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It has been a disgracefully long time since this blog featured one of the deities of the underworld (which was one of the first and best topics of Ferrebeekeeper). Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the mysterious thriving civilizations of ancient America which existed prior to the 15th century. So today we feature Pitao Bezelao chief death deity of the Zapotecs, who thrived in what are now the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Guerrero from 700 BC until Aztec (and subsequent Spanish) conquest in the 16th century (AD).

Like other Mesoamerican palace peoples, the Zapotecs reveled in death worship. They loved step pyramids and human and animal sacrifices of every sort. Pitao Bezelao was a very charismatic dark god with all sorts of strange attributes and props…yet, because we have never deciphered Zapotec glyphs, we also don’t know an enormous amount about his myths and worship. Almost all of our sources are post-conquest folklore written down centuries after the apogee of Zapotec civilization. So sadly we don’t have Pitao Bezelao death myths analogous to Orpheus or the Mayan Ball players (although undoubtedly similar stories were out there).

The ancient Zapotecs were excellent farmers, so Pitao Bezelao was not just the god of death but also also the god of masculinity, fortune, good crops, and chickens (just what chickens, old world animals originally from India, were doing in ancient America in Zapotec times is a subject which is probably more interesting than this article…or anything else on the internet). Even among the strange company of death gods, Pitao Bezelao stands out. He is portrayed as having a huge skull with gauged ears (decked out with fancy ornaments of course) and with an obsidian knife for a nose. Like the Moche Decapitator, Pitao Bezelao had giant pincers/claws for hands. He is often portrayed with a human femur in his right, um, claw and another nose…I mean knife…in his left. In religious art, Pitao Bezelao tends to be surrounded by lizards and spiders and he was often portrayed with an enormous phallus.

Speaking of which, as an extraordinarily well-endowed death deity, Pitao Bezelao had two wives. His main wife Xonaxi Quecuya, “Mother Death”, was a traditional death goddess who collected the souls of the departed and recycled their bodies with her signature insects. True to her name, she was always pregnant! Pitao Bezelao’s second spouse Coqui Bezelao is more enigmatic and s/he had both male and female attributes. Perhaps Pitao Bezelao was a deity who changed gender as culture and society changed and myths spread from one land to another (like Guanyin, my favorite deity of compassion who started out as the (masculine) bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) or maybe they were always transgender–like Lan Caihe.

This would be a great time to share some Pitao Bezelao myths, which I suspect are both horrifying and transcendent…but, thanks to the vicissitudes of history I don’t have any. Instead here is a modern artwork from Oaxaca (where worship of this death god does not seem to have quite died out). If anybody knows anything else about this dark but compelling figure please speak out!

In our ongoing exploration of underworld gods, we have come across all sorts of animal divinities.  The ultra-modern Japanese still venerate Namazu a vast chthonic catfish god.  Contemporary Inuits worship Sedna, walrus/cetacean goddess of the cold depths.  The rational Greeks imagined a great three-headed dog guarding Tartarus.  There are so many giant serpents from different cultures that they create an entire subset of underworld gods: some of these snake beings are bigger than the world and longer than the oceans. They range from kind creators like Nuwa to monsters like the Midgard serpent to indescribable cosmic forces like the rainbow serpent.  There are dark swans and mystery animals, but where in this worldwide pantheon/bestiary are my favorite birds? Where are the turkey gods?

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Chalchiuhtotolin, the Precious Night Turkey (by Fernando Rodriguez at http://www.thecodexofthenightsky.com)

Well, turkeys are from the Americas, they were sacred to the original inhabitants (and have been discovered buried alongside humans with ceremonial pomp–or even by themselves on altars). However the Americas were swept by a great wave of diseases which was followed by waves of European colonizers.  When the Native Americans were killed by plague or assimilated by Europeans, many of their deities vanished.  The Spaniards were delighted to find domesticated turkeys in the ruins of the Aztec empire and they shipped them off to Spain as farm animals (whereas it seems they may have been originally domesticated for their feathers).

Chalchiuhtotolin, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis.

However even now we know a little bit about important Aztec turkey deities.  Chalchiuhtotolin, “Precious Night Turkey” was a god of plague who ruled thirteen days of the Aztec calendar from 1 Water to 13 Crocodile (the thirteen preceding days were in fact ruled by Xolotl, hapless god of misfortune, who was instrumental in the creation of humankind).  Little is known concerning Chalchiuhtotolin, except that he was magnificent and terrible to behold.  As a plague god he holds a somewhat ironic place in Aztec cosmology (since the Aztecs were defeated and destroyed more directly by smallpox then by Cortes).  It is theorized that Chalchiuhtotolin was an animal aspect of Tezcatlipoca, one of the central gods of Aztec mythology (who was more famous in his ferocious manifestation as a jaguar).   Tezcatlipoca was one of the four cardinal gods of direction, ruling the North (which was a realm of darkness and sorcery to the Mesoamericans).  Tezcatlipoca was based on earlier Mayan and Olmec divinities.  One of his legs was missing, since he sacrificed it to the crocodilian earthmonster called Cipactli in order to fashion the world.  A god of night, wind, obsidian, warriors, and slaves, Tezcatlipoca was eternally opposed by the Mayan hero god Quetzalcoatl, “the Feathered Serpent”, a sky god, and lord of the West.  A great deal of Aztec mythology including the story of the creation of this world (not to mention the creation and destruction of many others) involves the fractious push-and-pull rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.

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