Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca, originally uploaded by Nolan Willis.

The skull of the Smoking Mirror

This mask is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, one of the Aztec creator gods. He was also the god of rulers, warriors and sorcerers. His name can be translated as ‘Smoking Mirror’. In fact, in many depictions during the Postclassic period (A.D. 900/1000-1521) his foot is replaced by a mirror.

The base for this mask is a human skull. Alternate bands of turquoise and lignite mosaic work cover the front of the skull. The eyes are made of two discs of iron pyrites set in rings made of shell. The back of the skull has been cut away and lined with leather. The jaw is movable and hinged on the leather.

Turquoise was sent as tribute to the Aztec capital from several provinces of the empire. Some of those provinces were located in present-day Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The turquoise was sent as raw chunks or as cut and polished mosaic tiles decorating a variety of objects, such as masks, shields, staffs, discs, knives and bracelets. We know from a tribute list issued by the emperor Motecuhzoma II that ten turquoise mosaic masks, made by skilled Mixtec artisans, were sent each year from a province in Oaxaca.