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Appeasing the Volcano Gods Volume 51 Number 4, July/August 1998
by Patricia Plunket and Gabriela Uruñuela

During the height of the rainy season in August 1519, Hernán Cortés led his small army toward the great city of Tenochtitlán, seat of the Aztec Empire. Their march led them to the city of Cholula on the western side of the Puebla Valley. From here Cortés observed that: "Eight leagues from this city...there are two marvelously high mountains whose summits still at the end of August are covered with snow so that nothing else can be seen of them. From the higher of the two both by day and night a great volume of smoke often comes forth and rises up into the clouds as straight as a staff, with such force that although a very violent wind continuously blows over the mountain range yet it cannot change the direction of the column."

[image] The eruption of Popocatépetl in 1995. In foreground, the seventeenth-century sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios sits atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid in the Americas. The pyramid echoes the contours of Popocatépetl, and some believe its Indian name, Tlachihualtepetl ("Man-made Hill"), reflects the imitative effort of those who built it. (Raúl Gill) [LARGER IMAGE]

This 17,900-foot volcano, known to the Aztecs as Popocatépetl, or "Smoking Mountain," was a focal point in the sacred geography of ancient Mexico. In the Florentine Codex, Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar who documented native customs and beliefs during the decades immediately following the conquest, commented that the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, in particular Popocatépetl and its northern neighbor Iztaccíhuatl, were considered sacred since the rain clouds converged on them. He tells how even toward the end of the sixteenth century pilgrimages were still made to their summits to offer sacrifices to the water deities, but none of the early sources clearly states who the volcano gods were.

[image] The volcanoes Popocatépetl, left, and Iztaccíhuatl, right, [LARGER IMAGE] as seen from the 1997 excavations of a Prehispanic farming settlement. Shrines to Popocatépetl, [LARGER IMAGE] found in the patios of houses, had carved stone faces above a chimney that carried smoke from a charcoal-filled chamber dug in the patio floor. (Patricia Plunket and Gabriela Uruñuela)[image]

Since 1993 we have directed salvage excavations on Popocatépetl's lower flanks, where we have found evidence of the inhabitants' attempts to propitiate the volcano in ways not unlike those recorded by the Spaniards more than 1,500 years later. This fertile region, known as Tetimpa, was first settled by farmers about 700 B.C. Their wattle-and-daub houses, built on low stone platforms placed around a central patio. After at least partially abandonment around 100 B.C., perhaps due to increasing volcanic activity, the area was resettled a few generations later, possibly by descendants of the original inhabitants, since the new houses were built directly over the remains of the old platforms and floors that sealed the graves of their ancestors. At the center of each patio, families built small shrines consisting of mountains modeled from clay, stone, and potsherds crowned with crudely carved heads of humans or serpents. Some are clearly effigies of Popocatépetl. Beneath each carved stone head is a chimney that leads to a charcoal-filled chamber dug in the patio floor. Smoke would have puffed out from under each head in imitation of the ash and vapor plumes expelled from the crater during volcanic activity.

[image] Stone head with furrowed hair, representing Popocatépetl, from a household shrine (John O'Leary) [LARGER IMAGE]

Although the village and its shrines are separated from the Aztec world by 1,500 years, it is interesting to compare the shrines with descriptions of the feast of Tepeilhuitl given by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún's native informants: "In this month they celebrated a feast in honor of the high mountains, which are in all the lands of this New Spain, where the large clouds pile up. They made the images of each one of them in human form, from the dough which is called tzoalli, and they laid offerings before these images in veneration of these same mountains." The most fascinating part of Sahagún's account is that the mountain models are given human faces. In fact, the Spanish text indicates that each mountain was given two faces, one human and one serpent. The dual nature of the mountains described in the Florentine Codex recalls the human and serpent images that crown the volcano effigies of the village shrines and suggests a conceptual continuity that spans some 1,500 years.

About A.D. 80, Popocatépetl erupted, blanketing the landscape with a thick layer of fragmented pumice, or lapilli. When it was over, the villages lay preserved beneath three to seven feet of lapilli. A huge lava flow then descended over the southern part of the area, burying any settlements there under as much as 325 feet of solid rock. Geological studies undertaken as part of our project show that the eruptive column rose to a height of between 15 and 18 miles before it collapsed over the Puebla side of the mountain. Perhaps construction of Cholula's Great Pyramid, which echoes the contours of Popocatépetl and may have started at this time, was at least in part an attempt to appease the mountain. Some believe that the pyramid's Indian name, Tlachihualtepetl ("Man-made Hill"), reflects the imitative effort of those who built it.

The farmers who live on the flanks of Popocatépetl today see the volcano in human terms. To them he is Gregorio, a name first used in the villages on the mountain's northeastern flank, perhaps originating with an eruption on St. Gregory's day earlier in this century. In December 1994, Popocatépetl erupted once again, and it has remained in a period of intermittent activity since then, occasionally spewing forth huge plumes of ash and vapor and producing great rumblings from within. Since the eruption, the name Don Gregorio and the nickname Don Goyo have come into general usage. A male being with long wavy hair, thought by some to represent the smoke tendrils that unfurl from the crater, he is related by practitioners of traditional folk religion to God the Father and Jesus Christ. Tradition requires that he be venerated with offerings placed in sacred caves high on the slopes of the mountain, an example of the general Mesoamerican metaphor of caves on mountains and temples on pyramids. Ten years ago there were still specialists well versed in the rites of propitiation for the volcano, but when the last of these died, the rituals were not performed correctly and, for the most part, the offerings were discontinued.

[image] Effigy of volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, based on excavated first-century A.D. shrines, was used in a dance honoring the mountains during a regional festival at Atlixco, Mexico, in 1996. (Javier González, courtesy Eduardo Merlo) [LARGER IMAGE]

The towns on the eastern slopes of the volcano have resumed the prescribed rituals to the best of their ability and renewed the offerings in the caves in an attempt to appease Gregorio. The modeled images of the mountains, once made every year by the Prehispanic communities of the central highlands for the feasts of Tepeilhuitl and Atemoztli, have reappeared in the festivities of the Atlixcáyotl, a regional dance festival held in late September in the city of Atlixco at the foot of Popocatépetl. In 1996, a new dance was choreographed to pacify the angry volcano, and perhaps it should not surprise us that this modern-day ritual included a model "smoking mountain" based on one of the 2,000-year-old shrines we excavated.

Patricia Plunket and Gabriela Uruñuela, professors of anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas in Puebla, direct the excavations on Popocatépetl, which are supported by the Mesoamerican Research Foundation.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America