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The ihíyotl,resplendent and fetid air
In The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico, Jill Leslie McKeever Furst shows us how ancient beliefs about the soul are based on careful observations of nature, and particularly the human organism. In a certain sense, in the indigenous imagination the animating forces were perceived through normal experiences; they could be felt, touched and even smelled. With this in mind, the case of ihíyotlparticularly enlightening. In Molina’s Vocabulario, the noun yhyotl is defined as "breath, inhalation or exhalation" and the verb ihiotiaas the act of "breathing in and out, or breaking wind, or taking a breath, or to shine and glow with rich vestments."
Based on such meanings, McKeever Furst has been able to characterize the soul of the liver as a vapor that is bright, shiny, resplendent and fetid. In her opinion the Nahua definition of ihíyotlignis fatuus, consisting of "floating" lights that osciliate and change direction continuously. These lights of blue, green, violet or yellow color generally are visible at night over still waters or on dry land during the rainy season. In very diverse traditions across the world ignis fatuus has been interpreted as the presence of spirits.
The phenomenon is explained scientifically as the spontaneous ignition of methane generated by anaerobic bacteria in humid vegetation or in decomposing cadavers. Methane is also present in the gases produced by man during the digestive process. It has the peculiarity of burning or igniting with atmospheric electricity, generating a blue light of low temperature. According to McKeever Furst, the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico could have associated this cool fire with ihíyotl,the underworld and the dead, while contrasting it with the hot fire of tonalli. In a similar manner she suggests that flames of methane or blue flashes (products of chemical luminiscent reactions in decomposing bodies) could have been interpreted as the soul that is trying to leave through the skin.
McKeever Furst points out that ihíyotl is not only perceived with sight but also with smell: Fray Alonso de Molina says that ihíyotl was a type of "breath". However, the foul-smelling emanations that characterize it should not be attributed to methane, which is a colorless, odorless gas. Its origin is found in other products, also associated with metabolic action of anaerobic bacteria: ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. They are both generated in the digestive tract along with volatile amines, skatole, indole, and short-chain fatty acids. In the indigenous logic, the person who eats large quantities would have large quantities of gases and consequently a vigorous ihíyotl the envy of thin and sick people. Also, pregnant women would feel the quickening in their interior, confusing the first perceptible movements of the fetus with the internal flow of the fetid gases associated with pregnancy. And this would be a good omen of the union of the future infant and the strength endowed in him by the ihíyotl and death.
The fetid outflows have, nevertheless, a closer relationship with the decomposition of bodies. In cemeteries, human remains give off methane and the fetid decomposition gases of putrescine and cadaverine. These gases easily work their way to the surface giving the impression that the soul is escaping from the inert body in the form of light and stench. Anyone who has observed a cadaver in the process of decomposition will note that, a couple of days after death, the abdomen develops blue-green spots, perhaps explained by the indigenous as the bile of the liver in full flight. A week later these spots cover the whole body. At some point thereafter the skin suddenly turns from its blue-green color to black, a phenomenon that immediately brings to mind the two predominant colors of the sculptures of the House of the Eagles. Then in a manner similiar to pregnancy, the body swells up. The fetid internal gases cause the body to move and the dead individual appears to come back to life. The umbilicus swells up shockingly -- as depicted in the Maya representations of God A -- and finally the emissions of corrupt matter escape. The ihíyotl in flight?
This explains why some names of the God of Death refer to putrefaction. For example, in the mid-18th century the Tarahumaras gave the Devil—Lord of Death and the underworld—the name of Huitaru, "He who is excrement". The Lacandones and the present-day Maya call the God of Death Cizin, which means, "the flatulent." The Prehispanic origin of this name is clear in the glyphic complex T146.102:116, whose phonetic translation is cizin(i). According to Eric Thompson, Chac Mitán Ahau, referring to decay, could be another name given to the gods of death. And in Page 13a of the Codex Dresden, God A has an anus prominently outlined by the phonetic glyph mo. In present-day Yucatec molo signifies sphincter, a physical feature again linked with filth and decomposition.
The images of Mictlantecuhtli from the House of the Eagles, terrifying, blood-thirsty, semi-fleshless, with prominent livers and colors characteristic of putrefaction fall within this scatological concept of the underworld. Just like their Mixtec and Maya counterparts, these Mexica pieces transport us to a dark, gloomy, foul-smelling afterlife, but one which is also the inexhaustible source of universal generation. We will stop our reflections here. In other works we will discuss the intimate links between our sculptures and mural paintings, sculptures, offerings and burials protected for five centuries in the bowels of the House of the Eagles.
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Last Modified: November 30, 2000
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