General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Aztec/Mexica priest with hair matted with blood, Codex Tudela

Why did Mexica priests have matted hair?

The ‘popular’ image most of us share of Aztec/Mexica priests is this one (right, from the Codex Tudela, folio 76): men engaged in a daily ritual of human sacrifice, who never washed, whose bodies and vestments smelled of blood and dirt, and whose hair remained long, tangled and filthy. As usual, there’s more to it than this... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Aztec calendar sign no. 12 Malinalli (Grass)
Pic 1: The Aztec calendar sign no. 12 Malinalli (Grass) (Click on image to enlarge)

Professor Cecelia Klein (on our Panel of Experts - read her fascinating article on ‘How Mesoamericans viewed the cosmos’ by clicking on the link below) has shown that much in the world before the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico was made of natural materials that had to be woven and matted together to form structures such as the roofs of houses - and that the same applied to the physical form of the over- and underworlds. Various parts of simple Aztec/Mexica and Maya houses were literally bound together using twisted cords and vines - in the Aztec case, cords probably made of a wild twining grass called malinalli. Is it not significant that one of the twenty day/calendar signs of the Aztecs was malinalli (Pic 1)?

Pic 2: Stone image of Tlaltecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 2: Stone image of Tlaltecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

The earth deity Tlaltecuhtli is often portrayed with wild, tangled hair, reminiscent of the mass of entangled serpents that formed the skirt of the great earth goddess Coatlicue - all symbolic of vegetation, fertility and growth. Klein believes that Tlaltecuhtli’s hair (Pic 2) seems to be made of that all-important resource malinalli, which is twisted in its natural state, as its name (from the Náhuatl root malina, to twist something), would suggest. She goes on (follow link below) to show that Mesoamericans imagined the underworld as formed of a mass of knotted and tangled fibres.

Pic 3: Plants and snakes, Codex Tudela, folio 68
Pic 3: Plants and snakes, Codex Tudela, folio 68 (Click on image to enlarge)

In the visible world on the earth’s surface, however, these become more ordered and braided - as in the case of the ‘stretched out’, interlaced, entwined roots of trees. Trees and housepoles, as Klein reminds us, ‘provided the chief support for the ancient weaver’s backstrap loom, and thus marked the implicit centre of the woven cosmos’. Notice the upright supports strengthening the plants entwined around them, growing out of the snake-framed earth in the Codex Tudela (Pic 3).

Pic 4: Tlaloc-Cihuacóatl priest: stone sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropología
Pic 4: Tlaloc-Cihuacóatl priest: stone sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropología (Click on image to enlarge)

Now perhaps we start to grasp a little of how, in Klein’s words, ‘the belief that the underworld is composed of a wad of entangled strands may help explain the association of tangled hair and cords with priests... engaged in rituals of death and/or fertility.’ The priests at the service of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, regularly took part in human sacrifice ceremonies, and at least one of them, the chief sacrificer, can be seen wearing a wig of malinalli (Pic 4). ‘Both the twisted cords and the tangled hair may have symbolized the disordered filaments of the underworld’.

Info from:-
• Cecelia F. Klein. “Woven Heaven, Tangled Earth: A Weaver’s Paradigm of the Mesoamerican Cosmos.” In Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, ed. Anthony F. Aveni and Gary Urton. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 385 (1982): 1-35.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Malinalli calendar sign: illustration commissioned for Mexicolore by Felipe Davalos
• Photo of Tlaltecuhtli by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of Tlaloc-Cihuacóatl sculpture by Cecelia F. Klein

How did Mesoamericans envision the cosmos?

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