General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2021/4 Dog
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Mexicolore contributor Andrew Scherer

Fire in Mesoamerican Ritual

We’re sincerely grateful to Professor Andrew K. Scherer for this introductory article on the importance of fire in Mesoamerican ritual practice. Andrew Scherer is an anthropological archaeologist and biological anthropologist with a geographic focus in Mesoamerica (Maya). He co-directs an interdisciplinary archaeological research project that is exploring Classic Maya polities along the Usumacinta River in Mexico. Scherer has conducted bioarchaeological research at Maya sites throughout Mexico and Guatemala, including Piedras Negras, Yaxha, and El Zotz. His research interests include mortuary archaeology, bioarchaeology, landscape archaeology, ritual practice, warfare and violence, political practice, and diet and subsistence.

Pic 1: Agricultural field (milpa) cleared by slashing and burning in Peten, Guatemala
Pic 1: Agricultural field (milpa) cleared by slashing and burning in Peten, Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

For the ancient people of Mesoamerica and their modern descendants, smoke and flame are central to their ritual practice. Fire was, and still is, perceived as a major force for transformation. In the Maya area we see this in mundane acts such as burning the milpa (field) at the start of the agriculture season (pic 1). Fire also marked the transition across cycles of time. Among the Aztec, this was evident in the New Fire Ceremony that was celebrated at the end of each calendar round, a 52-year cycle. In both cases, fire is understood to have cleansing, restorative powers, burning away the old to make way for the new.

Pic 2: Effigy in Antigua, Guatemala, for the ‘Quema del Diablo’ (Devil Burning), December 2003
Pic 2: Effigy in Antigua, Guatemala, for the ‘Quema del Diablo’ (Devil Burning), December 2003 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Maya wrote about their rituals of fire in their Classic period (A.D. 250-900) inscriptions. Among the most important are och k’ahk’ (fire-entering) and el-naah (house-censing) rites that were directed at both buildings and even the tombs of the Maya royalty. These events, like so many rites of fire, were meant to cleanse and revivify and were celebrated at period endings and to mark important anniversaries. Today in Guatemala, on December 7, people burn piles of household garbage alongside effigies of the devil (pic 2) as a means to cleanse their homes on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In ancient times we find evidence that the Maya burned refuse or even entire houses in rites of renewal.

Pic 3: Sun worship: Illustration by Alberto Beltrán
Pic 3: Sun worship: Illustration by Alberto Beltrán (Click on image to enlarge)

Fire was linked to the sun which, for indigenous Mesoamericans, symbolized order and their sense of moral correctness. The sun’s movements are knowable and predictable and was used to track the passage of time and mark key calendrical events like the start of the agricultural cycle. It is the source of heat, light, and fundamentally life itself. Many of the most important supernatural beings in Mesoamerica were linked to the sun. For the Classic Maya, that included not only the sun as a radiant lord (K’inich Ajaw) but also as a jaguar as he travelled overnight through the darkness of the inner earth to reemerge again in the east at dawning. Many of the most powerful precolonial rulers of Mesoamerica likened themselves to the sun and his various supernatural manifestations.

Pic 4: A man lifting his cape to receive the warmth of a fire set atop a sacred mountain; Codex Vindobonensis, fol. 8 (detail)
Pic 4: A man lifting his cape to receive the warmth of a fire set atop a sacred mountain; Codex Vindobonensis, fol. 8 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Even today there remains a pervasive linkage between heat and power for indigenous Mesoamericans. Creation is understood to have occurred when the sun was born giving light and order to the world. Prior to birth of the sun, the world was covered in primordial darkness and chaos. The nighttime passage of the sun into the abysses of the earth thus brought about a temporary return to pre-creation state, a time of darkness and danger when malevolent beings could more easily wreak havoc among humanity. The connection between fire and the sun is underscored in colonial era accounts that describe the origins of fire. Most indicate that fire was created or gifted to humans by the gods.

Pic 5: Drilling new fire on the chest of Xiuhtecuhtli, god of terrestrial fire; Codex Borgia, pl. 46 (detail)
Pic 5: Drilling new fire on the chest of Xiuhtecuhtli, god of terrestrial fire; Codex Borgia, pl. 46 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In Central Mexico, sources vary in their accounts, some point to a joint effort between Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli while others suggest it was Tezcatlipoca who drilled the first fire. For the K’iche Maya, it was their patron Tohil who gifted fire and in return demanded sacrifice from the other nations of people.

Pic 6: Multiple examples of Aztec conquests depicted by the burning temple icon; Codex Mendoza fol. 11
Pic 6: Multiple examples of Aztec conquests depicted by the burning temple icon; Codex Mendoza fol. 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

Fire was also associated with war and destruction. Throughout Mesoamerica, the common sign for military defeat was a burning temple (pic 6) and there is good archaeological evidence from places like Aguateca, Guatemala that Mesoamerican warfare involved the direct attack and burning of communities. In the Classic period inscriptions, the Maya seems to make distinctions between different types of fire with pulyi describing an aggressive burning, a term used in the contexts of both warfare and the torture of captives.

Pic 7: Censer stand from Palenque
Pic 7: Censer stand from Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)

In ritual practice, fire was used to transfer offerings from the world of the living to the otherworldy domains of gods and ancestors. Smoke was and continues to be the literal food upon which supernatural beings sustain themselves. In ancient times, humans were obligated to feed their ancestors and gods in exchange for the many gifts they received, including the much-needed rains to water their crops. The burning of offerings reflects the covenants that bound living humans to their ancestors and gods. The burning of offerings is widely shown in precolonial art of Mesoamerica and censers (pic 7) are widely found in archaeological sites throughout the region.

Pic 8: Burning of candles and ash covered altars for contemporary burnt offerings at Iximche, Guatemala
Pic 8: Burning of candles and ash covered altars for contemporary burnt offerings at Iximche, Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

The most precious offerings were human hearts, blood, and other mortal remains. More common, however, was the burning of copal and other natural resins which were also understood to have sanguinary properties, as evident by the way they drip from cut trees. Today, the combustion of copal and other substances is complemented by the burning of candles (pic 8), introduced following the arrival of the Spanish.
In fire’s wake, we are left with ash, soot, and charcoal. On one hand, these substances convey a sense of filth and decay and priests throughout Mesoamerica covered themselves in ash when conducting rites of sacrifice. Such costuming was clearly meant to contrast with the otherwise state of cleanliness that seemed so important for indigenous Mesoamericans at the time of the conquest.

Pic 9: New fire, new life... illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 9: New fire, new life... illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

However, ash and soot are emblematic of renewal from the old and dead and blur symbolically with bone and maize dough, substances from which new life was made. We see this, for example, in the colonial era K’iche’ Maya story, the Popol Vuh, which tells of the death and resurrection of the Hero Twins who, after being burned in a pit oven, have their bones ground like maize and tossed into a river. This story finds parallel across Mesoamerica where humanity is crafted either from the mixing of divine blood with the bones of humans of earlier creation (Aztec), or the mixing of blood and maize dough (K’iche’ and Kaqchikel Maya).

For further reading:
Tiesler, Vera, and Andrew K. Scherer (editors)
2018 Smoke, Flame, and the Human Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C.

Image sources:-
• Pix 1, 2, 7 & 8: photos by and courtesy of Andrew Scherer
• Pic 3: illustration scanned from The Creation of the Sun and the Moon by B. Traven, Lawrence Hill & Co., 1968
• Pic 4: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vindobonensis, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 5: image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 6: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 9: illustration by Felipe Dávalos/© Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 28th 2021

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