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Funerary bundle with mask, Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 4 (detail)

Mummy bundle masks

‘The use of masks in ancient Mesoamerica goes far beyond the occasional masquerade experienced in modern Euro-American culture. In Mesoamerica, masks are, to this day, an important component of costumes worn in traditional festivals and permit an individual to take on roles in plays and processions. In ancient Mexico, the meanings of masks would have been far more complex, because their ritual roles would have been thought to transform the wearers into different beings with different powers’ (Toby Evans). Worn not apparently by commoners but by shamans, priests, rulers, god-impersonators - even symbolically by gods themselves* - few if any were designed to be positioned over a living person’s face, in the modern sense. In fact, they are more frequently found to have been used in funerary contexts... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Re-enactment of Aztec funeral ceremony, Templo Mayor Museum, by the group Amoxpoani
Pic 1: Re-enactment of Aztec funeral ceremony, Templo Mayor Museum, by the group Amoxpoani (Click on image to enlarge)

The act of adding a mask to a mortuary bundle would have animated the latter and granted it (divine) power to continue the soul’s journey to the next world. Indeed, the mortuary bundles of important individuals, adorned with fine masks - on a par with feathered ornaments - may have been displayed in temples, ‘to be venerated as spirits’. In 1530 the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, who personally witnessed some of the finest Aztec treasures on their arrival in Europe, wrote of the exquisite turquoise masks that he saw ‘These masks are placed upon the faces of the gods, whenever the sovereign is ill, not to be removed until he either recovers or dies’. There is a hint here of the ritual use of such masks to protect and empower key individuals, both in life and in death. We know that maguey-fibre masks were worn by vulnerable Mexica citizens (pregnant women, babies...) during the New Fire Ceremony, every 52 years, to protect them at that critical time. The more important the person, the more precious the material from which the mask had to be made.

Pic 2: A turquoise funerary mask on the bundled (and cremated) corpse of a deceased Tarascan ruler in the ‘Relación de Michoacán’
Pic 2: A turquoise funerary mask on the bundled (and cremated) corpse of a deceased Tarascan ruler in the ‘Relación de Michoacán’ (Click on image to enlarge)

A mask placed over a mortuary bundle containing a corpse (miquitl in Nahuatl) would serve to hide the identity of the individual and to protect him or her on their dangerous journey to the next world, whether above or below ground. It would also ‘serve as a more permanent version of the deceased individual’s face, thereby emphasising the ancestor’s ability to be manifest in the world of the living’ (Headrick).
Clearly masks in ancient Mesoamerica had ‘multiple functions’ (Pasztory): from representing an animal or natural force and thus acting as an ‘instrument of magical transformation’ (Cordry) facilitating for example a shaman’s journey to the spirit world (and, note, protecting the shaman’s identity at the same time, by ‘temporarily eliminating the personality of the wearer’), to symbolising the unity of life and death - which was seen very much as transformation rather than an end in itself. Markman and Markman spell this out most effectively, in the context of the funeral of an Aztec ruler:-

Pic 3: Clay head from Tlatilco representing life-death duality; Preclassic (c.1000 BCE)
Pic 3: Clay head from Tlatilco representing life-death duality; Preclassic (c.1000 BCE) (Click on image to enlarge)

Before cremation, the ruler’s body was elaborately arrayed, and masked, in the costume of a god, and as the fire consumed his body, his spirit started on the journey that would end in his becoming the god in whose attire he had been arrayed. When the body was not cremated, the funerary mask - whether placed over the face of the deceased, buried in the tomb, or placed on the funerary bundle - served exactly the same symbolic purpose as the crematory fire; it was both catalyst and metaphor for the transformation of the material reality into the spiritual essence.

Pic 4: Drawing by L.F. Luin of a Mixtec mortuary bundle from Coaixtlahuaca; note the stone mask on the front
Pic 4: Drawing by L.F. Luin of a Mixtec mortuary bundle from Coaixtlahuaca; note the stone mask on the front (Click on image to enlarge)

The use of masks in funerary contexts - first noted by scholars in the 1960s - has been documented among the Tarascans, Aztecs and the Maya, the most famous example being the exquisite jade mask found covering the face of King Pakal at Palenque (Headrick). Yet scholars remain reluctant to assert a definitive function for them. Some (mainly Olmec) examples have been found with evidence of burning on them, suggesting they were burned along with the mummy bundle, whereas others come from Teotihuacán, Central Mexico and the Maya area where we know the mask was attached after cremation. This is specifically mentioned in the account of a Tarascan king’s funerary ceremony, recorded in the Relación de Michoacán (see picture 2, above).

Pic 5: Reconstruction of King Pakal’s tomb at Palenque, his funerary jade mask visible below (follow link below for details)
Pic 5: Reconstruction of King Pakal’s tomb at Palenque, his funerary jade mask visible below (follow link below for details) (Click on image to enlarge)

* The mortuary bundle in the main picture above is in fact that of a divine figure, 4-Movement, patron deity of a land lost in war between two Mixtec territories.

(Recommended) sources:-
Masks of the Spirit: Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica by Roberta H. Markham and Peter T. Markham, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989
Mexican Masks by Donald Cordry, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1980
Ancient Mexican Art at Dumbarton Oaks by Susan Toby Evans (Ed.), Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, 2010
Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1983
The Mask of Death by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, García Valadés Editores, Mexico City, 1988
• ‘Códice Nuttall, lado 2: La Historia de Tilantongo y Teozacoalco’ by Manuel A. Hermann Lejarazu Arqueología Mexicana, Edición Especial no. 29, Editorial Raíces SA, n.d.
• ‘The Street of the Dead... It Really Was: Mortuary bundles at Teotihuacan’ by Annabeth Headrick, Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 69-85
Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico by Marshall H. Saville, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, 1922.

Pic 6: 19th century illustration by Luigi Pigorini of a turquoise/wooden Aztec mask admired by Peter Martyr
Pic 6: 19th century illustration by Luigi Pigorini of a turquoise/wooden Aztec mask admired by Peter Martyr (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main pic: Codex Zouche-Nuttall image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1987 (pl. 4, detail)
• Pic 1: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Image from the Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobernación de los indios de la provincia de Mechuacan (Edited by Moises Franco Mendoza) scanned from our own copy of the El Colegio de Michoacan facsimile edition, Mexico, n.d.
• Pic 3: photo by Lourdes Grobet, scanned from The Mask of Death (see above)
• Pic 4: illustration scanned from article by Annabeth Headrick (see above)
• Pic 5: photo from Wikipedia (Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal)
• Pic 6: illustration scanned from Turquois Mosaic Art (see above); the quote by Peter Martyr is also taken from this source.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 30th 2020

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