Saturday, 25 April 2015

Teotihuacan and the river of Mercury

An interesting article has appeared in the Guardian, telling us that liquid mercury has been found underneath a pyramid in Mexico.
Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez announced on Friday that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, the ruined city in central Mexico.
Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003 after 1,800 years. Last November, Gómez and a team announced they had found three chambers at the tunnel’s 300ft end, almost 60ft below the the temple. Near the entrance of the chambers, they a found trove of strange artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls. 

On the 31st October last year, Scientific American reported on the press briefing given at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City:

...archaeologists say that the new rooms contained thousands of objects, including carved statues, rubber balls, jade from Guatemala and a wooden box of shells. Beyond some traces of skin, however, no bodies have been discovered, although archaeologists have hypothesized that the site holds a burial chamber, perhaps still buried in the soil. “Just before the chambers is where we found very important offerings—a lot of them—alongside many objects," says Sergio Gomez.

After reminding us that mercury is toxic and devastating to the human body through prolonged exposure, the Guardian article tells us that:

the liquid metal had no apparent practical purpose for ancient Mesoamericans. But it has been discovered at other sites. Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that archaeologists have found mercury at three other sites, two Maya and one Olmec, around Central America.
So what might the impractical purpose of the mercury be?
The mercury may have symbolized an underworld river or lake, Gómez postulated, an idea that resonated with Annabeth Headrick, a professor at the University of Denver and the author of works on Teotihuacan and Mesoamerican art. The shimmering, reflective qualities of liquid mercury may have resembled “an underworld river, not that different from the river Styx,” Headrick said, “if only in the concept that it’s the entrance to the supernatural world and the entrance to the underworld.”

So there is an 'underground river or lake' located beneath the pyramid, which may have had the symbolic function of serving as an entrance to the supernatural world, and/or an underworld. Why was this river represented by Mercury, rather than water?  Annabeth Headrick is quoted as saying that “mirrors were considered a way to look into the supernatural world, they were a way to divine what might happen in the future,” she said. “It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.” Rosemary Joyce says that the liquid mercury may have been regarded as “somewhat magical … there for ritual purposes or symbolic purposes.”

So, lots of speculation so far. But the divinatory suggestion may well make sense. Two lines from a Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum come to mind, where Assurbanipal, in the course of describing his training for kingship, declares that:
14' I am versed with the portents of heaven and earth, I am praised in the assembly of scholars;15' I discuss the liver, the mirror of heaven, with expert diviners.*1
This rather curious passage also reflects the Greek view of the function of the liver, as discussed by Plato. It has always been a rather obscure notion for us to understand, since our modern experience gives us no clue as to why ancient civilizations regarded the liver as a mirror of heaven.

In both Greece and Assyria the heavens were understood to be an image of the divine. And as the divine was understood to be the source of all knowledge, the heavens were the ultimate source of human knowledge. And therefore they were the focus of much priestly and scholarly concern. 

Divination by liver is common to a number of cultures, and the logic of the process may have been similar among them. But beyond what Plato says about it, we have little received knowledge of why the liver was chosen for this purpose. Plato argued that the liver reflected the reason. He also argued that knowledge of the moving image of eternity, the source of knowledge and reason, was held in the soul. That is what the soul is for, and is in a sense a model of eternity. It is what living creatures share in common with eternity.

So, the soul reflects knowledge of the heavens, and the liver reflects the reason and thought. The liver therefore has something of eternity about it also. 

We might imagine that the liver was understood to reflect what was in the human brain, which we regard as the seat of reason. In fact it was a widespread belief in antiquity that the liver was the seat of the soul. In which case the reason which was reflected by the liver was the reason expressed in the heavens. *2

The actual practice of haruspicy involved examination of the form of the liver and its physical detail. We have depictions of the parts of the liver from Mesopotamia, in clay,  and also from the Etruscans - the latter in the form of an annotated bronze model. The perfection and completion of the liver was what was important for the divination. So the analysis of the liver depended on what was normal about the liver, and what was different. 

Documents from the library of Ashurbanipal tell us how the liver was consulted. A question would be framed for the relevant divinity before the removal and examination of the liver from the ram. The condition of the liver would then provide the answer to the question. 

We do in fact know at least one of the reasons why the liver was chosen for this divinatory purpose. Most of us encounter sheep's liver on a butchers shop counter, or in a delicatessen, where it appears red or reddish brown. And we imagine that is how it looks when it is first removed from a sheep's body. This isn't the case. Countless butchers and vets must have seen the liver close to the moment of death over the centuries, but not one of these observations appears ever to reached a historian or classicist.

Thirty years ago the writer Robert Temple was curious enough about haruspicy to arrange with a local farmer to slaughter a sheep, in order to understand the process from the practical side. He wrote about it in Conversations with Eternity: Ancient Man's Attempts to Know the Future (1984). He tell us that:
the liver takes its position in the body from the support it gets from surrounding organs. It more or less 'floats'. But essentially the liver is shaped like a very large plano-convex lens. It the lamb were to stand on its hind legs, the convex surface of the liver would be uppermost. 
Then he tells us what the liver looks like on removal from the body of a sheep or ram:
The liver when removed from a freshly killed animal is extremely shiny and reflective; but it becomes dull as time elapses. This attribute of the liver was not lost on the ancients: there are many references to it as a 'mirror' in their literature. This led to all sorts of esoteric doctrines, and immeasurably added to the reputation of the liver as an arcane and highly special organ. 
Plato gives an extraordinary account of the liver in his discussion of the constitution of the human body... he says that the gods placed it for its function as a mirror down into the bowels so that it might reflect the thoughts and images of the mind, bringing an improvement to the bestial part of man which is placed in the bottom of his guts.
Plato also says that:
the authors of our being... placed in the liver the seat of divination.... Such is the nature of the liver, which is placed.... in order that it may give prophetic intimations. During the life of each individual these intimations are plainer, but after his death the liver becomes blind, and delivers oracles too obscure to be intelligible. 
Of course it is much too soon to say what this fascinating discovery means, and european and near eastern parallels may not hold any water at all in the Mesoamerican context. But it is interesting to speculate that the river or lake in the bowels of the earth beneath the pyramid served a divinatory function as a mirror of the heavens. Which is not to exclude other symbolic and ritual functions it may have had. I will be watching for further developments from this interesting excavation. 

The Scientific American article is at:

Update May 6, 2015.

My attention has been drawn to the description of the mausoleum of the Chinese Emperor Qin, who ascended the throne in 246 BCE. The description of the mausoleum and its construction came from Sima Qian, in chapter 6 of his Records of the Grand Historian, which contains the biography of Qin Shi Huang. 

The mausoleum was begun as soon as the Emperor ascended the throne, when he was only thirteen years old. Full-scale construction began after he had unified China in 221 BCE, after defeating six other Chinese states. 

In the ninth month, the First Emperor was interred at Mount Li. When the First Emperor first came to the throne, the digging and preparation work began at Mount Li. Later, when he had unified his empire, 700,000 men were sent there from all over his empire. They dug through three layers of groundwater, and poured in bronze for the outer coffin. Palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials were constructed, and the tomb was filled with rare artifacts and wonderful treasure. Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot at anyone who enters the tomb. 

That's pure Indiana Jones! This account may be part of the reason why the Chinese archaeologists are leaving the excavation of the mausoleum till last. Immediately following this description by Sima Qian, is the passage relevant to the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan, where it states that:

Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of "man-fish", which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time.

So Mercury was used to represent the rivers and the sea. And the heavens were represented above it, as I suggested might be the case in Teotihuacan.The account concludes chillingly by mentioning that many of the concubines 'accompanied the dead', and that after the funerary ceremonies were over, the workers and craftsmen were buried alive inside the complex:

The Second Emperor said: "It would be inappropriate for the concubines of the late emperor who have no sons to be out free", ordered that they should accompany the dead, and a great many died. After the burial, it was suggested that it would be a serious breach if the craftsmen who constructed the mechanical devices and knew of its treasures were to divulge those secrets. Therefore after the funeral ceremonies had completed and the treasures hidden away, the inner passageway was blocked, and the outer gate lowered, immediately trapping all the workers and craftsmen inside. None could escape. Trees and vegetations were then planted on the tomb mound such that it resembles a hill.*3


1.K 2694 + K 3050 (Asb L4). Copy: Lehmann, Šamaš-šum-ukîn pls. 34-39. Edition: Streck, Asb pp. 253-271. RIM siglum: A.0.113.L4 (RIMA 6). Translation by Simo Parpola. 
2.Morris Jastrow: 'The Liver as the Seat of the Soul' pp 143-68, in D. G. Lyon and G.F. Moore, eds, Studies in the History of Religions Presented to Crawford Howell Toy, New York, 1912. 
3 Sima Qian, Shiji, Chapter 6.


  1. In the veda's, spinning/rotating mercury at high speed is described as being used for antigravity and possibly propulsion for a flying craft called a vimana. Only the elite would have had such flying machines. It would make sense to have mercury stored at important 'airports'/

    1. The explanation of the use of mercury is discussed in the article, which you seem not to have read very carefully. But thank you for taking the trouble to comment. Can you give me references and pointers for your claim about what is in the Vedas?

    2. Actually a quick Google search brought up all I need to know about this, and more.