Teotihuacán was a civilization that became crucial to the development in Mexico. People not only built the Pyramid of the Sun – which you may have long dreamed of after you started planning your trip to Mexico – but established two thousand years ago a vast empire with the largest capital of America before the Spanish conquest. 100,000-200,000 inhabitants have lived here.
Although Teotihuacán was one of the most powerful Indian civilizations, scholars still know relatively little about it. Archaeologists can observe that the 8,5 sq mi city has been built up with several ‘immigrant quarters’ – residents from distant tribes – built around the main axis we look at.
And that Teotihuacáns commercial and artistic influence – not to mention its political power – stretched far. In the years 300-500, Teotihuacán was the capital of the probably largest empire in the history of Mesoamerican cultures.
Today we see ruins of an abandoned city where nature took over and locals removed lots of rocks.
But we – meaning archaeologists – can get further information about Teotihuacán as we head as far away as Tikal, Maya cultures probably largest city in what is now Guatemala, 600 miles away in bee line. So far the influence of Teotihuacán stretched. Inscriptions there say that the day that corresponds to January 16, 378, King Chak Tok Ich’ak died, that Siyah K’ak came to the city and let Nun Yax Ayin install as King, and that the visiting Siyah K’ak was son of him who is called Spearthrower Owl.
Oh, you probably think, finally a name we can understand and remember!
Spearthrower Owl – perhaps he was called Atlatl Cauac and was ruler here in Teotihuacán, but the aforementioned throne shift was thus in the distant Tikal; Tikals newly crowned King Nun Yax Ayin is also called Curl Snout. His name is also easy to remember!
This prehistory Aztecs knew nothing about. The Aztecs never met Teotihuacans. Teotihuacán had been abandoned around the year 700, that was five hundred years before those we call Aztecs got in motion up north. This long void I mention, because many – and so do Mexicans, if it can be a consolation – are convinced that it was the Aztecs who built the Pyramid of the Sun. They didn’t, but many of the names here are due to the Aztecs, or the Aztec worldview, which so to speak has been laid down over Teotihuacán.
During the Aztec search of their future opportunities, they found an area north of the Lake Texcoco with huge, overgrown buildings. The sent scouts must have reported that they must have found The Place Where Men Become God or The Place Where Gods Are Born, as the Aztec name Teotihuacán can be translated. The Aztecs believed that the gods originally had met exactly here and planned the creation of the sun, moon and people, as they told in the myths:
Nobody knows how the gods originated and where they originated. Just as much is certain, there is a place where – when the dark night existed – all gods gathered and counciled who should take on the heavy burden of the government and who should be sun. And when the sun had taken its place, all other died as the sun was nourished by their blood, and nobody – of those who had not already died – survived, as already said.
A narrative of the gods meeting, of life, sun and death – but noted by a Spaniard after the Aztecs were conquered and long time after the Teotihuacáns had disappeared.
Teotihuacán is thought constructed not later then 100 years BCE as a new and safe city after the volcano Xitle had destroyed Cuicuilco, a civilization south of Lake Texcoco.
For centuries, Cuicuilco, with its unusual round pyramid, had been the important religious center in the Mexico Valley, and also that urban community had had trade relations with the Olmecs at the coast. As the Xitle volcano rumbled, the evacuation was necessary, and Teotihuacán was planned on the northern side of the lakes. The volcanos heavy roars and deadly eruptions came after some smaller eruptions. Today, the remains of Cuicuilco lie under Mexico City, approximately where Estadio Azteca, the huge footballstadium for 100,000 spectators, is constructed.
Back to Teotihuacán. The area north of Lake Texcoco was fertile and gave access to various kind of food from the valleys between volcanoes and the sharp obsidian from the volcanoes, so trade there has been immediate. In this rich area, in a relatively flat area, Teotihuacán was established as a religious center with a large marketplace.
The buildingarea falls faintly from north to south and was intersected by a river with sidechannels which was used for transportation. The Teotihuácans laid drainage pipes under the pavement of the enormous paradestreet, Avenue of the Dead – as the Aztec designation can be translated – so the citys nobility could stroll with dry feet. The drainage system works today, two millennia after construction: half an hour after a violent summer rinse, the water has gone and now it is us who can walk in dry!
The city was planned, the ideas were great, built according to a great plan, I say, but the construction of temples, platforms, palaces and homes took hundreds of years and new plans were put in place, adds archaeologists. There is no evidence that a small center grew organically larger.
Archaeologists have not found traces of a citywall or similar defenses; the rulers have obviously not found those necessary.
I think that is important!
Totally peaceful, however, life has hardly been. Eagle- and coyotewarriors were reproduced on murals and in clay figurines.
Around the year 550 the city was set on fire. Probably it happened as a result of violent struggles for power, but the city was rebuilt.
A few hundred years later, upper-class quarters along the Avenue of the Dead were systematically destroyed, but not the temples, and that is interpreted as results of an internal rebellion against the rulers.
Then the city was abandoned, the civilization collapsed and nature took over and blurred the remains of the city.
In early 20th century, the Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres dug systematically here. The countrys long-standing dictator Porfirio Diaz wanted to mark the centenary of the demands for Mexicos independence by investing large sums in the ancient memory outside the capital.
In 1986, Teotihuacán became UNESCO World Heritage.
Neither in Teotihuacán they had draught animals to tow stones to the construction sites and there was no hard metal to cut the stones. It sounds incredible, but reality was that the construction workers only had their own musclepower and stones – including the volcanic obsidian of which there is a lot here – to work on the volcanic buildingblocks; obsidian is glass-sharp and has a hardness of 5-5.5 on the Mohs scale.
Pyramid of the Moon, dominating the northern end of the wide avenue, is the oldest of Teotihuacán and was began more than 2,000 years ago. It is the areas second largest pyramid:140 ft high and the ground floor measures 400 x 500 ft. The pyramid has been built five times; one did not tear down the old pyramid, but built a new one by laying a layer on the outside. Thus, the older versions can be found under the younger ones and tell about the development.
In 2008, archaeologists found a decorated tomb in the pyramid; the tomb contained bones from a wolf, a jaguar, a puma, a serpent, a bird and from a single human and more than 400 objects: green stones, obsidian figures, knives and arrowheads. In another tomb, archaeologists have found remnants of four humans with Mayan DNA, animal bones and obsidian objects. Despite the name, archaeologists are convinced that not the moon – but water – has been worshipped in a temple at the top of the pyramid.
The great water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue – She of the Jade Skirt can her name be translated – stood in front of the pyramid. Today, the 14 ft tall and 22-ton heavy godfigure, carved out of a single lavablock, stands in the Teotihuacán Hall in the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. It is the only really large sculpture found here in Teotihuacán, why she is interpreted as particularly significant. From the decorations at the bottom of her skirt, archaeologists believe that it was water from below, that is, purling spring water that was worshipped at her.
The goddess is also called Great Goddess and Teotihuacán Spider Woman; in a palace that today is called Tepantitla in Teotihuacán, a mural with two praying is uncovered, and in the middle of the picture there is a spider – symbol of the night – declining from what is interpreted as the tree of life to the luxurious, green mainfigure with a huge plumage and the owls features.
As part of the puzzle archaeology is, the finds have given reasons to speculations of the existence of a matriarch, or at least a society with matriarchal traits – because the greatest deity is a goddess. Chalchiuhtlicue is attributed to both youthful beauty, fertility and creativity, but is also considered the goddess of the underworld.
The mentioned painting is just one of several murals found in Teotihuacán with motifs that must be interpreted as religious. I will also show you a painting with a musicplaying jaguar, one with green birds and flowers as well as a stupendous puma – painted about two thousand years ago.
Over there we have the Pyramid of the Sun. Also there archaeologists are convinced that the name sends a wrong signal. Not the sun but water – again! – has been worshipped, and it was water from above, that is rain, archaeologists believe: The rain that falls tremendously in connection with the summers frontclashes, lightning, rumble and crash. At each of the four corners of the four pyramidlandings, archaeologists have found a jar of clay with remains of a child. A jar that is smashed can sound like thunder and thus predict the blessed rain that is the prerequisite for life. 16 children have had to let their lives so that others could believe they could live on.
Under the pyramid there is a cave, and there a spring spurts, which may have been the cause that the pyramid was built precisely there, asymmetrically in relation to the groundplan, and that the mighty Teotihuacán was established right here. Initially it was water from below that was worshippted, but once the sacred city might have changed character, so water from above was worshipped in the most sacred temple on top of the Pyramid of the Sun. It may have happened in connection with the weakening of the matriarchal features.
Pyramid of the Sun is 236 ft high – 245 steps lead up to the platform – and the sides measures 730 ft, which has required 35 million cubic ft stone, clay and rubble. Thus, Pyramid of the Sun is the largest in Teotihuacán; the peak reaches the same height above the sea as the Pyramid of the Moon, since that is built at a higher point. Pyramid of the Sun is Americas second largest pyramidmass only surpassed by the pyramid of Cholula in the state of Puebla.
Archaeologists can observe that the Pyramid of the Sun was built at one time around the year 100 – no reconstructing – and they assume that 10,000 people spent 10 years completing it.
In 2011 archaeologists dug a tunnel into the center of the Pyramid of the Sun and found a stonemask, pots and animal bones that may have been part of the initiation ceremony 1900 years ago.
Pebbles that frame larger stones are the way of archaeologists to clarify their reconstructions: We thus get a hole picture but also a mark of what is original and what archaeologists have reconstructed from their ideas.
However, the overall picture of the city lacks something essential: all major buildings in Teotihuacán are thought to have been covered by stucco, a mortar mix made of burnt limestone. These surfaces have fallen as a result of the forces of nature. Thus, we also cannot see that the buildings had been painted bright red, black and green – colors made of mineral substances. The citys large, colored walls must have been a mighty sight.
Common to many buildings are the long sloping panels on both sides of the stairs; archaeologists call them talud. On a ladder we would call them sidepieces, but pyramids are not ladders but foundations of temples at the top, but these have disappeared. The horizontal panels that are slightly drawn into the building, so that they were protected, are called tablero. These building elements from Teotihuacán are found in constructions of other Mesoamerican civilizations.
QUETZALCOATL-TEMPLE AND A PAIR OF GODS
Two pyramids for two different kinds of water! But the rain god itself we will first face in the Citadel, the designation is Spanish. We walk down the Avenue of the Dead, which runs in the north-south direction, although not exactly N-S, but a little displaced, which archaeologists have discussed the importance of.
The Quetzalcoatl Temple is the third largest pyramid in Teotihuacán. In the 1980s, archaeologists found remains of more than two hundred people who might have been sacrificed.
In 2003, even greater discoveries began. After a terrible rainfall, a huge hole arose in the square in front of the temple. In the following decade archaeologists have excavated a shaft that goes 40 ft deep and continues in a 300 ft long tunnel under the temple, which may have been part of a rulertomb, for the tunnel runs to three rooms 50 ft below the Quetzalcoatl pyramid. Archaeologists have exposed paintings and found 75,000 offerings in the form of jadefigures, ceramics and arrowheads, 15 rubber balls and textiles, lots of seeds and bones from large felines, pearls and large conch shells, as well as strikingly much mineral pyrite and fluid mercury. This archaeological treasure has probably been untouched by humans for 1800 years.
A tunnel under a temple can be interpreted as the path to the most holy, where one can come in touch with the gods or have been in contact with them – after which the tunnel has been closed and sealed.
The many figures can be local but the conchshells must have been transported from the sea. The small marbles of sulfur on the walls are interpreted as fools gold, which must have glittered in light from torches, while the mercury remains a mystery to the archaeologists.
Since archaeologists have not previously found earthly remnants of the Teotihuacán ruling class, they hope to find them here; yet it has not happened. However, at the large green-stone sculptures – three women and one male – they have found skin remnants that may originate from humans.
The first Quetzalcoatl temple I speak of is the inner, a temple that was covered by a newer and larger one. Although I call the first temple the older it is not the oldest, archaeologists can now see after the discovery of the shaft, the tunnel and the tomb.
As we can see, the older temple is decorated with two kinds of masks that are repeatedly rendered in shifts. Magical and overwhelmingly stunning stonework done in volcanic rock using the hard obsidian.
The rain god Tlaloc – with its two large round eyes and the tooth row, perhaps inspired by corn cobs, perhaps by the teeth of the jaguar – must have been a brother or a married to the water-goddess Chalchiuhtlicue.
Tlaloc was also the dreaded raingod because he could send hail and lightning. The sound of thunder reminded the people of the jaguars roars. Some scholars assume that him we call the raingod Tlaloc was identical to Teotihuacáns Stormgod.
Worship of water in its various forms is probably something of the oldest and most widespread in Mexico. In some Aztec myths, four Tlalocs are mentioned, who from four worlddirections could bear the sky.
The largest Tlaloc we know is today placed outside the Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. The unfinished figure is Americas largest monolith and is carved of volcanic stone (the same as the Watergoddess) fifteen hundred years ago. Archaeological the stone was registered in 1882. It is thought to weigh more than 170 tonnes and was in relation to the museums inauguration in 1964 brought from San Miguel Coatlinchán, approx. 20 miles east of its current location. The figure was transported via Zócalo in the center of Mexico City on April 16, that’s during the dry season. But suddenly the torrential rain fell!
About the watergods are told a myth in the History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings – and don’t forget the remains of claypots with traces of children that archaeologists have found on the the Pyramid of the Sun:
To create the god and goddess of water, all the four divinities joined themselves together, and made Tlaloc and his wife Chalchiutlique, whom they assigned to be the gods of water, to whom they betook themselves in prayer whenever it was needful.
Of this god of water it was said that he had his dwelling of four apartments, in the middle of which was a large courtyard, where stood four large earthen pans full of water. In one of these pans the water was excellent, and from it the rain fell which nourished all manner of corn and seeds and grain, and which ripened things in good season; from the second rained bad water from which fell cobwebs on the crops, and blight and mildew ensued; from another fell ice and sleet; when from the fourth rain fell nothing matured or dried.
This god of rain water created many servants, small of body, who were in the rooms of the aforesaid house, and they held money boxes, in which they caught the water from the great earthen pans, and various rods in the other hand; and when the god of water sent them to irrigate any especial places, they started off with their boxes and sticks, and let fall the water where they were directed, and when it thunders the noise is caused by their striking the boxes with their rods, and when it lightens it comes from within these boxes.
The other mask in the Quetzalcoatl-temple between the rain gods depicts Quetzalcoatl. The name can be translated into The Feathered Serpent, and it’s based on quetzal, the most amazing bird in the New World. Males are equipped with a very long green feathertail that gives it a serpent-like movement as it flies between the trees of the rainforest, and which it actually loses annually, but it gets a new one. Coatl means serpent.
Quetzalcoatl I will often refer to, for that god got a crucial meaning for the Aztecs final. Here in the temple the god is represented by the mask with the wreath of feathers; the mask is almost a serpent with human traits. A humanization of the great god is thus on its way.
Quetzalcoatl was a god of creation. Centuries later, the Aztecs adopted both Quetzalcoatl but also other gods with the common name Tezcatlipoca as creator gods. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were often presented as opponents.
Quetzalcoatl was also god of winds – the wind intonates as thunder the decisive rain, but the same is star Venus said to do. So Quetzalcoatl is associated with this star, which here did not have the erotic sides which it is assigned in the European context; in Central America, Venus triggered fear! And Venus could be seen both as morning and evening star. Quetzalcoatl was also the god of handicraft and science plus other subjects.
In Teotihuacán, Quetzalcoatl had significance about two thousand years ago. But a thousand years earlier, Quetzalcoatl can be traced at the Olmecs. And a thousand years later, Quetzalcoatl appeared as the good ruler in Tula. When he was expelled from there, Quetzalcoatl promised – or threatened – to return. The myth lived at the Aztecs and five hundred years ago it was involved in Hernán Cortés conquest of Mexico – but now I am too far in history!
Xipe-Totec was worshipped in Teotihuacán as the god of spring, actually as god of agriculture who protected the new seed germination. More profound, Xipe-Totec was god of life and death, ie. rebirth. The god could peel off his skin to give life to humans, which was just as natural as a serpent shifts slough and a corn cob throws its outer leaves, after which grains can fall to the ground and continue the corns cycle.
The worship of Xipe-Totec survived among Zapotecs at the Pacific Ocean, reaching from there in the 15th century to the Aztecs, who then peeled the skin of humans and used it as a garment for priests of the god, writes German religionscholar and philologist Günter Lanczkowski.
Huehueteotl, the name means Old God, and he was worshipped as the god of fire.
These have been the most important gods in Teotihuacán, although the names mentioned have hardly been used at that time.
(pp. 132-144 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
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