The Column of Death at Mitla, Hugged by Mesoamericans For Millennia
The Column of Death is the name given to a pillar at the archaeological site of Mitla, in the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The column was named for a legendary ritual in which it appeared. This legend, in turn, was inspired by the site’s connection with death. This is partly supported by tales told about the site, as well as the archaeological evidence. Nevertheless, a large amount of information about the site has been lost, as the Spanish caused much damage at the site when they arrived in the area during the middle of the 16 th century. But the Column of Death survived despite the widespread destruction of the conquistadors.
Mitla: ‘Place of the Dead’ In Many Ancient Local Languages
Mitla is one of Mexico’s best-known archaeological sites. In Oaxaca it is only exceeded in rank by the stunning site of Monte Albán . The Mitla site is situated at an elevation of 4855 feet (1480 m), on the eastern edge of a high valley, and is surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur. Mitla lies about 24 miles (38 km) southeast of Oaxaca City, the state’s capital. It may be added that the site is located within the modern municipality of San Pablo Villa de Mitla (Pablo being the Spanish equivalent for Paul).
The word ‘Mitla’ is the Hispanicized / transliterated version of a Nahuatl word, which is translated to mean ‘Place of the Dead,’ or ‘Underworld.’ The site, however, was not established by the Aztecs, who spoke Nahuatl. Instead, Mitla is generally thought to have been founded (or at least made significant) by the Zapotecs, who called the site Lyobaa, meaning ‘Resting Place.’ The Mixtecs, another indigenous people of Mexico, knew the site as Nuu Ndiyi, which also means ‘Place of the Dead.’ Despite the site’s different names, it is clear that Mitla had some connection with the dead.
A Small Village For 400 Years And Then A Religious Center
The archaeological evidence suggests that the site of Mitla was occupied as early as 900 BC, when it was nothing more than a small, insignificant village. It was only later, when the Zapotecs took over the site, that Mitla became an important religious center. The Zapotec culture is thought to have been established as early as 500 BC. The central valleys of Oaxaca were the heartland of the Zapotec culture, though it also spread to the north, the south, and the east. The Zapotecs referred to themselves as Be'ena'a, meaning ‘The People,’ and one of their first major settlements was Monte Albán.
The fabulous landscape of Mount Alban, also built by the Zapotecs, in the same area of Mexico where Mitla lies. (WitR / Adobe Stock )
The period between 700 and 1000 AD is referred to by scholars as ‘Phase IV’ of the Zapotec culture. During this phase, the Zapotecs were in decline, and most of their sites, including Monte Albán, were abandoned. The cause of their decline is still unclear. Nevertheless, it has been observed that this decline was also experienced by the Maya at Teotihuacan. This suggests that some major catastrophe must have caused these large-scale changes. In any case, after the abandonment of Monte Albán, the Zapotecs shifted their capital to the smaller site of Mitla, thus leading to its rise in prominence.
The next phase of the Zapotec culture, ‘Phase V,’ spans from 1000 to 1500 AD. It was during this period that Mitla reached its height. Nevertheless, it was also during Phase V that the Mixtecs, who lived in the northern and western parts of Oaxaca, moved into Zapotec territory. A number of Zapotec sites, including Monte Albán and Mitla, were occupied by the Mixtecs. It has been speculated that the migration of the Mixtecs to the south was caused by severe droughts. The legacy of the Mixtecs in Mitla is visible in the mark that they left on the ancient city’s architecture and design.
The Spanish arrived in Mitla in 1521 AD. At the time of their arrival, the city was still inhabited and functioning as an important religious center. Around the middle of the same century, the Spanish ordered the site to be destroyed. The site, being an important political and religious center, was regarded as a potential threat by the Spanish authorities. Moreover, the belief that Mitla was a “portal to the Underworld” did not sit well with the Spanish.
The Spanish Destroyed Mitla But Also Learned A Lot
Although the Spanish colonists may be held responsible for the destruction of Mitla, they also provided some of the best descriptions of the site. The accounts written by these Spanish soldiers and missionaries have provided a range of fascinating information about Mitla and the indigenous people who were living there during the 16 th century. For example, we learn from these reports that a high priest, known as the Vujiatao (‘Great Seer’), resided in Mitla, and that he was comparable to the Roman Catholic pope. The Vujiatao was a highly influential figure, as people from all over the Central Valleys of Oaxaca would come to Mitla to seek his help. The Vujiatao had many roles to play, including that of magistrate, prophet, and intermediary between the living and the dead. Another story recorded by the Spanish is that deceased Zapotec royals were mummified and buried in cruciform tombs directly beneath Mitla. Priests had access to the burial chambers and were believed to have had the power to speak with dead rulers.
These burial chambers were discovered centuries later by archaeologists, thus validating the legends reported by the Spanish. The burial chambers are part of the ‘Grupo de las Columnas’ or ‘Columns Group,’ one of the five main groups of structures at Mitla. More specifically, the chambers were discovered under one of the buildings in this area. It is in these burial chambers that the so-called ‘Column of Death’ was discovered.
‘Grupo de las Columnas’ or ‘Columns Group,’ one of the five main groups of structures at Mitla. These columns are identical in every way to the “actual” Column of Death! (Alberto Talavera Ortiz / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Column of Death is associated with a rather curious legend. According to that legend, the column is able to tell a person hugging it how long he / she has left to live. One version of the legend states that if a person hugging the pillar felt it moving, it means that he / she will die soon. Another variation of the story claims that anyone who hugged the column would be cursed. This follows the rationale that once a person knows how long he / she has left to live, there is nothing that the person can do to change his / her fate.
The terrifying legends attached to the Column of Death, however, do not seem to have stopped people from hugging it. As a result of people hugging it over the years, the Column of Death has suffered much damage. Consequently, hugging the pillar is now prohibited. Interestingly, there are many other columns identical in appearance to the Column of Death scattered around the site. Nevertheless, these have not been hugged, perhaps due to the absence of any legend attached to them.
Beyond the Column of Death: A World of Exceptional Artifacts
Apart from the Column of Death and the burial chambers, the ‘Columns Group’ also includes a cluster of buildings known as the ‘Palace of the Columns,’ named after its monolithic columns, which would have once supported the roofs of the buildings. The Palace is also known for its courtyards, as well as the friezes decorating its walls. The friezes are composed of cut, polished stone, each held in place by the weight of the adjacent stones. It is believed that the artisans of Mitla created these friezes in this manner, as they did not use mortar for their constructions.
The stone friezes at Mitla, all made without the use of mortar! (LRafael / Adobe Stock )
The friezes at Mitla were referred to by the Spanish as ‘Grecas,’ perhaps due to their resemblance to Greek designs. The design of the friezes may be described as “repeating geometric patterns,” and, it is said that no two designs are the same. According to one interpretation, the designs were meant to represent the lineages of royal family or represent geographical information. Another hypothesis suggests that the designs of the friezes were meant to mimic those on textiles. Incidentally, these same designs may still be found today on the rugs produced by Zapotec weavers living near the site. Yet another interpretation of the designs is that they represented the feathered serpent, a deity found in many Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs, for instance, called it Quetzalcoatl, whereas the Maya referred to it as Kukulkan.
In addition to the ‘Columns Group,’ there are four other groups of structures at Mitla – ‘Grupo de las Iglesias,’ or ‘Churches Group,’ ‘Grupo del Arroyo’ or ‘Arroyo Group,’ ‘Grupo de los Adobes’ or ‘Adobe Group,’ and ‘Grupo del Sur’ or ‘Southern Group’. Of the site’s five groups, only two, the ‘Columns Group’ and the ‘Churches Group’ were fully excavated and restored by the early 1980s.
The ‘Churches Group’ is known also as the ‘North Group,’ and is located close to the site’s entrance. This was the exact area that the Spanish identified as the ‘portal to the Underworld.’ Therefore, most of the structures in this area were destroyed, and a church built over the ruins. Incidentally, the Spanish used the stones from the demolished buildings to construct their church. The church, known as the Church of San Pablo, is easily recognized due to its red domes. Interestingly, the Church of San Pablo is the only church at Mitla not located in the center of the current town.
The Church of San Pablo built on and from the ancient ruins the Spanish destroyed at Mitla. (Noradoa / Adobe Stock )
The Sacred Status Of Mitla Continues To This Day!
In a way, the replacement of ancient temples with a Catholic church may be viewed as a continuation of the site’s sanctity. This is also evident in the fact that although the Mixtecs seized Mitla from the Zapotecs, the site continued to be treated as sacred. Having said that, it is not entirely surprising that the Mixtecs maintained Mitla’s sacred status, founded by the Zapotecs, as there were certain cultural aspects shared by both cultures. The lintel paintings, which are found on the walls of the surviving ancient buildings in the ‘Churches Group,’ may lend support to this idea. One interpretation of these paintings is that they tell the creation story shared by the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, and the Nahuas. Therefore, the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs, though two different cultures, shared the same creation story, which enabled the continuity of the Mitla’s sacred nature. Although the arrival of Catholicism meant that there was a change in the beliefs of the indigenous peoples, the site’s sanctity continued.
A section of the ruins in Mitla today with the church clearly visible on the northern edge of the city just beyond the primary entrance way. (javarman / Adobe Stock )
The three other groups at Mitla have not been fully explored and are not as well-known as the ‘Columns Group’ and the ‘Churches Group.’ Nevertheless, a brief description of each group is interesting enough. The ‘South Group’ is named for its location, i.e. in the southern end of the site (and to the south of the Mitla River). Is believed to have served mainly as a ceremonial center and contains many plazas. As this area has not been fully restored, public access to the ‘South Group’ is restricted. The ‘Adobe Group’ is situated to the north of the Mitla River and is also believed to have had a ceremonial function. This group contains courtyards and elevated structures. The third group is the ‘Arroyo Group,’ which lies to the north of the ‘Adobe Group.’ Unlike the ‘South Group’ and ‘Adobe Group,’ the ‘Arroyo Group’ is believed to have served a domestic purpose. The structures may have been the residences of the nobles responsible for conducting the site’s ceremonial rituals. The ‘Columns Group’ and the ‘Churches Group,’ by the way, lie to the north of these three other groups.
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Today, Mitla is not only an archaeological site, but also a tourist attraction. The fact that the ancient site lies within a modern municipality means that Mitla still plays a role in the lives of the area’s inhabitants. This may be seen, for instance, in the fact that the annual procession in honor of Saint Paul begins within the ruins of Mitla. On an economic level, the site is also a source of revenue for the town’s inhabitants, especially those involved in the production of handicrafts since their products are sold to tourists. This is a way to preserve traditional methods, as the goods are still made the way they always were made. Thus, the site of Mitla, which was once an important religious center, is still relevant to the people living in that area today, although perhaps for quite different reasons.
Top image: The Column of Death at Mitla has been closed off from hugging by the public for a long time, as repeated hugging causes damage. But the column in the top photo is exactly identical, in every way, to the true Column of Death hugged by Mesoamericans for centuries. Source: Eduardo Robles Pacheco / CC BY-SA 2.0 .
By Wu Mingren
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