Characters and historical events ››
- Zapotec Civilization
- Moche Civilization
- Toltec Civilization
- Gold in Antiquity
- The Ball Game of Mesoamerica
Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places
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Origin and historyThe Zapotecs, known as the 'Cloud People', dwelt in the southern highlands of central Mesoamerica, specifically, in the Valley of Oaxaca, which they inhabited from the late Preclassic period to the end of the Classic period (500 BCE - 900 CE). Their capital was first at Monte Albán and then at Mitla, they dominated the southern highlands, spoke a variation of the Oto-Zapotecan language, and profited from trade and cultural links with the Olmec, Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations.
by Mark Cartwright
Origins & DevelopmentThe Zapotecs grew from the agricultural communities which grew up in the valleys in and around Oaxaca. In the Preclassic period they established fruitful trade links with the Olmec civilization on the Gulf Coast which allowed for the construction of an impressive capital site at Monte Albán and for the Zapotec to dominate the region during the Classic period. The city, strategically placed overlooking the three main valleys, evolved over centuries, beginning around 500 BCE and remaining the cultural centre until the demise of the civilization around 900 CE.
Zapotec cities show a high level of sophistication in architecture, the arts, writing and engineering projects.
The Zapotec had other significant settlements besides the capital and over 15 elite palaces have been identified in the surrounding valleys. Indeed, the Zapotec may be divided into three distinct groups: the Valley Zapotec (based in the Valley of Oaxaca), the Sierra Zapotec (in the north), and the Southern Zapotec (in the south and east, nearer the Isthmus of Tehuantepec). The major Zapotec sites, spread across the Y-shaped Valley of Oaxaca, include the capital Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Huitzo, Etla, San Jose Mogote, Zaachila, Zimatlan, Ocotlan, Abasolo, Tlacolula, and Mitla. The latter would become the most important Zapotec city from c. 900 CE and is notable for its buildings arranged around plazas which are richly decorated with reliefs of geometrical designs.
By the late Preclassic period Zapotec cities show a high level of sophistication in architecture, the arts, writing and engineering projects such as irrigation systems. For example, at Hierve el Agua there are artificially terraced hillsides irrigated by extensive canals fed by natural springs. Evidence of contact with other Mesoamerican cultures can be seen, for example, at the site of Dainzu, which has a large stone-faced platform with reliefs showing players of the familiar Mesoamerican ball game wearing protective headgear. We also know of very close relations between the Zapotec and the peoples based at Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico. Indeed, at Teotihuacan there was even a quarter of the city specifically reserved for the Zapotec community.
ReligionThe Zapotec pantheon is as rich and bewildering as any other Mesoamerican religion is to modern eyes with the standard deities for such important agencies on the human condition as rain, sun, wind, earth, and war. Some of the most important gods were the Bat-god - the god of corn and fertility, Beydo - god of seeds and wind, Cocijo (who had a human body with jaguar and serpent features with a forked tongue) - the rain and lightning god, Pitao Cozobi - the corn god, Copijcha (symbolised by the macaw) - the god of the sun and war, Coquebila - god of the earth's centre, Huechaana - a mother goddess also associated with hunting and fishing, Kedo - god of justice, Ndan - the androgynous god of the oceans, Pixee Pecala the god of love, and Coqui Xee - the creator god who represented infinity.
In addition, individual cities often had their own patron deities, for example, Coquenexo ('Lord of Multiplication') patron of Zoquiapa, Coqui Bezelao and Xonaxi Quecuya (gods of death and the underworld) patrons of Mitla and Teocuicuilco, and Cozicha Cozee (another war god) patron of Ocelotepec.
Offerings, prayers and sacrifices were offered to these deities in the hope of their favourable intervention in human affairs, for example, to bring rain vital for crops, to end droughts or bring fertility to the land and its population. Also, in common with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Zapotec had 20 day names represented by various glyphs such as Chilla (crocodile), Pija (drought) and Xoo (earthquake); once again they often represent the fundamental elements that could drastically affect daily life.
Monte AlbánBuilt on a series of mountain plateau at an altitude of 400 m, the city of Monte Albán was the residential, ritual and economic centre of the Zapotec civilization. It replaced, between 500 and 450 BCE, San José Mogote as the most important settlement in the Valley. It also became the burial site of Zapotec kings for over a thousand years. The city particularly flourished in the late Preclassic period when its population was as high as 20,000 people and again between 400 and 700 CE when the population rose to 25,000 and the city ruled over some 1,000 settlements spread across the Valley.
The majority of the structures visible today on the main plaza date to the Classic period with the notable exception of the Temple of the Danzantes, a stone platform structure which was constructed when the site was first occupied (Monte Alban I). The name Danzantes derives from the dancing relief figures decorating the platform. 300 figures are identifiable, some seem to be old, single-toothed males, some have been mutilated, whilst still others seem to be almost swimming - who they represent is not known. Other relief stones from the temple also provide the first certainly identified written texts in Mexico showing an alphabet with semantic and phonetic elements (as yet undeciphered). There is also a system of numbers represented by dots and bars and glyphs for the 260-day year based on 20 day names and 13 numbers with the 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round.
Finds at the site from this period include a large quantity of pottery, usually made with a fine grey clay, sometimes with incised figures similar to the Danzantes, and typically in the form of spouted vases and bowls set on a tripod. Another interesting type is the whistling jar, a jar with two chambers which when used to pour liquid, expelled air from the second chamber to create a whistling sound. The Zapotec were also skilled sculptors and single effigy figures, groups of figures and urns survive both in clay and more precious goods such as jade.
The city further developed between 150 BCE and 150 CE to create Monte Albán II. Dating from this phase is a large stone-faced building shaped like an arrow head (Building J) which points southwest and is aligned with the Capella star. The building is covered with carved text and reliefs which indicate regional conquests, illustrated by the upside down heads of defeated kings.
In the subsequent Classic period Monte Albán III arose and, influenced by Teotihuacan, saw the construction of an I-shaped ball court and the Temple-Patio-Altar complex that would be copied at sites across the Valley. In addition, over 170 underground tombs have been excavated, many with vaults and antechambers with richly painted walls, which attest to the wealth of the city. The tombs also show signs of being regularly re-opened, illustrating the Zapotec preoccupation with ancestor worship.
DeclineQuite why the city and the Zapotec civilization collapsed at Monte Albán is not known, only that there is no trace of violent destruction and that it was contemporary with the demise of Teotihuacan and a general increase in inter-state conflict. The site continued to be significant, though, as it was adopted by the later Mixtec as a sacred site and place of burial for their own kings. The Zapotecs did not disappear completely, however, for in the early Post-Classic period they established a new, smaller centre at Mitla, known to them as Lyobaa or 'Place of Rest' which also had many fine buildings including the celebrated Hall of the Columns. The site continued to be occupied even up to the Spanish conquest.
Origin and historyThe Moche civilization (also known as the Mochica) flourished along the northern coast and valleys of ancient Peru, in particular, in the Chicama and Trujillo Valleys, between 1 CE and 800 CE. The Moche state spread to eventually cover an area from the Huarmey Valley in the south to the Piura Valley in the north, and they even extended their influence as far afield as the Chincha Islands. Moche territory was divided linguistically by two separate but related languages: Muchic (spoken north of the Lambayeque Valley) and Quingan. The two areas also display slightly different artistic and architectural trends and so the Moche state may be better described as a loose confederacy rather than a single, unified entity.
by Mark Cartwright
The Moche were contemporary with the Nazca civilization (200 BCE - 600 CE) further down the coast but, thanks to their conquest of surrounding territories, they were able to accumulate the wealth and power necessary to establish themselves as one of the most unique and important early-Andean cultures. The Moche also expressed themselves in art with such a high degree of aesthetics that their naturalistic and vibrant murals, ceramics, and metalwork are amongst the most highly regarded in the Americas.
The Moche were perhaps the most accomplished artists and metalworkers of any Andean civilization.
MocheThe capital, known simply as Moche and giving its name to the civilization which founded it, lies at the foot of the Cerro Blanco mountain and once covered an area of 300 hectares. Besides urban housing, plazas, storehouses, and workshop buildings, it also has impressive monuments which include two massive adobe brick pyramid-like mounds. These monumental structures, in their original state, display typical traits of Moche architecture: multiple levels, access ramps, and slanted roofing.
The larger 'pyramid' is the Huaca del Sol, which has four tiers and stands 40 metres high today. Originally it stood over 50 m high, covered an area of 340 x 160 m, and was constructed using over 140 million bricks, each stamped with a maker's mark. A ramp on the north side gives access to the summit, which is a platform in the form of a cross. The smaller structure, known as the Huaca de la Luna, stands 500 metres away and was built using some 50 million adobe bricks. It has three tiers and is decorated with friezes showing Moche mythology and rituals. The entire structure was once enclosed within a high adobe brick wall. Both pyramids were constructed around 450 CE, were originally brightly coloured in red, white, yellow, and black, and were used as an imposing setting to perform rituals and ceremonies. The Spanish conquistadors later diverted the Rio Moche in order to break down the Huaca del Sol and loot the tombs within, suggesting that the pyramid was also used by the Moche for generations as a mausoleum for important persons.
Buildings excavated between the two pyramid-mounds include many large residences with courtyards enclosed by walls. The fields around the site are laid out in a regular grid pattern of small rectangular plots often with a small adobe viewing platform, which suggests some sort of state supervision and control by the elite (Kuraka) class. Moche agriculture benefitted from an extensive system of canals, reservoirs, and aqueducts, so that the land could support a population of around 25,000.
Other Moche sites include a pilgrimage centre at Pacatnamú, a mountain top site above the Jequetepeque River and actually used from the Early Intermediate Period (c. 200 BCE). There were also administrative centres at Panamarca - where there is another large adobe brick mound, this time with a switch-back ramp leading to the top of the structure - and at Huancaco in the Viru Valley and Pampa de Los Incas in the Santa Valley.
Moche ReligionMoche religion and art were initially influenced by the earlier Chavin culture (c. 900 - 200 BCE) and in the final stages by the Chimú culture. Knowledge of the Moche pantheon is sketchy, but we do know of Al Paec the creator or sky god (or his son) and Si the moon goddess. Al Paec, typically depicted in Moche art with ferocious fangs, a jaguar headdress, and snake earrings, was considered to dwell in the high mountains. Human sacrifices, especially of war prisoners but also Moche citizens, were offered to appease him, and their blood was offered in ritual goblets. Si was considered the supreme deity, as it was this goddess that controlled the seasons and storms that had such an influence on agriculture and daily life. In addition, the moon was considered even more powerful than the sun because Si could be seen both at night and during the day. It is also interesting that murals and such finds as the intact tomb of the priestess known as La Senora de Cao illustrate that women could play a prominent role in Moche religion and ceremony.
Another deity who frequently appears in Moche art is the half-man, half-jaguar Decapitator god, so-called because he is often represented holding a vicious looking sacrificial knife (tumi) in one hand and the severed head of a sacrificial victim in the other. The god may also be depicted as a gigantic spider figure ready to suck the life-blood from his victims. That such scenes mirror real life events is supported by archaeological finds, such as those at the foot of the Huaca de la Luna where skeletons of 40 men under 30 years of age show evidence that they were mutilated and thrown from the top of the pyramid. The bones of these skeletons display cut marks, limbs were ripped out of their sockets, and jaw bones are missing from severed skulls. Interestingly, the bodies lie above soft ground caused by heavy El Nino rains, which suggests the sacrifices may have been offered to the Moche gods in order to alleviate this environmental disaster. Ceremonial goblets have also been discovered which contain traces of human blood, and tombs have revealed costumed and be-jewelled individuals almost exactly like the religious figures depicted in Moche murals.
Moche ArtMany fine examples of Moche art have been recovered from tombs at Sipán (c. 300 CE), San José de Moro (c. 550 CE), and Huaca Cao Viejo, which are amongst some of the best preserved burial sites from any Andean culture. The Moche were gifted potters and superb metalworkers, and finds include exquisite gold headdresses and chest plates, gold, silver, and turquoise jewellery (especially ear-spools and nose ornaments), textiles, tumi knives, and copper bowls and drinking vessels. Fine pottery vessels were usually made using moulds, but each was individually and distinctively decorated, typically using cream, reds, and browns. Perhaps the most famous vessels are the highly realistic portrait stirrup-spouted pots. These are considered portraits of real people, and several examples could be made depicting the same individual. Indeed one face - easily identified by his cut lip - appears in over 40 such pots.
Pottery shapes and decorations did evolve over time and became more and more elaborate, although conversely, themes became less various in later Moche pottery and art in general. One of the most distinctive styles created by the Moche uses silhouette figures embellished with fine line details very similar to Greek black-figure pottery. Ceramic effigy figures are also common, especially of musicians, priestesses, and captives.
Popular subjects in Moche art - as seen on wall paintings, friezes, pottery decoration, and fine metal objects - include humans, anthropomorphic figures (especially fanged felines), and animals such as snakes, frogs, birds (especially owls), fish, and crabs. Whole scenes are also common, especially religious ceremonies with Bird and Warrior Priests, shamans, coca rituals, armoured warriors, ritual and real warfare with their resulting captives, hunting episodes, and, of course, deities - notably scenes showing night skies across which crescent boats carry figures such as Si. Many of these scenes are rendered to capture narratives and, above all, action; figures are always doing something in Moche art.
Sipán & Pampa GrandeIn c. 550 CE the Moche canal systems and agricultural fields became covered in sand (blown inland from the coast where it had been deposited by erosive flooding from the valleys), and the population left the area, resettling further north in the Lambayeque Valley, notably at the sites of Sipán and Pampa Grande. The move may also have been precipitated by the expansion of the Huari based in the highlands of central Peru. At Sipán some of the best preserved and richest tombs in the Americas have been discovered, including the famous 'Warrior Priest' tomb with its outstanding precious metal objects such as a gold mask, ear-spools, bracelets, body armour, sceptre, ingots, and magnificently crafted silver and gold peanut necklace.
The site of Pampa Grande covered 600 hectares and included the once 55 metre high Huaca Fortaleza ritual platform. Reached by a 290-metre ramp the summit had a columned structure containing a mural of felines. However, after 150 years of occupation the site was also abandoned, once again, probably due to a combination of climatic factors such as an extended period of drought, Huari expansion, and internal strife as indicated by evidence of fire damage to many of the buildings.
Origin and historyThe Toltec civilization flourished in central Mexico between the 10th and mid-12th centuries CE. Continuing the Mesoamerican heritage left to them by the earlier Olmec, Teotihuacano, Maya and others, the Toltecs would build an impressive capital at Tollan and, ultimately, pass on that heritage to later civilizations such as the Aztecs, who regarded the Toltecs as a great and prosperous civilization, even claiming descent from this once great civilization.
by Mark Cartwright
Most information on the Toltec comes from Aztec and Post-colonial texts documenting earlier oral traditions. However, these are by no means complete, and information can be coloured by the Aztec’s particular reverence for all things Toltec and their delight in merging myth with fact to help establish a lineage with these old masters. Nevertheless, a careful comparison with earlier Mayan texts and the surviving archaeological record does allow for at least the main elements of this civilization to be outlined.
Origins & MigrationThe Toltecs had roots in the Tolteca-Chichimeca people, who, during the 9th century CE, had migrated from the deserts of the north-west to Culhuacan in the Valley of Mexico. According to the Aztecs, the first Toltec leader was Ce Técpatl Mixcoatl (One Flint Cloud Serpent, i.e. the Milky Way), and his son Ce Acatl Topiltzin (One Reed Sacrificer, born in either 935 or 947 CE) would go on to gain fame as a great ruler and acquire the name of the great god Quetzalcoatl (‘Feathered Serpent’) amongst his titles.
The Toltec had gifted craftsmen, highly skilled in metallurgy & pottery.
The first settlement of the Toltecs was at Culhuacan, but they later established a capital at Tollan (or Tula, meaning ‘place of reeds’, a general Mesoamerican phrase to apply to all large settlements). The city grew to an area of 14 km² and acquired a population of between 30,000 and 40,000. The heart of the city was laid out in a grid pattern and it is remarkably similar to the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. Intriguingly, the Maya also had a version of a cultural hero known as the ‘Feathered Serpent’, translated as Kukulcan and contemporary with the Toltec Quetzalcóatl; this and architectural similarities, suggest that there was a close cultural link between the two civilizations.
TollAnThe Tollan of Aztec mythology was renowned for its sumptuous palaces and awe-inspiring buildings made from gold, jade, turquoise, and quetzal feathers. The city was also thought to have been flooded with wealth generated by the gifted Toltec craftsmen, highly skilled in metallurgy and pottery - so much so that their potters were said to have ‘taught the clay to lie’ (Coe, 156) and later Aztec metal-workers and jewellers were even known as tolteca. The Toltecs were also credited with mastering nature and producing huge maize crops and natural coloured cotton of red, yellow, green, and blue. Unsurprisingly, following centuries of looting, no artefacts survive to attest this material wealth except indications that the Toltecs did do a major trade in obsidian (used for blades and arrow heads) which was mined from nearby Pachuca.
The archaeological site of Tollan, sitting on a limestone promontory, although not quite as splendid as the legend, nevertheless, has an impressive number of surviving monuments. These include two large pyramids, a collonaded walkway, a large palace building, and two ball-courts, all surrounded by a dense area of urban housing. The domestic housing is arranged in groups of up to five flat-roofed residences with each group centred on a courtyard with a single altar and the whole surrounded by a wall.
Large columns, each consisting of four drums, carved as warriors standing atop the five tiers of the 10 m high Pyramid B.
Surviving architectural sculpture on the pyramids includes large columns, each consisting of four drums, carved as warriors standing atop the five tiers of the 10 m high Pyramid B. The warriors would once have held up a roof structure. The warriors are dressed ready for battle with a drum headdress and butterfly pectoral and each holds an atlatl or spear-thrower at their side. In addition, feathered-snake columns survive from the original doorway. The warrior columns are near-identical and suggest sophisticated workshops capable of mass production.
Friezes run around the pyramids and a free-standing 40 m long L-shaped wall (known as a coatepantli and a Toltec innovation). They show scenes with animals such as the jaguar, wolf, and coyote (symbols associated with a warlike people like the Toltecs), and sacrifice (especially rattlesnakes and skeletons intertwined). There are also images of feathered creatures (perhaps jaguars) and eagles with hearts in their mouths.
Tollan also provides the first examples of chacmools, the reclining stone warriors clutching a vessel on their stomach to receive sacrificial offerings for the gods. These would become a common feature of temples in Mesoamerica. At Tollan they are positioned beside bench-thrones atop the pyramid temple.
DeclineWhat ended the Toltec civilization’s regional dominance is not known. A warlike people, no doubt conquering surrounding tribes and imposing tribute without any concern for integration into the Toltec political and religious culture, the ‘empire’ may well have simply disintegrated when put under the strain of such natural phenomena as a sustained drought. Internal disputes may also have led to the break up of the power structure, and this is hinted at in the legendary stories of battles between the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, intertwined with historical figures. What is more certain is that in the mid-12th century CE, Tollán shows signs of violent destruction; many architectural columns and statues were burnt and purposely buried and the site was systematically looted by the Aztecs. Led by the final Toltec leader Huemac, the remnants of the Toltec people re-settled at Chapultepec on the west banks of Lake Texcoco, an event traditionally dated either 1156 or 1168 CE.
LegacyThe Toltec name carried a certain prestige and they were very highly regarded by the Maya and the Aztecs, in particular, who seem to have copied many aspects of Toltec religious practices and art and looked on the Toltec period as a golden era when such wonders as writing, medicine, and metallurgy were invented. These may well have been invented earlier and by others but more certain is the Toltec influence on architecture and sculpture. Images of recognisable deities at Tollan which would later appear in the Aztec pantheon include Centeotl, Xochiquetzal, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli and the feathered serpent identified with Quetzalcoatl. Stone carvings of cuauhxicalli vessels and chacmools used in sacrifices and also tzompantli (skull racks) all attest to the influence the Toltecs would have on their more famous successors. In any case, whatever the actual legacy of the people of Tollan, for the Aztecs it was the Toltecs and no other that they sought to claim descent from, and the magnitude of their reverence and respect is evidenced in the Aztec expression Toltecayotl or ‘to have a Toltec heart’ which meant to be worthy and to excel in all things.
Origin and historyMitla, located in the eastern portion of the Valley of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, was an important site of the Zapotec civilization. Gaining prominence from the early Post-Classic period (c. 700-900 CE), Mitla became the most important Zapotec city following the decline of the long-time capital Monte Albán. The city was contemporary with first the Toltec and then the Aztec civilizations and continued to be inhabited up to the Spanish conquest. The site is most famous today for its huge rectangular building, the Hall of the Columns, which is richly decorated in geometric relief carvings.
by Mark Cartwright
The Zapotec name for the city was actually Lyobaá which meant 'Land of Rest', as Mitla is the later name which derives from the Nuahtl word Mictlan, meaning the 'Place of the Dead'. Both names refer to the legend that Zapotec kings, priests, and great warriors were buried in a huge chamber under the city. Archaeology has, however, yet to discover evidence of such a chamber.
The Zapotec name for the city was actually Lyobaá which meant 'Land of Rest'.
Mitla is modest in size compared to other surviving Mesoamerican centres, but it does boast an impressive collection of buildings. These are grouped into five distinct zones built along a north-south axis, two dating from the Classic period and the other three from the Post-Classic. The earlier groups are sacred precincts which were re-used later in the city's history. The most important of the Post-Classic buildings is the group known as the Group of the Columns - eight buildings arranged to form two precincts. These structures were constructed using slabs of trachyte and are best described as long rectangular halls built on each side of a plaza which leave the four corners open. They stand eight metres high and the walls and corners lean slightly outwards as they rise, much like the buildings at Maya Uxmal. The halls, probably used as palaces and perhaps even as the residence of the most important priest in the Zapotec culture, had flat roofs supported by monumental wooden beams and cylindrical stone columns. Colonial accounts, especially by one Father Burgoa, describe features of the interiors of these buildings, such as the jaguar skin-covered throne of the High Priest, the cleanliness of the palaces, and the ceremonies of human sacrifice which were regularly carried out there.
The most important architectural feature of the Mitla halls, however, are the mass of high relief carvings, either carved into the stone or in other cases built up of individual stone pieces like a mosaic, which cover their exterior walls. The reliefs are set in over 150 panels displaying a wide variety of intricate geometrical designs originally set against a red painted stucco background which must have made the patterns even more striking. The most common forms are strep-and-fret, meander, and key motifs, sometimes incorporating spirals and diamonds. The designs were most likely inspired by textile patterns and may represent specific family lineages or geographical places. Large cruciform tombs have been excavated under several buildings at Mitla and they, too, are decorated with geometric designs.
The art of Mitla is best seen in metalwork and painted pottery, while from the 10th century CE painted manuscripts were produced. Murals were added to some of the buildings in the centuries before the Spanish conquest and show Aztec influence. Scenes showing gods, warriors, and hunters beneath either the rising sun or starry skies and sky bands were painted typically in red on a grey plaster surface. That Mitla was increasingly under threat from attack in the late Post-Classic period is attested by the presence of a fortress on a hill near the city and the fact that the Aztecs established a garrison at Mitla from c. 1450 CE. Post-conquest, a church was built atop the northern-most building group.
Origin and historyPulque is an alcoholic drink which was first drunk by the Maya, Aztecs, Huastecs and other cultures in ancient Mesoamerica. Similar to beer, it is made from the fermented juice or sap of the maguey plant (Agave americana). In the Aztec language Nahuatl it was known as octli and to the Maya it was chih. Only mildly alcoholic, the potency of pulque was often increased with the addition of certain roots and herbs.
by Mark Cartwright
The drink had its own personified goddess and was featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. Drunk in moderation throughout the region on a daily basis it was served in more copious amounts at important religious festivals and celebrations such as weddings, fertility rites (especially those involving the Aztec god of Summer Xochipilli), and agricultural ceremonies. The substance was not just drunk as the Huastec used pulque as an enema using thin hollow bones; this was a relatively common practice in the administration of hallucinogens in the ancient Americas.
Pulque in Mythology - MayahuelThe maguey plant, important not just for pulque but also as a source of fibres for weaving, had its own personified deity – a goddess known as 11 Serpent by the Post-classic Mixtecs. In central Mexico the goddess was known as Mayahuel and usually depicted as a beautiful young woman. She was associated with fertility and sometimes referred to as ‘the woman of 400 breasts’ no doubt in reference to the milk-like sap of the plant. Pulque was also personified as a goddess known as 2 Flower. In addition, the god 3 Alligator was closely associated with the drink.
To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give humanity a drink which would lift their spirits.
The consumption of pulque, then, went right back into mythological times and there was, naturally, a myth to explain its invention. The great god Quetzalcoatl was watching humanity one day and noticed that at the end of the working day the people did not dance and sing but, instead, seemed rather miserable. To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give them something which would lift their spirits. Falling in love with a beautiful goddess Mayahuel, Quetzalcoatl whisked her off to Mesoamerica and there, embraced, they turned into a tree with two branches. Now, Mayahuel’s grandmother was not best pleased with this turn of events and so, accompanied by a troop of fellow demons (tzitzimime), she attacked the tree, splitting it into two. Mayahuel was then ripped to pieces and eaten by the terrible demons. A heartbroken Quetzalcoatl collected the bits and pieces left of his lover and tenderly buried them. Eventually, these remains grew into the first maguey plant and humans used it to make pulque. In the end, Quetzalcoatl’s wish that humanity might benefit from a drink which increased their happiness came to pass.
Another famous myth is when Quetzalcoatl, under the drink’s influence, slept with his sister, Quetzalpetlatl. The god’s realization and embarrassment on discovering his shameful act the next morning was used as an explanation as to why the god abandoned Tula, his capital. The episode was also a warning to the Mesoamericans that abuse of pulque could carry serious consequences. For this reason the Aztecs were rather more particular about who could drink pulque compared to other Mesoamerican cultures. They reserved its consumption in public as a special privilege for nobles and warriors and imposed penalties ranging from head-shaving, property destruction, and even the death penalty for repeated cases of drunkenness.
The 400 Pulque GodsThere was also a group known as the pulque gods who were almost always males. These were particularly important to the Aztecs who called them the Centzon Totochtin (400 Rabbits) as it was believed a rabbit had first discovered the juice of the maguey by nibbling on a leaf. The mother of the pulque gods was Mayahuel and their father Patecatl. Taking on many forms, their exact significance has been difficult to determine. Many were associated with specific towns, days, and time periods. They were also representative of drunkenness and sexual lust and so wore half-moon nose rings, symbol of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of lust and filth.
As a group the pulque gods were represented as either the god Ome Tochtli or 2 Rabbit. Several pulque gods have been identified as ceremonially buried beneath the Templo Mayor temple at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Historian Mary Miller suggests this was in homage to the 400 victims killed by the god Huitzilopochtli in Aztec mythology.
Representations in ArtThe earliest depictions in Mesoamerican art of pulque are from the great city of Teotihuacan, at its peak between 300 and 550 CE. Here stone relief carvings show masked figures with milky drops falling from their mouths and one mask has a background of maguey leaves.
Monuments set up by the Zapotec civilization (500-900 CE) show scenes from wedding ceremonies where guests are drinking pulque. From the Post-classic period (900-1200 CE) there is a rock painting at Ixtapantongo which is the earliest representation of Mayahuel. She is shown within a maguey plant and holding a cup in each hand, probably containing pulque.
As pulque had a milk-like appearance it was associated with mother’s milk and this is evidenced in such artefacts as the Aztec Bilimek Pulque Vessel on which is a scene showing the drink pouring from the breast of an earth goddess. Finally, Mayahuel and the pulque gods appear in illustrations in several colonial-era codices, notably the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis (sheet no. 25) and on several sheets in the 16th century CE Aztec Codex Magliabechiano.
Origin and historyTláloc (pron. Tla-loc), one of the most important and formidable gods in the Aztec pantheon, was considered the god of rain, water, lightning and agriculture. He was seen as both a benevolent god providing life-giving rain but also as an unforgiving and destructive deity when he sent storms and drought. In the Aztec Creation myth Tláloc was ruler of the 3rd Sun, he was linked to Mázatl (Deer) the 7th day, his calendar equivalent was 9 Océlotl - the Jaguar, he was number 8 of the 13 Lords of the Day and ninth Lord of the Night and his animal sign was the eagle.
by Mark Cartwright
The name Tláloc derives from the Nahuatl words tlali meaning ‘earth’ and oc meaning ‘something on the surface’. However, the origins of the god are probably much earlier as he shares many similarities with the Olmec God IV and the Mayan God B or Chac. In the various Mesoamerican cultures Tláloc appears as Dzahui for the Mixtec, Tajίn for the Totonac, Chupithripeme for the Tarascan and Cocijo for the Zapotec.
Born during the Creation when Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilpochtli (or in some versions Tezcatlipoca) dismembered the reptilian monster Cipactli, Tláloc was associated with any meteorological conditions connected with water such as rain, clouds, storms, floods, lightning, snow, ice, and even droughts.
Tláloc also had four particular manifestations as the four colours and the four cardinal directions, collectively known as the Tlálocs who included Nappatecuhtli, the creator of trade tools and hunting weapons and Opochtli, the patron of Chalco. In a colourful image, Tláloc was believed to have close at hand four giant jars, each one representing the cardinal directions. From the jar of the East Tláloc gave out the rains so essential for life whilst from the other jars the god dispensed the terrible scourges of drought, disease and frost so deadly for mankind and crops. Alternatively, rain was thought to come when the Tlálocs used sticks to smash the water jars which were inside mountains. Indeed, the sound of thunder was believed to be the noise made when these water jars were smashed.
Associated with mountains, Tláloc was also considered the ruler of the Tlaloque - a motley group of rain, weather and mountain gods.
Associated with mountains, Tláloc was also considered the ruler of the Tlaloque - a motley group of rain, weather and mountain gods (the latter known specifically as ‘little Tlálocs’ or Tepictoton) - along with his sister Chalchiúhtlicue (or in some versions his wife or mother), herself a goddess of rivers, oceans and floods. Tláloc also had two wives: first Xochiquetzal the flower and fertility goddess but when she was abducted by Tezcatlipoca he took a second, Matlalcueitl, another rain deity.
Worship & RitualAt the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán two twin temples were set up on the Templo Mayor pyramid, one dedicated to the great god Huitzilopochtli (representing the dry season) and the other to Tláloc who was given equal status. The monumental steps leading to Tláloc’s temple were painted blue and white, the former colour representing water, the element so strongly associated with the god. The god’s temple was on the north side of the pyramid and marked the summer solstice and wet season. Inside the pyramid offerings have been found connected to the sea such as coral, shells and sea-life. Tláloc also had a mountain temple outside Tenochtitlán impressively situated on the top of the 400 metre plus Mt Tláloc.
The god was especially worshipped in the months of Atlcahualo (the 2nd or 1st month in the Aztec solar calendar), Tozoztontl (4th or 3rd) and Atemoztli (the 17th or 16th) when he was offered flowers. More sinister offerings to appease the god and win his favour were sacrificial victims, including children, whose tears were seen as a favourable sign and linked to drops of rain from Tláloc himself. Corn ears and stalks were also kept in private homes and revered as representative of Tláloc in his guise as a fertility god.
Tláloc was also believed to rule the other-worldly paradise of Tlalocán where victims of floods, storms and diseases such as leprosy were received after death. The deceased were buried rather than the customary cremation and interred with a piece of wood which was believed to sprout leaves and flowers once the person had entered Tlalocán. In later Postclassical Mexico Tláloc was believed to live in caves which were suitably damp for a rain god but also filled with magnificent treasures.
Representations in ArtThe earliest representations of Tláloc in art belong to 1st century BCE vases from Tlapacoya where the god wields a lightning bolt. The earliest depictions in architecture date to the 2nd and 3rd century CE at Teotihuacán. At the great Pyramid of Quetzalcóatl at Teotihuacán stone images of Tláloc alternate with that of Quetzalcóatl along the tiers on several levels. One of the most imposing representations of the god (although it may also be his sister Chalchúhtlicue) must be the gigantic stone statue now residing outside the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
As with many of the most important Mesoamerican deities Tláloc is commonly depicted in the company of snakes. He most often has goggled eyes and large fangs like a jaguar as, for example, in the famous 15th century CE vase now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. In sculpture, especially stone, Tláloc’s mouth may be in the form of a volute or a corn cob symbolising how important the god’s life-giving rain was to Mesoamerican agriculture.
Gold in Antiquity
Origin and historyGold, chemical symbol Au (from the Latin aurum meaning ‘shining dawn’), is a precious metal which has been used since antiquity in the production of jewellery, coinage, sculpture, vessels and as a decoration for buildings, monuments and statues.
by Mark Cartwright
Gold does not corrode and so it became a symbol of immortality and power in many ancient cultures. Its rarity and aesthetic qualities made it an ideal material for ruling classes to demonstrate their power and position. First found at surface level near rivers in Asia Minor such as the Pactolus in Lydia, gold was also mined underground from 2000 BCE by the Egyptians and later by the Romans in Africa, Portugal and Spain. There is also evidence that the Romans smelted gold particles from ores such as iron pyrites. Easily worked and mixed with other metals such as silver and copper to increase its strength and change its colour, gold was used for a wide range of purposes.
JewelleryIn most ancient cultures gold was popular in jewellery and art because of its value, aesthetic qualities, ductility and malleability. Electrum (the natural alloy of gold and silver) was used in jewellery by the Egyptians from 5000 BCE. Gold jewellery was worn by both men and women in the Sumer civilization around 3000 BCE and gold chains were first produced in the city of Ur in 2500 BCE. The Minoan civilization on Crete in the early 2nd millennium BCE is credited with producing the first cable chain jewellery and the Minoans made a vast array of jewellery items using an extensive range of techniques. Gold jewellery took the form of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings, diadems, pendants, pins and brooches. Techniques and shapes included filigree (a technique known to the Egyptians from 2500 BCE) where the gold is pulled into wire and twisted into different designs), beaten thin shapes, granulation (surface decoration with small, soldered granules of gold), embossing, chasing, inlaying, moulding and engraving. In South America, gold was similarly worked by the Chavin civilization of Peru around 1200 BCE and gold casting was perfected by the Nazca society from 500 BCE. The Romans used gold as a setting for precious and semi-precious gemstones, a fashion continued into the Byzantine era with the use of pearls, gems and enamels.
The value and beauty of gold made it an ideal material for particularly important political and religious objects.
CurrencyGold was first used as coinage in the late 8th century BCE in Asia Minor. Irregular in shape and often with only one side stamped, the coins were usually made of electrum. The first pure gold coins with stamped images are credited to king Croesus of Lydia, 561-546 BCE and a contemporary gold refinery has been excavated at the capital, Sardis. Even the purest naturally occurring gold can contain 5% silver but the Lydians were able to refine their gold using salt and furnace temperatures of between 600 and 800°C. The salt mixed with the silver and formed a vapour of silver chloride leaving behind pure gold which could be used to create a standardised coinage of guaranteed gold content. The Mycenaean civilization also widely used gold coins, as did the later Greek and Roman Empires, although silver was the more usual material used. One of the most famous gold coins in antiquity was the Roman bezant. First introduced in the reign of Emperor Constantine it weighed up to 70 Troy grains and was in currency from the 4th to the 12th centuries CE.
Religious Artefacts & Other UsesThe value and beauty of solid gold made it an ideal material for particularly important political and religious objects such as crowns, sceptres, symbolic statues, libation vessels and votive offerings. Gold items were sometimes buried with the dead as a symbol of the deceased’s status and the conspicuous (and non-profitable) consumption of such a rare and valuable material must surely have been designed to impress. Perhaps the most famous example is the so-called mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. In the Inca civilization of Peru gold was considered the sweat of the sun god Inti and so was used to manufacture all manner of objects of religious significance, especially masks and sun disks. In ancient Colombia gold was similarly revered for its lustre and association with the sun and in powdered form was used to cover the body of the future king in a lavish coronation ceremony which gave rise to the legend of El Dorado.
As a decorative covering, gold plate and gold leaf (gold beaten into extremely thin sheets) have been used to decorate shrines, temples, tombs, sarcophagi, statues, ornamental weapons and armour, ceramics, glassware and jewellery since Egyptian times. Perhaps the most famous example of gold leaf from antiquity is the death mask of King Tutankhamun.
Gold, with its malleability and incorruptibility, has also been used in dental work for over 3000 years. The Etruscans in the 7th century BCE used gold wire to fix in place substitute animal teeth. As thread, gold was also woven into fabrics. Gold has also been used in medicine, for example, Pliny in the 1st century BCE suggests gold should be applied to wounds as a defence to ‘magic potions’.
Grading GoldConcerns over the authenticity of gold led the Egyptians to devise a method to determine the purity of gold around 1500 BCE (or earlier). This method is called fire assaying and involves taking a small sample of the material under test and firing it in a small crucible with a quantity of lead. The crucible was made of bone ash and absorbed the lead and any other base metals during the firing process leaving only gold and silver. The silver was removed using nitric acid and the remaining pure gold was weighed and compared to the weight before firing. Archimedes was also aware that the specific gravity of gold is altered depending on the percentage content of base metals, pure gold having twice the gravity of silver for example.
Gold is such a precious material that for centuries various attempts were made to produce it through alchemy - that is the chemical transformation of base metals into gold using the philosopher’s stone (lapis philosophorum). First attempts were made in China in the 4th century BCE and also in ancient Greece and although unsuccessful, nevertheless, the activity laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
The Ball Game of Mesoamerica
Ancient originsThe sport known simply as the Ball Game was popular across Mesoamerica and played by all the major civilizations from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. The impressive stone courts became a staple feature of a city’s sacred complex and there were often several playing courts in a single city. More than just a game, though, the event could have a religious significance and featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. The contests even supplied candidates for human sacrifice, for the sport could, quite literally, be a game of life or death.
by Mark Cartwright
OriginsThe game was invented sometime in the Preclassical Period (2500-100 BCE), probably by the Olmec, and became a common Mesoamerican-wide feature of the urban landscape by the Classical Period (300-900 CE). Eventually, the game was even exported to other cultures in North America and the Caribbean.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú & Vucub Hunahpú.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú. The pair annoyed the gods of the underworld with their noisy playing and the two brothers were tricked into descending into Xibalba (the underworld) where they were challenged to a ball game. Losing the game, Hun Hunahpús had his head cut off; a foretaste of what would become common practice for players unfortunate enough to lose a game.
In another legend, a famous ball game was held at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan between the Aztec king Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (r. 1502-1520 CE) and the king of Texcoco. The latter had predicted that Motecuhzoma’s kingdom would fall and the game was set-up to establish the truth of this bold prediction. Motecuhzoma lost the game and did, of course, lose his kingdom at the hands of the invaders from the Old World. The story also supports the idea that the ball game was sometimes used for the purposes of divination.
The CourtCourts were usually a part of a city’s sacred precinct, a fact which suggests the ball game was more than just a game. Early Preclassic playing courts were simple, flattened-earth rectangles but by the Late Formative Period (300 BCE onwards) these evolved into more imposing areas which consisted of a flat rectangular surface set between two parallel stone walls. Each side could have a large vertical stone ring set high into the wall. The walls could be perpendicular or sloping away from the players and the ends of the court could be left open but defined using markers or, in other layouts, a wall closed off the playing space to create an I-shaped court. The court at Monte Albán, Oaxaca is a typical example of the I-shaped court. The length of the court could vary but the 60 m long court at Epiclassic El Tajín (650-900 CE) represents a typical size.
The flat court surface often has three large circular stone markers set in a line down the length of the court. Some of these markers from Maya sites have a quatrefoil cartouche indicating the underworld entrance which has led to speculation that the game may have symbolised the movement of the sun (the ball) through the underworld (the court) each night. Alternatively, the ball may have represented another heavenly body such as the moon and the court was the world.
Surviving courts abound and are spread across Mesoamerica. The Epiclassic city of Cantona has an incredible 24 courts with at least 18 being contemporary. El Tajín also has a remarkable number of courts (at least 11) and it may well have been a sacred centre for the sport, much like Olympia for athletics in ancient Greece. The earliest known court is from the Olmec city of San Lorenzo whilst the largest surviving stone playing court is at the Mayan-Toltec city of Chichén Itzá. With a length of 146 m and a width of 36 m, this court seems almost too large to be actually played in, especially with the rings set at the demanding height of 8 m.
The RulesThe exact rules of the game are not known for certain and in all probability there were variations across the various cultures and different periods. However, the main aim was to get a solid rubber (latex) ball through one of the rings. This was more difficult than it seems as players could not use their hands. One can imagine that good players became highly skilled at directing the ball using their padded elbows, knees, thighs and shoulders. Teams were composed of two or three players and were male-only. There was also an alternative version, less-widespread, where players used sticks to hit the ball.
The ball could be a lethal weapon in itself, as measuring anywhere from 10 to 30 cm in diameter and weighing from 500 g to 3.5 kg, it could easily break bones. Remarkably, seven rubber balls have been preserved in the bogs of El Manatí near the Olmec city of San Lorenzo. These balls range from 8 to 25 cm in diameter and date from between 1600 and 1200 BCE.
The PlayersPlayers could be professionals or amateurs and there is evidence of betting on the outcome of important games. The game also had a strong association with warriors and war captives were often forced to play the game.
Players were frequently depicted in Mesoamerican art, appearing in sculpture, ceramics and architectural decoration - the latter often decorating the courts themselves - and these depictions often show that the players wore protective gear such as belts and padding for the knees, hips, elbows and wrists. The players in these works of art also typically wear a padded helmet or a huge feathered headdress, perhaps the latter being for ceremonial purposes only. Zapotec relief stones at Dainzú also depict ball players wearing grilled helmets as well as knee-guards and gauntlets.
Winners of the game received trophies, many of which have been excavated and include hachas and palmas. A hacha was a representation of the human head (early ones might have actually been heads) with a handle attached and was used as a trophy for a winning player, a piece of ceremonial equipment or as a marker in the court itself. A palma was also most likely a trophy or element of ceremonial costume worn by ball players. They are frequently represented in stone and can take the form of arms, hands, a player or a fan-tailed bird. Other trophies for game winners include stone yokes (typically u-shaped to be worn around the waist in imitation of the protective waist gear worn by players) and hand stones, often elaborately carved. All of these trophies are frequently found in graves and are reminders of the link between the sport and the underworld in Mesoamerican mythology.
As games often had a religious significance the captain of the losing team, or even sometimes the entire team, were sacrificed to the gods. Such scenes are depicted in the decorative sculpture on the courts themselves, perhaps most famously on the South ball court at El Tajín and at Chichén Itzá, where one relief panel shows two teams of seven players with one player having been decapitated. Another ominous indicator of the macabre turn that this sporting event could take is the presence of tzompantli (the skull racks where severed heads from sacrifices were displayed) rendered in stone carvings near the ball courts. The Classic Maya even invented a parallel game where captives, once defeated in the real game, were tied up and used as balls themselves and unceremoniously rolled down a flight of steps.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0