Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion

Posts tagged “Quetzalcoatl

Alarcón: Prayers For Protection From Evil While Sleeping

Among the populace of the Aztec empire, the line between religion and magic often blurred in day to day life.  While the priestly class held a great amount of power in mediating between the people and the gods, and by extension had a powerful influence on directing orthodoxy, folk practices flourished within the family household.  One of these was the practice of offering prayers and desirable substances (often copal incense, tobacco, and sometimes blood) to the lesser spiritual beings inhabiting everything from the trees to the crops to the tools by which people lived.  While these animistic entities were less grand than the mighty cosmic lords like Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl, with their broad power over the universe and the state, these local spirits had their own gifts.  This influence carried extra weight for the humble individual due to its intimate proximity — while Tezcatlipoca’s wrath could lay waste to the entire kingdom, the fury of a small farmer’s sole cornfield could prove just as deadly for that individual as his livelihood dried up.

In this post, I’ll share with you a set of three of these short folk prayer-spells, collected by the inquisitor Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in his “Treatise on Heathen Superstitions” in the early 17th century.  These incantations were intended to guard a sleeper against evildoers invading his or her home in the night, and to express gratitude in the morning for a safe rest.  Note that the supplicant in these prayers is actually praying to the spirits of their bed and their pillow, rather than a more familiar high god like Tlaloc.  Incantations are quoted from the excellent English translation of Alarcón by J. Richard Andrews and Ross Hassig.  Incidentally, if you can read Spanish, I found a full text copy of the Paso y Tronsco fascimile online at the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, viewable by clicking HERE.  Commentary about each prayer is my own material.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar mat, you who lie opening your mouth toward the four directions.  You are very thirsty and also hungry.  And already the villain who makes fun of people, the one who is a madman, is coming.  What is it that he will do to me?  Am I not a pauper?  I am a worthless person.  Do I not go around suffering poverty in the world?

The supplicant here calls upon his bed (“jaguar mat”), a mat made of reeds and palm fronds to protect him from the nocturnal sorcerer, the nahual.  This particular flavor of witch was greatly feared throughout the region due to his ability to control minds, paralyze, and shapeshift.  He was believed to often indulge in robbery like a cat burglar, breaking into homes in the dead of night to bewitch and rob his prey.  Sometimes, he would violate and kill his victims.  Interestingly, Quetzalcoatl was noted by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex to be the patron of this supernatural lawbreaker.

The structure of this prayer is double-layered — the supplicant begins with calling on the spirit of his bed to protect him, but then shifts to make a declaration of his extreme poverty and worthlessness as a robbery target.  Perhaps he had in mind a subtle defense here — rather than asking the spirit to try to destroy or disempower the witch, which might be unlikely to work as they were considered to be quite strong, he’s asking it to trick the burglar by convincing him that there’s nothing of value in this house, better go somewhere else.

The bed itself is described in an interesting way.  It reaches out towards the four directions, thus anchoring it very firmly in physical space, but also possibly linking it to the greater spiritual ecosystem, as a common verbal formula of invoking the whole community of the divine is to call to all the directions and present them with offerings.  It also reminds me of the surface of the earth (tlalticpac) which similarly fans out as a flat plane towards the cardinal directions, making the bed a tiny replica of the earthly world.  The reference to gaping mouths, hunger, and thirst acknowledges that the spirit of the bed has its own needs and implies that the speaker will attend to them.  In the Aztec world, nothing’s free, and a favor requested is a favor that will have to be paid for.  Alarcón doesn’t note what offering is given to the mat here, but in other invocations of household objects recorded in the book, tobacco and copal smoke come up repeatedly.

Let it be soon, O my jaguar seat, O you who are wide-mouthed towards the four directions.  Already you are very thirsty and also hungry.

This prayer is the companion of the one discussed above, except directed to the sleeper’s pillow (the “jaguar seat”).  Incidentally, you might be wondering why these two objects are named “jaguar.”  Andrews and Hassig speculate in their commentary that it may have been inspired by the mottled appearance of the reeds making up the bedding.  I think it may be a way of acknowledging that these simple, seemingly-mundane objects house a deeper, supernatural power.  The jaguar is a creature of the earth, of the night, and sorcery in Mesoamerican thinking, and in particular is a symbol of Tezcatlipoca.  It doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that a nocturnal symbol is linked to things so intimately tied to sleep and being interacted with in the context of their magical power.  The adjective “jaguar” also appears elsewhere in Aztec furniture as the “jaguar seat” of the kings and nobles, which is often used as a symbol of lordly authority.  The gods themselves are sometimes drawn sitting on these jaguar thrones, including in the Codex Borbonicus (click to view).  Once again, another possible link to ideas of supernatural power and rulership — authority invoked to control another supernatural actor, the dangerous witch.

O my jaguar mat, did the villain perhaps come or not?  Was he perhaps able to arrive?  Was he perhaps able to arrive right up to my blanket?  Did he perhaps raise it, lift it up?

This final incantation was to be recited when the sleeper awoke safely.  He muses about what might have happened while he slumbered.  Maybe nothing happened… or maybe a robber tried to attack, coming so close as to peek under the blanket at the defenseless sleeper, but was turned away successfully by the guardian spirits invoked the previous night.  Either way, the speaker is safe and sound in the rosy light of dawn, alive to begin another day.

*****

Ruiz, . A. H., Andrews, J. R., & Hassig, R. (1984). Treatise on the heathen superstitions that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain, 1629. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp.81-82


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.


Quiquiztli: The Conch Shell Trumpet

It’s the ending of the old baktun and the dawning of a new one, and I’d like to greet both the new era and the return of the Sun on this Winter Solstice with the blowing of conch horns!

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

Aztec Conch Trumpeter (quiquizoani), Codex Magliabecchi

The Aztecs named the conch shell trumpet quiquiztli, and the musicians who played them “quiquizoani.”  This is the instrument that Quetzalcoatl played to defeat the devious challenge of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead, and reclaim the ancestral bones of humanity at the start of the Fifth Sun.  I have seen some speculation that the “mighty breath” blown by the Plumed Serpent to set that newborn Sun moving in the sky was actually a tremendous blast on a conch horn.  It’s the trumpet the priests played to call their colleagues to offer blood four (or five) times a night in the ceremony of tlatlapitzaliztli, and also during the offering of incense, according to Sahagun in the Florentine Codex .  Tecciztecatl, the male Moon God, is sometimes depicted emerging from the mouth of a quiquiztli.  The sound of the instrument itself was considered by the Aztecs to be the musical analog to the roar of the jaguar.  Like the twisting spiral within the shell, the associations are nearly endless, doubling back on each other in folds of life, death, night, dawn, and breath.

The quiquiztli appeared in two offerings at the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan (offering #88).  One shell was found on Tlaloc the Rain Lord’s side (not at all surprising, given the overwhelming watery connotations of the instrument).  A second one was found on Huitzilopochtli’s side of the manmade replica of Coatepetl.  If you would like to actually hear one of these very trumpets being played, you can click HERE to visit the International Study Group on Music Archaeology’s page for these trumpets.  You can directly download the MP3 recording by clicking HERE.

I also found a beautiful photograph of an Aztec or Mixtec conch trumpet (covered in intricate carvings) currently in the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston.  If you’d like to view the photo and see their notes on the artifact, please click HERE.  If you’d rather jump right to the full-size, more detailed image, click HERE instead.

Want to learn more about the trumpet and its uses in Mesoamerican cultures past and present?  Head on over to Mixcoacalli and read Arnd Adje Both’s excellent 2004 journal article called “Shell Trumpets in Mesoamerica: Music-Archaeological Evidence and Living Tradition” (downloadable full text PDF).  It gives a valuable introduction to the instrument in Teotihuacan, Aztec, and Mayan societies and includes numerous interesting photos and line sketches as a bonus.  I couldn’t find a direct link to the article on his site, but I did find it on his server via Google.  As a courtesy, the link to his homepage is here.  There is some other interesting material relating to the study of ancient Mesoamerican music on there, so I recommend poking around.

What about South American cultures?  I’m a step ahead of you — why not go here to read an interesting article on Wired about a cache of 3,000 year old pre-Incan shell trumpets found in Chavin, Peru?  Includes recordings and photos.

Finally, if you’re curious for an idea of how the Aztecs and Maya actually played the quiquiztli, including how they changed the tone of the instrument without any finger-holes or other devices, you can view a demonstration by ethnomusicologist John Burkhalter below.  If you noticed that the trumpeter in the codex image I embedded earlier has his hand slipped into the shell, you’ll get to see what that actually does when the horn is played in the video.


Aztecs In The Werner Forman Archive

Tonight I’ve decided to bring your attention to a major collection of photographs of Aztec and other Mesoamerican art, crafts, and architecture.  It’s housed at the Werner Forman Archive in the United Kingdom.  It’s a treasure trove of wonderful pictures of literally thousands of different objects and places around the world, including pictures relating to the Aztecs, Maya, Teotihuacanos, and other peoples of Central America.

Click HERE to enter the Archive and  begin browsing or searching.

You can browse their Precolumbian section for photos covering both North and South American peoples, or you can try searching for Aztec, Maya, or more specific keywords.  To give you a hint at how much there is to explore, the full Precolumbian section has 763 photos available online!

As they don’t appear to look kindly on people rehosting their images, and hotlinking is rude, I’ll just drop a  few direct links here to some particularly interesting photos to get you started…

Click here to see a sculpture of Tlaloc, Lord of Storms and Tlalocan, in His Earth-lord guise.

Want to see a pectoral device in the shape of a chimalli (shield)?

How about Quetzalcoatl’s signature necklace, the wind jewel?

Or maybe Emperor Ahuizotl’s amazing featherwork shield?


Aztec Schooling: Calmecac and Telpochcalli

In honor of back to school season in my part of the world, I’d like to share some notes on Aztec education, as well as a link to an article on the rediscovery and initial excavation of the calmecac in modern-day Mexico City.  In case you’re not familiar with the calmecac, it’s one of two schooling institutions created by the Aztecs to educate their children.  Dibble and Anderson translate the name “Priests’ House” or “House of Penance,” for reasons that will become clear below.  The telpochcalli, or “Young Men’s House,” could be described roughly as a cross between a military and trade school, in Western/European terms.  It’s the school primarily populated by the non-aristocratic children, where they would be trained in combat and economic matters more typical of their station.

In contrast, the calmecac is more akin to a seminary, elite prep school, and college rolled together.  Primarily attended by the offspring of the noble class, it’s reported that certain common-born children of especial talent were allowed to go as well, despite their lineage.  Here the children would learn basic priestly training, military skills, the arts, etiquette, and leadership.  While we have records of these two schools existing within the walls of Tenochtitlan, it wasn’t until 2007 that archaeologists had uncovered the remains of any part of these two educational complexes.  If you would like to read an article in the Christian Science Monitor reporting on this discovery, please click HERE.  (It includes a photograph of one of the ornaments that once decorated the roof of this indigenous American university — the cross section of a twisting shell, named the “wind jewel,” a symbol of Quetzalcoatl the Plumed Serpent, lord of learning.)

Unlike many other cultures past (and present, sadly), the Mexica-Tenochca were quite progressive with regards to education.  They sought to put most children though one of the two schools described above, making them among the earliest proponents of universal education.  Even more exemplary was the fact that that this education extended to girls as well as boys!  No child left behind?  The Aztecs had it covered.

While there were differences in which form of education a child would receive, heavily influenced by social standing as noted above, it appears there was some flexibility according to the parent’s wishes, according to Sahagun’s informants in the Florentine Codex (Book 6, Chapter 39, p. 209, Dibble & Anderson trans.).  When the parents had chosen which educational path their child would take, a celebration was hosted.  If the child would go to the telpochcalli, the schoolmasters would be invited over for food and drink, the exchange of gifts, and to meet their future pupil.  Then they would cradle the child in their arms and swear to guide the child until he or she was ready to leave their school, take a spouse, and establish their own household.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.209). Tezcatlipoca was invoked as the patron of this child’s educational career.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

If the parents chose to send the child to the calmecac, a celebration was still held, but instead the class of priests called quaquacuiltin were invited to the house.  Once again, they were feasted and presented with gifts, and the priests held the child and dedicated her or him to Quetzalcoatl, and promise that the child will carry out his/her responsibilities as a religious novitiate and seek the god’s knowledge.  They closed their oration with a plea for the Feathered Serpent’s blessing and consent for these educational gifts.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)

Sahagun records that a girl dedicated to the calmecac received a distinctive scarification mark on her hips and chest at this time, and was also given a special necklace marking her as destined for a religious education, the yaqualli pendant.  (Dibble & Anderson, Book 6, p.210)  He doesn’t note what marks and accoutrements the boys were given.

After this initial encounter with their future educators, whether the martial headmasters of the telpochcalli or the religious experts of the calmecac, the child stayed with their parents for another few years until they were deemed old enough to attend the school they had been promised to.  After that, they were sent to live at the schools until they completed their education and struck out on their own adult lives.

*****

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.209-211.


Nahui Ollin

Today I want to share something interesting I noted about a couple of important dates in the tonalpohualli, the 260 day sacred calendar of traditional Mesoamerica (as opposed to the 360 day + 5 “dead days” civil calendar, used by the authorities much like the modern 12 month European calendar).  According to the Aztec Calendar website, today is the day Nahui Ollin, or Four Movement.  It’s a particularly special day because its the name day of Tonatiuh, the Sun of the Fifth Era — i.e., the present cosmic age.

A quick aside if you’re not familiar with the classical Mesoamerican “name day” concept — Aztec parents didn’t name their children purely at their own pleasure, like is the common practice in the USA today.  Instead, they would name their baby after a tonalpohualli date within four days of the child’s birth, which would be a number/noun pair, like One Reed or Ten Death.  As different dates have different positive and negative qualities under the pre-Conquest system of prognostication, the parents would consult with a priestly calendar specialist to choose the most promising day within that four day window to name the child.  (Dibble & Anderson, Florentine Codex, Book VI, pp.197-199, 201-207)

Now, back to Tonatiuh and His date name, Four Movement.  According to myth, the Fifth Era began in the darkness at Teotihuacan when all the gods came together to re-create the world and birth a new sun.  The day the new age and the new sun came to be is Mahtlactli Omei Acatl, or Thirteen Reed.  Thirteen Reed is the last day of the first trecena of the new 260 day calendar round, which started with Ce Cipactli (One Crocodile).  (Side note — the name Cipactli should be familiar, as it’s also the name of the primordial earth goddess who was dismembered to form the universe by Tecatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl before the First Era/Sun.  Another link to the process of creation!)  Exactly four days after Thirteen Reed is… Four Movement.  So, this creation story captures the fascinating detail that even the gods followed the practice of naming new beings after a date within the four day window after birth.  (This makes perfect sense when you recall that the common belief in Mesoamerica, continuing to the present day, is that the calendar and date-keeping is a divine gift.)

Now, this little detail is interesting enough in its own right, but I’d like to call your attention to one last thread of the story that makes it even more fascinating.  The date Nahui Ollin isn’t only the birth name of Tonatiuh, the present Sun, but it is also the prophecied date that He and the earthly realm will collapse into chaos and darkness again.  Thus, this single date and phrase is both His birth and His death, packed into one incredibly concise little packet bursting with meaning.  Life and death, creation and uncreation, Mictlan and Topan, separated only by time.  The Aztec alpha and omega.

Ollin, Plate 10 of the Codex Borbonicus

Ollin, Plate 10 of the Codex Borbonicus

*****

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.197-199, 201-207.


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.