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John Curl

Aztec Poetry (1): Introduction

This article was kindly written specially for us by John Curl, translator and biographer of Aztec, Maya, and Inca poetry and poets in ‘Ancient American Poets’ (2006). Author of seven other books of poetry, a memoir, and a history of cooperation in America, he is a boardmember of PEN USA and resides in Berkeley, California. Commentary and translations by John Curl.

Aztec singer, Florentine Codex, Book 10
Aztec singer, Florentine Codex, Book 10 (Click on image to enlarge)

Poetry was a rich cultural tradition in ancient Mexico. Poet-singers, called xochitlahtoanime (flowerspeakers) or cuicapicque (songmakers), performed at almost every ceremony and holiday, as well as at secular entertainments, cultural gatherings, parties, and banquets. Poets would gather frequently in informal sessions where they would present new works-in-progress. Groups of lyric poets would sometimes perform together on a chosen theme, creating what they called “the dialogue of the songs.” Besides their own original poems, they would perform and improvise variations of well-known works by celebrated authors.

Aztec representation of a flower, sculpted in stone, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Aztec representation of a flower, sculpted in stone, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Poetry was in xochitl in cuicatl (“flower and song”). Aztec (or Nahua) poetry had two broad categories, secular and religious. Secular lyric poetry, called netotiliztin, or “joyful dances,” could be composed and performed by anyone, a common person or an aristocrat, a man or a woman. Religious poetry, called macehualiztin or “merit dances,” were composed and performed by poets attached to sects devoted to particular deities.

Most of the secular lyric poems that survived the cultural destruction of the Conquest were composed in the previous century. The poets identified themselves in many of their poems, and Native histories have left us accounts of some of the poets’ lives. The religious poetry was anonymous, and thus is from an unknowable antiquity.

Aztec musician-poet-singer, Codex Borbonicus p. 4
Aztec musician-poet-singer, Codex Borbonicus p. 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

Lyric poetry was also known as xochicuicame or ”flower-songs.” It took that name from its predominant mode, which was usually full of images of flowers, with deep symbolic meanings in which the poet used flowers as a broad metaphor for life in its many different aspects, vicissitudes and moods. Among the other modes of Aztec poetry were: xopancuicame (spring songs), which were light and spiritual; tlaocolhcuicame (suffering songs) and icnoccuicame (orphan songs), which were sad; cuauhtlicuicame (eagle songs), which were about heros and hunters; cihuacuicame (women songs); huehuecuicame (old people songs); and auhtlicuicatl (war songs). There were also many regional styles.

Aztec musicians, Florentine Codex, Book 4
Aztec musicians, Florentine Codex, Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

The flower-songs combined sacred and ceremonial themes with worldly and social concerns. They were often philsophical meditations on death, life, and love, on friendship, on a personal relationship with the Creator, on the brevity of life and fame, on the joys of poetry and song, on the triumphs and griefs of war. They memorialized great leaders and special occasions, and praised cities. Songs known as “youth dances,” dealing in love, flirtation, and pleasure were reportedly common, but few have come down to us. The sacred hymns were less personal and individualistic. They were a ritual part of religious ceremonies, and sung in and around the temples.

Many cuicapicqui were amateurs, while others were professionals supported by religious sects or noble houses. These professional poets composed works extolling particular deities or the exploits of members and ancestors of particular lineages. Boards of poets and elders called tlapizcatzitzin (conservators) approved new religious compositions.

Aztec musicians performing ‘flower-songs’, Florentine Codex, Book 3
Aztec musicians performing ‘flower-songs’, Florentine Codex, Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec poetry was sung, spoken, or chanted, often to the accompaniment of a drum or flute. Each poem or song had its own particular cadence or beat pattern. Two different drums were used. The huehuetl was a large, upright hollow log with a skin head and an open bottom, struck with open hands. The teponaztli was a smaller horizontal hollow log with closed ends, into which were carved two wooden tongues of different lengths, and beaten using rubber-tipped sticks. The flower-songs were performed to lively rhythms, while the sacred hymns were stately and slow.

The ancient Toltec city of Tula, highly respected by the Aztecs as the birth-place of the arts, Codex Tovar, pl. II
The ancient Toltec city of Tula, highly respected by the Aztecs as the birth-place of the arts, Codex Tovar, pl. II (Click on image to enlarge)

In the year 1500 the Aztecs of Tenochtotlan formed the political center of the ancient Mexican world, but the cultural center was Texcoco, a smaller city on the opposite shore of Lake Texcoco. It had been home to several of ancient Mexico’s greatest poets, including Nezahualcoyotl and his son Nezahualpilli. The Texcocan dialect of the Nahuatl (Aztec) language was considered the most melodious and refined. Before the militant warrior orders of Tenochtitlan imposed their domination on the region, Texcoco had been the preeminent heir to the more peaceful culture of the ancient fallen city Teotihuacan and the Toltec city Tula. The patron deity of these cities was Quetzalcoatl, the giver and teacher of poetry, music, dance and the other arts and sciences. Unlike the warlike Aztec deities, Quetzalcoatl never demanded any form of human suffering or sacrifice. The spirit of Quetzalcoatl thoroughly infuses the lyric flowersongs.

Quetzatlcóatl, Codex Tovar, pl. XXVI
Quetzatlcóatl, Codex Tovar, pl. XXVI (Click on image to enlarge)

Most of the Aztec poems that have survived are in three manuscripts written in alphabetic Náhuatl in the second half of the 16th century. The Cantares Mexicanos (“Mexican Songs”) and Romances de Los Señores de Nueva España (“Ballads of the Lords of New Spain”) contain flower-songs. The Florentine Codex, Book 2, compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, contains religious poems or “sacred hymns.”

‘Song of Atlahua’, Florentine Codex Book 2
‘Song of Atlahua’, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec poetics were based on patterns of speech and did not take the liberties and distortions of Western song. Their standard techniques included repetition in parallel couplets using synonyms and metaphors. They used rhyme and assonance but had no regular rhyme scheme or meter. They used stanzas defined by refrains or litanies but had no regular length of line or stanza. The same poem could have long and short stanzas, defined by vocables, repetitive meaningless syllables such as “ohuaya ohuaya.” The poems are full of metonym and kennings, whereby jaguars could mean warriors; flowers could mean people, and mat and chair could mean power.

House of Song, Codex Mendoza folio 61r
House of Song, Codex Mendoza folio 61r (Click on image to enlarge)

Poetry was included in every educational curriculum. After regular school hours all children, girls and boys, were taken to a special school dedicated to poetry, song, music and dance, the House of Song, the cuicacalli, where the communal drums and other instruments were kept. The House of Song was always located alongside a temple. Taught to the children at these schools were primarily the sacred hymns and the dances that went with them. When new religious compositions were approved by the conservators, large public meetings were called, bringing people of all ages to the House of Song or outside in the plaza, where the new songs were taught to all the people. In the evening the House of Song became a social and cultural club where poets and musicians gathered to perform flower-songs and young people went to dance in couples.

Netzahualcóyotl, Codex Ixtlilxóchitl, folio 106r
Netzahualcóyotl, Codex Ixtlilxóchitl, folio 106r (Click on image to enlarge)

The most famous poet of ancient Mexico was Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, freedom-fighter, architect, statesman and sage. In Part 2 (click on link below) you can read examples of two flower-songs of Nezahualcoyotl and one sacred hymn. The originals contain other verses that are not included in these selections. My translations of other Nezahualcoyotl poems and his biography can be found in my book, Ancient American Poets, Tempe, Arizona: Bilingual Press, 2005.

Click to e-mail John Curl

Sources of images:-
• Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence); images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Stone flower sculpture: photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris); images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Codex Tovar: images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford): images scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Codex Ixtlilxóchitl: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1976

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 20th 2009

Read 3 Aztec poems in English and Náhuatl

Aztec Song

‘Netzahualcóyotl’s hidden poem’

John Curl’s website

‘The Flower Songs of Hungry Coyote: Poetry of Ancient Mexico’

Read the opening poem of the ‘Cantares Mexicanos’

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