Smoke, Flames, and the Body in Mesoamerican Ritual Practice

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 80th Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA (2015)

Papers in this electronic symposium address the evidence for the ritual use of smoke and flame in Mesoamerica, particularly as pertaining to the human body in life and death. In past and contemporary indigenous worldview, heat and flame are animate forces and signify strength and vitality; the most powerful of individuals are embodied with immense heat. Moreover, fire is transformative; both a means to destroy but also to transport offerings to otherworldly places. The source of all heat is, of course, the sun, the central force in the Mesoamerican cosmos. Today, the importance of heat and flames are evident in a spectrum of ritual practices, which range from the use of sweatbaths to the burning of incense and other offerings. In Pre-Columbian times, human bodies were among the most valuable substances burned. The papers in this symposium represent a diversity of case studies pertaining to the application and meaning of heat and fire in ancient, historic, and modern Mesoamerica and are drawn from archaeology, bioarchaeology, epigraphy, iconography, ethnohistory, and ethnography. This session will be followed by a more detailed symposium to be held at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in October, 2015.

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  • Documents (7)

  • Fire and smoke in Postclassic Petén: human remains, deity effigies, and codices (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only William Duncan. Gabrielle Vail. Prudence Rice.

    Fire and smoke were fundamental ritual forces in Mesoamerican religious worldview. Found in varied contexts (funerary processing, animation ceremonies, and desecratory rituals), fire and smoke were applied to multiple media (human bodies, architecture, and ceramics). In the Postclassic (AD 950–1524) Maya lowlands, burning both processed honored ancestors’ remains and violated enemies’ remains. Ceramic incense burners with deity effigies were used to burn resins to communicate with supernaturals....

  • Fire, transformation and bone relics: elite funerals at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ximena Chávez Balderas.

    As described in historical sources, the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan was the final resting place for some elite individuals: their bodies were exposed to the fire and cremated bones were deposited in funerary urns. However, archaeological findings suggest that funerary rituals were more complex, depending on the identity, social status and cause of death of the deceased as well as body symbolism. Seven urns containing cremated bones from five individuals along with numerous burial goods were...

  • Forms and Meanings of Human Fire Exposure among the Northern Lowland Maya (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Vera Tiesler.

    This paper explores some of the forms, occasions, and meanings of human fire exposure among the Northern Lowland Maya during the Classic period. Conceptual points of departure are native concepts of heat, smoke and fire, together with their transformative powers in human beings, ritual enactment, and physicality. These notions provide blueprints for the spectrum of treatments documented in the area’s mortuary record, spanning veneration, profanation and/or sacrifice. Combining forensic...

  • Highland Mexican Souls as Essences and Symbols (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Markus Eberl.

    The ancient Aztecs believed in multiple souls, including Tonalli, Ihiyotl, Yolia, and Nahualli. These souls overlap and extend beyond animated bodies. For example, the Tonalli is not only the heat of life and centered in the head but also an essence shared by animals and humans, similar to the Nahualli. Yolia refers to the physical heart and animates living beings. At death, it takes the form of a bird and flies away. These examples mix description and symbol: Is Tonalli literally heat or...

  • To Burn like the Sun: Rituals of Fire and Death among the Classic Maya (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Andrew Scherer. Stephen Houston.

    The dichotomies of hot and cold, light and darkness were essential to Classic Maya cosmology. The celestial and underworld journey of solar deities offered a fundamental mythic charter, and fire was the ultimate transformative force, providing a bridge between earthly and otherworldly realms. Such ideology is especially patent in rites of death, sacrifice, and veneration. Monuments from western kingdoms describe censing rituals performed months, years, and even decades after the death of...

  • Transforming the body: fire in mortuary practices in ancient Michoacán, Mexico (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Gregory Pereira.

    Ethnohistoric sources from prehispanic Michoacán highlight the symbolic importance of fire for the Postclassic Tarascan state. The fact that Curicaueri, the principal Tarascan god, was a fire god and that cremation was used during the warriors’ and ruling elite’s funerary rites, emphasizes its symbolic and social importance. In this presentation, I will examine the different roles played by fire in ritual transformations of the human body. I will consider the ethnohistoric sources as well as the...

  • Where There's Fire, There's Smoke: Contemporary Lacandon Maya Incense Burners and Ritual Transformation (2015)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Joel Palka.

    Lacandon Maya fabricate incense burners ("the gods’ ceramic vessels") found by archaeologists in Maya ruins, caves, and abandoned "god houses". Ethnographies and my field notes describe the incense burners and how they are made and used. The function and symbolism of the burners provide clues to the importance of fire and smoke in past Maya rituals, including cremation. The incense burners are formed from clay with human heads, arms, and legs. The anthropomorphic bowls become bodies of gods...