“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.
Sitting here at my computer tonight, musing on an important, if not always comfortable, aspect of traditional Aztec thought and its implications. Namely, the concept of “human corn” and the natural humility flowing from that point of view.
“Human Corn” — What Do You Mean?
“Human Corn” — it’s an odd phrase at first glance, especially to those of us raised in a modern, Euro-American society. Boiled down to its essence, it means “people are food.” Food for what? For everything, really. In traditional Aztec thought, humans are food for the gods and food for the Earth.
In his article “Cosmic Jaws,” Dr. David Carrasco notes a saying that survives among some indigenous tribes today in the region, “We eat the Earth, and the Earth eats us.” The Earth was said to have been created from the ever-hungry primordial monster-goddess Cipactli when Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, transformed into great serpents, squeezed her in half and created the land and the sky from her remains. In exchange for housing and feeding us, She eats us when we die. When we eat of the land, we literally eat death and begin racking up a debt to Cipactli (later honored with the name Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord) for Her bounty.
Cipactli/Tlaltecuhtli isn’t the only deity depicted as eating people. Most famously, Tonatiuh the Sun received the heart sacrifice as food and drink, and Tlacaelel likened Nahua soldiers to tasty warm tortillas, hot from the griddle, destined for the table of the gods. Numerous prayers and songs, some recorded by Sahagun in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, describe the sacrificed warrior entering the jaws of Tlaltecuhtli, and praise his blessed state as he goes to feed the cosmos.
Other prayers and huehuetlatolli (moral speeches) explicitly describe humans as corn. During the festival month of Tititl, young plants and young children were stretched to encourage them to grow tall and healthy — and for the same purpose. Youthful warriors were likened to the corn god Centeotl, and the strong linkage between corn/crop and war imagery in Aztec religion has long fascinated and puzzled scholars. (See works by David Carrasco and Kay Almere Read, for example.) Over and over again, we see the idea of “being food” as a central part of the Aztec conception of what it means to be human.
The Implications of “Human Corn”
So, what does it mean to incorporate “being food” into the human identity? Well… it means a very different outlook on our place in the world from what a lot of us were probably raised with. It means we’re not exempt from the natural cycle of eating and being eaten that the natural world runs on, and that this is the ordinary, proper mode of things. It’s no curse or aberration that we’re subject to birth and death, it’s merely part of our nature. It also means we’re not the center of the universe — if the Earth is a garden, we’re a crop planted in it, not the gardener. There’s no analogue to the story of Eden and the Abrahamic view of the dominance of humanity over the natural world here.
It also means humility. If we’re not the capstone of creation, the reason for the whole show, it means we need to get over ourselves. We’re just a part of the greater whole, sometimes likened to a household in traditional Nahua thought. No part is indispensable, from plants to animals, from humans to gods. Every being has its part to play, and that should be honored and acknowledged, but in its proper measure. Perhaps instead of whispering to ourselves, “Remember, thou art mortal!” as the Romans did, we should think, “Remember, thou art corn!” when we’re tempted to hubris.
Finally, it also imparts a certain amount of meaning and purpose to miquiztli (death). When we die, we nourish life and we pay the debt we owe to the Earth for sustaining us. Depending on your understanding of the gods and how the universe works, this can be interpreted in many, many ways as best suits your metaphysical and theological perspective. Whether interpreted poetically, mystically, or literally, the idea of “human corn” still holds valuable meaning in a modern setting.
As a bonus, if you would like to read a bit more about Aztec funeral practices and thoughts on death, I came across a brief article on the subject by David Iguaz that you might enjoy. Click HERE to read it in html, or HERE to download the PDF.
I have discovered online a very interesting classic journal article about Aztec autosacrifice by the esteemed Dr. Zelia Nuttall. Written in 1904, it lacks the benefits of recent scholarship, but it still remains a keystone work in understanding the specific form of autosacrifice that is bloodletting from the ears. Dr. Nuttall provides detailed description and discussion of the various specific forms of ear sacrifice, accompanied by extensive translation from numerous codices and photographs of pictorial depictions of this type of penance. If you are interested in learning more about how the Aztecs traditionally performed ear sacrifice, I strongly recommend following the link to read the article. Even better, as it is in the public domain, the full text is available to download as a PDF through Google Books!
Some highlights of this article are discussions of the close association of ear autosacrifice with the gods Tezcatlipoca, Mixcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Quetzalcoatl. Of particular interest during this veintana of Quecholli is the description of a special type of autosacrifice attributed to Mixcoatl, the God of the Hunt. The article includes several forms of ear sacrifice linked to specific veintanas, including Quecholli and Panquetzaliztli. Additionally, it describes a sacrifice offered on the day Nahui Ollin, the daysign of the current Sun, the Sun Four Movement.
Also interesting is Dr. Nuttall’s analysis of the jaguar/ocelot imagery surrounding Tezcatlipoca and his connection to the constellation Citlal-Xonecuilli, which is known today as either Ursa Major or Minor (a little help on which one, Shock?). [Edit — It’s Ursa Major. Thanks, Shock!] Instead of a bear, the Aztecs saw the constellation as a jaguar and a symbol of Tezcatlipoca. It reminded them of the time when Tezcatlipoca, acting as the First Sun, was chased from the sky by Quetzalcoatl and descended to Earth in the form of a great jaguar to devour the giants, the first people. That is why the constellation seems to swoop from its peak in the sky down to the horizon, reenacting this myth every day in the night sky.
My only irritation with this article is a few points where the good doctor strays from proper anthropological neutrality to make disparaging comments about the practice of autosacrifice, and to congratulate the Spaniards on stamping it out. I’ll admit it, I do derive a certain sly pleasure in discussing it here so that it’s not forgotten!
One of the core cycles of myth belonging to the Aztecs is the multipart epic of how they went from their humble beginning as an obscure band of nomads to the lords of Tenochtitlan and the founders of a great empire, all under Huitzilopochtli’s watchful eye. In honor of the festival months of Quecholli (beginning today) and Panquetzaliztli, the veintanas celebrating the Chichimec past and the god who led them to glory, I will be kicking off a special storytelling event. Over the course of November and first week of December, I will be retelling the highlights of the series of legends that comprise this important saga of the Mexica-Tenochca people.
The basic timeline of the Foundation Cycle starts with the big entrance of Huitzilopochtli onto the scene with the Battle of Coatepec. I’ve already posted that one, and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t read it yet, as it sets the stage for things to come.
Once Huitzilopochtli’s arrived, He picks out the Mexica as His own favorite tribe and calls them to leave their ancestral homelands in the north and begin their migration south, deep into the Anahuac Valley. He promises to guard them and guide them to a new home, a place where they will found a mighty empire. They trust in Him and head out, overcoming both human and divine opponents until they eventually reach the place where the eagle perches on the nopal cactus, eating a heart — the sign that they have finally found their new home… Tenochtitlan.