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
Today I’d like to introduce you to an important little book commonly referred to as the Huehuetlatolli – Discursos en Mexicano, or by its English nickname “the Bancroft Dialogues.” It’s a collection of early post-Conquest speech from the Aztec nobility, probably collected sometime in the late 16th century. It’s valuable both to linguists for its preservation of numerous samples of elite, upper-class speech , and to anthropologists for its social content. Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart produced the only English translation of the book in 1987 (out of print and difficult to find these days, I’d scan and post my copy for all to read if I could). If you can read Spanish, you may be able to acquire Angel Garibay’s edition, published in volume 1 and 2 of the journal Tlalocan in 1943.
The extract I’ve chosen to share is a short speech given by an older nobleman to some youths under his care about how to behave well, both in public and private. As the text identifies the listeners as “boys,” it’s possible this advice was given by a teacher at the calmecac or telpochcalli schools discussed in one of my earlier posts. Without further delay, here it is!
Advice on good breeding from an old man to some boys
Let us go to the house of our Lord to pray and hear His holy offices. Go along spread out in front of me, don’t go shoving each other, go along properly, don’t go looking sideways and making faces. People will say the devil has gotten into you. And if you meet someone somewhere, greet the person and speak to him. If it is one of the nobles, or one of the lords your progenitors who rule the city, or an old man or an old woman, you are to stand to one side until they pass by and bow down to them. Don’t shove people or knock them down.
Listen, my youngest ones, much sleeping is bad, for it makes people fall ill and grow idle. Get up early in the morning, and that way you will live in health and not be heavy with sickness. Were not the rulers who left you behind brought up in the same way? How was it that it was said that I really spied and saw them? (I.e. I know what I am talking about?)
Immediately the elder begins with an exhortation to attend to worship. At the time this speech was collected, he would have been referring to the Christian god, but the original pre-Conquest form of the dialogue would have referred to the traditional Aztec gods. This inclusion of an emphasis on good relation with the divine is pretty typical of many of the huehuetlatolli I’ve read, even for ones that aren’t specifically about religious practice. It descends from that lofty subject to more mundane instructions on what not to do so they won’t be scolded as little brats. As the Aztec community was a heavily class-conscious society, much of the deference the children are told to display is directed at the aristocracy — you’ll note that all nobles are to be bowed to without any requirements of age, but only the elderly receive special honor without concern for their class. Men and women alike are to be honored.
The elder leaves behind the instructions in etiquette and the external benefits from good manners to advise the kids on habits that will benefit them as individuals. However, he reinforces the personal benefits of moderation in sleep by citing tradition, as their ancestral role models supposedly followed these habits. In other speeches recorded in the Bancroft Dialogues, we see a recurring emphasis on health — many of the different greetings revolve around formalized questions as to how someone’s health is, and concern with avoiding illness and physical discomfort. Linking this concern with vitality to the need for moderation hints at the key virtue of temperance in Mexica culture, something I’ve explored in more depth in an older post if you’re interested.
Lockhart, James. & Karttunen, Frances E. & Bancroft Library. (1987). The Art of Nahuatl speech : the Bancroft Dialogues. Los Angeles : UCLA Latin American Center Publications, University of California, p.137
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.