The Place of the Dead in Nahuatl Philosophy

According to the Nahuatl culture, the space where the souls dwell is divided into four parts: Mictlan (place of the dead), Tlalocan (place of Tlaloc), Tonatiuh ichan (the house of the sun), the dwelling of Huitzilopochtli, and the dwelling of Huitzilopochtli.

The Place of the Dead in Nahuatl Philosophy
The four tlaloque of different colors hold the sky. These gods lived in the Tlalocan. Image: Arqueología Mexicana

To understand any culture, it is necessary to know the two fundamental elements in which human life takes place: time and space. These, we could say, are the axes from which all explanations about men are built. Myths, rites, and legends are made of times and places in whose interweaving the actors move.

Cultural tenses always refer to the known and the unknown. The known is that which is in the before or which comes from it (from the past), and which can occupy the place of the now (the present). While the unknown refers to two moments: that which is to come, the future, and that which occurred before the first before, the original time. Different cultures "accommodate" these times in different ways.

Being schematic we can think that for some, like the western culture, the times are ordered sequentially, serially, in an almost linear way: there is a beginning, for example, the one narrated in the book of Genesis, and an end in which the end of the times will be fulfilled, for example, the one narrated in the Enclosure of the Eagle Warriors in the Templo Mayor. Apocalypse.

While, in others, as in the case of the Mesoamerican cultures, times are organized circularly: there will always be in the unknown a meeting point between the first before, the origin, and the time to come, the future. At this point, the circular trajectory of time closes. This vision is represented in the image of the serpent that eats its tail.

Is it true that one lives on earth?
Not forever on earth: just a little bit here
even if it is jade it breaks,
even if it is gold, it breaks,
even if it is quetzal plumage it tears,
not forever on earth: just a little here.

- Nezahualcoyotl

Mictlantecuhtli is found in the Precinct of the Eagle Warriors in the Great Temple.
Mictlantecuhtli is found in the Precinct of the Eagle Warriors in the Great Temple. Photo: INAH

In the case of places, they are organized according to their relationship with the human body: there is the top, the bottom, the front, the back, one side, and the other. There is also that which is farther away and that which is closer. Finally, there is that which exists beyond sight, that whose existence is intuited but has not been seen. It is known from the narrations of others that can be derived from experience (for example, travels), or else constitute a mere construction and an invention that is generally related to myths.

Similar correspondences between times and places are observed among the different cultures. What is closest, what is visible on one side, and the other, generally relates to the time of now, the present. What is behind, and then recedes, is related to the time of the past, the past. Whereas, what remains in front of the view, or beyond the view, what is not known and is intuited or known as final is related to the future.

When the future and the origin (the before plus before) meet, a "circular" look of the spaces is generated. Remaining thus in the farthest end, just that which is the beginning. What is above, the sky seems more distant and immeasurable, and as distant, more future. That which is below, and more below the earth, seems closer, more human, and closer to the past. An example in Western culture of the above and below is the Divine Comedy.

Among all times and cultural places, those from which the explanation of a phenomenon always mysterious and inevitable for men is given are especially important: death. And this place of death, of the dead, is particularly interesting in the Nahuatl culture.

In this culture, the earth, the tlaltípac, is a circular surface at the center of the universe. The teoatl is an immense ring of water that surrounds the earth and makes it "the entirely-water-surrounded", the cem-a-náhuac. From the center of the water-surrounded surface come four courses that reach to where the waters meet the sky, to become then the ilhuica-atl, the celestial waters. The four points correspond to the cardinal points: where the sun rises, the white region, and the region of light.

Where the Sun sets: the red region, the house of the Sun. The left of the path of the Sun: the blue region, that of the South, and the right of the path of the Sun, the black region, that which marks the course of the land of the dead. Upwards from the tlaltípac, towards the universe, there are thirteen heavens, and downwards are the nine planes, deeper and deeper, through which the fleshless, the dead, pass.

Heading to Mictlán: accompanies Sintiopil on his way through the nine houses to reach the land of the dead.
On the way to Mictlán (story). Accompanies Sintiopil on his way through the nine houses to reach the land of the dead. Image: INPI

According to Sahagún, these nine planes correspond to the first abode of the dead, the Mictlan (place of the dead), where all those who die a natural death go, in the ninth place, in the Chiconamictlan, where the dead cease to exist.

Those chosen by Tlaloc, god of rain, those who are taken out of the tlaltícpac with a death caused by him -the drowned, those fulminated by lightning, the hydrotropic and the gouty-, went to Tlalocan, which was a happy destination where there was no lack of food and where the tlaloque, long-haired gods, lived.

Those killed in the war, both warriors and captives, arrive at the third place of death, there, where the Sun lives. They accompany the star from its rising, to the "course of women", there where those who have died in childbirth, the "divine women", are.

The Codex Vaticanus speaks of a fourth place for the dead: Chichihuacuauhco, the place of the nurse tree. It is a tree from whose branches drops of milk fall to nourish children who have died at a very young age.

The interesting thing about these places for the dead is that access to them does not depend on the type of life that the deceased has led, but on the type of death with which he or she leaves this world. Since they generally arrive at the end of life naturally, the best known and today's most remembered place for the dead is the Mictlan, perhaps the least "honorific" but the most frequent place of destiny. For some, this place is also a place of suffering.

The existence of these four places allows us to understand the questions about destiny, those that say:

Where will I go?
Where will I go?
The path of the god of duality
Is your home in the place
Of the fleshless?
Or in the interior of the sky,
or is it only here on earth
earth is the place of the fleshless?

By Mario Aguirre Beltrán, Source: Correo del Maestro. No. 30, p.51.