Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “Aztlan

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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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


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


Study Of A Contemporary Huaxtec Celebration At Postectli

I came across an interesting article by Alan R. Sandstrom on FAMSI the other night. It is a summary of his observation of a modern Huaxtec ceremony honoring one of the Tlaloque, a rain spirit named Apanchanej (literally, “Water Dweller”). This festival took place in 2001 on Postectli, a mountain in the Huasteca region of Mexico.

A bit of background — the Huaxtecs are an ancient people, neighbors of the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they spoke and still speak Nahuatl, making them one of the numerous Nahua peoples. To this day they still live in their traditional home, one of the more rugged and mountainous sections of Mexico. They have retained more of their indigenous culture than some of the other nations that survived the Conquest due to their remoteness and the rough terrain that inhibited colonization. This includes many pre-Conquest religious traditions, even some sacrificial practices.

To read the short article summarizing Sandstrom’s experiences at the ceremony:

If you would like to read the article in English, please go HERE.

Si desea leer el artículo en español, por favor haga clic AQUI.

Some Highlights Related To Modern Practices

This article includes discussion of several details of particular interest to those interested in learning from the living practice of traditional religion. Of special note are photographs of the altar at the shrine on Postectli, including explanation of the symbols and objects on it (photograph 12). Also, the practice of creating and honoring sacred paper effigies of the deities involved in the ceremony is explored in some depth. Paper has traditionally been a sacred material among the Nahua tribes, and paper representations of objects in worship is a very old practice indeed. Additionally, there is some detail on tobacco and drink offerings, as well as the use of music and the grueling test of endurance inherent in the extended preparation and performance of this ritual.

Contemporary Animal Sacrifice

A key part of the article’s focus is on the modern practice of animal sacrifice and blood offerings that survive among the Huaxteca today. These forms of worship have by no means been stamped out among the indigenous people of Mexico, as Sandstrom documents. (Yes, there are photographs in case you are wondering — scholarly, not sensationalistic.) Offering turkeys is something that has been done since long before the Conquest, and from what I have read they remain a popular substitute for humans in Mexico. It’s fitting if you know the Nahuatl for turkey — if I remember right, it’s pipil-pipil, which translates to something like “the little nobles” or “the children.” If I’m wrong, someone please correct me, as I don’t have my notes on the Nahuatl for this story handy at the moment. They got that name because in the myth of the Five Suns, the people of one of the earlier Suns were thought to have turned into turkeys when their age ended in a violent cataclysm, and they survive in this form today. I doubt the connection would have been lost on the Aztecs when offering the birds.

Closing Thoughts

To wrap things up, Sandstrom’s article was a lucky find and is a valuable glimpse into modern-day indigenous practice . I strongly recommend stopping by FAMSI and checking it out, as my flyby overview of it can’t possibly contain everything of interest. On one last detail, I strongly encourage you to read the footnotes on this one — a lot more valuable info is hidden in those.

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus

Tlaloc Seated on a Mountain Issuing Water, Plate 7 of the Codex Borbonicus


Daily Priestly Offerings Of Incense

I feel like talking about the ritual of offering copal incense today. More specifically, I’d like to go into more detail about how the tlamacazqui (priests) used to offer incense each day during the height of the Aztec Empire.

Copal was burned for the Teteo almost constantly in the temples. Sahagun records in Book 2 of the Florentine Codex that the priests would offer incense nine times each day. Four of these times fell during the day, five came at night. The four during the day were when then sun first appeared, at breakfast, at noon, and when the sun was setting. The five times at night were when the sun had fully set, at bedtime, when the conch shell trumpets were blown, at midnight, and shortly before dawn.

Sadly, we don’t have exact clock times for these nine offerings. Granted, some of them, such as the offerings at sunrise and sunset, would’ve drifted with the change in light levels as the seasons passed, while those like noon and midnight would’ve been fixed. The Spanish commentary in Book 7 of the Florentine Codex does state that one of the nighttime offerings was at 10PM. My guess is that one would’ve been either the one that coincided with bedtime or the blowing of the trumpets, as it had to be one of them between sunset and midnight. I would also bet that the offering at full dark is the one where the prayer to greet the night I discussed earlier took place. This would’ve been when the Fire Drill constellation rose into the sky.

Incidentally, it seems that the midnight incense offering was the most important of the nine. Sahagun specifically points out in some places that every priest was to wake at midnight and join in the offering of incense and blood via autosacrifice. This ritual was so important that the most trustworthy of the young priests were given the duty of holding vigil at night and waking their colleagues for this ceremony. Not only that, but those who failed to wake up and join in were punished severely, frequently by additional bloodletting or by a beating. The Aztec priesthood took its duties very seriously, and lapses in function were dealt with harshly.

Furthermore, many of the huehuetlatolli (“ancient words,” or moral discourses) recorded in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex make reference to the midnight offering of incense. The especially devout people, the “friends of Tezcatlipoca,” were dutiful in their observance of this celebration. They’re described as scorning sleep to rise and worship, sighing with longing for the presence of the god and crying out to Him. Judging by these references, it appears that the midnight incense offering was also important to the general nobility as well. Not too surprising, I suppose, as most of the nobility were educated in the calmecac school, the same school that trained the young priests. In a sense, every nobleman did a stint in seminary, though not everyone went on to become professional tlamacazqui.

The incense burner typically used by the priests was ladle-shaped and made of fired clay. The long handle was hollow and filled with pebbles, so it would rattle as the priest would move about. The handle was frequently sculpted to look like a snake, an animal commonly appearing in depictions of sacred things and beings. The hot coals and copal resin would go into the spoon-like cup on the end.

Who exactly received these nine offerings of incense is currently unknown to me. At many points in the Florentine Codex, where an incense offering is described in detail, the Four Directions are noted as receiving the sweet scent and smoke, in addition to any other deities being specifically addressed. Thus, the ladle would be raised to each direction, the prayers of the priest accompanied by the rattling of the stones in the handle. Sahagun notes that some of the nighttime offerings were directed to Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of Night, and the dawn offering went to Tonatiuh, the Sun. The midnight offering typically shows up in the context of prayers to Tezcatlipoca, at least in the huehuetlatolli I have access to.

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer

A Priest Offers Incense At A Temple, Plate 27 Of The Codex Fejéváry-Mayer


Identity Of The Fire Drill Constellation

Good news! My dear friend Shock answered my plea for help regarding the identity of the Fire Drill constellation that was discussed in my article on greeting the dusk. She’s studied the scholarship on Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy extensively and kindly popped in to shed some light on this issue. This is what she had to say regarding the identity of the Fire Drill:

“Anyway… About the fire drill constellation. It’s Orion’s Belt, clear as day if you look at the evidence. The Pleiades couldn’t possibly be it. It’s a seven/six star cluster within Taurus and used as a reference point for the Fire Drill in the primary source material. Taurus itself couldn’t be it for these same reasons and the fact that its other noticeable stars aren’t in a straight line. The Cygnus idea makes little to no sense considering that Sahagun clearly states in book 7 of the Florentine that the constellation is near the Pleiades. Cygnus is NOWHERE near the Pleiades in the night’s sky. In book 7, look up two parts. First, the fire drill part in Nahuatl and then Sahagun’s commentary in Spanish under Castor and Pollux. Several things are clear; the Fire Drill needs to be by Gemnini and it needs to be by Taurus. It also has to be a straight line of three bright stars. The straightness is reiterated in the Nahuatl text numerous times. And what’s right by both of these, with three bright stars? Orion’s belt. And then you have the comparative ethnography stuff from FAMSI, plus there’s more stuff similar to that which is closer to Mesoamerica.”

So, it does look like the best candidate for the Fire Drill constellation is the stars of Orion’s Belt!

Also, apparently the guy who favors the Northern Cross as the Fire Drill is a poor-quality “scholar” associated with the atrocious “mayalords.org” site, so I’d recommend ignoring him beyond the value of knowing what the crap arguments are out there.

Thanks Shock!

Incidentally, I have updated my other post with this important information for convenience and clarity.


Greeting The Dusk

The Starry Night Sky

The Starry Night Sky

“Yohualtecuhtli, the Lord of the Night, Yacahuitzli, has arrived! How will his labor go? How will the night pass and the dawn come?”

Following up on my earlier article on how the priests greeted the dawn, above is my rendition of the traditional prayer saluting the dusk. It is a modernized composite of the two variants recorded by Sahagun and Tezozomoc. (To read Dr. Seler’s translation of the Tezozomoc version, click HERE and search within the book for youaltecutli. The only hit is on page 357, containing the prayer in question.)

This prayer was traditionally offered around sundown, as a particular constellation called mamalhuaztli, the Fire Drill, rose from the east into the darkening sky. It was accompanied by the offering of incense, being another one of the nine times a day the priests would offer copal to the Teteo.

You may be wondering exactly what constellation mamalhuaztli is, as its rise was the traditional signal to perform this rite. The bad news is. . . we’re not sure. Partially because the records suck, partially because the constellations have drifted in the sky over the past millennium or so. We have enough information to know that this constellation was in the vicinity of the Pleiades, and apparently some scholars think the Fire Drill was three stars that are part of them. However, the stars in Orion’s belt are another popular theory, and at least one guy seems to consider the Northern Cross a candidate, though his credentials are suspect at best. The link above to the original language of the prayer includes some of Seler’s deductions regarding the identity of this constellation, though sadly the whole thing isn’t available. Go HERE for a very brief discussion on the Aztlan mailing list hosted by FAMSI regarding the Orion vs. Northern Cross debate if you’re curious.

Due to this uncertainty, I’d advise taking the obvious route of observing this prayer either at sunset or right at full dark. It’s not perfect, but it should be in the ballpark I’d think, and archaeoastronomy isn’t my strength. So, good enough for me, and it seems a reasonable alternative for modern practice in the face of a gap in our knowledge. However, if anyone does have a good background in this branch of astronomy and can help out, I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about the identity of the Fire Drill constellation.

UPDATE 10/2/08:

Well, my dear friend Shock answered my plea for archaeoastronomy help on this issue! This subject is one that’s close to her heart, and she’s studied the scholarship on this area extensively. This is what she had to say regarding the identity of the Fire Drill:

“Anyway… About the fire drill constellation. It’s Orion’s Belt, clear as day if you look at the evidence. The Pleiades couldn’t possibly be it. It’s a seven/six star cluster within Taurus and used as a reference point for the Fire Drill in the primary source material. Taurus itself couldn’t be it for these same reasons and the fact that its other noticeable stars aren’t in a straight line. The Cygnus idea makes little to no sense considering that Sahagun clearly states in book 7 of the Florentine that the constellation is near the Pleiades. Cygnus is NOWHERE near the Pleiades in the night’s sky. In book 7, look up two parts. First, the fire drill part in Nahuatl and then Sahagun’s commentary in Spanish under Castor and Pollux. Several things are clear; the Fire Drill needs to be by Gemnini and it needs to be by Taurus. It also has to be a straight line of three bright stars. The straightness is reiterated in the Nahuatl text numerous times. And what’s right by both of these, with three bright stars? Orion’s belt. And then you have the comparative ethnography stuff from FAMSI, plus there’s more stuff similar to that which is closer to Mesoamerica.”

So, it does look like the best candidate for the Fire Drill constellation is the stars of Orion’s Belt!

Also, I’ve been informed that the guy who favors the Northern Cross as the Fire Drill is a third-rate “scholar” connected to the godawful “Mayalords” site, so I’d recommend ignoring him beyond the value of knowing what the crap arguments are out there.

Thanks Shock!

If you’re particularly interested in this subject, I recommend watching the Comments on this post for more.