gender varience

Chavin and Aztec Art Denoting Gender and Sexual Orientation Varience

I did this reasearch paper in my Mesoamerican Art History class a while ago, so this paper is not my best work by any means, as a challenge that a teacher gave me to find evidence of non-normative gender and sexual expressions within two cultures and compare and contrast. As such, I have recently come into more knowledge from scholarly journals and ethnography work from an archaeology course that have more evidence to my claims which I will, hopefully, link to on this blog. That being said, enjoy my really ugly written comparision of Chavin and Aztect Art and mythology with relation to gende and sexual varience. (Also it should probably be noted that I’m white ). –Nick

    When a subject or a theme is denoted as being common, that does not explicitly portray that a reliability on a single general focal point can be observed with a default sense of familiarity. Normative interpretations are imposed exceedingly on works of art and the subjects that they are created to represent by scholars and archeologists alike. A theme that is distinguished throughout antiquity but never readily revealed or even discussed, is the theme of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation as they apply to works of art and cultural socialization. These three interrelated themes are not necessarily common in the terms of scholarly research, however, that in no way should lead one to assume that varying differences in attitudes and understanding of sex, gender, and sexual orientation did not exist within antiquity. One such area and culture in which the questioning of gender and orientation was to be explored, involved the Mexica people, better known as the Aztecs. The Aztecs traveled from their debated mythological homeland of Aztlan to finally settle in Tenochtitlan after misunderstanding and strife caused them to move on a pilgrimage to their new settlement. However, the Aztecs were not the first to blur the understanding of homosexual and gender themes in art and in cultural understanding within the Mesoamerican archaeological record. Accordingly, the Chavin of the Northern Andean Highlands in Peru also explored the notion of diversity within gender relationships and identities, as exhibited in their various textile and stele works. Affording these two distinct and varying civilizations and cultures scholarly attention will determine just how varying the degree of this common yet unfamiliar theme of gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation actually was to the Mesoamericans of antiquity. 

            Thereupon, within the Aztec pantheon, two deities stand out as being a startling example of non-conventional gender identities and differing sexual orientations. The first of these deities is known as the God Xochipilli, the Flower Prince, as his name roughly translates. Xochipilli was known to the Aztecs as the God of hallucinogenic substances, male prostitution, and male homosexuality. While this God himself was married to a female Goddess, Mayahuel, he was still worshipped as a patron deity of effeminate male homosexuality and arguably bisexuality—perhaps less of a practitioner of it, and more of a counselor and protector of those who practiced such sexual acts. When observing one of the most commonly known statues of Xochipilli, David Greenburg, professor of Sociology at New York University, states that the Gods pose, shown below, “suggests a complex set of associations including the role of entertainer, the love of exotic foods and perfumes, male gender variance, and same-[gender] eroticism.” (Conner, 351).


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     The second deity to be examined is the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteotl, also shown above in colorful relief aside the statue of Xochipilli. Tlazolteotl, the Filth Goddess, is a prime example of gender variance in Aztec and Mesoamerican culture and religious art. This Goddess was known as the Filth Goddess because she was a patron deity of midwives and adulterers and ruled over the acts of purification and the ridding of filth in ritual practices. Therefore she reigned over deeds of filth, though this domain of sin, vice, and sexual misdeeds has been polluted with Western religious interpretation and misunderstandings. Therefore, “she was a purification goddess as well, who forgave the sins and diseases of those caused by misdeeds, particularly sexual misdeeds” that could be attached to gender and sexual variances (Tlazolteotl). Her cult was predominantly controlled and located in the gulf lowlands of Huaxeca and was taken care of by lesbian and/or trans women priestesses. 

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(Raimondi Stele)

     Conversely, another deity that has become of grave importance to art historians and archeologists concerning the Aztec pantheon is the Goddess Coatlicue, or, She of the Serpent Skirt—shown above to the left. Her mythology incorporates a sense of being that is marred by the exuding of blood from her head, as well as blood from her uterus. This, as seen in her sculpture, is associated with serpents as a symbol of freshly fallen blood. The serpents that are crowded around her vagina hint that she can self-procreate with the aid of a symbolic phallus that she could possibly possess, attached to her frontal genitalia, defining her as possibly an intersex individual. This is demonstrated from the distinct skull along her belt separated by two serpents, “the head is severed and replaced by two snakes, symbolic of flowing blood. Another snake descends from her groin, suggesting both menses [menstruation] and penis.” (Page 222, Miller). As a creation and mother deity, the representation of the snake head garter and belt, or, even a serpent representation of her phallus at her groin, suggests her aspect at both having a vagina and a penis for procreating, even though she herself relays on the female aspect of her being as her identity of mother and Goddess. 

     Accordingly, this piece can be contrasted with the Chavin stele known as the Raimondi Stele found in the New Temple at Chavin de Huantar and depicted to the right of the Coatlicue statue. While the Coatlicue statue hints at the possibility of the Goddess it depicts as either being an intersex individual or, if her menstration is purely fictional, a trans woman, the Raimondi stela is completely ambiguous with the staff-deities gender and genitals. The image itself is striking because of its thin yet towering composition, incorporating the Andean view of essence over appearance by creating figures within figures, allowing multiple facets and images to be experienced without wholly individualizing one part of the stela. This is also further explored through the use of a dual image in the piece, “[u]pright, the lower third of the slab depicts a standing figure with splayed taloned feet, arms to the side holding two vertical staffs made up of faces, snakes, swirls, and vegetation….This supernatural being, known as the Staff God, has predominantly agricultural fertility associations.” (40, Stone). However, no set of genitals or gender has been denoted in the monument, as the stele fully brandishes its dual form as neither male nor female. The piece transforms and slithers into each image, creating a relief design that incorporates many other symbols and motifs to create the entire structure. However, the structures gender, by carefully placed carvings, remains a mystery though the statue is affirmed in name as a “staff bearing God”. This obscurity and blurring of two genders in the stele allows scholars to firmly understand that the gender-roles and constructions that characterize many of our socialized lives were not as prevalent or perhaps important to the Chavin and the Aztec.

            Therefore, there lies more comparison than contrast when observing the theme of sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender. Though religiously educated friars and monks like Bartolome de Las Casas tried to renounce the possibility of the native population practicing various gender practices and various sexual relations in order to perhaps make the native population seem less devilish and sinful in the eyes of fifteenth century Europe and its rulers, the truth of the matter is that transgressions against gender and sex existed within these cultures. The Aztec and the Chavin went to great engineering and artistic lengths to document explicitly in their religion and their artwork their institutionalized acceptance of ideas and practices that were anything but heterosexual-normative and gender-binaristic. As shown in these art pieces and their religious and social connotations and symbolism, the ancients of Mesoamerica perhaps did not fully embrace diversity in orientation and identity, but they certainly came to tolerate it and even preserve it for hundreds of years in their impressive and long lasting works of art.

Works and Art Cited and Consulted,

Conner, Randy P., David Hatfield. Sparks, Mariya Sparks, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Lore. London: Cassell, 1997. Print.

Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality & Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

“Inka.” Inka. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001. Print.

Stone, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.

“Top 10 Earth Goddesses.” N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

“Tlazolteotl.” Tlazolteotl. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

“Tlazolteotl (Aztec Deity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

“Xochipilli.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.