Ritual Schedule for the Lone Mexica
One of the most challenging, and ironic, part of my current practice, is that I follow a communal religion, but I have to worship individually. This makes keeping a ritual schedule very difficult, and it is easy to forget important festival dates. To further complicate matters, it is quite a challenge to even know how to go about celebrating a ritual that is supposed to involve feasting, dancing, and other group activities. In response, I have decided to do a study of the major Nahua festival days and distil their core elements into something an individual or small group can manage. Hopefully, I will make these ritual accessible to people while retaining their core identities. Nevertheless, I wanted to share some of my ideas with the community here to see if any improvements can be made, and to gain some feedback from other solo practitioners, who are already experienced in these matters.
Before I pick a ceremony to recreate, I want to examine the basic elements of a ritual and understand how they can be used and adapted for modern small group worship. In ‘Religions of Mesoamerica,’ Davíd Carrasco identifies three core ritual elements of Mesoamerican religion: Worldmaking, Worldcentering, and Worldrenewing. These are difficult concepts to explain succinctly, especially without reference to Mesoamerican theology. However, to put it shortly, Worldmaking refers to a concept of how the cosmos (including the Earth) was organized by supernatural forces, Worldcentering to the places of worship (temples and sacred sites) and those centres were to be maintained by specialists who managed the supernatural forces (priests or lords). The last one, Worldrenewing, referred to the purpose of the ritual. This was to recreate and reorder the cosmos, thus ensuring continued fertility/prosperity.
To this list I would like to add two of my own: Mythic Recreation. Most rituals, in one form or another, were a symbolic recreation of a primal myth. The New Fire Ceremony is a good example of this, as it was intended to recreate the birth of the 5th sun. The second one is Performance and Participation. This is relatively simple. Rituals were essentially performances (including actual performances), and people could participate in them. So, they were active events. Of course, the concept that underpinned all of this was Nextlahualli, which means debt-payment. The idea is that life and the earth were given to humanity as a gift from the gods (at great cost), and that humans had to repay that debt with offerings and rituals. All these elements combine to give Mesoamerican religions their unique character.
What does this mean in practise? To be honest, many of these values are timeless, and really serve as principles to ensure a modern ritual is functioning the correct way. For example, Worldcentering would dictate that each ritual should occur in a set sacred space, and be led by a priest. This isn’t surprising, most modern polytheists have altars and a few even have priests. The hard part is Performance and Participation. Obviously, being an individual would make participating in a collective event quite difficult. I mean, you could dance in front of an altar, but I don’t think it would have quite the same effect. Therefore, this element will have to be carefully adapted on a case by case basis.
So now that we have the plan, let’s pick a ritual. I have decided on:
Tozoztontli – Lesser Perforation
This is one of the lesser known Nahua festivals. It likely began on April 4th, which was also the main feast day, and continued until April 23rd. This festival was dedicated to earth deities, in particular Coatlicue. Let’s begin with a recap.
According to Sahagún, this festival had several key elements. Following on from Tlacaxipehualiztli, flowers were offered at the Temple of Yopico, after which the people feasted on tamales of wild amaranth seeds. This was also an opportunity to clean-up after the previous ritual. The decaying remains of the left-over human skins were left to decay at Yopico, while the priests washed themselves. Incense was then carried through the temple with incense ladles, partly to honour the gods, and partly to remove the smell. This incense was presented to the four directions and to the sky. Older people were permitted to drink heavily, and there was singing at the temples.
Diego Durán adds that people went out to plant certain early-harvest crops on their fields. This was accompanied by several rituals that occurred within the fields and surrounding forests. Usually, this took the form of effigies, or cotton figures (paper figures in modern Mexico), which were hung from trees. Farmers then purified their fields with incense as well as rubber, food, pulque, and of course, flowers. He also adds that there was a general fast until midday, after which there was feasting among the populace.
They not a highly detailed descriptions, compared to some other rituals. Its not a particularly complex ceremony either. But that can be an advantage as we can focus on a few key elements which we can use for adaptation. The first step is to find a location (Worldcentering). In the original ritual, Yopico was the focus. However, that was for the imperial ceremony. Citizens celebrated in their fields, and we can do the same. The performance element of the ritual is the feasting on tamales, the presentation of incense to the four directions, and the creation of paper effigies. Rubber, food, flowers, and pulque serve as the material for debt-payment.
So, what would a modern variation of this ritual look like? It would begin with the creation of paper effigies, cut in the vague shape people (I believe that Alan Sandstrom’s Corn is Our Blood has some examples). This could be done before the ritual day, or even on the morning. The historical records were unclear about exactly what time, but we can get some idea of the order. Durán explicitly states that the main feast happened at midday, before which the people fasted (tortillas and water was permitted). The putting up on effigies seemed to happen before this, followed immediately by offerings. The waving of incense to the four directions probably happened at this time. I’m guessing that the feast continued with drinking, dancing, and singing late into the night. These are all activities that can be done either alone, or in a small group, thus allowing a reconstructionist to participate in structured worship.
There is one other element, bloodletting. The name of the ceremony refers to the bloodletting of children under 12 years old. Since none here should be under 18, and the bloodletting occurred within a society prepared to deal with it, this part of the ritual probably should be skipped. Although, blood offerings can be included as part of the offerings, as a substitute.
I plan to transform this brief analysis into a kind of recipe card for a ritual. Something easy to follow and perform. In turn, I would like to do this for several rituals, maybe even all of them. This way, I plan to create a ritual book that can be used for small scale celebrations by individual practitioners. In the meantime, I’d welcome any thoughts, feedback, and suggestions.