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The two volcanoes Popo and Izta, Mexico

Volcano myths

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to Gerry: I am fascinated by the stories of the two volcanoes in Mexico - Popo and Izta. Is this a Mexican myth or is it folklore? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Popocatépetl from the air
Popocatépetl from the air (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course it’s sometimes hard to separate mythology from folklore, but in this case, it hardly matters: in a country like Mexico - a land of beautiful volcanoes - everything in the natural world was imbued by its inhabitants with a living spirit, from humans to animals, from plants to trees, from water to earth. Little wonder then that gigantic snow-capped volcanic peaks, with hearts of fire, were believed in ancient times to be gods, living beings with varied characteristics and personalities, some male, some (such as Iztaccíhuatl and Matlalcueye [‘La Malinche’]) female. These deities, unsurprisingly, controlled much of the weather and the elements vital for farming and settled human life, such as water - mountains were believed to be the source of rain - and fire: it has to be significant that the god of fire is generally recognised by scholars to be the oldest of all ancient Mesoamerican deities.

Iztaccíhuatl (‘White Woman’)
Iztaccíhuatl (‘White Woman’) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Central Valley of Mexico is dominated by half a dozen majestic volcanoes, actors in amorous dramas, the lead player being Popocatépetl (‘Smoking Mountain’), for whose attentions the females constantly compete. This ‘binary’ relationship (male/female, young/old...) is played out on different levels: the Mexican scholar Johanna Broda has shown that the ancient Mesoamericans ‘paired’ the volcanoes, linking an older and a younger volcano situated on the same fault line. Enhanced by the natural female contours of volcanoes such as Iztaccíhuatl and La Malinche, perhaps inevitably romantic stories have existed since time immemorial linking ‘male’ and ‘female’ volcanoes. Moreover, they act(ed) as key markers on the landscape, aligned to astronomical - and hence calendrical - phenomena, particularly at sunrise/sunset. There is ample evidence that pilgrimages to sacred sites on the volcanoes have taken place for millennia.

Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl form a natural couple, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 11
Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl form a natural couple, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, folio 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

We know that in ancient Mesoamerica physical and mythical connections were believed to exist between the waters contained within mountains and the vast waters of the sea (symbol par excellence of fertility). Even today sacred rites are still performed on the flanks of volcanoes appealing to rain deities to provide precious rain to fuel the growth of staple crops. In pre-Hispanic times the chief rain deity was Tláloc, god of rain, earth, storms and lightning and originator of the weather cycles that volcanoes produced.

Tláloc is identified as Popocatépetl, Codex Ríos folio 20r
Tláloc is identified as Popocatépetl, Codex Ríos folio 20r (Click on image to enlarge)

Spanish chroniclers such as Diego Muñoz Camarago noted in the years after the Conquest that the local inhabitants spoke of the liaisons between the volcanoes: according to one myth La Malinche (‘She of the green-blue skirt’ in Náhuatl) had married Tláloc after Tláloc’s first wife Xochiquétzal was stolen from him by Tezcatlipoca. Alongside the rain-granting rituals surrounding the volcanoes, these romances live on today in the form of folk tales in the Mexican states of Tlaxcala and Puebla: the characters have modern names (Gregorio [Popo] and Rosita [Izta]) but they remain age-old mountain spirits to be venerated by every generation with respect and humility.

On the path ascending La Malinche volcano
On the path ascending La Malinche volcano (Click on image to enlarge)

Here perhaps lies the key to understanding what differentiates myth from common folk tale: when the links of living ritual and ceremony have been lost or broken, a myth begins to slip into legend and simple folklore. The fabled stories of the Mexican volcanoes remain - albeit without the fancy trappings that surround them today - ancient myths rooted in pre-Hispanic beliefs.

Info from Los Volcanes de México, Arqueología Mexicana no. 95 (Jan-Feb 2009): articles by Johanna Broda and Julio Glockner

Picture sources:-
• Photos of Popo and Izta by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, Austria, 1987)
• Image from the Codex Ríos from Wikipedia
• Photo of La Malinche by and courtesy of David Gigney