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Mexicolore contributor Maria Teresa Uriarte

Birth and death as metaphors in pre-Columbian cultures (1)

We are most grateful to Dr. María Teresa Uriarte, a specialist in pre-Columbian art and Head of Cultural Affairs at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), for this illuminating article on the symbolic meaning of ‘double births’ in ancient Mesoamerica, focusing on the death and rebirth of the maize god.

Pic 1: Birth and death: detail from a mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 1: Birth and death: detail from a mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Birth and death are natural events in every living creature. In almost all cultures these moments were, and still are, accompanied by what are called rites of passage.
In Pre-Columbian times, as well as in other places throughout the world, dreams and altered states of consciousness were considered passages to reach a different reality. In general, that supernatural region – the underworld - is thought to be the abode of ancestors. Celestial bodies travelled through this realm.
There are also metaphorical births and deaths, like those experienced when liminal times or spaces are re-created, for instance, after an initiatory rite the novice is considered to have been born again. These metaphorical births or double births, were important not only in the symbolism of rites of passage, but for many ancient cultures, they played a crucial part in maintaining the balance of the universe.

Pic 2: Chestnut collared Longspur (Canada) newly hatched nestling, still wet, begging in nest.
Pic 2: Chestnut collared Longspur (Canada) newly hatched nestling, still wet, begging in nest.  (Click on image to enlarge)

Double births and their symbolism in the occidental world
When a novice participated in an initiation rite he was metaphorically experiencing a “second birth” and thus becoming a “twice-born”. In nature, there are many beings that have a double birth, in fact, every creature that comes out of an egg, such as birds and snakes, is considered twice-born, with the laying of the egg being the first birth, and the hatching being the second birth. In the case of twice-born humans, the “laying of the egg” corresponds to their natural birth, and the hatching occurs after the initiation, when they experience their supernatural birth. The archetypical image of the broken egg symbolizes the rupture of existence, that is, transcendence in cosmic space and cyclical time, and all the images that express the paradox of “exiting time” function analogically to express the passage from ignorance to illumination (Eliade 1999, 85-86).

Pic 3: Tlaltecuhtli, the monstrous, devouring Mexica earth deity
Pic 3: Tlaltecuhtli, the monstrous, devouring Mexica earth deity (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Eliade (2007, 15), an initiatory death is necessary for the beginning of spiritual life. Ritual death is usually represented by darkness, cosmic night, the telluric womb and the belly of a monster. All these images are also related to germination and embryology, as well as to dwelling in the realm of the dead and of ancestors.
It is interesting to note that in agricultural societies earth is considered the essential source of life, and hence the human body is assimilated as a seed that has to be buried in the ground before it can sprout. This explains why many initiation rituals in these kinds of societies usually include a symbolic burial or return to the earth, such as the idea of being swallowed by a monster (Eliade 2007, 136).

Pic 4: Greek pottery depicting Dionysius’ birth
Pic 4: Greek pottery depicting Dionysius’ birth (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the most famous gods of Classical mythology to have had a double birth was Dionysus. He was the son of Zeus and Semele, who was considered the earth goddess by some (Graves 1980, 122), and a mortal, the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, by others (Otto 1997, 53). Before she gave birth, Zeus threw a lightning bolt at her house, killing her, but he did not let his son perish. The foetus was protected by ivy leaves that covered him from the heat. Zeus rescued the immature baby and sewed him to his thigh so he could mature, which explains Dionysus’ other name Merotraphes, meaning “raised on the thigh” (pic 4). When the requisite number of moons was completed, Zeus brought Dionysus into the world giving him a second birth.
Robert Graves (1980, 131, 135) considers that the source of intoxication attributed to Dionysus may rather be the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, since not only does his “Ambrosia” festival take place in October, the fungus season, but the initials of the Ambrosia ingredients spell the Greek word for mushroom μύκητας (mýkitas). It is important to mention that the white dots in Amanita Muscaria contain a hallucinogen compound known as bufotenin.

Pic 5: Greek pottery showing music and dance in a Dionysian festivity
Pic 5: Greek pottery showing music and dance in a Dionysian festivity (Click on image to enlarge)

Dionysus, agriculture and the birth of theatre
Apart from his links to wine, mushrooms and ivy, Dionysus was also associated with agriculture and cereals such as wheat and barley. King Eleusis was another name for the Cereal-Dionysus, and the story of his life was celebrated in a festivity that corresponds to the Mysterion autumn harvest festival (Graves, 1986, 470).
The festivities organised to honor Dionysus included many dances that were executed by people wearing masks, and it has been suggested that the origin of theatre can be found in these festivities (pic 5). Apparently, music, dance and divination were thought of as products of Dionysian madness (Otto, 1997, 70, 71, 108).
Francisco Adrados (1972, 449-450) explains that many of the themes treated in Greek comedies and tragedies derived from agrarian festivals. At their core was the conflict of opposing parties or agon, and they usually included the expulsion or death of one of the parties and the triumph of the other one. Sometimes the question of which side would win was uncertain and this could vary from year to year, which was probably related to the prediction made for the following year. This conflict between parties was part of a ritual intended to stimulate the forces of nature and the triumph of one of them: the arrival of good weather, or the birth and development of plants and animals that were useful for mankind. The ritual involved the performance of a human, who represented the community, but the ones who incarnated the conflicting natural forces were animals, plants or individuals wearing animal masks.

Pic 6: Mural painting fragment from Tlacuilapaxco, Teotihuacan
Pic 6: Mural painting fragment from Tlacuilapaxco, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Agricultural rites followed a clear logic: death is necessary in order to allow birth, but in reality what dies and what is born are the same thing, that is, what dies in the present will be reborn the following year.

Double births in the Prehispanic world: Tlacuilapaxco, Teotihuacan and Margarita, Copan
In Mesoamerica, double births were related to initiations, agriculture, and astronomical movements. As for initiations, the most illustrative example is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent. As I mentioned before, both the bird and the serpent are born from an egg, and thus they have a double birth, so Quetzalcoatl was in his very essence a twice-born being. But he was also a twice-born being in terms of illumination. Many Mesoamerican myths regarding this god mention that he is the one who taught agriculture to the people, meaning that he possessed a superior or illuminated knowledge.

Pic 7: Detail of the Margarita Temple, Copán
Pic 7: Detail of the Margarita Temple, Copán (Click on image to enlarge)

The importance of double births is manifest in Mesoamerican art. One example can be seen in the mural paintings of Teotihuacan, particularly in one found at Tlacuilapaxco (pic 6). In this mural we can see the birth of a double headed bird related to a serpent, so this painting is related to a supernatural event: the moment when an egg is hatched by these bizarre creatures. They relate to a serpent because they are sheltered by its curvy body.
Another such representation can be found at the Margarita temple of Copan (pic 7). In an analogous way two birds entwine their necks and a human face emerges from the beak. This is also a representation of an initiatory moment: that when a human being is depicted as coming out of, or being inside an animal, in this case a bird.

Pic 8: The Battle mural, East Wall, Cacaxtla (fragment)
Pic 8: The Battle mural, East Wall, Cacaxtla (fragment) (Click on image to enlarge)

The murals of Cacaxtla
Let’s now turn our attention to Cacaxtla. The murals were painted during the so-called Epiclassic, between 600-1000 AD, a time of political and social changes. There are several publications that present different interpretations of their meaning. I would like to present a new proposal for the mural known as The Battle (pic 8).
It is evident that there is some sort of battle where the winners are dressed as felines and those defeated, as birds. Except for a few exceptions, victims are naked but, paradoxically, several among them wear a very rich variety of jewellery, which is not in accordance with the usual nakedness of captives. I believe that this mural is closely related to Venus and the Maize God, an interpretation that offers an explanation for some of the paradoxes seen in the mural.

Pic 9: Bench at Las Sepultras, Copán
Pic 9: Bench at Las Sepultras, Copán (Click on image to enlarge)

Venus and its journey to the underworld
After the Sun and the Moon, Venus is the most prominent body in the sky and because of its different changing phases, it assumed various personalities and embodied diverse deities. Its luminescence precedes the appearance of the Sun in the morning and as an evening star it announces the arrival of the night. Like in other parts of the world, the moon calendar was established first, this was followed by the study of the solar movements and later the appearances and disappearances of Venus. Šprajc has widely written about the relationship between Venus, rain and the Maize God. According to him, Venus’s apparent movement shows characteristics that help explain the importance of the planet in the beliefs about rain and maize. Firstly, Venus’s eight-day-disappearance into the underworld before emerging as the morning star was associated with the invisibility of the maize seed in the earth before coming out as a plant. The maize god is related to the number eight and the Aztec celebration of maize rejuvenation known as Atamalcualiztli took place every eight years, equivalent to five synodic periods of Venus. Moreover, the calendar of 260 days seems to have been related both to agriculture and Venus.

Pic 10: Maya ceramic plate, K4565
Pic 10: Maya ceramic plate, K4565 (Click on image to enlarge)

The period of visibility of Venus lasts approximately the same time as the agricultural cycle and this could have been a reason to relate the planet to maize and rain. Furthermore, it is possible that concepts about death and rebirth were linked to the setting of the planet, since Venus dies upon entering periods of invisibility and is reborn on both sides of the sky. In addition, the attributes of Venus could have represented an extension of the moon’s symbolism; in many pre-Hispanic cultures, it is considered that the moon lives in the west and is related to water, vegetation and fertility. Finally, in some regions of Mesoamerica the maximum extremes of Venus match the beginning and end of the rainy season and they also delimit with great accuracy the agriculture cycle (Šprajc 1996, 127-130).

Pic 11: Head of the Maize God as a cacao pod
Pic 11: Head of the Maize God as a cacao pod (Click on image to enlarge)

Several representations from the Maya area might be interesting to discuss here, like a bench at Las Sepulturas, Copan (pic 9). Here we see the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. The planet representation is a supernatural entity that embodies the Maize god with the caudal segment of a scorpion, including the telson or sting. We have another interesting representation in Chichén Itzá at Las Monjas with an anthropomorphic scorpion on top of the Venus or star glyph (Sprajc, 1996:113). These and other examples have convinced me, among other authors, that Maya people saw a scorpion constellation in the night sky.

Pic 12: Defeated characters in the Battle mural
Pic 12: Defeated characters in the Battle mural (Click on image to enlarge)

The ceramic plate K4565 (pic 10) shows the Maize god dressed with the same glyph, and the scorpion caudal segments (or tail). So there seems to be a frequent link between the Maize god, Venus and the scorpion.
Simon Martin (2005; 2006: 154-155) has presented evidence of the equivalence of maize and cacao deities (pic 11), therefore the link between Venus and cereals is reinforced. A last line of evidence suggests that scorpions were associated with wilderness.

The Maize God at Cacaxtla
Several traits of the Maize God are found at Cacaxtla. Characters 1, 5 and 22 in the east wall and number 19 on the west have a lock of hair on the forehead, which Karl Taube and William Saturno (2008) identify as one of the Maize God’s first traits. These characters are also shown as defeated and sacrificed (pic 12).

Pic 13: Lintel 2 from La Pasadita, Guatemala
Pic 13: Lintel 2 from La Pasadita, Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

It is remarkable that Character 1 on the east side, just by the stairs, has several locks on his head, he was tonsured, and number 2 is sticking a flint knife into the chest of his ruined opponent. The blood dropping from the wound takes the shape of leaves. In Lintel 2 from La Pasadita (pic 13), the Ruler Yaxuun B´ahlam IV is shown making a sacrificial offering of incense, and he carries on his back, as a part of his attire, the head of what I think is the Maize God, and he carries too the same jewel holding the lock of hair; since the head has his father’s name, we can deduce that it probably is Itzam Kokaaj B´ahlam III, already dead and deified as the Ajan manifestation of maize. Apparently this was a period-ending ceremony, and one dedicated to help the divinity on his final voyage to the Underworld, to be reborn and start the cycle again.

Pic 14: The principal characters of the Battle mural wearing face pendants
Pic 14: The principal characters of the Battle mural wearing face pendants (Click on image to enlarge)

The medallions with a face are another distinctive trait of the Maize God and they are worn by warriors 6, 10 and 12 in the East wall and 6, 8, 11, 24 and 27 on the opposite wall (pic 14). They look like those worn by the Young Maize God from Copan, now at the British Museum, the incised plaque from Nebaj in the collections of the Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum in Guatemala, and Panel 1 from La Amelia, just to mention a few examples. More frequent are the green bead necklaces worn by most of the sacrificed warriors at the Battle mural (pic 15), items usually displayed by ruling class, high ranked individuals. Miller and Martin (2004:53) consider green jewels to be an allegory for green plant leaves.

Pic 15: Green jewels and feathers worn by a defeated character
Pic 15: Green jewels and feathers worn by a defeated character (Click on image to enlarge)

The depiction of bones and teeth are also commonly associated with maize deities, not only because of the similarity between teeth and grains on the cob, but also because in the Popol Vuh, humans are created from maize dough; it also says that when the creator twins died, they were cremated, their bones were ground and blended with maize flour, and when scattered into the river, they were miraculously reborn. Maize gods frequently wear bone ornaments as seen on the Temple of Foliated Cross at Palenque, on Lintel 3 of Temple IV in Tikal, and Stellae 1 in Bonampak and 11 in Copan. At Cacaxtla numbers 6, 8 and 24 on the East Wall and 5 in the West have them too (pic 16).

Pic 16: Bone and teeth adornments worn by Character 24, East Wall
Pic 16: Bone and teeth adornments worn by Character 24, East Wall (Click on image to enlarge)

Another interesting piece of jewellery is the earspool shaped as a flower that can be found on Stela H at Quirigua. In Cacaxtla the most prominent one is that worn by number 6 on the west wall, but it is also worn by 5, 6 and 14 on the East (pic 17). As we have repeatedly seen, it is common for rulers to be attired like the Deity, who normally wears a plaited, net-like skirt. We can see it here on Pakal on his way to being reborn as the Maize God. At Cacaxtla the two most remarkable personages are (pic 18) wearing this netted skirt possibly embroidered with blue-green cylindrical beads. They are the most important characters in the whole mural and they display almost all the traits I have enumerated.

Pic 17: Flower-shaped earspool on Stela H at Quirigua and in Character 6, West Wall
Pic 17: Flower-shaped earspool on Stela H at Quirigua and in Character 6, West Wall (Click on image to enlarge)

Besides being the most richly dressed, they have wings and several luxurious pieces of jewellery, as those worn by the Maize God or the Rulers in that guise among the Maya, that is, the plaques diadem on a tonsured forehead, the earspool, the green beads necklace with a human face medallion, wristlets, and a nose plug ending in the form of bones. Character 6 in the East wall has flame-like features on the body and fire is also linked to the sacrifice of maize. Another curious trait is that his kilt and sandals are made of a feline pelt, whereas the sandals of his opposite number on the East wall are made with blue-green feathers. Later on, I will offer an interpretation for this, in the meantime let me just establish that it is the same discrepancy we find in the Portico of Structure A (pic 19).

Pic 18: Character 5, West Wall and Character 6, East Wall
Pic 18: Character 5, West Wall and Character 6, East Wall (Click on image to enlarge)

I want to stress those occasions on which the Maize God is shown defeated and sacrificed, as in Codex Fejervary Mayer Plate 33r, in the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex, and page 19 of the Paris Codex, where he is seen with his intestines torn out (pic 20). There are several depictions painted on vases and plates where the sacrifice of maize is a prerequisite to the rebirth into a new cycle of life and death. The wings seen with some of the characters are, according to Taube, an allegory for the seed flying over the fields to be ploughed. My proposal for all these characteristics and facts concerning the Maize God is that in Mesoamerican myths, when cereal/grain is symbolically killed, it makes a journey into the Underworld. These myths are related to the creation of the world, a liminal moment when time and space are created, and that is what I think the Mayan Rulers commemorate when dressed as the Deity.

Pic 19: Portico ‘A’ Cacaxtla
Pic 19: Portico ‘A’ Cacaxtla (Click on image to enlarge)

We must remember that death and sacrifice myths concerning cereal deities are not only Mesoamerican, as they are also found in the Greek Classic traditions, just as I pointed out at the beginning. As an example I can mention the myth of Persephone, who spends three to six months in the Underworld, and then she dwells in the living world as she returns during Spring with the tender cereal sprouts (Frazer 1996: 459).
We know that Mesoamerican people believed that while Venus was in an inferior conjunction, the planet was journeying through the Underworld, and this was perhaps the reason why its heliacal rising had necrophiliac attributes. Its rebirth or reappearance thus took place in the land of the dead.

Pic 20: Sacrificed Maize God, Paris Codex, p. 19
Pic 20: Sacrificed Maize God, Paris Codex, p. 19 (Click on image to enlarge)

It is in this context that the differences in the sandals of the main subjects in both walls make sense: they wear the attire related to the place of their provenance. The feathers of the western character 5 is heading to the Underworld but coming from the celestial realms, so he uses feathers, just as the opposite – number 6 - is facing towards the sky.

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This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 07th 2016

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