Aztec Poetry: Song at the Beginning

The flowery songs of the Mexica. Song at the Beginning is a glorious example of this genre.
— Orly

1. I am wondering where I may gather some pretty, sweet flowers. Whom shall I ask? Suppose that I ask the brilliant humming-bird, the emerald trembler; suppose that I ask the yellow butterfly; they will tell me, they know, where bloom the pretty, sweet flowers, whether I may gather them here in the laurel woods where dwell the tzinitzcan birds, or whether I may gather them in the flowery forests where the tlauquechol lives. There they may be plucked sparkling with dew, there they come forth in perfection. Perhaps there I shall see them if they have appeared; I shall place them in the folds of my garment, and with them I shall greet the children, I shall make glad the nobles.


2. Truly as I walk along I hear the rocks as it were replying to the sweet songs of the flowers; truly the glittering, chattering water answers, the bird-green fountain, there it sings, it dashes forth, it sings again; the mockingbird answers; perhaps the coyol bird answers, and many sweet singing birds scatter their songs around like music. They bless the earth pouring out their sweet voices.


Quetzal Headress

3. I said, I cried aloud, may I not cause you pain ye beloved ones, who are seated to listen; may the brilliant humming-birds come soon. Whom do we seek, O noble poet? I ask, I say: Where are the pretty, fragrant flowers with which I may make glad you my noble compeers? Soon they will sing to me, "Here we will make thee to see, thou singer, truly wherewith thou shalt make glad the nobles, thy companions."


4. They led me within a valley to a fertile spot, a flowery spot, where the dew spread out in glittering splendor, where I saw various lovely fragrant flowers, lovely odorous flowers, clothed with the dew, scattered around in rainbow glory, there they said to me, "Pluck the flowers, whichever thou wishest, mayest thou the singer be glad, and give them to thy friends, to the nobles, that they may rejoice on the earth."


5. So I gathered in the folds of my garment the various fragrant flowers, delicate scented, delicious, and I said, may some of our people enter here, may very many of us be here; and I thought I should go forth to announce to our friends that here all of us should rejoice in the different lovely, odorous flowers, and that we should cull the various sweet songs with which we might rejoice our friends here on earth, and the nobles in their grandeur and dignity.


6. So I the singer gathered all the flowers to place them upon the nobles, to clothe them and put them in their hands; and soon I lifted my voice in a worthy song glorifying the nobles before the face of the Cause of All, where there is no servitude.


7. Where shall one pluck them? Where gather the sweet flowers? And how shall I attain that flowery land, that fertile land, where there is no servitude, nor affliction? If one purchases it here on earth, it is only through submission to the Cause of All; here on earth grief fills my soul as I recall where I the singer saw the flowery spot.


8. And I said, truly there is no good spot here on earth, truly in some other bourne there is gladness; For what good is this earth? Truly there is another life in the hereafter. There may I go, there the sweet birds sing, there may I learn to know those good flowers, those sweet flowers, those delicious ones, which alone pleasurably, sweetly intoxicate, which alone pleasurably, sweetly intoxicate.


In native Nahuatl:



1. Ninoyolnonotza, campa nicuiz yectli, ahuiaca xochitl:—Ac nitlatlaniz? Manozo yehuatl nictlatlani in quetzal huitzitziltin, in chalchiuh huitzitzicatzin; manozo ye nictlatlani in zaquan papalotl; ca yehuantin in machiz, ommati, campa cueponi in yectli ahuiac xochitl, tla nitlahuihuiltequi in nican acxoyatzinitzcanquauhtla, manoze nitlahuihuiltequi in tlauhquecholxochiquauhtla; oncan huihuitolihui ahuach tonameyotoc in oncan mocehcemelquixtia; azo oncan niquimittaz intla onechittitique; nocuexanco nictemaz ic niquintlapaloz in tepilhuan, ic niquimellelquixtiz in teteuctin.

2. Tlacazo nican nemi, ye nicaqui in ixochicuicatzin yuhqui tepetl quinnananquilia; tlacazo itlan in meyaquetzalatl, xiuhtotoameyalli, oncan mocuica, momotla, mocuica; nananquilia in centzontlatolli; azo quinnananquilia in coyoltototl, ayacachiçahuacatimani, in nepapan tlazocuicani totome. Oncan quiyectenehua in tlalticpaque hueltetozcatemique.

3. Nic itoaya, nitlaocoltzatzia; ma namechellelti y tlazohuane, niman cactimotlalique, niman hualtato in quetzal huitzitziltin. Aquin tictemohua, cuicanitzine? Niman niquinnanquilia niquimilhuia: Campa catqui in yectli, ahuiac xochitl ic niquimellelquixtiz in amohuampotzitzinhuan? Niman onechicacahuatzque ca nican tlatimitzittitili ticuicani azo nelli ic tiquimellelquixtiz in toquichpohuan in teteuctin.

4. Tepeitic tonacatlalpa, xochitlalpa nechcalaquiqueo oncan on ahuachtotonameyotimani, oncan niquittacaya in nepapan tlazoahuiac xochitl, tlazohuelic xochitl ahuach quequentoc, ayauhcozamalotonameyotimani, oncan nechilhuia, xixochitetequi, in catlehuatl toconnequiz, ma mellelquiza in ticuicani, tiquinmacataciz in tocnihuan in teteuctin in quellelquixtizque in tlalticpaque.

5. Auh nicnocuecuexantia in nepapan ahuiacxochitl, in huel teyolquima, in huel tetlamachti, nic itoaya manozo aca tohuanti hual calaquini, ma cenca miec in ticmamani; auh ca tel ye onimatico nitlanonotztahciz imixpan in tocnihuan nican mochipa tiqualtetequizque in tlazo nepapan ahuiac xochitl ihuan ticuiquihui in nepapan yectliyancuicatl ic tiquimellelquixtizque in tocnihuan in tlalticpactlaca in tepilhuan quauhtliya ocelotl.

6. Ca moch nicuitoya in nicuicani ic niquimicpac xochiti in tepilhuan inic niquimapan in can in mac niquinten; niman niquehuaya yectli yacuicatl ic netimalolo in tepilhuan ixpan in tloque in nahuaque, auh in atley y maceuallo.

7. Can quicuiz? Can quitlaz in huelic xochitl? Auh cuix nohuan aciz aya in xochitlalpan, in tonacatlalpan, in atley y macehuallo in nentlamati? Intla y tlacohua in tlalticpac ca çan quitemacehualtica in tloque in nahuaque, in tlalticpac; ye nican ic chocan noyollo noconilnamiquia in ompa onitlachiato y xochitlalpana nicuicani.

8. Auh nic itoaya tlacazo amo qualcan in tlalticpac ye nican, tlacazo occecni in huilohuayan, in oncan ca in netlamachtilli; tlezannen in tlalticpac? tlacazo occecni yoliliz ximoayan, ma ompa niauh, ma ompa inhuan noncuicati in nepapan tlazototome, ma ompa nicnotlamachti yectliya xochitl ahuiaca xochitl, in teyolquima, in zan tepacca, teahuiaca yhuintia, in zan tepacca, ahuiaca yhuintia.


Source:  Daniel Brinton, Ancient Nahuatl Poetry.

Poem:  Song 1

Notes to this poem:  

The song is an allegory, portraying the soul-life of the poet. By the flowers which he sets forth to seek, we are to understand the songs which he desires to compose. He asks himself where the poetic inspiration is to be sought, and the answer is the same as was given by Wordsworth, that it is to the grand and beautiful scenes of Nature that the poet must turn for the elevation of soul which will lift him to the sublimest heights of his art. But this exaltation bears with it the heavy penalty that it disqualifies for ordinary joys. As in medieval tales, he who had once been admitted to fairyland, could nevermore conquer his longing to return thither, so the poet longs for some other condition of existence where the divine spirit of song may forever lift him above the trials and the littleness of this earthly life.

There is no sign of Christian influence in the poem, and it is probably one handed down from a generation anterior to the Conquest.

1. The word peuhcayotl from peua, to begin, intimates that this was a song chanted at the beginning of a musical entertainment. The verses are longer, and the phraseology plainer than in many of those following. There is also an absence of interjections and lengthened vowels, all of which indicate that the time was slow, and the actions of the singer temperate, as was the custom at the beginning of a baile. (See Introd., p. 20.)

1. Ninoyolnonotza, a reflexive, frequentative form from notza, to think, to reflect, itself from the primitive radicle no, mind, common to both the Nahuatl and Maya languages. The syllable yol is for yollotl, heart, in its figurative sense of soul or mind. The combination of yolnonotza is not found in any of the dictionaries. The full sense is, "I am thinking by myself, in my heart."

ahuiaca, an adverbial form, usually means "pleasant-smelling," though in derivation it is from the verb ahuia, to be satisfied with.

quetzal, for quetzalli, a long, handsome blue feather from the quetzal bird, often used figuratively for anything beautiful or precious.

chalchiuh for chalchiuitl, the famous green-stone, jade or emerald, so highly prized by the Mexicans; often used figuratively for anything noble, beautiful and esteemed.

huitzitzicatin, a word not found in the dictionaries, appears to be from tzitzilca, to tremble, usually from cold, but here applied to the tremulous motion of the humming bird as it hovers over a flower.

zacuan, the yellow plumage of the zacuan bird, and from similarity of color here applied to the butterfly. The zacuan is known to ornithologists as the Oriolus dominicensis. These birds are remarkably gregarious, sometimes as many as a hundred nests being found in one tree (see Eduard Mühlenpfort, Versuch einer getreuen Schilderung der Republik Mexiko, Bd. I, p. 183).

acxoyatzinitzcanquauhtla; composed of acxoyatl, the wild laurel; tzinitzcan, the native name of the Trogon mexicanus, renowned for its beautiful plumage; quauhtli, a tree; and the place-ending tla, meaning abundance.

tlauquecholxochiquauhtla; composed of tlauquechol, the native name of the red, spoon-billed heron, Platalea ajaja; xochitl, flower; quauhtli, tree; and the place-ending tla.

tonameyotoc, the root is the verb tona, to shine, to be warm; tonatiuh, the sun; tonameyotl, a ray of the sun, etc. As warmth and sunlight are the conditions of growth and fertility, many derivatives from this root signify abundance, riches, etc.

mocehcemelquixtiamo is the reflexive pronoun, 3d sing., often used impersonally; cehcemel, is a reduplicated form of the numeral ce, one; it conveys the sense of entire, whole, perfect, and is thus an interesting illustration of the tendency of the untutored mind to associate the idea of unity with the notion of perfection; quixtia is the compulsive form of quiza, to go forth.

onechittitique; 3d person plural, preterit, of the causative form of itta, to see; ittitia, to cause to see, to show; nech, me, accusative form of the pronoun.

nocuexanco; from cuexantli, the loose gown worn by the natives, extending from the waist to the knees. Articles were carried in it as in an apron; no-cuexan-co, my-gown-in, the terminal tli being dropped on suffixing the postposition.

tepilhuan; from pilli, boy, girl, child, young person, with the relative, indefinite, pronominal prefix te, and the pronominal plural termination huan, to take which, pilli drops its last syllable, li; hence, te-pil-huan, somebody's children, or in general, the young people. This word is of constant occurrence in the songs.

teteuctin, plural with reduplication of teuctli, a noble, a ruler, a lord. The singer addresses his audience by this respectful title.

2. ixochicuicatzinii, poss. pron. 3d sing.; xochitl, flower; cuicatl, song; tzin, termination signifying reverence or affection; "their dear flower-songs."

yuhqui tepetl, etc. The echo in the Nahuatl tongue is called tepeyolotl, the heart or soul of the mountain (not in Simeon's Dictionnaire, but given by Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, p. 202).

meyaquetzalatl; from meya, to flow slowly, to trickle; quetzalli, beautiful; atl, water.

xiuhtotoameyalli; the root xiuh meant originally green (or blue, as they were not distinguished apart); hence xiuitl, a leaf or plant, the green herbage; as where the Nahuas then were this was renewed annually, xiuitl came to mean a year; as a comet seems to have a bunch of fiery flames growing from it, this too wasxiuitl, and a turquoise was called by the same term; in the present compound, it is employed adjectively; xiuh-totol, turquoise-bird, is the Guiaca cerulea, Linn.; ameyalli, from atl, water, meya, to trickle, and the noun ending.

mo-motla; to throw one's self, to dash one's self against something, etc.

centzontlatolli; literally," four hundred speeches." The numeral four hundred was employed, like the Greek "myriad," to express vaguely any extraordinary number. The term may be rendered "the myriad-voiced," and was the common name of the mocking-bird, called by ornithologists Turdus polyglottus,Calandria polyglotta, and Mimus polyglotta.

coyoltototl, literally, "the rattle-bird," so called from its peculiar notes (coyolli = a rattle), is one of the Tanegridae, probably the Piranga hepatica.

ayacachicahuactimani; composed of ayacachtli, the rattle (see ante, page 24); and icahuaca, to sing (of birds); to the theme of this verb is added the connective syllable ti, and the verb mani, which, in such connection, indicates that the action of the former verb is expended over a large surface, broadly and widely (see Olmos, Gram. de la Langue Nahuatl, p. 155, where, however, the connective ti is erroneously taken for the pronoun ti).

hueltetozcatemique; composed of huel, good or well; tetozca, from tozquitl, the singing voice; and temo, to let fall, to drop; que is the plural verbal termination.

3. ma n-amech-ellelti, vetative causative from elleloa, to cause pain.

cactimotlalique, appears to be a compound of caqui, to listen, to hear, and tlalia, to seat, to place.

amohuampotzitzinhuan, a compound based on the pronoun of the second person plural, amo, the particle po, which means similarity or likeness, and the reduplicated reverential plural termination. The same particle po, appears a few lines later in toquichpohuanpotli = comrade, compeer.

4. Tepeitic, from tepetl, mountain, ititl, belly, from which is derived the proposition itic, within, among. The term is applied to a ravine or sequestered valley.

5. quauhtliya ocelotl, the expression quauhtli, ocelotl, is of frequent occurrence in the ancient Nahuatl writers. The words mean literally "eagle, tiger." These were military titles applied to officers commanding small bodies of troops; figuratively, the words mean control, power, and dignity; also, bravery and virtue. Comp. Agustin de Vetancurt, Teatro Mexicano, Tratado II, cap. 3.

6. in tloque in nahuaque; this expression, applied by the ancient Nahuas to the highest divinity, is attributed by some to Nezahualcoyotl (see above, p. 36). It is composed of two postpositions tloc and nahaac, and in the form given conveys the meaning "to whom are present and in whom are immanent all things having life." See Agustin de la Rosa, Analisis de la Platica Mexicana sobre el Mislerio de la Santisima Trinidad, p. 11 (Guadalajara, 1871). The epithet was applied in heathen times to the supreme divinity Tonacateotl; see the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, in Kingsborough's Mexico, Vol. VI, p. 107.

8. ximoayan; this word does not appear in the dictionaries of Molina or Simeon, and is a proof, as is the sentiment of the whole verse, that the present poem belongs to a period previous to the Conquest. The term means "where all go to stay," and was the name of the principal realm of departed souls in the mythology of the ancient Nahuas. See Bartholome de Alva, Confessionario en Lengua Mexicana, fol. 13 (Mexico, 1634); Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, cap. 55; D.G. Brinton; The Journey of the Soul (in Aztec and Aryan Myths), Philadelphia, 1883.

yhuintia, causative form of ihuinti, to make drunk. The Nirvana of the Nahuas was for the soul to lie in dense smoke and darkness, filled with utter content, and free from all impressions ("en lo profundo de contento y obscuridad," Tezozomoc, Cronica Mexicana, cap. 55).


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Aztec Poetry:  And then it Ends

Aztec Poetry: And then it Ends