General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Nov 2020/5 Flower
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The Aztec ‘poppy’, the cempoalxóchitl or ‘flower of the dead’

Cempoalxóchitl

On Remembrance Day we pay tribute to those millions who gave their lives for freedom. The classic symbol for this is the red (field) poppy - a plant with little known but ancient associations with sleep, death, magical healing... and sacrifice in war. For generations the humble poppy appearing, almost miraculously, in fields that served as battlegrounds commemorated the outpouring of soldiers’ blood in battle. The Mexica had their own ‘flower of the dead’, yellow-orange in colour, with medicinal properties, and which for centuries has been associated with death in Mesoamerica... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A lorry-load of cempoalxóchitl flowers, Xico, Veracruz, Mexico
Pic 1: A lorry-load of cempoalxóchitl flowers, Xico, Veracruz, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Today the cempoalxóchitl or flor de muertos (flower of the dead) - known in Spain as the ‘carnation of the Indies’ and in the UK as, (oddly, the African) marigold - is strongly associated with Mexico’s great annual festival Día(s) de Muertos, the Day(s) of the Dead. A member of the Tagetes family, native to Mexico - its genus name being Tagetes erecta - its Aztec or Mexican name is found commonly with several different spellings, such as ‘cempasúchil’. The word itself is Nahuatl: cempoal(li) meaning ‘twenty’ and xóchitl meaning ‘flower’ - so called simply because each plant produces many flowers.

Pic 2: A path of marigolds leading to a Day of the Dead offering altar, Xico, Veracruz
Pic 2: A path of marigolds leading to a Day of the Dead offering altar, Xico, Veracruz (Click on image to enlarge)

In their book accompanying the massive and phenomenally successful exhibition ‘The Skeleton at the Feast’ (Museum of Mankind, London, 1991-93) curators Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer introduce the importance of flowers for the Day of the Dead, and of marigolds in particular:-
The flowers form brilliant mounds of colour. Predominant is the vivid orange and yellow of the cempasúchil, the ‘flower of the dead’, which has been associated with festivals for the dead since pre-Hispanic times. Both its colour and aromatic scent are important for they are thought to attract the souls towards the offering. ‘Paths’ of marigold petals are strewn from the ofrenda to the door of the house to guide the souls to their feast...

Pic 3: The festival of Tecuilhuitontli; Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 3: The festival of Tecuilhuitontli; Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

According to scholar Doris Heyden, the cempoalxóchitl is the flower most often referred to in chronicles relating to ancient Mexico. As mentioned in the Florentine Codex (see main picture, above) it was - and still is today - cultivated in back gardens and orchards near family homes as well as growing in the wild. Long associated with ancient offerings to the dead, it played an important role in Aztec ceremonies dedicated to deities within the Tlaloc rain-agriculture-fertility complex, being used medicinally to treat diseases associated with these deities. To give one example, during the veintena (seventh 20-day ‘month’) of Tecuilhuitontli (‘little feast of the lords’), dedicated to the salt goddess Huixtocihuatl, ‘women danced together, holding marigolds’ (Miller & Taube 1993). The Florentine Codex even details the choreography of the dances, which apparently went on for ten days: ‘They were arranged, each one in order. It was with cords called “flower cords” that they held one another, that they went stretched out...’

Pic 4: Drawings of cempoalxóchitl, from vol. 2 of Hernández’ ‘Historia de las plantas...’
Pic 4: Drawings of cempoalxóchitl, from vol. 2 of Hernández’ ‘Historia de las plantas...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

And the medicinal connection? ‘Given the interconnections that Aztecs saw between religion, the natural world, and human fates, it is not at all surprising that plants associated with a particular deity should play a role in curing ailments also associated with the deity and the deity’s attributes’ (Ortiz de Montellano 1990). The 16th century Spanish naturalist and court physician Francisco Hernández found seven varieties of plant producing cempoalxóchitl flowers when compiling his classic Historia de las plantas de Nueva España and lists a dozen ailments that they treated, all ‘cold’ conditions, ranging from stomach upsets to flatulence, and from period irregularity to fevers and liver disorders (follow the link below to learn more...).

Pic 5: Marigolds appear in the eyes of Mexican Day of the Dead paper mâché skulls and masks...
Pic 5: Marigolds appear in the eyes of Mexican Day of the Dead paper mâché skulls and masks... (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica connection between flowers and war has long been known and documented. As Heyden points out ‘The sun was a flower, as were war, blood, the warrior who dies in battle, and the captive who gives his life on the sacrificial stone. Flowery war was that in which combatants fought to win “flowers of life” for the [war] god. The deities associated with flowers were solar gods [such as] Xochipilli [and] Macuilxóchitl...’ Perhaps we should not be surprised that the solar connection with cempoalxóchitl remains firm even today in Mexican beliefs, as documented by Carmichael and Sayer in their field research, quoting one of their respondents: ‘Like the sun they [cempoalxóchitl] guide the souls of the dead back to earth.’

Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Coyolxauhqui, National Museum of Anthropology (L); aspect of the sculpture from above - drawing by Alfredo Chavero (R)
Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Coyolxauhqui, National Museum of Anthropology (L); aspect of the sculpture from above - drawing by Alfredo Chavero (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec associations between the marigold and celestial deities don’t appear to have been limited to the sun either. Some scholars claim there is a large cempoalxóchitl sculpted symbolically on the iconic head of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui (see picture 6).
Just as the symbolism of the common poppy can be traced way back from the First World War to Greek and Roman metaphorical references to warriors as poppies, so the symbolism of the Aztec marigold can be traced, long antedating today’s Day of the Dead festivities, to ancient Mesoamerican mythological concepts and beliefs...

Pic 7: Harvesting Aztec marigolds at home for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Veracruz
Pic 7: Harvesting Aztec marigolds at home for the Day of the Dead, Xico, Veracruz (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources (in order of ‘appearance’):-
The Skeleton at the Feast: the Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer, British Museum Press, 1991
Mitología y simbolismo de la flora en el méxico prehispánico by Doris Heyden, UNAM, Mexico, 1983
Florentine Codex: Book 2 - The Ceremonies, trans. Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, University of Utah, 1981
The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube, Thames & Hudson, 1993
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Rutgers University Press, 1990
Historia de las plantas de Nueva España by Francisco Hernández, Imprenta Universitaria, Mexico, 1943.

Picture sources:-
• Main, and pix 1, 2, 5 & 7: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: image from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 4: illustrations from Hernández, Historia... (see above)
• Pic 6: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore (L); drawing adapted from Anales del Museo Nacional de México vol. II by Alfredo Chavero, Imprenta de Ignacio Escalante, Mexico, 1882 (R).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 08th 2020

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