That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie
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.
A Few Aztec Riddles
Watching the Hobbit in theatres last weekend got me thinking about riddles. Not only are they amusing, but the figurative language and ideas contained within them can point to interesting tidbits of culture. I’ve pulled a few of my favorites from the Florentine Codex and included them below, in slightly more informal language. After each riddle and its answer I’ve added some of my own notes and interpretations of the concepts they nod to (the commentary is my own work, not that of Anderson and Dibble).
Q: What’s a small blue gourd bowl filled with popcorn?
A: It’s the sky.
Mesoamerican cosmology divides the universe into sky and heavens (topan) above, the earth’s surface like a pancake or tortilla in the middle (tlalticpac), and the underworld (mictlan) below. Though all three have their own distinct and separate characteristics, they interpenetrate to a certain degree, and this riddle hints at that in a playful manner. The gourd itself is a product of the earth and its underworld powers, doubly so as it’s a water-filled plant (and is often likened to the human head), as is popcorn. In fact, first eating corn is the moment where an infant becomes bound to the earth deities as it takes of their bounty and starts to accumulate cold, heavy “earthy-ness” within its being. It’s also the start of a debt to the earth and vegetation gods — as They feed the child, one day that child will die and return to the earth to feed Them. I covered some aspects of this idea in my Human Corn post, if you’re curious to read more.
Q: What’s the little water jar that’s both carried on the head and also knows the land of the dead?
A: The pitcher for drawing water.
The land of the dead is traditionally conceived of as a place dominated by the elements of earth and water, filled with cool, oozy dampness. Rivers, wells, springs, and caves were places where the underworld power was considered to leak through to the mortal realm. Not only did this power seep through to us, but we could sometimes cross through them to reach the underworld as well (the legendary Cincalco cave being one of the most famous of these doors). Thus, thrusting the jar down into a watering hole or a spring, breaking through the fragile watery membrane, was sending it into Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue’s world in a way.
Q: What lies on the ground but points its finger to the sky?
A: The agave plant.
The agave plant, called metl in Nahuatl and commonly referred to as a maguey in the old Spanish sources, is a plant loaded with interesting cultural associations. Its heart and sap is tapped to produce a variety of traditional and modern liquors like pulque, octli, and tequila, linking it to the earth-linked liquor gods like Nappatecuhtli, Mayahuel, and even Xipe Totec and Quetzalcoatl in their pulque god aspects. Additionally, each thick, meaty leaf is tipped with a long black spine that’s much like a natural awl. This spine was one of the piercing devices used by priests and the general public alike to perform autosacrifice and offer blood to the gods. Lastly, the beautiful greenish-blue color of the leaves of some species (like the blue agave), is the special color traditionally associated with beautiful, divine things. Take a look at a photo of the respendent quetzal’s tailfeathers — they’re just about the same color as the agave.
Q: What’s the small mirror in a house made of fir branches?
A: Our eye.
The Aztecs strongly associated mirrors with sight and understanding. Several gods, most notably Tezcatlipoca (the “Smoking Mirror”), possessed special mirrors that would allow them to see and know anything in the world by peering into them. Some of the records we have from before and during the Conquest record that some of the statues of the gods had eyes made of pyrite or obsidian mirrors, causing a worshipper standing before them to see themselves reflected in the god’s gaze. In the present day, some of the tigre (jaguar) boxers in Zitlala and Acatlan wear masks with mirrored eyes, discussed in this post and video. One last point on mirrors — in many of the huehuetlatolli (ancient word speeches), the speaker implores the gods to set their “light and mirror” before someone to guide them, symbolizing counsel, wisdom, and good example. The comparison of eyelashes to fir branches is rather interesting, as it reminds me of the common practice in many festivals of decorating altars with fresh-cut fir branches. The two elements combine to suggest a tiny shrine of enlightenment, the magic mirror nestled in its fragrant altar like a holy icon.
Q: What’s the scarlet macaw in the lead, but the raven following after?
A: The wildfire.
I included this one simply because I thought it was exceptionally creative and clever. I’m pretty sure it would stump even a master riddler like Gollum!
Sahagún, Bernardino , Arthur J. O. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble. General History of the Things of New Spain: Florentine Codex. Santa Fe, N.M: School of American Research, 1950-1982, Book VI, pp.236-239.
This is the next part of the Tenochca founding epic, taking place at about the same time as the “First Steps From Aztlan” part of the story. This part tells about Huitzilopochtli’s tearful departure from His mother, Coatlicue, as He sets out from Coatepec to lead the Mexica south.
This one is a little different from the other sub-stories in the saga, as it doesn’t come from the more usual sources of myth. I know of this scene from an apparently Post-Conquest story that tries to shed some light on why the defense of the Aztec homelands failed, and why it seemed the gods abandoned them, especially their trusted patron. In that legend, some of Motecuhzoma’s seers travel to Coatepec to bring Coatlicue a gift, and She speaks of Her son’s departure, and His prophesied return home to Her. I’ve decided to break out Her reference to this event and tell it here, and save the other story for later.
As told by Cehualli
Some time after the great battle against Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua, Coatlicue had begun to notice a change in Her son. While once He had been content to stay close to Her side, now He had taken to wandering farther and farther away. Sometimes She would notice Him gazing far to the south, the Land of Thorns, with an intensity that bespoke of great plans and ambition.
One day, in the Year of the Flint Knife, She watched Him staring off longingly at some distant southern land again, and She knew in Her heart that Her son was planning to leave. “My beloved son…come to Your mother,” She said quietly.
In a moment, Huitzilopochtli had reached Her side with haste. “What troubles You, Mother?”
“Son… I know Your heart is already in some place far to the south, not here at Coatepec. Where do You plan to go?” She asked.
He paused a moment, glancing back to the left of the Sun. “As usual, nothing escapes Your wisdom, my dear Mother. I need to test My strength, to go on a grand adventure with My people, the Mexica. I have seen it that We will conquer much and found a mighty empire for the glory of the Teteo. How can I resist such an exciting prospect?” He poured out His heart with eagerness, already looking forward to the thrill the future promised.
Coatlicue smiled at the irrepressible spirit of Her son, yet this smile was tinged with sadness at the knowledge of their impending parting. “Clearly, Your mind is made up to go, and go quickly. I won’t stop You from going to meet Your bright destiny and seeking adventure.” Huitzilopochtli’s eyes lit up like the dawning sun. Coatlicue went to a reed chest and pulled out a small bundle, pressing it into Her son’s hands. “I have a parting gift for You.”
Huitzilopochtli unwrapped it partially, finding two pairs of new sandals within. “One pair is for Your journey south, to the place in Your dreams, Tenochtitlan,” Coatlicue said.
“Thank you, Mother!” He replied, taking off His old sandals and putting on the new pair. “But what’s the second set for?”
“They are for Your journey home,” She said softly. “I’ve seen how the adventure ends, My son. You will indeed conquer much, and achieve fame and wealth beyond measure. But We both know that nothing lasts forever on Earth, not the shining quetzal feathers that will one day fade, nor the glittering gold that will turn to dust. The same will be true of Your beautiful empire. As You take land on Your way south, in the reverse order will You lose it, until at last the day comes when Your people will fall, and You will find Your strength exhausted. When that dark day comes and you must don those sandals and bid the Mexica farewell, know that I will be waiting for you at the door with open arms to welcome You home.”
Huitzilopochtli nodded gravely. “Thank You for Your wisdom and counsel, Mother. Your words are more precious to Me than any of the riches I’ll capture. I’ll keep them in My heart the whole time I’m away at war, until the day We meet again.”
With that, He gathered up His shield and Xiuhcoatl, His flaming serpent-spear, and tucked the second set of sandals into His bundle for the trip. He embraced His mother one last time, and with a mixture of sadness and eagerness to see what the future had in store for Him, raced away from Coatepec. He would not see Snake Mountain again for over two hundred years.