Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Archive for November, 2008

Leaving Coatepec

This is the next part of the Tenochca founding epic, taking place at about the same time as the “First Steps From Aztlan” part of the story.  This part tells about Huitzilopochtli’s tearful departure from His mother, Coatlicue, as He sets out from Coatepec to lead the Mexica south.

This one is a little different from the other sub-stories in the saga, as it doesn’t come from the more usual sources of myth.  I know of this scene from an apparently Post-Conquest story that tries to shed some light on why the defense of the Aztec homelands failed, and why it seemed the gods abandoned them, especially their trusted patron.  In that legend, some of Motecuhzoma’s seers travel to Coatepec to bring Coatlicue a gift, and She speaks of Her son’s departure, and His prophesied return home to Her.  I’ve decided to break out Her reference to this event and tell it here, and save the other story for later.

Leaving Coatepec

As told by Cehualli

Some time after the great battle against Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua, Coatlicue had begun to notice a change in Her son.  While once He had been content to stay close to Her side, now He had taken to wandering farther and farther away.  Sometimes She would notice Him gazing far to the south, the Land of Thorns, with an intensity that bespoke of great plans and ambition.

One day, in the Year of the Flint Knife, She watched Him staring off longingly at some distant southern land again, and She knew in Her heart that Her son was planning to leave.  “My beloved son…come to Your mother,” She said quietly.

In a moment, Huitzilopochtli had reached Her side with haste.  “What troubles You, Mother?”

“Son… I know Your heart is already in some place far to the south, not here at Coatepec.  Where do You plan to go?” She asked.

He paused a moment, glancing back to the left of the Sun.  “As usual, nothing escapes Your wisdom, my dear Mother.  I need to test My strength, to go on a grand adventure with My people, the Mexica.  I have seen it that We will conquer much and found a mighty empire for the glory of the Teteo.  How can I resist such an exciting prospect?” He poured out His heart with eagerness, already looking forward to the thrill the future promised.

Coatlicue smiled at the irrepressible spirit of Her son, yet this smile was tinged with sadness at the knowledge of their impending parting.  “Clearly, Your mind is made up to go, and go quickly.  I won’t stop You from going to meet Your bright destiny and seeking adventure.” Huitzilopochtli’s eyes lit up like the dawning sun.  Coatlicue went to a reed chest and pulled out a small bundle, pressing it into Her son’s hands.  “I have a parting gift for You.”

Huitzilopochtli unwrapped it partially, finding two pairs of new sandals within.  “One pair is for Your journey south, to the place in Your dreams, Tenochtitlan,” Coatlicue said.

“Thank you, Mother!” He replied, taking off His old sandals and putting on the new pair.  “But what’s the second set for?”

“They are for Your journey home,” She said softly.  “I’ve seen how the adventure ends, My son.  You will indeed conquer much, and achieve fame and wealth beyond measure.  But We both know that nothing lasts forever on Earth, not the shining quetzal feathers that will one day fade, nor the glittering gold that will turn to dust.  The same will be true of Your beautiful empire.  As You take land on Your way south, in the reverse order will You lose it, until at last the day comes when Your people will fall, and You will find Your strength exhausted.   When that dark day comes and you must don those sandals and bid the Mexica farewell, know that I will be waiting for you at the door with open arms to welcome You home.”

Huitzilopochtli nodded gravely.  “Thank You for Your wisdom and counsel, Mother.  Your words are more precious to Me than any of the riches I’ll capture.  I’ll keep them in My heart the whole time I’m away at war, until the day We meet again.”

With that, He gathered up His shield and Xiuhcoatl, His flaming serpent-spear, and tucked the second set of sandals into His bundle for the trip.  He embraced His mother one last time, and with a mixture of sadness and eagerness to see what the future had in store for Him, raced away from Coatepec.  He would not see Snake Mountain again for over two hundred years.

Huitzilopochtli, Page 43 Recto of the Codex Magliabecchiano

Huitzilopochtli, Page 43 Recto of the Codex Magliabecchiano

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Shield Flowers

I was reading through the ninth volume of the Florentine Codex recently, and came across an interesting tidbit giving more information on some of the flowers offered to Huitzilopochtli.  Even better, Sahagun points out these flowers were offered during Panquetzaliztli!

What flowers am I talking about?  Well, it’s a particular kind of flower called a chimalxochitl, or “shield flower.”  It’s a very large flower that was carried both by celebrants and by bathed slaves who were to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.  As one might guess by the name, it represented a warrior’s shield.  This is particularly fitting, as the bathed slaves who were offered to Huitzilopochtli during Panquetzaliztli were the vaguard merchants’ equivalent of captured warriors.  Instead of capturing them phyiscally on the battlefield, the vaguard merchants, who fulfilled military purposes as well as commercial, captured them with their wealth, which was likened to the spoils of war.  I’ve discovered that these merchants were almost a paramilitary order during the Aztec Empire, something quite fascinating which I will get around to writing about one of these days.

Anyway, back to the flowers.  These shield flowers were carried by worshippers, they were carried by sacrificial victims.  They were strung into garlands which would decorate the temples of Huitzilopochtli, they were placed on the altar, and ornamented the idol sometimes.  They were everywhere during this Teotl’s festivals.

But what were they exactly?  Well, I’ll give you a couple of hints.  They’re huge, bright yellow, and their English and scientific names even reference a certain celestial body associated with Huitzilopochtli…

Give up?

They’re sunflowers!

Yes, sunflowers.  Helianthus annuus to be specific.  At least, the sunflower is the species that’s the top choice for the chimalxochitl among scholars.  Dibble and Anderson identify the flower in footnote 7 on page 34 of their English translation of Book 9: The Merchants, of the Florentine Codex. It pays to read footnotes!

You might be wondering why Huitzilopochtli’s so fond of flowers.  Well, quite a few reasons.  Flowers in general were symbolic of blood and warriors who died in battle.  In Aztec poetry, one frequently encounters descriptions of rains of flowers on the battlefield, indicating the warriors in their bright regalia dashing about like blossoms swaying in the wind, eventually falling like cut plants and watering the earth with their blood.  The dead soldiers would then live forever in Huitzilopochtli’s paradise, the House of the Sun, where they would enjoy the scent and color of beautiful flowers.  Eventually they would be reborn as birds and butterflies, living leisurely lives flitting from flower to flower.

“Flower and song” was a phrase meaning sung poetry, a common pastime of warriors both alive and dead.  The “flowery death” was death on the sacrificial stone, and the “Flower Wars” were ritual battles to capture men for sacrifice.  Finally, the first flowers of the year were reserved for Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlicue, and none might pick or smell them until She had been given some.

Anyway, I thought I would share my discovery and Panquetzaliztli-oriented thoughts on it, in the spirit of the season.

Sunflower

Sunflower

Photo taken by Wajid Uddaim and generously put into the public domain. Thanks Wajid!


First Steps From Aztlan

This is the story of how the Aztecs began as a small band of wild Chichimec nomads and left their original home under the guidance of Huitzilopochtli, searching for their own promised land.  In the epic saga focusing specifically on the rise of the Mexica and Huitzilopochtli, this legend comes after the Battle of Coatepec and before the rebellion of Malinalxochitl.

First Steps From Aztlan

As told by Cehualli

Long ago, after the seven tribes had parted ways at Chicomoztoc, the Place of Seven Caves, the Mexica lived as simple nomads in their homeland of Aztlan.  They were a wild and hardy clan, not yet educated in the sophisticated ways of the Toltecs, but brave and adventurous.  They lived by hunting the wilderness, always on the move in search of new game.  In short, they were Chichimecs, barbarian nomads.

One day, in a year of the Flint Knife, one of the teomama, or priests who carried the sacred bundles, received a vision.  It was the priest who carried Huitzilopochtli’s bundle (tlaquimilloli), the Teotl who was the special protector of the tribe.  Huitzilopochtli told him that He had big plans for them.  “Be bold!  You will travel south to the unknown lands of Anahuac, to a place where your people will found a great empire.  You will be numerous and powerful, feared in war.  You will gather rich tribute, land, slaves, and sacrifices in My name.”

“How can this be?” replied the priest in awe.  “We’re just a small clan of simple nomads, nothing like the mighty Toltecs of wondrous Tollan where Quetzalcoatl once ruled.”

Huitzilopochtli scoffed at his fear with all the bravado of a daring young warrior eager to test his skills.  “Now you are small and weak, but if you follow Me, I will guard and guide you, destroying those who would harm you and leading you to victory.  I promise you a sign when you have reached the right place — you will see an eagle perched on a nopal cactus, eating a heart.  When you find this spot, build My temple there.  Now, take heart and tell My wishes to the chieftains!  I am impatient and long to start the journey!”

As the vision faded and the presence of the god left him, the priest went to tell His charge to the chiefs.  They consulted among themselves and decided to trust Huitzilopochtli, the Protector of Men.  “He’s never led us wrong before,” they said.  “Even though these things seem impossible, we will trust Him and migrate south.  Perhaps we will die, perhaps we will be a glorious empire after all.  We will see!”

They gathered their poor possessions and set out from Aztlan, the White Place, a land to the northwest of the place they would eventually call home, Tenochtitlan.  They were the seventh and youngest tribe to leave, but they would one day become the greatest of all, the Mexica-Tenochca, Aztecs.

Footprints Indicating a Journey, Plate 34 of the Codex Borbonicus

Footprints Indicating a Journey, Plate 34 of the Codex Borbonicus


Happy Panquetzaliztli!

Well, my numerous, intractable, and incredibly frustrating network/Internet connectivity problems resolve just in time for Panquetzaliztli! A lovely coincidence.

Why am I so excited? Panquetzaliztli is Huitzilopochtli’s main festival month, that’s why! I’ve been particularly waiting for this veintana to roll around, as it’s the perfect opportunity for me ramble on about this very special Teotl. I’ve been hoarding research relating to Him just for this month, and will be doing my damndest to pour it out as much as I can, come hell, high water, third-rate cable companies, or exceptionally crappy workweeks. Books have been accumulating tabs like feathers just for this special event…

So… get ready!

To whet your appetite and kick things off on the right (or left?) foot, I would like to draw your attention to the material I have already accumulated on this blog that relates to Huitzilopochtli.

My static page introducing the reader to the god.

A quick intro, a bit about His nature, and a codex image.

Mexicolore’s downloadable feature on Huitzilopochtli.

Includes many artifact photos, pictures from codices, etc. Also includes other interesting tidbits on the god, such as His birthday (1 Flint Knife), his festivals, his sacred animals (the hummingbird and the eagle), and much more. They place Panquetzaliztli a bit later in the year than most calendar correlations I’ve seen, but that’s a minor quirk.

Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe

Elizabeth Hill Boone’s excellent monograph on Huitzilopochtli. The only full-length English study of this particular god available at this time. Full text available to read via Google Books.

The Battle of Coatepec: Huitzilopochtli Defeats the Moon and Stars (As told by Cehualli)

This is my retelling of the important myth about Huitzilopochtli’s birth and how He protected His mother, Coatlicue, from Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua at Coatepec.

Hymns To Huitzilopochtli

Grace Lobanov’s English translation from her Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. The book is still under copyright and so you can’t read the whole thing, but fortunately this particular hymn in its entirety can be reached via Google’s Limited Preview.  This link will take you to the “About This Book” page.  Look for the “Search This Book” box, type in “Huitzilopochtli hymn,” and click on the link to page 65 that it will turn up.  That’s the song for the Portentous One.

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli


Human Corn

Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.

“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?

“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.

In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.

Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.

Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.

The Implications of “Human Corn”

So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.

It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.

Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.

As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia


A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.

Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?).  [Edit — It’s Ursa Major.  Thanks, Shock!]  Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.

My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel