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.
Tigre Boxing In Acatlan: Jaguar & Tlaloc Masks
Up today is another video about the Mexican Tigre combat phenomenon I discussed a few weeks ago. This one shows a style of fighting practiced in Acatlan. Instead of rope whip-clubs as in Zitlala, these competitors duel with their fists.
Courtesy link to ArchaeologyTV’s page on YouTube for this Tigre combat video.
A particularly interesting feature of this video is the variety of masks. Not only do you see the jaguar-style masks, but you’ll also see masks with goggle eyes. Goggle eyes are, of course, one of the signature visual characteristics of Tlaloc, the very Teotl this pre-Columbian tradition was originally dedicated to. (And still is in many places, beneath the surface layer of Christian symbols.) If you look closely, you might notice that some of the goggle eyes are mirrored. The researchers behind ArchaeologyTV interviewed one of the combatants, who said that the significance of the mirrors is that you see your own face in the eyes of your opponent, linking the two fighters as they duel.
This idea of a solemn connection between two parties in sacrificial bloodshed was of major importance in many of the pre-Conquest religious practices of the Aztecs. It can be seen most clearly in the gladiatorial sacrifice for Xipe Totec during Tlacaxipehualiztli. During this festival, the victorious warrior would refer to the man he captured in battle as his beloved son, and the captive would refer to the victor as his beloved father. The victim would be leashed to a round stone that formed something of an arena, and given a maquahuitl that had the blades replaced with feathers, while his four opponents were fully-armed. As the captor watched the courageous victim fight to the death in a battle he couldn’t win, he knew that next time, he might be the one giving his life on the stone to sustain the cosmos.
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.
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.
Link to original photograph source.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
The Rise Of The Eagle
One of the core cycles of myth belonging to the Aztecs is the multipart epic of how they went from their humble beginning as an obscure band of nomads to the lords of Tenochtitlan and the founders of a great empire, all under Huitzilopochtli’s watchful eye. In honor of the festival months of Quecholli (beginning today) and Panquetzaliztli, the veintanas celebrating the Chichimec past and the god who led them to glory, I will be kicking off a special storytelling event. Over the course of November and first week of December, I will be retelling the highlights of the series of legends that comprise this important saga of the Mexica-Tenochca people.
The basic timeline of the Foundation Cycle starts with the big entrance of Huitzilopochtli onto the scene with the Battle of Coatepec. I’ve already posted that one, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t read it yet, as it sets the stage for things to come.
Once Huitzilopochtli’s arrived, He picks out the Mexica as His own favorite tribe and calls them to leave their ancestral homelands in the north and begin their migration south, deep into the Anahuac Valley. He promises to guard them and guide them to a new home, a place where they will found a mighty empire. They trust in Him and head out, overcoming both human and divine opponents until they eventually reach the place where the eagle perches on the nopal cactus, eating a heart — the sign that they have finally found their new home… Tenochtitlan.