General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Professor Jennifer Mathews

How did they carry the heavy stones to make their temples? asked Takeley Primary School. Read what Professor Jennifer Mathews had to say.

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Pole climbing contest, Jakarta, 2006 (The Guardian)

IN THE NEWS: the pole climbing season?

Some of you may have seen this eye-catching double-page image (right) in The Guardian (Friday August 18th. 2006) of youths competing to climb up greased poles in Jakarta to claim the prizes at the top - part of the celebrations for the 61st. anniversary of Indonesia’s independence from Dutch rule. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Greasy pole climbing contest, Thailand
Greasy pole climbing contest, Thailand (Click on image to enlarge)

Greasy pole climbing contests are a common feature of festivals throughout Asia (and on other continents): read, for instance, Richard Barrow’s blog from Thailand (link below) describing one such traditional Thai game in which the prize for reaching the top is 1,000 baht (around £15!) - and that has to be shared between all those that help get one person to the top...

Fun and games, Thailand
Fun and games, Thailand (Click on image to enlarge)

You can imagine Aztec youths with similar smiles on their faces, racing to get to the top of a xócotl tree - some 45 feet high - to secure the prize at the top, during the Tenth Month ceremony of Xocotlhuetzi (Fall of the [Citrus] Fruit). There is a lovely, atmospheric description of the contest in Alfonso Caso’s classic book ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’, which we reproduce ‘verbatim’ (word-for-word) here:-

Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of the ‘Dance of the Xocotlhuetzi’, based on the Codex Borbonicus original, folio 28
Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of the ‘Dance of the Xocotlhuetzi’, based on the Codex Borbonicus original, folio 28 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Another ceremony, curious because of the resemblance it bears to certain popular European festivals, was celebrated during the month of Xocotlhuetzi.
During the preceding month the people went into the forest and cut a very tall tree, approximately 15 meters in height, perfectly straight and so great in circumference that a man could not reach around it.
With much ceremony they brought this tree, called xócotl, from the forest, dancing and singing to it as if it were a god, carrying it upon other logs so that the bark would not be injured. When they drew near the city, the women of the nobility came out to receive them, with jugs of chocolate and with garlands of flowers which they hung upon the necks of the bearers.

Toponym (place glyph) for XOCOYOHCAN (‘It develops fruit’), a reference to the xócotl tree and its yellow fruit
Toponym (place glyph) for XOCOYOHCAN (‘It develops fruit’), a reference to the xócotl tree and its yellow fruit

‘Later they dug a hole in the plaza and set the xócotl in it. On the upper part of the trunk they tied two logs together to form a cross, and from the seed of the amaranth tree they made an image of a god. They clothed the image in white paper garments and decorations, and these great strips of paper of varying length fluttered in the breeze like pennants. Also hanging from the tree were heavy ropes which reached almost to the base.

Glyph for Xocotlhuetzi (festival of the 10th. month)
Glyph for Xocotlhuetzi (festival of the 10th. month)

‘When all the other ceremonies for the month of Xocotlhuetzi were completed, the people ran to the plaza where the tree stood. At its foot the leaders of the young men were stationed to prevent anyone from getting a head start, beating off the boldest to keep them from taking advantage of their companions. But when the signal was given for the game to begin, all the youths rushed forward as one and tried to climb the ropes to the top of the trunk where the amaranth-seed image of the god had been placed.

The goodies at the top...
The goodies at the top...

‘Veritable clusters of youths hung from each rope, for all were eager to attain the great honour of reaching the image first. Those who were shrewd waited until the ropes were swarming with men and then, climbing up over the shoulders of one after another, made their way to the highest point, reaching it ahead of the more impatient ones. The first youth to reach the top seized the idol, together with its shield, darts, dart hurler, and several large pieces of bread, or tamales, made from the same paste as the idol, and broke the image and the bread into small pieces and scattered them over the heads of the people in the plaza below. Everyone attempted to catch a piece, even though it was no more than a small bit of the dough from which the god was made, for it was to be eaten in the manner of taking communion.

‘When the victor descended with the arms which he had taken from the god as from an enemy, the crowd below received him with loud cheers, and the old men took him to the top of the temple, where they presented him with jewels and other regalia. They placed on his shoulders a tawny-coloured mantle bordered in rabbit fur and feathers which only men who had accomplished such a feat were permitted to wear publicly. Dressed in this fashion, the youth descended from the temple, surrounded by the priests, with the eldest in the lead. Amidst a warlike clamour made by the conch shell trumpets and accompanied by the whole cortege, he carried the shield he had taken from the image to his home, where he deposited it as evidence of his feat.’ (pp 70-72)

This ceremony has been mis-interpreted in one or two school books on the Aztecs: we drew attention to this some time ago - follow the link below and see the rather nasty interpretation one book put on it!

Some school books get it wrong! greasy pole climbing contest
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