In honor of the springtime finally rolling around after this seemingly-endless winter, I’d like to introduce you to a mysterious creature which the Aztecs said dies and rises with the seasons.
“In the winter, it hibernates. It inserts its bill in a tree; [hanging] there it shrinks, shrivels, molts. And when [the tree] rejuvenates, when the sun warms, when the tree sprouts, when it leafs out, at this time [it] also grows feathers once again. And when it thunders for rain, at that time it awakens, moves, comes to life.”
What is this mysterious creature that defies death?
It’s the hummingbird (huitzitzili in Nahuatl).
Incidentally, remember that the hummingbird is Huitzilopochtli’s symbol, and note that many hummingbirds, including several species in Mexico, have the brilliant blue-green color of divinity for their plumage, just like another sacred bird, the resplendent quetzal. These feathers, believed to have been shed like dead leaves in the fall, are linked to fresh, living plants by Sahagun’s informant, called into existence after the warmth of the sun, power of the sky gods, works in tandem with the watery might of Tlaloc and the other earth and vegetation gods, spiraling together to burst forth in life and movement. Thus, a bird that’s possibly the perfect representation of the sky with its ability to hover and move at will in the air, shows its other face as a facet of the earth/water/plant divinity complex, a deity web that also extends into the realm of the dead. Thus, this tiny little winged jewel is a microcosm of the vast world around it and the deities interwoven in the system.
“Canto del Colibri,” courtesy of jjeess11
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 XI, pp.24.
Among the populace of the Aztec empire, the line between religion and magic often blurred in day to day life. While the priestly class held a great amount of power in mediating between the people and the gods, and by extension had a powerful influence on directing orthodoxy, folk practices flourished within the family household. One of these was the practice of offering prayers and desirable substances (often copal incense, tobacco, and sometimes blood) to the lesser spiritual beings inhabiting everything from the trees to the crops to the tools by which people lived. While these animistic entities were less grand than the mighty cosmic lords like Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, with their broad power over the universe and the state, these local spirits had their own gifts. This influence carried extra weight for the humble individual due to its intimate proximity — while Tezcatlipoca’s wrath could lay waste to the entire kingdom, the fury of a small farmer’s sole cornfield could prove just as deadly for that individual as his livelihood dried up.
In this post, I’ll share with you a set of three of these short folk prayer-spells, collected by the inquisitor Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in his “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” in the early 17th century. These incantations were intended to guard a sleeper against evildoers invading his or her home in the night, and to express gratitude in the morning for a safe rest. Note that the supplicant in these prayers is actually praying to the spirits of their bed and their pillow, rather than a more familiar high god like Tlaloc. Incantations are quoted from the excellent English translation of Alarcón by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig. Incidentally, if you can read Spanish, I found a full text copy of the Paso y Tronsco fascimile online at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, viewable by clicking HERE. Commentary about each prayer is my own material.
Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you who lie opening your mouth toward the four directions. You are very thirsty and also hungry. And already the villain who makes fun of people, the one who is a madman, is coming. What is it that he will do to me? Am I not a pauper? I am a worthless person. Do I not go around suffering poverty in the world?
The supplicant here calls upon his bed (“jaguar mat”), a mat made of reeds and palm fronds to protect him from the nocturnal sorcerer, the nahual. This particular flavor of witch was greatly feared throughout the region due to his ability to control minds, paralyze, and shapeshift. He was believed to often indulge in robbery like a cat burglar, breaking into homes in the dead of night to bewitch and rob his prey. Sometimes, he would violate and kill his victims. Interestingly, Quetzalcoatl was noted by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex to be the patron of this supernatural lawbreaker.
The structure of this prayer is double-layered — the supplicant begins with calling on the spirit of his bed to protect him, but then shifts to make a declaration of his extreme poverty and worthlessness as a robbery target. Perhaps he had in mind a subtle defense here — rather than asking the spirit to try to destroy or disempower the witch, which might be unlikely to work as they were considered to be quite strong, he’s asking it to trick the burglar by convincing him that there’s nothing of value in this house, better go somewhere else.
The bed itself is described in an interesting way. It reaches out towards the four directions, thus anchoring it very firmly in physical space, but also possibly linking it to the greater spiritual ecosystem, as a common verbal formula of invoking the whole community of the divine is to call to all the directions and present them with offerings. It also reminds me of the surface of the earth (tlalticpac) which similarly fans out as a flat plane towards the cardinal directions, making the bed a tiny replica of the earthly world. The reference to gaping mouths, hunger, and thirst acknowledges that the spirit of the bed has its own needs and implies that the speaker will attend to them. In the Aztec world, nothing’s free, and a favor requested is a favor that will have to be paid for. Alarcón doesn’t note what offering is given to the mat here, but in other invocations of household objects recorded in the book, tobacco and copal smoke come up repeatedly.
Let it be soon, O my jaguar seat, O you who are wide-mouthed towards the four directions. Already you are very thirsty and also hungry.
This prayer is the companion of the one discussed above, except directed to the sleeper’s pillow (the “jaguar seat”). Incidentally, you might be wondering why these two objects are named “jaguar.” Andrews and Hassig speculate in their commentary that it may have been inspired by the mottled appearance of the reeds making up the bedding. I think it may be a way of acknowledging that these simple, seemingly-mundane objects house a deeper, supernatural power. The jaguar is a creature of the earth, of the night, and sorcery in Mesoamerican thinking, and in particular is a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that a nocturnal symbol is linked to things so intimately tied to sleep and being interacted with in the context of their magical power. The adjective “jaguar” also appears elsewhere in Aztec furniture as the “jaguar seat” of the kings and nobles, which is often used as a symbol of lordly authority. The gods themselves are sometimes drawn sitting on these jaguar thrones, including in the Codex Borbonicus (click to view). Once again, another possible link to ideas of supernatural power and rulership — authority invoked to control another supernatural actor, the dangerous witch.
O my jaguar mat, did the villain perhaps come or not? Was he perhaps able to arrive? Was he perhaps able to arrive right up to my blanket? Did he perhaps raise it, lift it up?
This final incantation was to be recited when the sleeper awoke safely. He muses about what might have happened while he slumbered. Maybe nothing happened… or maybe a robber tried to attack, coming so close as to peek under the blanket at the defenseless sleeper, but was turned away successfully by the guardian spirits invoked the previous night. Either way, the speaker is safe and sound in the rosy light of dawn, alive to begin another day.
Ruiz, . A. H., Andrews, J. R., & Hassig, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp.81-82
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
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.
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.
After a round of reading, digesting, and refreshing, the brain is revitalized and it’s time to get back to work posting. I’ve been wanting to start tackling Nahua ethics in earnest the past couple of months and have finally settled on an approach I hope works, starting with the cardinal virtues and moving from there. Previously I discussed the cardinal virtue of charity, and today I’m going to write about the virtue that appears to me to be the lynchpin of the whole system — temperance.
I define temperance here reasonably closely to the traditional Greek concept of temperance, or sophrosyne. In a nutshell, this concept traditionally meant moderation in word, deed, and thought, guided by self-knowledge. The Delphine “Nothing in excess” and the Roman counterpart, “Moderation in all things” are well-known mottoes expressing this ideal. There is evidence that the Aztecs conceived of temperance in a similarly broad sense, and I think it reasonable to include the role of self-knowledge as a part of their concept. The most direct way to find and learn about the Nahua virtue of temperance is to go to the huehuetlatolli we have left to us in the wake of the Conquest. Many of these ethical speeches touch on this topic, and I’ve picked out some particularly useful examples from Book 6 of the Florentine Codex to discuss next.
“Moderation In All Things” In Mesoamerica
“On earth it is a time for care, it is a place for caution. Behold the word; heed and guard it, and with it take your way of life, your works. On earth we live, we travel along a mountain peak. Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss. If you go over here, or if you go over there, you will fall in. Only in the middle does one go, one live.”
The Florentine Codex, Book 6, Ch.19, p.101
(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)
This beautiful and evocative speech gives us a taste of the Nahua take on temperance. The speaker, a noble father addressing his daughter, emphasizes the critical importance of moderation. The peak and the abyss are traditional metaphors for disaster in Aztec rhetoric, and illustrate the dire consequences of going to wild extremes. This admonishment is very general, and for good reason, as this principle of moderation is to guide all actions, from personal demeanor to concrete practicalities. For example, youths are instructed speak calmly and clearly, without either excessive ornamentation or crudity (p.100). They are to carry themselves tranquilly, avoiding both excessive pride and excessive humility, disdaining hate and favoring a joyful demeanor, but knowing the value of well-timed and appropriate anger (Id. at 100-101). People are to travel purposefully and prudently, neither rushing about restlessly nor strolling around pompously (Id.). However, they are to be wise and know when haste is appropriate (Id.). And of course, a healthy mean in eating, recreation, sex, and clothing are also to be pursued.
To Excess — When Appropriate
Even these quick examples show that Nahua temperance wasn’t just a robotic defaulting to a middling response regardless of the circumstances. Disruptive or more extreme behavior can be good as well, so long as it’s practiced appropriately. This last point is absolutely crucial, as it shows the underpinning of temperance in Mesoamerica is balance. More disruptive or extreme behavior isn’t necessarily bad, it’s only bad when misused. Returning to an above example, anger isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins or one of the Three Poisons here. Sometimes its the right thing to feel and express.
A second example is the quaquachictin or Otomi warriors. These warriors were men so recklessly fierce they were known to throw themselves into battle with a berserk fury devoid of planning or restraint. Described as “wicked but brave…furious in battle” these men exemplified a virtue (bravery) gone to excess, becoming a vice that denied them the right to exercise leadership over others (Id. at 110). Yet, instead condemning them as hopeless reprobates, their foolhardy ferocity was channeled into an appropriate avenue as awe-inspiring shock troops. Thus the virtue that turned into a vice was turned back into a virtue by putting it into a context where it could benefit society. Dr. Burkhart described this something like “taking this violent, chaotic strength that otherwise could have destroyed society and channeling it into a form that would protect it” in Slippery Earth. (Excuse my horrible paraphrasing, I can’t recall the exact point in the book where she discusses this.)
This balancing of extremes and skillful application of them in the appropriate context is a thread that runs throughout the entire Aztec worldview to my eye. Growth and death, eating and being eaten, chaos and order, etc. Nearly everything in this system links opposites that struggle in creative (and destructive… and creative again) tension. The great rivalry between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl is the same battle writ in the persons of the gods themselves.
The Role of Self-Knowledge
While this segment is a little more speculative than the others, I think it’s reasonable to see a parallel of the Hellenic inclusion of self-knowledge in temperance when looking at the evidence.The need to identify time, place, and manner for applying varying levels of moderation points to a need to understand oneself and one’s place in a greater context. If a person doesn’t know their own nature and how they fit into society and the cosmos, they can’t possibly apply temperance intelligently and effectively. It also requires an understanding of how opposing forces interact, balance, and unbalance themselves and the world.
This applies in both the mundane and the metaphysical. If you don’t know how others think and view you, you won’t know if anger will prevent or cause contempt. Looking to a metaphysical example, I wonder if the core message underlying the story of Quetzalcoatl’s flight from Tollan was really about a failing of temperance. In the story, His soft-hearted refusal to make the “human payment” (an excess of affection) would have had the effect of jeopardizing the fabric of the cosmos. Viewed in this light, Tezcatlipoca’s seemingly cruel attack on His brother’s happy kingdom was the best thing to do, for it restored the balance and ensured the continuation of existence for all.
Conclusion: The Power Of Balance
This conceptualization of temperance as a balancing of extremes as well an endorsement of the median is incredibly robust and life-affirming. This built-in flexibility and sensitivity to context avoids the rigid, unrealistic, and frankly inhuman dogmatism of many other systems. It guides the individual through difficult behavioral choices without eliminating the need for reason or leading her/him astray with a one-size-fits-all rule that doesn’t really fit at all. Additionally, I argue that it leads to a healthier individual and society. Impossible standards breed hypocracy, dysfunctional psychological states, and needless suffering. Realistic standards offer everyone a fair chance to live up to them, and a just reason for chastisement where violated. Finally, this virtue of temperance is a light in the darkness, with all that implies. It’s a guiding principle to follow, but determining exactly where to puts one’s feet on the path it draws us down requires us to think carefully and act responsibly if we don’t want to veer off into the ravine on either side.
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.
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.