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Was the Aztec's Nahuatl literature a Spanish invention? Translation and evangelism

Ronald A. Barnett ©


Like Saint Augustine in the 5th century we all know what time is until somebody asks us to define it exactly.

Likewise, the idea of literature seems clear enough until we begin to ask people what they regard as literature. Is it Shakespeare, the Bible, the morning newspaper, or what?

In a complex society such as ours people will have many different views about what constitutes literature. In a pre-literate or tribal society however there is a general consensus on what constitutes the A literature@ of that society even if it is handed down over the generations by the spoken word only.

In ancient Mexico, the spoken word or the oral tradition was greatly reinforced by the use of painted books in which native history and religion were preserved and handed down through successive generations.

The Maya had the most advanced system of writing in the Americas at the time Europeans began to arrive, but the Mixtec and Aztec peoples also had a very efficient system of written communication through a combination of pictorial and phonetic elements which made up the Mixtec-Aztec writing system.

In a very real sense, these were highly literate societies, although the methods and themes of their literature may seem to us exotic or difficult to understand. It seems strange therefore (to me at least) why there should be any serious doubt that the Maya and the Aztecs had an extensive literature in both oral and written form until it was all but brought to an end by the Spaniards.

Here we shall be concerned with written texts in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

The Conquest of Mexico was the crucial turning point in the history of Nahuatl or Aztec literature.

Before the Conquest, a strong oral tradition backed up by the painted codices guaranteed the composition and transmission of what we shall assume for the moment was Aztec "literature."

Shortly after the Conquest, Spanish missionaries taught the survivors or their sons Spanish and Latin. They also quickly learned to write their own native Nahuatl in Roman transcription or alphabetic letters.

It is at this point that Nahuatl literature enters the world literary stage as fixed texts. However, this is also where the controversy starts between those who believe that the Nahuatl texts are a genuine reflection of pre-Hispanic oral and "written" tradition and those who doubt that we have the genuine native tradition because so much of it has been filtered down through the Spanish missionaries and colonial rulers.

Much of the discussion pro and con focuses on three important sources of Nahuatl poetry: the Cantares Mexicanos (Mexico City), the Romances de los señores de Nueva España (University of Texas), and a collection in Paris (samples only).

The Cantares Mexicanos is a collection of poems in Classical Nahuatl which was transcribed into an alphabetic form around A.D. 1550, some 30 years after the Spanish Conquest.

Among these poems are compositions of a heroic type found in other epic poems and sagas elsewhere. Some poems therefore may be described as Cuauhcuicatl ("Songs of the Eagle or "The Eagles"), Yaocuicatl ("Songs of Warriors"), and Teuccuicatl ("Songs of Princes or Chieftains").

Other categories included Xochicuicatl ("Songs of Flowers" or "Flowery Songs"), Icnocuicatl ("Songs of Desolation or Adversity"), Matlazincayotl ("Songs of the affairs of Matlazinco"), Tlaxcaltecayotl ("Songs about Tlaxcala"), Huehuecuicatl ("Songs of the Old Men"), and a poem about Xopancuicatl.

Many poems of a heroic or epic quality refer to warriors or the warrior cult. Garibay provides these Nahuatl poems with general descriptive titles, such as Canto de guerra mística ("Song of the Mystical War"), Recuerdo de los héroes ("Memory of the Heroes"), Muerte en guerra, feliz para al guerrero ("Death in War, Happiness for the Warrior"), Los tres reyes y la sociedad guerrera ("The Three Kings and the Warrior Society"), Poema de rememoración de héroes ("Poem in Remembrance of the Heroes"), etc, etc. Other warrior songs are: La batalla y el dios ("The Battle and the God"), Ciudades vencidas ("Conquered Cities"), and En memoria de heroes ("In Memory of the Heroes").

Father A. Garibay was one of the first scholars to attempt to translate and interpret these difficult Nahuatl texts, which admittedly are full of elaborate metaphors and obscure allusions. Again we have to blame our present lack of knowledge on the early Spanish Conquistadores and missionaries who destroyed the painted books and other sources of information we needed to interpret these works correctly.

But we have no choice but to work with what we have. The work of Garibay was followed up by his student M. Leon-Portilla at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City.

According to the standard Garibay/Leon-Portilla interpretation the recurring phrase in xochitl in cuicatl ("the flower, the song") in Nahuatl poetry not only represents the concept of poetry in Classical Aztec society but reflects the genuine pre-Conquest native tradition. It also purports to show that there was a completely different side to the Aztec character than their apparent limitless bloodthirsty appetite for human hearts.

However, several scholars have recently sharply challenged the Garibay/Leon-Portilla interpretation of Aztec culture in general and Nahuatl literature in particular. In this view, Garibay and Leon-Portilla were simply creating a literature for the Aztecs which, allegedly, existed only in the minds of the translator-historians. One critic goes so far as to claim that Garibay in fact "created" a literature for Aztec civilization for personal and political reasons. Hell hath no fury like that of an academic with a point to make and a reputation to uphold.

The current debate over the question of the pre-Hispanic origin and authorship of these poems and their value as a genuine expression of native tradition may be briefly illustrated from the following excerpts from the Cantares Mexicanos.

In one series of short warrior poems, we find a strange mixture of themes: flowers and song intermingled with references to death on the battlefield. The battle itself is described as "flowery" (tlachinoxochitl).

King Ahuizotl (1486-1502) is said to reign by means of arrows and flowery shields (chimalxochitl). The composer or singer of this song-poem says he is intoxicated with the flowers of war (yaoxochitl) and calls upon the God and Giver of Life (Teotl e Aya ipalnemoani) to carry the city on his shoulders and preserve Anahuac (the Valley of Mexico) in his hands.

In Garibay's edition, the word "Dios," which precedes the Nahuatl word "Teotl" in the original text, is omitted and placed in the right-hand margin thus: ( ) Teotl é Aya ipalnemoani (Om. Dios).

There are many such Christian references throughout the poems in the Cantares Mexicanos, such as "obispo" ("bishop"), Santa Maria, Espiritu Santo etc. This is only one such example. In his later translations, Leon-Portilla leaves these out of the text altogether.

Consequently both scholars have been severely criticized on the grounds that they were deliberately altering the original texts to suppress whatever did not support their concept of Aztec society in general and Nahuatl literature in particular.

The explanation for the Christian references in the Nahuatl poems seems rather obvious (to me at least). In fact, Garibay thought he had explained them in his early edition of the Cantares Mexicanos. He quotes directly from the proceedings of the First Catholic Council in Mexico in the 16th century. In that report, church officials noted that the Indians were prone to backslide into their old pagan ways, especially in these song-poems. Therefore the officials gave instructions that priests or persons well-versed in Nahuatl were to examine the poems for any sign of paganism (cosas profanes) and make sure that they were conducive to the conversion of the natives. Garibay gives a number of examples of the way in which the Spanish missionaries appear to have altered the text in very subtle ways to give [alleged] pre-Hispanic Nahuatl poems the appearance of Christian compositions. For example:

Iztac huexotl Aya iztac tolin in
ye imanican Mexico nican Huiya
Timatlalaztatotl tipatlanihuiz
tehuan titeotl ( ) Ohuaya (Om. Spu. So.)

From the white willows, the white reeds
Mexico is the abode,
You, you the blue heron, you have come down flying
You are the god*
(*my translation after Garibay)

Garibay here says that the poet is speaking of the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli, the blue heron refers to the semi-historical, semi-legendary Aztlan, original home of the Aztecs, and blue is the ritual color of the god. But here, too, we can see the not-so-subtle guiding hand of the priest, for the proof reader adds "Tú, dios Espiritu Santo" (see above bracketed quotation). The result, as Garibay remarks, is grotesque.

Many more examples of such Christian interpolations could be given here. One would have thought this would have settled the matter once and for all, but some critics think otherwise.

For example, J. Bierhorst interprets all of the poems of the Cantares as "Ghost Songs" and completely rejects the Garibay/Leon-Portilla interpretation of "in xochitl in cuicatl" as referring to poetry. Instead, Bierhorst believes that these are songs intended to summon the spirits of dead warriors to return to earth to help their descendants trodden under by the Spaniards.

In this view, the oft-mentioned"flowers" (xochitl) in the poems refer to persons summoned from the Other World. These ghosts descend from heaven fully armed and ready to fight. In return for their services, the warrior ghosts demand payment in human sacrifice or if the war is already in progress, they will automatically arrive as payment.

Bierhorst and others offer so many more criticisms of the Garibay/Leon-Portilla method of translation and interpretation that one wonders why the poems were preserved in the first place if they were so controversial from the beginning. Again the answer seems fairly obvious.

Some years ago I was doing some private research on the Huichol Indians of Jalisco and Nayarit. I visited the Huichol museum at the twin-towered Cathedral in Zapopan to the north of Guadalajara, where I met a Father Buenventura who showed me an instructional manual for priests dealing with the Huichol Indians.

In it was a diagram of the ririki or native temple or god-house showing how the various items used in the Huichol ceremony could be gradually, almost imperceptibly, converted into a Catholic mass.

This was simply a continuation of the process of conversion of natives to Christianity beginning in the 16th century. The universal aim of the Spanish missionary- priests was to wipe out all trace of native religion, which they regarded as idolatry and the work of the devil.

However, they were clever enough not to destroy all the symbols of the ancient "pagan" world; rather they used every means at their disposal to convert the Indians. As the so-called "Christian Humanist," A. Garibay himself noted in his edition of the Cantares Mexicanos, the Christian interpolations in the poems were intended to do precisely that.

One of the great ironies of events in Mexican history is that, in some cases at least, the very opposite has happened. The conquered have conquered the conquerors and certain aspects of religion in Mexico are simply a thin veneer of Christianity superimposed over pre-Conquest native religion. The old gods of Mexico are not yet dead.

Published or Updated on: August 15, 2011 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2011
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