General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 7 Jul 2020/3 Eagle
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HOT TIP
Bioluminescence
Bioluminescence
Visible in the waters off Acapulco (April 2020) - the same natural phenomenon the Aztecs saw as the ihiyotl in corpse lights*
‘Mexico News Daily’ report
Figure of Xiuhtecuhtli emanating life forces, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer

Notes on the three souls, spirits, animistic entities

For the Nahua/Mexica/Aztecs the human body was and is, in the words of Davíd Carrasco, ‘the most pervasive type of sacred space in the Aztec world... a potent receptacle of cosmological forces, a living, moving centre of the world... As in the elaborate image of the cosmos from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, at the heart of the universe stands the body of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Fire God [seen here]. From his body flow four streams of blood into the four quarters of the universe, giving them energy and life...’ The human body was believed ‘to contain three souls, or animistic entities, which could be strengthened or weakened during a person’s lifetime.’ Here we try to summarise the key points about these - not an easy task as no single historical source gives a clear explanation of what happens to these key components when we die... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Parts of the human body; Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 1: Parts of the human body; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

These three spirit forces ‘gave the human body extraordinary value, vulnerability and power’ (Carrasco), and the death of an individual would lead to the dispersion of all three... Human blood, incidentally, went to nourish Tlaltecuhtli, the male-female earth deity; but ANY bodily excretion - poo, breath, mucus, semen, saliva, as well as blood - leaving the body (alive or dead) retains within it some element of animistic force.
Life and death were and are inextricable - a belief that encompasses reincarnation but goes some way beyond it: in Furst’s words ‘A man or woman does not die so much as dissolve into constituent parts whose nature is to live, with or without an intact body.’
What ARE those constituent parts, and what happens to each of them after death? All we intend to do here (we already have introductory entries on them around the site - start with the links below) is to indicate the salient points about each one; if anyone seriously wants to learn more about this complex topic, we strongly recommend the sources given at the end...

Pic 2: A priest uses a fire drill on a wooden base; Codex Vindobonensis plate 16 (detail)
Pic 2: A priest uses a fire drill on a wooden base; Codex Vindobonensis plate 16 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Working from ‘top downwards’, the three entities are:-
The tonalli in the head
The teyolia in the heart
The ihiyotl in the liver.
Here are some notes on each in turn...

TONALLI: one’s name, shadow, destiny and consciousness, the force of will and intelligence, that shapes one’s character, the body’s double.
• Most important of the three in terms of being the mechanism by which gods and humans accomplish their actions in the world
• In Nahuatl the word means to irradiate, to ‘make warm with sun’
• Hot by nature
• Believed to be derived from supreme dual deity Ometeotl
• Delivered by gods to the individual at the moment of conception by the whirling movement of a fire drill.

Pic 3: Ritual fire; Florentine Codex Book II
Pic 3: Ritual fire; Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

• The tonalli sends souls to their final resting place, through the medium of fire, which could break the barrier between human and godly worlds
• Fire is a sacred force, the oldest of the elemental deities (mirrors have magic power since they can reflect the heat of the sun and produce fire)
• Since the body temperature of an infant can fall five degrees within a few hours of birth, a midwife would place a newborn near a fire to warm it, and keep a torch burning for four days; after this time it was safe to expose the baby to the warmth of the sun itself
• Believed to go on a four-day journey after death, wandering around, gathering up its scattered parts
• Can also be seen in precious jewels, rare, beautifully coloured feathers, or in the skins/pelts of animals.

Pic 4: A warrior grasps a captive enemy’s hairlock - and tonalli; Codex Mendoza, fol. 64r (detail)
Pic 4: A warrior grasps a captive enemy’s hairlock - and tonalli; Codex Mendoza, fol. 64r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• The tonalli can leave and return to the body
• The tonalli is not specific or personal: it can be transferred from one person to another - by sharing a name, taking someone’s hairlock, acquiring a captive’s blood...
• A very close friendship can develop between two individuals with the same tonalli
• Hair was seen as a protective covering over the head, preventing the tonalli’s departure; it was dangerous to cut the hair off the back of someone’s head - it could make the loss of the tonalli too easy
• Tonalli represents one’s birthday, calendrical and personal name, image and reflection
• ‘Like the calendrical name, the personal name also conveyed or conferred some portion of the vivifying tonalli. The Mexica sometimes chose designations from a store of family names, so that a forebear’s appellation was given at a newborn’s first bathing... Modern Nahuatl and Uto-Aztecan speakers believe that a life force carried in a name is responsible for linking members of a family across generations’ (Furst)

Pic 5: Burning a corpse; Florentine Codex Book III
Pic 5: Burning a corpse; Florentine Codex Book III (Click on image to enlarge)

• ‘Once the corpse had been burned [the most common Aztec way to dispose of a dead body] the ashes and fragments of bone were collected in an earthenware vessel or in a stone or wooden box; and, as if to mark the limits of the tonalli during life, there were also included a lock of hair cut from the person’s head during the first days of his life as well as hair taken from the crown of his head following death. After this, the person’s tonalli was deposited in the family home or at the calpulli temple’ (López Austin)
• An effigy of the dead person was often placed with his/her remains, the object being for the effigy to attract the scattered bits of tonalli, which would enter the box to be preserved
• The tonalli stayed on in this way ‘materially forming part of the strength of the family’
• The remains had to receive family offerings at set intervals.

Pic 6: Mexica/Aztec greensone heart, diorite, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Mexica/Aztec greensone heart, diorite, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

TEYOLIA: one’s soul/spirit, that leaves the heart on death and goes to the next world
• Superior to the other two
• At its root is the Nahuatl word yollotl or heart
• The centre of feelings and emotions
• Never leaves the heart during a person’s lifetime
• ‘All important landscapes, such as the lakes of Mexico and the mountains, had teyolia or “heart”’ (Carrasco)
• ‘Not only the seat of the soul, but also the locus of human identity, talent and endeavour’ (Furst). Note the Nahuatl metaphor In ixtli in yollotl - ‘The eyes (or face), the heart’, ie one’s personality
• Subject to change: from without (from the weather, offences committed, magic, slavery...) and from within (mental faculties, anger, sins...)
• Its fate after death is the clearest: the soul would go to one of the four principal resting places (Mictlan, Tlalocan, the Sky of the Sun, or Chichihualcuauhco - for infants still nursing).

Pic 7: Hearts flow in streams of life-giving blood between earth and the Sun; Codex Laud, plate 18 (detail)
Pic 7: Hearts flow in streams of life-giving blood between earth and the Sun; Codex Laud, plate 18 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• Mictlan was a place of uncertainty and mystery. It certainly wasn’t ‘Hell’, though some sources speak of ‘total destruction’; but they also said that the dead would see their ancestors there
• The opposite extreme was the Sky of the Sun, the highest of the 13 ‘heavens’, the destination for warriors, sacrificial victims, mothers dying in childbirth etc.
• At the end of four years of ‘glorious existence’ these souls turned into birds (specifically the yollotototl) and butterflies and returned to earth...
• ... ‘Many of the Uto-Aztecan peoples [and other world cultures] believed that dead souls transmuted into winged beings’ (Furst)
• ‘In the Nahua world view, paradises of leisure did not exist’ (López Austin)
• The teyolia soul could avoid ending up in Mictlan by a person ‘living a life of distinction’ (Carrasco) - in this case ‘a person would be selected by one of the gods who dwelled in another realm of the afterlife’
• In general an accidental death led one’s soul to a more favourable afterlife.

Pic 8: A bleeding human heart alongside an Aztec mortuary bundle; Codex Magliabechiano fol. 66 (detail)
Pic 8: A bleeding human heart alongside an Aztec mortuary bundle; Codex Magliabechiano fol. 66 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• A piece of precious jade (for a rich person) or of obsidian (poor person) was placed in the individual’s mouth at burial: the stone represented the heart and acted as ‘money’ for the soul’s journey to the next world. The ancient Maya shared this custom...
• ... ‘Adding a stone reactivates the defunct heart’s animating and fertilising power’ (Furst)
• The teyolia lingered close to the corpse for four days after death (pic 8) before starting its journey up or down to the next world
• An individual could increase the amount of his or her ‘divine fire’ teyolia by performing extraordinary acts in war, art, government, and/or other social expressions. ‘Priests, artists, and the men and women who impersonated deities during festivals were considered to be living transmitters of teyolia, a gift of good energy to the community’ (Aguilar-Moreno)
• To conserve the accumulated teyolia of an individual - especially the head of a household - ‘the grain seeds of the house were removed so that they would not die with him’

Pic 9: The heart is removed from a sacrificial victim; Tovar Manuscript fol. XXI (detail)
Pic 9: The heart is removed from a sacrificial victim; Tovar Manuscript fol. XXI (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

• As with the tonalli, fire ‘served as a vehicle to join the surface of the earth with the path of the travelling teyolia’: it carried tears, prayers and offerings left by relatives on the hearth...
• ... These included everything the teyolia would need on the journey such as warm clothing, money (see above), food, weapons, gifts for the Lord of the Underworld, etc.
• If for some reason (such as in war - and this would have been very common) no corpse was available to the grieving family, an effigy was used through which to send offerings to the soul.

Pic 10: ‘Wind breathing the hot winds that wither the plants before the rains come’ (Furst); Codex Vindobonensis, plate 27
Pic 10: ‘Wind breathing the hot winds that wither the plants before the rains come’ (Furst); Codex Vindobonensis, plate 27 (Click on image to enlarge)

IHIYOTL: night air/wind, breath, respiration, a malign substance, luminous gas, (bad) smells, but also a source of energy and sustenance
• The liver is the domain of passions - furthest away from rational knowledge (in the head)
• Like so many Mesoamerican entities, the ihiyotl has the power both to enchant and to bring health as well as to cause damage
• As speech, breath becomes a powerful force
• Respiration was believed to come from the sustenance deities Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacíhuatl
• Ihiyotl could become visible in the form of corpse lights or bioluminescence* (from methane resulting from organic decay) - a common phenomenon, particularly in marshy, swampy areas near the lakeside, similar to the European ‘will-o-the-wisp’
• ‘The more ihiyotl - spirit and breath - a person possessed, the greater the vigour of that person’s life force’ (Furst)...
• ... ‘The shining ihiyotl appeared first as breath, in and around the body in life, then on the flesh in death, and over the lake as the ignis fatus after death’

Pic 11: The liver dangles from beneath the rib cage of an almost life-size ceramic skeletal figure representing Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of the Underworld), found in the House of the Eagles of the Aztec sacred precinct
Pic 11: The liver dangles from beneath the rib cage of an almost life-size ceramic skeletal figure representing Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of the Underworld), found in the House of the Eagles of the Aztec sacred precinct (Click on image to enlarge)

• Breath as energy-force: ‘Corn stored in a granary was refreshed and vitalised by breath, and corn, if breathed upon before being cooked, was enlivened so that it would not be afraid of heat’ (López Austin)
• Equally, sorcerers would breathe on their victims to do them harm!
• ‘Harmful emanations surge forth from a dead person... the dead want to be accompanied... these dreaded entities are attracted by the old belongings of the deceased...’ (López Austin)
• ... Hence the widespread superstitions of the Mexica regarding ghosts and other dangerous spirits of the night.

Furst gives a useful summary of the Mexica approach towards life and death, focusing on the role of the first two animistic entities:-
’Human existence represented a transfer of vital power from the heavens and from warm things, like the sun and fire, first to the human body, growing plants, and all creatures on the earth’s surface. But after death, the human life force went to the underworld.’

Pic 12: Preparing a corpse for burial; Florentine Codex Book III
Pic 12: Preparing a corpse for burial; Florentine Codex Book III (Click on image to enlarge)

Key sources:-
The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas, Vol. 1, by Alfredo López Austin, translated by Thelma Ortiz de Montellano and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1988
The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico by Jill Leslie McKeever Furst, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995
Supplemented by:-
Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth by David Carrasco with Scott Sessions, Greenwood Press, Wesport, 1998
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, 2006.

Image sources:-
• Main pic: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pix 1, 3, 5 & 12: Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 2 & 10: Images from the Codex Vindobonensis scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 4: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow, London, 1938
• Pix 6 & 11: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 7: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Laud, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pix 8: Image scanned from our own copy of the Codex Magliabechiano, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 9: Image scanned from our copy of the Tovar Manuscript, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 12th 2020

‘The fate of your tonalli after death’

‘Aztec Concepts of the Human Body ‘

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