Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

People

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


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!


Xultún And The Baktun

In honor of the approaching end of the 13th baktun on December 21, per the famous Mayan calendar, I’d like to write about a piece of ironclad historical evidence contradicting the “Mayan doomsday” nonsense.  That particular piece of evidence lies in the ruins of Xultun.

Xultun was once a flourishing Mayan metropolis, and its importance continues to the present day as the site of a series of murals of great significance to clearing up an archaic misunderstanding of the great calendar.  More specifically, painted on the walls in a house that appears to have been a workshop for scribes and astronomers, is a series of complex astronomical tables  extending well past the end of 2012.  In other words, the Mayan astronomers of the ninth century C.E. most certainly didn’t think the world would end when the thirteenth baktun did, but instead carried on with their work charting planetary and stellar activities well beyond the supposed end of the world.  “So much for the supposed end of the world,” quips William Saturno, one of the present-day (re) discoverers of these scientific calculations.

Another of Saturno’s comments sums up the contrast between Western pop culture’s misconceptions and Mayan thought nicely, in my opinion —  “We keep looking for endings… the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.” (National Geographic, 5/10/2012)

After the above excerpts, you might be interested in getting a look at Xultun and these murals for yourself.  If so, you’re in luck!

If you click HERE, you can view National Geographic’s “Giga Pan” high resolution photographs of some of the murals.

If you’d like to explore the beautiful stone stelae (carvings) that dot the city, you can click HERE to visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard’s website cataloguing a bit of the site’s history, its carvings, and their locations around the town.  (The diagrams of the carvings are in the list on the lefthand side of the page.)

Finally, National Geographic has also prepared a short video on the discoveries at Xultun for your viewing pleasure, which you can view HERE if you have trouble viewing the embedded version below.


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.


Aztec Schooling: Calmecac and Telpochcalli

In honor of back to school season in my part of the world, I’d like to share some notes on Aztec education, as well as a link to an article on the rediscovery and initial excavation of the calmecac in modern-day Mexico City.  In case you’re not familiar with the calmecac, it’s one of two schooling institutions created by the Aztecs to educate their children.  Dibble and Anderson translate the name “Priests’ House” or “House of Penance,” for reasons that will become clear below.  The telpochcalli, or “Young Men’s House,” could be described roughly as a cross between a military and trade school, in Western/European terms.  It’s the school primarily populated by the non-aristocratic children, where they would be trained in combat and economic matters more typical of their station.

In contrast, the calmecac is more akin to a seminary, elite prep school, and college rolled together.  Primarily attended by the offspring of the noble class, it’s reported that certain common-born children of especial talent were allowed to go as well, despite their lineage.  Here the children would learn basic priestly training, military skills, the arts, etiquette, and leadership.  While we have records of these two schools existing within the walls of Tenochtitlan, it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists had uncovered the remains of any part of these two educational complexes.  If you would like to read an article in the Christian Science Monitor reporting on this discovery, please click HERE.  (It includes a photograph of one of the ornaments that once decorated the roof of this indigenous American university — the cross section of a twisting shell, named the “wind jewel,” a symbol of Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent, lord of learning.)

Unlike many other cultures past (and present, sadly), the Mexica-Tenochca were quite progressive with regards to education.  They sought to put most children though one of the two schools described above, making them among the earliest proponents of universal education.  Even more exemplary was the fact that that this education extended to girls as well as boys!  No child left behind?  The Aztecs had it covered.

While there were differences in which form of education a child would receive, heavily influenced by social standing as noted above, it appears there was some flexibility according to the parent’s wishes, according to Sahagun’s informants in the Florentine Codex (Book 6, Chapter 39, p. 209, Dibble & Anderson trans.).  When the parents had chosen which educational path their child would take, a celebration was hosted.  If the child would go to the telpochcalli, the schoolmasters would be invited over for food and drink, the exchange of gifts, and to meet their future pupil.  Then they would cradle the child in their arms and swear to guide the child until he or she was ready to leave their school, take a spouse, and establish their own household.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.209). Tezcatlipoca was invoked as the patron of this child’s educational career.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

If the parents chose to send the child to the calmecac, a celebration was still held, but instead the class of priests called quaquacuiltin were invited to the house.  Once again, they were feasted and presented with gifts, and the priests held the child and dedicated her or him to Quetzalcoatl, and promise that the child will carry out his/her responsibilities as a religious novitiate and seek the god’s knowledge.  They closed their oration with a plea for the Feathered Serpent’s blessing and consent for these educational gifts.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

Sahagun records that a girl dedicated to the calmecac received a distinctive scarification mark on her hips and chest at this time, and was also given a special necklace marking her as destined for a religious education, the yaqualli pendant.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)  He doesn’t note what marks and accoutrements the boys were given.

After this initial encounter with their future educators, whether the martial headmasters of the telpochcalli or the religious experts of the calmecac, the child stayed with their parents for another few years until they were deemed old enough to attend the school they had been promised to.  After that, they were sent to live at the schools until they completed their education and struck out on their own adult lives.

*****

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.209-211.


The Grandfather

My dear grandfather passed away this month at 90 years of age, so in his honor I am going to post the entry about the grandfather from the Florentine Codex, as well as the related entry about the old man, as it expands on concepts discussed in the first one.  Xolotl guide you, Grandpa.

One’s Grandfather — Grandfather (Tecol, Colli)

One’s grandfather is hardened, lean, white-haired, white-headed. He becomes impotent, childish.

The good grandfather is an adviser, an indoctrinator. He reprimands one, beats one with nettles, teaches one prudence, discretion.

The bad grandfather is negligent, of misspent days and nights; of no fame, of no renown. A luxurious old man, he is decrepit, senile.

———-

Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General De Las Cosas De La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books ), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).  Book 10 – The People, Chapter 1, pp. 4-5

The Old Man

The revered old man, the aged man is white-haired, white-headed, hardened with age, aged, ancient, experienced, a successful worker.

The good old man is famous, honored, an advisor, a reprehender, a castigator, a counselor, an indoctrinator. He tells, he relates ancient lore; he leads an exemplary life.

The bad old man is a fabricator, a liar, a drunkard, a thief; decrepit, feeble; a gaudy old man, a luxurious old man, an old fool, a liar. He invents falsehoods.

———-

Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain (Translation of and Introduction to Historia General De Las Cosas De La Nueva España; 12 Volumes in 13 Books ), trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).  Book 10 – The People, Chapter 3, p.11

An elderly male figure, Borgia Codex Plate 57

An elderly male figure, Borgia Codex Plate 57


Wirikuta

Today I came across some interesting news articles documenting the ongoing struggle of the Huichole (Wixáritari) people to protect one of their holiest sites in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico.   The site in question is a beautiful mountain region named Wirikuta in the Huichol tongue, which Spanish-speakers call Cerro del Quemado.  In English, the name is roughly translated as “Burned Mountain,” a fitting name for the place where the sun ascended from the Earth’s surface to the skies in traditional belief.

Despite being considered an internationally-recognized protected site by UNESCO and the Mexican government, Wirikuta is currently under threat from foreign mining interests.  In 2009, the Canadian mining company, First Majestic Silver Corp., bought mineral rights to the area, and plans extensive extraction of silver, a process which will consume a significant portion of the area’s limited water supply, as well as expose the countryside to dangerous chemicals used in silver mining, such as cyanide, which have a deadly tendency to seep into the groundwater and render it undrinkable.  This threat to the mountain and the fragile aquifer rooted at it is all the more horrifying when one recalls that mountains were and still are considered to be hearts of earth and water, or “houses of mist” all across Mesoamerica, a belief uniting the imperial Mexica-Tenochca with their present-day Huichol cousins.  Viewed through this lens, it’s not at all surprising that a threat to Wirikuta is a threat to the aquifer and all life in its nourishing influence.

In addition to the physical destruction that mining unavoidably brings, there will be spiritual destruction.  Wirikuta is home to many sacred plants, such as peyote, animals, and divine beings, particularly deities associated with rain.  Destroying the mountain will destroy these creatures and desecrate the site, which will sever the Huichol from their spiritual root.  Drawing a Judeo-Christian-Islamic parallel, Dawn Paley likened digging up Wirikuta to “bulldozing Eden for a golf course” in her detailed coverage of this issue in This Magazine.   Furthermore, this mountain is not only a place to gather vital religious supplies, but it is also a natural temple, a place to conduct ceremony.  Cerro del Quemado, the sacred center of Wirikuta, is the destination of a traditional 800 kilometer yearly pilgrimage conducted by the Huichol people to renew bonds of community and deity.

This February, the journey had an additional goal of seeking guidance in protecting the holy ground from destruction, and by extension, themselves — the Huichol view themselves as inseparable from the sacred site so intimately intertwined with their culture and ancestry, and have stated they view First Majestic’s plans to dig as a “war of extermination” against them.  The Esperanza Project has a beautiful account of the ceremony held on February 6-7th, 2012, complete with numerous photographs and interviews with several Huichol community leaders and observers about the meeting and the ideas and hope flowing from it.  They were kind enough to allow journalists to record some footage of song and ceremony from this holy gathering, which you may watch below.

Courtesy link to Mysticalfrequency’s original YouTube posting

To view video statements by the Huichol against this impending desecration and in support of their traditional spirituality and lifeways, please click HERE.  The linked site, www.nierika.info, also contains many interesting articles on this matter if you would like to read more, both in English and in Spanish.

Below, for those who wish to learn more, I’ve included a short video discussing this crisis and calling for action.  I can’t seem to get it to embed properly, so please click the link below to check it out.

Click to watch on Venado Mestizo’s Vimeo page

You may be wondering where you can go to read and watch more, and learn how you can get involved in putting pressure on First Majestic to abort their plans for this site.  I would like to highlight the Wirikuta Defense Front’s excellent site (click for English or Spanish).  They are an action group composed of people from the Huichol community, as well as local and international allies, and are seeking volunteers to help.