General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2021/4 Dog
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what special duty the priest in charge of the Place of Musicians had?
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Codex Borbonicus, pl. 4 (detail) (L); Conchero player with ‘concha’ guitar (R)

The ambiguous meaning of mecahuehuetl

Whilst preparing an article we recently uploaded ‘The concha guitar and the armadillo’ by Ruben Arellano (link below) we came across the Nahuatl term mecahuehuetl in reference to the armadillo-shell-backed guitar, the concha. 95% of Nahuatl dictionaries translate the term as ‘string drum’, i.e. ‘guitar’, ‘lyra’, ‘vihuela’... - the logical combination of the two words mecatl (string) and huehuetl (drum), and natural name for a new hybrid musical instrument - the Spanish (guitar) strings fusing with indigenous drum. But one dictionary - Cecilio A. Robelo’s classic 1951 Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl - posits an intriguing alternative... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Plan of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, as depicted in ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 269r. The Calmecac complex is shown bottom left.
Pic 1: Plan of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, as depicted in ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 269r. The Calmecac complex is shown bottom left. (Click on image to enlarge)

Robelo doesn’t have an entry for mecahuehuetl, but he does have one for mecatecatl, a term he claims is derived from Mecatlan (‘Place of the Cord’), building number 42 - directly following the great skull rack - in a list of some 78 temple buildings in the Mexica sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, mentioned by Sahagún in the Appendix to Book 2 of the Florentine Codex, and known to comprise shrine and storeroom for instruments, as well as assembly rooms that served ‘as a place for instruction in formal playing techniques’ (Both 2007: 97).
Robelo’s entry MECATECATL reads:-
Nombre que daban a los músicos. Un cordel que portaban como diadema y collar, colgando en dos puntas encima del pecho y espalda, formando un trenzado de dos colores, era el principal distintivo de los músicos. He goes on to quote the eminent 19th century Mexican historian and Nahuatl scholar Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, who suggested that it was the Nahuatl word mecatl for cord (or string!) that gave rise to the Aztec terms for musicians (mecateca) and for their temple/school Mecatlan, which was probably close to, if not - as López Austin and López Luján (2017: 614) suggest - a part of, the major school for nobles, the calmecac (pic 1). The Codex actually names seven individual calmecac edifices within the élite academic campus.

Pic 2: Mexica musicians - from sacred drums to trumpets - in action; Codex Tudela fol. 66r
Pic 2: Mexica musicians - from sacred drums to trumpets - in action; Codex Tudela fol. 66r (Click on image to enlarge)

Though Sahagún’s reference to Mecatlan in his list of buildings is limited to the teaching of the all-important conch shell trumpet, in other parts of his work we see (hear?) clearly that it was a Place of (All) Musicians: in the Song of Ixcozauhqui (another name for the Fire God) in Primeros Memoriales the throbbing beat of drums emanating specifically from Mecatlan is evoked twice, in flowery language.
As Eduard Seler wrote over a century ago, ‘it’s not easy to recognise the special character of this building’ (our translation). There is precious little recorded information to go on, but two more historical heavyweights - Antonio de León y Gama and Fray Juan de Torquemada - both confirm that Mecatlan was a training college for élite and talented music students of all kinds (see León y Gama 1792, Part 2: 64).

Pic 3: Macuilxóchitl (L) and Huehuecóyotl (R) wear the ‘mecatl’ plaited cord emblem (arrowed) of Aztec musicians; Codex Borbonicus, p. 4 (detail)
Pic 3: Macuilxóchitl (L) and Huehuecóyotl (R) wear the ‘mecatl’ plaited cord emblem (arrowed) of Aztec musicians; Codex Borbonicus, p. 4 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

So why the use of the Nahuatl term mecatl to name Mecatlan? To what does ‘Place of the Cord’ refer? It surely can’t mean ‘string’ as in stringed instrument...?
No, it doesn’t! Let’s return to Robelo’s dictionary entry, and his suggestion that the ‘distinctive’ ornament of Aztec musicians was a cord they wore as a two-coloured plaited headband or necklace, ending in two pompoms dangling over the chest. These are clearly visible in the scene depicted on page 4 of the Codex Borbonicus (pic 3). This calendrical prologue to the magnificent Feasts Chapter of the Codex features two key ‘players’ - on the right the supreme deity in the guise of Huehuecóyotl (Old Coyote), god of music, song, dance and carnal pleasure, and on the left, associated with him sits a priest (painted black) representing Macuilxóchitl (Five-Flower), god of games, dance and song. In each hand Old Coyote plays an elaborate shaker/rattle; note, incidentally, that the main design of this is replicated (upside-down) in the tortoise emblem at the bottom of the page, to which we return below. At the same time Five-Flower plays a vertical drum (huehuetl).

Pic 4: Suspended on a ‘mecatl’ cord, the teardrop pendant, symbol of pleasure, known as ‘oyohualli’, as a rug design - Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 8
Pic 4: Suspended on a ‘mecatl’ cord, the teardrop pendant, symbol of pleasure, known as ‘oyohualli’, as a rug design - Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

Both sing or chant, and both sport the two-tone plaited cord as headband and necklace that del Paso y Troncoso suggested was emblematic of musicians in Tenochtitlan. Note too, incidentally, how the same ornament features attached to the tortoise symbol and to the unidentified (musical?) artefact shown above Old Coyote. This plaited cord, then, is the mecatl.
The cord has a practical use too: from it is suspended a key attribute of Old Coyote and Five-Flower, an artefact symbolising happiness and pleasure - a pectoral known as oyohualli or oyohualcózcatl (pic 4). Worn by several deities, this beautifully simple talisman, made of mother-of-pearl, was formed from a segment of conch shell cut in a unique teardrop-shape (Mateos Higuera 1992). A particularly finely engraved archaeological example is housed today in the Kislak Collection in the U.S. Library of Congress. Michael Coe dedicated a whole lecture to it in 2009, describing it as ‘a marvellous piece of engraving; really extraordinary’. ‘In the pre-Columbian world, the shell pendant was placed on a string and worn around the neck. There are many depictions of animal creatures, warriors and gods wearing shell pendants in Mexican manuscripts, on artefacts and at archaeological sites’ (Urschel 2009:1). (Learn more from the link below).

Pic 5: Musicians perform in front of Huehuecóyotl; Tonalamatl de Aubin p. 4. Note a) the teardrop pendant hanging from a ‘mecatl’ cord from one musician, and b) the ‘ayotl’ tortoise-shell drum with deer horn beater, top
Pic 5: Musicians perform in front of Huehuecóyotl; Tonalamatl de Aubin p. 4. Note a) the teardrop pendant hanging from a ‘mecatl’ cord from one musician, and b) the ‘ayotl’ tortoise-shell drum with deer horn beater, top (Click on image to enlarge)

In a similar calendrical scene to the one we showed earlier from the Codex Borbonicus (pic 3), one of the musicians playing in front of Old Coyote in the Tonalamatl de Aubin (pic 5) - and probably the other too, though his arm obscures it - clearly wears a teardrop shell pendant hanging from a mecatl cord round his neck (arrowed). In his left hand he holds an ayotl - an ancient percussion instrument consisting of a tortoise or turtle shell played with a deer’s antler - more clearly depicted at the top of the scene (also arrowed).
The ayotl was played throughout ancient Mesoamerica, giving the tortoise or turtle a longstanding association with music. Del Paso y Troncoso calls the ‘gold tortoise’ (seen at the foot of picture 3, above) the ‘emblem of musical instruments’ for the Aztecs (1979: 69). Significantly it was a cult symbol linked to both Huehuecóyotl and Macuilxóchitl...

Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Macuilxóchitl encased in a tortoise shell, representing his association with music, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (arrowed - the teardrop pleasure symbol); inset - the ‘gold tortoise’ emblem
Pic 6: Stone sculpture of Macuilxóchitl encased in a tortoise shell, representing his association with music, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (arrowed - the teardrop pleasure symbol); inset - the ‘gold tortoise’ emblem (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología (pic 6) is a half-metre long stone sculpture depicting Macuilxóchitl’s connection with music, as a tortoise-god: head and hands are human, whilst the carapace and rear of the creature are animal. On the back of the sculpture is carved the deity’s name with five digits and a flower.
We should state at this stage that the ‘gold tortoise’ symbol is elusive and far from common, that some scholars (e.g. Gómez Gómez 2006, Anders, Jansen & Pérez Jiménez 1992) place a phonetic rather than semantic meaning on it, and that many depictions of Mexica musicians in the codices fail to show the iconic mecatl cord.
Nevertheless, it seems abundantly clear that the Nahuatl term mecahuehuetl, rather than referring literally - and crudely - to ‘string’ (as in guitar) and ‘drum’ (as in armadillo shell), was a generic Nahua name for a musical instrument, invoking two ancient icons very closely associated with music, the mecatl and the huehuetl.

Pic 7: Conchero with concha guitar, the armadillo shell clearly visible
Pic 7: Conchero with concha guitar, the armadillo shell clearly visible (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course this is all probably just ‘playing semantics’ with a term that Nahuas clearly applied to the concha in the early colonial period. But as Ruben Arellano points out at the end of his article, questions remain:-
• Was the word mecahuehuetl in use prior to the Spanish invasion? If so, to what did it refer?
• Was it a general term for musical instrument?
• Was the concha called this in reference to its strings, or because it was simply a - new - musical instrument?
• Why and when did the term fall out of use, and change to concha?
• Is it possible that either the danza of the Concheros and/or the concha have more ancient origins? Whilst we all assume we ‘know’ that stringed instruments didn’t exist in the Americas before the Spanish (see the article by Christopher García on this very subject - link below), some remain unconvinced. Many years ago the distinguished North American dancer and ethnomusicologist, Gertrude Prokosch Kurath referenced an early 20th century Mexican researcher, Higinio Vázquez Santa Ana who ‘claims a pre-Columbian origin for both dance and concha, perhaps in Querétaro’ (1946: 387 - our emphasis).

Pic 8: Two photos of Concheros groups taken in the first half of the 20th century: (L) at Los Remedios, near Mexico City (photo Guillermo Jiménez) and (R) in Mexico DF
Pic 8: Two photos of Concheros groups taken in the first half of the 20th century: (L) at Los Remedios, near Mexico City (photo Guillermo Jiménez) and (R) in Mexico DF (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars agree that the concha was and is, in Susanna Rostas’s words ‘central to their identity as Concheros and gives them their name’ (Rostas 1994: 43), that it has always been an essential attribute, artefact and indeed the principal ‘weapon’ in the dancers’ struggle for indigenous autonomy (‘organised in military fashion’ - Toor, 1947: 323), and that it carries cleansing prayers before the dance ‘offered with a concha to the four winds’ (Rostas) - ‘in a word, the concha does not serve merely as background accompaniment, as do guitar and song, flute and tabor, but functions as an integral part of the dance, much as the sonaja or rattle’ (Kurath 1946: 389). Yet Kurath - who co-wrote with Samuel Martí one of the classic works on ancient Mexican dance (Dances of Anáhuac) - cannot escape from doubt on its provenience: ‘And what of the concha, the most distinguishing feature of the Concheros?... Perhaps there was a simpler native insrument, made out of the armadillo shell, which developed under the influence of the popular guitarre [sic], into this combined percussion and melodic instrument’ (ibid).

Pic 9: A ‘concha’ being made, in the workshop of Damaso Vidales Amezcua (1993)
Pic 9: A ‘concha’ being made, in the workshop of Damaso Vidales Amezcua (1993) (Click on image to enlarge)

The frustrating thing is that no-one really knows - as yet - the true story of how and when the concha evolved in Mexico. One or two experts suggest very specific ancestry both for the instrument (Contreras, 1988: 76-77, points to the lute and bandola, all with five pairs of strings like the concha), and for the Concheros tradition itself (Covarrubias, 1979: 13, suggests ‘these dances originated in 1522 during the conquest of Querétaro...’).
Hopefully one day a document will be discovered in a dusty archive cupboard which will conveniently reveal all...

Many thanks to Dr. Juan José Batalla Rosado for his help in the preparation of this article.

Pic 10: A Concheros group c.1970s
Pic 10: A Concheros group c.1970s (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources/references:-
• Anders F., Jansen M., and Pérez Jiménez G.A. (1992) Orígen e historia de los reyes mistemos: libro explicativo del llamado Códice Vindobonensis, Spain/Austria/Mexico
• Both, Arnd Adje (2007) ‘Aztec Music Culture’, The World of Music, vol. 49, no. 2, Music Archaeology: Mesoamerica
• Contreras Arias, Juan Guillermo (1988) Atlas Cultural de México: Música, SEP/INAH/Planeta, Mexico DF
• Covarrubias, Luis (1979) Mexican Native Dances, Eugenio Fischgrund, Mexico DF
• Del Paso y Troncoso, Francisco (1979) Descripción, historia y exposición del Códice Borbónico, Siglo XXI, Mexico DF
• Gómez, Luis Antonio (2006) Lectura del topónimo mixteco prehispánico denominado Río del huehuetl-pierna de piedra, in Entre Acordes y Pinceladas edited by Beatriz Zamorano Navarro, INBA, Mexico DF
• Kurath, Gertrude P. (1946) ‘Los Concheros’, The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 59, no. 234, Oct-Dec, 387-399
• Kurath, Gertrude P. and Martí, Samuel (1964) Dances of Anáhuac, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 38, New York
• León y Gama, Antonio de (1792) Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con ocasión del nuevo empedrado que se está formando en la plaza principal de México, se hallaron en ella el año de 1790, Part 2
• López Austin, Alfredo and López Luján, Leonardo (2017) ‘State Ritual and Religion in the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan in The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs, edited by Deborah L. Nichols and Enrique Rodríguez-Alegría, OUP
• Matos Higuera, Salvador (1992) Los Dioses Supremos, Enciclopedia gráfica del México antiguo, Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Mexico DF
• Robelo, Cecilio (1951) Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl
• Rostas, Susanna (1994) ‘The Concheros of Mexico: Changing Images of Identity’, The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, vol. 17, no. 2, 38-56
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de (1950-1982) Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, 13 vols., Monographs of the School of American Research. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, Book 2 ‘The Ceremonies’
• Seler, Eduard (2014) ‘Los cantos religiosos de los antiguos mexicanos (primera parte, cantos 1 a 10), Estudios de cultura náhuatl, vol. 47
• Sullivan, Thelma D. (1997) Primeros Memoriales by Sahagún: Paleography of Nahuatl text and English translation, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Toor, Frances (1947) A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, Crown Publishers Inc., New York
• Urschel, Donna (2009) ‘Love & War: Shell Pendant Reveals Clues to Ancient Toltec Culture’, Library of Congress Information Bulletin, June 2009 - Vol. 68, No. 6.

Picture sources:-
• Main: image (L), pic 3 and pic 6 (insert) from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974; photo (R) downloaded from Wikiwand.com (Concheras)
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993
• Pic 2: image courtesy of and thanks to Juan José Batalla Rosado
• Pic 4: image from the Codex Magliabechiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA 1970 facsimile edition, Graz, Austria
• Pic 5: image from the Tonalamatl de Aubin downloaded from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France website https://gallica.bnf.fr
• Pic 6: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 7 & 9: photos by, courtesy of and thanks to Susanna Rostas
• Pic 8: photo (L) scanned from Dances of Anáhuac (see above); photo (R) scanned from A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (see above)
• Pic 10: photo from Mexicolore archives (from Transparencias de México).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 13th 2021

‘The concha guitar and the armadillo’

‘String Instruments in the Americas/Mexico’

‘Love & War: Shell Pendant Reveals Clues to Ancient Toltec Culture’
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