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Mesoamerican Religions: Classic Cultures


The Classic period in the Valley of Mexico and its environs (150 bce750 ce) was one of florescence and of great achievement and intellectual advancement in the fields of art, government, and ideology. These centuries saw urbanism defined. Intense trade developed along established routes, diffusing ideas and material goods from one corner of Mesoamerica to another and consolidating religious thought and ceremonial.

Data for Classic period religion is based on archaeology; while no written documents from that period have come down to us, we can rightly regard mural painting, architecture, and other works of art as valid documents. Sixteenth-century chronicles describing Aztec religious belief and customabout eight centuries after the decline of Teotihuacannevertheless can help us interpret earlier cultures, if used with caution. Ethnographic evidence can also shed light on ancient cultures, since in many cases there seems to be a continuity of tradition. It is significant, too, that Mesoamerica constituted a unified culture area, unlike the Mediterranean civilization that had interaction with totally different cultures from very early times on. In addition to the shared urbanism of its cultures, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica was in many ways unified by a common ideological system, with regional and temporal variation. This apparent underlying tradition of many basic beliefs allows us to compare one culture with another, but only to a certain extent and allowing for changes over time.

During the Classic period the characteristics of Mesoamerican religion were formalized. Patterns in belief, ritual, and iconography, some of them derived from earlier cultures, were set, and they formed the basis of later societies, especially those of the Toltec and the Aztec. The belief that natural forces were animate, the measurement of time as coordinated with sacred space, and the observation of heavenly bodies were some of the main characteristics. There was an intense ceremonialism supported by iconography and by oral mythic tradition. The gods were numerous, often human in form and often conceived as animals that were the gods' doubles. Religion was integrated with social organization, politics, economy, art, music, and poetry. There was a patron deity for virtually every activity, and all objects received homage and offerings, from certain flowers reserved for sovereigns to humble implements for planting and harvesting. The world was considered a sacred structure, an image of the cosmos.

Sites and structures (and probably human activities such as processions and ritual dancing) were oriented to the sun, moon, stars, and to sacred geographical places. Architectural splendor was manifested in pyramid platforms surmounted by temples; many were painted in symbolic colors, their exteriors and interiors covered with murals. The temple in each city was the axis mundi, the center of the universe. Sculpture depicted religious themes, and much pottery was decorated with images of the gods. The worldview of Classic Mesoamerica was peopled with deities who intervened in every phase of life. Men who governed were deeply enmeshed in ritual. Every ruler had his priestly duties, and the priests themselves controlled the ritual calendar and thus the agricultural cycle, which was a basic part of the economy.


During the Classic period, Teotihuacan, which means "place where the gods are made," became the center of the Mesoamerican world. A vast settlement occupying more than eight square miles in the valley of the same name, a subvalley of the Basin of Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan was the leading Classic center and the most highly urbanized center in the New World. Although Teotihuacan at its height ruled the trade routes and set religious patterns for many other cultures, in its early period it barely set the stage for its later grandeur.

Founding and early history

Around the beginning of the common era, a small settlement was established in the northern part of what we now call the Teotihuacan Valley. After the eruption of the Xitle volcano in the southern part of the Basin of Mexico (c. 1000 bce), some residents of Cuicuilco, which had been covered by lava in the eruption, probably moved to the east, into the Teotihuacan area. The refugees would have brought their own deities, especially the fire god. We see him in the Teotihuacan braziers of Huehueteotl ("old god"), who may have originated in Cuicuilco. At an early period Teotihuacan also was strongly influenced by the Puebla-Tlaxcala peoples. During the Patlachique (1501 bce) and the Tzacualli (1150 ce) phases, Teotihuacan experienced explosive growth. People from the eastern and southern parts of the Basin of Mexico concentrated around this center, raising the population of Teotihuacan to eighty thousand or more (Sanders et al., 1979, pp. 184ff.; Millon, 1981, p. 221). This population concentration was reflected in the city's direct control of agricultural production and of the obsidian industry, as well as in its importance as a regional economic center, which at the same time stimulated religious manifestation.

Toward the end of the Tzacualli phase the great Pyramid of the Sun was erected, standing more than 63 meters high and measuring 225 meters on each of its four sides. Shortly after this the Pyramid of the Moon was built with the Avenue of the Dead leading up to it. (These structures were named by the Aztec; we do not know what the Teotihuacanos called them.) The orientation of the Avenue of the Dead is 15°25° east of north and the major structures were aligned with this axis, slightly "skewed" from the cardinal directions. From the Tzacualli phase on, an exuberance of construction filled Teotihuacan with splendid structures, all carefully planned on a grid pattern.

Caves and cults

The most sacred place in the Teotihuacan complex was the spot where the Sun pyramid stood, underneath which lies a sacred cave. Caves were considered sacred throughout Mesoamerica, and this one designated the site for the construction of the great pyramid. Teotihuacan was a powerful religious magnet and attracted pilgrims from all over. The influx of large groups of pilgrims undoubtedly created the need for more spectacular structures and probably provided the economic means and hands for the work. According to Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane (New York, 1959), sacred time is relived in a sacred space by means of a pilgrimage, and divine space is repeated by building one holy place over another. In Teotihuacan this repetition took place when the great pyramid was erected over a primitive shrine, itself built over a subterranean cave. A cult of long standing existed in this cavern and was one reason that Teotihuacan became a religious center. The presence of drainage channels through which water was brought into the cave (Millon, 1981, p. 234) indicates the performance there of rituals associated with water, and the remains of ritual fires suggest a symbolic juxtaposition of fire and water, which juxtaposition was basic in Mesoamerican religion. It is likely, René Millon suggests, that the guardians of beliefs and cults in the sacred cave had awesome prestige and that this prestige and the importance of religion and ritual in general played a major part in the shaping of Teotihuacan's hierarchical society and in the legitimation of the authority of the state.

Orientation, symbolic planning, and architecture

Urban planning, architecture, myth, and ritual were interrelated in ancient Mexico. The blending of religious-cosmological conceptions with an acute awareness of nature constituted much of the Classic worldview. The orientation of Teotihuacan's major axis, the Avenue of the Dead, was astronomically and calendrically determined. The star group Pleiades was also influential since some structures were oriented to its rising position. The main facades of most of the pyramids, except the Pyramid of the Moon, faced west (that is, in the direction of the setting sun), as did monuments in later Mesoamerican cultures. An astronomical symbol found in strategic positions all over the city was also one of the determinants of the orientation of streets and structures. This symbol is the "pecked cross," actually a quartered circle consisting of dots whose number probably referred to a calendrical-ritual count. It was carved on the floors of ceremonial buildings and also on rocks on the periphery of the city, which were aligned with the monuments (Aveni, 1980, p. 223).

There are more than seventy-five temples in the city. Some, found on the Avenue of the Dead, are grouped into complexes of three, perhaps a symbolic number. More than two thousand residential compounds are located in Teotihuacan, and every residential compound had one or more local temples within it. Even within smaller units a miniature temple is often found in the center of a courtyard. That the natural environment and nearby topographical features were part of the worldview of Teotihuacan and that they figured in the planning of the city is evident from the relation of Teotihuacan to the mountains, caves, and bodies of water in its environs. On the mountaintops, rites to the rain gods were held, for here the clouds gathered and formed the precious liquid. Chronicles referring to the Aztec, whose practices can perhaps give us an insight into the earlier period, tell us that mountains were seen as female; water was thought to be held inside them as if in the womb. The mountain north of the Avenue of the Dead, whose form was mirrored by the Pyramid of the Moon, was called Tenan, "the mother" (i.e., of people) by the Aztec. Hills and waterholes were considered sacred, as were trees, for they protected people and provided sustenance in the form of leaves, fruit, and roots.

Teotihuacan, like most of Mesoamerica, was basically an agricultural society. Observance of the seasons was controlled by a ritual calendar and the invocation of rain through propitiation of the gods was an important ceremony. Lake Tezcoco, the great body of water that covered a large part of the Basin of Mexico, came almost to the borders of Teotihuacan and provided aquatic foods and a waterway for transportation. So for the Teotihuacanos, the gods of water were associated with "Our Mother" (as the lake was called in Aztec times) as well as with rain and mountaintops. This setting of natural abundance was enhanced in Teotihuacan by local deposits of obsidian, which was considered divine.

The Avenue of the Dead extends almost two thousand meters from the Sun and Moon pyramids to the Ciudadela (Span., "citadel"), Teotihuacan's religious and political center during much of the metropolis's existence. The vast quadrangle (4.4 hectares) is surrounded on each of its four sides by wide platforms topped by four low pyramids on three sides, and by three at the east or rear (Millon, 1981, p. 203). Entrance to the complex is only from the Avenue of the Dead on the west and from the north, suggesting that entrance to and exit from the area were strictly controlled. Living quarters in the northeast and southeast of the Ciudadela could have housed about 250 persons, probably high cult officials. George L. Cowgill states that while the head of state must have resided in the Ciudadela, his presence here was largely ceremonial and the real governing activity was carried out elsewhere (Cowgill, 1983). A square platform with a staircase on each of its four sides in the middle of the quadrangle suggests large-scale rites; theatrical performances of a religious character evidently were held here.

At the eastern end of the Ciudadela stands the majestic pyramid known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, so called because of the feathered serpents that decorate its facadealthough the temple was not necessarily dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, who in the Postclassic period was a god of civilization, creation, and the arts. Also on the facade are heads of fire serpents that have been identified erroneously as representations of the rain god Tlaloc. The spectacular Temple of Quetzalcoatl was erected in the second construction period of the Ciudadela (probably 150200 ce), coeval in part with the Sun and Moon pyramids, and was used (and at times rebuilt) up until the end of Teotihuacan, around 750 ce. But at one period in the city's history (c. 300 ce), another smaller pyramid, the Adosada (Span., "affixed") was attached to its facade, partly blocking the earlier building. The Adosada seems to have enhanced rather than eclipsed the Temple of Quetzalcoatl's religious importance. Perhaps this was an architectural rather than an ideological renovation. According to Cowgill (1983), the religious and political significance combined in the Ciudadela and the Quetzalcoatl pyramid cult was intimately associated with Teotihuacan's rulership. He also suggests that increased activity associated with the Quetzalcoatl temple may have necessitated the building of this extra structure.

A pyramid platform in the southern part of the Ciudadela is decorated with red X designs and with green circles, symbols of water, "that which is precious." The X is clearly an ollin, symbol of motion (or of the movement of the sun, according to later Aztec tradition). The joining of water and fire (in this case, the sun) are thus represented during this early period. Although the combination symbolized war in the Postclassic period, here in Teotihuacan it may have had astronomical significance.

Another enormous area of dwellings, pyramids, platforms, temples, and courtyards occupying many hectares along the major avenue, and known as the Avenue of the Dead Complex, has been tentatively identified as the center of governmental functions. The talud ("sloping panel") combined with the tablero ("vertical panel") is the characteristic Teotihuacan facade for religious structures and has long been recognized as the sign that a building faced in such a way is a temple (Millon, 1981, p. 229). This convention was also applied to public buildings and residential compounds, thus consecrating the entire avenue, as well as giving a sacred character to buildings in other zones that incorporate the talud-tablero mode of facing. Juan Vidarte de Linares (cited in Cowgill, 1983) has interpreted the Avenue of the Dead, lined with temple platforms thus built, as a great open-air cathedral.


The art of Teotihuacan is intensely religious. Mural painting (one of the major art forms) on buildings, temples, and shrines, leads Clara Millon (cited in Millon, 1981, p. 213) to consider it the "official graphic medium for transmitting ideas and beliefs ideologically acceptable and desirable." Murals were an ideal medium for communication because they were out in the open for all to see. In the interior of palaces, where the paintings usually had a religious context, their messages, perhaps understood only by priests, must also have constituted a type of didactic "book" on the walls. Sculpture in Teotihuacan was usually architectural: roof merlons with year-sign motifs, serpentine balustrades on stairways (later seen at Tenayuca, Chichén Itzá, and other sites), zoomorphic stone heads on the facades of buildings (on, for example, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and at one time on the Pyramid of the Sun), and stone figures perhaps representing gods, such as the old fire god. A relief panel recently discovered in the West Plaza of the Avenue of the Dead Complex represents a personage with rain god characteristics holding a rattle in either hand. According to Noel Morelos, the archaeologist who discovered it, the image is somewhat similar to Tlaloc figures in the Tetitla and Tepantitla murals at Teotihuacan. Another rich source of information is pottery, painted or decorated with other techniques, that depicts rituals and either deities or priests.

The large braziers found at Teotihuacan are sometimes called "theaters" because the masks surrounded by symbolic elements that are attached to them are reminiscent of the stage. Candeleros (Span., "candle-sticks") must have been used for copal incense; the Teotihuacanos had no candles. The use of clay figurines can only be guessed at. Some may have been used on household altars or kept by pilgrims as souvenirs from sacred places. "Portrait figurines," sometimes called "dancers," are small, nude, sexless people in animated positions. Other clay figures are "puppets," with movable arms and legs, nude bodies, and carefully made and adorned heads. Lack of body adornment on the portrait figurines and puppets suggests that they were dressed in bark paper, a ritual material, for ceremonial use. Clay dogs may, as among the Aztec, have represented the animal that accompanied the deceased to the afterworld.

A possible warrior cult, involving relations with other regions of Mesoamerica, is indicated by representations of military figures in the murals, on decorated pottery, and in figurines. Some of the figurines wear warrior vestments, including animal helmets. Painted representations of people holding excised hearts on knives, as in a mural in the Atetelco (another architectural complex, or palace), may indicate the existence of a warrior cult, although they might represent human sacrifice practiced for ritual reasons. Citing the work of Hasso von Winning and George Kubler, Esther Pasztory (1978, p. 133) notes that war-related iconographic themes in Teotihuacan include the sun god as a raptorial bird and as a feline, warriors in animal disguise, and an owl-and-weapon symbol.


Funerary customs also shed light on the religion of Teotihuacan. Cremation was practiced and was possibly related to the later Aztec belief that a person's possessions must be burned in order to travel to the afterworld, where they would be turned over to the lord of the dead. Interment was also practiced; burials were accompanied by grave goodsvessels whose contents may have been food or other necessities for the other world and miniature objects that were symbolic offerings. Mica decorated some of the large braziers and urns and has been found under floors. Its meaning is obscure, but it is mirrorlike and mirrors were used for divining.


Names of Teotihuacan gods are unknown to us; therefore we refer to them by their characteristics or symbols, sometimes comparing them to Aztec deities whose iconography and function are similar. Esther Pasztory (1973, p. 147) has noted that the structure of Teotihuacan iconography is in many ways similar to that of the Aztec, for which we have written data, and image clusters have been identified in Teotihuacan that have elements similar to representations of Aztec deities. The presence of water-agricultural deities is indicated by aquatic symbols such as streams, water dripping from shells, fish, frogs, and water lilies. The god associated with rain and the earth is distinguished by traits found on the Aztec deity Tlalocgoggle eyes and fangs, for examplebut also by a water lily in his mouth, a lightning staff, a vessel with water, a year-sign headdress, and crocodilian traits. Pasztory calls him "Tlaloc A." "Tlaloc B" appeared later on the scene when there was a trend toward militarism in Teotihuacan. Some of Tlaloc B's diagnostic traits are a bifurcated tongue, a bigotera (Span., "mustache"), and jaguar features. Both "Tlalocs" are associated with water, although the latter, because his image is found in foreign centers and is related to persons who may be representatives of the Teotihuacan state, seems to be connected with military and foreign relations as well. Pasztory (1978, p. 134) sees Tlaloc B, or the "Jaguar Tlaloc," as possibly being the patron deity of Teotihuacan, and claims that the "patron deity cult," later practiced among the Toltec and Aztec (which was different from a cult to deified ancestors) originated in Teotihuacan. She also notes that Teotihuacan was the first culture in Mesoamerica to develop a state cult from the earlier agricultural fertility cult. To this must be added the importance of aquatic sustenance from the nearby lake, to which many of the water symbols may refer.

Evidence of other deities is scanty, but among those believed to have existed in Teotihuacan are Huehueteotl, whose brazier, which was designed to be carried on the head, suggests he is a fire god, and an earth mother figure who may have been associated with water and vegetation. She is represented in the Tepantitla murals surrounded by fertility symbols such as plants, drops of water, seeds, and birds. Formerly she was thought to be a male water god, and in Aztec times she had a number of names, including Xochiquetzal ("precious flower"). A precursor of this goddess may be represented in some figurines whose headdresses bear flowers, usually the characteristic mark of Xochiquetzal. A majestic stone statue discovered near the Pyramid of the Moon may have water association, due to the "meanders" (water symbols) on her garments. The agricultural fertility cult was associated with gods of earth, water, rain, crops, sun, and moon. A large stone disk, with rays surrounding a skull head, seems to represent the sun. It was painted red, the color applied to bodies of the deceased; thus it may represent the setting sun that dies in the west. Deformed figures represented on the walls of the Atetelco suggest Nanahuatzin, the sick god of the Aztec tradition who became the sun, although these may not actually portray him. Another god portrayed is the feathered serpent, but there is no way of knowing if he is the same god the Aztec worshiped under the name Quetzalcoatl. There is also a "flayed god," represented in clay figurines and on pottery vessels. One statue depicts a flayed god (or his surrogate) wearing a human skin. This deity may be related to the later Xipe Totec, Aztec god of vegetation, although this large clay figure dates from the beginning of the Postclassic era.

There may also have been a "dual complex," a male-female creative force, such as existed later in Aztec cosmology. This could be inferred from the two major pyramids. Innumerable figurines with hollow interiors that in turn contain one or more miniature figures fully dressed may represent a creator deity. But the most convincing evidence indicates that the pantheon was built around forces of water and fertility.

Creation of the sun in Teotihuacan

Animals portrayed in a mural painting called the Mural of the Mythological Animals may be an early version of the myth of the four Suns, or eras, that form part of Aztec mythology (Millon, 1972, p. 7). Jaguars devouring fish, a type of cipactli (crocodilian) earth creature, and evidence of a cataclysm are seen in the Teotihuacan mural. The creation of the Fifth Sun in Teotihuacan (the Aztec mythical celestial plain), in which the poor deformed god Nanahuatzin threw himself into the fire to become the sun, constitutes one of the great Mesoamerican myths. This myth may have been invented a posteriori by the Aztec in order to explain the creation of their own era, the Fifth Sun, associated with the "place where the gods are made" (i.e., Teotihuacan) and with their sacred ancestors, the Teotihuacanos. The impact of Teotihuacan religion and myth on the Aztec is evident from the orientation of the sacred precinct in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. This was based on the fact that, in the myth of the Fifth Sun, the gods in Teotihuacan, after the birth of the sun, faced the four directions to see where it would rise. Four gateways facing these directions were made in Tenochtitlan in memory of the myth. The desire of the Aztec to view Teotihuacan as the sacred ancestral place can be seen here and also in the fact that the Aztec sovereign worshiped there every twenty days.


Ritual, as represented in many paintings, was clearly an important aspect of Teotihuacan religion. One example of such a representation is that of the priests, depicted in profile, who face the great central figure in the Tepantitla mural, and who evidently are carrying out a ceremony involving this earth-god figure. Men (as gods' surrogates) in ritual attitudes are also depicted on decorated pottery. The very layout of the major avenues and structures of the city brings to mind the probability of dramatic processions led by religious leaders, involving a large part of the population and possibly pilgrims. Processions would probably have stopped at the small altar-platforms in the center of the avenues, where rites would have been performed. Fray Diego Durán (1971, p. 296) writes about didactic yet amusing skits involving deities that were performed during the later Aztec religious festivals, which may provide us with parallels of earlier ritual celebrations. Colonial chronicles describe Aztec processions in which the costumes of the participants, the materials of which they were made, and their colors were all significant: yellow face paint symbolized maize; "popcorn" garlands represented the dry season. People walked, danced, and sang in the processions; the beat of the drum, the shrill sound of a native flute, and the rhythmic tone of chanted poetry set the pace for their steps. Large braziers may have been carried at the head of the procession, smoke from resin incense floating upward as a medium for communication with the gods. A ritual liquid such as pulque may have been poured on the ground. Hands pouring precious symbols in streams are depicted in Teotihuacan murals, representing this type of libation. Processions like these would have been public rituals to celebrate seasonal, calendrical, religious, political, and agricultural events. The changing of the seasons and their effect upon the crops, for example, called for constant celebration and/or propitiation of the gods.

Parallel with the public rituals would have been rites performed at small temples in residential compounds. Household worship probably occurred at times when major events took place but also in relation to the more private cycles of the household. People close to the soil practice innumerable ceremonies important to their well-being. In postclassic times rites were performed annually (as they still are today) to honor agricultural implements; permission is still ritually requested of the earth to break the surface in order to plant; clay figurines are buried in the fields as offerings; terracotta frogs or water-deity figures are thrown into waterholes; food and clay images are placed in caves for the "owners of maize" and plants. Evidence of some concern in Teotihuacan culture for human fertility is provided by figurines of pregnant women, which were most likely used in rites of fecundity.

The end of Teotihuacan and its heritage

The eclipse of Teotihuacan took place around 750 ce, when much of the city was burned, the destruction centering on religious and public buildings. Statues of the gods were broken and their faces mutilated (Jarquin and Martínez, 1982, p. 36). (In the pictorial manuscripts from Postclassic Mexico the conquest of a city is generally depicted by the burning of its temples.) Burning occurred mainly in the heart of Teotihuacanfour hundred instances of burning are evident in the Avenue of the Dead zone alone (Millon, 1981, pp. 236237)but to date there is no evidence of foreign invaders, such as non-Teotihuacan weapons or the like. The burning of temples and smashing of images implies ritual destruction, and René Millon points out that many religious structures in Mesoamerica were ritually burned and then reconstructed. The destruction of Teotihuacan's temples was so complete, however, that in spite of later building at the site, the city never again rose to even a portion of its former grandeur.

Meanwhile, other peoples had filtered into the valley, including the Toltec and the Chichimec. As Teotihuacan fell other centers rose. Sites in Tlaxcala expanded. Cacaxtla adopted many Teotihuacan motifs and possibly its cultural ideas as well. Xochicalco, a critical point on a trade route from the south, became powerful. El Tajín acquired more importance in the Gulf Coast region. Teotihuacan as a live metropolis disappeared, but its fame and influence lived on. South to the Maya region, east to the Gulf, west to the Pacific, and north to Alta-vista (near what would become the United States border), Teotihuacan religion, art, myth, and tradition spread and were adapted to other cultures. This great civilization and religious center took its place as the revered ancestor of many later cultures.


About two hundred kilometers to the southeast, Cholula was a sister city to Teotihuacan during the Classic period; Quetzalcoatl was its principal god. According to archaeologist Eduardo Merlo, the earliest pyramid at Cholula (c. 150 bce), was constructed over a sacred spring, paralleling the Teotihuacan tradition of building over a consecrated spot. The Mural of the Bebedores (Span., "drinkers"; c. 200 ce) in Cholula, at the west side of the great pyramid, portrays elaborate scenes of ritual drinking of pulque. This mural is dedicated to agricultural fertility and to pulque gods. The main Classic period deity here was the water goddess, and it is interesting that the patron saint of present-day Cholula, whose sanctuary is built on top of the great pyramid, is the Virgin of Los Remedios, whose special province is the control of the water supply (Olivera, 1970, pp. 212213).

Cantona, in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley, was contemporary with early Cholula and Teotihuacan but was evidently eclipsed by the dramatic rise of the latter. Cantona must have been an important religious pilgrimage center and was possibly a Gulf Coast link with the central highlands. More than sixteen square kilometers in area, this site dates from the Late Preclassic into the Middle Classic and exhibits strong Veracruz influence, as seen in the ball-game cult, represented by sixteen courts. There are thousands of unexplored mounds, many dwellings, one excavated igloo-type sweat bath, and the unexplored remains of about twenty more of these structures. According to archaeologist Diana Lopez, these were used for ritual bathing.

Monte AlbÁn and Oaxaca

The Valley of Oaxaca is an archaeologically rich area in the central part of the present state of Oaxaca in south-central Mexico. Ecological advantages, effectively exploited, contributed to the rise of urbanism here centuries earlier than in other nearby regions north and west of the valley (Paddock, 1966, p. 242). In this setting the splendid Zapotec civilization of Monte Albán arose. This city was built on five artificially leveled hills just east of today's city of Oaxaca and covered a total area of six and a half square kilometers. Monte Albán's main plaza, 150 by 300 meters, dominates the central hill, producing a whole that can be seen as the center and four corners of the universe. This central hill contains both religious and residential buildings: pyramid platforms, a main plaza and smaller ones, a ball court, the royal residence, and subterranean tombs whose entrances are protected by gods and whose interiors were filled with funerary urns in the form of gods. Richard Blanton (in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, p. 84) suggests that Monte Albán, constructed on a hilltop not easily accessible, yet near a rich alluvial plain, was the principal center of the region. Its hilltop location probably was in part a defensive measure against possible incursions, although many other important centers in Oaxaca also were built on mountaintops: for example, Monte Negro, Quiotepec, and Guiengola. There could also have been a religious motivation in this, in that the summits of mountains were often held to be sacred in ancient Mesoamerica and are dedicated to gods of rain.

Although Monte Albán has traditionally been seen as indebted to Teotihuacan for much of its religion, art, and ideas, Kent V. Flannery, Joyce Marcus, and John Paddock (Flannery and Marcus, 1983, p. 161) point out that the Zapotec autonomous tradition was thousands of years old when Monte Albán was built (c. 100 bce) and that hieroglyphic writing was developed there before Teotihuacan was founded. Strong influence and exchange between the two centers did exist, however. There was an enclave of Oaxaca people in Teotihuacan, whose residents lived in their own zone, produced Oaxaca-style pottery, constructed a stone-lined Oaxaca tomb and stela, or tomb jamb, and who worshiped their own gods, if one may judge from two funerary urns representing a god with serpent buccal mask found in the tomb (Millon, 1973, I, pp. 141142). Although no comparable Teotihuacano enclave has been found at Monte Albán, Teotihuacan personages are represented on some of the city's monuments. They carry copal incense bags (characteristic of priests) and wear identifying deity, animal, or "tassel" Teotihuacan headdresses. A Teotihuacan-style temple is also depicted. Marcus (Flannery and Marcus, 1983, p. 179) interprets these scenes as visual proof that Teotihuacan and Monte Albán had emissaries who consolidated agreements through rituals, thus placing these treaties in a sacred context.

Early history

Monte Albán has a long history, beginning about 500 bce. Between 200 bce and 100 ce (Monte Albán III) this center of ten thousand inhabitants constructed large defensive walls and masonry tombs. Three hundred carved stone monuments with calendrical and military themes have been found dating from this period, along with hieroglyphic writing and effigy vessels possibly representing gods (Marcus, in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 5253, 95). The nude figures in distorted poses known as danzantes (Span., "dancers") were carved on stone slabs along with symbols of sacrifice. They represented captives and as such may refer to ritual death. They also may represent a symbolic display of power. Fear-inspiring propaganda of this type was repeatedin ritual, not sculpturemany centuries later by the Aztec, who invited their enemies to witness mass sacrifices of war captives. Toward the end of this early period there were highly developed traits such as a complex pantheon of deities, ceremonial architecture, a stratified society, increased population, and political, economic, and military influence outside the Valley of Oaxaca (Paddock, 1966, pp. 111119). The plan of the Zapotec temple at this time, with an inner chamber reserved for members of the cult, points to the existence of full-time priests and an incipient state religion (Flannery, in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, p. 82).

Florescence of Monte Albán

Classic Monte Albán (Monte Albán III) covers the period from 100 to 600 ce. This was a period of florescence during which the population reached its maximum size and both the main plaza and neighboring hills became covered with monumental structures. Restricted entrance to the main plaza suggests that its use may have been mainly for religious and civil leaders, yet its size would indicate that on some occasions rites were celebrated involving the general populace, which Blanton (in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 131133) estimates at approximately thirty thousand. The temples had full-time priests plus a high priest (Flannery, in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 132, 134). As in other Mesoamerican societies, the Zapotec ruler was given a year of religious training, and the priesthood was drawn from noble families. The ruler worshiped at a special shrine.

Tombs, funerary urns, and Zapotec gods

Typical of Monte Albán is the subterranean cruciform tomb, probably constructed during its future occupant's life and over which a temple or residential structure was built. Living quarters over these tombs indicate that the descendants of the deceased (probably usually rulers) practiced ancestor worship (Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 135, 345). Personages represented in the murals of Tomb 104 and Tomb 105, described by Alfonso Caso as gods, evidently depict royal couples dressed in the garb of deities. As in Asia, the dead ruler or forefather had to be propitiated in order to protect the living. The people portrayed in these tombs, then, are the royal, deified ancestors of those buried here. The four rooms of the building over Tomb 105 are oriented to the four cardinal directions, indicating a cosmic plan in the building of Monte Albán. In a niche above the entrance to each tomb is a funerary urn. Within the tomb more urns appear. Urns have been found, too, as offerings in temples and caches. Most of the urns are anthropomorphic in form; many wear zoomorphic masks and headdresses and they are adorned with numerals and glyphs.

One type of urn, the acompañante (Span., "companion" or "attendant"), has been found either with the deceased or with the major urns themselves. There are two schools of thought regarding the funeral urns. Alfonso Caso and Ignacio Bernal (1952) define them as gods, while Joyce Marcus (in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 144148) interprets them as deceased ancestors. Sixteenth-century chronicles associate calendric names with personages but not with gods. The Spanish at that time did not understand this reference to ancestors because they were unfamiliar with the system of naming forefathers with dates; therefore they often mistook figures of dead rulers for deities, and this confusion has persisted. Because they had no knowledge of Zapotec, Europeans often mistook titles of nobility or references to natural forces (such as cocijo, which means "lightning") for names of deities.

Caso and Bernal (1952), who believe them to be gods, identify the figures depicted on the funerary urns as follows: Cocijo, the rain god (who also has maize aspects, judging from the corn cobs in his headdress on some urns); Pitao Cozobi, god of maize and grains; other maize-sustenance deities such as 5 Flower Quiepelagayo and a god referred to as "with bow in the Headdress"; a Zapotec version of Quetzalcoatl; a flayed god (Xipe?), represented carrying a disembodied head; an old god associated with caves and the underworld; 13 Serpent, an earth mother; and animal deities such as the parrot (associated with the sun), the jaguar (associated with rain), and the bat and the tlacuache (opossum), both associated with maize.

Natural forces

Joyce Marcus (in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, pp. 345351) stresses the importance in Zapotec religion of animismthe animate character of things such as trees, stars, hills, but especially powerful natural and supernatural forces. A vital force was pèe ("wind, breath, spirit") and this existed in man, animals, the 260-day ritual calendar, light, the sun, the moon, clouds, lightning, rain, fire, and earthquakes. Pitào, the augmentative form of pèe, means "great breath" or "great spirit," and refers to a sacred quality. Lightning, (cocijo ) was a highly revered element among the Zapotec because it brought rain. According to Fray Juan de Córdova's Arte del idioma zapoteca (1578), the thirteen-day period in the pre-Hispanic calendar (13 numbers × 20 day names = 260 days constituting the ritual-divinatory calendar) was called cocijo or pitào. Thus the gods were identified with time periods and with phenomena associated with the calendar.

Clouds were held as sacred by the Zapotec. In fact, they considered themselves descended from clouds, just as the Mixtec regarded trees as their primordial ancestors. After death, the Zapotec believed, they once again became clouds. The Zapotec not only had an organized priesthood, temples, and elaborate ritual, but they also considered places such as caves, mountains, certain trees, springs, and other natural sites to be sacred shrines.

Other Oaxaca sites

Monte Albán was the major Zapotec civil and religious center, yet it was not the only sacred place in Oaxaca. Dainzú, a place distinguished by stone reliefs of masked ball players, was coeval with early Monte Albán. The ball players, some in jaguar disguise, are evidently engaged in a ritual game. A number of these carved slabs are set into the lowest level of a pyramid-temple structure. They are similar to Monte Albán's danzantes. Stones of the same type have turned up in many sites in the Oaxaca Valley, among them Macuilxochitl and Tlacochauaya. Other sites in the valley, of which there are many (Yagul, Caballito Blanco, Mitla, Loma Larga, Lambityeco) were contemporary in part with Monte Albán and shared the same religious beliefs and practices. Many of these were not occupied until after the Classic period and thus fall outside this discussion. But Oaxaca is rich in archeological zones, many dating from the Classic. In the Ñuiñe culture in the lower Mixtec region (northern Oaxaca and southern Puebla), the pantheon was similar to that of Monte Albán, containing gods of earth, rain, wind, death, fire, jaguar, and perhaps vegetation represented by flayed figures (Moser, in Flannery and Marcus, 1983, p. 212). San José Mogote was largely a Preclassic settlement, but in the Classic period (corresponding to Monte Alban II), there were numerous temples there and, as at Monte Albán, a court for the ritual ball game.

El TajÍn and the Gulf Coast Region

About three hundred kilometers east of Teotihuacan lies the lush, humid Gulf of Mexico region, home of numerous archaeological sites. The most important of these is El Tajín, dating from around 100 bce and continuing through the Classic period and into the early Postclassic. El Tajín continued to be occupied, by the Totonac, on a small scale for a few centuries after this. Although this rich region is called Totonacapan, the Totonac, for whom it was named, were a late group; the modern inhabitants are still Totonac. El Tajín was built by the Maya-related Huastec people. It may be that the baroque flavor in El Tajín art derives from a Maya heritage, but probably this reflects the natural environment with its lush vegetation. Tajín means "lightning," "hurricane," "thunder" and names these forces. Like the Zapotec, the Totonac believed that lightning brings rain, but near the Gulf of Mexico the rain often comes in the form of hurricanes, for this is a region of violent winds and precipitation. Thus, Tajín and the god Huracán are often seen as one, the god of tropical storms, who, like the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, can be both beneficial and destructive.

Religion at El Tajín followed the typical Mesoamerican pattern of temple-pyramids, formal priesthood, a pantheon of gods, ritual calendar, pilgrimages to its center district, periodic festivities, sacrifice and bloodletting, and other traits already mentioned. But El Tajín and the Gulf Coast region exemplify certain distinct characteristics not found elsewhere. For example, the main pyramid at El Tajín is lavishly decorated with niches, which is typical of this site and of nearby Yohualichan ("house of night") in southern Puebla. The ball court, although common in Mesoamerica, occupies a primary importance in El Tajín, where there are ten (Wilkerson, 1980, p. 219). Their wall panels are decorated with spectacular scenes of ritual and sacrifice.

El Tajín became the major religious and administrative center of the region in the first few centuries of the current era. El Tajín's peak, in size, population, wealth, and religious importance, was between 600 and 900 ce, toward the end of the Classic period. This great city has been partially excavated by Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia. Its most spectacular building is the Pyramid of the Niches, dedicated to rain and wind gods, whose 365 niches are thought to be related to the solar calendar. Originally the pyramid's facade was painted in various colors, mainly red, the color of life and also of death. A xicalcoliuhqui, a fret in stone mosaic, decorates the balustrades on either side of the pyramid's stairway. The xicalcoliuhqui, popular in ancient Mexican sites, especially Mitla, but probably of Maya origin, may be symbolic of serpents of rain and wind. Originally, grotesque wind-rain serpents framed the panels of ritual scenes at the top of the temple.

The ball-game cult

Typical of the Gulf area is the yugo-hacha-palma-candado (Span., "yoke-ax-palm-padlock") complex, consisting of objects sculptured similar to these forms. The elements of this complex seem to form part of the ritual ball game. In the Maya zone, players are depicted wearing padded waist protectors formed like yokes, and figures are often seen wearing palmas in their belts. S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson (1980, p. 219) states that at El Tajín the paraphernalia of the ball game became cult objects when carved in stone, and that stone copies of the wooden waist protectors, or yokes, were symbols of the jaws of the earth, into which the wearer descended after death. In El Tajín and probably all over Mesoamerica the ball game was a ritual act and concluded with one of the players, usually impersonating a god, being decapitated. Burials in the Veracruz region were frequently accompanied by elaborately carved stone yokes and other ball-game symbols. The ball-game cult started in the Preclassic, probably among the Olmec. The Gulf area was the home of rubber and the cult most likely originated here and then spread out to other regions, diffused by traders who took cacao and rubber (as well as their ideology) from the lowlands to the highlands. Both the cacao tree and ballplayers are represented in murals at Teotihuacan. In the Maya region, some Classic period ball-court markers were associated with symbols of the sun, water, and vegetation. The purpose of the sacrifice of a player at the end of the game, as seen on El Tajín reliefs, was the rejuvenation of agricultural and solar fertility, the cycle of death and rebirth in nature (Pasztory, 1978, p. 139). The stone reliefs at El Tajín portray ballplayers, rites to the rain god and to a deity of pulque, autosacrifice from genitals, decapitation of a ballplayer and his descent into the underworld, and sacrifice by extraction of the heart (Kampen, 1972).

Smiling figures and divine women

Among the ritual manifestations of the Classic period of the Gulf area are the "smiling figures" from Remojadas and El Zapotal, murals from Higueras, and lifesize terracotta sculptures of cihuateteo ("divine women"). El Zapotal, located in southern Veracruz near the Olmec site of Cerro de las Mesas, had its florescent period from 500 to 800 ce. Unlike the Zapotec and Mixtec, who had a cult to the dead, this Totonac culture apparently maintained a cult to death itself. In a major temple at El Zapotal there is an altar 1.6 meters high with a seated terracotta figure of the death god. His skeletal form is surrounded by skulls. Equally dramatic are the monumental clay figures called by the Postclassic term cihuateteo. Colonial chronicles identify the cihuateteo as women who died in childbirth and who then were deified, joining dead warriors in the task of helping the sun cross the sky. They were considered warriors because they lost their lives while taking a "prisoner," that is, the child. These striking figures wear skirts fastened by large serpent belts and carry trophy-head staffs in one hand. Each woman seems to be covered with a flayed skin, which might indicate a cult to a female vegetation deity (Gutiérrez Solana and Hamilton, 1977, p. 146). The presence of the serpent around the waist may refer, however, to a Serpent Woman who was, in Postclassic times, a goddess (the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl) associated with war, sacrifice, and political power. Among the other deities represented in the monumental El Zapotal sculptures are male gods of rain, an old fire godwhose presence shows Teotihuacan influenceand a flayed god. Skeletal remains at this site, found in burials where offerings of terracotta sculptures were placed, reveal decapitation and dismemberment on a vast scale, probably as a result of sacrifice. Next to one rich offering of sculpture was an ossarium containing eighty-two skulls, many of them women's. The female skulls may indicate a death-fertility cult because, in a later period, sacrifice by decapitation represented the harvesting of first fruits, especially the cutting of an ear of corn. At El Zapotal, yokes, axes, and smiling figures have also been found, although the latter are more typical of Remojadas, a site north of El Zapotal noted for its splendid clay sculpture. The smiling figures are just that: their mouths are open in broad smiles, their legs are apart in an attitude of dancing, their arms flung wide. These have been interpreted as representations of a cognate of Xochipilli, the Aztec god of song and dance, but it is possible that they portray surrogates of the gods, drugged as they go to their sacrifice. The colonial chronicler Durán described the pre-Hispanic custom of giving these god-representatives drinks containing hallucinogens so they would laugh, dance, and fling out their arms on the way to the sacrificial knife. If they were not "happy" this was considered a bad omen.

Las Higueras is a late Classic Totonac site (600800 ce), with outstanding mural paintings. Represented here are the ever-present Huracán, shown supine at the bottom of the sea, surrounded by sharks; water or "flood" gods, pouring liquid over the land; a female moon; the sun; and a crocodilian earth god. Priests with incense bags, a temple, and ball courts are also represented (Arellanos et al., 1975, pp. 309312).

See Also

Caves; Maya Religion.


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