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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
I came across a lovely little hoard of traditional Aztec poems, prayers, and songs the other night. These were originally recored in Ruiz de Alarcon’s 1629 work, Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentílicas que oy viven entre los indios naturales desta Nueva Espana, commonly referred to as “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” for short in English. For example, he’s posted prayers for safe travel, for love, and even a myth in song about Xochiquetzal and the Scorpion. Professor Joseph J. Fries of Pacific Lutheran University is the person who has generously posted these precious literary treasures, and he includes a bit of commentary as well. Thank you, Dr. Fries!
I think it’s time for retelling another myth, Cehualli-style. Chronologically, this one follows immediately after the tale about how Quetzalcoatl recovered the bones from Mictlantecuhtli in the great cycle of creation myths of the Aztecs. In this story, the age of the Fifth Sun has just begun, and the humans have just been brought back to life. So now there’s dry land, light, and living people again, but the recreation of the world isn’t done yet, for the people have nothing to eat. The legend of the Origin of Corn shows how the Teteo solve this last problem and complete the restoration of Earth.
The Origin Of Corn
As told by Cehualli
The Teteo stepped back to admire their work. They looked up to the sky and saw the Sun, radiant and majestic as He moved across the turquoise-blue sky. They looked down below and saw the jade-green earth, full of life, bounded on all sides by the Sacred Waters of the sea. They saw the newly-reborn humans, gazing back at Them with awe and gratitude for what They had done. Then the gods realized that Their work wasn’t done yet.
“We’ve brought the people back to life, but it will all be a waste if they don’t have something to eat! Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl will Themselves die of laughter if the bones They covet so badly return to Them this quickly,” said Xolotl, shaking His canine face in dismay.
“The different kinds of food that we’d given the people in the previous four Suns won’t be right for these, for these are true humans,” said Tlaloc, the Lord of Rain, His voice a rumbling growl like a jaguar. “We need to find the real corn for our new servants.” His words were correct, for in the past ages of the world, only lesser plants that mimicked corn existed, just like how real humans weren’t yet made.
Quetzalcoatl stroked His feathery beard, deep in thought, His eyes downcast. Right when He was about to speak, His gaze fell upon a tiny red ant… which was carrying a single kernel of corn. “I think We may have just found the true corn…” And with that, He descended back to the mortal world, leaving Tlaloc and the rest of the gods to watch what happened next.
“Wise ant, where did you find this corn?” Quetzalcoatl politely asked the tiny creature. The ant looked up at the god, surprised to see a Teotl talking to her, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she just kept on walking, not relaxing her grip on the corn at all. Undeterred, Quetzalcoatl turned himself into a black ant and followed after her.
At last they came to the foot of a soaring mountain. The red ant walked up to a tiny crack at the base and gestured to it with her antennae. “This is the Mountain of Sustenance. Corn, beans, chili peppers, and everything else that’s good to eat is stored inside.” Quetzalcoatl thanked her for her guidance and entered the mountain. Once inside, He gathered up some corn and brought it back to the heavenly world of Tamoanchan.
The rest of the gods were delighted by Quetzalcoatl’s discovery. “Our servants will live after all. Quick, let’s give them the corn!” They said. Quetzalcoatl took the maize and chewed it until it was soft, then gently placed it in the mouths of the newborn humans who were weak with hunger. Strength returned to the people, who praised the gods.
Meanwhile, Tlaloc and His ministers, the Tlaloque, were walking around the Mountain of Sustenance, examining it. “Now, what should We do with this?” He murmured to Himself, a hint of greed in His thunderous voice.
Quetzalcoatl broke open the mountain and admired the bounty within. “We’ll give it to the people so they’ll thrive and worship Us.”
Tlaloc frowned, His long jaguar teeth showing frighteningly. “No, I think I have a better idea.” And He suddenly ordered the Tlaloque to scoop up the food inside, and together They spirited it back to Tlaloc’s own realm, Tlalocan. Tlaloc admired His prize, running His fingers through the piles of food. “Why should I just give the humans all this for free? I should get something in return. I’ll water the earth and make the food grow, but only if they worship Me and offer blood. If they don’t, then I’ll send drought and storms until they keep their end of the bargain again.”
And that is how the right kinds of crops for humans came to be.