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Crossings: hearts and tzompantlis

Updated: Jul 3, 2021

Clay Tzompantli (figurine with three rows of skulls) altar, surrounded by red hearts
Tzompantli y corazones by Alejandra Castañeda

Between hearts and Tzompantlis, Mexican culture can be conceived as always located at the crossroads of beliefs, understandings, and misunderstandings about life and death. For the Mexica and other pre-Hispanic cultures, noble hearts found their way to their souls through the performance of rituals that uncovered the path that spirits could follow. In order for the universe to continue, the gods needed rituals and sacrifices. In order for the Mexica world to prevail, sacrifices were made. While we have moved beyond the material literality of the religious offerings performed by Mesoamerican cultures, we remain committed to the metaphorical but always ritualistic ceremonies for the death, and for the living. From the sacrificial stone to the day of the dead altar, a cultural time-space continuum is weaved every day.

To understand the contemporary meaning of the Tzompantli in Mexican culture, we have to explore the meaning of the Tzompantli in history.

Tzompantli, nahua word that means "wall of heads" (“muro, hilera o bandera de cabezas”) was described in the various chronics or "relatos" written by Hernán Cortez, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, and pictured in the Aztec codices. The Spaniards mixed their own catholic and Western conceptions of good and evil when they interpreted and depicted the indigenous societies that they found in, what for them was, "the new world". Thus, the Tzompantli arrives to us translated by Western eyes that were heavily imbedded by Christianity and its own savagery (for more, see Carreon-Blaine:2006).

Understanding this multiplicity of translations is necessary to peel the layers of interpretations and maybe, grasp the meaning and purpose that the Tzompantli had for the Mexica and for the different cultures of ancient Mexico.

The Mexica Tzompantli depicts the skulls, the heads of those who were offered to the gods, who could be warriors captured in battle, or the ixiptla, who represented the gods (see Gonzalez-Torres). In one of the most impressive explorations, Mexican archaeologists rescued and uncovered the Huey Tzompantli located in what used to be the heart of Tenochtitlan (downtown Mexico City), part of of which can be seen in the Museo del Templo Mayor (see Mayans).

As Alfredo Lopez-Austin explains, for the Mexica, the death continued to have an obligation, a connection, with the world of the living helping with rain, with fertility, the sun, or helping during diseases (see Lopez Austin: 1999). For the Mexica, "fulfilling a cosmic function was more important than a reward or a punishment" (Lopez Austin: 1999), the latter perspective corresponding more to the Christian understandings of death, of good and evil. In this sense, the Christian understanding of the soul as a unit obnubilated the friars gaze rendering them incapable of understanding the nahua cosmovision where a person contained a multiplicity of inner selfs that fragmented upon dead, each one pursuing a different destiny (for more, see Lopez Austin: 1999).

Perhaps we can do the imaginary jump and think of our contemporary ofrendas to our muertos, our family or our venerated dead, as our Tzompantli, our ofrenda to our dioses, where our gods are those who lived among us and now enjoy a life beyond Mictlan, the Aztec world of the souls that left their material bodies.


Carreon Blaine, Emilie. 2006. Tzompantli, Horca y Picota. Sacrificio y Pena Capital. Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas No. 88, UNAM.

González Torres, Yolotl. El Tzompantli en Mesoamerica y las Torres de Cabeza en Asia. En Arqueología Mexicana, núm. 120, pp. 75-79. Retrieved April 20, 2021.

Picture of Tzompantli, Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico. Wiki Commons.

Lopez Austin, Alfredo. 1999. “Misterios de la vida y de la muerte”, Arqueología Mexicana, núm.40, noviembre-diciembre 1999, pp. 4-10. Retrieved April 20, 2021.

Mayans, Carmen. "Redescubriendo el Gran Tzompantli". National Geographic España. Retrieved April 20, 2021.

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