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Ancient Mexican skull mask played by god impersonator

The (skull) rasp

The ancient Mexicans may not have had skyscrapers, but they certainly could boast SKULLscrapers! Clearly depicted in this image (right) - redrawn from the pre-Hispanic Codex Vindobonensis - is a ‘god impersonator’ figure, representing Quetzalcóatl, scraping a bone implement (see picture 6 caption) across a human femur rasp laid on the top of a human skull, in a practice that still ‘resonates’ today in remote parts of Mexico... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘Chicahuaztlis and Omichicahuaztlis’ illustration from Castañeda and Mendoza
Pic 1: ‘Chicahuaztlis and Omichicahuaztlis’ illustration from Castañeda and Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

This unusual Mesoamerican ‘musical’ instrument is generally known by its Nahuatl name omichicahuaztli: omi(tl) meaning bone and chicahuaztli commonly referring to staff or rattle stick, but which literally means ‘with which to strengthen’. The best ‘standard’ definition of omichicahuaztli that we’ve come across is Curt Muser’s:-
’Nahuatl word for a musical instrument (rasp) consisting of a dried, striated deer bone or human femur that is scraped by a smaller bone to produce doleful sounds for the accompaniment of funeral dirges. Frequently laid above a resonator such as a conch shell or skull.’ To distinguish chicahuaztlis from omichicahuaztlis, see picture 1 (top and bottom rows, respectively).

Pic 2: Two examples of carved Aztec bone rasps (University of Tulane), from Martí
Pic 2: Two examples of carved Aztec bone rasps (University of Tulane), from Martí (Click on image to enlarge)

Strictly, we should classify the omichicahuaztli as a ‘friction idiophone’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these terms - rather like our ‘shaker’ and ‘scraper’ - have become confused and sometimes interchanged by chroniclers and scholars. Stevenson documents very early examples of historians mistakenly referring to omichicahuaztils as sonajas (‘shakers’), as in the case of Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, grandson of Moctezuma II, when describing the funeral of Moctezuma I. What is not in dispute is the use of these instruments prior to the Spanish invasion; 16th century chroniclers including Sahagún and Durán* mention them, and the renowned musicologist Samuel Martí, like Durán before him, claims that they were in widespread use in Mesoamerican cultures ‘with the exception of the Olmec’. However, context is everything. All the great scholars who have studied these instruments in the last two centuries - Seler, Nowotny, Beyer, Krickeberg, Caso, Martí, Stevenson, Castañeda, Mendoza, Contreras, for starters - agree that their use was restricted to accompanying funerary rites.

Pic 3: The ‘omichicahuaztli’ or bone rasp in use over a human skull resonator; Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 24r (detail)
Pic 3: The ‘omichicahuaztli’ or bone rasp in use over a human skull resonator; Codex Vindobonensis, pl. 24r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

What’s more, Krickeberg suggests that ‘music itself’ - though this is a very Eurocentric comment - was prohibited during funeral ceremonies, leaving the lugubrious ratchety sound of the scraped bone and sung dirge to imbue the occasion with spiritual power. This is in keeping with the meaning of the word chicahua - to fortify: rattling and clattering sounds were important in rituals, imitating the sounds of rain and rattlesnakes to invoke magical support and encouragement for life’s renewal. We get a sense of this from the best known illustration of an omichicahuaztli in use, the image on plate 24r of the Codex Vindobonensis (see picture 3). First, the action itself: Stevenson guides us here:-
’Below [the two key figures] we see [bottom left] the mummy bundle ready for the fire. To increase its resonance Quetzalcóatl rests the notched bone on a skull. With one hand firmly grasping the notched femur, he rubs its grooves with a scraper held in his other hand. “Meanwhile he sings the ‘very sad song’ mentioned by Tezozomoc, the miccacuicatl, this threnody [lament] being symbolised by the glyph ascending from his open mouth”’ (the quote is from Beyer).
There is, incidentally, some disagreement as to who the character facing Quetzalcóatl and weeping (top right, picture 3) is; NOTE also a) that the skull rests on an icpalli, a reed ring ‘throne’ similar to those used to support two-toned tongue drums; b) that the skull itself COULD be artificial (Castañeda and Mendoza were convinced it was made of fired clay, similar to the example in picture 7); c) how sure can we be exactly how the instrument was ‘played’?** and d) that the scribe appears to have mistakenly given Q two left hands!

Pic 4: *’Bones with small teeth cut into them like ladder rungs’ (Durán); notched bone rasp, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: *’Bones with small teeth cut into them like ladder rungs’ (Durán); notched bone rasp, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst other materials have been in the past and are used today - deer bones, whale ribs, stone, clay and wood (Contreras) - by far the most common were human femur bones. Choice of material may not have been arbitrary: Martí points out that use of bone, whether animal or human, was associated with growth and with magic, ‘ensuring life and resurrection.’ Deer continue to have religious associations among indigenous communities, representing the sun, vitality and fecundity. Martí goes on to mention the hallucinating effect of the scraper being played over a resonator, amplifying the hypnotic effect similar to that of scrapers repetitively accompanying traditional dances performed around the world.

Pic 5: Two Tarahumara shamans holding rasping sticks used in healing rituals - photo by Karl Lumholtz (detail)
Pic 5: Two Tarahumara shamans holding rasping sticks used in healing rituals - photo by Karl Lumholtz (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Several commentators have noted that instruments similar to the omichicahuaztli have continued to be used in modern times amongst the indigenous peoples of NW Mexico and SW United States, such as the Tarahumara (Rarámuri), Huichol, Pima, Hopi...), in some cases as magic instruments for bringing success in hunting, in others as medicinal tools used by shamans to speed a person’s recovery from illness. In an article on Tarahumara religion, Vicente T. Mendoza wrote, in the early 20th century, ‘[After dancing, eating and drinking] then the curing ceremony is performed. The most usual way is to mark crosses on the patient’s body with a cross dipped in tesguino [sacred corn beer] as the shaman sings and rasps. Then the rasping stick is scraped three times over the head of the sick. Afterwards the shaman faces the sun and moves his notched stick three times above and below the one for rasping...’
Coincidentally we should recall that in Mesoamerican belief systems, humans have three spirit centres - one in the heart, one in the liver and one in the head. This also fits well with the notion that the skull rasp may have been ‘played’ to assist and energise the dead person on their long and difficult journey down to the underworld of Mictlan.

Pic 6: Close-up of the skull resonator, femur rasp and bone implement which Castañeda & Mendoza suggest is a shoulder-blade, Codex Vindobonensis pl. 24r (detail)
Pic 6: Close-up of the skull resonator, femur rasp and bone implement which Castañeda & Mendoza suggest is a shoulder-blade, Codex Vindobonensis pl. 24r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
Music in Aztec and Inca Territory by Robert Stevenson, University of California Press, 1968
Las Antiguas Culturas Mexicanas by Walter Krickeberg, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico, 1961
Facts and Artefacts of Ancient Middle America compiled by Curt Muser, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1978
Atlas Cultural de México: Música by Juan Guillermo Contreras Arias, SEP/INAH, Mexico, 1988
Instrumentos Musicales Precortesianos by Samuel Martí, INAH, Mexico, 1968
Instrumental Precortesiano: Instrumentos de Percusión by Daniel Castañeda and Vicente T. Mendoza, UNAM, Mexico, 1933
La Música y la Danza by Vicente T. Mendoza, in Esplendor del México Antiguo, Eds. Raúl Noriega, Carmen Cook de Leonard, Julio Rodolfo Moctezuma, Centro de Investigaciones Antropológicas de México, 1959
Among Unknown Tribes: Rediscovering the Photographs of Explorer Carl Lumholtz by Bill Broyles, Ann Christine Eek, Phyllis La Farge, Richard Laugharn and Eugenia Macías Guzmán, University of Texas Press, 2014

Pic 7: A fired clay polychrome skull resonator, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: A fired clay polychrome skull resonator, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Image sources:-
• Main pic and pic 2: images scanned from Instrumentos Musicales Precortesianos (see above)
• Pic 1: image scanned from Instrumental Precortesiano (see above)
• Pix 3 & 6: images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vindobonensis, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 4 & 7: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: photo scanned from Among Unknown Tribes (see above)
• Pic 8: scanned from Esplendor del México Antiguo (see above).

Pic 8: Drawings from Mendoza of two serrated bone rasps: in the form of a stylised rattlesnake (L) and a notched and engraved animal’s rib (R)
Pic 8: Drawings from Mendoza of two serrated bone rasps: in the form of a stylised rattlesnake (L) and a notched and engraved animal’s rib (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

**FOOTNOTE: We’re left with a doubt about exactly how the instrument ‘worked’. Did one (‘left’) hand move the bone scraper back and forth horizontally along the length of the femur rasp, was it the other way round, or in fact did the ‘right’ hand move the femur rasp vertically up and down the scraper? To us the image in the Codex Vindobonensis is ambiguous. Mendoza depicts the scraper - which he suggests is an animal’s rib - upside down (pic 8) and with serrated sides, inviting the idea that the femur rasp might have been worked up and down along these edges, rather than the rib being worked along the femur. Surely both would be equally effective...? Suggestions invited...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 12th 2019

emoticon Q. How were shamans formally rewarded and encouraged in ancient Mexico?
A. By being awarded ‘skullarships’...

Artefact in the Spotlight: an ‘omichicahuaztli’ in the Templo Mayor Museum

Vicente T. Mendoza article online ‘Tarahumara Religion’ - Indians.org
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