It’s no surprise that a deity like Xipe Totec should be associated with gold and the social elite. Gold and silver ornaments — the exhibition offers stunningly detailed rings, earrings, and pendants — weren’t just decorative, they were sacred, because they were remnants of the sun and moon. Members of the ruling class who wore them were representatives of the gods, intermediaries between deities and humans. This same elite also knew how to throw a party. To judge by scenes and figures depicted in codices and clayware, their feasts were elaborate and wild. Poets recited tribal histories and royal genealogies. Nobles in costume sang and danced. And the elite did surely love their pulque — one of many heady beverages fermented from agave — and also their hallucinogens, chased with chocolate. The possessed could summon ancestors and ask them for wisdom, how to resolve tribal disputes or make an ideal alliance through marriage. One pulque vessel, which like so many things in the Quetzalcoatl cult combines the ferocious with the visionary, is shaped in the form of the goddess Mayahuel: she’s been decapitated, her head falling backward as octli (the Nahuatl word for pulque) flows from her breasts into a pot.
Children of the Plumed Serpent dazzles and informs. But be advised that the essays in the extravagantly illustrated catalog are an unhelpful, pompous snooze. They’re tediously over-specialized (“The Effigy Censers of Mayapan”) and pedantic (“The Burned Palace of Tula: Its Offerings and Probable Function”). The meaning of the riches on display is nowhere discussed. As a longtime interested amateur, I pined for detailed information about the Plumed Serpent cultures, I craved more ethnographic speculation about the relationship between bloodshed and the sacred, I wanted more of what D.H. Lawrence happily ranted about.
Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until July 1. 5905 Wilshire Boulevard. 323-857-6000; lacma-org/