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Mexicolore contributor John Schwaller

The art of Aztec running

We’re most grateful to our Panel of Experts member John F. Schwaller, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Albany, State University of New York, for this enlightening appraisal of the importance of (long-distance) running in Mexica (Aztec) culture. Professor Schwaller has generously written this as an abridged opening chapter of a book he is currently writing on the celebration of the Aztec festival of Panquetzaliztli.

Pic 1: Tribute to native American runners: sculpture by Mike Call
Pic 1: Tribute to native American runners: sculpture by Mike Call (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the Mexica, commonly known as the Aztecs, there was a cultural memory of running as a ritual activity, as well as having a more practical benefit of communication. Running formed an important element in the celebration of some Mexica rituals. It was also important for other native groups who are culturally related to the Mexica, principally among groups within the Uto-Aztecan language family.
One of the ways in which modern scholars can begin to enter into the nuances of Mexica culture is through language. According to Fr. Alonso de Molina, who composed a Spanish – Nahuatl vocabulary in the mid-sixteenth century, there are four Nahuatl words to convey the idea of running: paina, tlaloa, totoca, and tlacza.

Pic 2: ‘Go(o)d Runner’: Paynal as depicted in the Florentine Codex
Pic 2: ‘Go(o)d Runner’: Paynal as depicted in the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Paina and its variants appears 38 times in the twelve volumes of the Florentine Codex. It has the basic meaning of to run fast or run lightly. The word paina is particularly important since one of the Mexica gods took his name from that word for run: Painal or Paynal. This name of this god might be translated as “Runner.” He was often associated with the principal deity of the Mexica, the god Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird on the Left). The god was also referred to with the honorific, Painaltzin, “Honored Painal,” and the diminutive, Painalton, “Little Painal.”
Tlaloa was used 91 times, in all possible variations, with the form motlaloa appearing most frequently. The word means to run or to run away. The word totoca and other forms appeared 68 times. It means to run, hurry, chase or pursue someone or something, or for illness to worsen, and has both transitive and intransitive forms. There were 28 instances in the Florentine Codex carrying the meaning of run. The fourth word under consideration is tlacza, an intransitive which means to run or move fast. It is not that common with only three instances in the Florentine Codex.

Pic 3: The Tarahumara running tradition
Pic 3: The Tarahumara running tradition (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica, as Nahuatl speakers, were part of a much larger cultural family of the Uto-Aztecan language. As a group, the Nahua have their cultural origins in the northwestern and north central regions of Mexico along with other related tribes such as the Hopi, Ute, Paiute, and Tarahumara. Among these tribes at least one other has gained recognition for long distance running, namely the Tarahumara also known as the Rarámuri which roughly translates as “foot runners.” They were known to run as much as 600 miles (1,000 km), both as recreation and as messengers. The races of the modern Tarahumara are surrounded by a ritual framework. Blessings are sought before the race and upon successful completion. At the same time, however, because large amounts of money might be wagered on the races, there is significant reallocation of wealth in the community.

Pic 4: Tarahumara boy, photographed by Karl Kernberger
Pic 4: Tarahumara boy, photographed by Karl Kernberger (Click on image to enlarge)

The Hopi of Arizona, also a Uto-Aztecan people, also use running in their ritual life. Within the complex Hopi religion, running occupies an important place, in fact one of the six modes of prayer. As a type of compulsive magic, at the end of a day of work in the fields, Hopi men will engage in foot races. There are two types: one is a very fast run over a short distance; the other is a longer slower race for a long distance. Both are seen as a prayer for the growth of crops.
While observations of the Hopi date mostly from the last two centuries, many observations of the Tarahumara date from the colonial period. Traditions in each tribe also indicate that their running practices and rituals have been in existence for many centuries. As Uto-Aztecan peoples, one can recognize similarities between these practices and some described by early missionaries in their discussions of the Nahua in general and the Mexica in particular.

Pic 5: Model of Aztec courier carrying large fish (L); Mexica messenger, Codex Mendoza (R)
Pic 5: Model of Aztec courier carrying large fish (L); Mexica messenger, Codex Mendoza (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Much of the information available regarding running and runners among the Mexica comes from Spanish accounts of the conquest. Cortés in his letters to the Spanish crown explains that the huey tlahtoani, Motecuhzoma, maintained a corps of fast runners to carry messages from one part of the empire to another. Hernán Cortés claimed that the runners had carried information 260 miles in less than a day.
The messengers of the Mexica were used for a variety of purposes including communication. These runners also brought rare and exotic goods, like ice and snow or fresh ocean fish, from great distances for the delight of the ruler. It was reported that by using a relay system the messengers could cover 200 to 350 miles a day. The runners were stationed at approximately 2 - 4 league distances (3.6 miles).

Pic 6: The use of runner couriers is known to have been common among the Maya as well as the Aztecs; illustration by Steve Radzi
Pic 6: The use of runner couriers is known to have been common among the Maya as well as the Aztecs; illustration by Steve Radzi (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the Nahuatl words for these runners was titlantli, a messenger, the other was paina, “swiftness.” While there was a special group of fleet runners who served as messengers, who were called titlantli, it was also applied generally to messengers and ambassadors. From the literature it seems that the runners as couriers consisted of two different types. One was the “victory messenger” (tequipan titlantli), who were young men of marriageable age who traveled with the Mexica troops to military engagements and who ran to carry messages back to the capital. The other type was the messenger used to send regular communications from one part of the empire to the other, and possibly to carry items as quickly as possible along a fixed route.

Pic 7: Mexica runners carrying the flame from the New Fire ceremony to the four corners of the empire; illustration by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 7: Mexica runners carrying the flame from the New Fire ceremony to the four corners of the empire; illustration by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

Runners also participated in certain important ceremonies, such as the New Fire ceremony. The ceremony was also known as the Binding of the Years since it marked the completion of one fifty-two year cycle and the beginning of the next. On the last night of the old cycle, a special victim was sacrificed on a hilltop in the eastern basin of the Valley of Mexico. The priests who specialized in lighting fires ignited one in the chest of the victim using a fire drill. Priests who gathered around then lit their torches and the fire was then passed to special runners who would carry the new fire to all locations in the Valley. The most important of these runners sped directly to the Templo Mayor where he first illuminated the image of Huitzilopochtli and put fire to the incense offered to the god. The fire was then passed to the priests of the sacred precinct and then to the rest of the city.

Pic 8: Architect Ignacio Marquina’s 1951 reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre, showing the Templo Mayor, left
Pic 8: Architect Ignacio Marquina’s 1951 reconstruction of Tenochtitlan city centre, showing the Templo Mayor, left (Click on image to enlarge)

While little else is known of the messengers, it is possible that the office was either hereditary or at least limited to a small number of well-trained individuals. Future couriers were chosen when still quite young. They trained under the supervision of the priests of the sacred precinct. In order to strengthen their legs and to build endurance, they boys were required to run up the Templo Mayor, a total of 113 steps. To encourage them and, to provide incentive, prizes were given to the winners of these sprints.
One of the most important uses of running occurred in the Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli, in late November and early December. On the appointed day, a runner would take a figurine of the god Huitzilopochtli made of amaranth dough. The runner would run a circuit in the Valley of Mexico of about 21 miles (33 Km) returning to the great Temple. All along the way people would run along with him. Some tried to grab the figurine from his hands. At four places special sacrifices were offered. At the end of the circuit, when the runner returned, a massive ceremony occurred in which dozens or hundreds of slaves and war captives were sacrificed to the great god Huitzilopochtli.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo courtesy of Mike Call
• Pic 2: Image from Wikipedia
• Pic 3: Photos courtesy of Mariah Fisher
• Pic 4: Photo courtesy of Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Karl Kernberger Collection HP.2003.08
• Pic 5: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore (L); image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clarke facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pic 6: Illustration commissioned for Mexicolore from Steve Radzi
• Pic 7: Illustration commissioned for Mexicolore from Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 8: Image scanned from our own copy of Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951, p.197.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 19th 2014

Mexico’s long-distance running tradition

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The New Fire Ceremony

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Mike Call’s website

Steve Radzi’s website

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