This Post is just a bit of a self indulgence. I have a small collection of masks and am particularly interested in prehispanic designs. I came across this mask on a local Facebook Marketplace posting. It appears to be quite touristic in nature and I wanted to share the find with a Mexican folk art group in an attempt to find more detail on it.
The mask is made of some kind of clay and is almost porcelain in nature. It is smooth and somewhat warm to the touch and it rings/resonates if tapped lightly with a fingernail. The unpainted back of the mask is grey in colour. Where parts of the front of the mask have chipped off the underlying material is porcelain white.
The mask was sold to me as being Aztec in nature and it contains many elements symbolic of prehispanic America. The jaguar, serpent, Eagle warrior, stepped-fret design (1), calendrical markings and a pyramid are all showcased on the mask.
- See Post Xochipilli : Beyond Gender for more information on this design which is also called xicalcoliuhqui
The pyramid leads me away from it being Aztec as it appears to me to be a Mayan pyramid and bears a close resemblance to the building known as El Castillo (the Castle/Citadel) at Chichen Itza in the Tinúm Municipality, south-central Yucatán state, Mexico.
There is a podcaster which consistently refers to this structure as “el Castillio” which quite frankly bugs the shit out of me, particularly because he professes to be somewhat of an expert in this part of the World (and who also claims to have had a strong personal relationship with Hunbatz Men) (1).
- Hunbatz Men (1941-2016) was a Mayan daykeeper–an authority on the history, chronology, and calendars of Mayan civilization, a member of the Maya Itzá Council of Priests & Elders of Mexico and a Keeper of the Maya Itzá Tradition. He was also a ceremonial leader, founder of the Mayan indigenous Community near Mérida, Mexico, and the author of Secrets of Mayan Science/Religion and The 8 Calendars of the Maya
To the left side of the pyramid there is attached the profile of an Eagle Warrior.
Wikipedia notes of the Eagle Warriors : Eagle warriors or eagle knights (Classical Nahuatl: cuāuhtli) were a special class of infantry soldier in the Aztec army (one of the two leading military special forces orders in Aztec society, the other being the Jaguar warriors). These military orders were made up of the bravest soldiers of noble birth and those who had taken the greatest number of prisoners in battle. Of all of the Aztec warriors, they were the most feared. Eagle warriors, along with the jaguar warriors, were the only such classes which did not restrict access solely to the nobility, as commoners were occasionally admitted for special merit. One of the requirements to join the warriors is that they must capture at least four prisoners or perform great deeds (such as capturing foes to be used as sacrifices), they were eligible to become either a jaguar or eagle warrior. The origin of the eagle and jaguar warriors stems from the self-less acts of two deities; Nanahuatzin, meaning Pimply One, and Tecuciztecatl, meaning Lord of Snails, who sacrificed themselves to bring life to the sun. They emerged from the fire transforming into an eagle and a jaguar. This cosmological belief solidifies the eagle warrior’s higher position in society. This is reflected in their dress as well. The eagles were soldiers of the Sun, for the eagle was the symbol of the Sun.
Eagle Warriors are typically Aztec (Mexica) rather than Mayan.
To the right of the pyramid is a circle containing the image of a sun within a ring containing calendrical (?) symbols. The symbols themselves are more indicative of Mayan rather than Aztec glyphs. The 14th Day Sign of the Aztec calendar is a jaguar (see image below). This glyph is quite similar to that of the Mayan jaguar symbol (more on this further down)
Maya and Aztec “writing” differ. For all intents and purposes though these differences are really only relevant to scholarly types who (no doubt) argue about this crap amongst each other.
Maya writing used logograms (1) complemented with a set of syllabic (2) glyphs (3), somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing.
- In a written language, a logogram, logograph, or lexigraph (4) is a written character that represents a word or morpheme.(4)
- In the linguistic study of written languages, a syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables which make up words.
- The term glyph is used in typography (the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible), architecture and archaeology. Broadly, the term means any kind of purposeful mark, such as a simple vertical line incised on a building, a single letter in a script, or a carved symbol.
- A morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. In lexicography, a lexical item (or lexical unit, LU, or lexical entry) is a single word, a part of a word, or a chain of words (catena) that forms the basic elements of a language’s lexicon (≈ vocabulary).
The Aztec or Nahuatl script is a pre-Columbian writing system that combines ideographic (1) writing with Nahuatl specific phonetic logograms and syllabic signs augmented by phonetic rebuses (2).
- An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idéa “idea” and γράφω gráphō “to write”) is a graphic symbol that represents an idea or concept, independent of any particular language, and specific words or phrases. Some ideograms are comprehensible only by familiarity with prior convention; others convey their meaning through pictorial resemblance to a physical object, and thus may also be referred to as pictograms (3).
- A rebus (/ˈriːbəs/) is a puzzle device that combines the use of illustrated pictures with individual letters to depict words or phrases. For example: the word “been” might be depicted by a rebus showing an illustrated bumblebee next to a plus sign (+) and the letter “n”. It was a favourite form of heraldic expression used in the Middle Ages to denote surnames.
- A pictogram, also called a pictogramme, pictograph, or simply picto, and in computer usage an icon, is a graphic symbol that conveys its meaning through its pictorial resemblance to a physical object.
Like I said; “scholarly types”.
Below is an image of the Aztec Calendar Stone (sometimes called the Sun Stone or the Eagle Bowl – in which incarnation it is often described as being a sacrificial altar). It measures 358 centimetres (141 in) in diameter and 98 centimetres (39 in) thick, and weighs 24,590 kg (54,210 lb).That’s a little over 24 and a half tonnes. The central figure is the Sun god Tonatiuh and the four rectangle glyphs attached to the face denote the four previous ages (world/suns) and how they were destroyed (jaguars, wind, rain and water). We are now living in the Fifth Sun. Surrounding these images is a ring containing the 20 Aztec day symbols. There is a lot more involved with this calendar (too much to go into here). Google it loca.
Atop the pyramid sits a white jaguar. The imagery of this cat is a potent symbol for the Maya. The ancient Maya thought that at night the sun, as it slips into the underworld, would transform into a jaguar. A powerful predator, the animal was also associated with warriors and hunters, and became a symbol of the might and authority of the Mayan ruling class.
What intrigues me about the jaguar on the mask is that it is holding an item in its outstretched left paw.
If anyone can identify the item or why the jaguar is presenting it (as a gift?) then please let me know.
On either side of the jaguar there are two serpents. A red one to the right and a green on to the left (symbolism of the colours?) (1) (2). Each serpent has distinctive facial features and body markings. Each serpent stands erect with their tails coiled behind them
- Green is the colour of the West in Aztec culture. The gods of this geographical direction were Mictlantecuhtli and Centeotl. This colour was also sacred to the Aztec ruler (Huey Tlatoani). Red is the colour of the East for the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec, Ehecatl and Tezcatlipoca are the gods of this direction.
- Red is the colour of blood, and the Mayan considered it a symbol of the sun and life. Mayan culture considered green a royal colour. It was also a symbol of fertility and immortality. Green was also important to both the Aztec and Maya due to its connection to the most precious stone jade.
The fangs in the upper jaw of the green serpent have been damaged
This serpent in particular reminds me of the (Mayan) Vision Serpent of Yaxchilan.
Simply for tourists and no symbolism except for the tourist dollar?
I don’t want to believe the last one as the mask is just too rich with symbolism for me to want to even consider that there’s no meaning attached to this (now one of my favourite) artwork.