Death in the Ancient Mexico

Codices and written sources tell us about the tears and grief of the people of ancient Mexico in face of death. The truth is that Mesoamerican people looked at death in the face, talked about it, considered it in their songs and prayers.

By Amparo Museum

Yugo con cráneos (0200/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Yoke with skulls

Yugo con cráneos (0200/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Yoke with skulls

  This yoke shows three skulls, one on each side and one at the front, a series of interlaces and at least two snakes whose heads are at the base and their tails. The thematic link between the yoke and the ballgame is likely but we cannot consider it definitive.  

Representación de un cráneo (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Representation of a skull

Representación de un cráneo (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Representation of a skull

This sculpture made of coarse obsidian with the eye sockets made of shell and the teeth made of bone reminds us that in Mesoamerican art representations of skulls are a constant theme. The devotion consists of the preservation of the skull of an ancestor or person important to the community, which is why this was an act of veneration. 

Fragmento de pintura mural con escena alusiva a la muerte y el sacrificio (0200/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Fragment of mural painting with scene alluding to death and sacrifice

Fragmento de pintura mural con escena alusiva a la muerte y el sacrificio (0200/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Fragment of mural painting with scene alluding to death and sacrifice

There are two characters in the scene: the one on the left is in profile with the arms stretched towards the front with a bird also in profile; there are several elements in the complex costume with strong symbolic content.  The one on the right has a human body, however. The face is a skull with a serpent on the front, and spirals rise over his head, one of them ending in a flower. 

Hombre esquelético (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skeletal man

Hombre esquelético (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skeletal man

The piece combines the characteristics of two different regional styles, and also has some anomalous elements, such as the abdominal swelling and large opening on the top of the head for firing. On the one hand the design corresponds to the Lagunillas variation “C” style because  of the triangular chin, but on the other, the tufts of hair standing up on the head and the representation of individuals sitting with their ribs marked on their fronts and backs corresponds to the Ixtlan de Rio style. Both are located in the region now known as Nayarit.  

Brasero con una posible alegoría de la fertilidad masculina (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Brazier with possible allegory of male fertility

Brasero con una posible alegoría de la fertilidad masculina (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Brazier with possible allegory of male fertility

Duality implies differences, opposites, complementarity and often ranking among its components; in this sense, the figures vary in detail and it is possible to recognize one as the protagonist.  

Vasija con forma de cráneo (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull shaped vessel

Vasija con forma de cráneo (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull shaped vessel

Skulls are a recurring motif in these types of vessels from the time the Toltec-Chichimec ideology was established in the valley region of Puebla-Tlaxcala after the fall of Tula. The worldview of these Nahua groups is manifested in various motifs related to the cult of death, sacrifice and war. The type of conventions, colors and painting techniques used point to these types of vessels belonging to a stylistic and iconographic tradition known as Mixteca-Puebla.  

Cráneo con tocado (fragmento) (0600/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull with headdress (fragment)

Cráneo con tocado (fragmento) (0600/0900) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull with headdress (fragment)

This little figurine of fired clay where an impressive skull with its mouth ajar wears a magnificent headdress adorned with hooks on its edges and with an effigy placed in the center like a face, again, very similar to the face of an animal that appears on the raw clay figure that presides over the shrine. It is interesting to note here that we have preserved few examples of Mictlantecuhtli as a result of the pottery production aimed at making small figurines and, without a doubt, this piece is exceptional among them.

Collar de cráneos (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull Necklace

Collar de cráneos (1200/1521) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Skull Necklace

Without question, a particular characteristic of Mesoamerican religion, particularly of its artistic expressions, is the frequent allusion to death.  The forming of necklaces in which each bead reproduced the same motif was frequent in the jewelry of Mesoamerica; one of the most common images to allude to death was the skull. During the Post-Classic period, Mesoamerican peoples were accustomed to seeing dozens or hundreds of skulls in their plazas. And just as skulls were strung on the long wooden sticks of the tzompantlis (racks of human skulls used for public display), so were they joined to form this necklace. 

Dignatario con tocado de formas cónicas y collar de valvas o vainas (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Dignitary in Headdress with Conical Shapes and Necklace Made of Shells or Pods

Dignatario con tocado de formas cónicas y collar de valvas o vainas (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Dignitary in Headdress with Conical Shapes and Necklace Made of Shells or Pods

In the art of the shaft tomb people, the sitting position indicates high social status. It is possible that in combination with the foregoing, the remarkable conical protuberance that crowns the figure's chinstrap refers to religious duties, perhaps those of a priest. It is a distinctive attribute of the Comala style which originated in the valley of Comala, and from other stylistic modalities of the Colima zone.

Figura de un perro robusto en actitud de atención (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Figure of a robust alert dog

Figura de un perro robusto en actitud de atención (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Figure of a robust alert dog

Sculptures of dogs were common companions of the dead in shaft and chamber tombs, where they played important religious roles. Among the Mexica, Xolotl is the twin or fraternal brother of Quetzalcoatl, and also the god of plants and animals that grow in pairs; among its better known attributes is that of guiding the dead on their journey through the underworld.

Imagen de un funeral (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Burial representation

Imagen de un funeral (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Burial representation

Iconographically speaking, I would conclude that the scene does not just represent a simple gathering around a sick individual, and the key is in the vessels containing food, because they constitute the offering that Mesoamericans used to leave for their dead so that they could eat during their next life and journey through the underworld, because for them death was not the end.  

Cántaro con forma de frutos (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Pitcher in the form of fruit

Cántaro con forma de frutos (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Pitcher in the form of fruit

As with other Mesoamerican cultures, in the shaft tomb culture the deceased were buried together with food and drink. It was thought to be post-death sustenance for their trip or stay in the underworld (the realm of the dead), where they would require such items.   

Recipiente Bule (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Bule

Recipiente Bule (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Bule

Regarding the art of Western Mesoamerica “bule” is a common term used for pots and cinched pitchers or of a shape composed of two spherical forms, whose shape is reminiscent of the squash Lagenaria siceraria, which are also cinched and when dried are used as recipients.  The one in question now displays the Ameca-Etzatlan style, also from central Jalisco.

Olla con forma de cabeza trofeo (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Pot in the shape of a trophy head

Olla con forma de cabeza trofeo (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Pot in the shape of a trophy head

  This piece is reminiscent of what are referred to as Comala style “trophy heads” from the art of the shaft tomb culture.  It is clear that this sculptural vessel represents a dead individual because this is how closed eyes are interpreted in the Mesoamerican canon.  Representations of detached heads with closed eyes are identified with decapitated enemies. 

Olla con forma de perro (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Dog-shaped pot

Olla con forma de perro (-0300/0600) by DesconocidoAmparo Museum

Dog-shaped pot

The spots certainly correspond to those of a jaguar; however, we are presented with a fantasy animal, a hybrid of a dog and a jaguar, that furthermore appears to be carrying a large vessel.  In the Mesoamerican cosmovision the jaguar and the dog carry complex symbolism; both, one savage and the other domesticated, are associated with the watery, dark, nocturnal, feminine underworld, the sphere of the dead.

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