By Julie Etra
We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
― Joni Mitchell, chorus to the song “Woodstock” (1969)
We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe
to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017)
It is totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body
were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.
― Ashley J. King, Ph.D., planetary scientist at the Museum of Natural History, London
Most of the elements of our bodies were formed in stars over the course of billions of years and multiple star lifetimes. It’s even possible that some of our hydrogen (which makes up roughly 9.5% of our bodies) and lithium, which our body contains in very tiny trace amounts (sorry, Elon, not cost effective), originated from the Big Bang. All this may be hard for some people to accept, the fact that we consist of elements of recycled stars. As visitors to or residents of Mexico, how do Mexicans think of this?
What did pre-Hispanic cultures think about the stars?
Numerous ancient (and not so ancient) cultures looked to the sky with wonder and perhaps puzzlement; the sky of course was the source of many origin stories: gods, goddesses, legends about the stars, what or who they were, and what they represented. In many ancient cultures, people believed that gods dwelt outside the realm of human experience, and that temples bridged the gap between the human and the divine, expediting access to their deities. This was true in Mexico, particularly among the Aztecs. In their architectural design, they mimicked what happened during the creation of the world as they knew it.
The Mayans had a sophisticated sacred calendar based on the stars. Days and months were represented by small glyphs (“the specific shape, design, or representation of a character”) and drawings. Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan communities, included an observatory perfectly oriented towards the stars, the planets, and the cosmos. They believed that the history of their people was cyclical and was repeated according to the position of the stars in the sky. The 260-day calendar sacred to the Maya was governed by the path of Venus.
In the Aztec civilization, centered around the capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City), three basic types of pyramids existed: the Twin Stair Pyramid, the Single Stair Pyramid, and the Round Pyramid. Twin and Single Stair Pyramids were four-sided constructions with a single or double staircase on one side. This staircase always faced west, which the Aztecs believed was the place where the sun descended into the underworld. These pyramids comprised four main platforms and a final fifth level containing one or two temples.
The temples were set back from the stairs and impossible to see from ground level, creating an illusion that the temples resided in the heavens. They were enormous in order to be as close as possible to the gods residing in the heavens. The Nahua people, who included the Aztecs, Chichimecas, and Toltecs, believed that the heavens had13 levels, usually called topan (“above us” or “the beyond”), with one to many gods living on any given level.
Closer to home (Huatulco)
The Zapotec culture’s preeminent population, agricultural, and religious center, Monte Alban, located in the Central Valleys on the outskirts of present-day Oaxaca City, was inhabited between 500 B.C.E. and approximately 900 C.E., when it was abandoned. At an elevation of 1940 m (6400 ft) above mean sea level, Monte Alban rises 400 m (1300 ft) from the valley floor. It was one of the first urban centers established in Mesoamerica. In the pre-Hispanic era, the three valleys were settled due to the rich soil and numerous productive rivers and intermittent drainages descending from the mountains. The valleys and eventually the flanks of the man-made plateau of Monte Alban were cultivated to support the growing population. Eventually, an estimated peak population of 35,000 resided among the temples, residences, and ballcourts.
Last winter, we learned from our elderly and sage local guide, Nezahualcóyotl (named after the scholar/poet/engineer who appears on the 100-peso bill), there was also a medical facility. Nezahualcóyotl referred me to some supporting documentation that postulated that the figures known as the danzantes (dancers) were in fact patients at a clinic, and their antic postures represented various maladies.
The ancient city was built on a site conducive to observing the celestial heavens, innately tied to the culture, since agriculture and other activities of daily life depended on the study and understanding of the stars. In Oani Báa, (Zapotec for Monte Alban), one of the first buildings to be built in the main square was Building I, a Mesoamerican observatory, erected to follow the movement of the stars, the moon, and the sun. The majority of the temples faced east or west, aligning with the sun’s path. The entire city was itself a great astronomical observatory, and for about1400 years the population observed the constellations and planets and perfected their calendars.
The Zapotecs, particularly the priests or shamans, were aware of alternative “realities,” discovered through the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, particularly mushrooms, that allowed for communication with the gods. They were purported to practice “astral travel” and to be able to predict the future. The first time my husband and I visited the ruins in 2007, our guide explained (or hypothesized?) that priests would demonstrate their superhuman powers to the masses by disappearing through one of the underground tunnels and emerging on the opposite side of the temple. This would support the Zapotec belief that the sun, after hiding in the west, passed through the interior of the Earth and came out in the east, and thus the priests were able to follow or accompany the sun. (I have read several references to this “spectacle,” and if true it would have helped ensure the commoner’s awe of, and respect for, the ruling religious class.)
Around 1325 CE, the Mixtecs, coming from the north, invaded the valley of Oaxaca and re-occupied the site, along with the city of Mitla to the east.
Off topic, but interesting, the current conditions in the Central Valleys do not even vaguely resemble what it looked like in pre-Hispanic or post-Conquest/colonial time. Today the valley is somewhat denuded, and prominently marked by erosion; there are large stands of agave (mezcal or tequila, anyone?) and numerous large greenhouses.
When the Zapotec civilization emerged, although the climate was semi-arid as it is today, oak and pine woodlands covered the surrounding mountains (now decimated by logging). During the dry season from November until May, cultivation continued along the rivers, employing sophisticated systems of irrigation canals. It was through these systems, connecting to small streams, that water was provided to Monte Alban; archaeologists have found remains of a small irrigation system consisting of a dam and a canal on the south-eastern flank of the mountain. As there were no domesticated beasts of burden at that time, water and other supplies were most likely carried on the backs of peasants from the flanks of the mountain up to the city.
A little about the Zapotec inframundo (underworld)
A recent archaeological discovery about the underworld has been made in Mitla, a Zapotec religious center located east and south of present-day Oaxaca City (see Brooke O’Connor’s article elsewhere in this issue). A consortium of researchers discovered an extensive labyrinth beneath a colonial Catholic church – the temple of Lyobaa (Zapotec for “place of rest”). This ancient underground site is thought to be what the Zapotecs knew as the entrance to the underworld.
The ARX Project, a member of the research consortium, issued a report on the first year of investigation (2022); the report contains a description written by Francisco de Burgoa, a Dominican historian, at the time the church was built atop the Mitla ruins, noting that the site was
a vast subterranean temple consisting of four interconnected chambers, containing the tombs of the high priests and the kings of Teozapotlán. From the last subterranean chamber, a stone door led into a deep cavern extending thirty leagues below ground. This cavern was intersected by other passages like streets, its roof supported by pillars.
Although it was sealed off by Spanish missionaries centuries ago as part of the conquest and efforts to eliminate perceived pagan practices, rumors of its existence persisted for centuries. Recent high-tech methods were used to re-discover this archaeologically significant site.
An ancient legend of the stars
Finally, as a bittersweet ending, I have translated a Zapotec legend about the stars and cosmos, El Principe y la Estrella (The Prince and the Star). The original appears on the website Mexican Myths and Legends maintained by anthropologist Sonia Iglesias of the Mexican government’s General Directorate of Popular, Indigenous, and Urban Cultures (https://www.mitos-mexicanos.com/tag/xtagabne).
In the pre-Hispanic times of the Zapotec kingdom, there lived a warrior prince who was known for being very handsome and brave. His fame was not only known on Earth but also in Heaven. Alba (Dawn) learned of the extraordinary princely feats and related them to the daughters of the Lord of Heaven, who were actually stars.
The most beautiful of the goddess-daughter-stars fell madly in love with the warrior prince and descended to Earth, sitting patiently next to the river that flowed through Juchitán, waiting for the handsome young man to pass by. He arrived at the place where the star was waiting, and captivated by her beauty, immediately fell in love with her. Without thinking twice, he took her into his arms and swept her away to the royal residence.
Upon realizing the absence of one of his daughters, Heaven became very sad, the sky darkened, and the gray clouds rained tears. The divinities of Heaven, the stars, wanted at all costs to prevent their sister-star from marrying a mere mortal, no matter how brave he was, and they met to develop a plan to prevent the perceived disastrous romance. And so continues the story of the origin of the beautiful xtaga be’nye, the water lily.
The wedding between the goddess-star and the prince was held with many accompanying grand celebrations. One of the stars transformed herself into a breeze, descending to the earth and attending one of the celebrations. Stealthily, she entered the bedroom intended for the newlyweds. Once inside, she abandoned her disguise and turned to the now-married goddess-star to relay to her what her father, the Lord of Heaven, had decided: Sister Star, because of what you have done, our father, Heaven, has decided that you will remain forever on Earth and become a flower that will float on the waters of the lagoon. Your petals will remain closed during the day so that humans cannot see you, but at night they will open so that you can receive a visit from your sisters, the stars!
The star goddess then disappeared with her sister star, and no one would see her again. Moments later, a blackish green flower with a beautiful, slender stem appeared in the Chivele lagoon, which people began to call mudubina (Zapotec for water lily).
The prince, upon realizing the disappearance of his wife, began going crazy with grief. His father, seeing him so desperate, summoned his vinnigenda, travelers from all the winds, to go look for the missing goddess-star. Despite the Zapotec Lord being extremely powerful, he could do nothing against the power of the Lord of Heaven. One of the oldest vinnigendas told the Zapotec Lord that it was not possible to defeat Heaven. Then the old vinnigenda, seeing the suffering of the young warrior, turned him into a flower as well. This new flower was named xtaga be’nye, the water lily (nenúfar in Spanish).
Thus, the two lovers were able to meet. The mudubina with its beautiful petals open only at night and with a red heart from the fire of her love, and the xtaga be’nye that lives by day and shows its yellow heart full of melancholy. They could never see each other, but perhaps one day, the Lord of Heaven will take pity on the lovers so that they can love each other again face to face, forever and ever.
Postscript for the botanically inclined. The plants have male and female parts making them “perfect.” When the flowers first open, the female parts dominate, and nectar pools in their centers. On the second and third day, the flowers produce pollen, the male parts. The Zapotecs gave the flower two different names depending on the flowering stage.
For an interesting read, check out this link: