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Ma Cualli Tonalli
31 January 2020 (online)
Mictlantecuhtli was not exactly easy to please, as befits the god of the underworld in ancient Aztec mythology. His realm, Mictlan, lay to the far and forbidding North, the cardinal direction associated with the dead and the ancestors. There he dwelled with his skull-headed wife Mictlancihuatl who sported a skirt made from rattlesnakes. Together, the lovely couple watched that the rites and festivities owed to the deceased were rigorously observed. Failure to do so would result in draughts or floods or other unpleasant times for the people.
These people were the Aztecs, although this denomination was actually made up by historians and European archeologists only after the conquest in 1521. The name was derived from Aztlan, the mystical place they had left to settle where they would find an eagle sitting on a cactus and picking at a snake. This happened to be on an island in the middle of a lake in the highlands. They called the place Tenochtitlan, and made it the capital of Mexico, as Mexica was their real name. For the country this name persists. The capital has by now lost the lake but acquired about 20 million inhabitants plus the rather unimaginative name Mexico City.
For the Mexica/Aztecs the human heart (yollotl) bore a lot of significance. It was home of one of the three human souls, the others residing in the skull and the liver. This teyolia part of the soul was thought to be the one which gave life and therefore the most precious. Giving a heart to the gods, for instance an irritated Mictlantecuhtli or one of his colleagues, meant the highest sacrifice possible. It was therefore highly revered, and images of the organ were crafted in the most precious of materials: jade, for instance, or gold, which was considered to be an excrement of the gods themselves (teocuicatl). To get into the pericardial sac of their live victims the priests used knifes made from black volcanic obsidian stone and chose a quick access of little resistance through the subxiphoid approach, much later popularized again by Sauerbruch.
The conquering Spaniards utilized this brutal-seeming rite to condemn the Aztecs as primitive pagans and started eradicating them and their culture with high efficiency and the blessing of the Catholic church. This behavior, in turn, has been used by critics to prove the fallaciousness of a supposedly merciful Christianity.
Be that as it may, the remaining Mexica number around 1.5 million today and many still speak the melodious Nahuatl language. “In ixtli, in yollotl” – “the face, the heart” continues to be an important phrase through the centuries. It means that an individual's self (= face) and mind (= heart) belong intimately together and are developed by education and with the assistance of wise elders - a truly timeless and universal philosophy.
The Mexica, by the way, were not totally conquered but rather have secretly made themselves indispensable in our everyday life. Whenever you think avocado, guacamole, tomato, maize, or chocolate, you are thinking Nahuatl.
Ma cualli tonalli! (Have a nice day, in case you wondered.)