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What do the colour bands on Tezcatlipoca’s face mean?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Mexi: Might you have any information on the meaning of the colors used on images of Tetzkatlipoka ie. the bands of yellow and black, or blue and black etc on the face.? I understand that the colors indicated cardinal direction ie, Tetzkatlipoka Negro (North), azul, rojo (East). However, what do the bands represent and why was the band design chosen? Thank You!! (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Tezcatlipoca: illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on the Codex Borgia
Pic 1: Tezcatlipoca: illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

Excellent question!
According to Mary Miller and Karl Taube, the ‘broad alternating bands of yellow and black across the face’ link Tezcatlipoca (‘Smoking Mirror’) to the jaguar - the deity’s ‘animal counterpart’ and the most powerful nocturnal animal of Mesoamerica. Black, of course, also relates to obsidian and the cold region of the North. Black is without doubt the colour most commonly associated with him.
But there are complications: other deities are also depicted from time to time with what Guilhem Olivier calls ‘facial painting formed by transversal stripes’, and the British Museum has a magnificent mosaic skull mask, often associated with Tezcatlipoca, on which the colours turquoise and black predominate (pic 2). Moreover, as we all know, there wasn’t just ‘one’ Tezcatlipoca - in fact one scholar (Doris Heyden) found 360 different phrases for him in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex alone!
Most scholars talk of three principal ‘types’: Black, Red and Blue (note three rather than four, indicating no particular connection with the four cardinal directions).

Pic 2: The turquoise mosaic skull mask associated with Tezcatlipoca, British Museum
Pic 2: The turquoise mosaic skull mask associated with Tezcatlipoca, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Certainly T’s facial painting is a key ‘determinant element’ of this deity: Olivier found, in a detailed study of 14 major codices, that 34 out of 42 representations of him evidenced such painting. But we should be cautious when interpreting the colours used; Olivier found black (stripes)-on-yellow (background), black-on-flesh-colour, black-on-grey, grey-on-yellow, grey-on-flesh-colour, and brown-on-yellow...
And whilst red could simply be a reflection of T’s warlike nature, and of course with blood, it’s never that simple: as Juan José Batalla warns, ‘In the grand scheme of things, we should keep in mind that the colours red, blue and green can [all] be interpreted similarly to the chalchihuatl or precious liquid: blood.’
The point is, we’re dealing with a VERY complex being/deity, about whom many books have been written, and here we’re simply scratching the (jaguar skin) surface...!

(Recommended) sources:-
The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube (Thames and Hudson, London, 1993)
Tezcatlipoca: Trickster and Supreme Deity edited by Elizabeth Baquedano (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2014) - see particularly the chapter by Juan José Batalla
Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’ by Guilhem Olivier, University Press of Colorado, Boulder, 2013).

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: image scanned from The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso (lllustrations by Miguel Covarrubias), University of Oklahoma Press, 1958
• Pic 2: photo from Wikipedia (Tezcatlipoca).

See our introductory feature on Tezcatlipoca in the ‘Aztec Gods’ section

‘Tezcatlipoca - a new clue is revealed...’

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