General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 28 Feb 2021/5 Monkey
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Teponaztli drum, Mexican Gallery, British Museum

Oscar Wilde and Aztec music

In Oscar Wilde’s classic tale ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, there are - somewhat unexpectedly - references to ‘some of the strangest instruments that could be found’, including Aztec ones... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

In Chapter XI, Dorian is depicted as an avid collector of exotic musical instruments, found ‘either in the tombs of dead nations or among the few savage tribes that have survived contact with Western civilisations’. Assembled in a ‘long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive green lacquer’, he would give curious concerts in which he would attempt to recreate the music from distant lands.

Quotes from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter XI
Quotes from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chapter XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the Aztec instruments described, Dorian had collected a teponaztli (horizontal slit drum), clusters of bells, and a huge huehuetl (upright skin drum). ’The fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him’, but Wilde goes on to paint a darker side to the instruments - ‘he felt a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, things of bestial shape and with hideous voices...’

An early form of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890
An early form of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 (Click on image to enlarge)

... Clearly Wilde was using these images of Aztec instruments as a literary device to prepare the reader for the terrible form that Dorian Gray’s character was soon to take...

Stone figure of Coyolxauhqui, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Stone figure of Coyolxauhqui, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Wilde mentions ‘yotl-bells’ of the Aztecs. There is no better illustration of this than on the famous stone head of the moon diety Coyolxauhqui, whose name in Náhuatl means ‘She with bells in her cheeks’. ‘Coyolli’ was the Náhuatl term for jingles of all kinds, made of various substances - clay, nutshells, dried fruit, as well as gold and copper. From the glyphs on both cheeks we can tell that in the case of Coyolxauhqui she wears bells of pure gold. Enlarge the image to see them clearly!

‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’ exhibition, London, 1824
‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’ exhibition, London, 1824 (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s possible that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) stumbled upon (references to) Aztec musical instruments thanks to the success of the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’, held in the ‘Egyptian Hall’, Piccadilly, in 1824. The exhibition
was the brainchild of William Bullock, a 19th. century traveller, naturalist and antiquarian. In 1823 Bullock went to Mexico and brought back a large collection of artefacts and specimens that included casts of several important Aztec treasures; much of his collection passed to the British Museum in 1825. You can see several of his indigenous Mexican pieces today in the Mexican Gallery of the BM. The gallery contains beautiful examples of some pre-Hispanic musical instruments, including 3 teponaztlis (see one of these in the top picture).

Picture sources:

Photo of teponaztli, British Museum by Ian Mursell; book cover picture from internet book sellers’ promotional photos found via; photo of Coyolxauhqui by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore; illustration of the 1824 Mexican exhibition in Piccadilly courtesy of the Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.

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The Aztec war drum

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