Mexican art and architecture are deeply embedded with symbolism. When we talk about Mexican color symbolism, we have to consider the Aztec and Mayan cultures first. After all, these two civilizations helped develop and influence the elements of modern Mexican art, design, and fashion.
In particular, the Aztec color symbolism, art, architecture, and other cultural elements reflect the values and civilization of an Empire.
It is impossible to discuss color symbolism in the Mexican Culture without talking about the history of Aztecs and Maya tribes, their migration across Mexico, as well as their reenactment of rituals. All these factors played a major role in the art, culture, and subsequently color meanings in the country.
The Aztecs mainly looked up to the cardinal points as religious symbols for the corners of the Earth and the four directions. Then, each direction had a color associated with it along with a ruling deity. This formed the basis of Aztec color symbolism.
For the Maya, it was their “link and communion with God” that formed the basis of most of their color symbolism. The Maya tribe was the greatest cultural force in the Americas. They left copious records of their history, cosmology, and rituals, but many of these records were unfortunately destroyed by the Spanish conquest.
In the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of Ancient Quiche Maya, the Great God Tohil presented the Maya with their colors and symbols to be used on their clothes. Resultantly, we see symbols like eagles, bees, wasps, and jaguars on their textiles along with colors from cosmology used in these figures.
Differences in opinions about color symbolism within tribes
Before we move on to understanding Mexican colors and their symbolic meanings associated with the four cardinal directions, it is important to note that anthropologists found many differences and discrepancies in colors symbolism in the same tribe.
- North could be symbolized by black, white, red, yellow, blue, or gray.
- South could be blue, red, black, white, green, or yellow.
- East could be white, yellow, blue, gray, or green.
- West could be black, white, yellow, red, blue, or green.
- Among the Maya, south and east were both identified as red or yellow.
- In records of Aztecs, north is black, white, yellow, or red; south is blue, red, or yellow; east is red, green-white, or yellow. West is white, black, yellow, red or green.
In Codex Borgia, the manuscript on Aztec rituals that may have been written before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, it is puzzling to find different colors being used for the same direction. Colors given to directions have even varied from page to page.
Anthropologists are baffled about this remarkable lack of uniformity – even within the same groups, two informants might have used different color-direction associations. The experts finally concluded that these discrepancies may have been due to different usages for different ritual occasions.
Mayans color and cultural symbolism
Tohil, the God, gave the following color meanings to Mayans to be used on textiles along with symbols of eagles, bees, wasps, and jaguars:
- Green – the royal color symbolizing eternity and fertility.
- Red – the color of blood and sun, signifying life.
- Yellow – the color of maize and death. Mayans believed that maize was made by Gods and was the staple food of life.
- Black – the color of obsidian and symbol of war.
- Blue – the color of sacrifice. Mayan frescoes discovered in 1946 in Southern Mexico shows paintings with brilliant blue backgrounds. It is believed that the people might have made blue from minerals called azurites found near copper deposits. They made the blue color paint by adding water to powdered azurite.
- Blue or blue-green colors were commonly associated with long-snouted figures in Maya art.
Color meanings in Aztec culture
As mentioned earlier, for Aztecs, the colors mainly stood for cardinal directions.
Black color symbolized north for Aztecs. The direction was ruled by the God Tezcatlipoca – God of Fate, Night, and Destiny.
The North, represented by black, also had a flint knife as a symbol. The northern region was known as Mitclampa and the meaning of this word is place of death. Thus, black stood for death.
To decorate objects and masks, the Aztecs would use mosaics made of lignite and black stones known as teotetl and tezcapoctli.
Black pigments were also used during sacred rituals. They used black mirror stones to blacken the face and they striped the faces of priests or ixiptlahuan as ritual adornment.
They associated black and blue-green with materials that had the potential to shine, which represented divinity.
The color blue was linked to the cardinal direction South and ruled by Huitzilopochtli, the Solar God and War Deity.
The southern region was known as Huitzlampa – the region of thorns. It was symbolized by a rabbit.
Those who looked to the East – the Quetzalcoatl, the Totec, the Ehecatl, and Tezcatlipoca, were rewarded. The east represented the red of the bursting or rising sun. Tezcatlipoca and the Quetzalcoatl witness the first light of creation and bind themselves to the creative and destructive forces through the vibrant and vital reds of sunlight, blood, and fire.
Red ochre (tlhauitl) pigments were used in sacred rituals.
A green snake was used to depict the Aztec calendar day sign coatl in the Codex Magliabechiano, which was their religious picture book. So the color green was apparently an important aspect of Quetzalcoatl.
The name Quetzalcóatl evolves from the Nahuatl words coatl, which means serpent, and quetzalli, which means green feather. The quetzal feathers, with their bright green colors, were highly regarded and they were later used in making the headdress of the Aztec rulers.
Green also represented the South. Its tree associated with the region was cacao and a bird – the parrot. The Gods connected with the South were Centeotl and Mictlantecuhtli.
Modern Mexican art, fashion, interior design, and architecture have been influenced by many different cultures and traditions over the past centuries. Mainly, we see Pueblo Indian, Aztec, Mayan, and Navajo Indian as well as Hispanic influences. These have provided a wealth of cross-fertilized imagery in art, design, and fashion.
Aztec and Mayan color symbolism mainly refers to the four cardinal directions. While there are discrepancies, it can be said that both cultures believed the physical world to be a color diamond with white, yellow, red, and black at the primary colors of the four cardinal points along the path of the sun.
We hope you enjoyed learning about Mexican color meanings and symbolism.