Happy New Year’s! Instead of fireworks, let’s ring in the new year with a superb photostream from Flickriver user Ilhuicamina. This set is of exceptional quality and covers many significant artworks excavated from the Templo Mayor and safeguarded by INAH at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Take a look!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.