Sexuality and Nudity in Ancient Mesoamerica
The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica left behind a rich artistic legacy that continues to captivate and intrigue modern scholars and enthusiasts. Among the myriad of themes that Mesoamerican art explored, one aspect stands out as both fascinating and provocative: human sexuality.
From the seductive curves of ceramic vessels to the intricate murals adorning temple walls, the depictions of sexuality in Mesoamerican art offer a window into the intimate realms of desire, fertility, and spirituality. This was a natural aspect of ancient belief and can tell us a lot more about the everyday lives of ancient Mesoamericans.
Sexuality in Mesoamerican Art
Sexuality and eroticism were recurring themes in Mesoamerican art, reflecting the diverse cultures and beliefs of the region. Artworks from ancient civilizations such as the Maya, Aztec, and Olmec often depicted sexual imagery and explored various aspects of human sexuality.
In these ancient cultures, nudity and sexuality were not seen in the same light as they are today. In modern and near-modern history, explicit eroticism and nudity was often seen as taboo and inappropriate. But in ancient cultures it was not so. Fertility and sex played a huge role in the everyday lives of many ancient civilizations, including Mesoamericans. There were numerous deities connected with virility, fertility, childbirth, and so on. With that being said, it should not come as a surprise to realize that a lot of Mesoamerican gods, murals, sculptures, and beliefs revolved around explicit nudity and sexuality.
Of course, it goes without saying that many Mesoamerican cultures held fertility in high regard and believed it to be closely tied to the cycles of nature. After all, life back then was not a certainty, and the people prayed to the gods of fertility to secure offspring, as well as good yield.
Sexual imagery often represented the act of procreation and the creation of life. Phallic symbols, depictions of copulation, and images of male and female genitalia were common motifs in Mesoamerican art, particularly in pottery, sculptures, and murals. Knowing that this was a focal point of all their lives and their future as well, the Mesoamericans did not shy from these depictions.
A Mesoamerican figurine in Mexico depicting the female and fertility. (Hippopx/CC0)
As a result, many Mesoamerican cultures produced a significant amount of erotic pottery. These ceramics featured explicit sexual scenes and depicted various sexual acts, including intercourse, masturbation, and oral sex. Sex meant offspring, life, and new generations. So these people embraced it fully. Erotic pottery was often associated with ritual and fertility, believed to bring blessings and ensure abundance. That is why today, archaeologists often stumble upon ceramics painted with the most explicit sexual scenes - all of which simply celebrate the art of creating new life.
- Ancient Goddess Cults and Temple Prostitution (Video)
- Pleasure, Procreation, and Punishment: Shocking Facts about Sex and Marriage in the Ancient World
Some Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Aztecs, even had sacred prostitutes who were considered an integral part of religious ceremonies. In Aztec society, sacred prostitutes were known as " cihuapipiltin" or " quetzalli." These women held a significant position and were considered representatives of the goddess Xochiquetzal, who was associated with fertility, beauty, and female sexuality. The cihuapipiltin were chosen for their physical beauty and trained in various arts, including singing, dancing, and weaving. Sexual motifs were also present in the adornments and attire of these sacred prostitutes.
In Maya society, sacred prostitution also existed, although the term used to refer to these individuals varied across different regions and time periods. For instance, among the Classic Maya, they were known as " ixiptlatli," while in the Postclassic period, they were referred to as " kohualli." During religious ceremonies and festivals, the sacred prostitutes would engage in sexual acts as offerings to the gods. It was believed that their actions would ensure the continued fertility of the land, bountiful harvests, and general well-being. The sexual acts were considered sacred and symbolic, rather than solely for personal pleasure or desire.
Being chosen as a sacred prostitute was considered an honor and carried prestige within Mesoamerican societies. These women enjoyed elevated social status and were held in high regard for their spiritual connection and service to the community. Their presence in religious ceremonies was seen as vital for maintaining the harmony between humans and the divine. It is important to note that the practice of sacred prostitution was limited to specific contexts within Mesoamerican cultures and did not reflect the entirety of sexual practices or beliefs in those societies. Sacred prostitutes were part of a larger system of religious rituals and beliefs surrounding fertility and the connection between sexuality and spirituality.
A scene of fellatio. Moche Bottle Neck Sculptural Stirrup Handle. From the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru. (Rowanwindwhistler/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Nudity, Sensuality, and Art Entwined
Mesoamerican art occasionally portrayed individuals or deities who defied traditional gender norms. For example, the Aztec god Xochiquetzal was depicted as both male and female, symbolizing the duality and fluidity of gender.
Similarly, some artistic representations showed individuals with attributes of both genders, suggesting the acceptance of diverse gender identities and sexual expressions. Likewise, the deity Xōchipilli has been interpreted as a patron god of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes, both of which existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. Men were often selected as religious prostitutes: amongst the Inca, young boys were sometimes dedicated as temple prostitutes. The boys were dressed in girl's clothing, and chiefs and head men would have ritual sexual intercourse with them during religious ceremonies and on holy days.
Statue of Xochipilli, Aztec god of art and patron of homosexuals and homosexual prostitutes in Mesoamerican sexuality art work. (National Museum of Anthropology/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Nudity in Mesoamerican art reaches far back into time, predating many of the famous civilizations we know today. Nudity was a prominent feature in Olmec art, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that thrived from around 1200 BC to 400 BC in what is now modern-day Mexico.
The Olmec people were known for their intricate sculptures, colossal heads, and jade artifacts, many of which featured depictions of nude figures. Olmec art embraced a naturalistic and realistic style, often depicting the human form with great attention to detail. Nudity was a common characteristic of these representations, reflecting the Olmec artists' focus on accurately portraying the human body. Both male and female figures were depicted in the nude, showcasing a variety of body types and characteristics.
The nudity in Olmec art held symbolic and spiritual significance rather than merely representing physical form. The emphasis on nudity was likely linked to concepts such as fertility, life cycles, and ritual practices. Nudity was often associated with the idea of purity and spiritual vulnerability, symbolizing the connection between humans and the divine. Some Olmec artworks, particularly those found on pottery and figurines, displayed sexual imagery and provocative poses. These representations included explicit depictions of copulation, sexual acts, and exaggerated sexual attributes. Complex concepts of life force and procreation are likely the symbolism behind this.
Incan male nude figure. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain.
The Gods of Life and Death
Mesoamerican cultures had several gods and goddesses associated with fertility and virility, reflecting the importance they placed on agricultural abundance, procreation, and the continuation of life. These deities were revered and worshiped through various rituals and offerings. And, not at all surprisingly, these creatures - and the art related to them - were often accompanied by vulvas and phalluses, clearly presenting their roles.
Xochiquetzal was one such deity - an Aztec goddess associated with fertility, beauty, and female sexuality. She was often depicted as a youthful and graceful woman adorned with flowers and a vibrant attire. Xochiquetzal presided over love, art, weaving, and childbirth. She played a crucial role in promoting fertility among humans and ensuring the health of women during pregnancy and childbirth. Xochiquetzal was highly revered by both men and women, and her worship included offerings of flowers, music, dance, and colorful textiles.
Fertility, however, has many aspects. Tlaloc was an Aztec god associated with rain, fertility, and agriculture. He was believed to control the water cycle and was revered as the provider of rain, essential for crop growth and prosperity.
Tlaloc was depicted as a deity with goggle-like eyes, fangs, and a headdress adorned with water-related symbols. Rituals dedicated to Tlaloc involved offerings of food, flowers, and prayers to ensure sufficient rainfall and successful harvests. He was also associated with fertility in human and animal reproduction. It just goes to show that fertility of the land and of the people were closely interlinked.
Tlaloc in the Codex Borgia. (Public Domain)
Chalchiuhtlicue, also known as "She of the Jade Skirt," was an Aztec goddess associated with water, fertility, and childbirth. She was often depicted as a woman dressed in a flowing green skirt made of jade. Chalchiuhtlicue was believed to be the guardian of lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Her role included ensuring the fertility of the land and the well-being of plants and animals. Rituals dedicated to Chalchiuhtlicue involved offerings of water, flowers, and ceremonial bathing. Likewise, women wanting safe childbirth and healthy newborns, would pray to this goddess.
Relief with Maize Goddess (Chicomecóatl). (Brooklyn Museum)
Civilizations That Didn’t Shy Away from Love
Scholars agree that sexual taboos likely didn’t exist amongst the peoples of Mesoamerica. In fact, it is proposed that “homoeroticism, transvestism, and eroticism in general and sexual pleasures of all sorts were very important to the people of pre-Columbian America”. Going with the standards of our own time, modern scholars often shied away from addressing these themes, and skirted away from them in official presentations.
But they cannot be disregarded completely. Nudity and sexuality have been widely observed amongst the arts of the Toltec civilization, the predecessors of the Aztecs. In fact, such imagery exists all across the region. For example, there are complex battle scenes depicted at the Temple of the Warriors and the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza. Some of the depicted warriors are shown totally naked.
Dancing processions are depicted, and some scholars even recognize a homoerotic aspect that existed in Mesoamerican militarism. Also at Chichen Itza, at the North Temple, numerous carvings depict phalluses, and in northwest Yucatan, there are entire fields of stone phalli - most certainly connected with fertility rituals.
- Capacocha: Ritualized Child Sacrifice in the Inca Empire
- Is this ‘Temple of Fertility’ in Peru Really a Giant Collection of Stone Penises, or is it a Phallic Fallacy?
Chac-Mool was one of the most common figures in Mayan sculpture and represented a stage between man and the gods. Resting on the figure's stomach is a plate upon which offerings (including some human sacrifice) were placed. Chac Mool means "Large Red Jaguar". (donabelandewen/CC BY 2.0)
A Fatal Clash of Cultures
Sadly, with the arrival of the Conquistadors, Mesoamerican civilizations met their final decline. The arriving Spaniards - staunch Christians - saw the native sexual practices and penchant for human sacrifice as an excuse to enslave and completely destroy them.
The Spaniards hated to talk about or even deal with sexuality, nudity, and fertility, and often led strict and pure lives devoted to God and the Church. We can only imagine the shock they received observing the Mesoamerican natives and their practices.
The strict and staunch Christians simply could not abide with the open sexuality of the native tribes - so they crumbled their kingdoms and empires, enslaved their peoples, and brought down their wrath with fire and sword. Today, in our modern worldviews, we can only pose a question that could never be truly answered: who was in the right?
Top image: Top image: Moche pottery depicting copulation. Museo Larco – Lima, Perú
Stone, A. J. 2011. Keeping Abreast of the Maya: A Study of the Female Body in Maya Art. Cambridge University Press.
Taube, R. 2015. Sexuality in Mesoamerican Figurines. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Urschel, D. 2009. Love & War. Library of Congress. Available at: