Monday, August 20, 2007

Coyolxauhqui Cake

I’ve wanted to attempt an Aztec monument cake for a long time. For one thing, many of them (the sacrifice stones in particular) are already conic sections, making their appearance as cakes an obvious choice. Additionally, the fact that I study around the same time period as the Aztecs in Veracruz (before the Empire) makes an edible replica all the more tempting. All I needed now was an excuse to waste the time on it.

The opportunity finally presented itself when a friend and colleague moved away.

CG recently finished his PhD on Aztec period economics and politics so he’s interested in Aztec materials as well. I’d talked to him about my idea of doing an Aztec monument cake, and he asked me to do one of the Coyolxauhqui stone, an 8 ton monument that was found in 1978 in the middle of Mexico City in what would have been the base of the Templo Mayor, the main temple of prehispanic Tenochtitlan. Some of the officemates and friends he’d worked with for the past few years put together an informal going-away luncheon for the occasion.

The Coyolxauhqui stone itself is similar in appearance to the sacrifice stones whose imagery links them to warfare and were dedicated (and associated) with individual Aztec emperors. The sacrificial stone that most people are probably familiar with is the “calendar stone” that served as the sacrificial stone of Motecuhzoma II. According to the experts, the relief sculptures on the stones themselves are packed with allusions and deploy complex metaphors surrounding the politics of the various Aztec conquests. This, unsurprisingly, occasionally involved a lot of elaborate insults which were no doubt understood quite well by their intended audiences.
Obviously, there’s no point in relaying a really fine well-thought out insult packed with metaphors and allusions and having it sail over someone’s head, is there?
I even have a modern equivalent of elaborate insulting practices by warring civil factions. I am thinking of the ASU and U of Arizona football rivalry, of course!

Every year, an annual game is held between the two rival teams around Thanksgiving. My knowledge of college football is very scanty, but my dim understanding is that this particular game is not remotely key to deciding much in the way of national standings or bowl game placement. Its sole purpose seems to be to decide bragging rights for a year and to continue a very revered grudge match.

Naturally the games themselves are focal points for ritual and often real violence. Mr. Pretzel Bender, who played in ASU’s marching band for all five years of his engineering major (!!), told me that both ASU and U of Arizona have alternative insulting lyrics to each other’s fight songs. Fight songs, for the uninitiated, are simply pep songs sung (well, mostly played) at school sporting events. Most American high schools and universities have them.

You can listen to ASU’s real fight song here and U of Arizona’s here.

Incidentally, there is a website that has a list of PAC-10 alternative insulting fight song lyrics but I am reluctant to post it here because they cover the gamut of sexist, homophobic (heavily so), and racist epithets and I think I have enough incriminating things on this blog already. Search for it on your own if you’re curious (and you should be).

From the sample of the alternative lyrics site (which was accurate for the ASU and U of Arizona songs, I can’t vouch for the others), I found that a surprising number of the insulting alternative lyrics included gratuitous insults to the team’s marching band alongside the usual questioning of the sports team’s sexuality (which, interestingly, has similarities with the allusions within the Coyolxauhqui stone itself, but I will get to that later).

As an aside, that finding led me to ponder that perhaps it was the marching band members from rival schools that had a hand in writing the alternative lyrics to fight songs. Judging from their tone, the rest were probably written by fraternities. Mr. Pretzel Bender did not find that idea surprising noting that, “the band is probably the only group on campus that actually knows the words to their own fight songs, much less other teams”.

But we’d better head back to my original point about the playbook of violent civil rivalries.

I recall one year in which I was watching the end of the ASU/UA game on a local TV channel (to see the marching band, I try to avoid actually watching the game) and saw that the U of Arizona team had gone to the side of the field where the ASU mascot/insignia was painted and were collectively jumping up and down on it while singing the alternative lyrics to the ASU fight song.

Such gross provocation did not go unnoticed and before long ASU players (and I believe, the luckless Sparky [ASU’s mascot, the “sun devil”] for that game) were drawn into the melee. I thought it was the most entertaining thing I’d seen in a while. Certainly it was lot more entertaining than mere football.
Clearly, elaborate taunts gleaned from a shared historical narrative and insider knowledge often culminating in violence are an integral part of Arizona’s own civil war games. Mr. Pretzel Bender said that the year that ASU went to the Rose Bowl (and of course, one of the years ASU beat UA in the joint games) the UA/ASU game was particularly vicious with fans and players alike getting thrown out for fighting. He said that few of the original players ended up on the field by the end, most of the regulars having gotten thrown out.

The ASU/UA ritualized and occasionally violent civil rivalry echoes a recent and fascinating interpretation by the ASU art historian Emily Umberger that puts the Coyolxauhqui stone (among other monuments) into the context of the violent civil conflicts and elaborate insulting rituals by the rival warriors of competing centers within the core of the Aztec empire. The rival political groups engaged in taunting rituals by placing each other in the humiliated and defeated position in religious narratives.

Umberger argues that the Coyolxauhqui stone was created around one of these civil conflicts, the one between the Tenochca of Tenochtitlan and the Tlatelolca of Tlateloclo in which the Tenochca won. The stone depicts a dismembered woman dressed in man’s clothing. She’s dressed in man’s clothing because “she” may well have been male, and only turned into a physical woman by defeat. The Coyolxauhqui “goddess” represents an enemy who was overthrown and killed by righteous deities at the end of the mythical narrative. This is not unlike some of the more unfortunate fight song lyrics emphasizing the “femininity” of rival male sports teammates. In fact, I have to concede that the lyrics are more properly understood as men insulting each other by comparing each other to women (rather than simply anti-homosexual).
As a woman I admit to finding that irritating.

But I have to concede it is pervasive and, apparently, crosscuts cultures and time periods! It must be a jock/warrior thing.

If you’re interested, you can read the original article by the art historian Emily Umberger, called, “The Metaphorical Underpinnings of Aztec History: the case of the 1473 civil war” published in the latest edition of the journal Ancient Mesoamerica (a subscription is required, but if you have access to an online university library catalog, most of them have subscriptions).
Of course, there’s more to it than just the actual ritualized taunting by itself. Rulers commonly construct monuments to memorialize certain key events in their reign such as conquests. In Rome, conquest of enemy territory were celebrated by a triumph (a parade through Rome by the conquering troops and their general and/or the emperor) and often culminated in the ritual killing (read, sacrifice) of a renowned enemy combatant, as in the case of Vercingetorix, renowned Gaul rebel leader who was “executed” at the temple of Jupiter (though some have argued he may simply have been killed in prison following the triumph). In addition, it was Roman practice to install local ‘conquered’ gods within the main temples of the major Roman gods in addition to the installation of the imperial cult in provincial temples and was one of the cited causes for the first Jewish Roman wars that culminated in the sack of Jerusalem (and the famous destruction of the Temple) as described by Josephus’s account. Supposedly the Aztecs had their own “temple of conquered gods” as well, but we’ve yet to find it.
But all of this talk about the significance of the monument is distracting from the original purpose, which was to build a monument cake. Although in retrospect, perhaps one commemorating enemy defeat isn’t exactly the right sort of thing for a “going away” cake. But it is what he wanted!
CG also wanted a white cake with vanilla buttercream icing. Due to the extreme heat we’re experiencing at the moment, I opted to make the powdered sugar version rather than the sugar syrup version because the latter is not very heat resistant. The cake shape itself would be very easy, just a plain old 9 inch diameter round double layer cake. I’ve made hundreds of these.
So much for the easy part.
The hard part was in executing the design of this cake. I toyed with the idea of using my new cake printer to simply print out the design and slapping it on top of the cake. This didn’t end up appealing to me because the original monument incorporates so many different textures and dimensions in its relief sculpting, that it really wouldn’t do it justice. Compromises have to be made in two dimensional drawings out of necessity, so artists have to employ their own visual interpretations and conventions to convey an understanding of the 3d aspects of the monument. I didn’t want to do my own drawing on a cake since I had an opportunity to do a 3d version just like the real thing!

I ended up compromising.
I used a drawing of the Coyolxauhqui stone by Emily Umberger as my template for creating a relief sculpture of my own using fondant. The fondant relief allowed me to use a combination of “thick” 2d representations in some places and appliqué of 3d elements like the snake headed ropes that cover every limb of the goddess.
I rolled out fondant sheets and used an exacto knife to cut out the basic pieces.

Next I added the sculpted appliqué to the pieces and used another sculpting tool culled from my collection of gum paste plastic tools to basically incise some of the designs into the fondant.

Some of the appliqué turned out to be technically difficult. For example, the snake headed ropes were not easy to make into real knots. Partly because I know little about knot topology but also partly because I suspect some of them are not “real” or possible physical knots.

Anyway, when I had completed them all I assembled them on the cake top.

Here’s a pic of the original Aztec monument below.

And here’s my cake version. I ended up getting a few pics with alternative lighting schemes (compliments of a resident artifact photographer fellow student) so you can get an idea of some of the reliefs.

Here's the version showing more relief:

And here's one with a little more light and less relief:

It tasted okay and no one was ritually humiliated by either its display or creation.
Perhaps next time.


Blogger Zumbas said...

Naked woman chest with a skull tied to it by a two-headed snake rope?!??

And the right-wingers want to take Cosmo off the supermarket shelves because it has "certain" images. Will someone please think of the children!

That being said, the cake was super yummy, since the sculptured portion was made of fondx. Hmm, yummy fondx, also know as crack for 6-year olds (and 30-year olds).

The best touch is that checkered measuring placard.

I remember someone in the ASU band on TV mentioning that when they thought of red and blue (UofA’s colors), it "just makes you sick". Sick indeed.

--Mr.PB aka Zumbas

P.S. GoD-evils...

Mon Aug 20, 05:39:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A cake decorated by reliefs of ritualized elaborate insults??? How deliciously low...

No, really, How could people enjoy eating a cake decorated with mutilated qrotesque figures?

....easy, tastes great and as for mutilated grotesque figures, why they are just....(wait for it)

.....just the icing on the cake!!!

grotesque figures icing...haagggrrrhhhhh

Mon Aug 20, 06:33:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

My dear Pretzel Bender,

I'm sure you'd be shocked, and Mr. Pretzel Bender also, that Cosmo here in Blighty actually has "nekkid" pictures of men. Not my thing, really...the male nude leaves a lot to be desired, Mr. Roth excluded, obviously! ;-)

This cake, however, is certainly offensive on so many levels that it earns my undying admiration! Yummers!

Mrs. Roth

Tue Aug 21, 03:48:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the cake is magnificent, a superb re-creation!! It is sad read to some previously posted comments which come from an immensely uninformed, antiquated base which arrogantly continues to filter the world through an even more limited scope of marginalization as well as supremacist standards of morality. One has only to use today’s basic tool, **the internet**, and briefly research the subject of Coyolxauhqui in order to appreciate the image, its historical significance, the unusual ground-breaking merge of science and oral tradition which led to her discovery, let alone the immense skills involved to recreate the monument in such an intricate and detailed fondant bas relief. I would have been very conflicted about slicing into such a masterfully crafted image, but doing so is in keeping with the concept of both the image and tradition of “breaking bread.” If Coyolxauhqui were not from the Aztec system of worship and pantheon, she **might** have been interpreted as the body of the Eucharist. Come to think of it, I think that fellow was scantily clad at the moment of his death as well, and no one feels it necessary to hide THAT from children.

So, I bow to the artist and beg a slice with the skull, please?... though some may prefer to give me “the foot,” ;-)


Mon Feb 04, 10:41:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

I am in awe...

Sat Feb 16, 11:33:00 AM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow!As a trained french pastry chef i am amazed by your talent. You are truly a great artist and i can't wait to taste your cake.

Tue Dec 02, 09:26:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Dolro said...

I loved that you used a photo scale for some of your photos of the cake!

PS this is Dolma

Sun Mar 22, 01:10:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ancient artifact depicting strewn body parts of a woman + cake=hmmmmmm. Never felt the urge to eat that combo, but it's undeniable that you have mad skills in the fondant department!

And to Indigib*tch: blah blah blah blah blah...You sound just as bad as the religo-fanatics...We are all on this planet together so play nice!

Cake anyone?

Sun Jul 26, 09:35:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous Mr Moses said...

An amazing combination of art, history, science, skill and passion.
i found this after my daughter, a 23 year old art history major posted this on Facebook for her longterm boyfriend to see, all she wrote for a description was "Wedding Cake!"
(i might mention her undergraduate focus was Mezo american art and sculpture)
When they do get married, if they want this as their cake, i would be proud to see it on the table next to the champaigne flutes.

Sun Jan 03, 04:30:00 PM 2010  

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