If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The House of the Eagles, and sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli and Eagle Warrior

House of the Eagles, sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), c. 1400–1521, and Mictlantecuhtli and Eagle Warrior, c. 1400–1521, terracotta and plaster, life-size, found in the House of the Eagles (The Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City) A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're in Mexico City, and we've just walked through the House of the Eagles and are now looking at two very large ceramic figures that were originally in the House of the Eagles but are now in the museum of the Templo Mayor. - [Lauren] The House of the Eagles was part of the sacred precinct in the center of the Aztec capital city of the Tenochtitlan, and right next to the House of the Eagles, or very close to it, was their main temple, the Templo Mayor. - [Steven] The House of the Eagles was a place where an elite group of warriors, the eagle warriors, gathered and performed a variety of different rituals, including bloodletting. - [Lauren] Eagle warriors were one class of elite warriors. The others were jaguar warriors. They would come to this particular structure and make offerings of their own blood, as well as gather together. It's really important for understanding both the structure itself and the figures that we're seeing here in the museum. - [Steven] You would have walked up a broad set of stairs and walked past a kind of colonnade into a shallow hall. Then there would have been an opening, a doorway, and on either side of that doorway would have been two of these eagle figures, flanking as guardians. If you entered in further, there would have been another doorway, and there would have been a pair of these two figures of the god of the underworld. - [Lauren] This God of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, or lord of the underworld, is similar to the two terracotta sculptures of the eagle warriors. They're both standing upright, but leaning forward- - [Steven] Making them even more aggressive, even more intimidating, at least to me. - [Lauren] So if we go back to the eagle warrior terracotta sculpture here, we can see that it was made in several pieces and then put together, and then stucco was applied to the outside of the terracotta to imitate eagle feathers. - [Steven] And that perhaps would have been painted in turn. - [Lauren] Then this individual is wearing what looks like a feather costume on his arms and then this wonderful headdress of an eagle head, from which his own face emerges. - [Steven] It creates this wonderful pairing of the natural world and our world. In all of these figures, there's this slippage between the supernatural and between the world in which we walk. - [Lauren] Unfortunately, none of these costumes survived. but we know what they would have looked like based on early colonial codices that show these eagle warrior costumes. - [Steven] I love the knees with the claws coming out of them. And then attached to these figures would have been real feathers. - [Lauren] It's entirely possible that real feathers could have been attached to this warrior. If we're looking at the other figures of Mictlantecuhtli, or this lord of the underworld, he is very different than the eagle warrior. - [Steven] Well, we see an emaciated figure. This is almost skeletal. - [Lauren] I mean, he is partially defleshed, and we have this skeletonization, which you really see in the upper portion of the torso, where you see the exposed rib cage and this interesting element that's hanging out of his rib cage. - [Steven] The liver hangs down pendulously and really activates the figure and emphasizes the fact that he is leaning forward so far. - [Lauren] As he's leaning forward, his arms are raised, and his clawed hands are held upwards. His face also shows evidence of this defleshing, because his mouth is lipless, but we see his teeth. - [Steven] The head is too large for the proportions of the body, the hands are too large for the proportions of the body, all of this making him tremendously present and active. - [Lauren] What we see today are holes on top of the head. If we were seeing this in the 15th century when this sculpture would have been created, there would have probably been paper banners or some type of paper adornment placed inside of these holes. The head actually would have been emphasized even more so than it is today. - [Steven] And it's also important to remember that what we're seeing here in the museum has been cleaned up, because when these figures were unearthed, they were coated with layers of human blood. - [Lauren] Scientific analysis revealed that this sticky, thick substance that was originally found on this Mictlantecuhtli sculpture was in fact human blood, most likely from the offerings that the eagle warriors were making by piercing, say, their tongues. Blood offerings here by these eagle warriors would have been to give back to the deities, to help to feed them to help sustain the cosmos and life itself. - [Steven] Bloodletting was a heavily ritualized event and did not necessarily have negative connotations. - [Lauren] No, and in fact, some of the other remarkable things that we see here in the House of the Eagles are these carved benches, in relief, painted in different colors, and we see them throughout the building, and what they're showing are warriors in procession marching and converging upon these half-sphere objects that are actually grass reed balls into which you would place bloodletting instruments, so the very instruments they were piercing their tongues with. - [Steven] Needles that would have been used to pierce the skin. - [Lauren] Something like a stingray spine or a thorn to pierce the tongue, or maybe the earlobe. - [Steven] There's real continuity between these large figures and these painted reliefs along the benches, which are found in every room within the House of the Eagles. - [Lauren] And if we come back to the Mictlantecuhtli sculpture, this individual who's partially defleshed, I just want to note that the liver was a location of one of the three souls. So the Aztecs believed there were three souls, one in the head, one in the heart, and one in the liver, and the liver had associations with Micclan, the lowest level of the underworld where Mictlantecuhtli lived. And what's wonderful about these particular figures is that they're in terracotta, and the Aztecs are so famous for their monumental stone sculpturing, and yet we clearly see here that they were also extremely capable artists working in terracotta. - [Steven] The scale of these figures, their sense of presence, their animation, it really brings the Aztecs to life. (gentle music)