Tlazolteotl: An Ancient Patroness and Purifier for all things Filthy
Tlazolteotl was an earth goddess in the pantheon of the Aztecs, although her area of influence is a little wider and more unusual than some goddesses of the earth and fertility. Filth was her domain and she both encouraged and helped “purify” immoral behavior.
It seems that Tlazolteotl was originally a goddess of the Huastecs, but there was something that set her apart and she was later adopted by the Aztecs. Those who were close to death, such as the old and the ill would be encouraged to confess their sins to her, and she would devour these bad deeds, thus purifying them and preparing them for the afterlife. Apart from that, Tlazolteotl was also associated with fertility and birth.
Front and back of a Huastec Tlazolteotl statue, the British Museum. (The Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0)
The name ‘Tlazolteotl’ may be translated to mean ‘Filth Deity’, and this goddess was also known as Ixcuina or Tlaelquani. As her name indicates, Tlazolteotl was a goddess of filth, which may be seen in her four guises, each associated with a particular stage of life.
In her first guise, which corresponds to the goddess as a young woman, Tlazolteotl was a carefree temptress. As she grew older, Tlazolteotl acquired her second aspect as a goddess of gambling and uncertainty. In her middle age, Tlazolteotl took on the guise of a goddess who had the power to absorb the sins of human beings. Finally, in her old age, Tlazolteotl was a hag who preyed on youths.
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Tlazolteotl is known to inspire immoral behavior in people, causing them to engage in illicit sexual acts. Nevertheless, she was also capable of forgiving those who committed the acts. It has been pointed out that adultery was punishable by death in Aztec society, though the offender could escape this fate by confessing their sins to the goddess. It may be added, however, that such confessions worked only once in a person’s lifetime, so people would try to put it off as long as they could.
Tlazolteotl - The Goddess with Blackened Lips
It seems that the ritual required to obtain Tlazolteotl’s pardon was a lengthy and complicated one. First, a priest of the goddess had to consult his books and calendars to determine a suitable day to go to the house of one who wished to confess. When the priest came to the house, the penitent would strip and confess his / her sins with sincerity and contrition, after which the priest would prescribe a fast for the purification of the body. The offender would also choose his / her self-sacrifice to perform. After this was done, the penitent would go to the temple of Tlazolteotl, where he/she prayed and lied naked on the floor on a black painted paper for a night.
The ritual ended the following morning, when the penitent woke up reborn and purified, as his / her sins had been consumed by the goddess. Due to the belief that the goddess ate filth, Tlazolteotl is commonly depicted with blackened lips.
A drawing of Tlazolteotl, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia. (Public Domain) Note her blackened lips.
New Life and Cotton
In addition to the act of purification, Tlazolteotl was also connected with childbirth, and was regarded to be the patroness of mid-wives. In some artistic depictions of the goddess, Tlazolteotl is portrayed as a woman giving birth to a baby. Tlazolteotl’s role as an earth goddess or fertility deity also makes sense when one interprets the filth associated with her as rotting organic matter, and that her connection to childbirth is symbolic of new life.
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The goddess Tlazolteotl, who is portrayed wearing a flayed skin, giving birth to Cinteotl. (Public Domain)
Lastly, Tlazolteotl was also associated with a particular agricultural product – cotton, as well as the activities surrounding it. In certain depictions of Tlazolteotl, the goddess wears a headdress that contains two spindles of unspun cotton.
This connection with cotton lies in the fact that this plant was planted in huge quantities by the Huastec. Moreover, woven cotton textiles were important as a medium of exchange, and therefore the spinning of cotton and the weaving of textiles were important activities (incidentally, carried out mainly by women) that required a goddess to oversee.
Huasteca culture statue of Tlazolteotl in the Museum of Anthropology, Xalapa, Mexico. (yaxchibonam/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
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