Teotihuacan: murals and meaning.

James C. Langley, 2009

         The absence of textual records relating to Teotihuacan, apart from a few ambiguous references in the Maya area, make us singularly dependent on the decorative arts of the metropolis to supplement what we can learn from archaeological research about that enigmatic and complex culture. In view of the relative scarcity of monumental sculpture, our main resource lies in the mural paintings and decorated ceramics of the site, of which fortunately there is an abundance. In this respect, Teotihuacan participated in a rich mesoamerican tradition of  recording a variety of information, including both social and historical, pictorially. This tradition extended from at least the late pre-Classic to the conquest when, as reported by Bernal Diaz de Castillo, skilled painters accompanied the envoys sent by Moctezuma to greet the Spaniards on their first arrival at San Juan de Ulúa. Their task was to record all details of the unfamiliar appearance of the conquistadors and their accoutrements for the benefit of the Aztec sovereign. One has only to think of the western littoral of Guatemala, Bonampak, Cacaxtla, Mixtec lienzos and the codices to appreciate the power and time-depth of this tradition in Mesoamerica.

         The resource available to us at Teotihuacan is, however, stubbornly resistant to our understanding. In the first place, the murals do not have any obvious historical referents and, in striking contrast to the common practice in the Maya and Zapotec cultures and those of the post-Classic period, do not register calendrical dates. The sort of glyphic glosses often associated with pictorial elements in the painting, sculpture and ceramic decoration of the other principal mesoamerican cultures are also absent although conventional signs are not infrequently included in the Teotihuacan murals where they may serve as annotations and thus a guide to meaning.

         A second difficulty arises from the unfamiliarity of the subject matter of the Teotihuacan pictorial record and the bias that the modern observer inevitably brings to its interpretation. It is notorious that for much of the last century the scholarly consensus was that the most advanced Mesoamerican cultures of the Classic period were peaceable theocracies devoted to the study of astronomy, calendrics and mathematics. The subject matter of many of the Teotihuacan murals, notably the elaborately clad processional figures in ceremonial contexts, has lent itself to a similar interpretation. For example, George Kubler, commenting on what he calls the “strongly marked liturgical character” of Teotihuacan art , declared that “every mural or decorated vessel is a prayer exalting the elements of nature” (Kubler 1967: 12). In the light of later research this is a major error of judgment, but it does reflect the profound truth that in a society whose belief structure places  mankind in a cosmos controlled by supernatural forces, art is one of the means by which man can attempt to propitiate the supernatural and direct it towards action favorable to the human race.

         The interpretation of Teotihuacan imagery may be approached at several different levels, the most elementary being the determination of its ostensible meaning. What precisely does the person, object or scene   depicted represent? This is not as easy as it might seem. The murals themselves have deteriorated to various degrees over the millennium and a half since their creation. Some survive only as fragments and others have vanished completely since their excavation and are known to us only as copies of uncertain accuracy. Moreover, we see this material through the clouded lens of our own cultural conditioning.

         To cite an example, the so-called “Red Tlalocs” painted on a wall of Patio 9 of Tepantitla (Figure 1) are faded and abraded; they have been reproduced in three drawings, all with minor differences and all in error in one important detail. An early interpretation (Armillas 1945: 38-40 and Fig. 1) asserted that they were “tlaloques”, accessories of the well-known pan-mesoamerican Storm God. Yet they do not display any of the deity’s diagnostic traits and the title “Red Tlaloc” is no longer used to describe them. Another interpretation (Séjourné 1957: 131-132 and Fig. 34) rather loosely associates the figures with Quetzalcoatl, suggesting that they share with him the physical attributes of bird, serpent and jaguar. This is, again, a misreading of the imagery. The serpentine identification is based on the bifurcated tongue but this is a mammalian tongue, quite unlike the slender sensory organ of the snake.  The avian identification is based on the feathered eyebrow, a minor feature that is very common in the depiction of jaguars (and other animals) at Teotihuacan and thus more likely to signify a quality of the image than its zoological identity (Figure 2).

         The jaguar features of the figure are concentrated in the head and right claw. Its clothing is that of a human being, as is the left hand. This combination suggests two alternatives: the figure may be a zoomorphic deity or a human in animal costume. As we seek to penetrate further into the meaning of the image, several of the costume elements help to narrow the choices. The epaulettes, the two darts held in the left hand and the pectoral - a dorsal bird with outstretched wings and tail - are all   diagnostic of martial figures at Teotihuacan. Although von Winning (1987 Tomo I: 85-86) believes this to be a ritual image, the balance of the evidence suggests that it is a soldier in jaguar costume, perhaps akin to the jaguar warriors of the post-Classic period.


An interpretation of the mural at yet another level of complexity is suggested by two other motifs. These are the sacrificial knives that appear below the figure and in his headdress and costume, and the parabolic bleeding hearts in his headdress (which have been incorrectly reproduced in previous drawings of the mural). These two notational signs (Nos. 123 and 124 in Langley 2002: Annex) are pictograms of a flaked knife and a human heart respectively (Figures 3 and 4). They are the quintessential symbols of human sacrifice at Teotihuacan and reflect a stark reality of that society as has been proven by the recent excavations of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent and the Pyramid of the Moon. Human beings were sacrificed at Teotihuacan over a long period of time and often in large numbers and were buried in its great ceremonial structures in what appear to have been dedicatory rituals (Sugiyama 2005).

Viewed within a broader perspective, the symbols of war and sacrifice in this mural are common in the art of the metropolis. Our knowledge of Teotihuacan’s belief system is rudimentary and we do not know  precisely what role war and sacrifice played in the ideology and daily life of the society nor how they interrelated. However, it is clear that they were major factors in the way in which Teotihuacan managed its domestic affairs and its relationships with its neighbors and the supernatural. 

         In the search for meaning the possibility that the mural may contain information bearing on the personal identity of the figure, be he human or iconic, is worth considering. His clothing marks him as a member of the upper elite and two rather incongruous aspects of his appearance stand out: his jaguar head and the large jaguar paw gauntlet worn on his right hand.

         Jaguar symbolism is a commonly associated with rulership throughout ancient Mesoamerica and there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that  the jaguar was the totemic emblem of the ruling dynasty of Teotihuacan following the desecration of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in the 4th century AD. The structure of the head is notable in this case, being formed of two conjoined profile jaguar heads facing each other.  The significance of this configuration, of which there  are several examples at Teotihuacan (Figure 5), is uncertain but its effect is to affirm the specifically  jaguar identity and symbolism of the image. Also noteworthy are the bleeding heart signs in both images.

         As for the gauntlet,  “Jaguar Paw” is one of the names of the ruler of Tikal deposed at the beginning of the period of greatest interaction with Teotihuacan, the “entrada” of AD 378  and the name recurs at a later date at Calakmul.   On  Stela 39 at Tikal this ill-fated ruler is shown holding or wearing a Jaguar Paw axe . The inclusion of such nominal references in Maya imagery is not uncommon. Another ruler with a Teotihuacan association, Yax K’uk Mo’, the founder of the Classic period Copan dynasty,  provides a striking example. On Altar Q at Copan he is portrayed with a turban headdress containing signs for each of the elements of his name (Stuart 2004: 228).

         Since the Tepantitla mural has been dated to the Xolalpan phase (Millon: 1967 and Lombardo de Ruiz: 1996) it seems unlikely that it commemorates the Tikal ruler who perished a century or more earlier,  despite his putative place in the history of Teotihuacan.   By analogy, however, it seems entirely possible that the image is that of a ruler and that the gauntlet functions as a nominal element.


         An earlier version of this paper was published  in ”La Pintura Mural Prehispanica en Mexico”,  Boletin Informativo 26 (2007): 18-22. UNAM/IIE


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