Aztec: Poets and Musicians

Poetry and music were central to Mexica (Aztec) society.  

The passionate love with which the Aztec cultivated song, music and the dance is a subject of frequent comment by the Relaciones.  Music and poetry were central to Aztec life:  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 life of the nobility was actively engaged in promoting these arts.
— Orly

The profession of the poet stood in highest honor. It was the custom pre-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 (c. 1537–1588), tells us that this custom continued in his own time, long after the Conquest.  In the training of these artists their patrons took a deep personal interest.  

Patronage of poetry was formally organized through a school system, the calmecac (public school): it was the duty of the teacher "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. 

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."

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. In the classical work of Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590) , 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."  Bernardino de Sahagun reminds us that the profession of poet was craft and fundamental to the functioning of Aztec society.

Aztec Flower Songs. Aztec poetry is not based on rhyme, but there is much rhythm. When recited by a person speaking fluently the surviving Nahuatl poetry is very impressive.  Of course, translation is always hazardous, and fundamental differences in language, such as exist between English and Nahuatl, make it almost impossible to do justice to the work. 

The most famous Nahuatl poet whose name has come down to us was Nezahualcoyotl who was a ruler of Texcoco and died at the advanced age of eighty years in 1472. A few verses from one of his poems on the mutability of life and the certainty of death have been translated as follows:—

All the earth is a grave,

and naught 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 today;

and let not that which is today trust to live tomorrow.

- Nezahualcoyotl


The caverns of earth are filled with pestilential dust

which once was the bones,

the flesh,

the bodies of great ones who sat 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.

- Aztec Flower Song

The flower song of the Aztec had this blues sensitivity, emphasizing the "tempus fugit" reality that must always be remembered.

Sad and strange it is to see and reflect o

n 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 dashing 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.

- Aztec Flower Song

Aztec Musicians and Poetry.

A Mexican Orchestra: 1, log drum; 2, kettle drum; 3-4, flageolets; 5, gourd rattle; 6, turtle shell. Manuscrit du Cacique.

Aztec Musical Instruments. The common musical instruments of the Aztecs vary but little from those in use elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. There were two kinds of drums. One was a horizontal hollowed-out log with an H-shaped cutting made longitudinally on its upper surface so as to form two vibrating strips which were struck with wooden drumsticks having tips of rubber. The second sort of drum was an upright log also hollowed out and covered with a drumhead of deerskin. Conches were used for trumpets. Resonator whistles with or without finger holes were made of clay in fanciful shapes. Flageolets were constructed of clay, bone, or wood and flutes were made of reed. Resounding metal disks and tortoise shells were beaten in time. Many sorts of gourd and earthenware rattles were employed as well as notched bones which were rasped with a scraping stick. Copper bells of the sleigh bell type were common.

No stringed instruments were known to the ancient Mexicans nor does the pan-pipe appear to have been used in this area although common in Peru.

Massacre of Mexica musicians by the Spanish at Tenochtitlan, May 1520 Codex Duran fol. 29a

Massacre of Mexica musicians by the Spanish at Tenochtitlan, May 1520

Codex Duran fol. 29a

Poetry and Music as Public Spectacle. 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.

Such was the power of the song and public ritual as metaphor for the spiritual world that the Spaniards spent considerable effort in killing all musicians and destroying all of their schools.

Aztec Flower Songs (Poetry):


Inca: Plundered Treasure

Iroquois: Magic & Sorcery