Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

Neapolitan Ritual Food

by Michelangelo Pascali

Everybody knows Italian cuisine, but few are aware that several traditional dishes hold a symbolic meaning. Guestblogger Michelangelo Pascali uncovers the metaphorical value of some Neapolitan recipes.

Neapolitan culture shows a dense symbology that accompanies the preparation and consumption of certain dishes, mostly for propitiatory purposes, during heartfelt ritual holidays. These very ancient holidays, some of which were later converted to Christian holidays, are linked to the passage of time and to the seasons of life.
The symbolic meaning of ritual food can sometimes refer to the cyclic nature of life, or to some exceptional social circumstances.

One of the most well-known “devotional courses” is certainly the white and crunchy torrone, which is eaten during the festivities for the Dead, between the end of October and the beginning of November. The almonds on the inside represent the bones of the departed which are to be absorbed in an vaguely cannibal perspective (as with Mexican sugar skeletons). The so-called torrone dei morti (“torrone of the Dead”) can also traditionally be squared-shaped, its white paste covered with dark chocolate to mimick the outline of a tavùto (“casket”).

The rhombus-shaped decorations on the pastiera, an Easter cake, together with the wheat forming its base, are meant to evoke the plowed fields and the coming of the mild season, more favorable for life.


The rebirth of springtime, after the “death” of winter, finds another representation in the casatiello, the traditional Easter Monday savory pie, that has to be left to rise for an entire night from dusk till dawn. Its ring-like shape is a reminder of the circular nature of time, as seen by the ancient agricultural, earthbound society (and therefore quite distant, in many ways, from the linear message of Christian religion); the inside cheese and sausages once again represent the dead, buried in the ground. But the real peculiarity, here, is the emerging of some eggs from the pie, protected by a “cross” made of crust: a bizarre element, which would have no reason to be there were it not an allegory of birth — in fact, the eggs are placed that way to suggest a movement that goes “from the underground to the surface“, or “from the Earth to the Sky“.

In the Neapolitan Christmas Eve menu, “mandatory courses are still called ‘devotions’, just like in ancient Greek sacred banquets”, and “the obligation of lean days is turned into its very opposite” (M. Niola, Il sacrificio del capitone, in Repubblica, 15/12/2013).
The traditional Christmas dinner is carried out along the lines of ancient funerary dinners (with the unavoidable presence of dried fruit and seafood), and it also has the function of consuming the leftovers before the arrival of a new year, as for example in the menestra maretata (‘married soup’).

But the main protagonist is the capitone, the huge female eel. This fish has a peculiar reproduction cycle (on the account of its migratory habits) and is symbolically linked to the Ouroboros. The capitone‘s affinity with the snake, an animal associated with the concept of time in many cultures, is coupled with its being a water animal, therefore providing a link to the most vital element.
The capitone is first bred and raised within the family, only to be killed by the family members themselves (in a ritual that even allows for the animal to “escape”, if it manages to do so): an explicit ritual sacrifice carried out inside the community.

While still alive, the capitone is cut into pieces and thrown in boiling oil to be fried, as each segment still frantically writhes and squirms: in this preparation, it is as if the infinite moving cycle was broken apart and then absorbed. The snake as a metaphor of Evil seems to be a more recent symbology, juxtaposed to the ancient one.

Then there are the struffoli, spherical pastries covered in honey — a precious ingredient, so much so that the body of Baby Jesus is said to be a “honey-dripping rock” — candied fruit and diavulilli (multi-colored confetti); we suppose that in their aspect they might symbolize a connection with the stars. These pastries are indeed offered to the guests during Christmas season, an important cosmological moment: Macrobius called the winter solstice “the door of the Gods“, as under the Capricorn it becomes possible for men to communicate with divinities. It is the moment in which many Solar deities were born, like the Persian god Mitra, the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn, or the Greek Apollo — a pre-Christian protector of Naples, whose temple was found where the Cathedral now is. And the Saint patron Januarius, whose blood is collected right inside the Cathedral, is symbolically close to Apollo himself.
Of course the Church established the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the proximity of the solstice, whereas it was first set on January 6:  the Earth reaches its maximum distance from the Sunon the 21st of December, and begins to get closer to it after three days.

The sfogliatella riccia, on the other hand, is an allusion to the shape of the female reproductive organ, the ‘valley of fire’ (this is the translation of its Neapolitan common nickname, which has a Greek etymology). It is said to date back to the time when orgiastic rites were performed in Naples, where they were widespread for over a millennium and a half after the coming of the Christian Era, carried out in several peculiar places such as the caves of the Chiatamone. This pastry was perhaps invented to provide high energetic intake to the orgy participants.

Lastly, an exquistely mundane motivation is behind the pairing of chiacchiere and sanguinaccio.
Chiacchiere look like tongues, or like those strings of paper where, in paintings and bas-relief, the words of the speaking characters were inscribed; and their name literally means “chit-chat”. The sanguinaccio is a sort of chocolate black pudding which was originally prepared with pig’s blood (but not any more).
During the Carnival, the only real profane holiday that is left, the association between these two desserts sounds like a code of silence: it warns and cautions not to contaminate with ordinary logic the subversive charge of this secular rite, which is completely egalitarian (Carnival masks hide our individual identity, making us both unrecognizable and also indistinguishable from each other).
What happens during Carnival must stay confined within the realm of Carnival — on penalty of “tongues being drowned in blood“.