Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Archive for January, 2009

Malinalxochitl

The next story in the Mexican founding saga tells of the tyranny of Huitzilopochtli’s sister, Malinalxochitl (“Grass Flower”).  This myth follows after “First Steps From Aztlan” and “Leaving Coatepec,” and sets the stage for the birth of Copil and the further difficulties the fledgling Mexica face.

Malinalxochitl

As told by Cehualli

It had been some time since the Mexica had left their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, and they were wandering in the wilds of Michoacan, following Huitzilopochtli’s dream.  But the Portentous One wasn’t the only divinity accompanying them — His sister, Malinalxochitl, had come with them.  She was beautiful both in form and manner, graceful and elegant.  She was also a powerful sorceress, as she was a Huitznahua woman, one of the stars come to walk among men.  She could drive men mad, shake a river from its course, or strike her enemies dead with a glance.  For a time she ruled them on their wanderings, her flesh and blood guidance complementing unseen Huitzilopochtli’s directions in dreams and her magic a formidable force added to His strength.

Eventually, however, Malinalxochitl grew arrogant and tyrannical, forgetting her duty to guard her brother’s tribe.  She began to torment the Mexica in Huitzilopochtli’s physical absence.  She even forced them to worship her as a goddess on pain of death.

“How wonderful this is!” she thought to herself as she eyed the frightened people as they hurried away from yet another city that had grown unfriendly to them.  “They obey my every whim, and my brother stays silent.  Perhaps He’s abandoned them, or a rival god struck Him down while He roamed ahead.  After what He did to Coyolxauhqui, it would be a fitting end for Him.”

The priests and the people, however, secretly prayed to their silent protector.  “Huitzilopochtli!  Your sister has become corrupt, and instead of being a torch, a light for your people, she’s become a deadly tyrant!  Please save us!”

One night, Huitzilopochtli came to the eldest priest in his dreams.  “How dare my sister do this!  And using sorcery against My people – !” He raged.  “Very well then, we will get rid of her.  When she sleeps tonight, slip away and leave her behind.  If she wishes to behave like a treacherous scorpion, let her be alone like one.” The priest nearly wept with joy as the answer to his prayers.  “However, you must promise Me something — you must not follow her heart and copy her charms and spells.  That’s a coward’s way of fighting, and I won’t stand for my people to be seen that way.  No, instead you will win with courage and skill at arms!  That’s My way.”

The priest agreed, and when he awoke he told the god’s words to the rest of the tribe.  When it had grown dark, they packed up and slipped away into the night, leaving Malinalxochitl behind.

When she awoke, Malinalxochitl wailed in betrayed anger.  “Huiztilopochtli, you dog!  I’m not through with You or Your wretched people!  My sister and I will be avenged.”  Vowing to make them pay, the scorned Huitznahua woman went to make the nearby city of Malinalco her own and to bide her time to strike.

Fountain Grass Flower, Photo by Giligone (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License)
Fountain Grass Flower, Photo by Giligone (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License)
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Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B)

I just had an incredible stroke of luck.  I just discovered an English translation of Dr. Eduard Seler’s commentary on the Codex Vaticanus 3773, a.k.a. Codex Vaticanus B.  Well, half of it anyway.  The complete English text of the second volume of Seler’s commentary is available to read and download as a PDF via GoogleBooks.   This volume is devoted to the reverse side of the codex.  Volume 1 is about the obverse side.  I dredged Google and determined that they’ve scanned Volume 1 but don’t yet have it available to read.  I hope they’re planning on making it fully available soon, and not doing something sleazy like keeping it locked down.  Might be a good idea to petition them for this one if you’re feeling frisky.  I’ll be watching for it to go up at any rate.

Speculation about Google’s intentions aside, I’m pleased to be able to point you to an excellent commentary by one of the premier luminaries of Mesoamerican religious studies.  A quick link to the book is below, and I’ve updated my Codices page with this link as well.  Incidentally, this volume includes a complete black and white scan of the codex as Appendix A, with Seler’s notes.  Visually not as nice as viewing the high-resolution color scans on FAMSI, but quite useful.

Click HERE to read Vol. 2 of Dr. Eduard Seler’s Commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

UPDATE 9/21/09:  Google’s posted Vol. 1 now!  Click HERE to get it too!

Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B
Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B

Codex Badianus & Aztec Herbal Medicine

While prowling around online I finally rediscovered a page that has some excerpts from the Codex Badianus on it.  The Codex Badianus, also known as the Codex Barberini or the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, was the first book of herbal medicine published in the Americas.  It was written by Martin de la Cruz, a young Nahua herbal physician of good repute, and published in 1552.  The University of Virginia has a nice little exhibit about the codex, including several traditional Aztec medical recipes and photos of some of the plants.  If you’d like to learn a bit more about the codex itself and some general info about Aztec medicine, including a few more recipes, Mexicolore has a handly little introductory article on it to whet your appetite.  Finally, if you’re  curious to learn more at a more technical level, I even found some professional journal articles on the subject on PubMedDon’t forget to check the References list at the bottom of the page for more articles on Aztec medicine available on PubMed.

Go HERE to visit the University of Virginia’s excepts from the Codex Badianus.

And go HERE to visit Mexicolore’s feature on the Badianus and Aztec medicine.

Finally, go HERE to read “Aztec Medicine” by Francisco Guerra,  in Med Hist. 1966 October; 10(4): 315–338.  Full text online, downloadable PDF also available.

The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus
The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus

Basic Nahuatl Pronunciation

As promised earlier,  I’m doing a quick writeup of basic Nahuatl pronunciation and spelling.  Or rather, I found a good one online that’s consistent with what the best modern dictionaries are using.  The guide below is shamelessly ripped from the Wikibooks entry that houses it, and is extended with a few notes of mine.  My thanks to the authors of this guide — Ptcamn, Icelandic Hurricane, and Jguk!  Go HERE to view the original entry on Wikibooks.  Or go HERE to have Wikibooks render a downloadable PDF of this guide (without my notes) for you.

UPDATE:  … and it appears that the guys who set up the Wikibooks entry ripped it from David K. Jordan’s Nahuatl page, and extended it with their notes.  The original is HERE, to give credit where it’s due.

Vowels

Nahuatl has four short vowels: a, e, i, and o. The vowels a, e and i sound similar to Spanish, while o can sound like either a Spanish o or a u. Unlike in English, where cuter and cutter have different vowels, the vowels of Nahuatl don’t change depending on what follows them.

Each vowel also has a long form, marked by a line or macron over the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō. They have the same sound as the short vowels, but are simply held longer. [Cehualli’s note — these macrons are often omitted in actual texts]

Consonants

Nahuatl ch, m, n, p, t, and y are pronounced like English.

As in English, c represents an s-sound when followed by e or i, but a k-sound elsewhere.

Cu is pronounced kw, like in Spanish, or like English qu. Its inverse, uc, is the same sound at the end of a syllable.

Hu is pronounced like English w. Like cu, it is reversed at the end of a syllable, so auh sounds like ow, and iuh sounds like eww.

H alone, when not part of ch, hu or uh, may have represented a glottal stop, as in the Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or it may have been a sound like English h. Unlike English h, it is pronounced at the of syllables: ah isn’t simply a vowel, but a vowel followed by a consonant.

Before a vowel, l is the same as English or Spanish l. Before a consonant or at the end of a word, however, it is neither dark like English l in full, nor clear like Spanish l. It is a voiceless sound, like Welsh ll. This isn’t important to understanding, though, and it can be pronounced like an English l without introducing confusion.

Double ll is simply l, held longer. It isn’t a palatal sound like in Spanish, or a single l like in English.

Qu is used to represent the k-sound before e and i, like in Spanish. It isn’t pronounced “kw” as in English.

X is pronounced like English sh.

Tl is pronounced like t with the tongue held in a postion for l [Cehualli’s note — when this comes at the very end of a word, the l is very quiet, almost a whisper.  Not pronounced “tul” as one might think!]

Tz is pronounced like German z, or like English ts except that the t is pronounced even at the start of words — not like tsar or tsunami, where the t is silent.  [Cehualli’s note — like the ts in “kits,” in other words.]

Z is pronounced like English s.

Stress

Stress regularly falls on the second last syllable of a word.

Spelling

The spelling used here is a modern standardized system, in order to represent all the sounds of Nahuatl consistently. The spelling used in the original manuscripts did not always represent Nahuatl pronunciation accurately. In particular, vowel length and h were usually omitted.  [Cehualli’s note — in a rare few manuscripts, like Carochi, you may see diacritics and other odd marks.  Very rare, not something to worry about in general.]

Spelling & Pronunciation of Classical Nahuatl Words

Because the spelling of Nahuatl was originally based on spelling conventions in Spanish, Nahuatl texts are generally “pronounced like Spanish,” with the following exceptions and points to note:

  • Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U) regardless of final consonants
  • X is pronounced like English SH.
  • LL is pronounced like a long L (not as in Spanish).
  • TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
  • U does not occur as an independent vowel. The only Nahuatl vowels are A, E, I, and O, although each of them can be long or short.
  • CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
  • HU and UH are both pronounced W.
  • H without an adjacent U represents a “silent” glottal stop (as in go_over); in modern Nahuatl it sometimes has a sound similar to an English H and may have had that value in some dialects of Classical Nahuatl as well. (For an English speaker, pronouncing the H like an English H is not really wrong and has the advantage that it helps one remember that it is there.)
  • C before E or I is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
  • Z is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)

However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:

  • The letters U and O may be used interchangeably to represent the sound of O.
  • The letter U alone may be used instead of UH or HU to represent the sound of W.(At the time of the Conquest, the written letters V and U were usually reversed in Spanish from their modern values, so U indeed had the value of a modern English W.)
  • The letter H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
  • Vowel length may or may not be marked.
  • The consonant Y may be written with the letter I.
  • The vowel I may be written with the letter Y.
  • The letter Ç may be used in place of Z to represent the sound of S.

In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and “coincidentally” more English). Thus:

  • W may be used in place of HU or UH for the sound of W.
  • K may be used in place of QU/C for the sound of K.
  • S may be used in place of Z/C for the sound of S.  [Cehualli’s note — Ç is also in this category.]

In some cases weird letters, available on no keyboard and included in very few type fonts, are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.*


Tigre Rope Fighting In Zitlala

Following up on last week’s post discussing the survival of Precolumbian gladiatorial combat in honor of Tlaloc in Mexico, I’ve got a video today that actually shows part of a Tigre whip match at Zitlala.  Now that this activity has come to my attention, it’s something I’ll be watching for videos of in addition to Danza Azteca.  It’s interesting getting to actually see the story behind the jaguar mask and contemplate the deeper meaning behind the fighting.

Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.

In case you’re wondering, the special rope club used by Tigre fighters in Zitlala are called cuertas.  The modern cuerta itself is actually a “friendlier” version of heavier rawhide and stone clubs used previously, which in turn were descended from stone and shell clubs used when the battles may well have been lethal.  For obvious reasons, the present-day trend has been away from fatal contests, though the underlying meaning of giving of oneself to Tlaloc for a plentiful harvest endures today among those who remember.


Tlaloc In Zitlala

Came across an interesting photograph recently that’s quite interesting, as it shows an aspect of a Pre-Columbian ceremony still surviving today in Zitlala, Mexico.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associate Press/Eduardo Verdugo.  Used without permission.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associated Press/Eduardo Verdugo. Used without permission.

Link to original photograph source.

Original Caption:

“A man dressed as a tiger carries a small whip made from rope in Zitlala, Guerrero state, Mexico, Monday, May 5, 2008. Every year, inhabitants of this town participate in a violent ceremony to ask for a good harvest and plenty of rain, at the end of the ceremony men battle each other with their whips while wearing tiger masks and costumess. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)” [Cehualli’s note — “tiger” is a common mistranslation of “tigre,” when the context makes it apparent a jaguar or other large cat is meant.]

Now…there’s a lot more going on here that the photographer doesn’t get into in his note.  Specifically, that this is a modern survival of traditional indigenous religious practices.

Why do I think this?  Let me explain.

There’s a certain ancient god of rain in Mesoamerica who has traditionally been associated with jaguars… and that’s Tlaloc.  In the codices, if you look carefully you can see that He’s always depicted with long, fearsome jaguar fangs.  The growl of the jaguar resembles the rolling of distant thunder, and the dangerous power of such an apex predator fits the moody, explosive-tempered Storm Lord quite nicely.  The jaguar as a symbol of Tlaloc is a very ancient tradition that appears across the whole of Central America, whether the god is being called Tlaloc, Cucijo, Dzahui, or Chaac.

The whip-club is another hint.  Flogging has been done as part of rain ceremonies for Tlaloc for centuries (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s symbolic of lightning).  Additionally, though the photographer didn’t mention this, one knows what happens when people strike each other hard with whips like the one the man in the photo is shown carrying — you bleed.  A lot.

In Prehispanic Mexico, one of the important rituals for Xipe Totec, the Flayed Lord, god of spring and new growth, is called “striping.”  Striping involved shooting the sacrificial victim with arrows for the purpose of causing his blood to drip and splash on the dry earth below, symbolizing rain that would bring a good harvest.  Similar rituals specifically devoted to Tlaloc were also done, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the gladiatorial combat done for Xipe Totec had the same basic idea in mind, sprinkling blood over the ground done to call the rain.

The next part is due to my good friend Shock and her impressive knack for research.  While we were discussing this photo, Shock directed me to an excellent article about this phenomenon known as “Tigre Boxing” that still exists all throughout Mexico today.  It even discusses this specific form of battling with whips in Zitlala that this photograph is of.  I highly recommend checking it out, as it’s loaded with more information about the surviving practice of gladiatorial combat for rain, complete with many excellent photos of the jaguar masks, sculptures, and even videos of the combat!

Click HERE to go to the Tigre Boxing article.