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Separation of souls after death, Codex Laud

The fate of your tonalli after death

We know the Mexica believed in human beings having three souls or spiritual forces, in the concept of 13 ‘heavens’ and 9 underworlds, and in the idea that two of the souls leave the body immediately on dying (follow links below for more on these), but what happened to the tonalli - the warm energy (from the Sun) located in the head, linked to your destiny in life - after death? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Diagram from the Codex Laud (fol. 44, detail) showing the three souls leaving a dead body
Pic 1: Diagram from the Codex Laud (fol. 44, detail) showing the three souls leaving a dead body (Click on image to enlarge)

In this all-important image from the Codex Laud (main picture and pic 1), most scholars believe it shows the separation of the three ‘animistic forces’ or souls upon death. The serpent leaving the crown of the head could well be the tonalli, characterised by some as ‘shadow’, the one with the wind god’s head and arm springing from the heart the teyolia or ‘spirit’, and the third from the stomach the ihiyotl or ‘night wind’. The main trunk of the body in skeletal form falls back, bereft of its spirit forces. The teyolia carries the essential spirit of the individual to her or his final resting place (whether above or below the earth), normally through the medium of fire; the ihiyotl escapes from the body in gaseous form (think of the smells of decomposing bodies) and could then float around earth as ghosts or phantoms. But what of the tonalli?

Pic 2: A Mexica warrior captures an enemy, symbolically grasping a clump of the latter’s hair - and with it his tonalli; Codex Mendoza fol. 65r (detail)
Pic 2: A Mexica warrior captures an enemy, symbolically grasping a clump of the latter’s hair - and with it his tonalli; Codex Mendoza fol. 65r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

For the ancient Nahuas, the tonalli was fragmentary in nature: elements of it could be left by an individual in different places during his/her lifetime; some of it could ‘stick’ to parts of the body that grow quickly and need to be cut (back) such as fingernails or hair. It could leave and return to the body during illness, or in moments of fright/danger - from dreams to a simple sneeze that shakes the body violently. It was implanted in the foetus prior to birth by the divine breath of the supreme creator couple. After death this ‘animistic entity’ was believed to go on a journey, ‘gathering up its scattered portions’. The family of the deceased could aid this process by creating a small wooden effigy of the individual and placing it in a box containing his/her mortal remains (bones, ashes...) together with a lock of hair cut from the person’s head as a newborn baby and another from the scalp at the end of life. The effigy and the hair locks would attract the scattered portions of tonalli, to be conserved in the wooden or stone box.

Pic 3: Life and death entwined. For the Mexica, marriage ‘implied the intertwining of the tonalli of the two parties’
Pic 3: Life and death entwined. For the Mexica, marriage ‘implied the intertwining of the tonalli of the two parties’ (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The tonalli stayed on in this way, materially forming part of the strength of the family, a force that could be revitalised... [as long as] the forefathers’ names were repeated in the [family’s] descendants.’

Main source:-
The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas by Alfredo López Austin, translated by Thelma and Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Vol. 1, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1988.

Image sources:-
• Main pic: image from the Codex Laud scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1966
• Pic 1: original drawing (unannotated) scanned from López Austin, op. cit.
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, Waterlow, London, 1938
• Pic 3: source unknown, from Mexicolore archives.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 27th 2019

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