Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Archive for December, 2008

Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl

A little poetry today for your contemplation and enjoyment.   I dug up John Curl’s translation of several songs commonly attributed to Nezahualcoyotl over on FAMSI.  The translations are quite nice, though I’d ignore his discussion about Nezahualcoyotl and Texcocan religion, as he seems to have bought into the myth that this ruler was a King David-esque poet, monotheist (!!), and crusader against sacrifice.  This spurious idea got its birth right after the Conquest, and has been incredibly difficult to get rid of since.  If you want to read a systematic study of this misrepresentation, its origins, and its repercussions on Mesoamerican studies since, I recommend checking out Jongsoo Lee’s The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic Religion, Politics, and Nahua Poetics. Dr. Lee thoroughly dismantles this idea and provides a wealth of information about Colonial distortions of Nahua religion and poetry, particularly where it intersects the “Nezahualcoyotl as pseudo-Christian” myth.

Bad history aside though, Curl’s actual translations are enjoyable, and I invite you to check those out.

Click HERE to read John Curl’s translations of Nahua poetry.

Nezahualcoyotl, From The Codex Ixtlilxochitl

Nezahualcoyotl, From The Codex Ixtlilxochitl

New Nahuatl Language Links

I’ve added a new Links section over on the righthand side of the page, called Nahuatl Language.  That section is where I’m linking material around the Net that relates to learning Nahuatl, particularly Classical Nahuatl (the language as it was a few hundred years ago).  This stuff is always handy for reference, and to get your feet wet if you’re interested in learning how to read some of the primary sources that were written down in that tongue after the Conquest.

These links relate to reading Nahuatl written alphabetically, not reading the glyphs/pictographs that were used in the Codices prior to the Spanish invasion.  I’m looking for material online that teaches a bit about the glyphs, though, and will link what I find.

Finally, the links in there now are in a mix of languages.  Molina’s classic textbook and dictionary are antique Spanish and Nahuatl; I included them for those who can read old Spanish (not me!) and due to their foundational significance in the study of the language.  The html version of Renee Simeon’s 1885 dictionary is Nahuatl to French, but I would expect the numerous free online translators could handle the short snippets of relatively-recent French without much trouble.

For my English-language audience, the Nahuatl Learning Environment is available in English (it’s also available in Spanish).  Just log in with the ID and password noted in the link title (repeated in the tooltip if you hover your mouse cursor over it), and you’re good to go — there’s no registration or anything like that.  Finally, the Freelang Nahuatl dictionary is a Nahuatl-English dictionary, and can be downloaded for offline use, or used via the web.  Handy and free!

I’ll do a post sometime soon on basic pronunciation to go with all these links.  I’ve seen the very formal charts on pronunciation that use the technical symbols and whatnot, but frankly I can’t read them, and I don’t know many who can.  If you have a copy of Frances Kartunnen’s Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, I find her notes on pronunciation to be the most helpful I’ve come across.

Anyway, enjoy, and I’ll add more to this section as I find it.

Operation Circle Care

In the spirit of yesterday’s post on charity, I’m highlighting a Pagan charity that addresses an issue dear to my heart.  Namely, it’s Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care, and they put together care packages for Pagan troops in the military.  This is a moving cause to me as many of my relatives have been in the military, the most recent of which is my younger brother.  (In case you’re wondering, he finished 2 tours of duty in Iraq with honor, and has since joined a private security contracting firm and is back in Baghdad under their banner.  He’s doing all right, is healthy and in one piece.)  Plus, we all know Huitzilopochtli has a special place in His heart for soldiers.

I strongly encourage you to stop by Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care page and check it out.  They welcome a wide varierty of forms of support for the troops, from money and goods to prayers and rituals.

Click to visit Circle Sanctuary’s Operation Circle Care page.


“Respect the unfortunate old men, the unfortunate women, the miserable, the poor; take pity upon them. Give one somewhere perchance a poor, worn, breech clout, a miserable netted maguey cape; tie, wrap them about him; give him something to drink. For he is the representative of the master, our lord. For this thou shalt be given life on earth…”

The Florentine Codex, Book 9, Chapter 12, p.56-57

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

The above lines are from a speech given by the elder merchants to a younger one during the festival month of Panquetzaliztli.  I’ve chosen to share this segment of one of the huehuetlatolli, or moral speeches as part of a discussion on Aztec virtues and ethics.  This article will focus on the virtue of charity, with an analysis of the speech above used to sound out what the Mexica thought about this moral precept.

I’ve decided to bring up charity at this time for several reasons.  The first and most obvious —  information on traditional ethics and its intersection with religion is of eminently practical use.  Second I live in the USA, so the majority of the population here is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, and the issue of charitable giving is at the forefront.  The final reason ties into the second — with religion in the air at the moment, I’ve been seeing a lot of bigotry and outright slander of non-Christian ethics lately. I’m sick of it, and decided it’s time for me to respond to that foolishness by setting the record straight.  So, let’s begin!


The context of the lines I quoted from the Florentine Codex is in the veintana of Panquetzaliztli.  A young merchant has thrown a banquet for his elders, complete with gifts of food, tobacco, and clothing.  At one point he explains to his guests why he’s done this — he’s received the wealth of “the master, the lord,” as the fruits of his labor.  He acknowledges this wealth is actually a blessing of the gods, specifically Huitzilopochtli.  (Page 55 makes it clear that “the master, the lord” here is Huitzilopochtli, and not Tezcatlipoca, despite the similarity of the title to some commonly used for the Smoking Mirror.)  Because he realizes this wealth is a blessing, he wishes to seek the presence of Huitzilopochtli.

Seeking The Face Of God: Charity As A Duty

The young merchant shows the reader that one way to find this Teotl’s presence is through the wisdom of his elders.  He pleads with them to “reveal the secrets of the master, our lord, the portent, Huitzilopochtli” (Sahagun, 55).  His elders proceed to unveil these secrets — they are actually various ethical precepts, in addition to the ritual banquets specifically prepared by the merchants to honor the god and share their prosperity.  Particularly emphasized among these precepts is charity.

The language in this speech is especially interesting, given how closely it parallels one of the most beautiful parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 25:34-46.  These are the verses where Jesus tells his disciples “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In these huehuetlatolli lines, we see a striking parallel, right down to the injunction to give the needy food, clothing, and drink, and the revelation that the poor are actually humble representatives of the god.  In both, the reward of loving charity is life.  Finally, Matthew indicates that the reason for this duty is because the good things being given were first granted to the donor as divine blessings.  A blessing carries with it a responsibility.

I find a similar responsibility in the words of the young merchant and his elders in the Florentine Codex.  On page 55, the youth acknowledges his wealth is really that of Huitzilopochtli, and the god is described as “showing” the riches to him.  This is a common way of describing prosperity — it’s not truly self-earned by the person, but is actually on loan from the gods, a blessing.  The young merchant expresses a desire to use it well, to return a portion of it as offerings, and the elders indicate that the right course of action is to share it with the poor as well.  It doesn’t take much effort to realize that the same kind of responsibility attaches to the gifts Huitzilopochtli gives as well as those Jesus speaks of in the book of Matthew.  In a nutshell, the god says to the wise man, “I give so that you shall give.”  It’s only the foolish man who disobeys.

Jesus’ parable continues to indicate that those who shirk their duty of charity insult the deity and will be punished.  The Aztecs held similar views.  If because the merchant gives generously he will be “given life on earth,” there’s clearly an unspoken corollary of if he doesn’t, he’ll lose his life.  Though left unsaid here, in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, it’s made explicit.  In some of the speeches there, the elders and priests admonish a newly-elected ruler to humility, not to be proud of the wealth and status he’s received.  This wealth and status really belongs to Tezcatlipoca, and if he offends the god, Tezcatlipoca will surely take it back and destroy him for his arrogance.  Huitzilopochtli seems to have a similar sense of propriety.

Christian Influence?

Due to the similarities between this passage and the one in Matthew, some might think that it’s a piece of Christian doctrine absorbed by the Aztecs after the Conquest from the Spanish friars.  “Surely these heathens couldn’t have such good morals and a concern for the poor!” people like that might think to themselves, convinced in their ignorance that only Christianity is a source of loving ethics.  To them, I say you’re dead wrong, and should repent of your arrogance.

Though I’m not a professional anthropologist, I doubt this passage is an example of Post-Conquest syncretism for two main reasons.  One, Sahagun is generally one of the more reliable Post-Conquest sources, and Book 9 in particular contains detailed ritual information that would’ve been prime candidates for being censored, yet he didn’t.  Not censoring such explicitly pagan religious practices makes it harder for me to believe that this one has been tampered with.

Two, the passage identifies Huitzilopochtli as the key player involved in these moral precepts.  Why is that so significant to me?  It’s because Huitzilopochtli has to be one of the most intensely villified and suppressed of the Teteo after the Conquest.  Elizabeth Hill Boone in her monograph, Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe , discusses the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Him by the Spaniards and how they worked damn hard to try to erase Him from the memory of His people.  Not too surprising, for if you want to subdue a proud, martial people, you’re going to want to eliminate their tutelary god, the high god that exhorts them to feats of heroic strength and military prowess.

Thus, Sahagun had every incentive to scrub this passage for its positive portrayal of this maligned deity, and I can’t imagine he could’ve missed the similarity to Matthew 25, something at least some of his bosses would surely have found to be blasphemous.  (I.e., the old “the Devil counterfeiting Christianity to deceive” argument that dates back to Justin Martyr, if I recall correctly.)  Yet… he didn’t do this, strengthening my thought that this is a genuine Precolumbian practice.

Those are just a couple of reasons why I trust the passage is genuine, without taking a lengthy detour into textual criticism that’s better left to the experts to write.

Practical Implications

So, we’ve established that traditional Aztec morality holds up charity as a noble practice, and has a religious basis underlying this ethical precept.  This has implications that are immediate and plain.  Playing Captain Obvious, we’re clearly to be generous to those in need, not to be greedy with the gifts we’ve been given by the gods, but to share them with others.  I’d been somewhat working under the concept before that the gods weren’t necessarily moral lawgivers, but, having read this very blunt chapter linking Huitzilopochtli with charity trashes that idea pretty thoroughly.  I’ll admit it, I stand corrected on this one.  Whoever you guys were who were recorded by Sahagun, 450 years later this American thanks you for the clarification, your counsel is still educating people.  I’ll have to chew some things over in my mind some more.