Xochipilli : Beyond Gender

This is the Xicalcoliuhqui symbol that can be found all throughout Mesoamerica on buildings, artwork, clothing, and even war shields. It is the oldest and most widespread symbol of duality that exists in Mesoamerican cultures.

Xicalcoliuhqui, also referred to as a “step fret” or “stepped fret” design, is a common motif in Mesoamerican art. It is composed of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral, reminiscent of a “greek-key” meander (1). The word xicalcoliuhqui means “twisted gourd” (xical- “gourdbowl” and coliuhqui “(a) twisted (thing)”) (2) in Nahuatl.

  1. A meander or meandros is a decorative border constructed from a continuous line, shaped into a repeated motif. Such a design is also called the Greek fret or Greek key design, although these are modern designations.
  2. xicalli – gourd vessel (this word became jícara in Spanish and xicara in Portuguese)
An example of a Greek meander

Jicaras at a mercado. These drinking vessels are regaining popularity amongst the new generation of mezcal aficionados (although I doubt they have ever stopped being used by campesinos)

Variations on the xicalcoliuhqui motif in the mosaics at Mitla.
Mitla is the second-most important archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and the most important of the Zapotec culture. Mitla was inhabited at least since the Classic Period (100-650 CE) and perhaps from as early as 900 BCE. Mitla is one of the pre-Columbian sites that express the Mesoamerican belief that death was the most consequential part of life after birth. It was built as a gateway between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Mitla was still occupied and functioning as the main religious centre when the Spanish explorers and military expeditions arrived in the 1520s and later.

The Xicalcoliuhqui is a reminder that duality is not one of opposites but of complementary parts that are in balance yet are mutually arising and dependent. Each continually flows and emerges from the other.

This is precisely the situation regarding the Xochipilli/Xochiquetzal conundrum. Each is representative of complementary duality. Each are parts of a balanced whole. Each is a part of a greater vision but each is separate from the other.

Yin/Yang symbol

This symbol is reflective of the xicalcoliuhqui in its essence. This symbol is essential to Asian philosophies (particularly Daoism) and is representative of wholeness and balance. It is not a yin and a yang, it is a yinyang (1). Even though each aspect, light – dark, male – female etc etc is indicated they are not separate. Each is an essential part of a greater whole. Each contains within it the seed of its opposite, its complement. This complementary duality is reflective of the Xochipilli/Xochiquetzal relationship and of the very human condition itself. We are each both.

  1. yīnyáng : literally “dark-light” : expressed in this manner it is a Chinese philosophical concept that describes how obviously opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. This reflects the duality and singularity of the Xochiquetzal-Xochipilli complex perfectly.

Sergio Magana “Ocelocoyotl” is a “nahual,” or “man of knowledge,” and a well-known and respected healer in Mexico City. He belongs to the Nahuatl lineage of knowledge that has been passed on from master to student for 1,460 years. He also trained in the 4,000-year-old oral traditions of the Chichimecas, Teotihuacans, Toltecs, Aztecs, and Mexicas (the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica), and is one of a few spokespeople authorized to share and teach this ancient wisdom.


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