Aztec Religion

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AZTEC RELIGION developed in the capital city of Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries ce. The Aztec religious tradition combined and transformed a number of ritual, mythic, and cosmic elements from the heterogeneous cultural groups who inhabited the central plateau of Mesoamerica. Seldom has a capital city fit the category of "center of the world" more completely than Tenochtitlán: the high plateau of Mexico is roughly the center of Mesoamerica; the Valley of Mexico is the heart of that plateau; interconnected lakes formed the center of the valley; and Tenochtitlán was constructed near the center of the lakes.

Mexico's central highlands had been the dominant cultural region of central Mesoamerica since the beginning of the common era, when the great imperial capital of Teotihuacán ("abode of the gods") had been established thirty miles north of where Tenochtitlán would later rise. Like Tenochtitlán, Teotihuacán was organized into four great quarters around a massive ceremonial center. Scholars and archaeologists have theorized that the four-quartered city was a massive spatial symbol for the major cosmological conceptions of Aztec religion. In many respects, the cultural and religious patterns of Teotihuacán laid the groundwork for all later developments in and around the Valley of Mexico. The mythologies of successive culturesthe Toltec and the Aztec most prominent among themlooked back to Teotihuacán as their symbolic place of origin and as the source for the legitimacy of their political authority.

Between 1300 and 1521 all roads of central Mesoamerica led into the lake region of the valley from which the magnificent capital of the Aztec arose. When the Aztec's precursors, the Chichimec ("dog lineage"; lit., "dog rope") migrated into the region in the thirteenth century, the valley was held by warring city-states constantly competing for land and tribute. This fragmented world was partly the result of the twelfth-century collapse of the northern Toltec empire centered at the illustrious capital of Tollan ("place of reeds"). The Toltec collapse brought waves of Chichimec and Toltec remnants into the Valley of Mexico, where they interacted with different city-states and religious traditions.

The basic settlement of central Mexico from Teotihua-cán times was the tlatocayotl, or city-state, which consisted of a capital city surrounded by dependent communities that worked the agricultural lands, paid tribute, and performed services for the elite classes in the capital according to various ritual calendars and cosmological patterns. Occasionally one city-state would grow to large proportions and establish widespread territorial control and integration into some form of tributary empire. Around 1325, a Chichimec group who called themselves Méxica settled Tenochtitlán and within a hundred years had organized a political unit with the power to dominate an expanding number of cities and towns in the central valley.

One of the major problems in the study of Aztec religion is the fragmentary nature of the pictorial, written, and archaeological sources associated with Tenochtitlán. The Spanish military conquest of Mexico was accompanied by a sustained campaign to eliminate Aztec symbols, images, screenfolds, and ceremonial buildings, as well as members of the military and priestly elites. Surprisingly, a counter attitude developed among certain Spanish officials and priests, who collected indigenous documents and organized their reproduction in order to enhance missionary work and inform Spanish officials about native religion and life. The result is a spectrum of sources including art and architecture; pre-Columbian screenfolds depicting the ritual, divinitory, historical, and genealogical traditions of different cities; post-Conquest codices sometimes accompanied by Spanish commentary; prose sources dependent on indigenous pictorial and oral traditions; histories written by descendants of Aztec royalty; Spanish eyewitness accounts; and large histories and ritual descriptions by Spanish priests such as Diego Durán, Toribio Motolinía, and Bernardino de Sahagún, who vigorously researched Aztec religion. It is only through a skillful combination of these sources that the complex character of Aztec religion can be discerned.

Cosmogony and Cosmology

The general attitude toward the Aztec position in the cosmos is made clear in a poetic fragment about the capital that states:

Proud of Itself Is the city of México-Tenochtitlán Here no one fears to die in war This is our glory This is your Command Oh Giver of Life Have this in mind, oh princes Who would conquer Tenochtitlán? Who could shake the foundation of heaven? (Miguel León-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 1968, p. 87)

The image of the capital city as the foundation of heaven, which the Aztec conceived of as a vertical column of thirteen layers extending above the earth, points to the cosmological conviction underpinning Aztec religion that there existed a profound correspondence between the sacred forces in the universe and the social world of the Aztec empire. This correspondence between the cosmic structure and the political state was anchored in the capital of Tenochtitlán.

In his important summary of religion in pre-Hispanic central Mexico, H. B. Nicholson (1971) outlines the "basic cosmological sequential pattern" of the Aztec cosmogony found in the myths and historical accounts associated with the Méxica. A summary view reveals that Aztec life unfolded in a cosmic setting that was dynamic, unstable, and finally destructive. Even though the cosmic order fluctuated between periods of stability and periods of chaos, the emphasis in many myths and historical accounts is on the destructive forces which repeatedly overcame the ages of the universe, divine society, and the cities of the past.

This dynamic universe appears in the sixteenth-century prose accounts Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas and the Leyenda de los soles. In the former, the universe is arranged in a rapid, orderly fashion after the dual creative divinity, Ometeotl, dwelling in Omeyocan ("place of duality") at the thirteenth level of heaven, generates four children, the Red Tezcatlipoca ("smoking mirror"), the Black Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl ("plumed serpent"), and Huitzilopochtli ("hummingbird on the left"). They all exist without movement for six hundred years, whereupon the four children assemble "to arrange what was to be done and to establish the law to be followed." Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli arrange the universe and create fire, half of the sun ("not fully lighted but a little"), the human race, and the calendar. Then, the four brothers create water and its divine beings.

Following this rapid and full arrangement, the sources focus on a series of mythic events that constitute a sacred history. Throughout this sacred history, the dynamic instability of the Aztec universe is revealed. The universe passes through four eras, called "Suns." Each age was presided over by one of the great gods, and each was named for the day (day number and day name) within the calendrical cycle on which the age began (which is also the name of the force that destroys that Sun). The first four Suns were called, respectively, 4 Jaguar, 4 Wind, 4 Rain (or 4 Rain of Fire), and 4 Water. The name of the fifth (and last) cosmic age, 4 Movement, augured the earthquakes that would inevitably destroy the world.

The creation of this final age, the one in which the Aztec lived, took place around a divine fire in the darkness on the mythical plain of Teotihuacán (to be distinguished from the actual city of that same name). According to the version of this story reported in Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (compiled 15691582; also known as the Florentine Codex), an assembly of gods chose two of their group, Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl, to cast themselves into the fire in order to create the new cosmic age. Following their self-sacrifice, dawn appears in all directions, but the Sun does not rise above the horizon. In confusion, different deities face in various directions in expectation of the sunrise. Quetzalcoatl faces east and from there the Sun blazes forth but sways from side to side without climbing in the sky. In this cosmic crisis, it is decided that all the gods must die at the sacrificial hand of Ecatl, who dispatches them by cutting their throats. Even this massive sacrifice does not move the Sun until the wind god literally blows it into motion. These combined cosmogonic episodes demonstrate the fundamental Aztec conviction that the world is unstable and that it draws its energy from massive sacrifices by the gods. Large-scale sacrifice became a basic pattern in Aztec religion, a ritual means of imposing or maintaining social and cosmological order.

With the creation of the Fifth Sun, the focus of the sacred history shifts from heaven to earth, where agriculture is discovered and human sacrifice is established as the proper ritual response to the requirements of the gods. In one account, Quetzalcoatl, as a black ant, travels to Sustenance Mountain with a red ant where they acquire maize for human beings. Other accounts reveal the divine origins of cotton, sweet potatoes, different types of corn, and the intoxicating drink called pulque. In still others, we learn that warfare was established so that human beings could be captured and sacrificed to nourish the Sun on its heavenly and nocturnal journey. Typically, a god like Mixcoatl creates four hundred human beings to fight among themselves in order for captives to be sacrificed in ceremonial centers to provide the divine food, blood, for the gods who ensure cosmic life.

Finally, a number of accounts of the cosmic history culminate with the establishment of the magnificent kingdom of Tollan where Quetzalcoatl the god and Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl the priest-king organize a ceremonial capital divided into five parts with four pyramids and four sacred mountains surrounding the central temple. This city, Tollan, serves as the heart of an empire. Aztec tradition states that "from Quetzalcoatl flowed all art and knowledge," representing the paradigmatic importance of the Toltec kingdom and its religious founder.

The spatial paradigm of the Aztec cosmos was embodied in the term cemanahuac, meaning the "land surrounded by water." At the center of this terrestrial space, called tlalxico ("navel of the earth"), stood Tenochtitlán, from which extended the four quadrants called nauchampa, meaning "the four directions of the wind." The waters surrounding the inhabited land were called ilhuicatl, the celestial water that extended upward to merge with the lowest levels of the thirteen heavens. Below the earth were nine levels of the underworld, conceived of as "hazard stations" for the souls of the dead, who, aided by magical charms buried with the bodies, were assisted in their quests for eternal peace at the lowest level, called Mictlan, the land of the dead.

The Mesoamerican pattern of quadrapartition around a center was a pervasive organizing principle of Aztec religion. It was used in the Aztec conceptions of temporal order as depicted in the famous Calendar Stone, where the four past ages of the universe are arranged in orderly fashion around the fifth or central age. Recent research has shown that this same spatial model was used to organize the celestial order of numerous deity clusters, the architectural design of palatial structures, the collection of economic tribute in the empire, and the ordering of major ceremonial precincts.

The Pantheon

One of the most striking characteristics of the surviving screenfolds, which present ritual and divinatory information, is the incredible array of deities who animated the ancient Mesoamerican world. Likewise, the remaining sculpture and the sixteenth-century prose accounts of Aztec Mexico present us with a pantheon so crowded that H. B. Nicholson's authoritative study of Aztec religion includes a list of more than sixty distinct and interrelated names. Scholarly analysis of these many deities suggests that virtually all aspects of existence were considered inherently sacred and that these deities were expressions of a numinous quality that permeated the "real" world. Aztec references to numinous forces, expressed in the Nahuatl word teotl, were always translated by the Spanish as "god," "saint," or "demon." But the Aztec teotl signified a sacred power manifested in natural forms (a rainstorm, a tree, a mountain), in persons of high distinction (a king, an ancestor, a warrior), or in mysterious and chaotic places. What the Spanish translated as "god" really referred to a broad spectrum of hierophanies that animated the world. While it does not appear that the Aztec pantheon or pattern of hierophanies was organized as a whole, it is possible to identify clusters of deities organized around the major cult themes of cosmogonic creativity, fertility and regeneration, and war and sacrificial nourishment of the Sun.

Aztec deities were represented pictorially as anthropomorphic beings. Even in cases where the deity took an animal form, as in the case of Xolotl, the divine dog, or the form of a ritual object, as in the case of Itztli, the knife god, he was disguised with human features like arms, torso, legs, face, and so on. Aztec deities dwelt in the different levels of the thirteen-layered celestial sphere or the nine-layered underworld. The general structuring principle for the pantheon, derived from the cosmic pattern of a center and four quarters, resulted in the quadruple or quintuple ordering of gods. For instance in the Codex Borgia's representation of the Tlaloques (rain gods), the rain god, Tlaloc, inhabits the central region of heaven while four other Tlaloques inhabit the four regions of the sky, each dispensing a different kind of rain. While deities were invisible to the human eye, the Aztec saw them in dreams, visions, and in the "deity impersonators" (teixiptla ) who appeared at the major ceremonies. These costumed impersonators, sometimes human, sometimes effigies of stone, wood, or dough, were elaborately decorated with identifying insignia such as conch shells, masks, weapons, jewelry, mantas, feathers, and a myriad of other items.

As we have seen, Aztec religion was formed by migrating Chichimec who entered the Valley of Mexico and established important political and cultural centers there. This process of migration and urbanization informed and was informed by their concept of deity. An outstanding feature of Aztec religion was the tutelary-patron relations that specific deities had with the particular social groups whom they guided during their peregrinations. These patron deities (or abogados, as the Spanish chroniclers called them) were represented in the tlaquimilolli, or sacred bundles, that the teomamas ("godbearers," or shaman-priests) carried on their backs during the long journeys. The teomama passed on to the community the divine commandments communicated to him in visions and dreams. These sacred specialists were considered hombre-dioses (Span., "man-gods"), whose extraordinary powers of spiritual transformation, derived from their closeness with these numinous forces, enabled them to guide, govern, and organize the tribe during migrations and the settlement of new communities. A familiar pattern in the sacred histories of Mesoamerican tribal groups is the erection of a shrine to the patron deity as the first act of settlement in a new region. This act of founding a settlement around the tribal shrine represented the intimate tie between the deity, the hombre-dios, and the integrity of the people. In reverse fashion, conquest of a community was achieved when the patron deity's shrine was burned and the tlaquimilolli was carried off as a captive.

This pattern of migration, foundation, and conquest associated with the power of a patron diety is clearly exemplified by the case of Huitzilopochtli, patron of the wandering Méxica. According to Aztec tradition, Huitzilopochtli inspired the Méxica teomama to guide the tribe into the Valley of Mexico, where he appeared to them as an eagle on a cactus in the lake. There they constructed a shrine to Huitzilopochtli and built their city around the shrine. This shrine became the Aztec Great Temple, the supreme political and symbolic center of the Aztec empire. It was destroyed in 1521 by the Spanish, who blew up the temple with cannons and carried the great image of Huitzilopochtli away. This colossal image of the Aztec god has never been found.

Creator Gods

The Aztec high god, Ometeotl ("lord of duality") was the celestial, androgynous, primordial creator of the universe, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent foundation of all things. In some sources he/she appears to merge with a number of his/her offspring, a sign of his/her pervasive power. Ometeotl's male aspects (Ometecuhtli and Tonacatecuhtli) and female aspects (Omecihuatl and Tonacacihuatl) in turn merged with a series of lesser deities associated with generative and destructive male and female qualities. The male aspect was associated with fire and the solar and maize gods. The female aspect merged with earth fertility goddesses and especially corn goddesses. Ometeotl inhabited the thirteenth and highest heaven in the cosmos, which was the place from which the souls of infants descended to be born on earth. Ometeotl was more "being" than "action." Most of the creative effort to organize the universe was acomplished by the divine couple's four offspring: Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Xiuhtecuhtli, and Tlaloc.

Tezcatlipoca ("smoking mirror") was the supreme active creative force of the pantheon. This powerful, virile numen had many appellations and was partially identified with the supreme numinosity of Ometeotl. Tezcatlipoca was also identified with Itztli, the knife and calendar god, and with Tepeyolotl, the jaguar-earth god known as the Heart of the Hill, and he was often pictured as the divine antagonist of Quetzalcoatl. On the social level, Tezcatlipoca was the arch-sorcerer whose smoking obsidian mirror revealed the powers of ultimate transformation associated with darkness, night, jaguars, and shamanic magic.

Another tremendous creative power was Xiuhtecuhtli, the ancient fire god, who influenced every level of society and cosmology. Xiuhtecuhtli was represented by the perpetual "fires of existence" that were kept lighted at certain temples in the ceremonial center at all times. He was manifested in the drilling of new fires that dedicated new ceremonial buildings and ritual stones. Most importantly, Xiuhtecuhtli was the generative force at the New Fire ceremony, also called the Binding of the Years, held every fifty-two years on the Hill of the Star outside of Tenochtitlán. At midnight on the day that a fifty-two-year calendar cycle was exhausted, at the moment when the star cluster we call the Pleiades passed through the zenith, a heart sacrifice of a war captive took place. A new fire was started in the cavity of the victim's chest, symbolizing the rebirth of Xiuhtecuhtli. The new fire was carried to every city, town, and home in the empire, signalling the regeneration of the universe. On the domestic level, Xiuhtecuhtli inhabited the hearth, structuring the daily rituals associated with food, nurturance, and thanksgiving.

Fertility and Regeneration

A pervasive theme in Aztec religion was fertility and the regeneration of agriculture. Aztec society depended on a massive agricultural system of chinampas ("floating gardens") that constituted large sections of the city's geographical space. Also, surrounding city-states were required to pay sizable amounts of agricultural goods in tribute to the capital. While many female deities inspired the ritual regeneration of agriculture, the most ancient and widespread fertility-rain god was Tlaloc, who dwelt on the prominent mountain peaks, where rain clouds were thought to emerge from caves to fertilize the land through rain, rivers, pools, and storms. The Aztec held Mount Tlaloc to be the original source of the waters and of vegetation. Tlaloc's supreme importance is reflected in the location of his shrine alongside that of Huitzilopochtli in the Templo Mayor. Surprisingly, the great majority of buried offerings excavated at the temple were dedicated to Tlaloc rather than Huitzilopochtli.

Two other major gods intimately associated with Tlaloc were Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water, and Ehécatl, the wind god, an aspect of Quetzalcoatl. Ehécatl was known as in tlachpancauh in tlaloques ("road sweeper of the rain gods"), meaning that Ehécatl's forceful presence announced the coming of the fertilizing rains. Other prominent fertility deities included Centeotl, goddess of maize; Xilonen, goddess of the young maize; Ometochtli, goddess of maguy; and Mayahuel, whose four hundred breasts insured an abundant supply of pulque for ritual drinking.

The most powerful group of female fertility deities were the teteoinnan, a rich array of earth-mother goddesses, who were representatives of the usually distinct but sometimes combined qualities of terror and beauty, regeneration and destruction. These deities were worshiped in cults concerned with the abundant powers of the earth, women, and fertility. Among the most prominent were Tlazolteotl, Xochiquetzal, and Coatlicue. Tlazolteotl was concerned with sexual powers and passions and the pardoning of sexual transgressions. Xochiquetzal was the goddess of love and sexual desire and was pictured as a nubile maiden associated with flowers, feasting, and pleasure. A ferocious goddess, Coatlicue ("serpent skirt") represented the cosmic mountain that conceived all stellar beings and devoured all beings into her repulsive, lethal, and fascinating form. Her statue is studded with sacrificed hearts, skulls, hands, ferocious claws, and giant snake heads.

A prominent deity who linked agricultural renewal with warfare was Xipe Totec, whose gladiatorial sacrifice renewed vegetation in the spring and celebrated success on the battlefield. Part of his ceremony, called the Feast of the Flaying of Men, included the flaying of the sacrificial victim and the ceremonial wearing of the skin by the sacred specialist. Xipe Totec's insignia, including the pointed cap and rattle staff, was the war costume of the Méxica emperor.

Ceremony and Sacrifice

Another important facet of Aztec religious practice was human sacrifice, usually carried out for the purpose of nourishing or renewing the Sun or other deity (or to otherwise appease it), thus ensuring the stability of the universe. The mythic model for mass human sacrifice was the story of the creation of the fifth age, in which the gods themselves were sacrificed in order to empower the Sun. Tonatiuh, the personification of that Sun (whose visage appears in the center of the Calendar Stone), depended on continued nourishment from human hearts.

Some of the large-scale sacrificial ceremonies re-created other sacred stories. For example, women and masses of captive warriors were sacrificed in front of the shrine of Huitzilopochtli atop the Templo Mayor. Their bodies tumbled down the steps to rest at the bottom with the colossal stone figure of Coyolxauhqui, Huitzilopochtli's dismembered sister, symbolically reenacting the legendary slaughter of the four hundred siblings at Huitzilopochtli's birth.

Cosmology, pantheon, and ritual sacrifice were united and came alive in the exuberant and well-ordered ceremonies carried out in the more than eighty buildings situated in the sacred precinct of the capital and in the hundreds of ceremonial centers throughout the Aztec world. Guided by detailed ritual calendars, Aztec ceremonies varied from town to town but typically involved three stages: days of ritual preparation, death sacrifice, and nourishing the gods. The days of ritual preparation included fasting; offerings of food, flowers, and paper; use of incense and purification techniques; embowering; songs; and processions of deity-impersonators to various temples in ceremonial precincts.

Following these elaborate preparations, blood sacrifices were carried out by priestly orders specially trained to dispatch the victims swiftly. The victims were usually captive warriors or purchased slaves. Though a variety of methods of ritual killing were used, including decapitation, burning, hurling from great heights, strangulation, and arrow sacrifice, the typical ritual involved the dramatic heart sacrifice and the placing of the heart in a ceremonial vessel (cuauhxicalli) in order to nourish the gods. Amid the music of drums, conch shell trumpets, rattles, and other musical instruments, which created an atmosphere of dramatic intensity, blood was smeared on the face of the deity's image and the head of the victim was placed on the giant skull rack (tzompantli) that held thousands of such trophies.

All of these ceremonies were carried out in relation to two ritual calendars, the 365-day calendar or tonalpohualli ("count of day") consisting of eighteen twenty-day months plus a five-day intercalary period and the 260-day calendar consisting of thirteen twenty-day months. More than one-third of these ceremonies were dedicated to Tlaloc and earth fertility goddesses. Beside ceremonies relating to the two calendars, a third type of ceremony related to the many life cycle stages of the individual. In some cases, the entire community was involved in bloodletting.

Aztec religion, as we have seen, was formed during the rise to empire of a minority population who inherited urban traditions and sociopolitical conflicts of great prestige and intensity. This remarkable tradition came to an abrupt end during the military conquest of Tenochtitlán by the Spanish and the subsequent destruction of ceremonial life. But it is important to note that one of the last images we have of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlán before it was blown apart by Spanish cannon is the image of Aztec warriors sacrificing captive Spanish soldiers in front of the shrine to Huitzilopochtli.

See Also

Coatlicue; Huitzilopochtli; Human Sacrifice; Quetzalcoatl; Tezcatlipoca; Tlaloc.


Broda, Johanna. "El tributo en trajes guerreros y la estructura del sistema tributario Mexica." In Economia, política e ideología en el México prehispanico, edited by Pedro Carrasco and Johanna Broda. Mexico City, 1978. A valuable study of the pattern and structure of tributary payments to Tenochtitlán during the height of its dominance.

Brundage, Burr C. The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. Austin, Tex., 1979. The best English-language monograph introduction to Aztec religion; provides an insightful understanding of the Aztec pantheon and human sacrifice.

Carrasco, David. Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire; Myths and Prophecies in Aztec Tradition. Chicago, 1982. Utilizing the history of religions approach, the author focuses on the Quetzalcoatl paradigm to study the history of Mesoamerican religions.

López Austin, Alfredo. Hombre-Dios: Religión y política en el mundo Nahuatl. Mexico City, 1973. The best Spanish-language account of the interweaving of myth, history, politics, and religious authority in Mesoamerican history.

Matox Moctezuma, Eduardo. Una visita al Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán. Mexico City, 1981. The chief excavator of the Aztec Great Temple describes the fascinating treasures found at the heart of the Aztec empire.

Nicholson, H. B. "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope, vol 10. Austin, Tex., 1971. The classic description of Mesoamerican religion in the central plateau of Mexico during the decades prior to the Conquest.

Pasztory, Esther. Aztec Art. New York, 1983. The finest single-volume description and interpretation of Aztec art and its religious significance. Excellent prose accompanied by magnificent photographs.

Townsend, Richard. State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlán. Washington, D.C., 1979. A concise, brilliant interpretation of the monumental art of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in the light of a good understanding of religious realities.

New Sources

Almere Read, Kay. Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington, Ind., 1998.

Anaya, Rudolfo A., and Francisco A. Lomelí, eds. Aztlán: Essays on the Chicano Homeland. Albuquerque, 1989.

Bierhorst, John. History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca. Tucson, 1992.

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers. San Francisco, 1990.

Markman, Robert H., and Peter T. Markman. Flayed God: The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition: Sacred Texts and Images From Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. San Francisco, 1992.

McKeever-Furst, Leslie. Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico. New Haven, 1995.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London, 1993.

Pérez Guerrero, Juan Carlos. Religión azteca. Madrid, 2000.

DavÍd Carrasco (1987)

Revised Bibliography