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  • Sweeping the Way: Divine Transformation in the Aztec Festival of Ochpaniztli
  • John F. Schwaller
Sweeping the Way: Divine Transformation in the Aztec Festival of Ochpaniztli. By Catherine R. DiCesare. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2009. Pp. xvi, 248. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index.

In studying the Mexica festival of Ochpaniztli, DiCesare has explored the process whereby pre-Columbian religious practices were transmitted by native informants to Spanish interpreters, and how the descriptions that resulted were mediated by that process. The festival is one of 18 such festivals spread over the 21 months that comprised the Mexica solar calendar, called the xiuhpoalli. The central deity of the celebrations was Toci, also known as Teteoinnan or Tlazolteotl, a goddess of fertility and human sexuality. This festival is included in many sixteenth-century descriptions of the Mexica ritual year, in both pictorial manuscripts and historical narratives. Many scholars have noted that the descriptions of the festival found in the narratives differ from what can be gleaned from the pictorials. Moreover, many of the pictorial representations differ markedly one from the other. DiCesare uses this disconnect as the point of departure for her study.

This well-illustrated work consists of five chapters, flanked by an introduction and conclusion. The introduction outlines the central tension of the work, namely, the seeming contradictions between the pictorial and narrative descriptions of the festival. DiCesare also uses the introduction to direct our focus to the depiction of the festival in the Codex Borbonicus, a pictorial manuscript of central Mexican origin, probably from the first decades of the Spanish occupation with a minimum of Spanish glosses. She posits that the depictions of the festival in the Borbonicus can be neither ignored nor undervalued with regard to other pictorial representations and to narratives. She holds that there is a way to reconcile all of these.

In her first chapter, DiCesare reviews all of the principal sources, pictorial and narrative, for the study of Ochpaniztli. She examines each source and explains the means by which it was produced and the potential audience for whom it was composed. She concludes that these works were strictly colonial products, and that their purpose thus needs to be scrutinized. In the second chapter she considers the methods by which colonial authors reproduced pre-Columbian images and narratives through the lens of colonial Christianity. In the case of the pictorial sources, the native artists placed great emphasis on the regalia and accoutrements of the deities. In particular, during the actual ceremonies the deity was represented by an impersonator, who was addressed in the deity’s garb and carried the appropriate accoutrements.

The third chapter looks at the ceremonial functions of the paraphernalia of the deities, which forms an important part of the pictorial images but is barely mentioned in the narrative accounts. There are two reasons for this: for natives, the accoutrements represented the power and efficacy of the deity; however, the Spaniards, missionaries in particular, concluded that the presence of the ritual objects after the conversion implied the continuation of the native religion. The fourth chapter focuses on the concerns of the missionaries regarding the representation of the central deity of Ochpaniztli, the [End Page 133] goddess Toci. Because the missionaries assumed a similarity between the Mexica deities and those of classical Rome and Greece, these representations instantly created a concern. Their deepest worry was that this native goddess of motherhood and nurturing would be confused with Christian mother figures, including the Virgin Mary, St. Anne, and others. In her final chapter, DiCesare studies the particulars of the festival of Ochpaniztli and its description in the Borbonicus and posits that the depiction does not represent an archetype but rather a specific celebration linked to a series of conditions that obtained shortly before the arrival of the Spanish.

This is a very well written and well reasoned work. In focusing on one feast of the Aztec solar calendar, DiCesare breaks ground in helping scholars understand new and profitable ways to tease valuable information from frequently conflicting sources. The use of both narrative and pictorial material strengthens the work significantly.

John F. Schwaller
State University of New York, Potsdam
Potsdam, New York


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