Reinventing the Aztecs, Part two

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

In Part One we looked at a new interpretation of ancient Aztec literature, which, if correct, calls into question, perhaps even invalidates, much of the previous research. To recapitulate: the current controversy centres on the Cantares Mexicanos, a collection of Aztec lyric poems recorded in Classical Nahuatl around the middle of the 16th century. Two Mexican scholars, A. Garibay (deceased) and M. León-Portilla have been instrumental in promoting the view that the Nahuatl phrase in xochitl in cuicatl signifies poetry and that certain classes of Aztec society were genuine poets and philosophers. This interpretation runs counter to the usual perception of the Aztecs as a bloodthirsty lot devoted to human sacrifice. It has also been argued that the Aztecs did not have a concept of “art for art’s sake” and therefore it is potentially misleading to translate and interpret in xochitl in cuicatl as “poetry.” Rather, it is said, the phrase refers to artistic activity in general, including the composition and performance of song-poems such as we find in the Cantares Mexicanos. This distinction between poetry and artistic activity is, in my view, overly subtle and does not really help to account for the lyrical nature of the poems themselves.

Some of these poems have been ascribed to historical Aztec rulers who lived long before the Spanish invasion of Mexico in the early 16th century. If so, then we have the very words of pre-Conquest Aztec rulers and poets that somehow survived the holocaust of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico until they were finally written down in Roman transcription.

A number of researchers have recently challenged this idealistic aesthetic view of Aztec literature on the grounds that both Garibay and his student, León-Portilla, actually “created” Aztec literature by reading their own interpretation into the Nahuatl texts, which, the critics say, were not only composed after the Conquest but reflect Christian and Spanish colonial symbols and ideas rather than genuine pre-Hispanic tradition. In his 1985 edition of the Cantares Mexicanos J. Bierhorst claimed that the Aztec poems were part of a Ghost Song ritual reminiscent of the 19th century Ghost Dance of the northern Paiute Indians, a viewpoint that, if true, would invalidate the Garibay/León-Portilla translation and interpretation of the poems. Bierhorst’s supporters draw attention to what are said to be inconsistencies and contradictions in the Garibay/León-Portilla versions. This is a serious charge, for it implies that two of the world’s foremost Nahuatl scholars deliberately mistranslated and misinterpreted the texts in order to promote their own theories about the nature of ancient Aztec society.

The so-called “crux of the matter” centres on the question of the authenticity of these song-poems and the accuracy of the translation. Critics object to the Garibay/León-Portilla interpretation on the following grounds: the ascription of some of the poems to individual “poet-kings,” the question of individualism in ancient Aztec society, the meaning of the word philosopher in the Aztec context, and the significance of the Hispanicisms and Christian references in the poems themselves. We shall deal with each of these objections in turn.

No poems are signed with the author’s own signature for the obvious reason that the composers lived before the time of the Conquest and the advent of alphabetic writing. However, many of the poems contain the names of the supposed authors. One of the best known “poet-kings,” Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472), names himself as the composer in several poems: non Nezahualcoyotzin, ni cuicanitl (“I am Nezahualcóyotl, I am the singer.”) or simply “I am Nezahualcóyotl.” Caution is required here because some of the poems are mimetic and appear to have been part of a dramatic performance in which several persons participated. In those cases the words would have been spoken not by the original composer but by the actor or reader. However, in other instances it is fairly clear that we are hearing the voice of the author. For example, in a poem attributed to Tecayehuatzin of Huexotzinco we read: noconcohuati nican Huexotzinco/in ni tlatohuani in tecaehuatzin (Huiya) (“I prepare a banquet there in Huexotzinco/ I, king Tecayehuatzin”). The reference to a banquet implies a specific time and place. In one poem Cacamatzin of Tezzcoco (1494-1520) states: “I am Cacamatzin,” after which he then refers to Nezahualcóyotl and Nezahualpilli, as poets and lords of Tezcoco. In addition, many of the poems are of such a personal nature it seems reasonable to assume that the author is referring to himself.

Aztec society at the time of the Conquest is generally considered to have been one of the most highly ritualized societies in the world. A. Segal, another opponent of the Garibay/León-Portilla interpretation, argues that there was consequently no notion of individualism in ancient Aztec society. Therefore, so the argument goes, the poem entitled The Song of Nezahualcóyotl should be interpreted as a song about Nezahualcóyotl rather than by him. Some critics think this would invalidate the theory of poet-kings. However, in one of the earliest datable poems we have a likely reference to an actual historical event. The poem is in the first person and portrays the sadness of the author at being abandoned by Ipalnemohuani (“The Giver of Life”) and left feeling desolate among the people. According to some sources, this is a direct reference to the flight of Nezahualcóyotl from the king of Azcapotzalco in A.D. 1418 or his second flight in 1426.

In Filosofía Náhuatl (Mexico City, 1966) León-Portilla made out a very strong case for genuine philosophical enquiry among the ancient Aztecs. However, it seems that some researchers are most reluctant to give much credit to the indigenous peoples of the Americas for their intellectual accomplishments. G. Payas (Meta, XLIX, 3, 2004) puts in this way: “Garibay/León-Portilla’s translations authorize the notion that there existed a clique of wise men opposing the Aztec militarism and the rituals of human sacrifice.” This is part of the attack on the Garibay/León-Portilla view of Aztec literature, such as we find in the Cantares Mexicanos. There are several problems here: the correct interpretation of the Nahuatl world tlamatini (“Sage,” “Wise Man”), the attitude of these “wise men” toward Aztec militarism and human sacrifice, and the definition of Philosophy.

Segala (1991: 211) argues that tlamatini could be an adjective meaning simply “wise” or a substantive meaning “One who knows” rather than “philosopher” in the sense that León-Portilla takes it. Segala argues that León-Portilla built up a whole theory of Aztec literary civilization based on a misinterpretation of the work of the 16th century ethnologist friar Sahagún, who said that the tlamatinimeh were “philosophers.”

First, tlamatini is not an adjective but an agentive noun. The term, which is found in Sahagun’s Florentine Codex (ed. Dibble and Anderson 1961: 29), is translated by them as “The Wise Man.” Sahagun’s corresponding Spanish version of the Florentine Codex) refers to el sabio (“the wise man”). The term philosopher is found in a manuscript gloss (Acad. Hist. MS: “sabios o phylosophos”). The glowing description of the “Wise Man” given by the Aztec informants of Sahagun certainly suggests a philosopher by any definition of the term. However, this is a vast and complex subject, which is beyond the scope of the present article.

The “Flowery Wars” instituted by Tlacaelel, adviser to emperors Itzcoatl and Moctezuma I, for the purpose of obtaining sacrificial human offerings for the gods represent a totally different concept of warfare from that to which we are accustomed. Undoubtedly political expansion and economic gain were factors in Aztec warfare but the constant association of flowers and other colourful metaphors with warfare in some of the poems indicates that in Aztec thought at least warfare probably had its beautiful side. As members of a warrior society there is no reason to assume that the “poet-kings” would have seriously opposed the militarism of the Aztecs. Besides, the Aztecs were also fatalists, if we can judge from the sentiments expressed in the poems.

My favourite definition of Philosophy is “thinking about thinking.” Science can answer many questions about the nature of things but cannot even ask the question why? much less answer it. Religion asks why? and attempts to give answers. Philosophy asks why? we ask why? in the first place. This is “thinking about thinking.” And the ancient Aztecs certainly got that far in their intellectual development. Again we cannot go into details here. Suffice it to say that Aztec wise men (let’s call them philosophers) asked essentially the same questions philosophers (and others) ask today: why are we here and what is it all about? The Aztec philosophers asked: “What is the truth and where do we find it?” Their answer was that the only truth on earth was contained in flowers and songs that made possible the reunion of old friends, much like the Academy of Plato or the Stoa of Aristotle in ancient Greek times. Ancient philosophy was not confined to the Greeks and their followers.

Translations are always a kind of betrayal, never a completely satisfactory substitute for the original. This is especially true of a language like Classical Nahuatl, which has a linguistic structure quite different from English or other more familiar Indo-European languages. But even in translation the emotions expressed in the poems argue in favour of their authenticity. However, we are dealing with ancient poetry and should not overlook poetic license. A famous Greek poem by Alcaeus, the poet of Lesbos, describes a storm at sea so vividly that Classical scholars continue to argue whether or not Alcaeus was actually on board the vessel. The personal subject matter of the Cantares Mexicanos is therefore only one criterion of authenticity.

In an article posted on the internet, G. Payas (Meta XLIX, 3M, 2004) draws a distinction between a historian who “makes” history and a professional translator who merely translates. This is a direct hit at the work of Garibay and León-Portilla (incidentally, I am not a spokesman or public relations man for either one of them. I simply look at the “facts,” insofar as we can ascertain them). First, all translation involves a certain amount of interpretation, especially in a language like Nahuatl and a culture as different as that of the ancient Aztecs. Translation itself involves several steps: what do the individual words say, what do the words mean in the context of the passage being translated, and finally what is the meaning of the whole text within its broad social and cultural setting? Secondly, while it is true that there was no written Aztec literature until Garibay and others began translating Nahuatl texts in the 1930s and ’40s, the “literature” was always there in the form of hieroglyphic-pictographic codices and oral tradition. Garibay and León-Portilla did not “create” Aztec literature; they simply brought it to light and interpreted it in accordance with the resources at hand.

Garibay has been described as a “Christian Humanist” who viewed Aztec literature in a broader context of Greek, Biblical, and Hindu traditions. That is not to say that there was any direct historical pre-Hispanic contact between the Aztecs and ancient Greeks, Jews, Hindus, or any other trans-oceanic peoples, although there are many theories to that effect. There are, however, certain universal or common features in all of these literary or oral traditions as well as distinct cultural and linguistic differences.

Further, Payas complains that in his enthusiasm to set Aztec literature beside Classical Greek Garibay cut up the Nahuatl manuscript text into a versified form and introduced rhythm to conform to the classical Greek model. No. True, dividing up the text in this manner is common practice in Classical Greek texts, the purpose of which is to show more clearly the metrical structure of the composition. I confess I did find the practice a bit annoying when I was reading Pindar’s Olympian, Nemean, and Isthmian Odes. Sometimes a single word would be cut in half and shown on different lines in order to bring out the underlying metrical patterns. However, this does not in any way involve altering the original text. The Nahuatl poems do not display anything like the strict dactylic hexameter of Homeric epic or the seemingly infinite variety of metrical patterns of Pindar’s Odes. However, Garibay did analyze some Nahuatl passages which showed clearly a strong rhythmical pattern based partly on the linguistic structure of the Nahuatl language, partly on the stylistic use of parallel phrases or semantic couplets, such as we find in Ugaritic, Hebraic and other Semitic texts. The translator-interpreter does not change the text itself in order to ‘introduce’ metrical patterns that do not exist in the original, but simply rearranges the text to bring this feature into greater prominence.

Finally, we come to the highly contentious issue of the Hispanicisms and Christian references, such as Dios, Santa Maria, Obispo, and Espiritu Santo in many of the poems. While ancient imagery was obviously used, Bierhorst nevertheless believes that the poems are post-Conquest and that they were intended to summon ghost warriors to help the Mexicans (i.e. Aztecs), now Christians, to gain superiority over the Spanish usurpers. On this line of thought, the Cantares Mexicanos and other collections of Nahuatl poems were composed under the influence of Christianity and Spanish colonial domination.

To illustrate the problem let us look at the opening stanza of one of the poems dedicated to warfare.

Oyohaulli ihcahuacan teuhtli in popoca:
ahuiltilo ) ipalnemohuani. (Om. Dios)
Chimalli xochitl in cuepontimani
in mahuiztli moteca molinia in tlalli
(Garibay, Poesia Nahuatl II, p.95)

(“The bells resound, the dust rises in a cloud,
the Giver of Life is pleased. The flowery
shield opens its petals. Terror is spread abroad.”)
(after Garibay 1965: 95)

In line two, Garibay omits the Spanish word Dios and places it in brackets at the end of the line, which he translates: “Donde resuenan los cascabeles el polvo sube:/es deleitado el Dios, dador de vida.” Notice that the Spanish translation includes both the Spanish (Christian) word Dios and the Nahuatl name ipalnemohuani (“dador de vida,” “Giver of Life”). León-Portilla, on the other hand, leaves out the Christian references altogether both in the Nahuatl texts and in his translation of them. In the English translation above, which follows León-Portilla’s practice, the word Dios is not translated. As a result, the casual reader has no idea that the Christian references were ever in the original Nahuatl text. This has given rise to the charge that he “purged” the Nahuatl texts in order to make them conform to his preconceived idea of the nature of pre-Hispanic Aztec society.

The word Dios and other indisputably Christian references are found in many passages, usually in conjunction with a Nahuatl name expressing some concept of divinity. For example, …teotl (glosa. Dios), …( ) ipalnemohuani (Om. Dios), etc. It was obvious to D. Brinton, one of the first researchers to attempt to translate these poems, that the Christian references were due to the Spanish missionaries under whose influence these poems were first written down. This view is confirmed by the first example given above, where the Spanish word Dios appears to be a gloss on the Nahuatl term teotl (“god or deity”), i.e. it is merely an explanation of the Nahuatl term. Again in the second example ipalnemohuani (literally “that which through everything lives”) is explained or glossed over by the word Dios, etc. It seems fairly obvious to all but the most determined opponents of the Garibay/León-Portilla interpretation that the Christian references are not only later additions to the Nahuatl texts but in some instances wholly inappropriate. For example, in one poem, the context clearly refers to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice; and yet reference to a native deity is replaced by the words “Santa Maria” A line in another poem reads: “I shall go into the presence of our mother” (probably a reference to an indigenous earth Goddess). Here someone has written in “Santa Maria” and then crossed it out. Many more such examples could be given to show that Christian references are most likely later interpolations by Franciscan priests or attempts by literate Indian converts to impose a Christian meaning on the pagan concept. Even the “Christian Humanist” Garibay reached the same conclusion.

It was a well-established policy of the Franciscan missionaries whenever possible to incorporate Christian elements into the native religions in order to substitute as unobtrusively as possible Christian (i.e. Catholic) symbols for the native religious symbols. I can confirm this from personal experience. Some years ago I was attempting to research the Huichol Indians in the Huichol museum at the Zapopan cathedral in Guadalajara. A certain Father Buenventura at the museum showed me a guide book for priests in which instructions were given on how to change the ririki or traditional place of worship of the Huichols into a Catholic rite by discretely exchanging the Huichol symbols and objects of worship for Catholic ones. Of course zealous friars used other more persuasive of forcing Christianity on the natives. In his inquisition of the Yucatecan Maya Bishop, Landa is reported to have used methods of torture that made the Aztecs seem like choir boys. Forcing water into the mouth of a backsliding Indian convert and then standing on top of the victim until blood mixed with water was forced out of the mouth, nose, and ears was a sure cure for apostasy. But that is another story.

In the third and final part of this article we shall look at the possible means by which the Cantares Mexicanos and other Nahuatl poems many have been composed in pre-Hispanic times and preserved in their current form.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2007 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2007
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