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Mexicolore contributor Ben Leeming

Aztec Hell - Christian Mictlan

We are hugely grateful to Dr. Ben Leeming, specialist in early colonial Mexican ethnohistory, religious transculturation, colonial Nahuas and Nahuatl language, and colonial Nahuatl religious texts, and lecturer at the Rivers School, Weston, MA (USA) for writing this fascinating article specially for us, contrasting the Mexica (Aztec) concept of the soul’s final resting place in the underworld (Mictlan) with the Spanish notion of hell. Which would you choose...?

Pic 1: Illustration of hell from the 12th century Hortus Deliciarum (“Garden of Delights”)
Pic 1: Illustration of hell from the 12th century Hortus Deliciarum (“Garden of Delights”) (Click on image to enlarge)

The question, “Where do we go when we die?” must be as old as human consciousness itself. Perhaps it was the difficulty of letting go of loved ones, the fear of the unknown, or just that insatiable human hunger to understand the universe that drove cultures to imagine vivid “Otherworlds” that followed life here on Earth. In the Christian worldview of the Spanish conquerors and colonizers of the New World, the answer was black and white: a heavenly paradise would reward faithful Christian souls, while a terrifying eternity of suffering in hell was the punishment of the wicked and the unconverted (see pic 1).
But what about the Aztec people the Spaniards encountered in the early sixteenth century? What sort of Otherworlds did they imagine? The short answer to this question is lots! There were at least four or five different destinations of the dead in pre-Contact Aztec thought.

Pic 2: ‘Aztec Otherworlds’; detail from a mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: ‘Aztec Otherworlds’; detail from a mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

However, in this article we will consider just one: Mictlan, the “land of the dead.” This was the Otherworld the Spanish missionaries chose as the equivalent of the Christian hell in their teaching and writing. As we will see, this fateful choice would lead in colonial times to the emergence of a fascinating hybrid underworld that merged elements of Christianity and Indigenous sacred ways.
When considering what the Aztecs may have understood about the land of the dead, there are a few things critical students of history need to keep in mind. One is that any time we try to understand the religious beliefs of cultures outside of our own tradition we have a tendency to think about them in terms familiar to us. In the case of the Aztec Otherworlds, we who were raised in the monotheistic traditions might be tempted to think of them in the simple terms of “the place where good people go” and “the place where bad people go.” This association of one’s destination after life with one’s behavior during life is very strong in the Christian tradition (as well as in Islam).

Pic 3: The rain god Tlaloc, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 3: The rain god Tlaloc, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

However, such was not the case for the Aztecs. Rather, where one ended up after death was determined either by the day on which one was born or on the manner in which one died (or perhaps a combination of both). For example, warriors who died in battle were transformed into shimmering hummingbirds and resided forever in the land of Tonatiuh, the Sun. People who died by drowning or from diseases associated with water would pass on to Tlalocan, the verdant abode of Tlaloc, the rain god (see pic 3). However, for the vast majority of people, those who died from sickness or old age, their eternal home was the cold and shadowy world of Mictlan, the land of the dead. Remember, Mictlan was not the destination of “sinners,” nor was it a place of punishment and torture at the hand of demons. In other words, Mictlan differed in some very important ways from the Christian hell. We’ll return to this shortly.

Pic 4: Diagram of the vertical axis of the Aztec cosmos - author’s illustration
Pic 4: Diagram of the vertical axis of the Aztec cosmos - author’s illustration (Click on image to enlarge)

So, what did the Aztecs believe about Mictlan? Where was it? How did people get there? And what was it like? The sources we have suggest that Mictlan was understood to be located at the bottom of a three-layered vertical axis (see pic 4). The uppermost layer was called Ilhuicac, or “in the heavens,” and was associated with the sun and the sky, the middle layer was Tlalticpac, “on the earth,” and was considered the land of the living, and the lowermost layer was Mictlan, literally “among the dead” or more generally, the land of the dead. Fissures in the layer of the earth (like caves, springs, and clefts in mountains) were thought to be openings through which sacred forces, ancestors, and life-giving waters entered the land of the living from the underworld. Here again we have a critical difference between Christian associations of the underworld with hell and evil forces and Aztec views of the earth as the source of life-giving beings and forces.

Pic 5: Layers of the Underworld from the Codex Vaticanus-Latinus 3738
Pic 5: Layers of the Underworld from the Codex Vaticanus-Latinus 3738 (Click on image to enlarge)

Some sources suggest that the Aztec underworld itself consisted of a number of different layers (nine, to be precise). The top-most layer of the underworld began at the surface of the earth (Tlalticpac), and descended downward to the lower-most level of Mictlan. After death, the Aztecs believed the soul would have to pass through each of these layers on the journey to Mictlan. Along the way, certain challenging obstacles would be encountered, each one associated with one of the nine layers (see pic 5). One source records the nine as:-

Pic 6: Preparing corpses for burial and cremation. Florentine Codex Book 3
Pic 6: Preparing corpses for burial and cremation. Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

1. “the earth,” (Tlalticpac)
2. “the passageway of water,”
3. “the place where the hills are found,”
4. “the obsidian hills”
5. “the place of the obsidian wind,”
6. “the place where the banners fly,”
7. “the place where people are killed by arrows,”
8. “the place where people’s hearts are devoured,”
9. “the obsidian place of the dead” or “the place that has no outlet for smoke”
(quoted in Alfredo Lopez-Austin The Human Body and Ideology).
In order to equip the dead with the means to navigate these challenges, the Aztecs sent off their male deceased with his arrows and shields and their female dead with her weaving implements. In the mouths of the well to do, a precious greenstone was placed as stand-in for the heart; commoners gave their dead a stone heart of lesser value. Book Three of the Florentine Codex tells us that the poor souls who had nothing “went just as they were, greatly afflicted and suffering as they passed though the place of the obsidian-bladed winds.”

Pic 7: A dog accompanies his master, both carrying gifts of paper scrolls, to greet the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli; Codex Laud fol. 26
Pic 7: A dog accompanies his master, both carrying gifts of paper scrolls, to greet the Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli; Codex Laud fol. 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

Once arriving at the lowermost level, the deceased would stand before the Lord and Lady of Mictlan, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl. One of our sources states that this under-worldly couple “eat feet, hands, and fetid beetle stew; their gruel is pus; they drink it from skulls.” Standing before these two, the dead would then present their personal possessions. After a period of four years, the deceased crossed the “nine rivers of Mictlan” with the assistance of a dog who had been cremated with them upon their death (see pic 7).
From this point on it is unclear how the soul spent the rest of eternity. Book III of the Florentine Codex simply states, Auh in oncan chiconamictlan oncan ocempopoliohua, “There in the nine [places of] Mictlan, in that place there was the ultimate disappearance.” The mystery shrouding the Aztecs’ land of the dead, not to mention its vague similarity with the Christian underworld, would create an opportunity that Spanish missionaries and native writers of the post-Contact period would exploit in their efforts to spread Christianity in the former realm of the Aztecs. However, in the process both the Mictlan of the Aztecs and the hell of the Christians would undergo change.

Pic 8: Dominican friar baptizing a Nahua. From the Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 46r
Pic 8: Dominican friar baptizing a Nahua. From the Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 46r (Click on image to enlarge)

[Since I will now be discussing views of the underworld after the defeat of the Aztec empire by the Spanish, will refer to the Nahuatl-speaking people of the colony of New Spain as Nahuas.]

After the conclusion of the Aztec-Spanish War of 1519-1521, the Catholic Church undertook the massive effort to convert all of Spain’s newest subjects to Christianity. The day-to-day tasks of preaching, teaching, and baptizing fell largely to members of three religious orders: the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians (see pic 8). Since they were so vastly outnumbered, early on they set about educating a class of Indigenous boys to assist them in learning Indigenous languages, understanding Indigenous culture, writing Indigenous-language sermons and catechisms; these indoctrinated natives would in turn evangelize their families and friends.

Pic 9: Friar with teenage assistants on mission to the chichimecas (Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’)
Pic 9: Friar with teenage assistants on mission to the chichimecas (Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’) (Click on image to enlarge)

When it came to translating Christian concepts from Spanish or Latin into Nahuatl, the Spanish friars relied heavily on their Nahua pupils. One of their basic translation strategies was to look for equivalents of important Christian terms in the Nahuatl language and to use those terms in their efforts to teach the new doctrine to Nahuas. This was the strategy they chose when it came to translating the important Christian concept of el infierno (“hell”). In the end, the word Mictlan was chosen. However, as has already been noted, there were several crucial differences between the Aztec and Christian lands of the dead. Therefore, if Mictlan were to be an effective translation of hell, it would require an “extreme makeover.”

Pic 10: Brother Pedro de Gante instructing Indians on the use of European tools (from Diego Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’)
Pic 10: Brother Pedro de Gante instructing Indians on the use of European tools (from Diego Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’) (Click on image to enlarge)

By far, the friars and their Nahua assistants put the most effort into transforming Mictlan from a somewhat unpleasant cold and dark place to an absolutely terrifying medieval chamber of horrors that crackled with fire and echoed with the screams of tortured souls. The results of their efforts are marvelously creative examples of cross-cultural literary innovation that mixed Indigenous and Christian elements. Compare the two passages below. The first is from the Florentine Codex and represents what we might consider to be a description of Mictlan in the traditional, pre-Contact sense. The second is from an early colonial Nahua writer envisioning the terrible torments experienced by a condemned soul in Mictlan/hell.

Pic 11: Death bundle, together with gifts for the Lord and Lady of Mictlan. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, from the Codex Magliabechiano fol 57
Pic 11: Death bundle, together with gifts for the Lord and Lady of Mictlan. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, from the Codex Magliabechiano fol 57 (Click on image to enlarge)

First, from Book III of the Florentine Codex:

You have brought yourself to the place of mystery, the place of the unfleshed, the place where there is arriving, the place with no smoke hole, the place with no fireplace. No longer will you make your way back, your return. No more will you consider your present, your past. For a little while you have gone leaving orphans, you have gone leaving people, your children, your grandchildren… (Translation modified by the author from the Anderson & Dibble edition).

Pic 12: Falling towards a (Christian) hell; detail from a mural of the meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés by Roberto Cueva del Río
Pic 12: Falling towards a (Christian) hell; detail from a mural of the meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

Next from Nahua Fabián de Aquino (c. 1575-1600):

Alas! O my flesh! O my flesh!... Already you cause me to enter into the mouth of the beasts of Mictlan, the tzitzimitl…Straight away you go placing me in danger – there in the place of utter perishing, where one is tormented, where one is imprisoned, where one is flayed, where one is roasted, where one is whipped, where one is dripped with copal (resin), where one is hung up, where one is stretched out. [It is] an icy place where one is hurled down, where one is chopped up into little pieces, where one is placed in a metal pot and stirred with a stick. Every sort of suffering lies spreading out upon it…(Author’s translation from the original).

Pic 13: Demons torturing the damned in hell, from a mural in the open air chapel, Convent of San Nicolás Tolentino, Actopan, Hidalgo (1546 and on) - roughly the same period Fabián de Aquino wrote his description of hell
Pic 13: Demons torturing the damned in hell, from a mural in the open air chapel, Convent of San Nicolás Tolentino, Actopan, Hidalgo (1546 and on) - roughly the same period Fabián de Aquino wrote his description of hell (Click on image to enlarge)

In the hands of the Nahua Aquino, Mictlan has undergone a number of transformations that reveal the hybrid nature of these colonial Nahuatl Christian texts. First and foremost, in Aquino’s Mictlan the “fear factor” has been turned up to a new level of intensity. He imagines in vivid detail all sorts of terrifying tortures inflicted on the sinner in hell, drawing both on European imagery of medieval torture chambers as well an Indigenous world which includes flaying of bodies and dripping of molten copal resin (see pic 13).
However, the way that he unfurls his lengthy string of words, each of which is constructed in an identical pattern, is entirely Indigenous. In the long tradition of Nahuatl oral performance, singers and poets exercised their talents by constructing elaborate repetitions called parallelisms, which sought to build up a strong visual image and induce an emotional reaction from their audience. Aquino brilliantly demonstrates his facility with these traditional forms in the passage above.

Pic 14: Tzitzimitl, from the Codex Tudela
Pic 14: Tzitzimitl, from the Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

You might also notice some other elements of the Indigenous realm in his description of Mictlan. Like the Mictlan of the Aztecs, Aquino’s Christian Mictlan is an “icy place.” It is also inhabited by beings called tzitzimime, frightening stellar deities who threatened to descend from the sky to devour people at significant moments in the Aztec calendar (see pic 14). Here they have become the demon-helpers of the devil, cruelly exacting punishment on the bodies of sinners.
If the Mictlan of the Aztecs was notable for its cold, obsidian winds, the Christian hell was most characteristically represented by its unquenchable fire. Unlike the fires of Purgatory, which burned away impurities but ultimately released the soul to its heavenly reward, the fires of hell subjected the sinner’s soul to unimaginable torture.

Pic 15: Surrounded by flames, demons gleefully torture sinners in this mural from another open air chapel in Hidalgo, Santa María Xoxoteco. Such images would have provided a nightmarish backdrop to the sermons preached by the friars
Pic 15: Surrounded by flames, demons gleefully torture sinners in this mural from another open air chapel in Hidalgo, Santa María Xoxoteco. Such images would have provided a nightmarish backdrop to the sermons preached by the friars (Click on image to enlarge)

Great pains were taken by the friars to convince Nahuas of the terrifying and painful nature of the fires of hell. One early friar reportedly devised a cruel visual demonstration, building a raging fire in a clay oven then casting small animals into the flames. Over the poor creatures’ horrific screams, shocked Nahuas were told that this same fate awaited them if they refused to convert.
A more literary (and humane) approach to transforming the Indigenous Mictlan into a hot, fiery place was undertaken by the writers of Nahuatl Christian texts. Some descriptions employed the same repeating, parallel structures as Fabián de Aquino did above.

Pic 16: Mictlancíhuatl (Lady of Mictlan) receiving a soul. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on the Codex Fejervary-Mayer pl. 28
Pic 16: Mictlancíhuatl (Lady of Mictlan) receiving a soul. Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on the Codex Fejervary-Mayer pl. 28 (Click on image to enlarge)

Others created an entirely new category of words describing the “fiery” nature of hell, its inhabitants, and the frightening instruments of torture they used. To do this, these innovative linguists used the common Nahuatl strategy of noun compounding. By adding the noun stem for fire (tletl) to another noun word, such as tepozmecatl (metal cord, or chain) they created words like tletepozmecatl (“fiery metal cord, or chain”), an instrument brandished by demons in one vivid description. Other implements and methods of torture include tletepoztzatzastli (“fiery metal weaving frame”), tlexochtepozitztli (“burning ember metal blade”), tletepoztopilli (“fiery metal staff”), tlemitl (“fiery arrows”), and tletemascalli (“fiery sweat lodge”). Writers even imaged a hellish bestiary of new species of animals, such as tlechichime (“fire dogs”), tlecuecuetzpaltin (“fire lizards”), tlepapalome (“fire butterflies”), and even something called a tlexochmazatl (“burning-ember deer” or “demon-horse”). Finally, in one source hell itself is referred to using the very Indigenous-sounding word Tleoztocalco (“fiery cave house”).

Pic 17: Catholic religion, Mexican style. Mural (artist unknown), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 17: Catholic religion, Mexican style. Mural (artist unknown), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

What might have been the long-term effects of such colonial transformations? For one thing, Nahuas never seem to have fully accepted the Christian notion that the underworld – call it hell or call it Mictlan – was something to be feared (despite the best efforts of the friars and their Nahua assistants!). The Indigenous worldview has proven remarkably resistant to the attempt to impose Christianity’s “heaven/hell” and “good/evil” dualities. For many Nahuas living in Mexico today, the world (both “under” and “over”) remains a thoroughly sacred place, where “good” and “not good” are two sides of the same coin, and where human actions are aimed at preserving the delicate balance between the two, rather than seeking the victory of one over the other. The underworld is still seen as lying within the sacred body of “mother” earth, who season by season opens herself to permit the bursting forth of life-giving waters and sacred forces. Like so many Indigenous cultural concepts and practices, Mictlan survived the Conquest in the myriad creative adaptations imagined, written, and performed by Nahuas from the time of First Contact to the present.

Pic 18: Mictlantecuhtli iconography, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 18: Mictlantecuhtli iconography, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3, 4, 8, 13 & 15: Images supplied by and courtesy of Ben Leeming
• Pix 2, 12, 17 & 18: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vaticanus-Latinus 3738, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pic 6: Image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 7: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Laud (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pix 9 & 10: Images courtesy of and supplied by Jaime Lara
• Pix 11 & 16: Images scanned from The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso (lllustrations by Miguel Covarrubias), University of Oklahoma Press, 1958
• Pic 14: Codex Tudela image scanned from our own copy of the Colección Thesaurus Americae 2002 facsimile edition, Madrid.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 29th 2018

‘The Aztecs and the Day of the Dead’

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