General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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Malinalco huehuetl carvings illustration

Aztec War Drum

Here’s a unique chance to study closely the carvings on this very fine copy of the famous metre-high ‘tlalpanhuehuetl’ (Aztec war drum) made by Jaime Flores C. from Malinalco, exhibited as part of a major crafts festival (Festival del Gran Premio) at FONART, Mexico City, autumn 2005. The original instrument from Malinalco (now in the Toluca City Museum) came to London in 2002-3 for the Aztecs exhibition and again in 2009-10 for the Moctezuma exhibition. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Aztec War Drum

Pic 1: Huehuetl player, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 1: Huehuetl player, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The upright huehuetl drum (Pic 1) was ‘king’ of Aztec percussion instruments. Usually covered in jaguar skin and played with the hands, it took centre stage, alongside its ‘queen’ the teponaztli [see our full-length feature on the teponaztli - follow the link below] in accompanying every major Aztec festival. The beautiful drum illustrated here was - amazingly - still being played in important religious ceremonies up until 1894, when it was finally transferred to a museum.

Pic 2: examples of the Aztec sacred war symbol - with thanks to David Charles Wright
Pic 2: examples of the Aztec sacred war symbol - with thanks to David Charles Wright (Click on image to enlarge)

All the carved reliefs relate to war, starting with the Aztec atl-tlachinolli (‘water-fire’) symbol and metaphor for sacred war, often placed in front of the mouth like a form of speech, song or shout. Look at the examples shown in Pic 2 - then spot this important symbol in different places on the drum.

Pic 3: ‘4-Movement’ symbol
Pic 3: ‘4-Movement’ symbol (Click on image to enlarge)

Probably the most prominent element on the drum is the Aztec symbol for our present World Era, Nahui Ollin or ‘4-Movement’ (Pic 3). You can see and learn more of this key symbol in our Aztec Calendar section; associated closely with the ‘movement’ of the sun in the sky, the term ‘describes that particular human activity whose object is to overcome inertia... [Through actions] gravity and inertia are replaced by the spiritual law of ascent, of the creative impulse... Brilliant symbol of the great hidden truth, the Sun daily points out to man the way of salvation’ (Laurette Séjourné).

Pic 4: Quetzal feathers
Pic 4: Quetzal feathers (Click on image to enlarge)

The idea of an (eagle) warrior spirit ascending to the Sun is clearly visible on the opposite side of the drum. His costume includes eagle-feather wings and quetzal-feather tail (Pic 4). ‘He carries a stylized flower and a fan, and the elaborate song-scrolls of “poetry” are scattered about him as he flies upwards: a warrior spirit released to the Sun...’ (Inga Clendinnen).

Pic 5: Jaguar and Eagle (warriors) holding banners of sacrifice, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 5: Jaguar and Eagle (warriors) holding banners of sacrifice, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

Malinalco, 60 kms south-west of Mexico City/Tenochtitlan, was an Aztec town known for its devotion to the cult of Eagle and Jaguar Warriors. All round the drum Eagle and Jaguar ‘warriors’ can be seen celebrating the ascending warrior. ‘[At the same time they] flourish the paper banners of sacrifice [Pic 5] as they dance, and their speech scrolls form the Water and Fire sign which stands for Sacred War. The eagle’s tail and wing-feathers are studded with sacrificial knives. The creatures weep as they dance. Are they already victims, or do they weep in ecstatic commitment to their ultimate fate?’ (Inga Clendinnen).

Pic 6: Front and back, copy of tlalpanhuehuetl from Malinalco by Jaime Flores; photos by Colin Crisford
Pic 6: Front and back, copy of tlalpanhuehuetl from Malinalco by Jaime Flores; photos by Colin Crisford (Click on image to enlarge)

The roll-out illustration of the carvings (top of page) - originally drawn by J. L. Quiroz - was first reproduced in Ignacio Marquina’s classic study ‘Arquitectura Prehispánica’ (INAH/SEP, Mexico City, 1951, p. 215). Try watching the video and ‘reading’ the drawing at the same time!

Our teponaztli feature

Learn more about the Malinalco war drum...

‘Drumming up support in battle’

Read a description in Spanish of the original drum, in Arqueología Mexicana
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: All excellent points, Chris. Your experience as a professional drummer combined with your interest as a serious researcher make for a particularly valuable contribution...
Mexicolore replies: Cheers, Benjamin. That’s a great source - Robert Stevenson’s Music in Aztec and Inca Territory - and one we strongly recommend to any serious student of Aztec music.
Good luck with your initiative, and please keep us posted!
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Benjamin, for your kind words and details of your intriguing assignment. Forgive the less-than-instant response: being a hard-working teaching team this is a hectic time for us and chances to do ‘extra-mural’ research are few and far between. We can only at this stage pass on a few anecdotal extra bits of info that may or may not be of use to you.
We know the drum measures 98 cms in height, and 52 in diameter; its circumference is approx 1 m 53 cms, the the thickness of the drum wall averages 4 cms. None of the sources we’ve consulted are able to confirm which wood was used in its construction. Its history would be truly fascinating to explore - having still been played in public festivals in Mexico up until 1894, when the former governor of Toluca transferred it to the city museum. (In 1975 it passed into the collection of the museum at Teotenango, and in 1987 it returned to Toluca). If the similar case of the original Aztec teponaztli tongue drum of Tepoztlan is anything to go by, this drum will have survived being housed in a variety of different - probably secret - local homes over the years and several attempts to steal it from the local community.
There’s little doubt that this drum was a genuine Aztec instrument of war, that would have roused the citizens of Malinalco in their ritual ceremonies and struck fear into the hearts of prisoners due to be sacrificed and the pounding beat on its jaguar skin would have been heard by the Spanish captain Andrés de Tapia and his soldiers in their conquest campaign.
Every commentator on the subject compares its carvings with the quality of a codex page, to be read and interpreted in similar fashion. Rolled out, it recreates the dance of Eagles and Jaguars in the festival of 4-Movement, in honour of the Sun, culminating in the sacrifice and rising to heaven of the Sun’s Messenger...
Mexicolore replies: You should quote the title of the article (top of page), the author (Ian Mursell), the URL, and the date you accessed it. We’re afraid we don’t include on the website the date of authorship/uploading of each article, but the above should be enough. Let us know if you need more... Cheers, and Happy New Year!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this info, Bob.
Mexicolore replies: At a guess, we reckon a minimum of around $500 dollars.
Mexicolore replies: For the moment, we can’t help you, Calypzo, but if and when we find a good source, we’ll let you know!