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Mictlantecuhtli, the liver and the ihíyotl
In light of the above-mentioned, the identity and significance of the sculptures of the House of the Eagles is not difficult to ascertain. Their horrific appearance and possible ties with a blood ritual are completely in accord with the Mexica beliefs of the 16th century. Nevertheless, we still must explain the presence of the prominent liver.
Eduard Seler was the first investigator to note the existence of images with an organ projecting toward the outside of the thoracic cavity. He made this observation while analyzing the pages of the Codex Mendoza where the skeletal suit of quetzaltzitzímitl belonging to thetlacochcálcatl appears (figure 18) (figure 19). Nevertheless, the opinion of Seler should be revised in light of the assertions of Hermann Beyer. Seler noticed the presence of a cut that traversed the chest from side to side, from which incision emerged what he interpreted as "a heart or blood." While it is true that on occasion Mictlantecuhtli is represented with a heart emerging from the thorax, in the majority of cases the liver is the organ that appears in this position. As he correctly pointed out, the heart has a conventional form in prehispanic iconography that does not resemble the organ shown on thequetzaltzitzímitluniforms (figure 20). It is easy to distinguish the heart, thanks to the fact that in its upper part it has three severed endings corresponding to the upper vena cava, the aorta and the pulmonary artery.(figure 21). Besides this serrated upper edge, there is occasionally a yellow transverse stripe that represents the fatty tissue of the cardiac grooves (figure 22) (figure 23) (figure 24) (figure 25) (figure 26) (figure 27) (figure 28).
According to Beyer, what hangs from the uniform of the quetzaltzitzímitl is a liver. He arrived at this conclusion after analyzing phonetically a toponym illustrated in Plate X of the Codex Mendoza(Figure 29). We are referring to the glyph of Tampatel, a Huasteca site conquered by Axayácatl. This toponym is composed of a glyph for hill (tam, "place" in Huastec) crowned by an inverted liver (-el, from Nahuatl elli, "liver"). Studying Plate 6 of the Códice Xólotl,the German investigator noticed the similarities between the toponym of Tampatel and the glyph of Tlacaélel, a name also composed of the particle -el (figure 30). Subsequently, other investigators have agreed with Beyer’s identification. Alfonso Caso did so upon examining the organ that the owl of the Cuauhxicalli of the God of Death clutches in his claws(figure 31) . María de los Ángeles Ojeda Díaz also recognized this organ in faces 1, 2, 3 and 6 of the Stone of Itzpapálotl (figure 32) and in the images of imágenes de Tzitzímitl contained in Page 40r of the Codex Tudela(figure 33) and 76r of the Codex Magliabecchiano (figure 34). More recently, Henry B. Nicholson expressed his view that the organ that hangs from the suit of the quetzaltzitzímitl, studied originally by Seler, is a liver.
The question that must be answered, then, is why the liver is shown on representations of beings from the underworld. There is no need to emphasize here the importance of this major gland of the human organism. Besides its numerous metabolic functions, the liver stores glucogen and secretes bile, a digestive agent, particularly of fats. The liver is a soft, flaccid brownish-red organ that has a smooth and shiny appearance. Its shape resembles a triangle divided into a large right lobe and a smaller left lobe. On the lower side is attached the pear-shaped sac known as the gallbladder(figure 35) (figure 36) (figure 37) (figure 38) (figure 39) The function of this blue-green sac is to store the bile secreted by the liver.
We assume that one of the characteristics of the liver that would have attracted the most attention of the prehispanic peoples is the large quantity of blood that it contains. The bloody fluids carried by the hepatic artery and the vena porta perhaps caused the indigenous peoples to associate this organ with the heart, another of the receptacles of the animating forces. To this can be added the liver’s synchronized movement with respiration due to its proximity to the diaphragm. Other noteworthy features to consider are its size and the position of the liver between the stomach and the heart.
In accordance with the Nahua conceptions of the 16th century, the ihíyotl, one of the three spirits of the body, resided in the liver. Alfredo López Austin has pointed out that for the Tzotziles and the present-day Nahuas, each of the animating forces is tightly coupled with a certain area of the cosmos and with the nuclear family(figure 40):
This allows us to understand why the head, principal place of residence of the tonalli, was given the name of ilhuícatl ("heaven") in the prehispanic era and why there was a strong bond between the Sun and the human heart. We can also see a relationship between theihíyotland the earth. Agricultural work was considered to be an unavoidable aggression of man towards the Great Mother, whom the farmer had to wound in order to cultivate. "Work the earth" in Nahuatl is elimiqui(n), which means literally "to damage the liver," precisely the liver, the residence of the ihíyotl.
In fact, the liver and gallbladder were not the only organs associated symbolically with the lower part of the universe. Cecelia F. Klein has discovered that all the entrails of the abdomen were related to death and the underworld. This is evident in the prehispanic codices, where one observes evisceration, excrement and noxious gases associated with divinities of death and the dying.
Today we can draw on various studies about the interesting semantic complex of the ihíyotl, which integrates in a logical structure the ideas of the underworld, femininity, growth, passion and carnal sin, excrement, trash and death. According to the ancient Nahuas, below—in the human body and in the cosmos—both positive and negative passions and forces were brought together: energy and laziness, generative potency and impotency, bravery and cowardice, happiness and sadness; and sexual desire and lack of desire. This explains, as we will see later, that the wastes of the lower abdomen were mediums of both invigorating forces and harmful vapors.
From the liver, the ihíyotl controlled, at the same time, life, energy, sexuality and the digestive process. It was also the origin of strong emotions, principally anger. In this respect, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún describes the bile secreted by the liver as "thick, green, blue, our anger, irritater of people, promoter of anger in the people". In parallel, the ihíyotl had the power of growth.
The prehispanic ihíyotlhas its colonial and modern equivalent in the "winds" or "night airs." These are believed by the present day indigenous people of Veracruz, Puebla and Chiapas to be harmful spirits of the dead that return to roam the earth. For example, the Nahuas of Veracruz, famous for their cut-out paper figures, represent the airs by skeletal bodies. The chortíes, on the other hand, call this spirit ijiyo. They firmly believe that it is a vaporous substance that has the characteristic of leaving live bodies or the corpses of the dead. The ijiyo is radiated by envious, irritated, agitated or exhausted people, and also by sorcerers or by menstruating women. These individuals are supposedly immune to witchcraft and ghosts, and they have the power to hurt other people with a weak ijiyo.
All the above would explain why the divinities that are related to the powers of the lower half of the cosmos, like Mictlantecuhtli, Mictecacíhuatl, Tzitzímitl e Itzpapálotl, were commonly represented with large livers.
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