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The Aztec festival linked to eating tamales

Dancing with snakes - and swallowing them!

In answer to the question ‘Which was the Aztecs’ favourite game?’ (in our ‘Ask the Experts’ service for schools), a little tongue-in-cheek our Panellist Dr. Frances Karttunen, Retired Professor of Linguistics and Senior University Research Scientist, Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas (USA) offered the following, which deserves an entry of its own here! It comes from the manuscript Primeros Memoriales, written and drawn after the Conquest. The translation from the original Náhuatl is by Dr. Karttunen (many thanks, Fran!)...

Pic 1: Swallowing snakes and frogs, during the Aztec tamale feast; Primeros Memoriales, fol 254r, detail
Pic 1: Swallowing snakes and frogs, during the Aztec tamale feast; Primeros Memoriales, fol 254r, detail (Click on image to enlarge)

Tamale feast (Primeros memoriales, fol. 253v)
The tamale feast was celebrated every eight years. For seven days leading up to it, people fasted, eating only tamales made with water and no salt or chili or any other seasoning. If anyone disregarded the fast, he was found out and punished. This fast was taken very seriously, and it was believed that people who secretly broke it and thought they had gotten away with it unpunished would break out in pimples.
When the day of the feast arrived, it was called “The Hoarding Up of Good Fortune.” And the people all came to the feast in costumes, as hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, flies, birds, and beetles [can you spot them in the main picture?]. Others went as horned owls or barn owls. And there were others who came disguised as venders and beggars or as though they were disabled. Some wore necklaces of tamales around their necks. In these costumes they danced.
And before the image of the water god Tlaloc was placed a large basin of water, which was filled with snakes and frogs. And dancers called Mazateca each swallowed the live snakes and frogs. They seized the frogs with their mouths, not their hands, and they just chewed them up as they took them from the basin of water there before Tlaloc. And while the Mazateca were swallowing the snakes [pic 1], they were dancing. And whoever first consumed a snake, as soon as he got it down, he shouted out loud and danced a circle around the temple.

Pic 2: ‘And the old women and the old men wept...’ - fol. 254r (detail)
Pic 2: ‘And the old women and the old men wept...’ - fol. 254r (detail)  (Click on image to enlarge)

For two days there was dancing, and at sundown of the second day there was a procession four times around the temple.
And then fruit tamales were eaten. Everyone took them when the feast day ended. And the old women and the old men wept [pic 2] to think that they might not live to do it all over again in another eight years.

Picture source:-
Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 07th 2015

‘Games and Other Amusements of the Ancient Mesoamericans’

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