The column was named for a legendary ritual during which it appeared. This legend, in turn, was inspired by the site’s connection with the death. This is often partly supported by tales told about the location, also because of the archaeological evidence.
Nevertheless, an outsized amount of data about the location has been lost, because the Spanish caused much damage at the location once they arrived within the area during the center of the 16 century. But the Column of Death survived despite the widespread destruction of the conquistadors.
Mitla: ‘Place of the Dead’ In Many Ancient Local Languages
The fabulous landscape of Mount Alban, also built by the Zapotecs, within the same area of Mexico where Mitla lies. (WitR / Adobe Stock)
Mitla is one of Mexico’s best-known archaeological sites. In Oaxaca, it’s only exceeded in rank by the stunning site of Monte Albán.
The Mitla site is situated at an elevation of 4855 feet (1480 m), on the eastern fringe of a high valley, and is surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur.
Mitla lies about 24 miles (38 km) southeast of Oaxaca City, the state’s capital. it’s going to be added that the location is found within the modern municipality of San Pablo Villa de Mitla (Pablo being the Spanish equivalent for Paul).
The word ‘Mitla’ is that the Hispanicized / transliterated version of a Nahuatl word, which is translated to mean ‘Place of the Dead,’ or ‘Underworld.’ the location, however, wasn’t established by the Aztecs, who spoke Nahuatl.
Instead, Mitla is usually thought to possess been founded (or a minimum of made significant) by the Zapotecs, who called the location Lyobaa, meaning ‘Resting Place.’
The Mixtecs, another indigenous people of Mexico, knew the location as Nuu Ndiyi, which also means ‘Place of the Dead.’ Despite the site’s different names, it’s clear that Mitla had some reference to the dead.
A Small Village For 400 Years than a spiritual Center
The archaeological evidence suggests that the location of Mitla was occupied as early as 900 BC when it had been nothing quite a little, insignificant village.
It had been only later, when the Zapotecs took over the location, that Mitla became a crucial religious center. The Zapotec culture is assumed to possess been established as early as 500 BC.
The central valleys of Oaxaca were the heartland of the Zapotec culture, though it also spread to the north, the south, and therefore the east. The Zapotecs mentioned themselves as Be’ena’a, meaning ‘The People,’ and one among their first major settlements was Monte Albán.
The period between 700 and 1000 AD is mentioned by scholars as ‘Phase IV’ of the Zapotec culture. During this phase, the Zapotecs were in decline, and most of their sites, including Monte Albán, were abandoned.
The explanation for their decline remains unclear. Nevertheless, it’s been observed that this decline was also experienced by the Maya at Teotihuacan.
This means that some major catastrophe must have caused these large-scale changes. In any case, after the abandonment of Monte Albán, the Zapotecs shifted their capital to the smaller site of Mitla, thus resulting in its rise in prominence.
The next phase of the Zapotec culture, ‘Phase V,’ spans from 1000 to 1500 AD. it had been during this era that Mitla reached its height. Nevertheless, it had been also during Phase V that the Mixtecs, who lived within the northern and western parts of Oaxaca, moved into Zapotec territory.
A variety of Zapotec sites, including Monte Albán and Mitla, were occupied by the Mixtecs. it’s been speculated that the migration of the Mixtecs to the south was caused by severe droughts. The legacy of the Mixtecs in Mitla is visible within the mark that they left on the traditional city’s architecture and style.
The Spanish arrived in Mitla in 1521 AD. At the time of their arrival, the town was still inhabited and functioning as a crucial religious center.
In the middle of an equivalent century, the Spanish ordered the location to be destroyed. The site, being a crucial political and nonsecular center, was considered a possible threat by the Spanish authorities. Moreover, the assumption that Mitla was a “portal to the Underworld” didn’t sit well with the Spanish.
The Spanish Destroyed Mitla But Also Learned tons
Although the Spanish colonists could also be held liable for the destruction of Mitla, they also provided a number of the simplest descriptions of the location.
The accounts written by these Spanish soldiers and missionaries have provided a variety of fascinating information about Mitla and therefore the indigenous people that were living there during the 16 century.
As an example, we learn from these reports that a high priest, referred to as the Vujiatao (‘Great Seer’), resided in Mitla, which he was comparable to the Roman Pope.
The Vujiatao was a highly influential figure, as people from everywhere the Central Valleys of Oaxaca would come to Mitla to hunt his help.
The Vujiatao had many roles to play, including that of magistrate, prophet, and intermediary between the living and therefore the dead.
Another story recorded by the Spanish is that deceased Zapotec royals were mummified and buried in cruciform tombs directly beneath Mitla. Priests had access to the burial chambers and were believed to possess had the ability to talk with dead rulers.
These burial chambers were discovered centuries later by archaeologists, thus validating the legends reported by the Spanish.
The burial chambers are a part of the ‘Grupo de las Columnas’ or ‘Columns Group,’ one among the five main groups of structures at Mitla.
More specifically, the chambers were discovered under one of the buildings during this area. it’s in these burial chambers that the so-called ‘Column of Death’ was discovered.
‘Grupo de las Columnas’ or ‘Columns Group,’ one among the five main groups of structures at Mitla. These columns are identical in every thanks to the “actual” Column of Death! (Alberto Talavera Ortiz / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Column of Death is related to a rather curious legend. consistent with that legend, the column is in a position to inform someone hugging it how long he/she has left to measure.
One version of the legend states that if an individual hugging the pillar felt it moving, it means he/she is going to die soon. Another variation of the story claims that anyone who hugged the column would be cursed.
This follows the rationale that when an individual knows how long he/she has left to measure, there’s nothing that the person can do to vary his / her fate.
The terrifying legends attached to the Column of Death, however, don’t seem to possess stopped people from hugging it. As a result of people hugging it over the years, the Column of Death has suffered much damage.
Consequently, hugging the pillar is now prohibited. Interestingly, there are many other columns identical in appearance to the Column of Death scattered around the site. Nevertheless, these haven’t been hugged, perhaps thanks to the absence of any legend attached to them.
Beyond the Column of Death: A World of outstanding Artifacts
The stone friezes at Mitla, all made without the utilization of mortar! (Rafael / Adobe Stock)
Apart from the Column of Death and therefore the burial chambers, the ‘Columns Group’ also includes a cluster of buildings called the ‘Palace of the Columns,’ named after its monolithic columns, which might have once supported the roofs of the buildings.
The Palace is additionally known for its courtyards, also because the friezes decorating its walls. The friezes are composed of cut, polished stone, each held in situ by the load of the adjacent stones. it’s believed that the artisans of Mitla created these friezes during this manner, as they didn’t use mortar for his or her constructions.
The friezes at Mitla were mentioned by the Spanish as ‘Grecas,’ perhaps thanks to their resemblance to Greek designs. the planning of the friezes could also be described as “repeating geometric patterns,” and, it’s said that no two designs are an equivalent.
Consistent with one interpretation, the designs were meant to represent the lineages of royalty or represent geographical information. Another hypothesis suggests that the designs of the friezes were meant to mimic those on textiles.
Incidentally, these same designs should be found today on the rugs produced by Zapotec weavers living near the location. yet one more interpretation of the designs is that they represented the feathered serpent, a deity found in many Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs, as an example, called it Quetzalcoatl, whereas the Maya mentioned it as Kukulkan.
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In addition to the ‘Columns Group,’ there are four other groups of structures at Mitla – ‘Grupo de las Iglesias,’ or ‘Churches Group,’ ‘Grupo del Arroyo’ or ‘Arroyo Group,’ ‘Grupo de Los Adobes’ or ‘Adobe Group,’ and ‘Grupo del Sur’ or ‘Southern Group’. Of the site’s five groups, only two, the ‘Columns Group’ and therefore the ‘Churches Group’ were fully excavated and restored by the first 1980s.
The ‘Churches Group’ is understood also because the ‘North Group,’ and is found about to the site’s entrance. This was the precise area that the Spanish identified because of the ‘portal to the Underworld.’
Therefore, most of the structures during this area were destroyed, and a church built over the ruins. Incidentally, the Spanish used the stones from the demolished buildings to construct their church.
The church, referred to as the Church of San Pablo, is definitely recognized thanks to its red domes. Interestingly, the Church of San Pablo is that the only church at Mitla not located within the center of the present town.
The Church of San Pablo built on and from the traditional ruins the Spanish destroyed at Mitla. (Noradoa / Adobe Stock)
The Sacred Status Of Mitla Continues to the Present Day!
In a way, the replacement of ancient temples with a Catholic Church could also be viewed as a continuation of the site’s sanctity. this is often also evident within the incontrovertible fact that although the Mixtecs seized Mitla from the Zapotecs, the location continued to be treated as sacred.
Having said that, it’s not entirely surprising that the Mixtecs maintained Mitla’s sacred status, founded by the Zapotecs, as there have been certain cultural aspects shared by both cultures. The lintel paintings, which are found on the walls of the surviving ancient buildings within the ‘Churches Group,’ may lend support to the present idea.
One interpretation of those paintings is that they tell the creation story shared by the Mixtecs, the Zapotecs, and therefore the Nahuas.
Therefore, the Mixtecs and therefore the Zapotecs, though two different cultures, shared an equivalent creation story, which enabled the continuity of the Mitla’s sacred nature. Although the arrival of Catholicism meant that there was a change within the beliefs of the indigenous peoples, the site’s sanctity continued.
A section of the ruins in Mitla today with the church clearly visible on the northern fringe of the town just beyond the first entrance way. (javarman / Adobe Stock)
A section of the ruins in Mitla today with the church clearly visible on the northern fringe of the town just beyond the primary entranceway. (Jayavarman / Adobe Stock )
The three other groups at Mitla haven’t been fully explored and aren’t as well-known because the ‘Columns Group’ and therefore the ‘Churches Group.’ Nevertheless, a quick description of every group is interesting enough. The ‘South Group’ is known as for its location, i.e.
Within the southern end of the location (and to the south of the Mitla River). Is believed to possess served mainly as a ceremonial center and contains many plazas. As this area has not been fully restored, public access to the ‘South Group’ is restricted.
The ‘Adobe Group’ is situated to the north of the Mitla River and is additionally believed to possess had a ceremonial function. This group contains courtyards and elevated structures.
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The third group is that the ‘Arroyo Group,’ which lies to the north of the ‘Adobe Group.’ Unlike the ‘South Group’ and ‘Adobe Group,’ the ‘Arroyo Group’ is believed to possess served a domestic purpose.
The structures may are the residences of the nobles liable for conducting the site’s ceremonial rituals. The ‘Columns Group’ and therefore the ‘Churches Group,’ by the way, lie to the north of those three other groups.
Today, Mitla isn’t only an archaeological site, but also a tourist attraction. the very fact that the traditional site lies within a modern municipality means Mitla still plays a task within the lives of the area’s inhabitants.
This might be seen, as an example, within the incontrovertible fact that the annual procession in honor of Saint Paul begins within the ruins of Mitla.
On an economic level, the location is additionally a source of revenue for the town’s inhabitants, especially those involved in the production of handicrafts since their products are sold to tourists.
This is often how to preserve traditional methods because the goods are still made the way they always were made. Thus, the location of Mitla, which was once a crucial religious center, remains relevant to the people living therein area today, although perhaps for quite different reasons.