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Nahua pilgrimage with ritual walking sticks

The topilli or ‘staff of justice’

In our recent ‘Desert Island Artefacts’ survey of members of our Panel of Experts, Professor Alan Sandstrom chose an unusual artefact to be marooned with: a walking stick - ‘used by the Nahua of today to embody the power of the ritual specialist and to help people walk a straight path through life.’ Intrigued, we asked him for more information, and as always, he came up trumps, calling on his extensive ethnographic experience in the Nahua community of Amantlan, Veracruz... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Nahua ritual specialists carry a sacred walking stick and ring bells to awaken the spirit entities as they lead a pilgrimage trek to a distant sacred mountain. The air is filled with copal incense from a smoking brazier
Pic 1: Nahua ritual specialists carry a sacred walking stick and ring bells to awaken the spirit entities as they lead a pilgrimage trek to a distant sacred mountain. The air is filled with copal incense from a smoking brazier (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The walking stick is called tlanahuatilcuatopilli in Nahuatl, meaning “walking stick of command” (in Spanish, bastón de mando). Many Nahua associate the sacred walking sticks with thunder, rain, fertility, and the authority of the ritual specialist. During rituals, the Nahua decorate the walking sticks with ribbons and tie a fresh cloth handkerchief doused with perfume around them. People say that the colors of the ribbons tied to the walking sticks reveal the seed crops and the rays of the sun as it rises. Walking sticks are ranked according to prestige and power. People use governmental offices to indicate the position of a specific walking stick in the hierarchy. Thus, the most powerful stick is called the “presidente” and a lesser one the “juez.”’
(In the main photo above, Nahua ritual specialists, each carrying a sacred walking stick, lead a pilgrimage entourage back to the community’s shrine).

Pic 2: Nahua women carry dressed paper figures, walking sticks, and other adornments during a cleansing ritual to rid them of dangerous, disease-causing winds
Pic 2: Nahua women carry dressed paper figures, walking sticks, and other adornments during a cleansing ritual to rid them of dangerous, disease-causing winds (Click on image to enlarge)

These initially unassuming-looking sticks appear to have a long and worthy pedigree, going back centuries, to long before the Spanish invasion.
One clue to this lies in the Nahuatl word for stick or staff, topilli (the final part of the long word shown in the first paragraph). Most Nahuatl dictionaries will translate it as ‘staff of office’ in English or, more tellingly, as vara de justicia in Spanish. Miguel León-Portilla glosses it in Nahuatl as ohtlatopilli - literally a ‘road/path stick’.
Cecilio Robelo, in his classic Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl, goes into far more detail - to the tune of four sizeable paragraphs on the term topiltzin...

Pic 3: Yacatecuhtli-Quetzalcóatl, principal patron deity of merchants, carrying staff and fan; Tonalamatl de los Pochtecas (Codex Fejérváry-Mayer), pl. 31 (detail). Note the flower at the end of the staff
Pic 3: Yacatecuhtli-Quetzalcóatl, principal patron deity of merchants, carrying staff and fan; Tonalamatl de los Pochtecas (Codex Fejérváry-Mayer), pl. 31 (detail). Note the flower at the end of the staff (Click on image to enlarge)

to is ‘our’, pilli is ‘son’/’prince’/’noble’, and tzin(tli) is a reverential suffix; it was the title of the leading Mexica priest undertaking human sacrifice rituals, it was the title of the famous semi-divine ruler-priest Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl - in Henry Nicholson’s words ‘The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs’; and as topile it was the title of an Aztec constable or judge (‘he with the staff [of justice]’) Clearly the staff was a powerful and visible symbol of justice in the community, with sacred associations: whilst Yacatecuhtli, patron of merchants, wasn’t the only god depicted bearing a staff, it is with him that the strongest connections were formed. The staff and feather fan were ‘objects associated by the Aztecs with both imperial messengers and travelling merchants’. Berdan and Anawalt explain:-

Pic 4: A Mexica constable bearing staff and feather fan; Codex Mendoza fol. 66r (detail)
Pic 4: A Mexica constable bearing staff and feather fan; Codex Mendoza fol. 66r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The stout cane staff that was so integral a part of the merchants’ equipment was associated with their god, Yacatecuhtli (“Lord of the Vanguard” or “Nose-Lord”). The merchants decked their staves, which they carried as they travelled, with paper decorations. During their long journeys, whenever the traders stopped to sleep, they set up these paper-bedecked walking sticks and performed rituals in front of them to honour and gain the favour of Yacatecuhtli.
’The staff of the merchant god held great significance at home as well. In the neighbourhood temple the staff was set upright and offered gifts both on feast days and before each meal.’

Pic 5: Mexica ‘disguised merchants’ entering the territory of Zinacantlan; Florentine Codex Book IX
Pic 5: Mexica ‘disguised merchants’ entering the territory of Zinacantlan; Florentine Codex Book IX (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s well known that long-distance Aztec travelling merchants (pochteca), with their own system of grades/hierarchies, acted as spies for the Triple Alliance Empire (learn more about this by following the link below). They enjoyed special privileges as a reward for some of the physical risks they took on their expeditions, and were close to nobles in social status.
The Florentine Codex (Book IX) describes merchants’ walking sticks as ‘the black staves with tassels of curve-billed thrasher [bird] feathers, with which they took the road to arrive here in Mexico.’ Clearly the decorating of the staff emphasises its ritual importance - a tradition that lives on today (pic 6) in Nahua communities...

Pic 6: Nahua ritual specialists have placed sacred walking sticks associated with thunder and rain, in front of a freshwater spring inhabited by ‘apanchaneh’, the water dweller. Dressed paper figures of the seeds can be seen in the sisal bag
Pic 6: Nahua ritual specialists have placed sacred walking sticks associated with thunder and rain, in front of a freshwater spring inhabited by ‘apanchaneh’, the water dweller. Dressed paper figures of the seeds can be seen in the sisal bag (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
Special thanks to Alan Sandstrom (personal communication)
The Codex Mendoza Vol. II: Description, Bibliography, Index, by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of California Press, 1992
Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain - Fray Bernardino de Sahagún Book IX - The Merchants, translated by Charles E. Dibble & Arthur J.O. Anderson, School of American Research/University of Utah, Santa Fe, 1959
• ‘El Tonalamatl de los Pochtecas (Códice Fejérváry-Mayer), by Miguel León-Portilla, Arqueología Mexicana edición especial códices, no. 18, Editorial Raíces, Mexico City, 2005
Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl by Cecilio A. Robelo, Ediciones Fuente Cultural, Mexico DF, n.d.
Topiltzin Quetzalcóatl by H. B. Nicholson, University Press of Colorado, 2001.

Picture sources:-
• Main, and pix 1, 2 & 6: photos by, © and thanks to Alan Sandstrom
• Pic 3: image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pic 4: image scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), London, 1938
• Pic 5: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 08th 2020

emoticon Q. Why would you never want to disturb two or more sacred walking sticks standing together?
A. They’re in a staff meeting...

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