Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “indigenous

Temperance

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.

Temperance Defined

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.


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.


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)

Eduard Seler’s Commentary On Codex Vaticanus 3773 (Vaticanus B)

I just had an incredible stroke of luck.  I just discovered an English translation of Dr. Eduard Seler’s commentary on the Codex Vaticanus 3773, a.k.a. Codex Vaticanus B.  Well, half of it anyway.  The complete English text of the second volume of Seler’s commentary is available to read and download as a PDF via GoogleBooks.   This volume is devoted to the reverse side of the codex.  Volume 1 is about the obverse side.  I dredged Google and determined that they’ve scanned Volume 1 but don’t yet have it available to read.  I hope they’re planning on making it fully available soon, and not doing something sleazy like keeping it locked down.  Might be a good idea to petition them for this one if you’re feeling frisky.  I’ll be watching for it to go up at any rate.

Speculation about Google’s intentions aside, I’m pleased to be able to point you to an excellent commentary by one of the premier luminaries of Mesoamerican religious studies.  A quick link to the book is below, and I’ve updated my Codices page with this link as well.  Incidentally, this volume includes a complete black and white scan of the codex as Appendix A, with Seler’s notes.  Visually not as nice as viewing the high-resolution color scans on FAMSI, but quite useful.

Click HERE to read Vol. 2 of Dr. Eduard Seler’s Commentary on Codex Vaticanus 3773

UPDATE 9/21/09:  Google’s posted Vol. 1 now!  Click HERE to get it too!

Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B
Eagle, Serpent, & Rabbit, Plate 27 of Codex Vaticanus B

Codex Badianus & Aztec Herbal Medicine

While prowling around online I finally rediscovered a page that has some excerpts from the Codex Badianus on it.  The Codex Badianus, also known as the Codex Barberini or the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis, was the first book of herbal medicine published in the Americas.  It was written by Martin de la Cruz, a young Nahua herbal physician of good repute, and published in 1552.  The University of Virginia has a nice little exhibit about the codex, including several traditional Aztec medical recipes and photos of some of the plants.  If you’d like to learn a bit more about the codex itself and some general info about Aztec medicine, including a few more recipes, Mexicolore has a handly little introductory article on it to whet your appetite.  Finally, if you’re  curious to learn more at a more technical level, I even found some professional journal articles on the subject on PubMedDon’t forget to check the References list at the bottom of the page for more articles on Aztec medicine available on PubMed.

Go HERE to visit the University of Virginia’s excepts from the Codex Badianus.

And go HERE to visit Mexicolore’s feature on the Badianus and Aztec medicine.

Finally, go HERE to read “Aztec Medicine” by Francisco Guerra,  in Med Hist. 1966 October; 10(4): 315–338.  Full text online, downloadable PDF also available.

The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus
The Herb Quauhtlahuitzquilitl, Page 32 Recto of the Codex Badianus

Basic Nahuatl Pronunciation

As promised earlier,  I’m doing a quick writeup of basic Nahuatl pronunciation and spelling.  Or rather, I found a good one online that’s consistent with what the best modern dictionaries are using.  The guide below is shamelessly ripped from the Wikibooks entry that houses it, and is extended with a few notes of mine.  My thanks to the authors of this guide — Ptcamn, Icelandic Hurricane, and Jguk!  Go HERE to view the original entry on Wikibooks.  Or go HERE to have Wikibooks render a downloadable PDF of this guide (without my notes) for you.

UPDATE:  … and it appears that the guys who set up the Wikibooks entry ripped it from David K. Jordan’s Nahuatl page, and extended it with their notes.  The original is HERE, to give credit where it’s due.

Vowels

Nahuatl has four short vowels: a, e, i, and o. The vowels a, e and i sound similar to Spanish, while o can sound like either a Spanish o or a u. Unlike in English, where cuter and cutter have different vowels, the vowels of Nahuatl don’t change depending on what follows them.

Each vowel also has a long form, marked by a line or macron over the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō. They have the same sound as the short vowels, but are simply held longer. [Cehualli’s note — these macrons are often omitted in actual texts]

Consonants

Nahuatl ch, m, n, p, t, and y are pronounced like English.

As in English, c represents an s-sound when followed by e or i, but a k-sound elsewhere.

Cu is pronounced kw, like in Spanish, or like English qu. Its inverse, uc, is the same sound at the end of a syllable.

Hu is pronounced like English w. Like cu, it is reversed at the end of a syllable, so auh sounds like ow, and iuh sounds like eww.

H alone, when not part of ch, hu or uh, may have represented a glottal stop, as in the Cockney pronunciation of bottle, or it may have been a sound like English h. Unlike English h, it is pronounced at the of syllables: ah isn’t simply a vowel, but a vowel followed by a consonant.

Before a vowel, l is the same as English or Spanish l. Before a consonant or at the end of a word, however, it is neither dark like English l in full, nor clear like Spanish l. It is a voiceless sound, like Welsh ll. This isn’t important to understanding, though, and it can be pronounced like an English l without introducing confusion.

Double ll is simply l, held longer. It isn’t a palatal sound like in Spanish, or a single l like in English.

Qu is used to represent the k-sound before e and i, like in Spanish. It isn’t pronounced “kw” as in English.

X is pronounced like English sh.

Tl is pronounced like t with the tongue held in a postion for l [Cehualli’s note — when this comes at the very end of a word, the l is very quiet, almost a whisper.  Not pronounced “tul” as one might think!]

Tz is pronounced like German z, or like English ts except that the t is pronounced even at the start of words — not like tsar or tsunami, where the t is silent.  [Cehualli’s note — like the ts in “kits,” in other words.]

Z is pronounced like English s.

Stress

Stress regularly falls on the second last syllable of a word.

Spelling

The spelling used here is a modern standardized system, in order to represent all the sounds of Nahuatl consistently. The spelling used in the original manuscripts did not always represent Nahuatl pronunciation accurately. In particular, vowel length and h were usually omitted.  [Cehualli’s note — in a rare few manuscripts, like Carochi, you may see diacritics and other odd marks.  Very rare, not something to worry about in general.]

Spelling & Pronunciation of Classical Nahuatl Words

Because the spelling of Nahuatl was originally based on spelling conventions in Spanish, Nahuatl texts are generally “pronounced like Spanish,” with the following exceptions and points to note:

  • Words are stressed on the second-to-the-last vowel (excluding U) regardless of final consonants
  • X is pronounced like English SH.
  • LL is pronounced like a long L (not as in Spanish).
  • TL counts as a single consonant, never as a full syllable.
  • U does not occur as an independent vowel. The only Nahuatl vowels are A, E, I, and O, although each of them can be long or short.
  • CU and UC are both pronounced KW.
  • HU and UH are both pronounced W.
  • H without an adjacent U represents a “silent” glottal stop (as in go_over); in modern Nahuatl it sometimes has a sound similar to an English H and may have had that value in some dialects of Classical Nahuatl as well. (For an English speaker, pronouncing the H like an English H is not really wrong and has the advantage that it helps one remember that it is there.)
  • C before E or I is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)
  • Z is pronounced like English S. (The letter S is not used in Classical Nahuatl.)

However over the centuries there has been considerable instability in the spelling of Nahuatl. Some common variations:

  • The letters U and O may be used interchangeably to represent the sound of O.
  • The letter U alone may be used instead of UH or HU to represent the sound of W.(At the time of the Conquest, the written letters V and U were usually reversed in Spanish from their modern values, so U indeed had the value of a modern English W.)
  • The letter H representing the glottal stop may or may not be written.
  • Vowel length may or may not be marked.
  • The consonant Y may be written with the letter I.
  • The vowel I may be written with the letter Y.
  • The letter Ç may be used in place of Z to represent the sound of S.

In this century American linguists working with modern Nahuatl have sometimes preferred spellings that look less Spanish (and “coincidentally” more English). Thus:

  • W may be used in place of HU or UH for the sound of W.
  • K may be used in place of QU/C for the sound of K.
  • S may be used in place of Z/C for the sound of S.  [Cehualli’s note — Ç is also in this category.]

In some cases weird letters, available on no keyboard and included in very few type fonts, are used for TL, CH, CU/UC, and TZ to stress that these are single consonants, not compounds.*


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.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associate Press/Eduardo Verdugo.  Used without permission.

Tigre Fighter With Whip & Jaguar Mask. Copyright 2008 by the Associated Press/Eduardo Verdugo. Used without permission.

Link to original photograph source.

Original Caption:

“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!

Click HERE to go to the Tigre Boxing article.


Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl

A little poetry today for your contemplation and enjoyment.   I dug up John Curl’s translation of several songs commonly attributed to Nezahualcoyotl over on FAMSI.  The translations are quite nice, though I’d ignore his discussion about Nezahualcoyotl and Texcocan religion, as he seems to have bought into the myth that this ruler was a King David-esque poet, monotheist (!!), and crusader against sacrifice.  This spurious idea got its birth right after the Conquest, and has been incredibly difficult to get rid of since.  If you want to read a systematic study of this misrepresentation, its origins, and its repercussions on Mesoamerican studies since, I recommend checking out Jongsoo Lee’s The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic Religion, Politics, and Nahua Poetics. Dr. Lee thoroughly dismantles this idea and provides a wealth of information about Colonial distortions of Nahua religion and poetry, particularly where it intersects the “Nezahualcoyotl as pseudo-Christian” myth.

Bad history aside though, Curl’s actual translations are enjoyable, and I invite you to check those out.

Click HERE to read John Curl’s translations of Nahua poetry.

Nezahualcoyotl, From The Codex Ixtlilxochitl

Nezahualcoyotl, From The Codex Ixtlilxochitl


New Nahuatl Language Links

I’ve added a new Links section over on the righthand side of the page, called Nahuatl Language.  That section is where I’m linking material around the Net that relates to learning Nahuatl, particularly Classical Nahuatl (the language as it was a few hundred years ago).  This stuff is always handy for reference, and to get your feet wet if you’re interested in learning how to read some of the primary sources that were written down in that tongue after the Conquest.

These links relate to reading Nahuatl written alphabetically, not reading the glyphs/pictographs that were used in the Codices prior to the Spanish invasion.  I’m looking for material online that teaches a bit about the glyphs, though, and will link what I find.

Finally, the links in there now are in a mix of languages.  Molina’s classic textbook and dictionary are antique Spanish and Nahuatl; I included them for those who can read old Spanish (not me!) and due to their foundational significance in the study of the language.  The html version of Renee Simeon’s 1885 dictionary is Nahuatl to French, but I would expect the numerous free online translators could handle the short snippets of relatively-recent French without much trouble.

For my English-language audience, the Nahuatl Learning Environment is available in English (it’s also available in Spanish).  Just log in with the ID and password noted in the link title (repeated in the tooltip if you hover your mouse cursor over it), and you’re good to go — there’s no registration or anything like that.  Finally, the Freelang Nahuatl dictionary is a Nahuatl-English dictionary, and can be downloaded for offline use, or used via the web.  Handy and free!

I’ll do a post sometime soon on basic pronunciation to go with all these links.  I’ve seen the very formal charts on pronunciation that use the technical symbols and whatnot, but frankly I can’t read them, and I don’t know many who can.  If you have a copy of Frances Kartunnen’s Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, I find her notes on pronunciation to be the most helpful I’ve come across.

Anyway, enjoy, and I’ll add more to this section as I find it.


Charity

“Respect the unfortunate old men, the unfortunate women, the miserable, the poor; take pity upon them. Give one somewhere perchance a poor, worn, breech clout, a miserable netted maguey cape; tie, wrap them about him; give him something to drink. For he is the representative of the master, our lord. For this thou shalt be given life on earth…”

The Florentine Codex, Book 9, Chapter 12, p.56-57

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

The above lines are from a speech given by the elder merchants to a younger one during the festival month of Panquetzaliztli.  I’ve chosen to share this segment of one of the huehuetlatolli, or moral speeches as part of a discussion on Aztec virtues and ethics.  This article will focus on the virtue of charity, with an analysis of the speech above used to sound out what the Mexica thought about this moral precept.

I’ve decided to bring up charity at this time for several reasons.  The first and most obvious —  information on traditional ethics and its intersection with religion is of eminently practical use.  Second I live in the USA, so the majority of the population here is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, and the issue of charitable giving is at the forefront.  The final reason ties into the second — with religion in the air at the moment, I’ve been seeing a lot of bigotry and outright slander of non-Christian ethics lately. I’m sick of it, and decided it’s time for me to respond to that foolishness by setting the record straight.  So, let’s begin!

Context

The context of the lines I quoted from the Florentine Codex is in the veintana of Panquetzaliztli.  A young merchant has thrown a banquet for his elders, complete with gifts of food, tobacco, and clothing.  At one point he explains to his guests why he’s done this — he’s received the wealth of “the master, the lord,” as the fruits of his labor.  He acknowledges this wealth is actually a blessing of the gods, specifically Huitzilopochtli.  (Page 55 makes it clear that “the master, the lord” here is Huitzilopochtli, and not Tezcatlipoca, despite the similarity of the title to some commonly used for the Smoking Mirror.)  Because he realizes this wealth is a blessing, he wishes to seek the presence of Huitzilopochtli.

Seeking The Face Of God: Charity As A Duty

The young merchant shows the reader that one way to find this Teotl’s presence is through the wisdom of his elders.  He pleads with them to “reveal the secrets of the master, our lord, the portent, Huitzilopochtli” (Sahagun, 55).  His elders proceed to unveil these secrets — they are actually various ethical precepts, in addition to the ritual banquets specifically prepared by the merchants to honor the god and share their prosperity.  Particularly emphasized among these precepts is charity.

The language in this speech is especially interesting, given how closely it parallels one of the most beautiful parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 25:34-46.  These are the verses where Jesus tells his disciples “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In these huehuetlatolli lines, we see a striking parallel, right down to the injunction to give the needy food, clothing, and drink, and the revelation that the poor are actually humble representatives of the god.  In both, the reward of loving charity is life.  Finally, Matthew indicates that the reason for this duty is because the good things being given were first granted to the donor as divine blessings.  A blessing carries with it a responsibility.

I find a similar responsibility in the words of the young merchant and his elders in the Florentine Codex.  On page 55, the youth acknowledges his wealth is really that of Huitzilopochtli, and the god is described as “showing” the riches to him.  This is a common way of describing prosperity — it’s not truly self-earned by the person, but is actually on loan from the gods, a blessing.  The young merchant expresses a desire to use it well, to return a portion of it as offerings, and the elders indicate that the right course of action is to share it with the poor as well.  It doesn’t take much effort to realize that the same kind of responsibility attaches to the gifts Huitzilopochtli gives as well as those Jesus speaks of in the book of Matthew.  In a nutshell, the god says to the wise man, “I give so that you shall give.”  It’s only the foolish man who disobeys.

Jesus’ parable continues to indicate that those who shirk their duty of charity insult the deity and will be punished.  The Aztecs held similar views.  If because the merchant gives generously he will be “given life on earth,” there’s clearly an unspoken corollary of if he doesn’t, he’ll lose his life.  Though left unsaid here, in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, it’s made explicit.  In some of the speeches there, the elders and priests admonish a newly-elected ruler to humility, not to be proud of the wealth and status he’s received.  This wealth and status really belongs to Tezcatlipoca, and if he offends the god, Tezcatlipoca will surely take it back and destroy him for his arrogance.  Huitzilopochtli seems to have a similar sense of propriety.

Christian Influence?

Due to the similarities between this passage and the one in Matthew, some might think that it’s a piece of Christian doctrine absorbed by the Aztecs after the Conquest from the Spanish friars.  “Surely these heathens couldn’t have such good morals and a concern for the poor!” people like that might think to themselves, convinced in their ignorance that only Christianity is a source of loving ethics.  To them, I say you’re dead wrong, and should repent of your arrogance.

Though I’m not a professional anthropologist, I doubt this passage is an example of Post-Conquest syncretism for two main reasons.  One, Sahagun is generally one of the more reliable Post-Conquest sources, and Book 9 in particular contains detailed ritual information that would’ve been prime candidates for being censored, yet he didn’t.  Not censoring such explicitly pagan religious practices makes it harder for me to believe that this one has been tampered with.

Two, the passage identifies Huitzilopochtli as the key player involved in these moral precepts.  Why is that so significant to me?  It’s because Huitzilopochtli has to be one of the most intensely villified and suppressed of the Teteo after the Conquest.  Elizabeth Hill Boone in her monograph, Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe , discusses the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Him by the Spaniards and how they worked damn hard to try to erase Him from the memory of His people.  Not too surprising, for if you want to subdue a proud, martial people, you’re going to want to eliminate their tutelary god, the high god that exhorts them to feats of heroic strength and military prowess.

Thus, Sahagun had every incentive to scrub this passage for its positive portrayal of this maligned deity, and I can’t imagine he could’ve missed the similarity to Matthew 25, something at least some of his bosses would surely have found to be blasphemous.  (I.e., the old “the Devil counterfeiting Christianity to deceive” argument that dates back to Justin Martyr, if I recall correctly.)  Yet… he didn’t do this, strengthening my thought that this is a genuine Precolumbian practice.

Those are just a couple of reasons why I trust the passage is genuine, without taking a lengthy detour into textual criticism that’s better left to the experts to write.

Practical Implications

So, we’ve established that traditional Aztec morality holds up charity as a noble practice, and has a religious basis underlying this ethical precept.  This has implications that are immediate and plain.  Playing Captain Obvious, we’re clearly to be generous to those in need, not to be greedy with the gifts we’ve been given by the gods, but to share them with others.  I’d been somewhat working under the concept before that the gods weren’t necessarily moral lawgivers, but, having read this very blunt chapter linking Huitzilopochtli with charity trashes that idea pretty thoroughly.  I’ll admit it, I stand corrected on this one.  Whoever you guys were who were recorded by Sahagun, 450 years later this American thanks you for the clarification, your counsel is still educating people.  I’ll have to chew some things over in my mind some more.



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


Shield Flowers

I was reading through the ninth volume of the Florentine Codex recently, and came across an interesting tidbit giving more information on some of the flowers offered to Huitzilopochtli.  Even better, Sahagun points out these flowers were offered during Panquetzaliztli!

What flowers am I talking about?  Well, it’s a particular kind of flower called a chimalxochitl, or “shield flower.”  It’s a very large flower that was carried both by celebrants and by bathed slaves who were to be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.  As one might guess by the name, it represented a warrior’s shield.  This is particularly fitting, as the bathed slaves who were offered to Huitzilopochtli during Panquetzaliztli were the vaguard merchants’ equivalent of captured warriors.  Instead of capturing them phyiscally on the battlefield, the vaguard merchants, who fulfilled military purposes as well as commercial, captured them with their wealth, which was likened to the spoils of war.  I’ve discovered that these merchants were almost a paramilitary order during the Aztec Empire, something quite fascinating which I will get around to writing about one of these days.

Anyway, back to the flowers.  These shield flowers were carried by worshippers, they were carried by sacrificial victims.  They were strung into garlands which would decorate the temples of Huitzilopochtli, they were placed on the altar, and ornamented the idol sometimes.  They were everywhere during this Teotl’s festivals.

But what were they exactly?  Well, I’ll give you a couple of hints.  They’re huge, bright yellow, and their English and scientific names even reference a certain celestial body associated with Huitzilopochtli…

Give up?

They’re sunflowers!

Yes, sunflowers.  Helianthus annuus to be specific.  At least, the sunflower is the species that’s the top choice for the chimalxochitl among scholars.  Dibble and Anderson identify the flower in footnote 7 on page 34 of their English translation of Book 9: The Merchants, of the Florentine Codex. It pays to read footnotes!

You might be wondering why Huitzilopochtli’s so fond of flowers.  Well, quite a few reasons.  Flowers in general were symbolic of blood and warriors who died in battle.  In Aztec poetry, one frequently encounters descriptions of rains of flowers on the battlefield, indicating the warriors in their bright regalia dashing about like blossoms swaying in the wind, eventually falling like cut plants and watering the earth with their blood.  The dead soldiers would then live forever in Huitzilopochtli’s paradise, the House of the Sun, where they would enjoy the scent and color of beautiful flowers.  Eventually they would be reborn as birds and butterflies, living leisurely lives flitting from flower to flower.

“Flower and song” was a phrase meaning sung poetry, a common pastime of warriors both alive and dead.  The “flowery death” was death on the sacrificial stone, and the “Flower Wars” were ritual battles to capture men for sacrifice.  Finally, the first flowers of the year were reserved for Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlicue, and none might pick or smell them until She had been given some.

Anyway, I thought I would share my discovery and Panquetzaliztli-oriented thoughts on it, in the spirit of the season.

Sunflower

Sunflower

Photo taken by Wajid Uddaim and generously put into the public domain. Thanks Wajid!


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


Happy Panquetzaliztli!

Well, my numerous, intractable, and incredibly frustrating network/Internet connectivity problems resolve just in time for Panquetzaliztli! A lovely coincidence.

Why am I so excited? Panquetzaliztli is Huitzilopochtli’s main festival month, that’s why! I’ve been particularly waiting for this veintana to roll around, as it’s the perfect opportunity for me ramble on about this very special Teotl. I’ve been hoarding research relating to Him just for this month, and will be doing my damndest to pour it out as much as I can, come hell, high water, third-rate cable companies, or exceptionally crappy workweeks. Books have been accumulating tabs like feathers just for this special event…

So… get ready!

To whet your appetite and kick things off on the right (or left?) foot, I would like to draw your attention to the material I have already accumulated on this blog that relates to Huitzilopochtli.

My static page introducing the reader to the god.

A quick intro, a bit about His nature, and a codex image.

Mexicolore’s downloadable feature on Huitzilopochtli.

Includes many artifact photos, pictures from codices, etc. Also includes other interesting tidbits on the god, such as His birthday (1 Flint Knife), his festivals, his sacred animals (the hummingbird and the eagle), and much more. They place Panquetzaliztli a bit later in the year than most calendar correlations I’ve seen, but that’s a minor quirk.

Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe

Elizabeth Hill Boone’s excellent monograph on Huitzilopochtli. The only full-length English study of this particular god available at this time. Full text available to read via Google Books.

The Battle of Coatepec: Huitzilopochtli Defeats the Moon and Stars (As told by Cehualli)

This is my retelling of the important myth about Huitzilopochtli’s birth and how He protected His mother, Coatlicue, from Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua at Coatepec.

Hymns To Huitzilopochtli

Grace Lobanov’s English translation from her Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. The book is still under copyright and so you can’t read the whole thing, but fortunately this particular hymn in its entirety can be reached via Google’s Limited Preview.  This link will take you to the “About This Book” page.  Look for the “Search This Book” box, type in “Huitzilopochtli hymn,” and click on the link to page 65 that it will turn up.  That’s the song for the Portentous One.

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli

Huitzilopochtli Standing Before A Teocalli


Human Corn

Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.

“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?

“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.

In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.

Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.

Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.

The Implications of “Human Corn”

So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.

It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.

Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.

As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia

Corn, Plate 27 of the Codex Borgia


A Penitential Rite Of The Ancient Mexicans

I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!

Click here to go read “A Penitential Rite of the Ancient Mexicans” by Dr. Zelia Nuttall!

Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.

Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?).  [Edit — It’s Ursa Major.  Thanks, Shock!]  Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.

My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!

Jaguar Vessel

Jaguar Vessel


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.

Stay tuned!

The Founding of Tenochtitlan, Plate 1 of the Codex Mendoza

The Founding of Tenochtitlan, Plate 1 of the Codex Mendoza


Danza Azteca: Aguila Blanca

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a dance video, and I have to crash so I can get up for work in the morning, so I think I’ll kill two birds with one stone here. Speaking of birds (and bad puns), I’ve come across a video of the White Eagle Aztec dance (Ixtakcuauhtli in Nahuatl, Aguila Blanca in Spanish) on YouTube. This one is also courtesy of our friends Miguel Rivera and alexeix. Once again his performance is interesting not due to elaborate regalia, but due to the clear demonstration of the steps and drum rhythm, as well as his spirit and agility.

Courtesy link to alexeix’s page on YouTube for this danza video.

As to the meaning of this dance, I’m currently sketchy. I’ve seen it referenced as a warriors’ dance, which would go well with the strenuous acrobatics required and the traditional military symbolism of the eagle in traditional Aztec culture. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything conclusive one way or another at this point. I’ll have to keep looking and post an update when I find more. In the meantime, enjoy the dance!


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


The Anonymous Conqueror’s Narrative

Funny how things tend to come in clusters. One day I find the full text of Soustelle’s The Daily Life of the Aztecs, today I find a complete English translation of the Anonymous Conqueror’s Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México. (In case you’re wondering, Temestitan is an old Spanish corruption of Tenochtitlan.)

This is one of the more obscure Conquest-era histories, allegedly written by one of the Conquistadores under Cortes. We’ve never definitively identified who the author was, but the book seems to be generally accepted as a genuinely early document. The book is an account of the Conquest itself and a concise overview of life in Tenochtitlan at the time, from a recently-arrived European perspective. As usual, such works have to be read carefully, with an awareness of problems of reliability, bias, and cultural misunderstandings/ignorance. With those caveats aside, however, early material like this can still be quite useful.

Go HERE to read Marshall H. Saville’s 1917 English translation of the Anonymous Conqueror’s Narrative of Some Things of New Spain and of the Great City of Temestitan, México, edited by Alec Christensen and kindly hosted on FAMSI.

I have also updated the First Contact & Conquest Era History page on this site with a permanent link to this work.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go crash before I face-plant on my keyboard, as I’ve been awake for almost 24 hours straight now, 13 of which were spent at work… Just had to share this random discovery before catching some sleep.


Soustelle’s Daily Life Of The Aztecs

I was doing some digging online today, and had quite a stroke of good luck — I found a complete copy of Jacques Soustelle’s classic The Daily Life of the Aztecs online! The English edition of the entire book is available to read for free on Questia. Soustelle was a famous French anthropologist who specialized in studying the Aztecs before the Conquest, one of the bright lights in Mesoamerican studies of the mid 20th Century. His Daily Life of the Aztecs is one of his best-known works on this subject, covering a wide variety of details of Mexica life in great Tenochtitlan, ranging from architecture to agriculture, religion, economics, and the conduct of war. Though somewhat dated (written in 1962), most of the information in this book still remains quite useful, and his respectful, non-sensationalistic tone is refreshing. As it predates the rediscovery of the Templo Mayor (Huey Teocalli) in the 1970’s, it sadly doesn’t include much on that famous structure. Still, I strongly recommend giving it a read, as it remains one of the better general histories and anthropological overviews of life in Precolumbian Mexico.

Go HERE to read The Daily Life of the Aztecs in full!

Incidentally, I have now activated the Pre-Conquest History page in the History section of this blog’s static pages and placed an additional permanent link to this book there.


Aztecs At The British Museum

In the spirit of the aphorism “a picture is worth a thousand words,” I recommend stopping by the British Museum’s Aztec collection online. They have available 27 photographs (well, 26 if you ignore the crystal skull that’s been proven to be a hoax) of beautiful Aztec and Mixtec artifacts. Among them are statues of Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Mictlantecuhtli, Tlazolteotl, Tlaloc, Xochipilli, and Xipe Totec, as well as a rare mosaic ceremonial shield, a turquoise serpent pectoral, and a sacrificial knife. The images are thought-provoking and intense, as these objects speak wordlessly the vision of the Nahua peoples without Colonial censorship.

Click HERE to visit the British Museum’s Aztec Highlights.

As a bonus, I located an excellent photograph of a jade mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, God of Time and Fire, which is a part of the British Museum’s collection but is not on their website. Thank you Z-m-k for putting your fine photography skills to work on this worthy subject material and for your kindness in sharing it under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 License.

Jade Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli

Jade Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli