Making a foundational contribution to Mesoamerican studies, this book explores Aztec painted manuscripts and sculptures, as well as indigenous and colonial Spanish texts, to offer the first integrated study of food and ritual in Aztec art.
Series: Latin American and Caribbean Arts and Culture publication initiative
Aztec painted manuscripts and sculptural works, as well as indigenous and Spanish sixteenth-century texts, were filled with images of foodstuffs and food processing and consumption. Both gods and humans were depicted feasting, and food and eating clearly played a pervasive, integral role in Aztec rituals. Basic foods were transformed into sacred elements within particular rituals, while food in turn gave meaning to the ritual performance.
This pioneering book offers the first integrated study of food and ritual in Aztec art. Elizabeth Morán asserts that while feasting and consumption are often seen as a secondary aspect of ritual performance, a close examination of images of food rites in Aztec ceremonies demonstrates that the presence—or, in some cases, the absence—of food in the rituals gave them significance. She traces the ritual use of food from the beginning of Aztec mythic history through contact with Europeans, demonstrating how food and ritual activity, the everyday and the sacred, blended in ceremonies that ranged from observances of births, marriages, and deaths to sacrificial offerings of human hearts and blood to feed the gods and maintain the cosmic order. Morán also briefly considers continuities in the use of pre-Hispanic foods in the daily life and ritual practices of contemporary Mexico. Bringing together two domains that have previously been studied in isolation, Sacred Consumption promises to be a foundational work in Mesoamerican studies.
- Chapter 1. Ceremonial Consumption in Everyday Life
- Chapter 2. Food in Aztec Public Ritual
- Chapter 3. Aztec Myths, Cosmovision, and Food
- Chapter 4. Food and Ritual after the Conquest
- Epilogue. Some Final Thoughts on Food
The people popularly known as the Aztecs are often introduced and discussed from the point of their contact and eventual conquest by Europeans in the sixteenth century. The Aztec story seems to run backward in history, starting with their “end” rather than their beginning. But this common narrative is neither the end nor the beginning; it is simply one version of the history of these people. The Aztec culture was one of many cultures that existed in the Americas. From Alaska to the Caribbean and South America, Amerindian populations existed with various forms of political order, population size, and religious concepts. The Aztecs are part of Mesoamerican cultures that extend from modern-day Mexico to various southern areas, including Honduras and Belize. Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec, Zapotec, and Maya peoples shared similar religious ideologies based on nature and the universe, such as analogous similar constructions of creation accounts and deities. These people also created monumental art and architecture to communicate their ideologies and developed similar cultural characteristics, like the use of calendars and ritual sacrifice.
The Aztecs were relative latecomers to the long history of Mesoamerican peoples. Their migration accounts suggest that they came from a place called Aztlan in the twelfth century, founded the settlements of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco in the Central Basin of Mexico around 1325, and became partners with the cities of Tetzcoco and Tlacopan to establish the Triple Alliance in the 1430s. The Aztecs were in fact divided into various groups who spoke the same language, Nahuatl, including the Mexicas. Scholars often refer to the group that founded the settlements at Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco as “Mexica,” a name that they assumed during the migration.2 Elizabeth Hill Boone comments that these stories of the Aztec rise to power in the Basin of Central Mexico should be read as ritual drama that was reenacted and communicated through their pictorial manuscripts. Rather than taking these accounts as either historical or mythical narratives, she suggests that we might want to view them as the way in which the Aztecs chose to transform themselves from one location/identity to a different space and identity: from Aztlan to Tenochtitlan, from Mexicas to Aztecs.
The Aztecs reached their ascendancy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before the Spanish conquest of 1521. At that time, the population in Tenochtitlan was believed to be about 200,000 people, with a basin-wide population between 1 million and 2.65 million.4 While we use the term “empire” for the Aztecs’ imperial organization, scholars like Michael Smith have noted that they were not like other empires, whose armies and ruling class interfered greatly in conquered areas. Rather, as long as the conquered provinces continued to pay their tributes, Aztec emperors were content to leave them alone. Other scholars have noted that even in the case of deities the Aztecs preferred to assimilate elements in a syncretic manner, integrating gods from diverse sources.
In fact, it is clear from Aztec art that they also assimilated elements from earlier cultures: skeletons, warrior images, feathered serpents, and chacmools (reclining sculptures of a fallen warrior used as receptacles for sacrificial offerings) were all derived from earlier cultures like the Huastecs, Toltecs, and the people who settled sites such as Cacaxtla and Xochicalco. Their visual culture encompassed sculptural forms from a broad range of materials that included stone and wood but also more perishable materials such as paper, resin, and dough. Even with the massive destruction of war during European contact and systematic destruction of religious and cultural materials during the colonial period, the Aztecs left behind a wealth of artworks. Every few years there is a blockbuster exhibition at a museum featuring Aztec art. Numerous artistic traditions like featherwork and manuscript painting continued into the colonial period. Additionally, many Aztec cultural traditions continue into the modern era. Many scholars have noted the use of maize and paper in contemporary ritual culture.
Sacred Consumption: Food and Ritual in Aztec Art and Culture
This manuscript is about the ritual use and meaning of food in Aztec culture. Food and eating are part of daily existence. They also play important roles within a society: they commemorate significant events and give meaning to social and religious activities. Integral to a society on many levels, food is often a cultural reflection, mirroring what is significant to a particular group.
The Aztecs depicted eating and foodstuffs in an array of artistic mediums. They painted images of people preparing, transporting, and storing foods as well as the foods themselves. Many of these images come from postconquest sixteenth-century manuscripts such as the Spanish friar Bernardino de Sahagún’s General History of the Things of New Spain, also referred to as the Florentine Codex. Aztec artists rendered fish, birds, and other animals as well as plants and vegetables in stone, wood, clay, and paint. They also created stone and clay images of deities that were connected to foods, such as sculptures of maize deities. Food was sometimes used in Aztec ceremonies to create images of deities. Beans, squash, amaranth, and maize dough were shaped into the likeness of a god or goddess. There are also countless images of teeth and open mouths, which are sometimes devouring, as seen in canonical works like the Sun Stone and representations that include the earth lord Tlatecuhtli (figs. 0.1 and 0.2).
Food was an integral part not only of the Aztecs’ daily subsistence but of the ways in which they viewed their larger world. Among other subjects, comprehensive sixteenth-century works by Sahagún and his Dominican contemporary Diego Durán document ceremonial practices that included the use of foods. It is no surprise that the foods used in those religious rituals were staple items such as maize and beans. The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto writes: “Staples are almost always sacred, because people depend on them: they possess divine power. The fact that staples in their turn usually depend on people for cultivation does not seem to compromise their sacred status.” This is particularly true of the Aztecs’ main staple, maize, which needs human intervention for its cultivation. Yet it was also one of the most widely used foods in Aztec ritual.
The aim of this book is to analyze how these basic foods were transformed into sacred elements within particular Aztec rituals and how food in turn gave meaning to the rituals performed. Although feasting and consumption are often seen as a secondary aspect of ritual performance, a close examination of food rites in Aztec ceremonies demonstrates that rituals were in fact significant because food was present or in some cases significantly absent. In comparing textual and pictorial sources, it becomes evident: for the Aztecs, not only were foods transformed in ritual performances through a physical or symbolic metamorphosis but the rituals themselves were transformative because of the use of food.
Food takes on a supernatural role in Aztec mythology by being the catalyst for cosmic change. For example, one myth in the anonymous Legend of the Suns recounts how each cosmic age began and ended in connection with the eating of specific foods or the conversion of humans into foodstuffs. Deities are transformed into food in some myths. For example, the god Xolotl (Dog or Twin) tries to escape Death by transforming himself into three different foods: maize, maguey, and a salamander. In another story, the creation of the world and everything in it, including food items necessary for the continuation of life, comes about through the transformation of the remains of a dead (or sacrificed) creature. In the “Historye du Mechique,” the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca tear apart the body of a large crocodilian creature, a symbol of the earth itself. From her body came the heavens, the earth, and all its bounty.
While these cosmic transformations relegate food to a supernatural realm, changes in food are also part of a natural process. The cycle of a maize seed growing into a plant, which in turn is harvested and prepared in various ways, is a powerful example of a food’s transformation from one state to another. Rituals performed in Aztec agricultural ceremonies often paralleled the natural metamorphosis of food. In the agricultural ceremony called Hueytecuihuitl (Great Feast Day of the Lords), in honor of the young maize goddess Xilonen, tortillas of green maize and cooked amaranth greens were eaten. This communal meal was fitting for a celebration of the young fertility goddess, whose domain included the young and tender stages of maize and other plants.
To explore the role of food in Aztec life, I rely on primary sources that encompass indigenous and Spanish sixteenth-century accounts as well as the wealth of remaining Aztec artworks. Whereas eating and rituals have been scrutinized independently (the former primarily by anthropologists and the latter by religious specialists), my project on food and ritual in Aztec art is the first integrated study by an art historian. Recent studies have treated the ritual dimensions of Aztec social life, but none has dealt specifically with eating and ritual. Much extant information on the Aztecs depends on visual culture, particularly painted manuscript images and an enormous corpus of sculptural works, so it is crucial to incorporate them into the ongoing dialogue on Aztec ritual practices. Most importantly, my study explores the everyday and ritual as intertwined aspects of life, a point of view that is more in keeping with Aztec philosophy. The acts of eating and the various rituals performed by the Aztecs were not relegated to separate realms; instead these sacred acts were allied with everyday life. Women, for example, performed daily rituals in the home that mimicked those performed by priests and priestesses in the temples and at shrines.
A Note on Sources
My project employs an interdisciplinary approach, utilizing research on food, religion, and ritual from anthropology, archaeology, and religious studies in addition to art history. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary because only this kind of cross-cultural investigation allows a multilayered understanding of both eating and religious ritual in Aztec thought and culture. In gathering sources, my project uses what Davíd Carrasco calls an “ensemble approach,” integrating a variety of sources and types of evidence such as pictorial manuscripts, colonial texts, sculpture, ceramics, and other forms of art.20 When played or experienced together, these form a fuller picture of the key role of consumption in Aztec ritual.
The Aztecs were prolific artists who created food imagery in many mediums. My manuscript includes a discussion of objects that are now in many museums across the United States and Mexico. I also make use of figural works, including deity statues and monumental sculptural art, such as the Sun Stone, many of which were found in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, as well as smaller pieces that are now on display at museums such as El Museo Nacional de Antropología and the Templo Mayor Museum, both in Mexico City.
Fundamental to my project are copies of sixteenth-century pictorial manuscripts that illustrate Aztec deities, religion, and ritual. Foremost among these manuscripts is the Codex Borbonicus, which contains detailed images of the eighteen agricultural and feasting ceremonies that the Aztecs staged yearly. Other painted manuscripts that are essential to the study of rituals are the Codex Magliabechiano and the Codex Telleriano-Remensis. Pictorials that illustrate and describe the Aztec migration such as the Codex Boturini and the Codex Azcatitlan are also relevant to this study. Manuscripts that give information about Aztec “daily” life, such as the Codex Mendoza, as well as the lavishly illustrated works of Fray Diego Durán and Fray Bernardino de Sahagún are also used in this study. While based on preconquest sources, the images in these volumes were created in the postconquest period by indigenous artists who blended visual components from both old and new worlds.
Primary Written Sources
Written texts for this project encompass primary accounts from indigenous, mestizo, and European writers, written mainly in the sixteenth century. They include works gathered by Spanish missionaries such as Sahagún and Durán as well as accounts by Sahagún’s fellow Franciscan, Fray Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía), the mestizo historian Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, who produced the Crónica mexicana in the sixteenth century, and others. In 1589 Tezozomoc wrote his history of the Aztecs and their kings from the fourteenthcentury to the arrival of the Spaniards. He was the great-grandson of the Mexica ruler Axayacatl (ruled 1469–1481) and grandson of Moctezuhma Xocoyotzin II (ruled 1502–1520).
Sahagún arrived in New Spain in 1529 (eight years after the conquest), learned Nahuatl, and with the assistance of Nahua elders, assistants, and artists compiled what is literally an encyclopedia of Aztec culture and religion. The Franciscan’s writings, as well as his collection of painted images, continue to allow scholars the opportunity to reinterpret Aztec culture and conduct an ongoing dialogue about Aztec religion and art. Diego Durán was brought to Mexico as a small child and lived in Tetzcoco after moving to New Spain. He had joined a Dominican monastery by the age of nineteen and, like Sahagún, took great interest in recording the history and customs of the indigenous population, although he often seems less sympathetic in his descriptions and writings. Arriving in Mexico in 1524 as one of the original “twelve” Franciscan missionaries, Toribio de Benavente (Motolinía) spent several years writing a history of New Spain, which he completed in February 1541. His writings on the rituals and customs of the Aztecs contain valuable information and add another rich layer of understanding to the works of Sahagún, Durán, and Alvarado Tezozomoc.
Although later than these works, the writings of the priest Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, completed in 1629, are helpful in examining the survival of food rituals after the conquest. Ruiz de Alarcón was born in Taxco, Guerrero, and served as a parish priest in the town of Atenango. He began compiling his Treatise on Superstitions as early as 1617. Although his work is not from the Basin of Mexico, it provides a valuable supplement and contrast to the earlier writings of Sahagún, Durán, and Motolinía. All of these postcontact works certainly reflect a European mind-set and recount events through a European lens, but they are essential in providing an eyewitness look into the indigenous and early colonial Aztec worlds.
Secondary Sources: Ritual
Sahagún, Durán, and Motolinía were some of the first Europeans to observe, describe, and examine Aztec ritual. Their writings have provided a solid foundation for later scholars. Earlier scholars of the Aztecs focused their work on the identification and classification of deities and rituals, with the emphasis on exploring the Aztec calendar and its relation to ritual. The Mexican archeologist and scholar Alfonso Caso’s El pueblo del sol and El calendario mexicano, for example, are still significant in their scope and breath. Shorter but just as significant for the foundation of ritual studies is ethnohistorian H. B. Nicholson’s “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico,” a seminal work on the many aspects of Aztec religion and ritual to which current scholars continue to refer. Also important are the investigations of anthropologists working in Mexico such as Alfredo López Austin, Miguel León-Portilla, Johanna Broda, and Doris Heyden, who have written at length on Mesoamerican rituals, cosmovision (worldview), and ideology.
More recently, study of Aztec ritual has moved from classification to conceptualization and more theoretical treatment. In Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, for example, scholars from various disciplines explore the different dynamics that reinforced the Aztec ritual world, such as the marketplace, warfare, and ritual as performance. Aztec ritual as performance is also the central theme of Representing Aztec Ritual: Performance, Text, and Image in the Work of Sahagún, a collection of essays by an interdisciplinary group of authors who focus on ritual images in the Primeros memoriales and Florentine Codex. Aztec ritual has also been explored in connection with the creation of identity in indigenous populations in Cosmovisión, ritual e identidad de los pueblos indígenas de México, another collection of essays by Mexican scholars.
Although it is a major component of Aztec ritual, food has been only minimally explored and is usually secondary to other notions such as landscape. Such, for example, is the central theme of historian of religions scholar Philip P. Arnold’s Eating Landscape: Aztec and European Occupation of Tlalocan. Although most scholars of ritual have recognized the significance of feasting and food in Aztec rituals, no major work has focused on this area. This book is intended to remedy this omission.
A Note on Ritual
A lot has been written about ritual. By no means do I desire to provide a full historiography of the study of ritual in Mesoamerica. However, some studies that have proven particularly useful to this manuscript should be noted. The social variation of public/private and state/popular categories in Aztec rituals defined by archaeologist Michael Smith is important. Smith differentiates between rituals that are performed (1) outside, in open, public spaces and organized by the state; (2) in private by rulers, priests, and other state officials; (3) outside, in open, public spaces and organized by the public; and (4) in private and organized by the public.
Smith notes that this differentiation does not encompass the totality of social variation in Aztec ritual and that different types of ritual have varying social implications. In this study I borrow this classification of public/private and state/popular yet emphasize that many Aztec rituals might fall in between two or more of these categories. Additionally, as noted by Smith, many of the sources in which “rituals” are recorded come from chroniclers who mostly emphasize state and public ritual. This of course poses a challenge to those of us studying Aztec ritual.
Secondary Sources: Food and Consumption
For the most part, food and feasting as a topic of Aztec scholarship has been largely ignored by scholars. Perhaps exploring a subject that evokes pleasure and the senses on various levels is not regarded as worthy of serious research. Anthropologist Brian Hayden has noted that, despite the many descriptive accounts of feasts in earlier ethnographies, few anthropologists have addressed the theoretical importance of feasting. Within recent years, however, several studies have shown how important feasting is for understanding cultural processes. Among these works are food studies such as Gary Paul Nahban’s Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods and Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s ¡Qué Vivan los Tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Particularly important to my project are works that specifically deal with food in Mesoamerica, before and after the Spanish conquest. One of the earliest and most influential food studies is historian Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Crosby’s work was one of the first serious studies of the conquest in terms of food exchange and is often cited by later scholars.
Anthropologist Sophie Coe’s America’s First Cuisines is an important study that examines food and its significance for indigenous cultures. In The True History of Chocolate, she and anthropologist Michael D. Coe focus on chocolate and its significance before and after European contact. More recent works include historian John C. Super’s Food, Conquest, and Colonization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America and an interdisciplinary Mexican collection titled Conquista y comida: Consecuencias del encuentro de dos mundos, edited by Janet Long, who has continued to work on several other food studies specific to Mexico, most recently Food Culture in Mexico. In the last several years, there has been a focus on identity and cultural history of food with publications such as Paula Morton’s Tortillas: A Cultural History and Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience.
Innovative studies on feasting as ritual and on domesticity as part of the sacred realm are also relevant. Both historian of religion Kay Almere Read and anthropologist Michael Smith address the role of the everyday in the creation of the sacred.42 Anthropologist Elizabeth Brumfiel and ethnographer Yólotl González Torres are pioneers who have begun to examine feasting as ritual in Mesoamerica.
While my work makes use of these various studies, it is decidedly different in nature from them because it focuses on the role that food played within ritual and, specifically, the role of basic staples in highly sacred religious activities. Through history and surviving works of art, it examines the ritual use of food from the beginning of Aztec mythic history through contact with Europeans. It thus allows for an examination of specific foods and rituals that survived the conquest, the ways in which they were recorded after contact, and the reasons why.
A Note on Food Production
Agricultural work was neither the primary type of occupation nor the major basis for household subsistence in the city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs employed various agricultural methods on the lakeshore and beyond to provide some form of sustenance for the general population. Among these were chinampa agriculture, terracing, and multicropping. Chinampas are artificial planting areas built up from mud scooped from the bottom of a lake or freshwater swamp, held in place by posts and roots, and separated by canals. The narrow size of the plots allowed for an intense porosity of the soil. Chinampas received enough moisture to provide a continuous, stable, and intensive agriculture. Through these methods the yield of chinampas in Aztec times was high. Edward Calneck’s work from the 1970s demonstrated that chinampas existed in Tenochtitlan in various sizes but were not always included in city planning. Household gardens were created spontaneously by individuals and were not part of the larger state agricultural organization. These small chinampa plots were used as a source of garden vegetables. Others shared larger plots, allowing several families to be sustained from their yield, while some parts of Tenochtitlan were completely chinampa free. While chinampa agriculture was fundamental for the Aztecs, it certainly did not provide for all the food needs of the city. The Aztecs did, however, develop chinampa technology to its fullest potential, expanding the existing chinampa system to cover more than seventy-five square miles to support as many as 100,000 people.
Sahagún’s artists illustrate yet another agricultural technique employed by the Aztecs. Farmers would often intercrop plants, mixing various crops on one patch of land. Maize was often intercropped with beans and squash, as illustrated in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex. Experiments have shown that multicropping decreases the risk of weeds and parasites and therefore increases crop yields.50 The Aztecs used their natural resources to the best of their abilities. Extremely productive labor-intensive chinampa agriculture was used throughout the city, lakeshores were also irrigated, and banks were terraced.51 This broad range of techniques allowed for a maximum utilization of available land.
Although the southern district of the Basin of Mexico was heavily used for chinampas or artificial planting areas, most of the foodstuffs consumed came into the city through trade and tribute. Sophie Coe notes that the Codex Mendoza gives the average amount of tribute from each province as twenty-eight troxes of maize, twenty-one each of beans and chia, and eighteen of amaranth. Raw foods included squash, honey, cacao, and chiles, among many other things. In addition, the Aztecs received many other types of foods already prepared, including several meat dishes.
The Aztec tribute system was a useful method of supplementing not only the food needs of Tenochtitlan but its labor needs as well. A tribute workforce could be redistributed to provide better service for the urban population and ruling elite. Men and women supplied the labor for cooking and other food preparation as well as labor in the marketplace. Labor redistribution was intricately organized by the Aztec state.
Organization of Chapters
Chapter 1, “Ceremonial Consumption in Everyday Life,” explores verbal and visual descriptions of ritualized eating, particularly in ceremonies recorded in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain and Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, and painted sixteenth-century manuscripts like Codex Mendoza. This chapter examines the role of feasting in Aztec culture in both domestic contexts, such as those having to do with life cycle events (births, marriages, funerals), and household ceremonies.
Chapter 2, “Food in Aztec Public Ritual,” examines the role food and feasting played in specific veintena ceremonies (a series of eighteen public ceremonies performed annually in accordance with the 365day solar calendar) as represented in both textual descriptions and related images of ritual activities. Of greatest relevance are ceremonies in which everyday grains such as maize and amaranth become sacralized. Through the veintena depictions we can best understand how food served as both an everyday and a cosmic sustenance. My study demonstrates that food was a multifaceted element in veintena ceremonies, used in a variety of ways that included the ephemeral and esoteric. For example, food was sometimes transformed into a threat of violence and sometimes used as a weapon.
Chapter 3, “Aztec Myths, Cosmovision, and Food” introduces the role food played in Aztec culture in the Basin of Mexico. It focuses on the importance of food throughout the Aztecs’ history, from their nomadic beginnings in the late twelfth century to their rise in power in the fifteenth century in the Basin of Mexico.55 It begins with a discussion of the first foods as recorded in various pictorial migration accounts and anonymous textual manuscripts such as the “Leyenda de los soles,” “Histoyre du Mechique,” and “Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas,” which reveal the importance of food in Aztec myth and early history.56 Painted historical manuscripts, such as the Codex Azcatitlan and Codex Boturini, illuminate the relationship between food and Aztec history and society, beginning with the migration period.57 These works show that food was vital in Aztec migration stories, creation myths, and their overall worldview.
Chapter 4, “Food and Ritual after the Conquest,” examines what happened to food rituals and representations after the Spanish conquest in 1521. It discusses food in the early colonial period (ca. 1521–1600), changes in pre-Hispanic eating patterns, the introduction of new foods, and the food-related rituals that survived. Of specific interest are whether first foods such as maize remained important and whether myths relating to food continued to be significant after the conquest. This chapter also examines the new ways in which foods were used in hybrid rituals that reflected a merging of indigenous and European cultures. It makes use of postconquest images found in colonial pictorial manuscripts as well as murals like those in the cloister of the sixteenth-century Augustinian monastery of Malinalco.
The epilogue presents final thoughts about food, art, and ritual. It summarizes the findings of the preceding chapters about the role of food in Aztec thought as seen in origin and migration accounts, Aztec art, and ritual performance, especially the way in which basic staples became sacred substances in ritual use. The epilogue emphasizes the role of food as a symbol of transformation and a metaphor for cosmic continuity. After noting the changes brought about by contact with Europeans, it briefly considers continuities in the use of pre-Hispanic foods in the daily life and ritual practices of modern-day Mexico.