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Professor Cecilia Rossell

Question for September 2005

Which was the most precious colour for the Aztecs and why? Asked by Allenbourn Middle School. Chosen and answered by Professor Cecilia Rossell.

A ruler’s diadem (crown), Codex Mendoza
A ruler’s diadem (crown), Codex Mendoza

English:Every colour was valuable for the Aztecs, but there were ten or so that had a special meaning: probably the most important was blue-turquoise, because turquoise and jade stones were the equivalent of gold and silver for the Spanish. These metals were known and appreciated by the Aztecs - they linked them to the light and radiance of the Sun and the Moon - but green jade represented fertile vegetation, and blue turquoise mirrored the water of rivers, lakes and seas, and the daytime sky. In Náhuatl (the Aztec language still spoken by some 8-10 million Mexicans) the word for turquoise is ‘xihuitl’ and it’s also used to refer to a herb, comets, the year, and to anything precious. That’s why in the codices the artists often played on the meaning of words: for example, when writing a year sign it was often painted blue or accompanied by a herb leaf; and rulers bore a type of pointed crown (diadem) made of turquoise mosaic, to represent one of the ruler’s titles - ‘Lord of Time or of the Year’ (the god of rulers was called ‘Xiuhtecuhtli’ or ‘Year Lord’ or ‘Lord Precious’).

Turquoise disk, Templo Mayor Museum
Turquoise disk, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Español:Todos los colores eran valiosos para los Aztecas, pero había alrededor de diez que tenían un significado especial, probablemente el más importante era el azul-turquesa,
ya que para ellos las piedras de turquesa y el jade fueron lo que el oro y la plata para los europeos. Conocían estos metales y les gustaban, pues los asociaban con la luz y el brillo del Sol y la Luna, pero el verde del Jade representaba lo fértil de la vegetación, y el azul de la turquesa era como el agua de los ríos, los lagos y el mar, así como del cielo de día también. A la piedra de turquesa se le dice “xihuitl” en nahuatl, lengua que hablaban los Aztecas y que todavía hablan hoy entre ocho y diez millones de personas en México, esta palabra también se usa para dar varios significados, como es el color azul-turquesa, para la hierba, los cometas, el año y lo que es precioso. Por eso en los códices se acostumbraba hacer juegos de palabras, como al escribir las fechas de los años, que se pintaban de azul o bien se acompañaban de una hoja de hierba, y los gobernantes llevaban un tipo de corona que terminaba en punta, y que estaba hecha con mosaico o pedazos de turquesas, para representar uno de sus títulos que era el “Señor del Tiempo o del Año”, ya que el dios de los gobernantes se llamaba “Xiuhtecuhtli” el Señor del Año o el Señor Precioso.

Detail from turquoise disk
Detail from turquoise disk

(If you look carefully [click on the large image above] at the turquoise disk - made up of around 15,000 incrustations of turquoise! - you can see figures of Aztec gods...)

Professor Cecilia Rossell has answered 7 questions altogether:

Which was the most precious colour for the Aztecs and why?

Why were cocoa beans so valuable?

Did the Aztecs use make-up?

How did the hearts actually get to the gods?

Did they take feathers equally from male and female quetzal birds?

Have traces of real blood been found on the sacrifice knife blades?

How old was the oldest codex?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Turquoise wasn’t available locally to the Mexica/Aztecs, nor to the ancient Maya. It comes from hundreds of miles up further north-west of Mexico, in what is today the SW USA. It was traded far and wide throughout Mesoamerica for its rarity and beauty.