the deceased would never (need to be) mourned again. Job done!

Pic 6: A mourning ritual of the Mingrelians in Georgia, c. 1884
Pic 6: A mourning ritual of the Mingrelians in Georgia, c. 1884 (Click on image to enlarge)

2. Professional lamenters in world cultures
In the modern, Western world we think of mourning someone close to us as one of life’s most personal, sincere and spontaneous experiences. And yet, strange as it seems, people from all around the world, beginning at least with the ancient Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and Romans, have made use of professional lamenters, people whose job it is to “mourn” for complete strangers. Paid lamenters were a part of the usual wake-funeral-burial rituals in Russia, Ghana, Finland, China, Spain, Ireland, Italy and many other countries. The professional keener (meaning someone who keens, that is, wails or laments) is still a respected participant when death occurs in rural Greece and Portugal.

Pic 7: ‘David Playing the Harp’ by Jan de Bray, 1670. King David is credited in the Bible with first using the music of religious ritual
Pic 7: ‘David Playing the Harp’ by Jan de Bray, 1670. King David is credited in the Bible with first using the music of religious ritual (Click on image to enlarge)

What does a professional lamenter or mourner do? That depends on time and place, but their functions could include singing or leading the singing of dirges, and just plain howling. In preliterate Russia, professional mourners were expert in the complications of the funeral liturgy, so they guided the “amateur” mourners through that while chanting laments for the dead. The funeral procession in ancient Jewish communities was led by flute-players and professional women lamenters who sang dirges. (Most professional mourners, but not all, were women.) By the beginning of the Christian era, one of the duties of the Jewish burial society was to hire musicians, funeral orators and “chanting women.” In fourteenth-century Saragossa, Spain, Jewish mourners were accompanied on the walk home from the funeral by a wailing woman who accompanied herself on the tambourine.

Pic 8: The lying in state of a body attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair (Attica, latter 6th century BC)
Pic 8: The lying in state of a body attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair (Attica, latter 6th century BC) (Click on image to enlarge)

In many countries, including ancient and modern Greece, the professional lamenter would sing the “verse” of a lament, improvising on well-worn themes (“How can I sing your praises? There are too many”, “How could you leave me with children to raise?”, etc.) while the family of the dead would chime in with a chorus-like refrain. In The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, Margaret Alexiou describes relatives and professional mourners in modern Greece lamenting together, passing the song from one side of the bier to the other, the relief singer grasping the hand of the current singer to indicate that she will take up the lament.
A second question - what was valuable about the services provided by the professional lamenters? - has various answers. In one sense, they were the music directors or at least part of the musical programme of the wake and funeral. They helped to give the dead a good send-off, and in that way they did honour to the dead. In another, deeper sense, their wailing and chanting helped to unleash the emotions of the mourners: they were not “grief counselors” in the modern term, but grief enablers.

Pic 9: ‘The Irish keening woman’ - from ‘Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c’, by Mr & Mrs S. C. Hall, circa 1850
Pic 9: ‘The Irish keening woman’ - from ‘Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c’, by Mr & Mrs S. C. Hall, circa 1850 (Click on image to enlarge)

Professional lamenters would chant for money, for barter (“Sing me a fine lament for him, and you shall have a pile of beans,” as a modern Greek lamenter was promised) or simply, because they were good at it. Sometimes, they took to lamenting because of a personal tragedy. A Macedonian woman explained to Margaret Alexiou that she became a mourner because her husband and son had died early in her life. Lamenting at the wakes and funerals of others became a way to remember them: “I weep for my own, not for theirs.”
In the West, the position of the professional keener has been ambiguous since the middle ages. Although the Church had hired them for funeral processions in the early days of Christianity, by medieval times they thoroughly disapproved of paid keeners. At least since the seventeenth century, synod after synod of the Irish Church had forbidden paid lamenters, obviously without success. In 1800 the Archbishop of Cashel prohibited “all unnatural screams and shrieks, and fictitious, runeful cries and elegies, at wakes, together with the savage custom of howling and bawling at funerals.”

Pic 10: Egyptian professional mourners in an eloquent gesture of mourning
Pic 10: Egyptian professional mourners in an eloquent gesture of mourning (Click on image to enlarge)

Most of the disapproval centred on the professional lamenter’s mercenary motives. In a way, that is like complaining that a professional chamber group will not perform except for money. In another way, the objection speaks to our culture’s belief in sincerity. But there is no denying that paid lamenters are not the only ones who profit from a death, including funeral directors and religious leaders. In a poetic tug-of-war between an Irish keening woman and a priest, the priest taunts her, “You would keen over a dog, you hag, if you found him dead!” and she responds, “No need for you to be so bitter, Father. What you don’t get from the living, you get from the dead.”
No doubt, the paid lamenter sounds like an exotic relic from another time and place. But the mourners who hired them wanted to show special respect for their dead, and they also benefitted from the lamenters’ ability to galvanize the family’s less articulate grief. Like a good therapist, the skilled keener knew where to take the lament, how to lift the burden of improvisation and invention, and how to inspire the family to express their own grief.

Pic 11: Mourners at the tomb of Mereruka, VI Dynasty, Saqqara, ancient Egypt
Pic 11: Mourners at the tomb of Mereruka, VI Dynasty, Saqqara, ancient Egypt (Click on image to enlarge)

3. Mourning in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egyptian funerals, groups of women formed part of the funerary cortege, and mourned on behalf of the deceased. Apart from weeping, these hired mourners would use their entire body to express suffering: throwing themselves to the ground, hitting themselves on the head and/or arms, shaking their bodies, untidying their hair, pulling their hair out...
At such events, two professional mourners would be employed to represent the goddesses Isis and Neftis, evoking the myth of Osiris.
The dead in ancient Egypt were cared for by the god Osiris, who died at the hands of the god Set. Osiris came back to life thanks to Anubis - who embalmed his body - to Isis, his wife, and to Neftis, his sister and assistant to Isis. These two goddesses performed a mourning ritual over Osiris’s mummified body, in which they wept and shook their long hair over his body. As a result, Osiris recovered his bodily functions enough to grant him new life in the afterlife.

Pic 12: Funerary procession with the two mourners in the role of Isis and Neftis at both ends of the corpse; tomb of Roy, VIII Dynasty, Dra Abu-el-Naga (Luxor)
Pic 12: Funerary procession with the two mourners in the role of Isis and Neftis at both ends of the corpse; tomb of Roy, VIII Dynasty, Dra Abu-el-Naga (Luxor) (Click on image to enlarge)

In ancient Egyptian funerary processions, whilst the professional mourners expressed profound grief through gestures, the two representatives of Isis and Neftis accompanied the coffin in a display of serenity as far as the burial. It was here that the rites to resurrect the deceased took place; one of these was the ritual weeping of the two professional mourners, who embodied Isis and Neftis – sobbing and shaking their hair over the corpse to encourage the deceased to recover his or her faculties. By the end of the ritual it was believed that resurrection had occurred, offerings were made to the deceased, and the mummy was placed in the grave shaft, to begin a new life in the other world.

Pic 13: Una de las plañideras profesionales realizando el ritual de duelo ante la momia. Relieve procedente de la tumba de Renni. Dinastía XVIII. El-Kab
Pic 13: Una de las plañideras profesionales realizando el ritual de duelo ante la momia. Relieve procedente de la tumba de Renni. Dinastía XVIII. El-Kab (Click on image to enlarge)

Español: El Duelo en el Antiguo Egipto
En los funerales del antiguo Egipto grupos de mujeres formaban parte del cortejo fúnebre y llevaban a cabo un duelo por el difunto. Estas plañideras, además de llorar, gesticulaban exageradamente para expresar la aflicción: se tiraban al suelo, se golpeaban la cabeza y/o los brazos, agitaban sus cuerpos, se desgreñaban, se tiraban del pelo...
Además, los funerales del antiguo Egipto contaban con la presencia de dos plañideras profesionales que representaban a las diosas Isis y Neftis, y cuya presencia tenía su razón de ser en el mito de Osiris.
Los difuntos en el antiguo Egipto eran asimilados al dios Osiris, que murió a manos del dios Set. Osiris resucitó gracias a Anubis, que embalsamó su cuerpo, y a Isis, su esposa, y a Neftis, su hermana y ayudante de Isis. Estas dos diosas realizaron sobre la momia de Osiris un ritual de duelo, en el que lloraban y agitaban sus melenas hacia el cadáver y gracias al cual Osiris recuperó las funciones vitales necesarias para su nueva vida en el Más Allá.

Pic 14: Mourning the world over...
Pic 14: Mourning the world over... (Click on image to enlarge)

En la procesión funeraria del antiguo Egipto, mientras las plañideras expresaban el desconsuelo con sus gestos, las dos representantes de Isis y Neftis acompañaban al féretro con una actitud serena hasta la sepultura. Una vez llegado el cortejo a la tumba, el grupo de mujeres se quedaba fuera llorando y las dos representantes de Isis y Neftis entraban junto a otros sacerdotes funerarios en la sepultura. Aquí tenían lugar los ritos para la resurrección del difunto; uno de ellos era el ritual de duelo llevado a cabo por las dos plañideras que encarnaban a Isis y Neftis. Estas dos mujeres lloraban y agitaban sus melenas hacia el cadáver para ayudarle a recuperar las facultades vitales. Una vez finalizado, se consideraba que la resurrección del difunto era un hecho, se entregaban las ofrendas funerarias y la momia se depositaba en el pozo funerario, desde donde viviría su nueva existencia en el Más Allá.

Pic 15: Pre-Hispanic stone skull sculpture, Dolores Olmedo Museum, Mexico City
Pic 15: Pre-Hispanic stone skull sculpture, Dolores Olmedo Museum, Mexico City

Sources/recommended further reading (Aztecs):-
• Dodds Pennock, Caroline: Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle & Sacrifice in Aztec Culture, Palgrave McMillan, 2008
• López Austin, Alfredo: ‘Misterios de la vida y de la muerte’, Arqueología Mexicana 40, Nov-Dec 1999, pp. 4-10
• Arnold, Philip P.: ‘Eating Landscape: Human Sacrifice and Sustenance in Aztec Mexico’, in Carrasco, D. (Ed.): To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, University Press of Colorado, 1991, pp. 219-232
• Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Facts on File, New York, 2006.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 2 & 15: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 & 14 (top left): Images from the Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pic 4: Photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our own copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1970
• Pic 6: Image from Wikipedia (Mourning)
• Pic 7: Image from Wikipedia (History of Music in the Biblical Period)
• Pic 8: Image from Wikipedia (Funeral)
• Pic 9: Image downloaded 13/8/14 from http://www.libraryireland.com/homepage/Customs/Irish-Keener.php
• Pic 10: Image from Wikipedia (Ancient Egyptian Burial Customs)
• Pix 11 & 12: Photos by © and courtesy of María Rosa Valdesogo
• Pic 13: downloaded 13/8/14 from http://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/el_kab/renni/renni_02.htm.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 13th 2014

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