By DONNA URSCHEL
For the peoples of Mesoamerica, there were few, if any, sexual taboos. “Homoeroticism, transvestism, eroticism in general and sexual pleasures of all sorts were very important to the people of pre-Columbian America,” said anthropologist Michael D. Coe.
Coe, one of the foremost experts in Mesoamerican archaeology, explained sexual rituals among warriors in the third Jay I. Kislak lecture, titled “The Kislak Oyohualli Pendant: Eroticism and War Among the Toltecs,” at the Library on April 29.
“In two weeks I’ll be 80, and I figure it’s time for me to say what I want. Tonight my lecture will be a little X-rated,” said Coe, who holds the chair of Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Anthropology, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is curator emeritus of the anthropology collection of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he was curator from 1968 to 1994. His book “Breaking the Maya Code” (1992) was the basis for a PBS documentary of the same name.
“I will talk about things a lot of Mesoamerican specialists have skirted around or perhaps don’t know about—all stimulated by this remarkable object in the Kislak collection, the Oyohaulli Pendant,” Coe said.
The shell pendant, currently on display in the “Exploring the Early Americas” exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building, is one of 3,000 artifacts, rare maps, documents, paintings and prints that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress. The pendant measures 7.5 inches high. Inscribed on it are 14 figures of warriors; each figure measures about three-fourths of an inch. “It is a marvelous piece of engraving; really extraordinary,” Coe said.
In the pre-Columbian world, the shell pendant was placed on a string and worn around the neck. There are many depictions of animal creatures, warriors and gods wearing shell pendants in Mexican manuscripts, on artifacts and at archaeological sites.
According to Coe, German scholar Eduard Seler (1849–1922)—”the greatest iconographer who ever lived”—studied representations of the shell ornament and gave the object its name—the Oyohualli. Seler said the real meaning of the Oyohualli is pleasure. “Seler immediately linked it up to sexuality and sexual pleasure,” Coe said.
In the presentation, Coe showed manuscript illustrations that depicted scenes of gods and other figures in various sexual situations.
The symbolism of the Oyohualli was interpreted further by Cottie A. Burland, who worked in the ethnographic section of the British Museum. Burland determined that the Oyohualli was the female sex organ. Agreeing with Burland, Coe also discussed the great Mexican limpet, from which shell pendants were typically made.
The Toltec civilization, from 900 to 1200 A.D., originated in the central Mexican highlands and then moved to the Yucatan in the east. Coe showed illustrations from archaeological sites in Tula, about 60 kilometers northwest from Mexico City, and from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan.
Coe said the Aztecs revered the Toltecs, an earlier civilization, whom the Aztecs regarded as “the most civilized people who ever lived,” and as a wonderful people who could make anything. However, among Mesoamerica scholars today, there is little agreement about the Toltecs, said Coe.
The ruins of Chichen Itza are covered with Toltec iconography, according to Coe.
There are elaborate battle scenes depicted at the Temple of the Warriors and the Upper Temple of the Jaguars. Oyohuallis can be seen on the figures. Some warriors are shown naked. Dancing processions are depicted, and Coe said a homoerotic aspect existed in Toltec militarism.
Also at Chichen Itza, at the North Temple, carvings depict phalli, and in northwest Yucatan, according to Coe, there are fields of stone phalli.
Coe said the Spaniards used the Toltecs’ sexual practices and penchant for human sacrifice as an excuse to enslave the natives. “The Spaniards hated to talk about or even deal with the sexuality,” Coe said.
An additional motif that often appeared in Mesoamerica was the berdache, the spirit of the cross-dresser, a man who has taken on a female personality. There are many depictions of men wearing the costume of the female. “The berdache was not laughed at or scorned, but was an extremely important figure,” Coe said. Berdache played important roles in society, often serving specific positions, such as keepers of the record.
These depictions of wide-ranging sexuality and war, seen throughout the Mesoamerican culture, can be found too on the Kislak Oyohualli, among the 14 figures carved in the pendant. “Eroticism and war are both present on this absolutely wondrous thing. You have to admit, it’s a very, very, sexy object,” said Coe.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.