On this, my last day in this beautiful and welcoming country, I woke up early and tried to get some packing done before Natris and Diana arrived to pick me up. The first thing on our agenda this morning was a visit to the notorious Mercado de Sonora, otherwise known as the Mercado de las brujas, the Witches’ Market. I had never been there, though I’d known about it for many years and had hoped to get a chance to see it sometime. In fact, as I was planning this trip, my children remembered that when the Harry Potter books first came out, and we’d all learned about Diagon Alley, I had mentioned that it sounded like a certain market in Mexico City and had told them that perhaps I’d take them there some day; well, I guess maybe not this time…
We squeezed into a tiny cab that zig-zagged its way through the early morning traffic with deft and exhilarating quickness, and left us with our pulses racing and feeling quite invigorated – who needs exercise, when you can just go for a rush-hour cab ride in
The market building contains dozens of tiny shops, each brimming with various kinds of ‘magical merchandise’ – herbs, books, statues of various divinities and saints, incenses, necklaces, candles, oils, live birds, you name it – with a focus ranging from Mesoamerican brujería, to European witchcraft and ceremonial magic, to Santería, to generic occultism, tarot, astrology, etc.
It being still fairly early on a weekday, the place was not as busy as I imagined (and as my companions confirmed) it would be in the afternoon or on, say, a Saturday morning; but it still felt very crowded, both due to the incredible amounts of stuff on display everywhere, and because the relatively few customers had to wend and squeeze our way through the very narrow aisles that separated the rows of shops.
At every turn, merchants would literally reach out and grab passersby and try to pull us into their stores, always asking the exact same question: “¿Qué desea usted? ¿Qué desea usted?” A travel book would probably translate that as “What would you like?” or “What are you looking for?,” which, though accurate, can obscure the subtle meaning that such a query could have in a place as fanciful as the Witches’ Market. Literally, the question really means “What do you wish for?,” and it was abundantly clear, from all the conversations and transactions I overheard, that El mercado de las brujas is a place where you go in the hope of having your wishes, your aspirations and your dreams fulfilled – be it a love relationship, fame and fortune, the health of a sick loved one, a new job, fertility, or protection from your enemies; in short, the gamut of things that people commonly long for, regardless of their station in life. (Indeed, though most of those shopping at the market seemed – to judge by their appearances – to be of very modest means, there was at least one executive-type in Armani and leather briefcase, and I caught an occasional whiff of Chanel No. 5 here and there.)
Very prominent among the statues for sale were those of the Santa Muerte (Holy Death), a very interesting religious cult that developed in this city in the mid-1960s as a hybrid of survivals of indigenous ceremonies honoring the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl (patroness of Mexico’s famous celebration of El día de los muertos) and her consort Mictlantecuhtli, with elements of Roman Catholicism, in particular the apocalyptic writings of the Book of Revelations.
The Santa Muerte is typically depicted as a cloaked, hooded and bejeweled skeleton carrying a huge scythe, and often a rosary; her devotees frequently refer to her as La flaquita, a term of endearment meaning ‘the skinny one,’ for obvious reasons. Apparently, it has become the second most popular religion throughout México, to the extent that the Catholic hierarchy has issued numerous pronouncements warning Catholics against becoming involved with it in any way. I had expressed an interest in going to the Tepito neighborhood (barely a dozen blocks northeast of my hotel), reportedly the seat of the cult, where there is a large public shrine dedicated to the Santa Muerte which draws pilgrims from all over the country, just as Catholics peregrinate to the Basilica of Guadalupe. My friends, however, adamantly and emphatically refused to take me there, and insisted on a promise that I would not go on my own. It seems that the Santa Muerte has particularly attracted veneration from those who face violent deaths on a regular basis, and so has become the ‘official religion’ of gangs, drug dealers and sundry criminals who, as a result, have made Tepito their home base and have turned the neighborhood into one of the most dangerous places in all of México.
I had hoped to find at the Witches’ Market a few more small gifts to bring back home with me, and I did get a couple of pieces of pottery, several gourd rattles, some Day of the Dead decorations, and a pair of the ankle ‘bells’ used by Aztec dancers and ritualists, made from the nut casings of the chachayote tree and also known as ‘codos de fraile’ (‘friar’s elbows,’ because of their elbow-like shape). I also bought a huge bag of copal, the pungent incense used in indigenous ceremonies and which one could smell just about everywhere in the market. Copal is a resin that comes from the bursera tree, via a process quite similar to that used in
From the market, we took another cab to the Zócalo, the huge plaza that sits at the very heart of the oldest part of town; our destination was the
When the band of Spanish conquistadores led by Hernán Cortés reached this place in the early 16th century, what is now the old part of Mexico City was Tenochtitlan, the island capital of the Aztec empire, located near the shore of a shallow lake in a valley surrounded by volcanoes, and connected to the mainland by several human-built causeways (most of the swampy lake was eventually filled after the Spanish conquest, and today a large section of Mexico City is, like Boston, sitting on landfill). The area immediately surrounding the Zócalo was the site of Motecuhzoma’s imperial palace as well as of the Teocalli or Templo Mayor – the great pyramidal temple of the Aztecs which stood approximately 60 meters tall (just slightly less than the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan), and was the central feature of a complex of buildings including several other smaller pyramids.
After Cortés captured and executed Motecuhzoma, was driven out of
In August, as I was finalizing the details of my trip, I heard from my friend Traci Ardren, a Wiccan high priestess from Florida who is also a professor of anthropology specializing in Mesoamerican cultures (and who has authored seminal works on ancient Mayan women and on children in Mesoamerica), offering to put me in touch with a colleague who is one of the curators at the Templo Mayor Museum; it was an offer which I, of course, very eagerly and gratefully accepted. So, after a series of e-mails and phone messages, I was finally able to get in touch with Ximena Chávez Balderas, who, in addition to being the head of the Dept. for the Preservation of Cultural Assets at the museum, is also an award-winning archaeologist well-known in México for her work on Mesoamerican funeral rites and arts, and has in recent years been involved in the identification and preservation of ‘Pepita’, the mummified remains of a two-year-old girl who died approximately 2,300 years ago, and is the oldest mummy to be found in this country. Ximena very kindly offered to give us a private guided tour of the museum.
The first thing Ximena showed us was a model of what archaeologists believe the complex of buildings looked like at the time of Cortés’ arrival. The Templo Mayor itself consisted of two temples atop a large pyramid of seven layers which would have looked very similar to the ones in
One of the buildings in the Templo Mayor complex was the cuauhcalli or ‘Eagle Precint’, the home of the elite corps of Eagle Warriors who were in the personal service of the emperor, and Ximena showed us an impressive, life-size statue of such a warrior. We also saw an equally remarkable and huge (and, one of my friends thought, terrifying) statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the dreaded god of death and the underworld, as well as another statue of a chacmool very similar to the one we’d seen in Teotihuacan, though this one retained the ceremonial bowl in which the hearts of sacrificial victims were deposited.
Ximena also showed us the Stone of Coyolxauhqui, the rounded, 8-ton carved slab which conclusively revealed the location of the Templo Mayor. The stone depicts one of the chief agricultural and seasonal myths of the Aztecs, a myth that that was at the core of the ceremonies that took place at the Templo Mayor: Coatlicue, goddess of the land, finds a ball of hummingbird feathers on the ground, and gathers them up in her skirt. When one of the feathers impregnates her, her daughter Coyolxauhqui considers it a dishonor to her family and marshals her four-hundred brothers to accompany her to the mountain where their mother resides, so that they may kill the child and restore their honor.
At the very moment they arrive, Coatlicue births Huitzilopochtli fully-formed as an adult warrior. He proceeds to vanquish his brothers, and decapitates and dismembers Coyolxauhqui, hurling the pieces of her body to the foot of the mountain and her head to the sky, where she becomes the moon. Then Huitzilopochtli becomes the sun, and his 400 brothers turn into the southern stars.
Given its cosmological foundations, sacrificial rites were a central part of many of the ceremonies held at the Templo Mayor, to judge both from the (apparently much-exaggerated) accounts of the first Spanish conquerors as well as by the number of sacrificial human remains found at the site; among the artifacts on display at the museum, we saw a collection of flint and obsidian sacrificial blades as well as a large, rounded and carved stone upon which victims were laid out on their backs to facilitate the extraction of the heart or liver . Ximena discussed this topic with us at some length, given that nowadays, when someone says the word ‘Aztec,’ there tends to be an immediate and inevitable association with human sacrifice. She stressed, first of all, that this was not a practice exclusive to the Aztecs, that such sacrifices were found among many of the Mesoamerican indigenous cultures (as, indeed, they were found in many other ancient cultures throughout the world), and long predated the development of Aztec civilization.
Contrary to the popular stereotype of the Aztecs as a cruel, inhumane, bloodthirsty people who delighted in the wanton and constant mass slaughter of unwilling, helpless victims such as prisoners and slaves, human sacrifice had a very complex and specific purpose and place within their culture. Sacrifices mostly were held on each of the monthly holy days of the 18-month year; at the end of the 52-year cycles or ‘centuries’ as reckoned in the Aztec calendar; or during times of pronounced stress or danger, such as droughts, famines or wars (ironically, the mass sacrifices that so shocked and horrified the Spanish conquerors were likely prompted by their own arrival in Tenochtitlan).
For the Aztecs, blood was atl-tlachinolli, ‘water-made-of-fire’ or ‘precious water,’ the sacred food that nourished the gods and allowed the universe to continue functioning. According to their mythology, the gods had willingly and ceremonially taken their own lives in order to enter the spirit world in order to better help their people, but they needed the periodic offerings of ‘precious water’ to continue living – thus, the sacrifices were considered nextlahualli, the payment of the sacred debt the people owed the gods for their self-immolation.
Each deity required a different type of offering, so while it is obvious that some of the most defenseless members of their society – such as children, slaves and prisoners – were sacrificed to certain gods, others required the best warriors, the champion athletes, members of the aristocracy, etc. In some cases, elite individuals within Aztec society were chosen to ‘impersonate’ a particular deity over the span of a year, during which time, donning the garments and symbols of the embodied deity, they enjoyed all sorts of luxuries and were pampered in every way imaginable; at the end of their tenure, they willingly presented themselves at the temple to be sacrificially offered to their respective gods. To the Aztecs, being sacrificed to one of their deities appears to have been the greatest honor they could hope to attain. Even in the case of prisoners, the sacrificial victims may not have been completely unwilling. The Aztecs engaged with other tribes – by mutual agreement – in ‘flower wars,’ ceremonial skirmishes in which the goal was not so much to win the battle as it was for each side to capture opponents, who would subsequently be sacrificed to some deity who specifically required the blood of prisoners.
As fascinating as the museum is, Ximena told us that there still remains much more to be discovered – the original Templo Mayor complex was quite extensive, and a lot of it remains buried underneath original colonial buildings. This, of course, presents a very complicated dilemma for the Mexican people and their government: the Templo Mayor obviously has great archaeological and historical importance, but then again, so do the colonial edifices that have covered it for the past five-hundred years. What, where, and how much should be torn down is the subject of ongoing and very heated debates. According to Ximena, a very large obelisk was recently unearthed in a building behind the cathedral, so at least that looks like a promising site for further excavations and perhaps even for an extension of the museum itself.
I was very grateful to Ximena for her generosity with her time – our private tour with her lasted for over an hour-and-a-half, but I could easily have stayed much longer listening to her insightful and detailed explanations about Aztec culture, history and spirituality. After taking our leave from her, Natris and Diana walked me back to my hotel, with a quick stop so I could duck inside the presidential palace and take a photo of the famous and gigantic mural painted by Diego Rivera, depicting the history of México from the Spanish conquest until the modern era.
I bade a very fond good-bye to my two Mexican friends, and thanked them profusely for their boundless hospitality and kindness toward me during the past several days, and then went up to my room to leisurely finish packing. Upon arriving in Mexico City from Monterrey, I had gone to the Delta counter at the airport to verify the details of my return flight back to the States, and the attendant had given me a slip of paper listing the flight number and a departure time of 5:10, so I figured if I left the hotel around 2:00, that would give me plenty of time for the 45-minute ride to the airport, with enough to spare even if traffic was bad.
Just as I was about to shut down my laptop and bring my luggage downstairs, it occurred to me to check the Delta website to make sure the flight wasn’t delayed for some reason. To my dismay, I found that the departure time was not 5:10 but 15:10, or 3:10 pm – the woman at the airport had omitted one small but all-important number and now I barely had one hour to get my luggage downstairs, grab a cab for what could easily be a very slow, traffic-impaired ride to the airport, and catch an international flight.
In a frenzy, I called the main Delta office in the States, to see if there were any other options available to me, but my flight was the last one of the day and if I missed it I wouldn’t be able to leave until the next morning. The very solicitous agent suggested that I get to the airport as soon as possible, go right up to the counter without waiting in line, and show an agent the slip of paper (which, luckily, had the Delta logo on it) and explain the problem; she gave me her name and extension number and said that if I needed any help, I should have the agent call her and she’d try to straighten everything out.
The hotel staff was most understanding and cooperative; in the couple of minutes it took me to get downstairs, they had my bill all ready and only requiring my signature, and there was a taxi waiting outside. The cab driver was most sympathetic to my plight, and assured me he would do everything in his power to get me to the airport with enough time to catch my flight, despite the fact that there was a lot of traffic at the moment.
The cabbie proved to be as good his word – the ensuing ride to the airport was like something out of a Hollywood action movie: once, when we were stopped at a traffic light two cars away from the intersection where we were supposed to turn, he simply drove the cab over the curb and cut the corner on the sidewalk in order to make the turn, so we wouldn’t be delayed; another time, in stop-and-go heavy traffic, he suddenly turned and drove full-speed the wrong way down an empty one-way side street in order to get us to a larger avenue where the traffic was flowing smoothly. All the while, he railed loudly against the incompetence of people like the airport clerk who’d given me the wrong information; there were too many Mexicans like that today, he ranted, calling them lazy and ignorant, and uncaring that they were giving their country a bad reputation.
Despite the congested streets, we made it to the airport in 24 minutes, which, according to the driver, was by far his best time ever from the area of my hotel. By that point, I had exchanged back all my Mexican money, leaving me just enough for the estimated cab fare plus a reasonable tip, but I was so grateful to the driver that I gave him an extra $20US bill. His eyes got very big, and he even started to protest that it was too much, but being in such a rush, I just cut him off and thanked him again and grabbed my bags so I could get to the Delta counter as quickly as possible. But the driver insisted that I wait a moment, while he went and talked to one of the porters. The two of them quickly came over, grabbed my bags, and loaded them onto an otherwise-empty motorized luggage cart, one of the long ones which are normally meant to carry several dozen suitcases at once; whereupon the cab driver thanked me again, shook my hand vigorously, wished me a good flight, and earnestly bade me remember that not all Mexicans are as unreliable as the woman at the ticket counter.
The cart was not meant to carry passengers, but his friend the porter (who might well have been a relative, since the two of them seemed to have been taught to drive by the very same person…) insisted that we both squeeze in, each of us sitting with just one buttock resting on the driver’s seat and the rest of our bodies precariously hanging out the sides while he maneuvered the long and cumbersome vehicle through the busy terminal as fast as it would go, constantly honking the horn and loudly yelling at people to get out of the way.
When we finally reached the Delta counter, he told me to go on ahead and that he would bring my bags presently. I raced past the line of waiting travelers and breathlessly explained my problem to one of the agents, who perfunctorily said he couldn’t help me, that I was too late, and pointedly called for the next person in line to come up. The porter, who had just brought up my bags, whispered to me to stay right where I was. He went down to the end of the counter and disappeared from view around the corner; in a moment, he was walking back, speaking animatedly with another, older Delta agent – clearly the person in charge – who came over, literally elbowed the previous agent out of the way, and very courteously asked me to show him the slip of paper with the wrong departure time. He immediately apologized for the inconvenience, and personally handled my ticket and boarding pass and checked in my bags, and assured me that everything was all set and I could now just relax and wait for the plane to begin boarding in a few minutes. Needless to say, the porter also got a hefty tip…
As our plane took off, my heart skipped a beat when the pilot announced that those of us sitting on the right side of the plane would have a good view of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the two majestic volcanoes (respectively, the second and third largest peaks in México) which stand some 40 miles toward the east and can often be seen along the horizon from the city. Unfortunately, during most of my stay the sky had been cloudy or there had been too much smog, so I hadn’t been able to see them. Despite the smog this afternoon, their distinctive outlines were quite visible from the plane, and brought back very old memories.
As a child, on a trip to México, my parents once took me to Puebla, a city further east where the volcanoes could be easily seen all the time, and while we were there they bought me a picture book that told the ancient myth of the two volcanoes, a story that became one of my most favorite and which I’ve never forgotten. It’s an Aztec version of the archetypal myth of the ‘doomed lovers’ found in folk tales and songs from so many different lands – from Pyramus and Thisbe to Tristan and Yseult, Romeo and Juliet, Annachie Gordon, etc. As the legend goes, Iztac (which means ‘white’ in náhuatl) was the daughter of the Aztec emperor, and the most beautiful and desirable woman among her people. She and Popoca (‘smoke’), a young warrior, were in love, but he was not of high enough rank to marry her. The emperor put Popoca in charge of a war band and sent him off to fight an enemy tribe, promising him that he could marry Iztac if he succeeded and became an Eagle Warrior. After he’d been away a while, a rival suitor brought the false news that Popoca had been killed in battle, which in turn caused Iztac to die of sorrow. Popoca returned victorious just as Iztac’s funeral rite was about to be held, and in his grief and rage, he stole her body and fled to the mountains, to ask that the gods bring them together again. He stayed by her side for a very long time, holding a flaming torch so that even the night could not keep him from gazing at his beloved. Eventually, the gods took pity on them, and made them part of the land, turning them into lofty mountains standing next to each other – Iztaccíhuatl (‘the white lady,’ often referred to as ‘the sleeping woman’ in México), a dormant volcano topped by a blanket of snow even in summer; and Popocatépetl (‘the smoking peak’), who frequently erupts in a fiery rage over the injustice that was done to them. It was by crossing the narrow valley which separates the mountainous lovers that, many centuries later, Hernán Cortés and his band of conquistadores gained access to
As the plane headed north, and the silhouettes of the volcanoes slowly faded in the distance, I reflected upon my experiences of the past two weeks in this gorgeously rugged land so teeming with myth and wonder, home to a people in whom two very different, ancient cultures simultaneously blend and clash, and who are among the warmest, most open and hospitable souls I have had the pleasure to meet in my life.