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
“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.