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Thursday, September 28, 2023

Mixcoac ⁠— bringing order to the cosmos through human sacrifice

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Much has changed in Mexico City since the time of the Aztecs, but heavy construction does not seem to be one of them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the middle of the concrete jungle that is Mexico City lay the remains of a ceremonial center dedicated to one of Mesoamerica’s most unique deities, the mighty Mixcóatl. 

Massive overpasses run directly over the ancient ceremonial center of Mixcoac. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Mixcóatl appears in the religion and mythology of several mesoamerican peoples, including the Mixtecs, Taras, and Tlaxcaletecs. But regardless of his exact cultural manifestation, it is generally agreed that this powerful god is closely associated with war, the hunt, and tempests.

Illustration of Mixcóatl based on his likeness in the Borgia Codex in the Vatican Library. Illustration: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The role of Mixcóatl in ancient mythology is extensive, but he is closely tied to creation stories and other major deities, including Quetzalcóatl and Huitzilopochtli.

The glyph used to represent Mixcoac on codices and maps features what seems to be a serpent with a cloud springing from its head. 

The crude snake imagery is likely a reference to Mixcóatl involved in the act of creation, as the cloud is thought to be associated with the Milky Way. Graphic: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like with other major deities, ritual sacrifice and bloodletting were a big part of the cult of Mixcóatl. One particularly interesting, if gruesome, aspect of human sacrifice during the Aztec period was the embodiment of a deity in a human subject.

A lifesize representation of a Nahua man dressed in the regalia of Mixcóatl found at Mixcoac’s onsite museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The person chosen to embody the god, in this case, Mixcóatl, would be dressed in ceremonial regalia and treated not as an ambassador of the god but quite literally as the god himself for a year. But after this lapse of time, the Aztecs would sacrifice the individual, thus performing a literal divine blood sacrifice. 

These sorts of sacrifices were central to the cosmology of several Mesoamerican peoples but seemed to have primarily originated in the region surrounding Tenochtitlan and other major Aztec centers. However, they were also practiced to a lesser degree in lands occupied by the Maya. 

The surviving sections of the ceremonial center of Mixcoac itself are relatively small but surely sprawled much further in every direction.

An aerial photo shows the surviving structures of the ceremonial center of Mixcoac. Graphic: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The largest structure at the site is a pyramidal structure dedicated to Mixcóatl. It dominates a plaza surrounded by smaller structures, including what appear to be elite residential areas. 

The pyramidal structure dedicated to Mixcóatl was likely considerably larger as many of its elements were used to erect constructions during the colonial period. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Near the pyramid is the main ceremonial chamber. According to historical records, it was adorned with stucco, and a throne painted in red and covered in animal pelts that survived until roughly the 1940s.

Artwork depicting the main ceremonial chamber of Mixcoac, the seat of the high priest: Photo: INAH

The rectangular central square would have been off limits to all but the most elite members of Aztec society, as it was considered a holy place intended for ritual.

Mixcoac’s central square is within the ceremonial center in what today is Mexico City. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the distinctive architectural features of sites such as Mixcoac is the use of basal river stones in constructing its temples. 

Volcanic stones used to fill in the spaces between large slabs of larger carved stones would not have been visible as they were all covered in painted stucco. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

A sizable section of the archaeological site is incorporated into an onsite museum to protect it from rain, erosion, and Mexico City’s notorious air pollution.

A small section of the ceremonial center at Mixcoac within the onsite museum features a well-preserved stucco floor. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The onsite museum does a good job of presenting information that places the ceremonial center of Mixcoac into the context of greater Tenochtitlan and its surrounding domains. 

An infographic provides information on other nearby ceremonial centers in the Valley of Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Mixcoac from anywhere in Mexico City is fairly straightforward. Several bus and subway routes will get you within spitting distance, but you are probably better off taking a taxi or hailing a ride-sharing service.

Mixcoatl in Mexico City. Photo: Google Maps

Mixcoac is relatively close to Mexico City’s famous museum of Anthropology, so if you get an early start, you could always visit both on the same day.

Mexico City’s anthropology museum is amongst Mexico’s most impressive museums and is a must-visit for any visitor. Just avoid the notoriously awful cafeteria. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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