Talking about Tlaloc, 3

Reproduction Aztec sacrificial "Tlaloc" knife offered on eBay. Click to embiggen.

As I wrote about earlier, I have been maintaining a small shrine to the rain god Tlaloc under a nearby county-road bridge. Our creek—currently dry except for a couple of beaver ponds upstream—goes through a culvert there, one big enough for me to walk through standing straight.

When my shrine washes away, I will be happy to rebuild it in a different place!

The culvert is as near as I can come to the classic site:

Tlaloc did not only dwell in temples and on mountain tops. He lived in moist, fertile, and secluded caves too.

But the reason you will not find me going too far in any kind of neo-Aztec direction is that I am a little squeamish about sacrificing kids. Just candles and turkey feathers so far.

Yep, children were (are?) Tlaloc’s favorite—or so the Aztecs thought. Some were kids from enemy tribes, captured during raids or the flower wars. (As a euphemism, doesn’t “flower war” beat  Obama’s “kinetic military action” completely?) Or sometimes not. You had to be tough to be Aztec nobility.

The children were beautifully adorned, dressed in the style of Tlaloc and the Tlaloque. On litters strewn with flowers and feathers; surrounded by dancers, they were transported to a shrine and their hearts would be pulled out by priests.

If, on the way to the shrine, these children cried their tears were viewed as signs of imminent and abundant rains. Children who did not weep could have their fingernails torn off in order to achieve this effect. Every Atlcahualo festival, seven children were sacrificed in and around Lake Tetzcoco in the Aztec capital. They were either slaves or the second born children of nobles. . . According to the chronicler Durán, Tlaloc had the additional name of ‘Path Under the Earth’ or ‘Long Cave’.

Investigators such as Doris Heyden suggest that the little passages that lead off of the main caves underneath the Sun Pyramid in Teotihuacan could have been used to house the bodies of children that were sacrificed to this god each year. At an excavation elsewhere, the burial chambers of seven infants placed in a circle inside a cave were found. The centre of the cave roof was open and let in rain. There were also storing facilities thought to have once been grain deposits. The archaeologist who worked on this site, Linda Manzanilla, equated the caves, water, childrens’ bodies and grain with the mythical Tlalocan; the Tlaloque who lived there were small, like children, and it was abundant with both water and grain. Out of Tlalocan’s opening came the rain, seeds and new life and into it came the dead and retreating rain clouds

Well, there is a cosmology for you. How far down that road to go?

Was Tlaloc “the same” as the Mayan “Chaac,” or did one god displace the other, as this article (in Spanish) suggests, during a desperate time of drought?

Afterthought: the school bus used to stop almost on top of the shrine. Currently it does not, because there are no kids on our road young enough to ride it—except for two who are apparently homeschooled.  You cannot escape these connections?

22 thoughts on “Talking about Tlaloc, 3

  1. If he liked child sacrifices that much, perhaps it’s for the best that the bus *doesn’t* stop near the shrine anymore! 🙂

  2. Chas

    I sure had not made the connection when I set up the shrine, I can tell you that. What I would like is to see water flowing again. Then I can return to the first shrine location, at a tiny spring over the ridge behind our house.

  3. I had a very good relationship with Cloacina regarding a dry run creek. She is not a rain goddess, but She does regulate water flow — without the child sacrificial elements.
    Did you read “1491” by Charles Mann? He thinks the human sacrifices became part of religious traditions as droughts became worse and worse.

  4. I own 1491 but confess to not having read all of it. As the one article that I linked to mentioned, perhaps the Mayans paid more attention to Tlaloc/Chaac during a drought. And certainly long droughts affected the Ancestral Puebloan towns of the American Southwest during what would have been the European Middle Ages. On the other hand, when Durán was recording, I do not think that the Valley of Mexico was in a drought situation.

  5. I happened to find these Tlaloc related posts on accident surfing Google. I don’t mean to be overcritical or anything, but Tlaloc worship hasn’t really went anywhere in the past 2K years, nor has it changed that much. People still sacrifice chickens and quail to Him. People still preform autosacrifice for Him, as well as a “mock” form of child sacrifice (though in parts of Mexico where they drill oil you always hear rumors of actual, recent child being on the menu, but that’s another story).

    Furthermore, relating Tlaloc or Tlaloque to even the Hopi Kachina cult is a stretch that even Karl Taube can’t reasonably cross, though you can definitely make Tlaloc-related arguments from Ecuador to Northern California if you really want to get imaginative rather than academic. But, really, The Mesoamerican Rain God is the Mesoamerican Rain God, Casas Grandes probably being the most northern site for truly cut and dry Mexican Storm God imagery. This isn’t to say that Colorado isn’t a fine place to worship Tlaloc, because it is. It’s just that He wasn’t here until the Indios with the Spanish brought Him into the San Luis. Not that this matters. He’s known to take over foreign areas, running the local deities out of town after having His soldiers deface their images with His. But that’s another bag of cats.

    Chaac comes from the same Olmec source as Tlaloc. He most likely wasn’t displaced but rather reabsorbed into a long existing religious concept in ancient Mexico, dominated by the Teotihuacano Storm God iconography (they did, after all, sort of stroll into the Maya areas and culturally take over). The later Toltec Rain God images sometimes feature a very Central Mexican looking Tlaloc holding the Manikin Scepter, which is a purely Maya feature only wielded by Chaac. At places like Uxmal, there are Rain God images that borrow heavily from both the Central Mexican gogged-and-fanged iconography as well as the Maya Chaac iconography. Hell, the astronomy and war complexes associated with them are even the same. The “two” deities were most likely seen as the same divinity by different cultural groups, just as Cocijo and Dzahui were recognized by the Nahua as Tlaloc and vise versa. This went to the extent that the Nahua adopted features from the more abstract southern iconography in later depictions. While its true that there were features and mythologies about the Rain God that differed via region, the general core belief is the same.

    This belief also went well beyond just being a deity in control of rain and storms. We can start with the Florentine Codex book 6 Song of Tlaloc lines “Lord of the Mountainous Heights, Lord of the Cavernous Depths” and work from there. It sounds like a simple concept at first until you start looking at what it means to be a ruler of those things in the Mesoamerican mind. Sure, rain is a big part of it, but so is the concepts of Tlalocan and Cincalco, realms which this deity rules. That’s something I’d recommend the work of Tim Knab for, specifically “The Dialogue of Earth and Sky”. Also some of the Tedlock’s Maya ethnographic work in relation to water. You read that stuff, start looking at the codex images, see the relation between Tlaloc and rulership/the end of cycles/otherworldly things and it’s really clear really fast that the title of “Rain God” is a very, very narrow definition no matter what Mesoamerican culture you’re talking about… Except for the Tarascans, but even they made clearly Tlaloc related things for export for the rest of Mexico.

    I could go on for hours.

    He’s not a divinity that can be pegged as regional in any way, but there are some space/place things that are important in setting up a proper Tlaloc sacred space (things constant from the Late Formative all the way to modern times). With this in mind, there are a lot of essential elements in Tlaloc worship that you’re missing for a proper momoztli (the Nahuatl term for an “altar”). Like I said, I don’t mean to be critical, but I can help if you’d like. 🙂

    1. No, I’m not. I looked through your blog for a description of such, but couldn’t find the passage you’re referring to.

  6. Ah, I see. I’m surprised he makes the Kachina/Tlaloc connection for aforementioned reasons. I’d be more comfortable with a Kachina/Tlaloque connection, if any at all. Tlaloque and the Tlalocan complex are a thing most Westerners have trouble with, since it’s more of a self devouring thing than everybody playing for the same “team” with the same “goals”, so-to-speak.

    Oh, I should also mention, just to be fair, that Tlaloc worship often comes with an official entry into the universal- sometimes supernatural- food chain. You’d think you’d already belong to such a complex just by living, but that goes back to the whole Tlaloque complex idea again. I’m not trying to be intimidating or anything, just a heads up.

    If it helps any, since you’re in the mountains, technically you don’t need to place an altar to Him in any specific place. Though it’s a bonus that you found appropriate places. But, really, in Mexico, pretty much anywhere in the mountains is considered kosher.

    I’d also argue that He’s not the oldest recognizable religious complex in the Americas. He’s the oldest, continuous recognizable religious complex, but Huehueteotl imagery beats early Tlaloc imagery by at least 500 years. The Feathered Serpent, I’d argue, is also older though, once again, not with the same continuity or consistency. Fun fact: Evidence from Chalcatzingo indicates that the people there were preforming the exact same, if not strikingly similar, rituals to the Rain God as the Aztecs were. Just the location seemed to change over time, but not much else.

    Just remember that the rain part of the Rain God is actually just a small part of what He is. As you keep reading and finding out more you’ll get what I’m saying about this.

  7. Robert Mathiesen

    Shock wrote:

    “I should also mention, just to be fair, that Tlaloc worship often comes with an official entry into the universal- sometimes supernatural- food chain. You’d think you’d already belong to such a complex just by living,” [but it’s not that simple].

    Maybe not Tlaloc only, but other distinct Gods of other distinct places will draw a person into this food chain once he (she) has begun to worship them — or maybe sometimes even if he has not done that.

    There is a chain of numinous places in the Berkeley Hills that remind me just a little of this: first Indian Rock, then Mortar Rock (with the old mortars and the giant footprint hammered into its surface with stone tools), and finally Cragmont Rock. At least to my perception, the single Power that was in these three places seemed to have the same kind of “ecology” that Shock describes — or at least it did when I lived there in the ’50s and ’60s.

    There is also a story about the death of a child there, which was told to me around 1952/53 by another boy my age (5th grade), that echoes the sacrifices of children. Long ago, he said, a small child crawled into the narrow crevice still visible at the foot of Cragmont Rock, and got stuck inside. No adult could get far enough into the crevice to get him out so he died in there of thirst. Nor could anyone manage to remove his body afterwards. He is still in there. So you should not go anywhere near that Rock, whether by day or by night, lest what took him will take you, too.

    The crevice was walled up to keep this from happening again. If you peer into it, you can see the wall a little ways in. (Obviously, I went near that place myself, once or twice.)

  8. @Chas:

    Sure. While it depends on the time of year, if it’s an official Tlaloc-related “month”, etc, the basic ritual makeup me and a lot of others use is consists of a few simple components:

    1. A momoztli- An altar, but, more properly, a “seat” for a deity to reside during worship. The Mexica could MacGuyver these on the fly for deities like Tezcatlipoca who were known to randomly appear in otherwise inconvenient places. In it’s simpliest form, a momoztli is a flat thing to serve as an offering surface with another flat thing to serve as a “seat” for the deity.

    2. A deity image of some sort. This is actually really important since physical form and supernatural form go hand in hand, with function following iconographic form. This is a pain for a lot of poeple since Mesoamerican statuary is hard to come by. A lot of people buy a nice frame, find a good deity image, print it on quality paper and frame it for lack of any other resources. This goes on top of the momoztli.

    3. A movable thing to keep charcoal in. The modern Maya sometimes use a device made out of an old soup can and a stick. I suggest something better if you can do it. While not traditional, the incensarios that Danzantes use- basically ceramic “chalices”- work well for this, since you can both set it at the base of the momoztli and make the directional incense offerings with it.

    4. Copal. There are four types of copal, all of which smell and burn different. Copal is a really key point, for it serves as both food for the Teteo and as a carrier of prayers. For Tlaloc related stuff, I use either a high quality white or yellow, though, truth be told, at one time or another, or for specific events, the red and the black were also burned for Him.

    5. Yauhtli, a.k.a. tagetes lucidia, a.k.a. Mexican marigold. This isn’t the same are regular marigolds, and it smells strongly like anise. I grow it, but you can also buy it online since there’s an ill-gotten claim based in a bad last century ethnography that it’s psychoactive. (I did some extensive lab and personal research with this plant a few years back, and no matter what I did it’s psychoactive claims are most likely false or exaggerated, even with photoreactivity taken into account.) The Aztecs used it both medicinally and as incense specifically to water related deities. Often, it was both burnt and scattered about the momoztli.

    6. Sometimes I’ll burn rubber as an offering, too. The black smoke represents the rain clouds and is specific to weather petitions. Pure rubber without crap in it is easy to find anywhere they sell laboratory grade, pure rubber test tube stoppers. Ironically, while most of the population isn’t chemists, they tend to have these at hardware stores. Go fig.

    7. Amatl paper strips. To offer blood on. Amatl is a common paper that artists still use. Easy to get. Make sure you cut the strips long enough to tie a knot out of them for later.

    8. Some sort of bloodletting tool. The Aztecs used maguey thorns. I’ve done that, as well as obsidian lancets and stingray spines. These are all difficult to come by, and the modern Maya use broken glass bottles sometimes, so any sharp, sterile, easily controlled tool can be used. I’ve heard of people using diabetic lancets and scalpel blades.

    9. Fire. Candles work, as does any other sort of sustainable flame. Why is fire always present? Because Huehueteotl is always there from the time you’re born till the time you die.

    10. (Optional ) A “container” of some sort to place certain offerings into. I use a serpentine bowl that I picked up at the gem and mineral show for my travel kit, but, for my home kit, I use a simple ceramic bowl that I bought at a community ceramics sale for a few bucks. Actually, I have a Chac Mool I made for my main altar, but that’s extreme. The one I have on my Tezcatlipoca altar is also quite elaborate, being a replica of a historical piece with a serpentine bowl set in the center. While most temple altars had a larger version of these things as a necessity, it can be forgone on a household altar. However, I’ve learned that even a small one is useful. When your only fire source is candles and you have to burn paper at the end of a ritual, it’s good to have a place to put the burning paper.

    A basic ritual itself is actually simple. It starts by burning copal and some sort of address to the deity and His/Her various “names” or symbolic references. While not applicable to all Teteo, only the four part figures, the copal smoke is then offered to the East, West, South, North, up, down, center. Some modern groups simply start at East and work counter clockwise, but this isn’t what’s commonly found in either living examples or primary sources. This is followed by basic prayers and offerings. It concludes with the burning and/or breaking of some of the offerings, such as the burning of paper which blood has been let onto if you did that, while other offerings are left on the altar for four days. After the four day period, offerings can be removed and disposed of, preferably by burying. I live on the edge of a wildlife area, so I often throw food offerings into the field. Hey, it keeps the coyotes out of the trash cans!

    Lately, I’ve been offering the first of my meager harvest for the year. I’m not much of a farmer, but it’s traditional for the first bits of harvest to go to Tlaloc.

    I could go into specifics of prayer structure, but I really don’t think those are as important as the sincerity of the prayer. For example, I start every ritual with a variation on the Nahua invocations to copal from Alarcon’s “Heathen Superstitions”, but that’s really just a formality, and not one that I always being with (ie. a sudden storm rolls in and I don’t have time). What really matters is the ritual itself, the thanks you’re giving, the debt you’re paying.


    I’ve experienced similar things before beyond where my own religion could possibly reach geographically, though I always choose to interpret it through the lens of my religion. For me, it keeps things simple and my responsive actions more manageable. The Yosemite Valley comes to mind as a place like what you describe. I call them places with an “eating landscape”. When I worked there a few years ago, it was amusing to watch the tourists and then hear the stories of those who lived in the Valley. All sorts of people had various tales about it, none of which were as light and love as you’d think from such a place. Hell, while I was there SAR went looking for a guy who went off randomly wandering into the woods for seven days from Glacier Point because God called him. I was told it was actually a pretty common event. I knew a lady who was a rock climber who swore Satan lived somewhere in the Valley and was out to kill her. I wasn’t very comfortable there, either, and almost got taken out by falling rocks and trees a few times. The old mythology about the place is also equally unsettling and usually surrounded by death connotations. The original name of the Valley was “Place of the Killers” after all.

    1. Thanks for that. Many of the actions are what I am used to from the Mesoamerican religion seminars that I had with Davíd Carrasco back in grad school. (Not at Harvard but at the U. of Colorado.) Carrasco, however, was not interested in Tlaloc so much as in other ideas about cosmology and rulership and how they were expressed in architecture, astrology, and so on.

  9. Robert Mathiesen

    Places with an “eating landscape” — yes, that about sums it up for me also. Thank you, Shock, for that phrase, and also for your perspective on such places. Not many here could shed that kind of clear light on them, I reckon.

    As for Yosemite: I went there once, just once, in my late teens with a friend. We climbed to the top of Yosemite Falls, and then we climbed down to the deep basin that is just a few feet below the upper lip of the fall. On that hot day, the flow over the lip of the basin (straight down to the floor of the valley) was just about 1 inch deep at its deepest. The basin looked to be no more than 12 feet deep, with clear water and a sandy bottom. After carefully testing for possible underwater currents, I went in and tried to swim to the bottom. But the basin turned out to be a great deal deeper than it looked. I reached the bottom, but I nearly passed out coming up before I finally broke the surface and could breathe again. (I think I might even have had a little help, a push upwards from something unseen, toward the end. It’s hard to be sure about such things when one’s oxygen is nearly out.) I could easily swim underwater for 5 minutes and more in those days of my youth, so I may have been underwater in that basin for about 7 minutes, or even a little longer.

    “Place of the Killers” indeed! The landscape very nearly ate me. But I was spared that day — as I was a few other times, both before and after I went to Yosemite, in a few other “eating landscapes.”

    There was, I am pretty sure, a quite specific reason why I was spared that day in that particular, uncommonly alluring “eating landscape,” though I didn’t learn what the reason was until after I had turned fifty and had been put in the position to do certain things for certain people. However, that story is not mine to tell here. “The mills of the Gods grind slow . . .”

  10. Have you ever read the book “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite”? You might like it. The guys who wrote the book did an astounding amount of research. I think parts of it should be reprinted in the NPS pamphlets, just to keep people from doing stupid crap, sometimes even crap not-so-stupid but still dangerous. It’s an unforgiving place, with more people killed by water than anything else.

    If you’re into strange places, I suggest you check out a place in Southern California called the Salton Sea. Rather than fast death you have slow, creeping death. There’s also a striking beauty to it and a dash of surrealism to the place. And people get stuck there quite frequently. In Niland, I heard a legend that if you drink water from the Sea you’re doomed to be stuck in the Imperial Valley forever. And yes, it’s safe to drink the water if you really want to. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not as polluted as the media would make you think.

    1. Robert Mathiesen

      I saw the Salton Sea back in the late ’50s, with the flooded towns. It didn’t feel to me like the landscape was hungry there, just sad and dying, due to massive human folly and arrogance.

  11. @Chas:

    Oh, you were a grad student there back in the early 90’s then? It’s where I graduated from, too. Besides having read a lot of his stuff, I got to hear about Carrasco a lot from profs and staff. Everybody had good things to say, but Carrasco never grabbed me as an iconography sort of guy, which is really where most Rain God arguments start. I’ve found out that in depth studies of Tlaloc and the rest of the Rain God complex tends to be more among Mexican scholars while Americans and Europeans prefer Tezcatlipoca. There was actually an issue of Arqueologia Mexicana a few years ago that was all about the Rain God. Good luck finding something like that this side of the border.

    1. Highly intelligent guy, ran a good seminar when he was not gabbing on the phone with Matos Moctezuma. (Mostly about that Templo Mayor exhibit that they helped bring to the U.S.) He was my thesis advisor. His ego would have cast a shadow on the Templo Mayor, I can say that. I was never one of his acolytes, so to speak. No, not into iconography so much. Performance, yes, and “spirituality and physical space.”

  12. Given the perhaps inevitable drift of this conversation toward discussing Aztec practices, to which I have contributed, I should say that it all started when I began to consider Craig Childs’ discussion of his possible cult in the American Southwest in House of Rain.

    This area, while certainly involved in trade with the Valley of Mexico, and almost certainly influenced by ideas from Tenochtitlan and other centers of civilization, they do not appear to have been in their political orbits.

    So call me provincial, but I am not immediately ready to assume that the Aztec (or Maya, etc.) way is the only way. What was going on Hovenweep, where the defiant and doomed towers surround the last good water source in that area?

    What does the god want now? The same old sacrifices, be they children, turkeys, or the worshippers’ blood?

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