Reinventing the Aztecs, Part three

articles Aztecs History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

In previous articles we looked at some Aztec lyric poems contained in the Cantares Mexicanos and other manuscript collections. The current controversy over the correct translation and interpretation of these poems in the classical Nahuatl language of Mexico-Tenochtitlán and surrounding area is an important issue in Mesoamerican studies because it calls into question the standard interpretation by the Mexican scholars, the late Father A. Garibay and his pupil M. León-Portilla.

To recapitulate: the recurring phrase in xochitl in cuicatl (“the flower, the song”), according to the Garibay/León-Portilla interpretation, is said to represent poetry in classical Aztec society. The poems themselves are attributed to the “poet-kings” whose names are mentioned in the poems. This implies that these lyric Aztec poems were composed before the Conquest of Mexico in A.D. 1521 and indeed represent the very words of Aztec rulers who lived before the arrival of the Spaniards. If true, this would provide an invaluable insight into authentic Aztec culture uncontaminated by foreign influence. Some scholars, however, argue that the poems were composed after the Conquest and represent the nostalgic yearnings of a conquered people for the return of “Ghost Warriors” to help them throw off the yoke of the hated Spaniards. References in the poems to “God” and “the Holy Spirit” and the like are taken as further evidence of post-Conquest composition. These revisionist scholars claim that Garibay and León-Portilla between them in fact “invented” Aztec literature in order to promulgate their particular view of Aztec society for personal and political reasons.

The two main areas of controversy involve the authenticity of the sources and the way in which they have been translated. Detailed arguments pro and con have been presented in previous articles. Here, I wish to deal simply with the composition and transmission of oral literature in general and suggest a possible explanation of these Aztec lyric poems.

The first obvious observation is that the manuscripts containing the poems have come down to us in written form and therefore could not have been produced in that format before the arrival of the Spaniards and the introduction of writing in Roman transcription. We know that the Aztecs had an advanced system of education in which traditional lore was preserved by means of pictorial/pictographic painted codices and memorization in the various schools of learning. However they lacked an alphabetical system of writing capable of recording compositions of such a complex nature. But let us assume for the moment that these poems are genuine pre-Hispanic compositions. The question then is how did these poems, which were composed in what we may regard as primarily an oral society, find their way into writing?

The manuscript collection Cantares Mexicanos was most likely transcribed into Roman characters in the latter half of the 16th century. But this does not tell us when the original poems were actually composed. The names of the supposed authors contained in the poems themselves provide a rough date of probable composition, if authentic. However, this leaves the question of how elaborate poems of this type could have been preserved in that form until they were finally written down.

A possible explanation may be provided through the use of analogy. Indeed Father Garibay, who began to translate and interpret the Cantares Mexicanos in the 1930s and ’40s, saw Nahuatl or Aztec literature in a wider context embracing Greek, Biblical, and Hindu traditions. This is not of course to say that there was any pre-Hispanic trans-oceanic cultural contact before the arrival of the Spaniards in what became New Spain. Nevertheless, heroic poems, epics, and sagas in both oral and written traditions in many parts of the world bear certain common characteristic features of style and content. Aztec “literature” is no exception. For example, some of the poems contained in Cantares Mexicanos are of a heroic type reminiscent of the Norse Eddas. Other Nahuatl texts written down after the Conquest also showed marked resemblances to Indo-European and Asiatic epic traditions. Therefore, what we know about one tradition may be used by way of analogy to suggest what might have happened in another. Arguments from analogy do not, of course, constitute proof positive but, in lieu of other concrete evidence, analogy may be useful in suggesting a solution.

The new revisionist approach of Bierhorst and others opposed to the earlier “standard” interpretation of the Cantares Mexicanos of Garibay and León-Portilla seemingly does away with the problem of having to account for the preservation of the poems from pre-Hispanic times to the Colonial Period. Leon-Portilla, perhaps somewhat misleadingly, refers to pre-Hispanic Aztec “texts,” which could be confusing to a reader not familiar with the codices and the Aztec-Mixtec style of “writing.” He is of course referring to the use of codices and memorization in the Aztec educational system to preserve oral literature accurately. But this still does not explain fully the written versions of the Cantares Mexicanos.

The Parry-Lord theory deals specifically with the problem of the composition and transmission of Homeric epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey, but has been greatly expanded to include other oral and written epic poems and sagas. Details cannot be given here, but the basic idea is that the higher the proportion of repeated phrases or “formulaic” language in a poem or a saga, the more likely it is to have been orally composed, that is to say, produced without the use of writing. According to this theory, the Homeric epics were oral-dictated texts, i.e. they were written down from oral performance. There are other criteria that indicate oral composition, such as poetical metre or rhythmic prose and recurring themes, often hearkening back to a real or reconstructed heroic age. This is a gross over-simplification of the problem, but an example or two may help to clarify the idea.

The Homeric epic contains many formulaic phrases, such as “Swift-footed Achilles,” “White-armed Hera,” and the like. These phrases, along with more extensive repetitions, enabled the Greek oral epic poet to compose and perform even lengthy epics without breaking down. Likewise, Aztec lyric poetry includes such stylistic features as: Difrasismo or the juxtaposition of two words with another meaning (e.g. seat and mat = authority and power, face and heart = personality); Semantic couplets (the repetition of ideas and the expression of sentiment in parallel form); recurring phrases and “key words” to impress the main idea on the mind of the audience; recurring themes (e.g. meditations of the wise men concerning divinity and the meaning of life, adventures in war, the pleasure of conversing with friends). The particular stylistic features or formulary language of Homeric epic and Aztec lyric poetry may differ in the details but the function is the same, namely to aid the oral poet in the process of composition and performance.

In the history of oral traditions and epic or heroic poetry and saga, it is often assumed that some form of verse preceded prose composition. There are, however, exceptions to the rule where different criteria apply, for example in the case of rhythmic prose. One of the criticisms leveled against Garibay was his presentation of the text of the Aztec lyric poems in a versified form. One critic accused him of “introducing” rhythm into the prose text in order to make it conform to classical Greek models. No. The rhythmic prose was there to start with. Rearranging the text simply highlighted this stylistic feature. There is admittedly a vast difference between the apparently rigid dactylic hexameter of Homeric epic and the relatively loose rhythmical patterns of Nahuatl literature, but undoubtedly such stylistic devices aided the poet in the process of oral composition. For example, the story of Copil is found in two separate Nahuatl versions, the Ms of 1528 and the Crónica Mexicayotl, each of which displays distinctive stylistic features. However their common predominant characteristic is a strong rhythmical regularity based on a complex of eight syllables with a strong accent on the uneven numbers alternating with the more weakly accented numbers, somewhat reminiscent of the Kirghiz Manas and other Asiatic oral epics.

The relationship between diction and metre in oral compositions is a technical matter beyond the scope of this article. However we can consider briefly other processes available to the oral poet, such as improvisation, memorization, and recitation. The following are only examples of possible analogies. They do not constitute proof. For example, Hawaiian poets systematically composed long epic-type poems as a group and then memorized them. Somali poets premeditated, composed, and then memorized, their poems. The non-literate Gaelic oral bard Duncan Ban Macintyre composed lengthy complex poems without relying on a ready-made formulaic language and he premeditated and reworked his poems many times in his mind before they were finally written down by others. Irish and Scottish professional bards premeditated, composed, and then memorized their poems. These and many other similar analogies that could be mentioned show several different ways in which oral poets compose. These are just some of the possible ways in which pre-Hispanic Aztec poets may also have operated. Further, if we take into account the Aztec use of pictorial and pictographic codices and the emphasis on memorization in their educational system, it is easy to see how poems like the Cantares Mexicanos could have been composed and transmitted orally, until they were finally committed to writing.

Many different techniques of oral composition may be observed in various oral traditions around the world. The Parry-Lord theory is highly suggestive of how oral tradition works and is a useful starting point for the understanding of oral literature and the process of composition and transmission in a predominantly oral society. However it cannot account for all types and still leaves open certain questions about Aztec lyric poetry. For example, the theory downplays the role of verbal accuracy in oral tradition. Again we may appeal to argument from analogy. In ancient India the hymns of the Rig Veda were preserved orally verbatim for generations before being written down in the form we have them now. The Tibetan bard Dickchen Shenpa recited the epic of Gesar of Ling, a performance which reportedly lasted six weeks, during which the bard would disappear for long periods at a time to receive direct inspiration from the warrior-king Gesar himself. When Dickchen recited, he sat staring at a piece of blank paper. In the history of traditional Celtic oral literature, bards and tradition-bearers often have a very clear idea of a fixed text, even it they themselves are non-literate or make little use of writing in their compositions. I myself observed something similar during a curing ceremony of the Huichol Indians. While the chief maraka’ame(shaman-priest) conducted the ceremony, one of his assistants explained to us that he was turning over the leaves of the Book of Life belonging to the patient in search of the root cause of her suffering and the cure.

We shall never have all the answers to questions about Aztec “literature.” For this lack of knowledge we can once again lay the blame at the feet of the Spaniards who did so much to destroy native culture during the Conquest of Mexico. However, in my view, the arguments in favour of the authenticity of the Cantares Mexicanos far outweigh the arguments against. Bierhorst’s assertion that the poems of the Cantares Mexicanos were designed to summon “Ghost Warriors” to help the vanquished against the conquerors remains an unproved theory, for which there is little real evidence. Obviously Franciscan priests or their literate Indian converts wrote out the texts as we have them. But this does not detract from their authenticity. Similarly, many authentic early Irish sagas hearkening back to the Celtic heroic age of Europe were copied and preserved by monks in the monasteries of mediaeval Ireland. Therefore, for reasons given above, the Aztec song-poems in Nahuatl could have been fairly accurately transmitted from the oral to the written tradition, albeit backed up by codices, memorization in the Calmecac, and the nature of the poems themselves. Father Garibay and M. León-Portilla no more “invented” the Aztecs or their literature than Bierhorst and his supporters have succeeded in “reinventing” it. Nahuatl literature stands on its own merits.

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