above Aztec ritual mask. Made from wood and turquoise plaques sometime between AD 1400 and 1521, it has eyes of shell and pyrites, and ivory teeth. It was made to be suspended on the chest or back rather than worn as a face mask. It is currently in the British Museum in London. Size:16.8 x 15.2 x 13.5cm

Sacred Light, Brilliant Matter

Why are we drawn to bright things? When and where did our fascination with sparkle and shine begin? Were ancient ideas of beauty and value the same as ours – or rooted more deeply in the magical worlds of sorcery and spiritual belief? Archaeologist, anthropologist, and America specialist Nicholas J Saunders offers some answers.


In October 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled unexpectedly into a world of bright mythical realities. Few events changed human history more than his encounter with what we now call the Americas. It was perhaps the greatest irony of this momentous episode that Europeans began a dialogue with the local inhabitants by expressing an interest in gold, which was coincidentally often exchanged between indigenous elites, albeit in alloyed form. Columbus admired the shiny ornaments worn by the Caribbean Taíno chiefs, for which, setting a virtually continent-wide precedent, he exchanged shiny glass beads and base-metal artefacts. At the possible site of this first meeting – a Taíno village on San Salvador island – archaeologists have found a Spanish coin, glass beads, and miscellaneous brass artefacts.

below A Sicán ceremonial knife, or tumi, from the north coast of Peru. Gold, silver, and turquoise, 10th-12th century AD. Size: 36.2 x 15.9 x 4.1cm opposite Tiwanaku ear ornaments, from coastal Peru or highland Bolivia. Shell, stone, silver, and copper, AD 400-800. Size: 6.5cm diameter
A Sicán ceremonial knife, or tumi, from the north coast of Peru. Gold, silver, and turquoise, 10th-12th century AD. Size: 36.2 x 15.9 x 4.1cm. IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]

Yet, while the Taíno and the Spanish shared a superficial attraction to shiny things, they possessed very different and ultimately irreconcilable interpretations of their value and meaning.

For example, indigenous metalsmiths often preferred a copper-gold alloy – known as guanín in the Caribbean and tumbaga in South America – to pure gold, possibly because of its colour. On Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Spanish soldiers bartered glass beads for 600 gold axes which, on closer inspection, turned out to be copper. On this and many other occasions, Europeans were aggrieved by what they saw as native deception. Battle lines were quickly drawn between indigenous peoples’ ancient ideas, where materiality and spirituality were fused as one, and a European commercial imperative which separated them utterly.

IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]
Tiwanaku ear ornaments, from coastal Peru or highland Bolivia. Shell, stone, silver, and copper, AD 400-800. Size: 6.5cm diameter

The Spanish suits of armour, metal objects, and fire-spitting weapons made an impression on America’s inhabitants, with some accounts even suggesting they initially saw these items as indicating that Europeans were gods who came from the sky. They readily traded pearls and gold for cheaply made brass, copper bells, and glass beads, in the belief that all shiny things shared the same cosmic value and potency. Blinded by gold-lust, Europeans saw the Americas as a land of limitless dazzling treasure, and its inhabitants as ignorant savages who neither understood nor shared European values. The scene was set for the fulfilment of Spanish desires beyond their wildest imaginings, and the ultimate tragedy for America’s indigenous peoples. But how can we begin to understand such extraordinary and momentous events?

Underpinning indigenous beliefs was the view that shiny objects, places, and phenomena contained the effervescent spiritual and creative power of light. Golden jewellery, gemstones, copper, jade, and feather headdresses were all charged with cosmological power. Not only these – but the moon, water, ice, rainbows, lightning, sunlight, and clouds glistened with shiny power, as did minerals, animal pelts, pearls, and shells, as well as the sacred ritual knowledge wielded by shamans, priests, chiefs, and kings.

IMAGE: © Nicholas J Saunders
Golden headdress from the Moche civilisation site of La Mina, on Peru’s north coast. It depicts a fanged being, perhaps a sea deity with feline characteristics and octopus tentacle adornments. It has bone or ivory teeth, and turquoise inlay eyes, and is dated to around AD 700. Size: 27.9 x 43.1cm. IMAGE: © Nicholas J Saunders

From the Amazon to the Andes, and from the Caribbean to Mesoamerica and North America, different cultures had their own traditions of belief and action, of mythology and ideology – yet many shared underlying ideas of the sacred nature of shininess. Attitudes towards what has been called ‘the aesthetic of brilliance’ emerged from and reinforced a worldview where shimmer indicated the presence of supernatural beings and essence in everyday life. Here, smell, sound, and touch joined vision to create a holistic multisensory world that Europeans disdained as illogical, characterised in their eyes by a mix of childishness, superstition, and – worse – devil worship.

The natural world inspired indigenous American peoples who bestowed significance on fauna, flora, and natural phenomena – often recombining elements from each to represent culturally specific ideas and meanings. Some animals, for example, represented particular human qualities: in ancient Panama, crocodiles and bats represented warrior qualities and appear as gold-work, in naturalistic and sometimes fantastical forms. Birds too are common golden images there: the flapping of wings, distinctive songs, and the colourful dazzle of iridescent feathers made birds common spirit familiars of shamans, and they were often related to creation myths.

IMAGE: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam [CC0]
Christopher Columbus arrives in America, etching by Theodor de Bry, after Johann Theodor de Bry, 1594. Size: 18.6 x 19.6cm. IMAGE: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam [CC0]

Similarly, the silvery glisten of fish scales, lustrous turtle carapaces, the shiny-white fangs, claws, and teeth of the jaguar and puma, and the multicoloured sheen of lizards and (sometimes poisonous) frogs and snakes, joined translucent sea-shells and pearls as part of a society’s valuation of brilliance. After smoking strong tobacco, for instance, shaman-initiates of the Venezuelan Warao would experience strange perceptions of serpents, where touching a snake’s shimmering scaly skin could bring spiritual enlightenment. Among the present-day Kogi of Colombia, snow peaks are seen as gleaming white crystals, prisms of light entered by the dead, while rainbows and clouds glow with spiritual energy. For indigenous peoples of the Americas, today as in the pre-conquest past, the world was permeated by a sensual appreciation of light, connecting earth, sky, sea, and atmospheric phenomena, suffusing the whole with spirituality and morality, and energising it with cosmic force.

In these sensual worlds, making shiny artefacts was an act of transformative creation, as such activities converted the fertilising and dangerous cosmological energy of light into the brilliant solid forms that so enraptured Europeans. The craftspeople who made them drew equally on mythology, ritual knowledge, and individual technical skill. The shimmering objects that resulted were not ‘artworks’ in the Western sense, but spiritually active entities that maintained the world. Shiny objects were often the ultimate symbols of power and influence.

These ideas worked on different levels. Among the Muisca people of Colombia, pregnant women offered gold and copper (tumbaga) figurines and emeralds to their Rainbow God to ensure successful childbirth. Here, shiny artefacts joined with naturally occurring gemstones to interact with an iridescent atmospheric phenomenon to directly enhance human fertility. A sequence of holistic connections further removed from European traditions can hardly be imagined.

IMAGE: Flickr/Pedro Szekely [CC by SA 2.0]
The Muisca Raft, a votive offering found in a cave near Pasca, Colombia, from the Bogotá Gold Museum. Gold, silver, and copper, AD 600-1600. Size: 19.5 x 10.1cm. IMAGE: Flickr/Pedro Szekely [CC by SA 2.0]

One of the most common types of shiny object was the mirror – not the vanity mirrors of European societies, but sorcerers’ mirrors giving access to and power over the supernatural realm. Different pre-Columbian civilisations used different minerals: polished iron ore among the Mesoamerican Olmec, mosaics of pyrite and jade for the Maya and at Teotihuacan, obsidian for the later Aztec, anthracite, jet, pyrites, and shell in the South American Andes, and slate and mica in North America. The mineral nature of these mirrors suggests that minerals themselves were invested with specific philosophical qualities.

IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]
Mirror with a mosaic of a jaguar or coyote, from Teotihuacan, Mexico. Iron pyrite, jade, shell, magnetite or ilmenite, and spondylus shell, AD 500-600. Size: 19.1cm diameter. IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0] 

Across the Americas, shamans, sorcerers, priests, and dynastic rulers manipulated glittering objects and adorned themselves with shiny regalia in their role as the spiritual and political power-brokers of the pre-Columbian world. They often literally and figuratively dazzled their audiences in brilliant costumes and paraphernalia. They fascinated, compelled, and delighted spectators with colourful and magically brilliant objects. Status and naming often went hand in hand: among the Taíno of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, some chiefs incorporated their word for gold – caona – into their own names, such as Caonabo and Anacaona.

April 1519, and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrives in Mexico. According to some sources, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II feared Cortés might be the returning god Quetzalcoatl and sent a wealth of ‘bright shiny gifts’ suitable to welcome such a powerful deity. On boarding the Spanish caravel, the Aztec emissaries literally cloaked Cortés in shimmering light – a turquoise mosaic mask, a quetzal feather head-fan decorated with greenstone ear-plugs, a greenstone necklace with a golden disc, and a brilliant mirror which they attached to his back. Cortés did not understand the significance of this act – still less the symbolic qualities of the gifts themselves. Among the glistening jade, shimmering feather-work, obsidian mirrors, and quartz crystals, the Spanish only had eyes for those items of gold and silver. When Spanish conquistador and Aztec emperor finally met, Cortés is said to have remarked to Moctezuma that ‘the Spanish have a disease which only gold can cure’ – a doubly ironic warning that would have resonated with Aztec ideas concerning the life-giving powers of shiny objects, but which also presaged the destruction of their civilisation.

IMAGE: © Nicholas J Saunders
Aztec ritual mask. Made from wood and turquoise plaques sometime between AD 1400 and 1521, it has eyes of shell and pyrites, and ivory teeth. It was made to be suspended on the chest or back rather than worn as a face mask. It is currently in the British Museum in London. Size:16.8 x 15.2 x 13.5cm. IMAGE: © Nicholas J Saunders

The Aztecs believed that the forces of life permeated the world as heat and light, and that human souls were luminous and ‘hot’; when an Aztec child was sick, his reflection in water was examined – if it was bright, his soul was intact; if dark, it had escaped. In the afterlife, too, such ideas held sway. Tlalocan, the Aztec rain god’s paradise, was a brilliant place lit by divine fire and emerald sunray, where human beings sparkled as shimmering gems. New emperors were described as ‘precious turquoise’. A person who lived righteously had his psyche transformed into an iridescent quetzal-bird feather.

Spanish priests in their mission to convert pagan Mexicans to Christianity studied the intricate workings of the indigenous world. They recorded, for example, that turquoise was called Teuxiujtl, whose name is formed by teotl (‘god’) and xiuitl (‘turquoise’), denoting that it belongs to the gods and that it emits smoke and appears like the beautiful cotinga bird. Opal, whose name is Vitzitziltetl, was so-called because its shimmering appearance recalls the feathers of the hummingbird. It was esteemed and regarded as precious, radiating a glow akin to a group of fireflies. Amber took its name from water (atl) and bubble (poçonalli), and at dawn ‘when the sun rises, it appears just like a foam which the sun’s rays penetrate… it is as if little sparks continually fly from it, as if a flame stood within it’.

Among the spectacular, shiny natural materials in the Americas are emeralds (this example from Colombia) and pearls (as seen  in the oyster shell). Images: National Museum of Natural History [CC0]/Wikimedia Commons, Wmpearl [CC0]

One of the most powerfully shiny materials was rock crystal, the favoured tool of Aztec sorcerers. It was reported that in its lucid depths ‘they discern the past, the future, and all secret things’. In this, rock crystals shared a powerful quality with Aztec mirrors, carved and polished from the volcanic glass obsidian. So potent was this kind of mirror believed to be that it was identified by name and nature with the supreme Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, the Lord of the Smoking Mirror, inventor of human sacrifice, who used its powers to see into the hearts of men and divine the future. The shiny blackness of obsidian mirrors was used also by Aztec emperors to foretell future events, interpreting the dark reflections with a mix of spiritual, mythological, and political beliefs.

The treasures of the Aztecs astounded the Spanish, yet even these were soon exceeded. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro’s conquistadors made their way south along the snow-capped Andes of Peru, penetrating ever deeper into the Inca empire. By chance, they ambushed the emperor Atahualpa, taking him prisoner and ransoming him for masterpieces of Inca art made from the ‘Sweat of the Sun’ (gold) and ‘Tears of the Moon’ (silver), most of which they melted down. The ransom filled entire rooms – an ironic exchange for the ‘Son of the Sun’, for whom all glittering wealth was owned by divine right. Once again, the Spanish were fired by an all-consuming desire for precious metals and gems, looting the empire of its accumulated wealth of Inca and pre-Inca gold and silver treasures. As before, there was no meeting of minds between the Spanish and the local inhabitants as to the true value and meaning of shiny matter. Indeed, Atahualpa said that of all the things which the Spanish had showed him none he liked more than glass. He told Pizarro that he was surprised that having such things of beauty in Spain, the Spanish would travel to distant lands looking for metals as common as gold and silver.

Yet, for the Inca as for other pre-Columbian civilisations, gold and silver did not stand alone as symbols of earthly wealth – they were part of the indigenous American ideas of sacred shininess. The Inca creator god Viracocha made the world with magical light, manifested as the Sun and the Moon. During the Inca festival of Coya Raymi, the Inca queen, the moon was celebrated, and the qualities of darkness such as sickness and disease were banished by warriors wielding slings of fire. Viracocha’s fellow deities were identified with rainbows, mist, and lightning. Cosmic light became solid at the temple of the Sun God Inti (whose name itself may have meant shininess or brilliance), as it was decorated with the shimmer of sheet gold and the glow of pearls. These natural gems were regarded as being like crystal and water, and were associated with rain, rainbows, and lightning, as well as gold and quartz; moreover, they were symbols of high social status and associated with the Inca queen’s royal clan.

IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]
Inca ear ornaments with pairs of ibis, from the Ica Valley, Peru. Gold with garnet inlay, AD 1200-1450.  Size: 3.5 x 4.6cm and 3.2 x 4.5cm. IMAGE: The Art Institute of Chicago [CC0]

Adjacent to Inti’s temple was a sacred garden where all earthly life was fashioned in precious metals and gemstones – sacred prototypes designed to show the Inca emperor’s physical and metaphysical control over the known universe and everything in it – in effect, the Inca empire of Tawantinsuyu, the ‘Land of the Four Quarters’. These golden likenesses of nature can be considered primary representations of pure-light forms, spiritual prototypes under the divine protection of the emperor. As with the Aztecs and other civilisations, cosmic brilliance engendered and symbolised strength and was thus a potent weapon. The Inca emperor went into battle hurling slingstones of fine gold at his enemies, and his warriors wore shiny metal plates on their chests. During the civil war between Atahualpa and his rival Huascar, the latter was defeated when Atahualpa’s troops, adorned with polished metal plates, positioned themselves against the sun and blinded their opponents.

For the Inca, their mountainous landscape was both sacred and anthropomorphic, not least in terms of the beliefs surrounding the mining of gold and silver. The mines themselves were holy places, dug into the flanks of ‘living’ ancestral mountains. Each mine had its own ‘idol’, which was worshipped as the ‘mother of the mine’. These were the most beautiful stones associated with the ores; in the case of gold, they were conglomerates in which flecks of gold were mixed with sparkling quartz or silica, and, in the case of mercury, they were pieces of blood-red cinnabar.

Many of these beliefs in a holistic world bound together by invisible stands of materiality and natural philosophy survived the Spanish conquest of the Incas. In a 17th-century campaign to destroy lingering vestiges of ancient religion, the Spanish recorded how in the Andes, ‘when there is a mist, which occurs frequently and is very dense during rainy season, the women make a noise with the silver and copper clasps which they wear on their breast and blow on them, for they say this will clear away the mist and brighten the day.’

below Aztec labret (jewellery worn in a piercing below the lower lip) in the form of a serpent with an articulated tongue, from Mexico. Gold, AD 1300-1521. Size: 6.67 x 4.45 x 6.67cm
Aztec labret (jewellery worn in a piercing below the lower lip) in the form of a serpent with an articulated tongue, from Mexico. Gold, AD 1300-1521. Size: 6.67 x 4.45 x 6.67cm. IMAGE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0]

More than this, however, Christianity itself was permeated by ancient Andean beliefs about shininess as part of the complex process of conversion. Colonial churches and cathedrals were decorated with stunning and elaborate silverware made by indigenous metalsmiths recalling more than a little the pre-conquest symbolism of the tears of the moon. More dramatic still, in a colonial-period hymn by local inhabitants we find, ‘The relucent gold, brilliant and light-giving… There is someone named Jesus, like the sun and the moon, who glitters and burns… Do you believe in the power of the Trinity, brilliant, burning, and resplendent?’ Such ideas were and remain far more than just echoes of a distant past.