Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion


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.

Colloquies Of The Twelve

I have quite the research treat for you tonight, dear reader!  After quite some time patiently hunting and following threads (and guessing the correct URL behind a broken link when one last barrier tried to put an end to my quest), I successfully tracked down the only English, full-text translation of an important Conquest-era work… the Colloquios y doctrina christiania (“Dialogues and Christian Doctrine”), often known to English speakers by its nickname “The Colloquies of the Twelve.”

The bilingual Nahuatl/Spanish text dates to about 1564 and was penned by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún.  The work concerns itself with recording a series of debates between Mexican religious and political authorities and a team of twelve friars sent by the Spanish crown to attempt to destroy the indigenous faith.  These verbal battles took place in the early 1520’s, shortly after the fall of the Aztec empire.  While Sahagún didn’t reach Mexico until 1529 and thus was a few years too late to have witnessed these discussions himself, he did consult ten out of twelve of the friars, as well as four Mexica informants and four eminent native scholars (Antonio Valeriano, Alonso Vegeriano, Martin Jacobita, and Andres Leonardo), in order to reconstruct the debates (albeit in a highly-poetic and dramatic form).

The lone surviving manuscript was lost for over three hundred years until it was rediscovered in the Vatican archives in the early twentieth century.  Sadly, of the thirty chapters, only fourteen have endured the ravages of time.  It received a German translation by Zelia Nuttall in the 1940’s, but remained untranslated into English until 1978, thanks to the effort of Jorge Klor de Alva (the first complete modern Spanish translation was executed by Miguel Leon-Portilla in 1977).  Its first and only publication was in the final issue of Alcheringa: Ethnopoetics, Volume Four, Number Two, published by Boston University in 1980.  This printing is the one I present you with today.

Click HERE to access the downloadable PDF containing the Colloquies of the Twelve at Alcheringa’s online archive.

I also recommend poking around in other volumes in Alcheringa’s archives, as they have quite a bit of interesting stuff back there, including more Mesoamerican research and several recordings of indigenous poetry recitations.  Thumbs up to Boston University for releasing these archives to the public, including the audio recordings that came with issues of this journal.

P.S. — As a bonus, this particular volume also includes several interesting Mayan legends I haven’t encountered anywhere else, and, related to my previous post, Thelma D. Sullivan’s full text translations of several birth/pregnancy huehuetlatolli speeches from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex.


Book of the Colloquies; The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues of 1524. English edition translated and edited by Jorge Klor de Alva. Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics vol 4, no. 2:52—193.  1980.

Ballads of the Lords of New Spain & the Cantares Mexicanos

Fantastic news!  I recently picked up a copy of John Bierhorst’s English translation of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain (better known as the codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España), and discovered a note in the prefatory material of great interest.  The University of Texas and Stanford University have completed an incredibly generous project, something that I’ve been hoping someone would do for years.  Enough suspense, I’ll tell you what it is now.

Complete, full-text copies of both the Romances and the Cantares online, complete with commentary and material for comparative study of the two song texts, a Nahuatl-English concordance dictionary, relevant photos and scans from various codices relating to poetry and music, and even audio of performances of some of the actual sixteenth-century drum rhythms intended for the teponaztli, or wooden slit drum, based on the only piece of sheet music preserved recording actual Aztec music.

Folks, this is a huge deal, I can’t state it strongly enough.  This is the vast majority of pre-Conquest and early Colonial Aztec poetry and song that has been preserved, in English and Nahuatl, searchable and complete, available for absolutely free, for the first time ever.  Most of this material has previously been extremely difficult to get a hold of or flat-out unavailable (no complete English edition of the Romances existed before 2009), not to mention expensive.  I own a near-mint paper copy of Bierhorst’s translation of the Cantares Mexicanos, which was produced in a limited run by Stanford University and has been out of print since 1985.  It took me almost two years of scanning numerous international book selling services online to eventually secure a copy for under $250.  You will never have to go through this difficulty and expense to study this collection of breathtakingly-beautiful poetry, as Stanford University has generously put a full copy of the Cantares Mexicanos on this same website in PDF format, that you can download for free.

Go HERE to the home page of the Ballads of the Lords of New Spain!

And go HERE to download a full PDF copy of the Cantares Mexicanos!

Also HERE for a full PDF copy of the Nahuatl-English Concordance & Dictionary volume for the Cantares Mexicanos!

Finally, go HERE for a list of post-publishing corrections to the Cantares!

In short, many thanks to the University of Texas, Stanford University, and Mr. Bierhorst for making this amazing resource available to all, it’s a move reminiscent of the great wave of public library and museum foundings in the USA in the 19th and early 20th centuries that have been such a force for learning and research.  To my readers, I highly encourage you to pick up a print copy of the Ballads in order to support more projects like these in the future, and to give back to those involved in this one.  Besides, it’s just nice to have a physical copy of a good book to curl up with.

I’ll be back to discuss these two works of Aztec poetry and song later on, but I just couldn’t wait to share these books with you now.  Happy reading!

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus

Flower and Song, Plate 2 of the Codex Borbonicus


All links updated & more materials uploaded by U.Texas linked on 2/24/2013, courtesy of an alert reader.  Thanks M.P.!

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B) — Vol. 1

Back on January 29th of this year, I spotted on GoogleBooks the full text of Volume 2 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773, otherwise known as Vaticanus B.  I said I’d be watching for Google to finish scanning Volume 1 and post it… and guess what, it’s finally up in its entirety.  It can be read online, or the full text can be downloaded as a PDF. Volume 1 is on the obverse (front) side of the scroll-like book, while Volume 2 is about the reverse (back).  I’ve also updated my Codices page with the link to Volume 1.

Thanks Google!

Click HERE to read Volume 1 of Eduard Seler’s commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773


Click HERE to read Volume 2

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli

Quetzalcoatl and Mictlantecuhtli Over Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli (Codex Vaticanus B, Plate 76)


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.


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)

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