Nezahualcoyotl, meaning “Coyote in fast” or “Coyote who fasts”) was a philosopher, warrior, architect, poet and ruler (tlatoani) of the city-state of Texcoco, a branch of the triple alliance that was the Aztec Confederacy. Texcoco, a large city on the north shore of Lake Texcoco some 15 kilometres from Mexico-Tenochtitlan, has the reputation of being the Athens of the triple alliance, and Nezahualcoyotl its philosopher king.
Nezahualcoyotl was famed as an architect, engineer, city planner, warrior and lawgiver. He is credited with establishing in Texcoco, the city which he governed, a library, a zoological garden-arboretum, and a self-governing academy of scholars and poets. He is said to have promoted the worship of Quetzalcoatl, which did not include human sacrifice.
What follows is from “Ancient Nahuatl Poetry” by Daniel G. Brinton, a brief biography and four of his most famous poems all with a pronounced “carpe diem” tone.
Spelling has been altered to conform to modern usage.
The Songs of Nezahualcoyotl
The most distinguished figure among the Nahuatl poets was Nezahualcoyotl, ruler of Texcoco. His death took place in 1472, at the age of eighty years. His father, Ixtlilxochitl, had been deprived of his possessions and put to death by Tezozomoc, King of the Tepanecas, and until the death of the latter at an advanced age in 1427, Nezahualcoyotl could make but vain efforts to restore the power of his family. Much of the time he was in extreme want, and for this reason, and for his savage persistence in the struggle, he acquired the name “the fasting or hungry wolf”— nezahualcoyotl. Another of his names was Acolmiztli, usually translated “arm of the lion,” from aculli, shoulder, and miztli, lion.
A third was Yoyontzin, which is equivalent to cevetor nobilis, from yoyoma (cevere, i.e., femora movere in re venered); it is to be understood figuratively as indicating the height of the masculine forces.
When his power became assured, he proved himself a liberal and enlightened patron of the arts and industries. The poetry and music of his native land attracted him the more as he felt within himself the moving god, firing his imagination with poetic vision, the Deus in nobis, calescimus, agitant’illo. Not only did he diligently seek out and royally entertain skilled bards, but he himself had the credit of composing sixty chants, and it appears that after the Conquest there were that many written down in Roman characters and attributed to him. We need not inquire too closely whether they were strictly his own composition. Perhaps they were framed on themes which he furnished, or were selected by him from those sung at his court by various bards. The history of the works by royal authors everywhere must not be too minutely scanned if we wish to leave them their reputation for originality.
He was of a philosophic as well as a poetic temperament, and reflected deeply on the problems of life and nature. Following the inherent tendency of the enlightened intellect to seek unity in diversity, the One in the Many, he reached the conclusion to which so many thinkers in all ages and of all races have been driven, that underlying all phenomena is one primal and adequate Cause, the Essence of all Existence. This conclusion he expressed in a philosophic apothegm which was preserved by his disciples, in these words:—
Ipan in chicunauitlamanpan meztica in tloque nahuaque palne nohuani teyocoyani icel teotl oquiyocox in ixquex quexquex in ittoni ihuan amo ittoni.
“In the ninth series is the Cause of All, of us and of all created things, the one only God who created all things both visible and invisible.”
To perpetuate the memory of this philosophic deduction he caused to be constructed at Texcoco a stone tower nine stories in height, the ruins of which were visible long after the Spanish occupation. To this tower he gave the name Chililitli, a term of uncertain meaning, but which we find was applied in Tenochtitlan to a building sacred to the Nine Winds.51 To explain the introduction of this number, I should add that a certain school of Nahuatl priests taught that the heaven above and the earth below were each divided into nine concentric arcs, each leading farther and farther away from the conditions of the present life. Hence, there were nine heavens, abodes of the gods, and nine lower regions, abodes of the souls of the dead. Another school taught that there were not nine but thirteen of these stages.
The sixty poems by Nezahualcoyotl are mentioned by various writers as in existence after the Conquest, reduced to writing in the original tongue, and of several of them we have translations or abstracts. Of four the translations claim to be complete, and were published entire for the first time in the original Spanish by Lord Kingsborough in the ninth volume of his great work on the Antiquities of Mexico. Since then they have received various renderings in prose and verse into different languages at the hands of modern writers.
The first is one referred to, and partly translated by Ixtlilxochitl, in his Historia Chichimeca (cap. 47). He calls it a xopancuicatl …, and states that it was composed and sung on the occasion of the banquet when the king laid the foundations of his great palace. He gives the first words in the original as follows:—
Tlaxoconcaguican ani Nezahualcoyotzin;
And the translation:—
“Hear that which says the King Nezahualcoyotl.”
Restoring the much mutilated original to what I should think was its proper form, the translation should read:—
“Listen attentively to what I, the singer, the noble Nezahualcoyotl, say:”—
1. Listen with attention to the lamentations which I, the King Nezahualcoyotl, make upon my power, speaking with myself, and offering an example to others.
2. O restless and striving king, when the time of thy death shall come, thy subjects shall be destroyed and driven forth; they shall sink into dark oblivion. Then in thy hand shall no longer be the power and the rule, but with the Creator, the All-powerful.
3. He who saw the palaces and court of the old King Tezozomoc, how flourishing and powerful was his sway, may see them now dry and withered; it seemed as if they should last forever, but all that the world offers is illusion and deception, as everything must end and die.
4. Sad and strange it is to see and reflect on the prosperity and power of the old and dying King Tezozomoc; watered with ambition and avarice, he grew like a willow tree rising above the grass and flowers of spring, rejoicing for a long time, until at length, withered and decayed, the storm wind of death tore him from his roots, and dashed him in fragments to the ground. The same fate befell the ancient King Colzatzli, so that no memory was left of him, nor of his lineage.
5. In these lamentations and in this sad song, I now call to memory and offer as an example that which takes place in the spring, and the end which overtook King Tezozomoc; and who, seeing this, can refrain from tears and wailing, that these various flowers and rich delights are bouquets that pass from hand to hand and all wither and end even in the present life!
6. Ye sons of kings and mighty lords, ponder well and think upon that which I tell you in these my lamentations, of what takes place in spring and of the end which overtook King Tezozomoc; and who, seeing this, can refrain from tears and wailing that these various flowers and rich delights are bouquets that pass from hand to hand and all wither and end even in the present life!
7. Let the birds now enjoy, with melodious voices, the abundance of the house of the flowery spring, and the butterflies sip the nectar of its flowers.
The second song is preserved in a Spanish metrical translation only, but which from internal evidence I should judge to be quite literal. The words of the poem do not represent it as a composition by the royal poet, but one which was sung before him, and addressed to him. It admonishes him to rejoice in the present moment, as the uncertainties of life and fate must at some time, perhaps very soon, deprive him of their enjoyment.
1. I wish to sing for a moment, since time and occasion are propitious; I hope to be permitted, as my intention merits it, and I begin my song, though it were better called a lamentation.
2. And thou, beloved companion, enjoy the beauty of these flowers, rejoice with me, cast out fears, for if pleasure ends with life, so also does pain.
3. I, singing, will touch the sonorous instrument, and thou, rejoicing in the flowers, dance and give pleasure to God the powerful. Let us be happy in the present, for life is transitory.
4. Thou hast placed thy noble court in Acolhuacan, thine are its lintels, thou hast decked them, and one may well believe that with such grandeur thy state shall increase and grow.
5. O prudent Yoyontzin, famous king and peerless monarch, rejoice in the present, be happy in the springtime, for a day shall come in which thou shall vainly seek these joys.
6. Then thy destiny shall snatch the sceptre from thy hand, thy moon shall wane, no longer wilt thou be strong and proud, then thy servants shall be destitute of all things.
7. In this sad event, the nobles of thy line, the provinces of might, children of noble parents, lacking thee as their lord, shall taste the bitterness of poverty.
8. They shall call to mind how great was thy pomp, thy triumphs and victories, and bewailing the glory and majesty of the past, their tears will flow like seas.
9. These thy descendants who serve thy plume and crown, when thou art gone, will forsake Culhuacan, and as exiles will increase their woes.
10. Little will fame have to tell of this wondrous majesty, worthy of a thousand heralds; the nations will only remember how wisely governed the three chieftains who held the power,
11. At Mexico, Montezuma the famous and valorous, at Culhuacan the fortunate Nezahualcoyotl, and at the stronghold of Acatlapan, Totoquilhuatli.
12. I fear no oblivion for thy just deeds, standing as thou dost in thy place appointed by the Supreme Lord of All, who governs all things.
13. Therefore, O Nezahualcoyotl, rejoice in what the present offers, crown thyself with flowers from thy gardens, hear my song and music which aim to please thee.
14. The pleasures and riches of this life are but loaned, their substance is vain, their appearance illusory; and so true is this that I ask thee for an answer to these questions:
15. What has become of Cihuapan? Of the brave Quantzintecomatzin? Of Conahuatzin? What of all these people? Perhaps these very words have already passed into another life.
16. Would that we who are now united by the ties of love and friendship could foresee the sharp edge of death, for nothing is certain, and the future ever brings changes.
The third is a “spring song” in which the distinguished warriors of the king are compared to precious stones. Such jewels were believed by the Nahuas to possess certain mysterious powers as charms and amulets, a belief, it is needless to say, found among almost all nations. In verse 18 there is a reference to the superstition that at dawn, when these jewels are exposed to the first rays of the sun, they emit a fine vapor which wafts abroad their subtle potency. The poem is in Spanish verse, and the original is said to have been written down by Don Fernando de Avila, governor of Tlalmanalco, from the mouth of Don Juan de Aguilar, governor of Cultepec, a direct descendant of Nezahualcoyotl.
1. The flowery spring has its house, its court, its palace, adorned with riches, with goods in abundance.
2. With discreet art they are arranged and placed, rich feathers, precious stones, surpassing in luster the sun.
3. There is the valued carbuncle, which from its beauteous center darts forth rays which are the lights of knowledge.
4. There is the prized diamond, sign of strength, shooting forth its brilliant gleams.
5. Here one sees the translucent emerald suggesting the hope of the rewards of merit.
6. Next follows the topaz, equaling the emerald, for the reward it promises is a heavenly dwelling.
7. The amethyst, signifying the cares which a king has for his subjects, and moderation in desires.
8. These are what kings, princes and monarchs delight to place upon their breasts and crowns.
9. All these stones with their varied and singular virtues, adorn Thy house and court, O Father, O Infinite God!
10. These stones which I the King Nezahualcoyotl have succeeded in uniting in loving liens,
11. Are the famous princes, the one called Axaxacatzin, the other Chimalpopoca, and Xicomatzintlamata.
12. To-day, somewhat rejoiced by the joy and words of these, and of the other lords who were with them,
13. I feel, when alone, that my soul is pleased but for a brief time, and that all pleasure soon passes.
14. The presence of these daring eagles pleases me, of these lions and tigers who affright the world,
15. These who by their valor win everlasting renown, whose name and whose deeds fame will perpetuate.
16. Only to-day am I glad and look upon these rich and varied stones, the glory of my bloody battles.
17. To-day, noble princes, protectors of the realm, my will is to entertain you and to praise you.
18. It seems to me that ye answer from your souls, like the fine vapor arising from precious stones,—
19. “O King Nezahualcoyotl, O royal Montezuma, your subjects sustain themselves with your soft dews.
20. “But at last a day shall come which will cut away this power, and all these will be left wretched orphans.
21. “Rejoice, mighty King, in this lofty power which the King of Heaven has granted you, rejoice and be glad.
22. “In the life of this world there is no beginning anew, therefore rejoice, for all good ends.
23. “The future promises endless changes, griefs that your subjects will have to undergo.
24. “Ye see before you the instruments decked with wreaths of odorous flowers; rejoice in their fragrance.
25. “To-day there are peace, and goodfellowship; therefore let all join hands and rejoice in the dances,
26. “So that for a little while princes and kings and the nobles may have pleasure in these precious stones,
27. “Which through his goodness the will of the King Nezahualcoyotl has set forth for you, inviting you to-day to his house.”
The fourth song has been preserved in an Otomi translation by the Mexican antiquary [José Joaquín] Granados y Galvez and in an abstract by [Tomas de] Torquemada. The latter gives the first words as follows:—
Xochitl mamani in huehuetitlan:
Which he translates:—
“There are fresh and fragrant flowers among the groves.”
It is said to have been composed at the time the king dedicated his palace.
1. The fleeting pomps of the world are like the green willow trees, which, aspiring to permanence, are consumed by a fire, fall before the axe, are upturned by the wind, or are scarred and saddened by age.
2. The grandeurs of life are like the flowers in color and in fate; the beauty of these remains so long as their chaste buds gather and store the rich pearls of the dawn and saving it, drop it in liquid dew; but scarcely has the Cause of All directed upon them the full rays of the sun, when their beauty and glory fail, and the brilliant gay colors which decked forth their pride wither and fade.
3. The delicious realms of flowers count their dynasties by short periods; those which in the morning revel proudly in beauty and strength, by evening weep for the sad destruction of their thrones, and for the mishaps which drive them to loss, to poverty, to death and to the grave. All things of earth have an end, and in the midst of the most joyous lives, the breath falters, they fall, they sink into the ground.
4. All the earth is a grave, and nought escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not fall and disappear. The rivers, brooks, fountains and waters flow on, and never return to their joyous beginnings; they hasten on to the vast realms of Tlaloc, and the wider they spread between their marges the more rapidly do they mould their own sepulchral urns. That which was yesterday is not to-day; and let not that which is to-day trust to live to-morrow.
5. The caverns of earth are filled with pestilential dust which once was the bones, the flesh, the bodies of great ones who sate upon thrones, deciding causes, ruling assemblies, governing armies, conquering provinces, possessing treasures, tearing down temples, flattering themselves with pride, majesty, fortune, praise and dominion. These glories have passed like the dark smoke thrown out by the fires of Popocatepetl, leaving no monuments but the rude skins on which they are written.
6. Ha! ha! Were I to introduce you into the obscure bowels of this temple, and were to ask you which of these bones were those of the powerful Achalchiuhtlanextin, first chief of the ancient Toltecs; of Necaxecmitl, devout worshiper of the gods; if I inquire where is the peerless beauty of the glorious empress Xiuhtzal, where the peaceable Topiltzin, last monarch of the hapless land of Tulan; if I ask you where are the sacred ashes of our first father Xolotl; those of the bounteous Nopal; those of the generous Tlotzin; or even the still warm cinders of my glorious and immortal, though unhappy and luckless father Ixtlilxochitl; if I continued thus questioning about all our august ancestors, what would you reply? The same that I reply—I know not, I know not; for first and last are confounded in the common clay. What was their fate shall be ours, and of all who follow us.
7. Unconquered princes, warlike chieftains, let us seek, let us sigh for the heaven, for there all is eternal, and nothing is corruptible. The darkness of the sepulchre is but the strengthening couch for the glorious sun, and the obscurity of the night but serves to reveal the brilliancy of the stars. No one has power to alter these heavenly lights, for they serve to display the greatness of their Creator, and as our eyes see them now, so saw them our earliest ancestors, and so shall see them our latest posterity.
It will be seen that the philosophy of these songs is mostly of the Epicurean and carpe diem order. The certainty of death and the mutability of fortune, observations which press themselves upon the mind of man everywhere, are their principal staples, and cast over them a hue of melancholy, relieved by exhortations to enjoy to the utmost what the present moment offers of pleasure and sensual gratification. Here and there a gleam of a higher philosophy lights the sombre reflections of the bard; his thoughts turn toward the infinite Creator of this universe, and he dimly apprehends that by making Him the subject of his contemplation, there is boundless consolation even in this mortal life.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.