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John Bierhorst

How Aztec poetry works

This article was generously written specially for us by John Bierhorst, editor-translator of Ballads of the Lords of New Spain: The Codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs, History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca, and A Nahuatl-English Dictionary and Concordance to the Cantares Mexicanos.

‘Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs’, translated by John Bierhorst
‘Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs’, translated by John Bierhorst (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec poetry has 127 songs with a total of 50,000 words. They’re in two manuscripts, the Cantares Mexicanos and the Romances de los Señores de la Nueva Espana. Look through them and you will find them puzzling. But you will see the same words repeated over and over again in different combinations - enough to reveal the hidden meaning.

Death of the Warrior

One of the words often repeated is quechol (CATCH-all), found 119 times in the poetry. It cannot be translated exactly, but take a look at actual quotations from the Romances (folio 3 verso [the back side of folio 3], line 7) and the Cantares:

The quetzal bird - illustration by Michael A. DiGorgio
The quetzal bird - illustration by Michael A. DiGorgio (Click on image to enlarge)

quechol, it’s like a bird Romances 3v:7
quechol, the bird Cantares 23v:19
many birds, your quechols Cantares 17v:18

Evidently quechol is a kind of bird, which we may call a “swan”:

swan, it’s like a bird
swan, the bird
many birds, your swans


But it is clear that a swan - in the Cantares and the Romances - is more than just a bird.

Plumes, flowers, jade... powerful images in Aztec poetry
Plumes, flowers, jade... powerful images in Aztec poetry (Click on image to enlarge)

To understand it, a rule may be stated: Two or more words together have the same meaning. To illustrate let’s take examples directly from the poetry:

these braves, these jade swans, these
turquoise swans, these gold ones,
these butterflies
Cantares 28:8

a flower plume, a swan Romances 11v:9

Departing, they become as jades;
departing, they become as plumes;
all have been shorn in the Place Unknown
Cantares 33:4

Eagle and jaguar warriors, Florentine Codex Book II
Eagle and jaguar warriors, Florentine Codex Book II (Click on image to enlarge)

Or take one of countless examples from the Florentine Codex (book 6, chapter 31), a twelve-book encyclopedia of all things Aztec:

an eagle, a jaguar, a red swan, a
troupial (a kind of bird), a
companion, and bird of the Ever
Present, the Ever Near


You will see, by the rule, that swans are braves (or warriors). They’re eagles and jaguars (warriors). And they’re jade, turquoise, gold, butterflies, flowers, plumes, birds.

Now, take a look at a whole stanza:

Not forever on earth, but briefly
here. Even jades are shattered.
Gold, broken. Plumes, splintered.
Not forever on earth, but briefly
here
Cantares 17:17

Replica Aztec bird flute, Roberto Velázquez collection
Replica Aztec bird flute, Roberto Velázquez collection (Click on image to enlarge)

This stanza, incidentally, comes at the end of a much longer song. Although it talks about jades being shattered, gold broken, and plumes splintered, it’s not really about jades, gold, and plumes. It’s about braves, or warriors, killed on the battlefield. To make sure, consider these two passages:

red swans are flying, and these are
princes
Romances 35v:17

in the middle of the (battle)field ...
where the princes lie broken, lie
shattered
Cantares 6:30

Swans (or warriors), evidently, are princes. And princes, then, are warriors, “broken,” “shattered,” on the battlefield. Note that gold, as gold, cannot be broken.

Golden sun-drenched, life-giving corn...
Golden sun-drenched, life-giving corn... (Click on image to enlarge)

The Warrior’s Rebirth

The death of the warrior in battle is one of two main subjects of Aztec poetry. The other, much more important, is the return of the warrior from the sky world.
Let’s take a look at a stanza that talks about the warrior’s return, or rebirth. This, too, is the last stanza in a long song:

Friends, hear the words of a dream:
the gold milk-corn feeds us in
spring, the red-swan green-corn
provides us with life. And it
gives us a necklace of jewels to
know that friends’ hearts have
come to believe.
Cantares 12:22

Mexica gold necklace, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Mexica gold necklace, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

An explanation at this point is helpful: My fellow warriors, listen to the (true) words of a dream: in spring (the season of rebirth) warriors (“gold,” “swans”) (who have been slain, return to earth). They are our (delicious) “milk-corn” or “green corn.” They nourish us. They give us life. It is like wearing a necklace of precious jewels to know that warriors, in their hearts, now believe, or have faith (that they will always return).
How do we know that the “gold,” the “swans,” the “milk-corn,” are returning to earth? The poetry tells us. (Remember that “eagles” and “jaguars” are warriors):

as many eagles, jaguars, as have
gone away will come to life
again
Cantares 17v:15

there beyond, these lords are
coming alive
Cantares 39:25

Flying (bird)men descend to earth in the ancient ‘Voladores’ ceremony, Papantla
Flying (bird)men descend to earth in the ancient ‘Voladores’ ceremony, Papantla (Click on image to enlarge)

I’ve descended, I, a swan of Green
Places (paradise), arriving on
earth
Cantares 11v:21

crimson milk-corn ears come
blossoming, plumelike popcorn
flowers come spinning, I bring
them to this flower court (the
dance floor)
Cantares 20:8

plumelike parrot milk-corn comes
blossoming, parrot corn tassels
are scattered, let’s eat them
Cantares 42v:12

And how do we know what the word “believe” means? The song says,”friends’ hearts have come to believe” or, as it might be translated, “friends’ hearts have been converted to the faith.” The word believe is tlaneltoca (tla-nel-TOH-ca), literally “to follow something truly.” Again take a look at the poetry:

The wheel of time, like that of life and death, day and night, goes round and round eternally...
The wheel of time, like that of life and death, day and night, goes round and round eternally... (Click on image to enlarge)

everyone believes here on earth:
good ones for a moment pass
before us, these, the fragrant
ones, the flowers (warriors
returning to earth)
Cantares 34:11

our hearts believe, let many be
pleasured in Picture House
(the dance floor as it represents
paradise), yes come (you
returning warriors)
Cantares 46:23

now you’re believed ... that
your hearts return
Romances 15:3

The warrior who “believes” knows that he will return to earth.

Necklace of pre-Columbian jades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Necklace of pre-Columbian jades, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Yet this is not an easy thing to accept. There are many objections in the poetry:

ah, let us die poor ... though
eagles, jaguars (warriors)
criticize us ... don’t
believe!
Cantares 5v:4, 11

are there eagles? jaguars?
... our hearts believe
(falsely)
Cantares 13:8, 10

don’t believe it, my heart!
... will my father be an ear
of milk-corn, a baby ear of
corn, on earth
Cantares 13v:28, 14:1

Modern Maya mural on the theme of death and re-birth, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Modern Maya mural on the theme of death and re-birth, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

do we really live again in the
Place Unknown? Can our hearts
believe?”
Cantares 14:4

Objections such as these are drowned out, however, by the constant repetition of “coming,” “coming to life,” “blossoming,” “greening,” “arriving,” and “descending.”
This in brief is the plan of Aztec poetry, to encourage warriors to believe that their death in battle is only temporary. They will go to the sky world, paradise (the Place Unknown), and from there return to earth to fight again - and again and again.

For More Information

Aztec poetry is complicated, presenting many problems that are difficult to solve. With a large body of texts, however, progress can be made, bringing the songs closer and closer to elucidation. For more information the University of Texas has a website that enables you to read complete editions of Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs and Ballads of the Lords of New Spain: The Codex Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, also A Nahuatl-English Dictionary and Concordance to the Cantares Mexicanos. The address is simply utdi.org.

Replica Aztec flower flute, Roberto Velázquez collection
Replica Aztec flower flute, Roberto Velázquez collection (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Illustration of quetzal bird: courtesy of Michael A. DiGorgio
• Plumes, flowers jades... detail of mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City by Regina Raúll (‘Paisaje Mexica’, 1964) - photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Photo of replica Aztec bird flute by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Life-giving corn; detail of mural in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City by Regina Raúll (‘Paisaje Mexica’, 1964) - photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of Mexica gold necklace by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of Voladores ceremony by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Time, like life and death... detail of mural at Metro Universidad station, Mexico City by A.G. Bustos: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of jade necklace by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of Maya mural by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photo of replica Aztec flower flute by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Dec 06th 2010

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