Masks were always part of Aztec ritual and religious ceremony, transformational objects believed to have great power and to open a portal from one identity or reality to another. Aztec masks symbolized the heathen nature of indigenous peoples to the conquering Europeans who deconstructed -- or melted down -- masks of precious metals and gemstones to reduce them to the monetary spoils of conquest.
Creating a Sacred Face
The Aztecs called themselves the Mexica, after a legendary priest-king from their past. They created a vibrant, highly-ceremonial, religious and bloody culture with its capital where Mexico City stands today. Masks were magical ornaments and their use was strictly regulated. Those worn by the rulers for sacred rituals and offered to the gods were made of the finest materials. The Aztecs demanded tribute from conquered tribes and were avid traders. They mined silver; collected gold from Panama; rare feathers from the rain forests of Guatemala and jadeite from its lowlands; turquoise from veins in New Mexico; and shell, coral and pearls from everywhere. The most exquisite masks were carved from or adorned with precious minerals, metals and plumes. Aztec craftsmen developed a mosaic style in which pieces of turquoise were cut and fastened to mask forms made of wood.
Aztecs wore masks for every important religious and civic ceremony. Priests used masks to connect to the deities and ask for favors or draw attention to auspicious sacrifices. The year was organized around agriculture and great feasts and sacrifices took place to appease and importune Cinteotl, the corn god; Tlaloc, god of rain, corn and fertility; Tonatiah, a sun god; and major omnipotent gods like Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. For fire ceremonies, priests wore costumes that resembled Tlaloc and added masks to symbolize putting on the god's power before their ritual distribution of sacred fire. Rulers were invested with their earthly powers, which included divine status and the ability to intercede directly with deities, by putting on the ceremonial masks of the gods and "becoming" them in an elaborate rite.
Death masks typically have closed eyes and open mouths, but the mouth may also be solid as the mask will not be worn by a living person. Only high-ranking Aztecs were given the privilege of wearing ornamental death masks made of precious materials. The mask was believed to animate whatever or whomever wore it, so a royal or important corpse would be dressed in the clothing of a particular god, the face covered with the mask of the god's face. After the ruler was cremated, the mask might be used to "animate" an effigy of the former king so it could receive valuable tribute from neighboring allies who came to honor the passing of power. Some funerary masks were buried with a corpse or ashes; others were offered to the gods or preserved in memory of the deceased by heirs.
Aztec warriors who killed in battle literally wore the face of their enemy. The dead warrior's facial skin was flayed off and made into a mask that could be offered to the gods or worn by the victor. The masks were treated to resemble soft leather hide and could also be "enlivened" with the addition of eyeballs, tongues and noses made from shell or stone. These reanimated faces with filled-in orifices could not be worn in post-battle celebrations -- they were left at temple altars or buried in ceremonial offerings.
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