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Cosmogonies of Alterity: Origin and Identity in Mesoamerican Narrative*

Written By

Saúl Millán

Submitted: February 16th, 2022Reviewed: March 14th, 2022Published: May 13th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.104496

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the WorldEdited by Levente Hufnagel

From the Edited Volume

Sustainability, Ecology, and Religions of the World [Working Title]

Dr. Levente Hufnagel

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Through a comparative analysis, which uses as references Nahua narrative and Western thought, this chapter examines the relevance of the notion of alterity in different Mesoamerican myths, whose narratives display different ideas regarding origin and identity. In this case, comparative analysis allows us to distinguish between two different narrative traditions, one of which emphasizes the role of continuity and genealogy and another, on the contrary, which reveals the importance of otherness and discontinuous processes.


  • Nahuas
  • mythology
  • alterity
  • origin
  • genealogy

1. Introduction

Unlike the Western world, where the past defines the preservation of future identities, Indigenous narratives tend to position alterity at the origin and destiny of spirit beings. In Andean myths, in which Tristan Platt [1] has recognized the presence of an “aggressive fetus,” ancestors’ souls are conceived as diminutive, pagan devils that enter the mother’s womb to give life to human embryos, so that pregnancy is regarded as a process of conversion between pagan souls and Christian neonates. Similarly, the ancient Nahuas considered gestation largely equivalent to capturing a warrior on the battlefield, so each birth took the form of a belligerent operation between the midwife and the inhabitants of the underworld [2].2 Known as miquizpan, “time of death,” childbirth alluded to the ontological condition of the fetus, identified as an entity with a cold, dark nature that was still in the zone of Mictlan, that imagined underworld that was both the destination of the dead and the origin of future generations. In this way, while birth followed a process that began with the transformation of an enemy fetus and culminated in its integration into the earthly world, death set in motion a new process of alteration in which the dead transitioned to a different condition.

Just as the place of origin, the mortuary destination was conceived as an otherworldly realm where the ordinary condition of human beings was altered. Depending on the trajectory marked by the individual’s birth, the dead entered a world that was socially analogous to earthly communities, but that differed in principle in the ontological condition of its inhabitants. The variety of scenarios projected by the end of the life cycle, from Mictlan to the legendary kingdom of Tlalocan, offered a panorama of multiple universes that channeled humans to different mortuary destinations, each of which had an owner or lord of the place, local officials, and an undifferentiated group of auxiliary spirits from the earthly realm. According to the claims of the ancient inhabitants of Tlaxcala, commoners turned into weasels and beetles after death, while the leading officials became birds and clouds that aided water gods [4]. Sahagún’s informants maintained that the dead were reborn in a state unlike their earlier condition,3 which indicated that all beings underwent a discontinuous development that was reproduced with birth and death. If the result of this process was to turn into clouds, animals, or divinities, the modalities of this conversion could be summed up in that mechanism that constantly distinguished earlier states from later ones, in the same way, it discerned between places of origin and places of destination. Hence, fray Diego Durán, interested in the origin of peoples, expressed doubt over the capacity of their members to identify their own genealogy:

There are some people who tell fables about this subject. To wit, some say that the Indians were born of pools and springs; others that they were born of caves still others, that they descended from the gods. All of this is clearly fabulous and shows that the natives themselves are ignorant of their origin and beginnings, inasmuch as they always profess to have come from strange lands ([5]: 4).

Written in the mid-sixteenth century, with the vision of a man who recognized himself in his own lineage, the passage reveals two diametrically opposed conceptions of the origin and identity of the speakers. The idea that human beings came from an otherworldly realm, situated beyond the confines of humanity, clearly contrasted with the notion of a natural genealogy that traced a direct relationship between ancestors and descendants. Whereas Christian thought emphasized the continuity between the former and the latter, emphasizing the connection between origin and final destination, Indigenous thought insisted on marking their discontinuities, affirming that native populations emerged from caves and springs. Conceived as beings of a different nature, with dissimilar habits and dwelling places, the value of those populations was not measured by temporal continuity or genealogical identity, but rather by the alterity that defined their initial condition. More than a linear development between members of the same species, descendants took the form of a heterogeneous process between beings of a different nature, whose otherness made it possible to move between two divergent states. The incorporation of an enemy through gestation, as well as the uncertain origin of the ancestors allude, indeed, to a discontinuous process that made it possible to assert that forebears came from caves and neonates from the underworld. These “strange lands,” as Durán referred to them, do not refer to faraway places, but rather to sites where alterity is possible, based on narratives that marked ruptures there, where Christian thought saw only continuities. Invisible to the Spaniards, another form of time was hidden in caves and springs, privileged places of contact that altered temporal meaning, because “There is frequent mention of peoples’ perplexity upon returning to the earth’s surface in a time period different from the one they had anticipated” ([6]: 78). Just as the figures of alterity could not be identified with a specific geography, those strange lands were not necessarily the product of a fictitious fable or an indifference to the past, but rather were the result of a conceptual process that sought the diversity of beings throughout space and time.


2. Alterity and dualism

The reason why native populations come from caves, neonates from the underworld, and ancestors from strange or foreign lands can undoubtedly be sought in that specular world imagined as the symmetric inversion of the human world. The zone of the universe generally called “virtual world,” “mirror world,” or “realm of the deities” in Mesoamerican studies is referred to as chalamalby the Tzeltals, elja tu'uk etby the Mixes, and ocse taltikpak(“other world”) by the Nahuas. Although on occasions it is conceived as an upper world and on others as a netherworld, its essential feature consists of duplicating earthly life and showing its possible alterity through the inversion of customary processes. According to Holland [7], the life cycle of the Tzotzil is diametrically opposed from the moment when a dead person enters the underworld sphere because the deceased begins a process of rejuvenation that inverts earthly life, passing from old age to infancy. Once the same number of years from the earlier cycle has passed, the spirit is allowed to return to the world of the living, on the condition it is reborn into another community. At the same time, the alteration is also reproduced in the animal kingdom, where souls return to earth and are reborn in the heart of the same species, provided that they modify their former gender [8]. Indigenous thought formulates in this way a recurring idea in Mesoamerican myths, in which the underworld is not only a site where genders and ages are distinguished, inverting their original position but also the place that permits the conversion of beings into the alterity that corresponds to them by nature.

Indigenous myths indeed seem to indicate that the genealogy of beings is an inherently discontinuous process. More than identity between successive generations, its narratives tend to trace an intermittent line between the sources of creation and the nature of creatures. Instead of establishing an equivalence between both, the narratives try to distinguish between the origin of the creation in such a way that one always produces a different entity. It is as if each creature was the bearer of its own alterity, in which mythological entities are presented as dual figures concurrently masculine and feminine, celestial and telluric. Diverse Mesoamerican myths allude to the native divinity as a split entity, related to the earth and water, which was simultaneously called Tlalteutland Cipactli. The origin myth tells of the creation of mundane and divine beings as the result of a process of transformation through which this primordial, at once masculine and feminine being,4 was split into two opposite halves to give rise to a segmented universe, divided between the heaven and earth used in myths to explain its diversity, its order, and its movement. A paradigm of duality, Tlalteutlor Cipactlionly intervenes in the Nahua cosmogony as the title alluding to the origin, genesis, and the beginning of things, whose fission defines the place of otherness in the overall design of the universe.

In Nahua cosmogony, origin myths not only pose the question of how to produce diversity based on unity, but also the possibility of favoring the former to the detriment of the latter. In proportion to the primordial unity divided into two, its parts are organized into two unequal segments that are as different from each other as light and darkness, drought and moisture, and high and low. Despite its apparent symmetry, several indications suggest that this local conception of dualism is not formulated in terms of peaceful equilibrium. Their myths implicitly proclaim that the poles organizing the universe—heaven and earth, hot and cold, male and female, and so on—are not equivalent in their terms, and they must instead be conceived as a division that emphasizes the predominance of one over the other, thus precluding the possible expression of symmetry in the identity of the opposing segments. According to Jacques Galinier [9], who has set out to examine Indigenous worldviews from the perspective of “asymmetric dualism,” the division of the cosmos responds less to the logic of opposition between concepts and categories and more to a principle of subordination that “encompasses” the lower in the upper segment, although the former may have preeminence over the latter in its overall aspects. Although they may be twins in origin, the parts are gradually revealed as unequal and tend to be ordered in an alternate sequence of domains, so that each segment ultimately gives preeminence to its counterpart.

The tendency to separate what is integrated, dividing unity into differentiated segments is expressed with greater clarity in narratives associated with twins, as frequent in Mesoamerican mythology as in other Amerindian narratives. In origin myths, as Olivier [10] has observed, Pre-Columbian deities are almost always presented as divided entities in that they can integrate their own alterity in the form of a twin that plays the role of alter ego. Formed by the union of two animals, the celestial quetzal and the terrestrial serpent, the name of Quetzalcoatl also meant “Precious Twin” and was linked to the figure of Venus, a heavenly body that is also a twin in its double guise as the Morning and Evening Star. At the other extreme, forming an indissoluble pair, Tezcatlipoca was identified with a two-faced mirror in which men could see the reflection of their inevitable alterity, because it was “an instrument that distorted and amplified the differences between the two twins, one young and the other aged, each reflected in the two faces of the mirror” ([10]: 167). Although this image synthesizes the duality of humankind, including the universe it inhabits, it also reveals what Guilhem Olivier has referred to as an “unstable twinness,” whose primary characteristic consisted of shunning identity between similar entities. Like those Amazonian myths that emphasize the disequilibrium of the parts, considering one twin strong and the other weak, one dark and the other white, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca switch their respective positions as their differences increase, in such a way that each alternatively assumed the role of Venus, the Sun, and the Moon, as the cosmogonic cycles evolved. In other words, “the twinness inherent to each deity was found in a state of perpetual disequilibrium” that gave rise to a new solar cycle (ibid.) as if the origin was the result of a constant alteration rather than of a uniform genesis.

On a more general level, Lévi-Strauss had noted that the dualism of Amerindian twins contrasts with the philosophical and ethical sources of Western thought. While Amerindian mythology sees duality in the form of antithesis, European narratives endeavored to extract a plausible synthesis from them. In Greco-Latin tradition, in which myths associated with Castor and Pollux underscored the similarity of their tastes and thoughts, considering the indivisible union between them, disequilibrium arose outside the identity characterizing the twins. Although born from different parents, one human and the other divine, the Dioscuri formed a unity that gravitated to harmony to the extent that the initial imbalance was suppressed to blur them—“everything occurs as if a constant tendency drove Indo-European thought to erase the difference between twins” Lévi-Strauss [11], promoting unity over diversity through this operation. The narrative from Classical Antiquity thus inverts Amerindian discourse, which begins with unity to seek progressive differences within it. The unstable twinness of the Mesoamerican universe culminates in the negation of absolute identity and it is in this sense divergent from the Indo-European perspective but analogous to that of so many Amerindian myths that organize the world through a series of polar oppositions, without the resulting parts ever taking on a true identity. In this “dualism in perpetual disequilibrium,” as Lévi-Strauss [11] referred to it, it is not only possible to recognize the key to Amerindian thought, but also its propensity to openness, that space that dualism leaves open on the other side of the universe for identity to find its limit, eluding recognition of itself.

Just as the stories of twins, which contain their own alterity, Indigenous narratives propose similar origins and heterogeneous results in the creation process. Just as those who endeavor to avoid their similarities, the gods make an effort to create variations on a standard model and proceed to divide temporal unity into differentiated beings and segments in such a way that the inhabitants of an earlier era no longer correspond to the beings of the subsequent periods. Men and divinities participate in creation in a remarkable way—they are not content to reproduce the same essence that preceded them, instead, they opt to produce a difference within each unity and each work. Although this capacity to produce difference finds its clearest expression in an unstable dualism, its functioning demands that heterogeneous elements form part of the creation, for this to integrate the alterity corresponding to it by nature at its very heart. The conception of an entity will not, therefore, be that of a constant, indivisible identity endlessly reproduced throughout history, but rather that of an origin different from that of its own destiny. Indigenous narratives indeed contemplate the possibility of a foreign origin, external to the local genealogy, whose antecedents are generally situated in distant times and diverse places.

In this context, it is worth recalling that one of the foremost aspects of the conception of time among the ancient Nahuas was the division into eras known as “suns,” alluding to essentially discontinuous periods culminating in later transformations. As López Austin [4] observed, “It was believed that the solar dominion had been given to several gods in succession and that the epoch of each one had ended in an imbalance leading to chaos, making a new creation of human beings necessary.” Myths about the temporary succession, consecrated in the Leyenda de los Soles, not only claim that the creations followed an irregular sequence, marked by successive ruptures, but also that each period altered the physiognomy of earlier creatures—the different species of men gave rise to some beings transformed into monkeys, others into fish, and others into birds, through a substantial modification of their bodies and their alimentary habits. In this discontinuous process, subjected to a constant disequilibrium, contemporary humans only originated in the alterity that had characterized earlier generations, generally composed of dwarves or giants who were unsuccessful in transmitting their attributes to future generations.


3. Incorporating the enemy

The transformations that took place over time found similar correspondences in spatial displacement. The story of migrations in Mesoamerica indeed supports the hypothesis that all displacement was conceived of as a form of alterity, in that it modified the initial identity of the protagonists. In Highland Guatemala, the mythical migration toward the east was generally accompanied by an additional value—its meaning consisted of a circular journey of a ceremonial nature, originally undertaken by tutelary deities, who set out from the Quiché region and covered a part of southeastern Mexico (see Figure 1). Through this trajectory, the ancient progenitors successfully legitimated Quiché control over other populations in the highlands, because the circular journey justified the existence of new military techniques, the presence of deities imported from Tula, and the exercise of shamanic powers learned during the pilgrimage. According to the Título de Totonicapán, “all the signs of sovereignty were joined and brought by those who were from where the sun rises,” in an extremely broad list of exotic objects that included shells, animal bones, bird feathers, and a variety of musical instruments. These objects, imported from abroad along with the nine tutelary divinities, clearly indicated that the ancient progenitors had assimilated shamanic knowledge, in addition to a new political organization, a new spirituality, and a complex ritual procedures alien to local culture.

Figure 1.

Quiché migration routes (XI–XIII centuries). Source: Piel [12].

As Craveri [13] has noted, the assimilation of outsider elements in the very cultural scheme makes it possible to interpret the Mexicanization of Highland Guatemala as “a process actively developed by the very Quiché groups, more than the passive assimilation of cultural patterns imposed by foreign conquerors.” The openness to outsider elements was in fact established in the ancient rivalry between Quichés and Rabinals, whose relations were made explicit in that fifteenth-century document that theatrically narrated the conflicts of Rabinal Achí, the antagonist of Quiché territory who ends up sacrificing its ruler. According to the plot of the work, Rabinal Achí not only conceded to his adversary the virtues corresponding to his military posts, such as valor, drive, and wisdom, but also sees in him the presence of an indispensable foreigner. In his Grammaire de la langue quiché, published in 1862, Brasseur de Bourbourg reproduces the terms with which Rabinal Achí addresses the sacrificed ruler:

I will recommend to the brave, the warrior that he not make noise, that he not move, that he enter the grand palace, the big house, because there he is esteemed and honored, in the grand palace, in the big house, because he has twelve elder brothers and twelve younger brothers, the guardians of the treasure, of the precious objects. He has not yet manifested his presence, his appearance. Is this the brave [one] who came to complement them, to perfect them, in the grand palace, in the big house? ([14]: 78)

Although it is possible to recognize in this drama an unusual vision of the enemy, whose figure plays a preponderant role, it is possible to identify in the text a general operation that turns alterity into an indispensable mechanism. Between identity and alterity, the text opts for a disconcerting realization—it grants difference with the capacity to forge an identity that remains inherently empty. As those Amerindian myths that grant a place to outsider figures from the moment of their creation, the place of the other was already in some way prefigured in thought that contemplated its existence as a necessity, indispensable for an open dualism of figures that are both alien and familiar. More than a threat, the enemy is presented for Rabinal Achí as a favorable solution, as he perfects and complements the enclosure that receives him, where he is “esteemed and honored” by brothers who have ultimately integrated him into their own lineage. In an ontology in which the other is not only conceivable but also indispensable [15], the outer world assumes a preeminence that can only be measured in the variety of elements it supplies to its counterpart.

Faced with the encounter of the Spanish and Indigenous worlds, historians have noted that neither native resistance nor absolute conversion can fully explain the conquest process. In the Caribbean zone, shortly after the initial contact, the Mayas of Cozumel followed the instructions of the new invaders and kept watch over the images of Christianity, taking part in the encounter with Spanish ships with the figure of the Virgin Mary on board their canoes. Farris [16] has pointed out that even Maya towns not under Spanish control invited Catholic priests to give their blessings to the inhabitants and they maintained Christian crosses at the heart of their own communities. Following this logic, the Mexicas of the highlands asked Cortés to intercede with his god to make it rain, and for this purpose, they placed images of the cross and the Virgin among the idols in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan [17]. None of the chronicles mention reactions of opposition, acts of resistance, or Indigenous responses that denounced the sacrilegious character of those images. Instead of opposing the profanation of their temples, in the mid-sixteenth century, all Indigenous homes wished to possess an image from the Christian book of saints, just as its members assumed the names and attire of the foreign enemies. Around 1575, as Lockhart [18] has noted, it was rare for an indigenous home to lack Spanish objects or products, from fig trees to crates, metal axes, and knives. Beyond their obvious utility, European apparel was incorporated into Indigenous homes with the same natural ease as the saints that occupied the heart of their communities, where there was usually a “house” to shelter them.

It is significant that the purpose of those constructions, known as santocalli(“saint’s house”), was not to perform ceremonies, but rather to provide a residence for foreign effigies, which later became the emblem identifying each community. The data examined by Lockhart indicates, however, that the incorporation of the new figures, represented in saints, archangels, and virgins, was in some way subject to oneiric intentions, through which the nature of the chosen was revealed. According to the legend of Sula, in the vicinity of Chalco, the selection of the patron saint had not been the result of a conscious process, but rather of a dream shared by two elders of the community who assumed the task of seeking the new patron saint of the community on their dream journeys: “Sleeping on the matter, each had a dream in which Santiago appeared in great splendor, declared himself to be from Persia (i.e., far away), and announced that he would be Sula’s saint” ([18]: 236). As many elements benefited communities, and like origin myths, the saints were almost always beings who came from distant places and conferred their name to towns, prompting a change from their ancient identities. While some settlements acquired the status of santopan(“where there is a saint”), others conferred the new visitors with the function of granting a new name to ancient towns, modifying the identity that previously defined them.

Accounts from the colonial period tend to insist that the guests in the local church, populated by foreign images and effigies, came from places different from that the enclosures that now housed them. Just as their own parishioners, who were born in caves or springs, the saints came from faraway places and in that sense foreign figures that moved from the outside to the heart of communities in New Spain. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Nahuas of Zitlatla deemed their patron saint had undertaken a journey up from the Costa Grande to the Montaña of Guerrero, choosing their community as his permanent residence [19]. Instead of insisting on his vernacular origin, as in the case of Spanish communities, the Nahuas reaffirmed the value of their images in the distance that separated them, marking in their origin myths the essential difference between sites of origin and destination. The accounts of “traveling saints,” numerous examples of which exist, not only show a constant narrative throughout the colonial period but also reveal that Indigenous thought inverted the process of Spanish identity. While this started from a place of origin, from which it expanded to faraway confines, native identity is shaped by way of an inverse operation, in which it attracts elements and entities of diverse origin, whether exotic apparel or foreign saints, to its center. More than the effect of religious syncretism, the process of assimilation displays a different disposition toward the outer world, given that it ceases to function as a threat to become a necessary source of resources. In the mid-sixteenth century, to paraphrase the brilliant observation of Viveiros de Castro [15] on the Tupinambá of colonial Brazil, the Nahuas were already a consumer society that willingly incorporated readily available objects and images, even when they represented emblems of foreign enemies.

Several researchers have noted that the evangelization of New Spain was practiced on a population that had already been accustomed to syncretic processes and religious condensations for centuries [20, 21], in an interethnic context in which the flow of images, objects, and concepts was no doubt frequent. But this incessant trade, made in daily transactions and reciprocal exchanges, does not explain the value that Indigenous narratives give to external components, whose emblems displace elements from earlier traditions with relative ease. Just as their predecessors, who tended to return to battles with the effigies of defeated towns to employ them for ceremonial purposes, the Indigenous people of New Spain integrated into their core the images of their new enemies, granting them a similar ceremonial value and placing them at the center of their own communities. Incorporating foreign elements indeed seems to be a regular procedure reproduced before and after the colonial period, as if local institutions demanded the establishment of exogenous components. In this process, as noted by Hernández Dávila [22], syncretism ceases to be a failed operation to instead become a logical consequence of cultural contact, because it provided pieces contemplated in space that were inevitably required. If it is possible to identify the common factor of Nahua ontology in this operation, it is also possible to recognize in it the “openness to the other” in which Lévi-Strauss [11] saw the key to Amerindian thought.


4. Foreign souls and local temples

In a recent study, Pedro Pitarch [23] has made the observation that Indigenous souls personify the antithesis of local identities. Instead of prolonging similarities between body and spirit, the Tzeltals of Cancun opt to define their interiority through soul entities that are different from the perspective of corporeal identity. As wild animals, atmospheric phenomena, or anthropomorphic figures that take on the physiognomy of ancient colonizers, souls are defined by being elements that dwell in other bodies, in principle different from the corporeal space containing them. Indeed, despite the fact that the repertoire of possibilities is extremely broad, the common denominator of these spiritual beings is that they do not participate in the Indigenous condition of their bearers. Entities known as lab, as well as the soul contained in human hearts, assume the appearance of foreign effigies distanced from the Indigenous model and instead take on the features of their ancient invaders. Whether animals, meteors, or anthropomorphic figures, the labrefers to conduct and physiognomies that are typically Spanish and that arose only during the colonial period, as in the case of priests and scribes who ultimately became integrated into the imaginary repertoire of Tzeltal souls.

The Indigenous model thus inverts the Western conception of the person. Not only does it avoid equating the humanity of bodies with the humanity of souls, but it also postulates that the latter form an essentially heterogeneous group that comes from the exterior world. Although the Tzeltals tend to distinguish between the plane of interiority and that of exteriority, the Indigenous response is to affirm their interiority is an external reality, in the sense that souls are deep down foreign entities, and accordingly, intrusive elements in the space containing them. Pitarch suggests that the dualism between the body and soul, marked by the ontological difference of its components, finds its correspondence in a social model common to numerous Mesoamerican communities, where Spanish churches and town halls occupy the center of inhabited space, while the outer perimeter houses the Indigenous component of the town. As is the case of souls within the body, vestiges of colonial history are situated inside the interior of the place, as spiritual centers that originated in the initial contact with Europeans. The general conclusion does not, therefore, consist of supposing that the formation of contemporary bodies and towns is only the product of a colonial process, but rather of noticing that the “transcendental premise for the constitution of the Indigenous person and society is the interiorized presence of foreign enemies” ([23]: 35). Instead of expressing the cultural continuity of their own past, the center of bodies and spaces is defined by the interior world alien to their development, and thus external to the vernacular traditions that we tend to employ to delimit our own identities and our own genealogies.

Therefore, it is not by chance that ancient constructions functioned by means of similar principles, according to internal legacies composed of elements imported from the exterior, in the form of burials or offerings. Prior to the conquest, in the ancient capital of Tenochtitlan, temples tended to house objects of diverse provenance that were joined with human and animal bone remains, in diverse complexes including figurines and ornaments, ceramic vessels, semiprecious stones, seashells, and pieces produced by earlier societies or from faraway sites. What is striking is the interior diversity of the precincts that contrasts with the relative homogeneity of temples, generally pyramidal structures with ascending stairways and platforms, as well as the fact that most of the offerings originated in radically different settings from the locations that would ultimately house them. According to the estimates of Matos Moctezuma [24], 80% of the offerings from the Templo Mayorcame from regions other than the Central Highlands of Tenochtitlan, primarily from the modern-day states of Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero, as well as coastal zones of the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Although these products were deposited in the interior of a precinct that represented the center of the universe, situated more than two thousand meters above sea level, it was not a function of their similarities with local nature and culture, because numerous offerings contained fish, birds, and reptiles not native to the environs of the Mexica capital. López Luján [25] has noted that some manufactured objects, such as Olmec and Teotihuacan masks, had been made by cultures and civilizations separated by centuries from the Mexica Empire, which tended to extract offerings from tombs of foreign societies to integrate them into their ritual repertoires (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2.

Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan Durán Codex (1587).

Figure 3.

Offering in Templo Mayor with more than four thousand organic remains Source: Gaceta UNAM, Junio 22, 2020 VLTT7LeM%252CHFMi1ayUzqNdsM%252C_%253BNM_HI5jU6EmCcM%252CzahGtipgKD2IQM%25 2C_%253B4- oekYAifMQAnM%252CzahGtipgKD2IQM%252C_%253BY64nn0S4ixyKlM%252CJwnu89e2FNkLlM% 252C_%253BKeDvluT8UEhzwM%252CmztBTC0nAer3uM%252C_%253B6QJmPV9pn1FOBM%252C GHsQCr_PDuC4XM%252C_%253Bbsga8zFITygLWM%252CMFGmGCOSSPL8KM%252C_%253BfMEb DjZv0GmAyM%252Crb5GHJAlXQ4niM%252C_%253B32effuyourwXDM%252CAWbfciZuTWa0HM% 252C_&usg=AI4_- kT22uJxbMSVMW5auoeqMbpqKuyBxg&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwinm7Whpqj2AhUDJEQIHdjdDhEQjJkE egQIBBAC&biw=1600&bih=757&dpr=1.

Some interpretations indicate that the offerings deposited in the Templo Mayor, whose structure was conceived as a cosmic mountain, were conceptually equivalent in Indigenous thought to seeds, fulfilling the same regenerative function as bones and ashes [26]. In this regard, it is worth recalling that the ancient Nahuas thought of hills as storage vessels from which new populations were born, so that after birth, peoples emerged and proceeded to build pyramids essentially analogous to fertile mountains [27]. Consequently, in its capacity as a cave or “sacred mountain,” the pyramid of the Templo Mayor was a cavity that not only brought objects together but also harnessed symbolic “seeds,” in other words the sources of entities that would come to life after passing through their inevitable transformation. López Austin and López Luján [28] have also proposed that these seeds, simultaneously understood as hearts or inner soul entities, were actually “souls” of the creatures deposited in the heart of the sacred precinct. Alien to the space containing them, their diversity was akin to the strange interior nature in which Pitarch has seen the enigma of Tzeltal souls, whose figures reveal the image of uncommon professions, exotic animals, and foreign enemies.

The explorations conducted in the late 1970s confirmed what colonial sources had indicated earlier regarding the pyramid of the Templo Mayor as a dual structure with twin temples at the summit. Although both spaces were west-facing, the southern temple was consecrated to Huitzilopochtli, the deity associated with warfare and hunting that had guided the Mexicas on their long pilgrimages. According to the principle of duality, the opposite side was dedicated to Tlaloc, an ancient local divinity that differed from his counterpart in his agricultural and pluvial character, closely tied to the Olmec and Teotihuacan horizons. As in the case of Amerindian twins, the asymmetry of Mesoamerican dualism granted singular preeminence to the foreign deity, outside the local pantheon, and thus designated the temple with his name (“Cu de Huichilobos” or “Huitzilopochtli Temple”), granting his chapel greater attributes and dimensions than the space dedicated to the local deity. The preeminence of the foreign god can also be noted in a document describing incidents prior to the construction of the temple, which tells of the journey of a Mexica explorer in the interior of a spring near the lake zone, where Tlaloc confers the space to the new divinity and confirms his will to grant him a place at the heart of his domains. According to the descriptions in the Códice Aubin, the ancient rain god, owner of hills and springs, addressed Axolohuan as follows:

Now my son Huitzilopochtli has come. This is his home. He is the only one to be loved, and he will remain with me in this world(Códice Aubin, cited in [25]: 91).

Through this recognition, Tlaloc not only confirmed the ancient Mesoamerican propensity to convert an outsider into a familiar entity, but it also reproduced in an almost literal way the terms that Rabinal Achí sheltered his enemy in the “grand palace,” as cited earlier. Just as in the story between Quichés and Rabinals, the local deity indeed incorporated into the center of his territory a warrior who came from the outside, calling him “my son,” in the same way that the Maya ruler counseled his adversary to enter the “big house,” where he had “twelve elder brothers and twelve younger brothers,” to “complement them” and “perfect them.” The mechanism of alterity inherently operates in both cases, as outsiders to the local group occupy the interior of precincts and tend to generate an unstable twinness, allowing each unity to successively alternate the sphere of its domains. Ideologically, as López Austin [4] has observed, the predomination of divinities was based on the temporal character of its powers so that a new character could justify his presence by claiming the end of the previous era, as was no doubt the case at that time of the Mexica divinity occupying its new precinct.

The fact that the gods did not have absolute individuality, because they fused and split with the same ease that their attributes shifted reveals an unstable identity that oscillated between different figures and opened the possibility of identifying themselves, even with their adversaries. Consequently, it was not strange for local authorities to assume the identity of the patron god of their enemies, wearing its emblems and accouterments,5 instead of adhering to the affiliation between creatures and creators, exclusive to societies accustomed to monotheism. Accustomed instead to metamorphosis, uncertain origins, and variable identities, gods and creatures periodically practiced change of skin, perhaps with the intention of observing things from the enemy’s viewpoint. The custom of covering the body with the skin of captives, common during celebrations dedicated to Xipe Totec, was in this sense analogous to certain narratives whose characters tended to wrap themselves in the skins of jaguars and other predators, because in these cases “the transformation, the barriers of human perception are broken, and he sees in wild animals much more than others perceive” ([25]: 435). In both circumstances, indeed, the main objective consisted of obtaining the enemy’s skin and employing it as an instrument of perception, thus fulfilling a function similar to that of body paint and facial perforations, above all if one considers that “drilling with eyes” and “opening up ears” were actions that implied a form of learning.6

In this context, the notion of ixiptlatakes on particular importance, as well as semantic displacements stemming from its essential root. Although the term referred equally to the image of a deity, the human being who represented it, and the sacrificial victim who donned its attributes, its derivations came from the particle xipthat indicated “skin,” “husk,” or “covering” [25, 30]. Hence the word was employed to identify the officiants who wore divine attire, alluding to a personification that was covered with the vestments of a being alien to the wearer’s condition. According to the translation that Dehouve [29] offers, the notion of ixiptlacan be understood as wrapping the organs of sight, hearing, and the voice, insofar as it implies covering oneself with the accouterments of a god and seeing, hearing, and speaking as the god. Consequently, the term suppressed the distance between representation and the represented, between the personifying being and the personified entity, given that the former was conceived as the substance of an outer physiognomy that guarded an inner god beneath the skin, like those Teotihuacan figurines that housed in their body a multiplicity of foreign beings, appropriately known as “host figures” (Figures 4 and 5). These figures were indeed hosts of alterity, receptacles of human and animal forms that sheltered within them a variable number of diminutive effigies, turning them into covers of an interiorized collectivity.

Figure 4.

Host figure of Teotihuacán Classic period (250–650 d.c) Museo Diego Rivera Anahuacalli Mexico.

Figure 5.

Host figure of Teotihuacan style Classic period (250–600 d.c) Museo Regional de Antropología Palacio Cantón Mérida.

What is it that these figures actually contain? As if each character were the carrier of their own underworld, these pre-Hispanic figures do not seem to express the indivisible unity of the person as much as its divisible and fragmentary character. In contrast to deities, which tended to display their interiority on the skin, host figures adopt a human appearance and they display a relatively uniform physiognomy, although they hide within them a multiplicity of inner essences. The variation of forms makes it possible, however, to suppose that each essence had its outer manifestation and that the variable group constituted a true acquisition, in the sense of a foreign element whose essence was incorporated into inner powers. Thus, the figures housed in the interior of the bodies are of a nature distinct from that of their hosts, and in some cases, as the first figure displays, they come from faraway regions ethnically differentiated from Teotihuacan culture.7 The precedence of interior figures, as well as their variable and heterogeneous character, indicate that Mesoamerican dualism conceived alterity as a constituent part of personhood, generally divided into a recognizable physiognomy and an interiority alien to its condition.

The notion of internal alterity, which in the West appears around the late nineteenth century in the form of an unconscious enemy, designates the configuration of a subject divided into a known exterior and an unknown interior.8 However, whereas according to Freudian theory, the unconscious is the other of oneself[32], whose primordial function consists of betraying the intentions of consciousness, Indigenous souls are presented as instruments of collaboration that always lend weight to the individual, whether as devices of protection or as a means of dialogue with the outside. In comparison to the unconscious, an inexhaustible source of unease and an obstacle to perception, the internal components of the person tend to be instruments of a vision that aspires to be in different places and to perceive the “cosmos” from variable perspectives. Therefore, the Indigenous version of alterity proposes traveling a path parallel to that of psychoanalytic theory; instead of reducing the interior sphere, diminishing its effects on the exterior, the receptor spaces incorporate foreign segments and proceed to multiply their quantity and their source to see things from the viewpoint of their enemies. The “discourse of the Other” is not, in this case, the interpretation that subverts the speaker’s narrative, but rather the necessary condition of dialogue with the underworld, whose inhabitants produce a discourse that is, by nature, distinct. If shamanism and psychoanalysis share a commonality, as Claude Lévi-Strauss [33, 34, 35, 36] proposed, that field must be sought beyond the formal operations of myths to decipher, among other things, their inevitable ontology.


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  • Translated from Spanish by Debra Nagao
  • In the sixteenth century, fray Bernardino de Sahagún recorded that “when the baby had arrived on earth, then the midwife shouted; she gave war cries, which meant that the little woman had fought a good battle, had been a brave warrior, had taken a captive, had captured a baby” (cited by [2]: 650; English from [3]: 167).
  • “For so was it said: ‘When we die, it is not true that we die; for still we live, we are resurrected. We still live, we awaken”(Sahagún, Códice Florentino, book 10, chap. 29; English from [3]: 192)
  • “There was a goddess called Tlalteutl, which is the earth itself, which, according to them, had the shape of [a] man; others used to say it was a woman … Later they made the fish Cipactli the earth, which they called Tlalteutl, and they depict it as god of the earth”(Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas 1941: 18).
  • As Guilhem Olivier has observed, the connections between Mexica identity and that of their enemies are evident in the enthronement of the Mexica tlatoani, designated “our beast, our enemy” (totequacauh, toyaouh), who was also said to speak “in a foreign language.” From there “the fact that the Mexica tlatoani adopted the identity of the god of his principal enemies to ritually generate Huitzilopochtli-Yaotl” takes on greater meaning ([2]: 652–653).
  • According to Dehouve, this proposal is fully confirmed by texts in Nahuatl, from which it can be inferred that “drilling with eyes, opening up ears” meant “to educate” ([29]: 78).
  • In a typically Teotihuacan style, the motifs that decorate Figure 4, with seated figures at both ends and seen in profile, are instead of Maya origin and thus are different from the outer body that housing them.
  • As is known, the critique of the subject was one of the essential reflections in the work of Freud, who considered the principal enemy of the subject was the subject himself. With the idea of the unconsciousenemy, as Laplantine [31] notes, “psychoanalysis introduces the contradiction and the negativity of this notion, that cannot have anything to do with identity matters,” because the subject ceases to be owner of himself.

Written By

Saúl Millán

Submitted: February 16th, 2022Reviewed: March 14th, 2022Published: May 13th, 2022