December 13, 2021   Read time 5 min
During the Postclassic period, the Mexicas and other contemporary peoples of the Central Highlands believed the body held three souls. Each soul was believed to reside in a specific region that served a function in the body and, upon death, had a specific fate.

The teyolía resided in the heart, and was indispensable for the preservation of life. The tonalli was located in the head; it could exit the body and, were it not to return after a certain time, its proprietor would die. The ihíyotl resided in the liver. It was associated with the human passions, and it, too, could exit the body. Upon the death of the individual, these souls would dissipate, and the teyolía would travel to the world of the dead (López Austin, 1980, 360–370). Apparently, the Maya also believed in a kind of soul that traveled to the netherworld. This can be interpreted from the colonial records that tell of the placing of a stone in the mouth of the deceased that would receive the soul at the last breath.

The destinations of the dead are true funeral geographies, as evidenced in the three more powerful groups: Mexica, Tarascan, and Maya. It was believed that these locations could be in the heavens, the water, or under the earth, and that their entrances were caves, lagoons, or nebulous places located somewhere in the earth. Dangerous locations associated with the landscape had to be traversed in order to gain access to them. In other instances, these territories combined environmental elements with supernatural traits. The three above-mentioned groups coincided in perceiving the underworld as the main realm of the deceased. Among the Mexica, this region was known as Mictlan. Friar Bernardino de Sahagún (1997) writes that it was the destination of those who died of old age or common illness, regardless of their origin.

Nine areas had to be crossed in order to reach this region, which was located under the earth. The deceased was left all necessary items for his or her journey. The route is described in the Codice Vaticano Latino 3738 (Vatican Latin Codex 3738). The first stop was the Chiconahuapan River, where a brownish dog awaited his master to help him across. After the crossing, the deceased ascend through a region where mountains crashed into each other. Later, he or she would face the Obsidian Mountain, and then a place where the wind was so cold that it cut like a knife. The blankets given to the dead during the funeral would help in this stage. The deceased next had to cross a place where flags wave in order to reach the place where people are pierced by arrows. More dangers awaited upon his or her arrival in the place where wild animals eat human hearts. After four years, the journey was completed with the arrival at Mictlan, a dark, windowless place ruled by Mictlantecuhtli and his wife Mictecacíhuatl. The god of the underworld was a semi-skeletal being, with curly hair and a nose made of a flint knife.

Those who died of a reason related to water faced a different fate, since they traveled to Tlalocan, a place of abundance and fertility ruled by Tláloc, god of the rain. The descent into the paradise of Tláloc could be caused by an illness associated with the powers of deity. For instance, it was believed that death by drowning or a lightning strike was more than an accidental occurrence; it was the god taking possession of the person through that force. It was believed that the god chose those who died that way. Once they reached Tlalocan, they would help the deity, who granted water for harvests and storms. These victims were buried directly into the ground, as if they were seeds. Another special place, probably located in Tlalocan, is Chichihuauhcuahco, a nursing tree that was the destination of the souls of suckling children.

It was believed that those who died in war would travel to the “House of the Sun.” These deceased were considered illustrious, and their job in the netherworld would be to fight for the preservation of the universe, insuring the transit of the sun from dawn to noon. At that point, it was handed over to women who had died in childbirth, who would accompany it until dusk, before handing it over to the lords of Mictlan. The Maya also believed in souls having different fates. Among inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula, the underworld was known as Mitnal. The Quiché Maya called it Xibalbá, “the region of those who vanish,” the lowest stratum of the underworld, which was reached by descending a road full of dangers. Such notions were recorded in the Popol Vuh, a sacred book written during the early colonial period.

The content of this book was broadly diffused throughout the Maya region. It was believed that the entrance to Xibalbá was in Guatemala, and that in order to reach it one had to descend a steep staircase before crossing a river with a strong current that flowed between thorny calabash trees. Along the way, the deceased encountered another river, the river of pus, and then moved toward a river of blood and another one of water. The latter was located between two steep cliffs. Soon afterward the traveler would be at the junction of four roads, and only the black one would lead to Xibalbá, where the council chamber of the lords of the underworld was located. It was also the site of a garden with birds and flowers, and of a ball court. There was also a spring that was the source of a river and six houses that were torture chambers. Hun Camé and Vucub Camé were the supreme gods of this region, although there were other lords who caused illness and death.

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