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
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.
It’s the ending of the old baktun and the dawning of a new one, and I’d like to greet both the new era and the return of the Sun on this Winter Solstice with the blowing of conch horns!
The Aztecs named the conch shell trumpet quiquiztli, and the musicians who played them “quiquizoani.” This is the instrument that Quetzalcoatl played to defeat the devious challenge of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead, and reclaim the ancestral bones of humanity at the start of the Fifth Sun. I have seen some speculation that the “mighty breath” blown by the Plumed Serpent to set that newborn Sun moving in the sky was actually a tremendous blast on a conch horn. It’s the trumpet the priests played to call their colleagues to offer blood four (or five) times a night in the ceremony of tlatlapitzaliztli, and also during the offering of incense, according to Sahagun in the Florentine Codex . Tecciztecatl, the male Moon God, is sometimes depicted emerging from the mouth of a quiquiztli. The sound of the instrument itself was considered by the Aztecs to be the musical analog to the roar of the jaguar. Like the twisting spiral within the shell, the associations are nearly endless, doubling back on each other in folds of life, death, night, dawn, and breath.
The quiquiztli appeared in two offerings at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (offering #88). One shell was found on Tlaloc the Rain Lord’s side (not at all surprising, given the overwhelming watery connotations of the instrument). A second one was found on Huitzilopochtli’s side of the manmade replica of Coatepetl. If you would like to actually hear one of these very trumpets being played, you can click HERE to visit the International Study Group on Music Archaeology’s page for these trumpets. You can directly download the MP3 recording by clicking HERE.
I also found a beautiful photograph of an Aztec or Mixtec conch trumpet (covered in intricate carvings) currently in the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston. If you’d like to view the photo and see their notes on the artifact, please click HERE. If you’d rather jump right to the full-size, more detailed image, click HERE instead.
Want to learn more about the trumpet and its uses in Mesoamerican cultures past and present? Head on over to Mixcoacalli and read Arnd Adje Both’s excellent 2004 journal article called “Shell Trumpets in Mesoamerica: Music-Archaeological Evidence and Living Tradition” (downloadable full text PDF). It gives a valuable introduction to the instrument in Teotihuacan, Aztec, and Mayan societies and includes numerous interesting photos and line sketches as a bonus. I couldn’t find a direct link to the article on his site, but I did find it on his server via Google. As a courtesy, the link to his homepage is here. There is some other interesting material relating to the study of ancient Mesoamerican music on there, so I recommend poking around.
What about South American cultures? I’m a step ahead of you — why not go here to read an interesting article on Wired about a cache of 3,000 year old pre-Incan shell trumpets found in Chavin, Peru? Includes recordings and photos.
Finally, if you’re curious for an idea of how the Aztecs and Maya actually played the quiquiztli, including how they changed the tone of the instrument without any finger-holes or other devices, you can view a demonstration by ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter below. If you noticed that the trumpeter in the codex image I embedded earlier has his hand slipped into the shell, you’ll get to see what that actually does when the horn is played in the video.
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.
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.