The Faces of Death

In this dire virus situation, we are all looking death in the face, but we can’t really see what it looks like wearing a mask and standing at a sociable distance. So I tried to get an up-close look at the face of death through the sanitized lens of Aztec art. They were intimate with that inevitable fact of life and drew many detailed pictures of it.

In their calendars, the Aztecs represented the day Death, Miquitzli, the sixth in their 20-day month, as a skull, often fancifully ornamented:

Signs for the Aztec Day Death

While the examples from Codex Cospi are the most varied and almost playful, they’re not exactly “fun” or amenable. Not that they were supposed to be… By the way, notice the tassels fed through the earlobes. Ears on a skull? This could become a new fashion fad!

The Aztecs also personified, or if you will, deified death as Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead (Mictlan). He was portrayed in various styles with many common motifs as a skeleton, often with a sacrificial knife for a nose and a semi-circular headdress, usually with a central spike. (Note two incipient examples of the spike among the Cospi signs above.) In Codex Borgia, he often wears a hand as a tassel through his earlobe. In the display below I skipped the skeletons and show only the skulls. None of them is particularly warm and cuddly, but again I guess Death’s heads simply aren’t.

Heads of Aztec Lord of Death

These gruesome images, which underlie many Day of the Dead graphics, weren’t especially frightening for the Aztecs who had a deep reverence for Mictlantecuhtli, even to the point of ritual cannibalism. I felt a similar, though not so hungry, reverence a few years ago when I drew the icon for the Lord of Death. He’s existentially pretty grand, but his beckoning gesture isn’t very enticing. Note the spiked ornament and the Magliabechiano headdress. Besides a vaguely realistic jaguar pelt, I used my artistic license to hang that spider web across his midriff. Oh, and those are eyeballs hanging from his cape. They do look a bit like googly eyes.

Aztec Lord of Death

These boney specters were the way I saw the Aztec face of Death until quite recently when I decided to re-create the book of days (tonalamatl) in the Codex Rios. I suddenly got glimpses of his real face instead of a fleshless skull.

They say that Codex Rios (one of the zillions of documents held by the Vatican Library) is a 16th-century Italian copy of the more or less pre-conquest codex called Telleriano-Remensis. As a copy it wasn’t terribly faithful, taking many liberties with images—some really worked; some didn’t—and making several mistakes in the numbering of days. But it was good that Rios took liberties because T-R is crude artistically speaking, though at times the copy itself was sloppy.

The T-R tonalamatl was drawn in pieces, each 13-day week (trecena) laid out with the first five days and main patron on one page and the last eight on another with the second patron/symbol. Rios followed that format exactly. In my re-creation, the weeks will be presented whole on their own pages to give an integral view of the time periods and supernatural characteristics.

The T-R and Rios tonalamatls include the nine Lords of the Night in sequence with the days, a cycle taking many years to complete (9 Lords/260 days). These Lords also appear (very sketchily) in Codex Cospi and in the complicated layouts of Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin along with Lords of the Day and totem birds, but in T-R/Rios the Lords of the Night are shown prominently alone in distinctive portrait busts.

The fifth Lord of the Night—and Lord of the fifth (mid-night) hour of the night—is none other than Mictlantecuhtli. He occurs 29 times during most of the 260-day years. In T-R he’s rendered as a full-fleshed “person” with remarkably consistent accoutrements. There are only 22 faces of Lord Death below because I don’t have copies of a few of the T-R pages. I doubt the missing pages will contain any surprises:

Faces of the Lord of Mictlan (Codex Telleriano-Remensis)

Again, the headdress with spiked ornament is standard, as well as a black lower face. Since these are given in order, there seems to be a greater finesse in the first several busts, if only for the green on the scarf “flaps.” The artist probably got tired as the days rolled by.

Note the plus signs on most of the scarves—they’re NOT crosses but a geometric motif possibly having to do with the four directions and center. Most consistent are the profiles of the Lord. The protruding mouth and often pendulous lower lip must have some iconographic significance, but unless it’s meant to convey menace, I haven’t a clue. Note also the almost identical noses—which appear on several other T-R Lords of the Night. This ancient artist had a clear template.

On the other hand, the artist(s) of the Codex Rios copy did not have a standard physiognomy for Mictlantecuhtli. Even standard formats in Rios tend to vary widely in execution and detail. As well, the artist(s) had to squeeze the day- and deity-images to accommodate notes (in Italian) naming the days and good, bad, or indifferent luck. With mostly consistent traditional ornamentation, the faces of Death in Rios are strongly individual:

Faces of the Lord of Mictlan (Codex Rios)

In my re-creation of the Rios tonalamatl, I won’t render all the variant images of the deities but will repeat an established portrait of each one using the modern magic of copying. I cherry-picked among the above 29 images to choose my favorite details and distilled them down to this interpretation of Mictlantecuhtli, the face of Death.

Lord of Mictlan

When I peered through Aztec art and discovered this evocative human face, I fell in love with lovely Death. Now I can look this beautiful Lord in the eye and happily know he awaits. I plan on making him wait for a great long while, but when he beckons, it will be good to fall into his arms.

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Aztec Lords of the Night

After finishing Icon #19 for my coloring book, and before jumping on the next one, I’ve been plugging along on another Aztec project, this one in color! Some time ago I decided to “re-create” the calendar from 16th-century Codex Rios, apparently a slightly later Italian copy of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Both of them offer fairly crude versions of deities and day-signs, with Rios tending to be at least a little more “artistic,” and both present the ceremonial count of days in disjointed pieces. So my re-creation will also be a re-construction.

In Codices Borgia and Vaticanus, the 13-day week (trecena) is laid out simply with ruling deities and the day-count. In Codex Borbonicus and Tonalamatl Aubin, the Lords of the Day and Night are included, but hard to differentiate, as well as their totem birds, mostly of dubious species.

Codices Rios and Telleriano-Remensis accompany the day-count and patron deities only with the nine Lords of the Night in a super-cycle that takes some centuries to complete. In sequence, the Lords of the Night preside over the nights of each calendar day and at the same time, in sequence, they preside over each of the nine hours of those nights.

Forgive me for saying this, but in these two related calendars, the images of the Lords are really sloppy, even slap-dash, though the deities are drawn with consistent, if careless, motifs. It would be rude to show you the original images of those abused Lords of the Night. Instead, refining their iconographic details, I’ve re-created them with more realistic faces in the style of Codices Fejervary-Mayer and/or Laud.

You can check them all out in greater detail in my Aztec pantheon, but here are some artist’s notes on these Lords of the Night.

1st Lord: Xiuhtecuhtli—Lord of the Turquoise/(Fire). Perhaps he has a red mouth from eating fire? The peaked headdress and red ribbon are standard emblems.

2nd Lord: Itztli—Obsidian. He’s a nagual (manifestation) of Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror. Again, I don’t know what the standard black markings on his face signify, but those things in his “hat” are sacrificial flint knives.

3rd Lord: Pilzintecuhtli—Young Lord. God of the planet Mercury, he is also a “sun-lord” as shown by the sun in his headdress. I can’t explain his golden hair, but all the Lords’ hair-colors are inexplicably the same as these in the earlier, purely Mexican codex.

4th Lord: Centeotl—God of Maize. Check out the cobs of maize in his headdress.

5th Lord: Mictlantecuhtli—Lord of the Land of the Dead. In this most appealing image I’ve ever found of the death-god, the black lower face is standard. (The pointy thing in the headdress is reminiscent of the regalia of the god Itztlacoliuhqui.)

6th Lord: Chalchiuhtlicue—Jade Skirt. She’s the ancestral Great Goddess from ancient Teotihuacan.

7th Lord: Tlazolteotl—Goddess of Filth. Her mouth is black from eating people’s filth/sins. I can’t identify the tasseled objects in her headdress.

8th Lord: Tepeyollotl—Heart of the Mountain. His tri-color face (and yellow hair) are standard features for this god in these calendars.

9th Lord: Tlaloc—God of Storms. His goggle-eyed, long-toothed visage is emblematic in most codex contexts.

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More Aztec Whoopee

Here we go again! My informational art exhibit YE GODS! ICONS OF AZTEC DEITIES will show for the fourth time at NEW MEXICO HIGHLANDS UNIVERSITY in beautiful Las Vegas NM from September 30 to November 2, 2019 at BURRIS HALL GALLERY, 903 National Avenue.

In 2018 the first 15 icons showed at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe and at Northern New Mexico College in Española, and in 2019, with the addition of #16 (TECCIZTECATL & METZTLI, Deities of the Moon), they were displayed at Santa Fe Community College. This iteration at NMHU will include another new icon, #17:  TEPEYOLLOTL, Heart of the Mountain, the god of caves, volcanoes, and a bunch of other neat stuff.

Currently working on the next icon for the coloring book, #18: XOCHIPILLI, Prince of Flowers, I’ve broken out of my alphabetical sequence to manifest the splendid deity that I consider my personal patron (appearing above in my website banner).  I’m also breaking several Aztec iconographic conventions for this one, not the least of which is running wild with floral motifs.  One of my favorite details is a tiny Aztec bee:

Aztec Bee

You’ll just have to wait a while to see the rest of this literally iconoclastic icon.

Along with the NMHU show, I’ll give a slide lecture on the Aztec Codices for their Art in the Americas class and a gallery talk for their Día de los Muertos celebration on November 1, just ahead of a concert to be directed by my music prof friend Andre Garcia-Nuthmann. Of course, Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead, will be featured, as will Tepeyollotl, Heart of the Mountain, who guards the entrance to Mictlan.  That dire place is always shown as the mouth of the monstrous, hermaphroditic Lord of the Earth, Tlaltecuhtli:

Entrance to Mictlan

Meanwhile efforts continue to line up more venues for the show, including other educational institutions around New Mexico. If anybody out there has hot ideas for presenters anywhere else, sic them on me!  I’ve been trying to interest places in surrounding states but so far have struck out.  (Read that as:  My approaches have been roundly ignored.)  I’d really love to hang the show at Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, but I expect the materials should be translated into Spanish, actually not such a bad idea…

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Aztec Icon #10 – MICTLANTECUHTLI, Lord of the Land of the Dead

Though there were times when I wondered if I’d ever finish this drawing, I’ve actually managed to complete the next icon in the series for the coloring book YE GODS!  THE AZTEC ICONS.

This icon of the Lord of Mictlan, the Land of the Dead, contains a lot more mythological narrative than even hinted in the caption.  Starting at the upper left and moving clockwise around the temple, dead persons enter Mictlan at the mouth of the Underworld.  Then the monstrous deity Xolotl serves as their guide (psychopomp), and the dog Itzcuintli is their companion through Mictlan, where they must climb eight hills and cross nine rivers (in four days).  The realm of Mictlantecuhtli is an empty place of darkness, dust, and vermin/vile insects (centipedes and scorpions among others), but that’s where most people had to go after death.  I wonder why they ever bothered to struggle over all those hills and rivers just to get to a nowhere like that.

Meanwhile, in the center of the lower register the wind deity Ehecatl (nagual of Quetzalcoatl) negotiates with the Lady of the Land of the Dead, Mictlancihuatl, for the bones from the Fourth Sun (Four Water).  He then breathes life into those bones to create the people for the current Fifth Sun (Four Earthquake).

(You can still see or download the previous nine icons by clicking on them in the list on the page for the coloring book.)

ICON #10: MICTLANTECUHTLI

(Lord of the Land of the Dead)

To download this icon as a pdf file with a page of caption and model images from the Aztec Codices, right click here and select “Save Target (or Link) As.”  You can also download it in freely sizable vector drawings from the coloring book page.

Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead

Mictlantecuhtli, Lord of the Land of the Dead

MICTLANTECUHTLI {meek-tłan-te-kooh-tłee} is the most prominent of several deities of death, 5th lord of the night, and 6th lord of the day.  His worship reputedly involved ritual cannibalism.  (Counter-intuitively, skulls and skeletons were symbols of fertility, health, and abundance.) His wife is Mictlancihuatl.  Only souls who died normal deaths went to the Land of the Dead, Mictlan; souls of heroes, warriors, sacrificial victims, or who die in childbirth joined TONATIUH in the Fourth Heaven, and those who drown went to TLALOC’s Eighth Heaven, the paradisiacal Tlalocan.