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Poetry and Poets

A feature of Aztec culture that is little known today is the centrality of poetry in their lives, as personal entertainment, and perhaps as spoken word poetry in the ritual and celebration of official functions.  This focus and reverence is commented upon by various writers, with the best review perhaps found in Daniel G. Brinton’s, Ancient Nahuatl Poetry (Library of Aboriginal American Literature Number VII).

Mexico-Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital, and Brinton uses “Mexico” to mean “Aztec” or the “Nahual Cultural Group” in the country of Mexico which is actually made up of dozens of distinct indigenous cultures in addition to  the Nahua/Mexica/Aztec.

Some of the language is archaic but has not been modified.  Footnotes have been omitted.  Wherever possible first name references to authorities have been expanded to the full name.

Images have been added and are not part of the original book.

 

THE NATIONAL LOVE OF POETRY.

The passionate love with which the Nahuas cultivated song, music and the dance is a subject of frequent comment by the historians of Mexico. These arts are invariably mentioned as prominent features of the aboriginal civilization; no public ceremony was complete without them; they were indispensable in the religious services held in the temples; through their assistance the sacred and historical traditions were preserved; and the entertainments of individuals received their chief lustre and charm from their association with these arts.

Huehetld Drummer

Aztec Musicians, featuring the drum ~ Orly

The profession of the poet stood in highest honor. It was the custom before the Conquest for every town, every ruler and every person of importance to maintain a company of singers and dancers, paying them fixed salaries, and the early writer, [Diego] Duran, tells us that this custom continued in his own time, long after the Conquest. He sensibly adds, that he can see nothing improper in it, although it was condemned by some of the Spaniards. In the training of these artists their patrons took a deep personal interest, and were not at all tolerant of neglected duties. We are told that the chief selected the song which was to be sung, and the tune by which it was to be accompanied; and did any one of the choir sing falsely, a drummer beat out of time, or a dancer strike an incorrect attitude, the unfortunate artist was instantly called forth, placed in bonds and summarily executed the next morning!

With critics of such severity to please, no wonder that it was necessary to begin the training early, and to set apart for it definite places and regular teachers. Therefore it was one of the established duties of the teachers in the calmecac or public school, “to teach the pupils all the verses of the sacred songs which were written in characters in their books.” There were also special schools, called cuicoyan, singing places, where both sexes were taught to sing the popular songs and to dance to the sound of the drums. In the public ceremonies it was no uncommon occurrence for the audience to join in the song and dance until sometimes many thousands would thus be seized with the contagion of the rhythmical motion, and pass hours intoxicated (to use a favorite expression of the Nahuatl poets) with the cadence and the movement.

Massacre at Festival of Toxcatl

Massacre at Festival of Toxcatl. Cultural genocide, documented ~Orly

After the Conquest the Church set its face firmly against the continuance of these amusements. Few of the priests had the liberal views of Father Duran, already quoted; most of them were of the opinion of [Tomas de] Torquemada, who urges the clergy “to forbid the singing of the ancient songs, because all of them are full of idolatrous memories, or of diabolical and suspicious allusions of the same character.”

To take the place of the older melodies, the natives were taught the use of the musical instruments introduced by the Spaniards, and very soon acquired no little proficiency, so that they could perform upon them, compose original pieces, and manufacture most of the instruments themselves.

To this day the old love of the song and dance continues in the Indian villages; and though the themes are changed, the forms remain with little alteration. Travelers describe the movements as slow, and consisting more in bending and swaying the body than in motions of the feet; while the songs chanted either refer to some saint or biblical character, or are erotic and pave the way to orgies.

 

THE POET AND HIS WORK.

The Nahuatl word for a song or poem is cuicatl. It is derived from the verb cuica, to sing, a term probably imitative or onomatopoietic in origin, as it is also a general expression for the twittering of birds. The singer was called cuicani, and is distinguished from the composer of the song, the poet, to whom was applied the term cuicapicqui, in which compound the last member, picqui, corresponds strictly to the Greek ποιητὴς, being a derivative of piqui, to make, to create. Sometimes he was also called cuicatlamantini, “skilled in song.”

It is evident from these words, all of which belong to the ancient language, that the distinction between the one who composed the poems and those who sang them was well established, and that the Nahuatl poetry was, therefore, something much above mere improvisation, as some have thought. This does not alter the fact that a professed bard usually sang songs of his own composition, as well as those obtained from other sources. This is obvious from the songs in this collection, many of which contain the expression ni cuicani, I, the singer, which also refers to the maker of the song.

In the classical work of [Benardino de] Sahagun, the author describes the ancient poet:

“The worthy singer has a clear mind and a strong memory. He composes songs himself and learns those of others, and is always ready to impart either to the fellows of his craft. He sings with a well-trained voice, and is careful to practice in private before he appears before the public. The unworthy singer, on the other hand, is ignorant and indolent. What he learns he will not communicate to others. His voice is hoarse and untrained, and he is at once envious and boastful.”

 

Mexican Dancing

Dancing and Merriment. To the right of the drummers are the high priest wearing a tilma with the sun and soldiers representing the jaguar and eagle military caste. Decorative elements include feathered ornaments. Dance of the nobles, perhaps for the festival of Toxcatl which was held during the month dedicated to Tezcatlipoca, or the god of the night sky and memory. The drummers play the teponaxtli, or wooden drum, and the ueuetl, or drum with membrane. The nobles wear either the tilma or the more simple maxtlatl, or loincloth ~ Orly

THE THEMES AND CLASSES OF THE SONGS.

From what he could learn about them some two centuries or more after the Conquest, the antiquary [Lorenzo] Boturini [Benaduci] classified all the ancient songs under two general heads, the one treating mainly of historical themes, while the other was devoted to purely fictitious, emotional or imaginative subjects. His terse classification is expanded by the Abbé Clavigero, who states that the themes of the ancient poets were various, some chanting the praises of the gods or petitioning them for favors, others recalled the history of former generations, others were didactic and inculcated correct habits of life, while others, finally, were in lighter vein, treating of hunting, games and love.

His remarks were probably a generalization from a chapter in [Tomas de] Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana, in which that writer states that the songs at the sacred festivals differed in subject with the different months and seasons. Thus, in the second month of their calendar, at its stated festival, the people sang the greatness of their rulers; in the seventh month all the songs were of love, of women, or of hunting; in the eighth the chants recalled the noble deeds of their ancestors and their divine origin; while in the ninth month nothing was heard but verses fraught with lamentation for the dead. With less minuteness, Father Duran gives almost the same information. He himself had often heard the songs which Montezuma of Tenochtitlan, and Nezahualpizintli of Texcoco, had ordered to be composed in their own honor, describing their noble lineage, their riches, their grandeur and their victories. These songs were in his day still sung at the public dances of the natives, and he adds, “although they were filled with laudation of their ancient rulers, it gave me much pleasure to hear the praises of such grandeur.” There were other poets, he observes, who lived in the temples and composed songs exclusively in honor of the gods.

These general expressions may be supplemented by a list of terms, specifying particular classes of songs, preserved by various writers. These are as follows:—

melahuacuicatl:

this is translated by Tezozomoc, “a straight and true song.”It is a compound of melahuac, straight, direct, true; and cuicatl, song. It was a beginning or opening song at the festivals, and apparently derived its name from its greater intelligibility and directness of expression. A synonym, derived from the same root, is tlamelauhcayotl, which appears in the title to some of the songs in the present collection.

xopancuicatl:

this term is spelled by Ixtlilxochitl, xompacuicatl, and explained to mean “a song of the spring” (from xopan, springtime, cuicatl, song). The expression seems to be figurative, referring to the beginning or early life of things. Thus, the prophetic songs of Nezahualcoyotl, those which he sang when he laid the foundation of his great palace, bore this name.

teuccuicatl:

songs of the nobles (teuctli, cuicatl). These were also called quauhcuicatl, “eagle songs,” the term quauhtli, eagle, being applied to distinguished persons.

xochicuicatl:

flower-song, one singing the praises of flowers.

icnocuicatl:

song of destitution or compassion.

noteuhcuicaliztli:

“the song of my lords.” This appears to be a synonymous expression for teuccuicatl; it is mentioned by Boturini, who adds that on the day sacred to the god Xiuhteuctli the king began the song so called.

miccacuicatl:

the song for the dead (miqui, to die, cuicatl). In this solemn chant the singers were seated on the ground, and their hair was twisted in plaits around their heads.

In addition to the above terms drawn from the subject or character of the songs, there were others, of geographical origin, apparently indicating that the song, or its tune, or its treatment was borrowed from another locality or people. These are:—

Huexotzincayotl:

a song of Huexotzinco, a Nahuatl town, situated east of the Lake of Tezcuco. This song was sung by the king and superior nobles at certain festivals, and, in the prescribed order of the chants, followed a melahuaccuicatl.

Chalcayotl:

a song of Chalco, on the lake of the same name. This followed the last mentioned in order of time at the festivals.

Otoncuicatl:

a song of the Otomis. These were the immediate neighbors of the Nahuas, but spoke a language radically diverse. The songs so-called were sung fourth on the list.

Cuextecayotl:

a song of the country of the Cuexteca, or Cuextlan, a northern province of Mexico.

Tlauancacuextecayotl:

a song of the country of the Tlauancacuexteca.

Anahuacayotl:

a song of Anahuac, that is, of a country near the water, either the valley of Mexico, or the shores of the ocean.

 

Some very ancient sacred songs were referred to by [Fernando Alvorado] Tezozomoc as peculiar to the worship of Huitzilopochtli, and, indeed, introduced by this potent divinity. From their names, cuitlaxoteyotl, and tecuilhuicuicatl, I judge that they referred to some of those pederastic rites which still prevail extensively among the natives of the pueblos of New Mexico, and which have been described by Dr. William A. Hammond and other observers. One of these songs began,

Cuicoyan
|
nohuan
|
mitotia;
In-the-place-of-song
|
with-me
|
they-dance.

But the old chronicler, who doubtless knew it all by heart, gives us no more of it.

 

PROSODY OF THE SONGS.

The assertion is advanced by Boturini that the genuine ancient Nahuatl poetry which has been preserved is in iambic metre, and he refers to a song of Nezahualcoyotl in his collection to prove his opinion. What study I have given to the prosody of the Nahuatl tongue leads me to doubt the correctness of so sweeping a statement. The vocalic elements of the language have certain peculiarities which prevent its poetry from entering unencumbered into the domain of classical prosody.

The quantity of Nahuatl syllables is a very important element in the pronunciation of the tongue, but their quantity is not confined, as in Latin, to long, short, and common. The Nahuatl vowels are long, short, intermediate, and “with stress,” or as the Spanish grammarians say, “with a jump,” con saltillo. The last mentioned is peculiar to this tongue. The vowel so designated is pronounced with a momentary suspension or catching of the breath, rendering it emphatic.

These quantities are prominent features in the formal portions of the language, characterizing inflections and declinations. No common means of designating them have been adopted by the grammarians, and for my present purpose, I shall make use of the following signs:—

ă
,
short.
a
,
intermediate
ā
,
long.
â
,
with stress.
The general prosodic rules are:—

1. In polysyllabic words in which there are no long vowels, all the vowels are intermediate.

2. The vowels are long in the penultimate of the plurals of the imperatives when the preterit of the verb ends in a vowel; the ā of the cān of the imperatives; the ī of the tī; of the gerundives; the last vowel of the futures when the verb loses a vowel to form them; the penultimates of passives in lo, of impersonals, of verbals in oni, illi, olli and oca, of verbal nouns with the terminations yan and can; the ō of abstract nouns in otl in composition; and those derived from long syllables.

3. Vowels are “with stress” when they are the finals in the plurals of nouns and verbs, also in the perfect preterite, in possessives ending in â, ê, ô, and in the penultimate of nouns ending in tli, tla and tle when these syllables are immediately preceded by the vowel.

The practical importance of these distinctions may be illustrated by the following examples:—

tâtli
,
father.
tātlĭ
,
thou drinkest.
tātlî
,
we drink.
It is, however, evident from this example that the quantity of Nahuatl syllables enters too much into the strictly formal part of the language for rules of position, such as some of those above given, to be binding; and doubtless for this reason the eminent grammarian Carlos de Tapia Zenteno, who was professor of the tongue in the University of Mexico, denies that it can be reduced to definite rules of prosody like those of the Latin.

Substituting accent for quantity, there would seem to be an iambic character to the songs. Thus the first words of Song I, were probably chanted:—

Nino’ yolno’ notza’ campa’ nicŭ iz’ yec tli’ ahui aca’ xochitl’: etc.

But the directions given for the drums at the beginning of Songs XVIII, XIX, etc., do not indicate a continuance of these feet, but of others, as in XIX:—

u—, u—, u—, uu—, u—, u—, u—, etc.

Indeed, we may suppose that the metre varied with the subject and the skill of the poet. This, in fact, is the precise statement of Father Duran, who speaks of the native poets as “giving to each song a different tune (sonada), as we are accustomed in our poetry to have the sonnet, the octava rima and the terceto.”

 

THE VOCAL DELIVERY OF THE SONG.

Descriptions of the concerts so popular among the Nahuas have been preserved by the older writers, and it is of the highest importance to understand their methods in order to appreciate the songs presented in this volume.

These concerts were held on ceremonial occasions in the open air, in the village squares or in the courtyards of the houses. They began in the morning and usually continued until nightfall, occasionally far into the night. The musicians occupied the centre of the square and the trained singers stood or sat around them. When the sign was given to begin, the two most skillful singers, sometimes a man and a woman, pronounced the first syllables of the song slowly but with a sharp emphasis; then the drums began in a low tone, and gradually increased in strength as the song proceeded; the other singers united their voices until the whole chorus was in action, and often the bystanders, to the numbers of thousands, would ultimately join in the words of some familiar song, keeping time by concerted movements of the hands and feet.

Each verse or couplet of the song was repeated three or four times before proceeding to the next, and those songs which were of the slowest measure and least emotional in character were selected for the earlier hours of the festivals. None of the songs was lengthy, even the longest, in spite of the repetitions, rarely lasting over an hour.

The tone in which the words were chanted is described by Clavigero, Mühlenpfordt and other comparatively recent travelers as harsh, strident and disagreeable to the European ear. Mendieta calls it a “contra-bass,” and states that persons gifted with such a voice cultivated it assiduously and were in great demand. The Nahuas call it tozquitl, the singing voice, and likened it to the notes of sweet singing birds.

 

THE INSTRUMENTAL ACCOMPANIMENT.

The Nahuas were not acquainted with any stringed instrument. They manufactured, however, a variety of objects from which they could extract what seemed to them melodious sounds. The most important were two forms of drums, the huehuetl and the teponaztli.

Aztec Drum

Reconstruction of the Tlalpanhuehuetl

The word huehuetl means something old, something ancient, and therefore important and great. The drum so-called was a hollow cylinder of wood, thicker than a man’s body, and usually about five palms in height. The end was covered with tanned deerskin, firmly stretched. The sides were often elaborately carved and tastefully painted. This drum was placed upright on a stand in front of the player and the notes were produced by striking the parchment with the tips of the fingers.

A smaller variety of this instrument was called tlapanhuehuetl, or the half drum, which was of the same diameter but only half the height. Still another variety was the yopihuehuetl, “the drum which tears out the heart,” so called either by reason of its penetrating and powerful sound, or because it was employed at the Yopico, where that form of human sacrifice was conducted.

The teponaztli was a cylindrical block of wood hollowed out below, and on its upper surface with two longitudinal parallel grooves running nearly from end to end, and a third in the centre at right angles to these, something in the shape of the letter I. The two tongues left between the grooves were struck with balls of rubber, ulli, on the ends of handles or drum sticks. These instruments varied greatly in size, some being five feet in length, and others so small that they could conveniently be carried suspended to the neck. The teponaztli was the house instrument of the Nahuas. It was played in the women’s apartments to amuse the noble ladies, and the war captains carried one at the side to call the attention of their cohorts on the field of battle (Sahagun). The word is derived from the name of the tree whose wood was selected to make the drum, and this in turn from the verb tepunazoa, to swell, probably from some peculiarity of its growth.

A much superior instrument to the teponaztli, and doubtless a development from it, was the tecomapiloa, “the suspended vase” (tecomatl, gourd or vase, piloa, to hang or suspend). It was a solid block of wood, with a projecting ridge on its upper surface and another opposite, on its lower aspect; to the latter one or more gourds or vases were suspended, which increased and softened the sound when the upper ridge was struck with the ulli. This was undoubtedly the origin of the marimba, which I have described elsewhere.

The musical properties of these drums have been discussed by Theodor Baker. The teponaztli, he states, could yield but two notes, and could not have been played in accord with the huehuetl. It served as an imperfect contra-bass.

The omichicahuaz, “strong bone,” was constructed somewhat on the principle of a teponaztli. A large and long bone was selected, as the femur of a man or deer, and it was channeled by deep longitudinal incisions. The projections left between the fissures were rasped with another bone or a shell, and thus a harsh but varied sound could be produced.

The tetzilacatl, the “vibrator” or “resounder,” was a sheet of copper suspended by a cord, which was struck with sticks or with the hand. It appears to have been principally confined to the sacred music in the temples.

The ayacachtli was a rattle formed of a jar of earthenware or a dried gourd containing pebbles which was fastened to a handle, and served to mark time in the songs and dances. An extension of this simple instrument was the ayacachicahualiztli, “the arrangement of rattles,” which was a thin board about six feet long and a span wide, to which were attached bells, rattles and cylindrical pieces of hard wood. Shaking this produced a jingle-jangle, agreeable to the native ear. The Aztec bells of copper, tzilinilli, are really metallic rattles, like our sleigh bells. They are often seen in collections of Mexican antiquities. Other names for them were coyolli andyoyotli.

Various forms of flutes and fifes, made of reeds, of bone or of pottery, were called by names derived from the word pitzaua, to blow (e.g., tlapitzalli, uilacapitzli), and sometimes, as being punctured with holes, zozoloctli, from zotl, the awl or instrument used in perforating skins, etc. Many of those made of earthenware have been preserved, and they appear to have been a highly-esteemed instrument, as Sahagun mentions that the leader of the choir of singers in the temple bore the title tlapitzcatzin, “the noble flute player.”

Large conches were obtained on the seashore and framed into wind instruments called quiquiztli and tecciztli, whose hoarse notes could be heard for long distances, and whistles of wood, bone and earthenware added their shrill notes to the noise of the chanting of the singers. The shell of the tortoise, ayotl, dried and suspended, was beaten in unison with such instruments.

Recent researches by competent musical experts conducted upon authentic specimens of the ancient Mexican instruments have tended to elevate our opinion of their skill in this art. Mr. H.T. Cresson, of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, has critically examined the various Aztec clay flutes, whistles, etc., which are there preserved, and has reached the following conclusions:—

“I. That upon the four-holed clay flageolets the chromatic and diatonic scales can be produced with a full octave.

“II. That the clay whistles or pitch pipes, which may be manipulated in quartette, will produce an octave and a fourth.

“III. From the facts above shown, the Aztecs must have possessed a knowledge of the scales as known to us, which has been fully tested by comparison with the flute and organ.”

This result indicates for the instrumental accompaniment a much higher position in musical notation than has hitherto been accepted.

 

THE POETIC DIALECT.

All the old writers who were familiar with the native songs speak of their extreme obscurity, and the difficulty of translating them. No one will question the intimate acquaintance with the Nahuatl language possessed by Father Sahagun; yet no one has expressed more strongly than he the vagueness of the Nahuatl poetic dialect. “Our enemy on earth,” he writes, “has prepared a thick woods and a dangerous ground full of pitfalls, wherein to devise his evil deeds and to hide himself from attack, as do wild beasts and venomous serpents. This woods and these pitfalls are the songs which he has inspired to be used in his service, as praises to his honor, in the temples and elsewhere; because they are composed with such a trick that they proclaim only what the devil commands, and are understood only by those to whom they are addressed. It is well known that the cavern, woods or depths in which the devil hides himself were these chants or psalms which he himself has composed, and which cannot be understood in their true significance except by those who are accustomed to the peculiar style of their language.”

Not less positive are the expressions of Father Diego Duran, contemporary of Sahagun, and himself well versed in the native tongue. “All their songs,” he observes, “were composed in such obscure metaphors that scarcely any one can understand them unless he give especial attention to their construction.” The worthy Boturini was puzzled by those which he had collected, and writes, “the songs are difficult to explain, because they mystify historical facts with constant allegorizing,” and Boturini’s literary executor, Don Mariano Echevarria y Veitia, who paid especial attention to the poetic fragments he had received, says frankly: “The fact is, that as to the songs I have not found a person who can fully translate them, because there are many words in them whose signification is absolutely unknown to-day, and moreover which do not appear in the vocabularies of Molina or others.”

The Abbé Clavigero speaks in somewhat more definite terms of the poetic forms and licenses of the language. He notes that in the fragments of the ancient verses which had been preserved until his day there were inserted between the significant words certain interjections and meaningless syllables, apparently to fill out the metre. Nevertheless, he considered the language of the chants, “pure, pleasant, brilliant, figurative and replete with allusions to the more pleasing objects in nature, as flowers, trees, brooks, etc.” It is quite evident from the above extracts that in the translation of the ancient songs in the present volume we must be prepared for serious difficulties, the more so as the Nahuatl language, in the opinion of some who are the best acquainted with it, lends itself with peculiar facility to ambiguities of expression and obscure figures of speech. Students of American ethnology are familiar with the fact that in nearly all tribes the language of the sacred songs differs materially from that in daily life.

Of the older grammarians, Father Carochi alone has left us actual specimens of the ancient poetic dialect, and his observations are regretably brief. They occur in his chapter on the composition of nouns and read as follows:—

“The ancient Indians were chary in forming compounds of more than two words, while those of to-day exceed this number, especially if they speak of sacred things; although in their poetic dialect the ancients were also extravagant in this respect, as the following examples show:—

1. Tlāuhquéchōllaztalēhualtò tōnatoc.

1. It is gleaming red like the tlauhquechol bird.

2. Ayauhcoçamālōtōnamēyòtimani.

2. And it glows like the rainbow.

3. Xiuhcóyólizítzîlica in teōcuitlahuēhuētl.

3. The silver drum sounds like bells of turquoise.

4. Xiuhtlapallàcuilōlāmoxtli manca.

4. There was a book of annals written and painted in colors.

5. Nic chālchiuhcozcameca quenmach tòtóma in nocuic.

5. I see my song unfolding in a thousand directions, like a string of precious stones.”

From the specimens presented in this volume and from the above extracts, I would assign the following peculiarities to the poetic dialect of the Nahuatl:—

I. Extreme frequency and richness of metaphor. Birds, flowers, precious stones and brilliant objects are constantly introduced in a figurative sense, often to the point of obscuring the meaning of the sentence.

II. Words are compounded to a much greater extent than in ordinary prose writing.

III. Both words and grammatical forms unknown to the tongue of daily life occur. These may be archaic, or manufactured capriciously by the poet.

IV. Vowels are inordinately lengthened and syllables reduplicated, either for the purpose of emphasis or of meter.

V. Meaningless interjections are inserted for metrical effect, while others are thrown in and repeated in order to express emotion.

VI. The rhetorical figure known as aposiopesis, where a sentence is left unfinished and in an interjectional condition, in consequence of some emotion of the mind, is not rare and adds to the obscurity of the wording.

THE PRESERVATION OF THE ANCIENT SONGS.

In a passage already quoted, Sahagun imparts the interesting information that the more important songs were written down by the Nahuas in their books, and from these taught to the youth in the schools. A certain branch of the Mexican hieroglyphic writing was largely phonetic, constructed on that method to which I have applied the adjective ikonomatic, and by which it was quite possible to preserve the sound as well as the sense of sentences and verses. Such attention could have been bestowed only on the sacred, royal, or legendary chants, while the compositions of ordinary poets would only be disseminated by oral teaching.

By one or both of these methods there was a large body of poetic chants the property of the Nahuatl-speaking tribes, when they were subjugated by the Europeans. Among the intelligent missionaries who devoted their lives to mastering the language and translating into it the doctrines of Christianity, there were a few who felt sufficient interest in these chants to write some of them down in the original tongue. Conspicuous among these was the laborious Bernardino de Sahagun, whose works are our most valued sources of information on all that concerns the life of the ancient Nahuas. He collected a number of their sacred hymns, translated them into Spanish, and inserted them into the Appendix to the Second Book of his History of New Spain; but this portion of his work was destroyed by order of the Inquisition, as a note in the original MS. expressly states.

A certain number, however, were preserved in the original tongue, and, as already noted, we find the able grammarian Horatio Carochi, who published his Grammar of the Nahuatl in 1645, quoting lines from some as furnishing examples of the genuine ancient forms of word-building. He could not, therefore, have doubted their antiquity and authenticity.

A number of these must have come to the knowledge and were probably in the possession of the eminent mathematician and antiquary Don Carlos de Siguenza y Gongora, who lived in the latter half of the same century (died 1700). It was avowedly upon the information which he thought he gleaned from these ancient chants that he constructed his historical theory of the missionary labors of St. Thomas in Mexico in the first century of our era. The title of the work he wrote upon this notion was as follows:—

Fenix del Occidente San Thomas Apóstol, hallado con el nombre de Quetzalcoatl entre las cenizas de antiguas tradiciones, conservadas en piedras, en Teoamoxtles Tultecas, y en cantares Teochichimecas y Mexicanos.”

For many years this curious work, which was never printed, was supposed to be lost; but the original MS. is extant, in the possession of the distinguished antiquary Don Alfredo Chavero, of the City of Mexico. Unfortunately, however, the author did not insert in his work any song in the native language nor a literal translation of any, as I am informed by Señor Chavero, who has kindly examined the work carefully at my request, with this inquiry in view.

Half a century later, when Boturini was collecting his material, he found but very few of the old poems. In the catalogue of his MSS. he mentions (XIX, 1) some fragments of ancient songs, badly written, on European paper, but he does not say whether in the original or translated. The same doubt might rest on the two songs of Nezahualcoyotl named in his Catalogue (V, 2). He does not specifically state that they are in the original. The song of Moquihuix, King of Tlatilulco, in which he celebrated his victory over the Cuextla, which Boturini states in his text (p. 91) as in his possession, is not mentioned at all in his Catalogue, and it is uncertain whether his copy was in Nahuatl.

His literary friend, however, Don Mariano Echevarria y Veitia, removes the uncertainty about the two songs of Nezahualcoyotl, as he informs us that they were in the original tongue, and adds that he had inserted them in his History without translation. I have examined the manuscript of his work, now in the Lenox Library, New York City, but it does not contain these texts, and evidently the copy used by Bustamente did not.

Boturini included the translations of the two odes of Nezahualcoyotl in a work on the Virgin of Guadelupe, only a fragment of which has been preserved. One of the chapters in this Latin Essay is entitled De Indorum Poetarum Canticis sive Prosodiis, in which he introduces Ixtlilxochitl’s translation and also a song in the original Nahuatl, but the latter is doubtless of late date and unimportant as a really native production.

The fragments of Boturini’s library collected by M. Aubin, of Paris, contain a number of the original ancient songs of the highest importance, which make us regret the more that this collection has been up to the present inaccessible to students. In his description of these relics published in 1851, M. Aubin refers to the Historical Annals of the Mexican Nation (§ VIII, 10, of Boturini’s Catalogue) as containing “historical songs in a dialect so difficult that I have not been able to translate them entirely,” and adds that similar songs are preserved in others of the ancient annals in his hands.

 

FINIS


Source:

Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, Containing the Nahuatl Text of XXVII Ancient Mexican Poems.
Brinton’s Library of Aboriginal American Literature, Number VII
With a Translation, Introduction, Notes and Vocabulary by Daniel G. Brinton (1890)

Categories: Aztec Aztec Culture Aztec Flower Songs Aztec Hymns & Prayers

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The Orly

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.