Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Addicted to Liminality: The Ritual Year of the Mexicas

Performance, Peggy Phelan insists, is ephemeral, leaving us only traces of the original event, whether that trace is the documentation of the event, the recreation or repetition of it, or merely the memory of its occurrence. Consequently, that places performance as focused on the now, on the present moment,

When the mode of performance is ritual, or religious ceremony, its temporal intention can be different. Ritual and religious ceremony serve not only in the present moment, but also as commemoration as well as what Inga Clendinnen calls “primitive technology,” a desire to influence the future. In the case of pre-conquest cultures such as the Mexica, this technology was tied to a deep level of anxiety over their very existence, over fears of the extinguishment of the sun, of the cataclysmic end of cycles of life. Consequently, ritual held a central place in the life of the Mexica.

In his study of ritual across cultures, Victor Turner describes the process of social drama, in which breeches occur, followed by a period of suspension, and then reintegration. This period of suspension he calls liminality, and it is in the liminal period of time, the liminal space, that change and transformation occur. Ritual and ceremony, including sacrifices and divination, fall directly within liminal time. The Mexica, with an almost constant cycle of rituals, maintained a continual sense of liminality, that space of suspension and transformation and this, we can argue, may have been one of the strongest appeals, the most enduring trace of Mexica ritual—and addiction to the liminality of performance.

The Mexica maintained two separate calendars. The solar calendar, or calendar of the seasons, consisted of 365 days, just as the contemporary western calendar. The Tonalpoalli, or ritual calendar, made up 260 days, nearly 2/3 of the solar year. Everyone in the community, regardless of social position or wealth, had roles to play in these ritual celebrations, from the small to the elaborate. The months of the Mexica calendars were divided into 20 day segments, and many elements of Mexica ritual and preparation were encompassed periods of months or even a year. The feast of Hitzilopochtli, the sun god, lasted for 20 days. According to Clendinnen, fasting by both priests and laymen would occur for periods of 20, 60 or even 80 days—up to four months in the Mexica calendar, and “warriors who had pledged themselves by eating the flesh of Huitilopochtli, the austerities endured for a full year.” (256)

Communal preparations for rituals and feast days included creating objects such as ritual costuming and robes, creating images and likenesses of the gods, which the European consquistadors later mistook for idolatry, focusing on the final product rather than on the process of its creation, cooking, including the making of seed dough and of certain types of bread. In fact, Clendinnen suggests that the rituals created a “bridge between high ritual and domestic action,” (246). Thus for even the most ordinary Mexicas, their lives were permeated by ritual. “Access to ritual excitements was not,” she says, “an occasional grace note, but an enduring part of the rhythm of living . . . ritual generated experience and . . . knowlede[,] . . . opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative.” (241) It is this sense of transformation that I want to linger on for a while, to remain, if you will, liminal, suspended.

Clennnendin describes the use of objects in rituals as dislocated from their ordinary contexts. In the same way, the very lives of the Mexica, when engaged in rituals, in fasting, in preparation, were also dislocated from their ordinariness. In this way, the rhythm of life offered a degree of pleasure that kept the Mexica engaged in these contstant performances. It may seem odd to talk about pleasure when we think of the nature of some of the rituals—human sacrifice, the flaying of the victims and the wearing of their skins, strict fasting and sexual abstinence, ritual piercing and bloodletting, and endurance performances, including all-night or multi-day dancing, storytelling, and other performances. To a modern culture such as ours, devoted to pleasure and to the avoidance of pain, it might seem absurd to talk about these forms of participation as pleasurable.

There is, however, what we consider to be a shamanistic element to these practices. We certainly know that there are physical effects of exhaustion and starvation, which can include visions and hallucinations as well as the changes in the way our bodies respond to stimulus and to the world around us. Thus even the most ascetic, difficult, and painful practices take us out of our own bodies, again, suspending us from ordinary life. Clendinnen describes the long isolation from routine in these periods as well as describing the rituals themselves as “a calculated assault on the senses.” In what has come to influence our current conception of ritual as merely proscribed, repeated behaviors, Freud hypothesized a connection between obsessive behavior and ritual practice. And so repeated performance of and immersion in these practices, combined with their psychological and physiological effects create an addiction of sorts to the rituals and an anticipation for those feast days and celebrations which provide temporal liminality, periods of life in transformative suspension.

In a more literal sense, Mexica practices of representation allowed participants to live the lives of others. In some cases, victims who were to be sacrificed were to assume the persona of the god being celebrated. In the celebrations of Tlaloques, those who were to be sacrificed y drowning would first impersonate the water deities. Often in cases of embodying the gods and goddesses of the feast, the “actor” would be revered, treated as the deity. The sacrificial victim then spends their final days in a suspended, liminal zone in which “the preparation of the body and the doing of appropriate regalia moved one away from one’s social being and for some [such as the Ixitplas who were to die] eclipsed it permanently and altogether.” (Clendinnen 258) In the same way others participating in the rituals were also able to transcend their very identities and existences. Sahagun describes in detail the ritual costumes that crossed the line between animal and human, man and god:

“[H]e went garbed in the costly cape of precious feathers. The quetzal feather device went places on him. He had bars painted upon his face, he had the star design painted upon his face . . . He had a turquoise nose rod. His was the hummingbird disguise.” (Sahagun Part II)

Similarly, those who had been sacrificed were flayed and their skins worn by members of the community—including the warriors who had captured their victims, and those to whom they loaned the skins (as in the case of beggars or the lowly within the community). And so for many participants in the rituals, from the sacrificial victim to the poorest in the community, to the revered priestly and warrior classes, there was a very literal suspension, even elevation, out of their ordinary lives and identities. For most, there was Turner’s eventual reintegration back into the community, but understanding the nature of liminality, along with theories of religious experiences, possessions, trances, etc., we can imagine that the reintegration came with a sense of change or transformation upon the individuals.

Finally, the very spatial relationships within Mexica cities created sites of liminality. The wealth of public space, including squares and temples, provided gathering places that anticipated the events to take place there. Joseph Roach describes “vortices of behavior” public, what he calls lucid, spaces, that allow for and encourage community participation. Their very presence within the city serves as a constant reminder of the rhythm of life, of the permeation of ritual in Mexica culture. They are designed specifically for the events that they contain, such as being designed for the ritual sacrifices, to allow for the flow of blood, the positioning of the victim, and visibility of the ritual to those who are present. They are not ordinary spaces, but spaces of perpetual liminality, spaces that have been set aside for specific functions and when stepping into those spaces, participants understand and anticipate what is to take place there.

There are, of course, a variety of other functions to the varied and extensive ritual performance practices of the Mexica culture, including Clendinnen’s “primitive technology,” as well as state-building functions and those of political power. But I don’t know that these rituals would have survived and enjoyed the level of participation from all members of the community, if there were not a “payoff” beyond alleviating the existential fears of the people. The idea of liminality, of suspension from ordinary time that celebration and ritual affords, combined with the promise of transformation, the idea that life will never quite be the same, offers one way to look at that “payoff” and to understand the devotion to these rituals and willingness to participate, despite their often difficult, painful, ascetic nature.


Appel, Willa, and Richard Schechner. By means of performance : intercultural studies of theatre and ritual. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Clendinnen, Inga. Aztecs : an interpretation. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

de SahagĂșn, Bernardino, Arthur J.O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General history of the things of New Spain : Florentine codex. Santa Fe, N.M.; Salt Lake City, Utah: School of American Research; University of Utah, 1950.

"Mexica/Aztec Calendar Systems." [cited 2004]. Available from

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked : the politics of performance. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Roach, Joseph R. Cities of the dead : circum-Atlantic performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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