General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 17 Feb 2019/4 Water
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Stone figures of an Aztec woman and man

Aztec Sayings

’When an Indian dies, an encyclopedia dies with him’ (Fernando Benítez)

The Aztecs were great masters of their language, Náhuatl, and throughout time produced great poets and orators such as Nezahualcóyotl, Lord of Texcoco, anonymous contributors to texts such as the book of Aztec songs, Cantares Mexicanos, and the Florentine Codex. Here we present a selection of proverbs with the aim of shedding some light on the beauty or power of Náhuatl words... Main source: Patrick Johansson K., Machiotlahtolli: La palabra-modelo. Dichos y refranes de los antiguos nahuas, México, McGraw-Hill, 2004 (Written/compiled by Julia Flood and Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Special thanks for help in translating individual phrases from English into Náhuatl sent into us by the general public (at bottom of page) are due to John Sullivan and the team at IDIEZ in Zacatecas, Mexico - a link to their website can be found in our Aztecs Links pages, under Aztecs/Mexica (Teachers) - to Dr. Patrick Johansson of UNAM in Mexico City, to José Abraham Méndez Hernández, a historian and native Náhuatl speaker from Puebla, and to named individuals below.

Axcan mixtlapachmana yn tonatíuh

Death of an emperor, detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Death of an emperor, detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City

Today the sun’s covered his face

This phrase is said when a ruler dies, or a city perishes, or a fine tradition is lost, or a wise elder passes away...

Çan nomaccah in nix in noyollo inic ni nouatzaz. [anoço] inic ninocueponaltiz

The importance of flowers. Detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
The importance of flowers. Detail from a mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City

If it is to be it is up to me

This proverb, from Of the Manners of Speaking That the Old Ones Had: The Metaphors of Andrés de Olmos, is titled ‘Choice’, and its literary interpretation is as follows:-

It is only by my hand, by my face, my heart, my spirit
that either I will wither, or I will bloom,
I will become as green land, as tilled earth
I will germinate, I will sprout.

Ie onquiza naoalli: anoce ónquiz in naoalli

Tecolote or ‘owl-man’ (nahual), Codex Borgia pl. 7
Tecolote or ‘owl-man’ (nahual), Codex Borgia pl. 7

His nahual’s helping him

While some people work their hearts out to earn a living - or to study and learn a subject or trade - others are lazy, mess about, and don’t seem to do any work, and yet end up getting rich - or knowing a subject inside out with zero effort. Then it’s said that their nahual has come out (to help).

Whilst in ancient times the nahual was a person’s (animal) companion spirit or alter ego (with good and bad aspects) more recently it has taken on a more negative association, like a ‘goblin’ or even ‘devil’.

Ma chapultépec ninaalti

The hill of Chapultepec - part of the Aztecs’ migration story from the Codex Boturini, fol. 18
The hill of Chapultepec - part of the Aztecs’ migration story from the Codex Boturini, fol. 18

Time to bathe in Chapultepec!

When a great weight has been taken off the shoulders - following recovery from a serious illness, or freedom from a tortuous job - relax, celebrate... enjoy a swim in the waters of Chapultepec, sacred Hill of the Grasshopper and source of fresh water near Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City).

Smile, strip off, let your hair down, treat yourself to a blessing in the holy waters of the famous spa. Cool!

Áiac xictli in tlaltícpac

One citizen scorns another, Florentine Codex Book 10
One citizen scorns another, Florentine Codex Book 10

Never ‘belly-button’ anyone...

The Náhuatl literally says ‘No-one is a navel or belly-button of the earth’; calling someone by this term might be the equivalent of calling them today a ‘waste of space’.

The message behind the saying is that we should never scorn or undervalue people: they might be wise, prudent, capable and above all, worthy of respect.

Oppa ícuitl quicua

Eating poo, Codex Borgia folio 10
Eating poo, Codex Borgia folio 10

You can’t have your ‘cake’ and eat it?

Some Aztec metaphors are almost too down-to-earth! The Náhuatl refers to someone who gives a gift (food, clothing) to a person and then later wants it back as a ‘double-poo eater’ -

- the idea being that the giver wants to consume again what has already left him or her (from whichever end of the body...); well, that’s one way of ‘pooting’ it!

Noyollo iiztaia, moyollo iiztaia

You could imagine these two newly weds exchanging these words. They have literally just “tied the knot”. When looking at his bride, the groom might have said, Noiolo iiztaia, “My eyes became happy”.
You could imagine these two newly weds exchanging these words. They have literally just “tied the knot”. When looking at his bride, the groom might have said, Noiolo iiztaia, “My eyes became happy”.

My heart becomes white, your heart becomes white

On the subject of happiness... according to the Aztecs, the heart whitened on becoming happy. At first it yearned for it, as if it were thirsty or ravenous, and on seeing the object of its desire, it whitened.

In order to show each other affection when greeting, many modern day Nahuas, descendants of the Aztecs, say the word “pialli”, which means “I carry you in my heart”.

Ixtli, yollotli quitquitinemi

A mother teaches her daughter to weave
A mother teaches her daughter to weave

They begin to take on a face, a heart

This Náhuatl metaphor was used to describe youth and the steps young people took towards adulthood. The Aztecs considered it a special duty to educate their youngsters in the importance of hard work and honesty. The Florentine Codex and the Codex Mendoza (shown) both include sections dedicated to their efforts in this area. The following saying demonstrates how precious and delicate the Aztecs considered childhood to be:-

Xotla cueponi - ‘they grow, they flower’

Sixteenth century Nahua ‘tlacuilos’ (scribes) wrote of children as ‘rich feathers... precious stones’, because they were so important to society.

Ihíio, Itlátol

Look at the scroll that comes from this emperor’s lips. It is blue, the colour of precious stone.
Look at the scroll that comes from this emperor’s lips. It is blue, the colour of precious stone.

His breath, His word

This was a saying used to describe the emperor and the importance of every word that left his lips.

The sentence can also be used as a metaphor for the words used by the emperor to explain his reasoning to his advisors, as well as the speaker to the crowd that is listening.

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