Music and Social Status

June 18, 2009 at 11:23 pm (Uncategorized)

blog 604 5While researching through numerous Google searches I quickly found that I was getting nowhere with the keywords “Aztec dance” and “Danza Azteca”. I then changed my search to look for a dance god and found the name Ozomatli. This is the Nahuatl word for the Aztec monkey who was considered the companion spirit and servant of the god Xochipilli, the god of music and dance. I found that a popular band is also named after this god; therefore my Ozomatli search produced many links to the band’s performances, reviews and websites. I ran into a question and answer page asking exactly what I was thinking: how do I find information on Ozomatli the Aztec monkey instead of Ozomatli the band? Luckily one of the responses gave a simple answer: type in “Ozomatli” and “Aztec monkey” as the search words instead of Ozomatli alone. With this search the first few websites gave an abundant amount of information about the Aztecs and the importance of dance in their culture.

blog 604_3Dance and music within the Aztec society was not only dedicated to religious ceremonies. The rhythmic movement to music has a symbolic meaning and is an element of ceremonies with a variety of purposes, which includes hunting, warfare, harvest or victory celebrations, or a rite of passage such as a marriage.[i] Some ceremonies are even named for the dance performed. Dance was also a sacrificial gift to the gods. As I mentioned in previous blogs, I can see dance as meditation to get closer to the gods, but to get to this elevated mental state, the dancer did not only have to concentrate on the movements, the music was also an integral part. Music and dance were of equal importance. According to Dr. Arnd Adje the Aztecs did not have a word for music. Music was the “art of song” or cuicatlamatiliztli, and musicians did not play but “sang” on their instruments. To dance was “to sing with the feet.”[ii] This shows the importance of melody and rhythm, which is also attributed to dance.

blog 604_4Dance was also a measure of social status within the Aztec society. There were numerous dance rituals and ceremonies by different classes and Adje details some of these different dance trends within the Aztecs. The common man provided dance entertainment in their own homes as well as in local festivals, and the instrument of choice were various kinds of rattles and small whistles. While reading Music, Song and Dance among the Aztecs-a short introduction it seems like the higher the social class, the more advanced and resonating the instruments and performances became. The Aztec priests performed in the temples and used trumpets, large rattle-sticks, slit-drums, turtle shells, flutes and whistles. Sacred temple chants by priests or the gods’ representatives were accompanied by metal bells and conch tinkles, as well as eagle whistles, small flutes, ceramic drums and slit-drums. There were also professional musicians who performed for the court. They resided in the “house of the Cloud Serpent”, also known as mixcoacalli. Adje says of these court performers:

“The court musicians performed the music of large circular dances, in which often hundreds of dancers took part. They also played for their ruler, such as during daily banquets, which were accompanied by acrobats and dwarfs, and were ordered to play for the wealthy merchants in their private feasts.”

These professional court musicians had the most varied and abundant instruments of all performers. Another group was the warriors, best known from the eagle and jaguar societies. They performed in the courtyard of the “house of song” or cuicacalli. The noise and music from this group was the loudest and most frightening with shell trumpets, drums and whistles.

blog 604It is interesting that each group had a different way of expressing themselves through music and dance. It is also understandable that the professional court performers would have the most elaborate dances and the warriors would have the loudest routine, while the unprofessional common man only performed for their own entertainment. Each group integrates their social status as well as their social importance through dance and the instruments they use for the music they express.

[i] Waldman, Carl. “dance.” Word Dance: The Language of Native American Culture. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1994. American Indian History Online. Facts On File, Inc. ItemID=WE43&iPin=ind3337&SingleRecord=True (accessed June 3, 2009).

[ii] Adje, Arnd. Music, Song and Dance among the Aztecs-a short introduction. (accessed June 4, 2009)


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June 14, 2009 at 5:39 am (Uncategorized)

apocalypto4Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” endured harsh criticism since before its release, but I enjoyed watching this film for the entertainment value, as well as the history it brought to life. Watching the film was not easy due to its goriness, and it is difficult to imagine a society so bloodthirsty. The Mayan culture, as well as many other native tribes of the time, believed in human sacrifice, maybe not to the extent of what was portrayed in “Apocalypto”, which is one of the major criticisms against Gibson and this film, but it was a part of their religious beliefs. Human blood fed the gods appetite and in return the gods appeased the humans. The sun god was one of these important deities for these Native American tribes. If the sun god was pleased, then it would appear and help with the light needed for survival, such as with the growth of crops. This is what was seen when Jaguar Paw and the other villagers are taken into the Mayan city. The sacrificial ceremony is taking place.

Watching “Apocalypto” for a second time and without subtitles was extremely revealing. I was able to focus on details I easily missed during the first viewing because I was busy reading the subtitles. Gibson recreated an amazingly descriptive image of the Mayan culture, and two scenes caught my interest; the first when the old man is narrating a story to the tribe, and second was during the sacrificial ceremony by the Mayans.

apclyptoDuring this first scene, the tribe sits around the fire as a family, listening to the elder with great attentiveness and respect. Even the young children, whom we know are not to be able to sit still for a long time, stay in place showing their respect to the ritual. When the elder ends his tale, music then takes over the group. This leads to an outbreak of dance, which is a large part of how this society expressed themselves. This is not a religious ceremony; it is simply a part of their daily lives. They celebrate their ancestors and the present through dance; it is an expression of their tribe and who they are.

The second scene was during the sacrificial ritual by the Mayans. Here, music and dance also play a large role. Various groups are seen dancing in different areas during the ceremony, and for what looks like different purposes also. One group of men dance at the foot of the pyramid where the heads and bodies of those sacrificed fell onto. They act almost insane because they are so ecstatic when the decapitated heads and headless bodies fall in front of them. Another group of dancers are seen while the prisoners are led to start their climb up the pyramid. It is a group of woman dancers and they resemble an almost evilness as they work together to scare the rattled prisoners even more.


During my first viewing of the movie I did not pay much attention to both of these scenes, and I also did not realize how important dance and music were in the everyday lives of this culture. “Apocalypto” is an overwhelming film. The story, the images, and the emotional struggle the viewer goes through make it hard to see many of the details during the first viewing. I can watch it again and I am confident I will see more information I missed in the previous two viewings. Unfortunately, Gibson’s portrayal of the Mayan culture is not very accurate, but I feel it is a good movie because it showcases some of the Mesoamerican land and the native people. Unfortunately, many people are not familiar with the history of the Mayans or other Pre-Hispanic indigenous people, but at least Gibson’s movie brought some light to this interesting topic. For me, I am glad I am able to recognize what large role music and dance played in other tribes and other areas of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs are one of the more recognized native tribes, but some of my research has delved into the different dances performed by other tribes also. It was also interesting to see the dance ceremonies in another medium, like this movie, instead of written descriptions, drawings, and pictures.

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