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Mexicolore contributors Dr. Alessia Frassani and Santiago Cortés Martínez

Chanting in Mesoamerica

We are most grateful to Dr. Alessia Frassani, a researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University (Netherlands) and to Santiago Cortés Martínez, founder and coordinator of the Cultural Association Ndi’xitjo/Pequeños que brotan for this illuminating introduction to the role of chanting in indigenous communities in Mesoamerica and its deep and ancient roots...

Pic 1: Tlaloc working in the field. Codex Borgia, pl. 20 (detail)
Pic 1: Tlaloc working in the field. Codex Borgia, pl. 20 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Mesoamerican peoples since before the Spanish invasion and up until today have used chants and prayers during their ceremonies. In a similar manner to those intoned in churches and temples in other parts of the world, among the Aztecs, as well as other Mesoamerican peoples, gods were praised with music, dance, and beautiful and profound words. Many occasions could dictate the performance of sacred songs and prayers. Besides the public ceremonies carried out in temples and open plazas, the gods of rain and the earth, for example, were worshipped in caves or in the fields where farmers planted their crops (picture 1). Specific gods were called upon when a person fell sick or before an important personal decision (marriage, birth, for example) needed to be taken.

Pic 2: Don Isauro talking to the saints and reading maize
Pic 2: Don Isauro talking to the saints and reading maize (Click on image to enlarge)

With the conquest, the open and public worship of Mesoamerican gods was violently persecuted and Catholicism became the dominant and official religion. Despite this, however, Mesoamerican peoples were able to continue in many aspects the same tradition they had learned from their ancestors, mainly guided by the elderly and wise in their communities. Among the Mazatecs, in a mountain region in southern Mexico, the elderly still carry the knowledge to attend people seeking help for health or other personal concerns. My current research in the Mazatec town of Huautla is carried out with a native Mazatec, Santiago Cortés Martínez. Together, we are recording chants and prayers to try and understand their function and meaning.

Pic 3: Priestess casting maize seeds. Codex Tudela, fol. 49 (detail)
Pic 3: Priestess casting maize seeds. Codex Tudela, fol. 49 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

When first meeting a wise person, it is customary that he or she will read the maize for you (picture 2). On an altar covered with a white table cloth and decorated with images of saints, don Isauro Guerrero threw maize kernels and was able to give me an answer to some of the main problems I was facing, while conducting research in a foreign country. The same event is depicted in a scene painted in the sixteenth century after the Spanish conquest (picture 3), where a woman is seen seated on a straw mat (known as petate), throwing maize and black beans in the air, while an image of Quetzalcoatl (the supreme god of priests) and a crying person (presumably the client) are facing her.

Pic 4: Priestess and Xochipilli. Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, pl. 7
Pic 4: Priestess and Xochipilli. Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, pl. 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

In another image, taken from an ancient book, an elderly woman is seated on a petate where an offering of white feathers and a burning ball of hule is also found (picture 4). On the other side is a god, most likely Xochipilli, the ancient god of flowers, songs, and natural abundance. Prayers and invocations have the power of summoning the gods and so we see that in the image, Xochipilli is also seated on a straw mat as he is present with the wise woman. The gestures of both characters point to the fact that they are conversing. The dots and lines below in the picture indicate the number and position of the offerings: the white feathers and flowers depicted in the bottom register.

Pic 5: Don Isauro preparing the offering
Pic 5: Don Isauro preparing the offering (Click on image to enlarge)

Don Isauro also prepared offerings, consisting of eggs and bundles of tobacco that I had to place under my bed (picture 5). At this point he said:-
Jokisin, jokisin chjota chinga nii
The same way the grandparents did it, the same way
Nga chjota chinga nda nai jchaa xokji
He is a good grandfather, a good one, indeed
Jotonda ni ndichjota chingana’ña
Our grandparents from before
Nga koakisin nga’sa, nga tsakie’nda, nga tsekie’kjao, tsaka’jté, tsaka’kjao
They established the ceremonies, when they put together the bundles, when they talked to the bundles
Jechao xanda’be, jechao nañjo’be
Chicken eggs, turkey eggs.

Pic 6: Xipe Totec and his chant. Florentine Codex
Pic 6: Xipe Totec and his chant. Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Not only prayers, but also chants are carried through in the Mesoamerican tradition. In the sixteenth century, a few chants were recorded and illustrated in the so-called Florentine Codex. In picture 6, two images on the left accompany a text on the right column. Both text and images refer to the god known as Xipe Totec, identified at the beginning of the text as Yovallavana, literally “the one who drinks at night” or “the one who drinks the night.” The night here should not be understood literally, though, but rather as a reference to nightly vision, or even dreams. In picture 3, for example, a dotted grey circle hovers over the priestess who is casting maize and beans. It represents the night, while the white-and-red circles represent the stars. Further in the text of the chant to Xipe Totec, he is not only invoked, but also speaks in first person saying that he will surrender to the dream and the vision. In the image on the left, the same ideas are expressed in pictures. Xipe is seen drinking in the image below, while playing a huehuetl, an upright drum. In the upper image the volutes coming out of his mouth indicate that he is singing, while also dancing. In both cases, Xipe is part of the song and ceremony that was performed for him.

Pic 7: Chicomecoatl priestess. Codex Borbonicus, fol. 31 (detail)
Pic 7: Chicomecoatl priestess. Codex Borbonicus, fol. 31 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Another picture illustrates the same idea. Picture 7 shows a woman dressed in blue being stretched by four men. They are offering her and preparing her to travel to Tlalocan, the Otherworld. This is not a scene of sacrifice, but an indication that she is travelling to another world mentally. She is lying on top of a bed of yellow and red cobs covered with white paper, blackened with rubber paint. She is the Maize goddess, also known as Chicomecoatl or Xilonen. A text written under the figure of the woman reads: “Goddess of magic who could turn herself into a lion, a tiger and other things”. In the Mazateca, María Sabina, a powerful wise woman, described in chanting her own power:-
Chjon xa kama’i jñe
Woman who turns into a tiger, you are
Chojn’ná xa kama’i jñe
Woman mother who turns into a tiger, you are
Chjon xon ndijin jñe
Woman black stained-paper
Chojn’ná xon ndijin jñe, tso
Woman black stained-paper, says.

The paper with black stains in picture 7 refers to the woman’s power to turn into a tiger and other powerful animals.

Pic 8: House of Marina Mendoza
Pic 8: House of Marina Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

The room in picture 8 is found in the house of Marina, a wise Mazatec woman, who prepared her home for a ceremony that takes place at night, when darkness and silence can elevate the words from this world to the gods. In the chant that she sings she identifies directly with the spiritual powers and other forces of the world and of nature. At the end, after finishing the chant, she invokes Catholic saints and ancestors. The chant has the power to elevate a person to the realm of the gods so that (s)he actually fuses and becomes one with them.
An jña nganiole sonde, titso
I am the strength of the world, is saying
An jña nganiole kjoa’nichikota’in, titso
I am the strength of the blessing, is saying
An jña nganiole sonde, titso
I am the strength of the world, is saying
An jña nganiole kjoa’kjin tokon, titso
I am the strength of wisdom, is saying
An jña ximanaa ni’ndayaa chjota, titso
I am the one who knows how to cure people, is saying
An jña ximanaa fe’e, titso
I am the one who knows how to come forth, is saying
An jña ximanaa fitjeen, titso
I am the one who knows how to fly, is saying
An jña ximanaa fe’e, titso
I am the one who knows how to come forth, is saying

Pic 9: ‘I am the strength of the grandmother...’ Codex Mendoza fol. 71r (detail)
Pic 9: ‘I am the strength of the grandmother...’ Codex Mendoza fol. 71r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

An jña nganiole sonde, titso
I am the strength of the world, is saying
An jña nganiole nangi, titso
I am the strength of the earth, is saying
An jña nganiole kjoa’kjin tokon, titso
I am the strength of knowledge, is saying
An jña nganiole sonde, titso
I am the strength of the world, is saying
An jña nganiole nachja ninda fraa, titso
I am the strength of the grandmother of the broken bones, is saying
An jña nga’niole nachja Lisabe nginde, titso
I am the strength of grandmother Lisabe of the underworld, is saying
An jña ximanaa fitjeen, titso
I am the one who knows how to come forth, is saying
An jña ximanaa fe’e, titso
I am the one who knows how to come forth, is saying
An jña ximanaa ni’ndaa chjota, titso
I am the one who knows how to cure people, is saying
An jña na’chja Lisibe, titso
I am grandmother Lisibe, is saying
An jña nganiole cho’o nrojbi, titso
I am the strength of the opossum, is saying
An jña nganiole xa indo sinee, titso
I am strength of the spotted lion (jaguar), is saying
An jña nganiole nachja ninda fraa, titso
I am the strength of the grandmother of the broken bones, is saying

Pic 10: Pre-Hispanic incense burners
Pic 10: Pre-Hispanic incense burners (Click on image to enlarge)

An jña nganiole kjoa’bjina chon, titso
I am the strength of life, is saying
An tisije kjoanda nai’taongo xi’tsi sonde
I am the one asking for a blessing, oh father guardian of the world
T’ainai kjoanda, t’ainai nganio, t’ainai kaosin tokonli
Give me blessing, give me strength, give me your wisdom
Ji’ni nai taongo xitijnli nganio, nain
You are, my father, the one who gives strength, father
Ji’ni ximali nindaya’ai chjota
You are the one who knows how to heal people
Ni nai’naa San Isidro
My father, San Isidro
Ni nai’naa Escribano
My father, Escribano (lit. notary, grandfather of the underworld)
Ndi’chon Pastora
Precious mother Shepherdess (Pastora)
Sijee an kjoanda
I ask for your blessing
T’aiñe kjoandali, t’ainganioli ji
Give your blessing, your strength
Nikiajinla tiskangini tsoainañaa
My incense burner will never fall and break
Nikiajin koitsaoyani tsaoina
My incense burner will never stop burning.

Pic 11: Costa Rican crocodile effigy incense burner, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Pic 11: Costa Rican crocodile effigy incense burner, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA (Click on image to enlarge)

Marina concludes her chanting by invoking the power of the incense burner. A successful ceremony can only be achieved if all the necessary instruments, the copal and the incense burner among them, are present and work properly (pictures 10 & 11). While Catholicism has come to be the official religion of most Mesoamerican peoples, many aspects of religious life, such as chanting, have a link that leads back directly to ancient roots, from before the Spanish invasion.

Further reading:-

Estrada, Alvaro. María Sabina: Her Life and Chants. Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1981.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1976
• Pix 2, 5, 6, 8, 10 (bottom left and far right) by/courtesy of Alessia Frassani
• Pic 3: Image from the Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
• Pic 4: Image from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer (original in the World Museum Liverpool) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1971
• Pic 7: Image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 9 and 10 (centre left top): Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 10 (top left and centre right): photos taken in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10 (centre left bottom): photo by Justin Kerr, Mayavase, ref K8075
• Pic 11: Photo under Creative Commons License, Walters Art Museum (from Wikimedia Commons).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 18th 2016

Chant performed by Marina Mendoza, Boca del Río, San Mateo Eloxochitlan, August 2014

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