Fire And Sacrifice In Mesoamerican Myths And Rituals

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In Smoke, Flames, and the Human Body in MesoamericanRitual Practice, edited by Andrew Scherer and Vera Tiesler,pp. 29-53. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 20182Fire and Sacrifice in Mesoamerican Myths and Ritualsoswaldo chinchilla mazariegosAccording to Bernardino de Sahagún’sinformants, one of the seventy-eight buildingsof the Templo Mayor precinct of Mexico was calledNetlatiloyan. They explained: “There were burnedthe ixiptla of those who were named Nanahuatland Xochicuaye” (modified from López Austin1965:89).1 The terse description leaves many questions open. When did this event happen in theyearly ritual cycle? Did it involve human sacrifice?Should the word ixiptla be understood in this context as referring to images of gods, made fromwood or other materials, or to human impersonators who were burned at that building, either deador alive? In a comprehensive study of Aztec feasts,Michel Graulich (1999:209–210) suggested thatthe text referred to impersonators of the solar andlunar heroes, who, according to myths recordedby Sahagún and other writers, died by throwingthemselves in a blazing pyre or oven. Nanahuatlwas the name of the solar hero and Graulich suggested that Xochicuaye was an alternative namefor the lunar hero, known as Tecciztecatl or 4 Flintin other accounts of the origin of the sun and themoon. (For colonial Nahua versions of the myth,see Bierhorst 1992:147–149; Mendieta 1973:50; Ruizde Alarcón 1984:70–72; Sahagún 1950–1982:bk. 7:3–8; Tena 2002:153–155, 181–185.)This ritual was not described in more detailelsewhere, so Sahagún’s description of Netlatiloyanprovides the only extant testimony of what mayhave been an impressive reenactment of a key cosmic juncture. While important, the question ofwhether the ixiptla burned at Netlatiloyan werehuman impersonators is irrelevant to the broaderproblem that I will address in this essay: the interplay between myth and ritual in Mesoamericanreligion, art, and archaeology. The broader question is whether mythical passages found expressionin rituals, and whether there is evidence of thoserituals, either in the archaeological record or inpictorial and textual sources. To address this problem, I will explore mythical passages that recountthe fiery death and transformation of gods, andsearch the available sources for evidence of ritual29

performances that reenacted or alluded in variousways to the immolation of gods.A survey of Mesoamerican myths reveals twomajor episodes that involved fiery death: (a) thesacrifice of the solar and lunar heroes—sometimesonly one—who jumped into a blazing pyre or ovenand emerged as luminaries; and (b) the death ofan old goddess who was burned in a sweat bath, ahouse, or a burning field. The immolation of thesolar and lunar heroes is a celebrated mythicalpassage, repeatedly described in colonial sourcesthat include the Popol Vuh and Spanish and Nahuatexts from Central Mexico. This act is also attestedin widespread modern versions collected acrossMesoamerica, which will be cited and describedin the following pages. Equally widespread, butmuch less known, is the episode that describes thefiery death of an old goddess. While not recordedin writing before the twentieth century, it seemsquite widespread across Mesoamerica, as attestedin numerous narratives recorded in modern communities (cited below). The myths of the old goddess shed light on aspects of Mesoamerican ritualsassociated with childbirth and the sweat bath.Myth and Ritual inMesoamerican ArchaeologyLars Fogelin (2007:56) distinguished two ap proaches to the archaeology of religious ritual.The first delves into the structural and symbolicaspects of ritual, informed by ethnohistoric andethnographic information. The second emphasizes practice, and relies on material remains toreconstruct the actions and experiences of theparticipants in ancient ritual events. Rather thanexclusive categories, these approaches are bestunderstood as complementary to each other. Thedistinction relates to the availability of writtensources and to the relative resilience of religiousbeliefs and practices, from ancient to historicand modern communities. While the untestedassumption of continuity is unwarranted, thecareful examination of links between ethnohistoric, ethnographic, and archaeological data is30c h inc h i l l a m a z a ri e g o sdesirable, as it often yields productive and stimulating results.Religious rituals have multiple correspondences with mythical beliefs and narratives (seeSegal 2005:366–369 for a summary review of theories of myth and ritual). The study of myths hasproved relevant for the interpretation of historically attested rituals and archaeological contextsrelated to religious ritual in the New World (Bauer1996; Brown 1997, 2003; Fogelin 2007:63–64; LópezLuján et al. 2010). But the correspondences arenot straightforward, partly because rituals do notsimply replicate the incidences of mythical narratives. In a detailed study of Mesoamerican myths,Alfredo López Austin (1993:86) envisioned the relationship between myth, ritual, and narrative as atriangle, in which beliefs occupy the dominantvertex. They are the source of mythical knowledgethat may find expression in multiple ways. Bothnarrative and ritual provide expressive outlets formythical beliefs. They relate to each other, whilemaintaining their distinctive structures, media,functions, and histories. Mythical beliefs can alsobecome manifest in other ways, such as magicalspells, plastic representations, and written texts (asdistinct from oral narratives).A correspondence between myth and ritualis generally acknowledged in Mesoamerica, andis especially evident in the case of the sixteenthcentury Mexica and other Nahua peoples of Cen tral Mexico, thanks to the availability of bothtextual and archaeological records. As Graulich(1999:195) noted, sixteenth-century Spanish writerswere aware that the Mexica monthly feasts commemorated major mythical passages—not unlikeChristian feasts. Thus, Motolinía (1970:26) affirmedthat Panquetzaliztli was “the feast of the birth ofHuitzilopochtli from the virgin,” alluding to thegod’s mythical birth, which resulted from hismother’s magical pregnancy. Sahagún’s informantsconcluded their narrative of Huitzilopochtli’s birthat the mountain of Coatepec by asserting its correspondence with the rituals that were dedicatedto the god: “Hence they made offerings to him;hence they honored him, they exerted themselvesfor him . . . And this veneration was taken from

there, Coatepec, as was done in the days of yore”(Sahagún 1950–1982:bk. 1:5). Archaeological excavations have shown that the Great Temple itselfreplicated the fabled mountain, and that specificparts of the temple were named after locations thatwere mentioned in the myths (López Austin andLópez Luján 2009:246–252; Seler 1996:96). JohannaBroda concluded: “The festivals dedicated to theAztec patron deity during the annual ritual cyclewere precisely those related to mythical drama ofthe solar deity as well as of the historical destinyof the Aztec ethnic group” (Broda, Carrasco, andMatos Moctezuma 1988:73). This does not implythat the Mexica rituals were simple reenactmentsof the contents of mythical narratives. Numerouscomponents of the ritual feasts find no parallel inthe extant mythical narratives, while others relatemore or less closely with mythical episodes, orallude to them in metaphorical ways.The relative wealth of colonial written sourceson Nahua myths and rituals has no parallel elsewhere in Mesoamerica. In the Maya area, the PopolVuh and other highland Guatemalan texts contain records of myths, but they provide no detaileddescriptions of the related rituals. Another sourceof information are Classic Maya hieroglyphic texts,which are often explicit about the links betweenmyth and ritual. Some texts begin by recounting themythical actions of gods in ancient times. These preambles offer paradigms for the ritual actions of thehistorical kings (described later in the texts), whichfrequently reiterate the actions of the gods andancestors (Kubler 1974; Stuart 2011:216–228). Whileextremely important, those passages are short, andthey contain only excerpts from what were probablylong mythical narratives. Moreover, they concernonly a special subset of ancient Maya myths: thosethat were most relevant to explain kingship, dynastic origins, and the performance of royal rituals.They offer valuable but limited clues about ancientMaya myths and rituals in a broad sense.In this essay, I employ colonial texts in combination with narratives recorded since the earlytwentieth century in search of demonstrable correspondences with representations in Pre-Columbianart (Chinchilla Mazariegos 2010, 2011, 2017; Coe1989). Neither the colonial accounts nor the modern narratives replicate more ancient versions inevery detail, but there are continuities, especiallyat the level of the nodal subjects. The term derivesfrom López Austin, who proposed a basic distinction between the “heroic” and “nodal” subjectsof myths. Heroic subjects form the outer layer ofmyths. They consist of the adventures of gods andheroes that form the storyline of mythical narratives. The names of characters, locations, and specific incidents belong to this level of analysis. Theyare especially labile, and they may easily changewhen myths are transmitted among storytellers,adapted to new situations, or translated to different languages and cultural settings. A deeper layerof analysis involves the nodal subjects, which formthe underlying structures of myths and tend toremain stable through time, resisting changes thatmay affect the heroic subjects. The nodal subjectsof myths can be identified through comparisonsof parallel versions, in search of parallel episodesthat reveal the deeper and more resilient components of myths (López Austin 1993:247–259, 2001).The distinction is relevant for comparing narrativeswith other forms of mythical expression, including rituals. Ritual performances do not necessarily replicate the heroic subjects of myths in everydetail. More likely, they allude to the nodal subjectsof myths, which form deeper levels of meaning,shared by narrative and ritual performance.Joyce Marcus (1996:286, 1999:70–71) distinguished three components of ritual: (a) its content,(b) its loci of performance, and (c) its performers.Each of these components may have mythical andarchaeological correspondences:(a) The content of the rituals may relate, moreor less closely, to the events described inmythical narratives, although the correspondences may be expressed through metaphors and allusions, rather than throughobvious replications.(b) The loci of ritual performances are oftenconceived as related to the locations andlandscapes described in myths, irrespective of whether their physical shape actuallyFire and Sacrifice in Mesoamerican Myths and Rituals31

approximates the places described in myths.The loci of performance may include permanent architectural volumes and spaces,or temporary settings built especially forritual occasions.(c) Ritual performers often impersonate mythical characters, evoking their physical aspectsand accoutrements. While the impersonation of gods and other mythical charactersis especially associated with Mexica rituals,it is also attested among the Maya and otherMesoamerican peoples (Houston 2006;Houston and Stuart 1996; Pereira 2010:260).From an archaeological perspective, the challenge is not only to identify material traces of ritualbehavior but also to trace plausible mythical correlates. This is not possible in every situation, butit can be attempted in particular contexts, throughthe identification of mythical correlates for the performers, the loci, or the contents of ritual performance. The archaeological correlates of ritual rangefrom the architectural spaces that provided settingsfor ritual drama to the special deposits that wereproduced as a result of ritual events. These includecaches and burials, as well as refuse deposits containing materials that were employed and discardedin the course of rituals. The objects employed inritual—their shape, function, quantity, and location in archaeological deposits—may have mythical correlates, while their location and layout maycorrespond to locations in mythical landscapes. Insome cases, the physical remains of ritual performers are present in the archaeological record—forexample, in the case of individuals who were buried with the accoutrements of deities, or sacrificialvictims who personified mythical characters orwhose mortuary treatment corresponded to mythical models. Artistic representations may also revealdetails about the contents of ritual and its performers, including their physical aspect and paraphernalia, which may suggest mythical associations.The process of linking the archaeologicaltraces of ritual with mythical beliefs involves several steps, beginning with the identification andrecording of the material remains. Analyzing the32c h inc h i ll a m a z a ri e g o smaterials provides a basis to propose reconstructions of ritual behavior, its participants, and the lociof performance. A further step involves comparinginferred ritual behavior with passages contained inmythical beliefs and narratives, in search of correspondences. Simple, one-to-one correlations—suchas neat identifications of individuals in archaeological deposits with mythical characters mentionedin specific narratives—are generally unreliable,because they depend on the assumption of unbroken continuity between ancient ritual practicesand historic or modern narratives. Credible correspondences should only be sought at the level of thenodal subjects of myths, which are, by definition,more resilient, bridging temporal geographic, linguistic, and cultural rifts.The Birth of the Sun at TikalIn recent collaborative publications (Chinchilla andGómez 2010; Chinchilla et al. 2015; Tiesler et al. 2013),we applied these propositions to an Early Classicburial deposit from Tikal. Found at the Plaza ofthe Seven Temples of Tikal, Burial PP7TT-01 was arare, primary burial that contained the remains oftwo partly cremated males, placed one on top of theother inside a pit (Figure 2.1). The burial’s carefulfield documentation by Oswaldo Gómez provideda point of departure for osteologic and taphonomicanalysis by Vera Tiesler, and isotopic analyses byT. D. Price, which allowed us to propose a partialreconstruction of the ritual that resulted in thedeposit. Briefly, we proposed that the individuals were thrown, one after the other, in a speciallyprepared pit provided with sweltering fuel, eitherwood or charcoal. There was no conclusive indication about whether they were dead or alive whenthrown to the pit, but, in any case, the cremationtook place perimortem and did not involve the fullconsumption of the bodies. It stopped for unknownreasons that may have included fuel exhaustion,rain, or intentional extinction of the fire. The bodies were left undisturbed and buried promptly. Theyhad no associated offerings, although four spearpoints were found, three of which were made of

figure 2.1.Two views of Burial PP7TT-01at Tikal: (a) a cremation pit withIndividuals 1A and 1B in situ; and(b) Individual 1B. Photographsby Oswaldo Gómez.abgreen obsidian from the Pachuca source in highland Mexico. Isotopic analysis showed that one ofthe individuals was foreign to Tikal and originatedfrom a highland region, although there is insufficient evidence to pinpoint his origin.The burial’s location, along the normative axisof the E-Group architectural compound knownas Mundo Perdido, suggested ritual significanceand solar connotations (Figure 2.2). The shape andfunction of lowland Maya E-Groups has been thesubject of intense debate, which falls beyond thescope of the present essay (Aimers and Rice 2006;Aveni and Hartung 1989; Cohodas 1980; Doyle2012; Estrada Belli 2011:67–83; Fialko 1988; Ruppert1940). But it is relevant to note that this specialized architectural compound has been repeatedlyassociated with the daily and yearly course of thesun. The burial’s location on the compound’s eastern side suggested an association with the risingsun. We proposed that the burial resulted from aFire and Sacrifice in Mesoamerican Myths and Rituals33

Mundo Perdido (E-Group)Plaza of theSeven Templesplazanormative axisBurialPP7TT-01figure 2.2.Location of Burial PP7TT-01 on the normative axis of the E-Group architectural compound (Mundo Perdido) atTikal. Drawing by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos.ritual that evoked the mythical death of two heroeswho immolated themselves in a pyre or oven andemerged as the sun and the moon. In our view,the architectural setting of the E-Group evokeda mythical landscape related to the origin of thesun and the moon, providing a suitable locationfor the myth’s ritual reenactment. In other words,the ritual that was carried out at this location atTikal was like-in-kind with the one that took place34c h inc hi ll a m a z a ri e g o sat Netlatiloyan in the Templo Mayor precinct ofMexico, where, according to Sahagún’s informants, the ixiptla of the solar and lunar heroeswere burned.This may appear as an undue “upstreaming” ofsixteenth-century Nahua religious beliefs. Yet thereare significant reasons to uphold our propositionthat the Early Classic Maya of Tikal knew versionsof the immolation of the solar and lunar heroes. The

mythical episode is often and erroneously considered to be a Nahua myth, perhaps because it wasrecorded with some detail in sixteenth-centurytexts from Central Mexico. The assumed attribution of the myth to the Nahua disregards the version contained in the Popol Vuh of the highlandK’iche’ Maya, which is roughly contemporary with,but not reliant on, the earliest Nahua versions. Infact, a comparison of these versions shows majordepartures, suggesting that they did not derivefrom one another.According to the Nahua versions, the godsprepared a fire with the purpose of determiningwho would shine as the sun and then selected twocandidates to fulfill the role. In the Popol Vuh, thelords of Xibalba—the realm of death—prepared apit oven with the purpose of killing the Hero Twins,and did not anticipate that they would come backto life and become the sun and the moon. Perhapsmore importantly, the K’iche’ version omitted thecontrasting qualities of the solar and lunar heroes,a key feature that appears in all other colonial andmodern versions. The heroes of the Popol Vuhacted in unison, and threw themselves in the oventogether (Christenson 2003:178–179). By contrast,Nahua versions emphasize the fact that the candidates were different from each other. One was poorand sickly; the other, wealthy and proud. One didnot hesitate; he threw himself at once into the blazing fire. The other recanted, and was only able tothrow himself into the tepid embers after the firsthad taken most of the heat. The former became thesun; the other, the moon.The Popol Vuh proves that the fire sacrifice ofthe sun and moon heroes was indeed known to thehighland Maya in the sixteenth century. Ratherthan assuming a derivation from Nahua sources,the parallels between the Nahua and K’iche’ mythsshow that they shared nodal subjects. The historical processes that produced both versions cannotbe reconstructed with certainty, but the versionsare varied enough to discard the possibility that themyth migrated directly from one region to the other.The shared nodal subjects suggest that they derivedfrom ancient, common sources, which were gradually transmitted and transformed as Mesoamericanpeoples interacted with one another through millennia. These processes resulted in a range of mythical beliefs and narratives that reappear in closelyrelated, but regionally distinct forms throughoutMesoamerica (Chinchilla Mazariegos 2010; LópezAustin 1993, 2001; Olivier and Martínez 2015).In modern times, the origin of the sun andthe moon as resulting from the immolation oftwo gods or heroe

Alfredo López Austin (1993:86) envisioned the rela - tionship between myth, ritual, and narrative as a triangle, in which beliefs occupy the dominant vertex. They are the source of mythical knowledge

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