A life-size figure with skin flayed and liver hanging out sounds alarming, but there is a disarming charm to Mictlantecuhtli. So cute, let’s call him Mickey.
The sculpture represents the Aztec god of death who periodically was bathed in the blood of human sacrifices. But his well manicured hands appear to be politely gesturing “pardon me,” and his smile possesses almost a Mona Lisa-like serenity. And, what a survivor. He was buried in downtown Mexico City for more than 400 years.
Maybe it was the recent exposure to all of the Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons accompanied by traditions designed to encourage the departed to return to earth to their loved ones that made the god of death less terrifying. Plus, I imagine he would be more menacing if I were a perspective blood donor of his bath water.
The destruction of Aztec temples under the order of Hernan Cortes in 1524 was no secret, and, in fact, the reuse of some of their stones for the construction of the Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was a major public relations maneuver demonstrating the might of the Spanish conquistadors. But for centuries, the remains of the city of Tenochtitlan and its Templo Mayor were kept buried below the development of the cosmopolitan city above. Archaeologists poking about and stumbling across remnants of the Aztec civilization were discouraged from their pursuits.
In 1978, electrical company workers digging a little deeper stumbled upon a circular monolith more than 10 feet across. The intact relief of Coyolxauhqui, the daughter of a maternal earth goddess and Mixcoatl, a god of the hunt, war and the Milky Way. Coyolxauhqui plotted against her mother, so a younger sibling, Huitzilopochtli, chopped off her head and limbs. Her depiction in stone shows her severed limbs all akimbo around her torso.
Her brother’s revenge extended to his brothers, all 400 of them. Eliminating much of the competition, Huitzilopochtli emerged to assume a role as a deity of war and the sun. He was the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan, and appeasing him required frequent refueling from human sacrifices, accounting for many of the human skulls found on site.
The twin sanctuaries of the Templo Mayor were dedicated to his worship and that of Tlaloc, the rain god, “he who makes things sprout.” While rain god sounds peaceful, a provoked Tlaloc could cause drought, floods, hurricanes and illnesses. Although he kindly bestowed life in paradise to those who drown or were struck by lightning, Tlaloc, too, needed sacrifices to encourage him to provide the right amount of rain needed for crops.
Skulls of human sacrifices or entombed nobles were abundant on the site.
8-foot tall spiral roof ornaments representing snails associated with the rain god Tlaloc adorned the roof of calmecac, the school for children of nobility.
Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess of the Mexicas
chacmool, the name assigned to reclining figures with heads facing at 90-degree angles and containers on their stomachs for offerings (such as human hearts), found at the Templo Mayor
Miclantecuhtli, the god of death, who once stood inside the House of the Eagles
Toltec mask indicating contact with other cultures
eagle warrior on left; Miclantecutli on right
bench decorated with warriors in feathered regalia in the House of the Eagles
stone warriers once guarding Templo Mayor now “stand at ease,” leaning against one of its staircases
one of several serpents guarding the Templo Mayor
Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess of the Mexicas
tzompantli, rows of stone sculptures of skulls
eagle with a receptacle in its body, possibly for the hearts of sacrificial victims
Back to 1978, weighing in at about eight tons the monolithic Coyolxauhqui proved hard to ignore. Excavation around her revealed a rich minefield of artifacts in amazingly good condition. Numerous buildings near the Cathedral were demolished to provide accessibility, and archaeologists soon discovered the Templo Mayor consisted of pyramids built upon pyramids by successive Aztec rulers over a period of about 150 years.
Designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the Museum of the Templo Mayor opened adjacent to the site in 1987 to display some of the more than 7,000 objects unearthed during the archaeological explorations.
The main ruins of Tenochtitlan cover close to seven city blocks, much of which has not been excavated. Often emerging from adversity, opportunities for additional digs still arise. In the 1990s, work to halt the sinking of the Cathedral as the city’s water table dropped led to numerous finds beneath its floor. More than 20 years after the deadly 1985 earthquake, a damaged building was demolished to reveal the ruins of the Calmecac, the elite school of the Aztec nobility.
Near the museum foyer lies a 12-ton monolith representing Tlaltecuhtli, the earth goddess. This massive 12 x 13-foot relief was not discovered until 2006 on the grounds of an estate on the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets. As with many of the Aztec deities, she possessed a split personality. Her name means “the one who gives and devours life.” She demanded many human hearts and much blood to keep her in a positive life-giving mood.
The excavation of Tenochtitlan and the adjacent museum provide an incredible opportunity to view relics from the Aztec civilization from one site all grouped together. Its location downtown by the Zocalo offers an understanding of the development of Mexico City from the 1300s, to the conquest and the construction of the Cathedral, to the growth of the surrounding aristocratic neighborhood during the Diaz years and finally into a bustling contemporary city, home to more than 20 million inhabitants.
Pardon us, Mickey and crew. Please look kindly upon us mortals pausing to stare. Surely you appreciate your liberation after centuries underground. And the contemporary temple of a museum reverently sheltering you now is quite palatial.