When I first played Tomb Raider 1 back in 1996, I never realized how many real-life Pre-Columbian (and other) artefacts could be spotted throughout the game’s Peru levels. Some of them, such as the Chimú bird carving, were already familiar to me as I had done some research on Peruvian art and archaeology for a GCSE Art project.
But it wasn’t until I started working on this site and replaying this 1996 classic that I began to notice that the game’s graphics artists had also, perhaps unwittingly, incorporated Maya and Aztec motifs and artefacts in the design of their lost Inca city.**
One such example of a misplaced artefact is this statue depicting the Aztec maize goddess, Chicomecoatl, which can be found in one of the side chambers of Qualopec’s tomb.
Chicomecoatl, whose name means “Seven Snakes” in Nahuatl, was associated with agriculture and, in particular, maize, a crop that was central to the Aztec diet. Considered by some to be the female counterpart and possibly consort of Centeotl, the god of maize and subsistence, Chicomecoatl normally represented mature maize and the seeds collected for cultivating future crops while younger, unripe maize was represented by the deity Xilonen, who some argue was just an alternate name for Centeotl but was most likely a younger form of the maize goddess herself.
Both forms of the goddess were normally depicted wearing a towering headdress (known as an amacalli or “paper house”) decorated with flower rosettes, plumes, and twisted cords, representing ears of maize and symbolizing fertility. She’d also be typically dressed in red, wearing a long skirt (cueitl) and a triangular cape (quechquemitl) similar to a poncho or shawl and clutching two ears of corn in each hand. Statues like this one would have been carved from slabs of basalt and placed in communal temples or plazas as a focus of worship during religious festivals.
And here’s where things get a little grisly. In the lead-up to the autumn equinox, a number of dances and sacred rituals would be performed to ensure a bountiful harvest and maintain balance between the human world and the world of the teotl (or divine spirits).
One of these rituals involved the sacrifice of a young woman (often a slave or captive) who would be chosen to personify the maize goddess during the week-long festivities. The young woman would be dressed in red garments, wear a paper headdress of red bark paper and ears of maize, have her cheeks painted red, and be decked out in glittering gold jewellery.
For a few days, the young woman would have been treated like a goddess and would have carried around imitation ears of corn crafted from gold and feathers. However, on the last night of the festivities, it was game over. The poor woman would be led off by the priests, decapitated, flayed, and have her blood poured over a statue of Chicomecoatl, thus honouring the goddess and ensuring the very survival of the community. When you consider how dependent the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures were on agriculture, particularly in a region largely devoid of large mammals, the woman’s sacrifice would be an entirely justifiable course of action. Not that that would have been any real consolation to the sacrificial victim…
Human sacrifice is a difficult concept for many of us to accept or fully understand due to our own cultural and/or religious beliefs but it played an important (though perhaps slightly overstated) role in Aztec culture. Blood was considered a life force and, since many of the Aztec’s chief gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live, the Aztecs believed they owed their gods a blood-debt and that failure to pay their debts would have dire consequences, ranging from earthquakes and floods to failed harvests.
So, next time you saunter past that statue in Qualopec’s tomb, be glad that Lara wasn’t the poor victim of a ritual sacrifice…
** This mishmash of Precolumbian art has been dubbed “Mayaincatec” by the folks over at TV Tropes. A special thanks to Dr. John Oakland for sending me the link to this!
Sources & Further Reading:
- Aztec Sacrifice (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
- Aztec Sacrifice (Aztec History)
- Chicomecoatl (Wikipedia)
- Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Oxford University Press (2007)
- Head of Xilonen, Goddess of Young Maize (The Art Institute of Chicago)
- Human Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Wikipedia)
- Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Mexica Chicomecoatl (Seven Snakes), the Maize Goddess (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)