Measuring sixty-four centimeters in height, the effigy censer represents a seated
deity possessing an enlarged head, expressive face, and bottle-shaped body to which
tubular appendages representing arms and legs were attached. Although much of the
surface has been badly eroded because it was either buried in the ground or concealed in
a cave for over four centuries before its discovery, enough of the fresco survives to
determine that it represented a potent spirit force known as a Maquiltonal, a name
meaning “Five Soul
” in the Nahuatl language of
Central and Southern Mexico.
The effigy censer was probably considered by its creators to have been endowed
with a life force. The mouth, nostrils, ears, and heart were perforated to allow
breath-like scrolls of smoke from the burning incense to be emitted from the body
cavity. Many indigenous peoples of North America also believe that clay is a living
spirit, an extension of the earth on which they depend for sustenance.
Effigy Censer (Xantil). Eastern Nahua. Teotitlán del Camino, Oaxaca. Late Postclassic, A.D. 1300-1500 (PUAM 2006-60). H. 64 cm. Photography by Bruce M. White.