Mitla and its Cultures

Twenty-four miles outside the city of Oaxaca, in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, a group of ruins subsist in a state of repose, waiting to be encountered. The site’s original name in Zapotec is Lyobaa, meaning “place of rest,” in the Nahuatl language it is known as Mictlán, or “place of the dead”. The name Mitla is derived from a Spanish perversion of the Nahuatl name, but the meaning translates clearly in all languages: the dead reside here.

In the postclassic period, Mitla was the most important religious center in the Valley of Oaxaca. When visiting Mitla, the first visible thing is the large cactus fence that surrounds the site, adding to the mystery that enshrouds the ancient ruins. Along with mystification is the sacredness that has attracted thousands from pre-Colombian times until today. The legend told to the Spanish was that the royal Zapotecs were buried in cruciform tombs directly under the floors in Mitla; archeologists have proven this legend true. Local folklore stated that Mitla was the entrance to the underworld. Reports from the Spanish speak of a Zapotec priest that could be likened to the Catholic pope. They called him the vuijatao, or the “Great Seer.” People would come from all over the Valley of Oaxaca to speak with the vuijatao, who functioned as a prophet, magistrate, and intermediary for the deceased. The oracle resided in the fully excavated Group of Columns. It was in this group that held burial chambers for the highest of royalty, where families would bring their mummified rulers to be buried so the priest could speak to their ancestor. When the Mixtec took control over Mitla, the reverence for the city’s sanctity was still maintained. The city was still functioning and expanding in 1521 when the Spanish arrived, and some priests took up residency there in the church group buildings, eventually building the church of San Pablo directly into the ruins.

Mitla may be modest in its size, but its decorative detail is exceptional. The mosaic fretwork that can be seen in the colonial church encompasses all of the buildings in Mitla. This geometric style of design is known as greca friezes. Although this style is not limited to Mitla, it is unique here for two reasons: the grecas were designed out of thousands of cut and polished stones, set in place with no mortar, which required the highest craftsman skills, and it covered every structure in Mitla, with no two designs the same. Some scholars believe the fretwork may represent royal family lineages or geographical places, while others believe the stonework was meant to mimic textiles.

Another aspect of Mitla that solicits analysis is the apparent syncretism of cultures. Spanish chroniclers have told us that both Zapotec and Mixtec nobility venerated the vuijatao. Spanish holy men not only built a church here, but they also resided in the palaces. There is also proof in the lintel paintings that survive on the walls in the Church group. These paintings are fashioned like the Mixtec codices that tell creation stories and royal history. John Pohl, in his work “The Lintel Paintings of Mitla and the Function of the Mitla Palaces,” believes that these murals tell the creation story of three regional cultures: the eastern Nahau, the Mixtec of Apoala, and the Zapotec of Zaachila (176-97). These painted legends bound together indigenous groups that were linguistically and ethnically different. The multiethnic history of Mitla proves that sanctity speaks across cultural barriers. What was once home to the Zapotec patron deities of death and the underworld is now home to twenty-one Catholic patron saints. Still today, the procession for Saint Paul begins within the ruins every year, with the majority of the town in attendance. Some places never lose their hallowed significance.

Images