Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “Pre-Hispanic

Pestilence and Headcolds: Encountering Illness in Colonial Mexico

I’ve noticed a boom in people dropping by my post about the Codex Badianus, an Aztec book of medicine.  Sadly, I’ve never found a full-text copy of that one online as all the translations so far seem to be still under copyright.  However, I did find an entire academic exploration of sickness and medicine in Mexico during the colonial period, Pestilence and Headcolds: Encountering Illness in Colonial Mexico!  Written in 2008 by Sherry Fields, it covers how the colonized peoples of Mexico understood and dealt with illness and health, including viewpoints spanning from persistent pre-Conquest traditions to Colonial syncretisms to the new European concepts.  Of particular interest are sections drawn from native-generated primary sources and contemporary colonial medical records. The author’s kindly made the whole text available to read online for free.  To check it out, look below.

Go HERE to read Pestilence and Headcolds: Encountering Illness in Colonial Mexico.


That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie

In honor of the springtime finally rolling around after this seemingly-endless winter, I’d like to introduce you to a mysterious creature which the Aztecs said dies and rises with the seasons.

“In the winter, it hibernates.  It inserts its bill in a tree; [hanging] there it shrinks, shrivels, molts. And when [the tree] rejuvenates, when the sun warms, when the tree sprouts, when it leafs out, at this time [it] also grows feathers once again. And when it thunders for rain, at that time it awakens, moves, comes to life.”

What is this mysterious creature that defies death?

It’s the hummingbird (huitzitzili in Nahuatl).

Incidentally, remember that the hummingbird is Huitzilopochtli’s symbol, and note that many hummingbirds, including several species in Mexico, have the brilliant blue-green color of divinity for their plumage, just like another sacred bird, the resplendent quetzal.  These feathers, believed to have been shed like dead leaves in the fall, are linked to fresh, living plants by Sahagun’s informant, called into existence after the warmth of the sun, power of the sky gods, works in tandem with the watery might of Tlaloc and the other earth and vegetation gods, spiraling together to burst forth in life and movement.  Thus, a bird that’s possibly the perfect representation of the sky with its ability to hover and move at will in the air, shows its other face as a facet of the earth/water/plant divinity complex, a deity web that also extends into the realm of the dead.  Thus, this tiny little winged jewel is a microcosm of the vast world around it and the deities interwoven in the system.

“Canto del Colibri,” courtesy of jjeess11

*****

Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book XI, pp.24.


Update: Updated & Expanded Links For The Cantares Mexicanos & the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain

Sharp-eyed reader M.P. spotted some changes on the University of Texas websites for the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain and the Cantares Mexicanos.  Thanks to their timely alert, I’ve updated my links to the full texts and bonus materials for the two foundational collections of Aztec poetry and song.  As an extra stroke of good fortune, since my original post they’ve added the Nahuatl-English Dictionary & Concordance volume that originally accompanied the print edition of the Cantares Mexicanos.  Just like the main volume, it is also freely available as a downloadable PDF.

Click HERE to check out the updated post!

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus


Alarcón: Prayers For Protection From Evil While Sleeping

Among the populace of the Aztec empire, the line between religion and magic often blurred in day to day life.  While the priestly class held a great amount of power in mediating between the people and the gods, and by extension had a powerful influence on directing orthodoxy, folk practices flourished within the family household.  One of these was the practice of offering prayers and desirable substances (often copal incense, tobacco, and sometimes blood) to the lesser spiritual beings inhabiting everything from the trees to the crops to the tools by which people lived.  While these animistic entities were less grand than the mighty cosmic lords like Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, with their broad power over the universe and the state, these local spirits had their own gifts.  This influence carried extra weight for the humble individual due to its intimate proximity — while Tezcatlipoca’s wrath could lay waste to the entire kingdom, the fury of a small farmer’s sole cornfield could prove just as deadly for that individual as his livelihood dried up.

In this post, I’ll share with you a set of three of these short folk prayer-spells, collected by the inquisitor Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in his “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” in the early 17th century.  These incantations were intended to guard a sleeper against evildoers invading his or her home in the night, and to express gratitude in the morning for a safe rest.  Note that the supplicant in these prayers is actually praying to the spirits of their bed and their pillow, rather than a more familiar high god like Tlaloc.  Incantations are quoted from the excellent English translation of Alarcón by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig.  Incidentally, if you can read Spanish, I found a full text copy of the Paso y Tronsco fascimile online at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, viewable by clicking HERE.  Commentary about each prayer is my own material.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you who lie opening your mouth toward the four directions.  You are very thirsty and also hungry.  And already the villain who makes fun of people, the one who is a madman, is coming.  What is it that he will do to me?  Am I not a pauper?  I am a worthless person.  Do I not go around suffering poverty in the world?

The supplicant here calls upon his bed (“jaguar mat”), a mat made of reeds and palm fronds to protect him from the nocturnal sorcerer, the nahual.  This particular flavor of witch was greatly feared throughout the region due to his ability to control minds, paralyze, and shapeshift.  He was believed to often indulge in robbery like a cat burglar, breaking into homes in the dead of night to bewitch and rob his prey.  Sometimes, he would violate and kill his victims.  Interestingly, Quetzalcoatl was noted by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex to be the patron of this supernatural lawbreaker.

The structure of this prayer is double-layered — the supplicant begins with calling on the spirit of his bed to protect him, but then shifts to make a declaration of his extreme poverty and worthlessness as a robbery target.  Perhaps he had in mind a subtle defense here — rather than asking the spirit to try to destroy or disempower the witch, which might be unlikely to work as they were considered to be quite strong, he’s asking it to trick the burglar by convincing him that there’s nothing of value in this house, better go somewhere else.

The bed itself is described in an interesting way.  It reaches out towards the four directions, thus anchoring it very firmly in physical space, but also possibly linking it to the greater spiritual ecosystem, as a common verbal formula of invoking the whole community of the divine is to call to all the directions and present them with offerings.  It also reminds me of the surface of the earth (tlalticpac) which similarly fans out as a flat plane towards the cardinal directions, making the bed a tiny replica of the earthly world.  The reference to gaping mouths, hunger, and thirst acknowledges that the spirit of the bed has its own needs and implies that the speaker will attend to them.  In the Aztec world, nothing’s free, and a favor requested is a favor that will have to be paid for.  Alarcón doesn’t note what offering is given to the mat here, but in other invocations of household objects recorded in the book, tobacco and copal smoke come up repeatedly.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar seat, O you who are wide-mouthed towards the four directions.  Already you are very thirsty and also hungry.

This prayer is the companion of the one discussed above, except directed to the sleeper’s pillow (the “jaguar seat”).  Incidentally, you might be wondering why these two objects are named “jaguar.”  Andrews and Hassig speculate in their commentary that it may have been inspired by the mottled appearance of the reeds making up the bedding.  I think it may be a way of acknowledging that these simple, seemingly-mundane objects house a deeper, supernatural power.  The jaguar is a creature of the earth, of the night, and sorcery in Mesoamerican thinking, and in particular is a symbol of Tezcatlipoca.  It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that a nocturnal symbol is linked to things so intimately tied to sleep and being interacted with in the context of their magical power.  The adjective “jaguar” also appears elsewhere in Aztec furniture as the “jaguar seat” of the kings and nobles, which is often used as a symbol of lordly authority.  The gods themselves are sometimes drawn sitting on these jaguar thrones, including in the Codex Borbonicus (click to view).  Once again, another possible link to ideas of supernatural power and rulership — authority invoked to control another supernatural actor, the dangerous witch.

O my jaguar mat, did the villain perhaps come or not?  Was he perhaps able to arrive?  Was he perhaps able to arrive right up to my blanket?  Did he perhaps raise it, lift it up?

This final incantation was to be recited when the sleeper awoke safely.  He muses about what might have happened while he slumbered.  Maybe nothing happened… or maybe a robber tried to attack, coming so close as to peek under the blanket at the defenseless sleeper, but was turned away successfully by the guardian spirits invoked the previous night.  Either way, the speaker is safe and sound in the rosy light of dawn, alive to begin another day.

*****

Ruiz, . A. H., Andrews, J. R., & Hassig, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp.81-82


The Bancroft Dialogues: Advice On Good Manners

Today I’d like to introduce you to an important little book commonly referred to as the Huehuetlatolli – Discursos en Mexicano, or by its English nickname “the Bancroft Dialogues.”  It’s a collection of early post-Conquest speech from the Aztec nobility, probably collected sometime in the late 16th century.  It’s valuable both to linguists for its preservation of numerous samples of elite, upper-class speech , and to anthropologists for its social content.  Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart produced the only English translation of the book in 1987 (out of print and difficult to find these days, I’d scan and post my copy for all to read if I could).  If you can read Spanish, you may be able to acquire Angel Garibay’s edition, published in volume 1 and 2 of the journal Tlalocan in 1943.

The extract I’ve chosen to share is a short speech given by an older nobleman to some youths under his care about how to behave well, both in public and private.  As the text identifies the listeners as “boys,” it’s possible this advice was given by a teacher at the calmecac or telpochcalli schools discussed in one of my earlier posts.  Without further delay, here it is!

Advice on good breeding from an old man to some boys

Let us go to the house of our Lord to pray and hear His holy offices.  Go along spread out in front of me, don’t go shoving each other, go along properly, don’t go looking sideways and making faces.  People will say the devil has gotten into you.  And if you meet someone somewhere, greet the person and speak to him.  If it is one of the nobles, or one of the lords your progenitors who rule the city, or an old man or an old woman, you are to stand to one side until they pass by and bow down to them.  Don’t shove people or knock them down.

Listen, my youngest ones, much sleeping is bad, for it makes people fall ill and grow idle.  Get up early in the morning, and that way you will live in health and not be heavy with sickness.  Were not the rulers who left you behind brought up in the same way?  How was it that it was said that I really spied and saw them?  (I.e. I know what I am talking about?)

Immediately the elder  begins with an exhortation to attend to worship.  At the time this speech was collected, he would have been referring to the Christian god, but the original pre-Conquest form of the dialogue would have referred to the traditional Aztec gods.  This inclusion of an emphasis on good relation with the divine is pretty typical of many of the huehuetlatolli I’ve read, even for ones that aren’t specifically about religious practice.  It descends from that lofty subject to more mundane instructions on what not to do so they won’t be scolded as little brats.  As the Aztec community was a heavily class-conscious society, much of the deference the children are told to display is directed at the aristocracy — you’ll note that all nobles are to be bowed to without any requirements of age, but only the elderly receive special honor without concern for their class.  Men and women alike are to be honored.

The elder leaves behind the instructions in etiquette and the external benefits from good manners to advise the kids on habits that will benefit them as individuals.  However, he reinforces the personal benefits of moderation in sleep by citing tradition, as their ancestral role models supposedly followed these habits.  In other speeches recorded in the Bancroft Dialogues, we see a recurring emphasis on health — many of the different greetings revolve around formalized questions as to how someone’s health is, and concern with avoiding illness and physical discomfort.  Linking this concern with vitality to the need for moderation hints at the key virtue of temperance in Mexica culture, something I’ve explored in more depth in an older post if you’re interested.

*****

Lockhart, James. & Karttunen, Frances E. & Bancroft Library.  (1987).  The Art of Nahuatl speech : the Bancroft Dialogues.  Los Angeles :  UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, p.137


A Few Aztec Riddles

Watching the Hobbit in theatres last weekend got me thinking about riddles.  Not only are they amusing, but the figurative language and ideas contained within them can point to interesting tidbits of culture.  I’ve pulled a few of my favorites from the Florentine Codex and included them below, in slightly more informal language.  After each riddle and its answer I’ve added some of my own notes and interpretations of the concepts they nod to (the commentary is my own work, not that of Anderson and Dibble).

Q: What’s a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?

A: It’s the sky.

Mesoamerican cosmology divides the universe into sky and heavens (topan) above, the earth’s surface like a pancake or tortilla in the middle (tlalticpac), and the underworld (mictlan) below.  Though all three have their own distinct and separate characteristics, they interpenetrate to a certain degree, and this riddle hints at that in a playful manner.  The gourd itself is a product of the earth and its underworld powers, doubly so as it’s a water-filled plant (and is often likened to the human head), as is popcorn.  In fact, first eating corn is the moment where an infant becomes bound to the earth deities as it takes of their bounty and starts to accumulate cold, heavy “earthy-ness” within its being.  It’s also the start of a debt to the earth and vegetation gods — as They feed the child, one day that child will die and return to the earth to feed Them.  I covered some aspects of this idea in my Human Corn post, if you’re curious to read more.

Q: What’s the little water jar that’s both carried on the head and also knows the land of the dead?

A: The pitcher for drawing water.

The land of the dead is traditionally conceived of as a place dominated by the elements of earth and water, filled with cool, oozy dampness.  Rivers, wells, springs, and caves were places where the underworld power was considered to leak through to the mortal realm.  Not only did this power seep through to us, but we could sometimes cross through them to reach the underworld as well (the legendary Cincalco cave being one of the most famous of these doors).  Thus, thrusting the jar down into a watering hole or a spring, breaking through the fragile watery membrane, was sending it into Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue’s world in a way.

Q: What lies on the ground but points its finger to the sky?

A: The agave plant.

The agave plant, called metl in Nahuatl and commonly referred to as a maguey in the old Spanish sources, is a plant loaded with interesting cultural associations.  Its heart and sap is tapped to produce a variety of traditional and modern liquors like pulque, octli, and tequila, linking it to the earth-linked liquor gods like Nappatecuhtli, Mayahuel, and even Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl in their pulque god aspects.  Additionally, each thick, meaty leaf is tipped with a long black spine that’s much like a natural awl.  This spine was one of the piercing devices used by priests and the general public alike to perform autosacrifice and offer blood to the gods.  Lastly, the beautiful greenish-blue color of the leaves of some species (like the blue agave), is the special color traditionally associated with beautiful, divine things.  Take a look at a photo of the respendent quetzal’s tailfeathers — they’re just about the same color as the agave.

Q: What’s the small mirror in a house made of fir branches?

A: Our eye.

The Aztecs strongly associated mirrors with sight and understanding.  Several gods, most notably Tezcatlipoca (the “Smoking Mirror”), possessed special mirrors that would allow them to see and know anything in the world by peering into them.  Some of the records we have  from before and during the Conquest record that some of the statues of the gods had eyes made of pyrite or obsidian mirrors, causing a worshipper standing before them to see themselves reflected in the god’s gaze.  In the present day, some of the tigre (jaguar) boxers in Zitlala and Acatlan wear masks with mirrored eyes, discussed in this post and video.  One last point on mirrors — in many of the huehuetlatolli (ancient word speeches), the speaker implores the gods to set their “light and mirror” before someone to guide them, symbolizing counsel, wisdom, and good example.  The comparison of eyelashes to fir branches is rather interesting, as it reminds me of the common practice in many festivals of decorating altars with fresh-cut fir branches.  The two elements combine to suggest a tiny shrine of enlightenment, the magic mirror nestled in its fragrant altar like a holy icon.

Q: What’s the scarlet macaw in the lead, but the raven following after?

A: The wildfire.

I included this one simply because I thought it was exceptionally creative and clever.  I’m pretty sure it would stump even a master riddler like Gollum!

*****

Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.236-239.


Aztec Art Photostream by Ilhuicamina

Happy New Year’s!  Instead of fireworks, let’s ring in the new year with a superb photostream from Flickriver user Ilhuicamina.  This set is of exceptional quality and covers many significant artworks excavated from the Templo Mayor and safeguarded by INAH at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.  Take a look!

Click HERE to visit Ilhuicamina’s Aztec Art Photostream!


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