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Very Revd Gordon Mursell

Aztecs and the power of lament

Were Aztec laments as so famously expressed during and following the Spanish conquest of Mexico mere cries of anguish? We’re privileged to offer here this fresh and thought-provoking article written specially for us by the Very Revd Gordon Mursell, (retired) Anglican Bishop of Stafford, England, as an introduction to that most universal of human forms of expression...

Facade of the Montejo Palace, Mérida, Mexico
Facade of the Montejo Palace, Mérida, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the themes that figures prominently in some of the Aztec poetry that was written after the Spanish Conquest is that of lament. Here is an example, from the Cantares Mexicanos of 1523:-

We are crushed to the ground;
we lie in ruins.
There is nothing but grief and suffering
in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw beauty and valour.

Have you grown weary of your servants?
Are you angry with your servants,
O Giver of Life?

[English translation in Miguel Léon-Portilla (ed.), The Broken Spears: the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992 ed., p149).]

Bolivian ‘cargador’ (load-carrier)
Bolivian ‘cargador’ (load-carrier) (Click on image to enlarge)

This kind of writing is found in many different cultures. “Lament” is often thought of as the act of grieving over the loss of someone or something, and especially as our emotional response to that loss. But it goes much further than that. In that Aztec poem the writer is giving expression not just to the sense of loss, but to the questions to which the sense of loss gives rise. Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve it? Where is God, or the gods, who ought to be responsible for preventing it from happening?

 (Click on image to enlarge)

Lament is a prominent feature of the Jewish-Christian tradition, and especially of the Hebrew Bible (otherwise known as the Old Testament). The Book of Psalms, the Lamentations, and the Book of Job are full of laments. Jesus is recorded in the Gospels as dying with the first verse of Psalm 22 on his lips: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But lament is not restricted to one particular religion, or indeed to religious traditions. It can find expression in poetry or prayer, but it can also find expression in dance, or art, or music, or drama.

In western classical music, there is a famous lament by Dido in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas (based on Virgil’s Aeneid), in which Dido, the Queen of Carthage, pours out her grief and rage to the gods when Aeneas abandons her in order to seek his fortune in Italy. Lament is also common in jazz, and black spirituals, in the form of a bold defiance of what is happening: in Harlem they say that “the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot or cool.” In dance, the tarantella is a kind of wild folk-dance that originates (as its name implies) in the region of Taranto in southern Italy: it was once believed that, if you were bitten by the region’s most famous creature, the tarantula spider (also named after the city), the only remedy was to dance a tarantella - the power of the music would drive out the venom! And Frank Sinatra was not far from the spirit of lament when he famously sang Irving Berlin’s great song:-

Mass protest rally, Mexico 2006
Mass protest rally, Mexico 2006 (Click on image to enlarge)

There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance...

What gives lament its distinctive character is the way it allows people to question the seeming certainties of what has happened. Lament allows room for people to express their profound sense that things should not be like this. Normally it is expressed along with strong feelings of anger or grief or puzzlement. But absolutely central to it is the way it gives permission for people who are victims of terrible tragedy to challenge what has happened.

Lament matters for many reasons. First, it reflects a stubborn refusal on the part of the victims of injustice or tragedy to accept meekly what has happened to them. It is an act of defiance of the status quo. It subverts an apathetic acceptance of evil or suffering. It calls into question what appears to be unavoidable tragedy. Secondly, it strengthens the inner resolve of the person suffering. It nurtures psychological and spiritual resources, enabling people to resist and refuse to conform. And thirdly, it begins to open up new possibilities and a different future. For victims of appalling evil, the practice of lament ensures that the powerful and the corrupt do not have the last word. Instead, those who suffer unjustly are already dreaming of a different and better world. And lament can help ensure that those dreams will one day come true...

PICTURE SOURCES:-
• Palace facade & cargador: Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Hands: LP cover Pongo en tus manos abiertas... (Victor Jara) - photo by Mario Guillard
• Protest rally: Janet Jarman, New York Times (30/7/06)

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 14th 2008

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