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Frances Karttunen

Aztec Song

The following article has been generously written for us by Dr. Frances Karttunen, retired Professor of Linguistics and Senior University Research Scientist, Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas, prolific author and expert on the Náhuatl language.

Song of Chichome Cóatl, Florentine Codex Book 2
Song of Chichome Cóatl, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

The words to hundreds of Aztec songs and fragments of songs are preserved to this day in two manuscripts with Spanish titles that were written soon after the Spanish Conquest. One is called Cantares Mexicanos, which has been translated from the Spanish as “Songs of the Aztecs.” The other is called Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España, “Ballads of the Lords of New Spain.” (New Spain corresponded roughly to the modern nation of the United States of Mexico).

Musicians playing their part in ‘keeping watch against enemies’, Florentine Codex Book 8
Musicians playing their part in ‘keeping watch against enemies’, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

The lyrics in these manuscripts are often described as poems for the very good reason that we have the words but not the music. Many of them are preceded by drumbeat patterns transcribed with the syllables ti, to, qui, and co. For example, several songs are accompanied by the drumbeat coto coto coti ticoti ticoti. For others the beat is toco tico tocoti tocoti tocoti tocoti. A longer one is tiqui tiqui tocoto tiqui tiqui tocoto tiqui tiquiti tiqui tiqui tiquiti. Sometimes one drumbeat pattern is given and then a second one for “when it turns” or “until it ends.”

A ‘bad’ musician is punished, Florentine Codex Book 8
A ‘bad’ musician is punished, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs accompanied their songs with two kinds of drums: the teponaztli, a horizontal log drum with tongues cut into the wood, and the huehuetl, an upright drum with a leather-covered head. In some poems, each stanza is referred to as a huehuetl, so that word has two meaning: “upright drum” or “stanza of a song accompanied by an upright drum.” The musicians were under great pressure to follow the rules exactly. Errors in performance were scandalous and severely punished. The problem for us is that the rules are lost, and what little instruction has come down to us is ambiguous. At one point in the Cantares, it is said that the drum comes in after cencamatl, which literally means “one mouth.” But is this “mouth” a word, a syllable, a phrase? We do not know.



Huehuetl and teponaztli players at the centre of birth celebrations, Florentine Codex Book 4
Huehuetl and teponaztli players at the centre of birth celebrations, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

It is often said that “flowers and song” refers to poetry in Nahuatl. Nahuatl has many two-part constructions that are termed difrasismos in Spanish, the idea being that the two components together symbolize or refer to the essence of the whole. For instance huipilli, cueitl “blouse, skirt” is a way to refer to a woman, while tlalli, zoquitl “earth, mud” refers to the perishable human body. Into this pattern, xochitl, cuicatl “flower, song” fits very well, but surprisingly the pair does not appear all that often across the many surviving Nahuatl texts, and when it does, it sometimes refers literally to flowers together with song.

Song of Xipe (god of fertility), Florentine Codex Book 2
Song of Xipe (god of fertility), Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

What are these songs about? They come under many headings such as “Water-Pouring Song,” “Song of the Green Time,” “Pathos Song,” “Warrior Song,” and “Otomí Song,” but they are often much alike. There are many references to the ephemeral nature of butterflies and flowers, and frequently they say that even things like gold and jade don’t last forever. The color green is auspicious and is reflected in quetzal feathers, turquoise stones, and fresh green grass. All sorts of birds are mentioned. The singers say that they are sad and distressed, but they urge their listeners to be happy and to enjoy themselves. Many of the songs have been attributed to particular individuals, especially Nezahualcoyotl, the ruler of the city of Texcoco. However, the phrase “Nezahualcoyotl, his song” could as well indicate that it is a song dedicated to the ruler or even a song about the ruler. Rulers and members of their courts are also invoked within the lyrics. The “Song of the Women of Chalco” pokes fun at the Lord Axayacatl.

Aztec singers/dancers/musicians, Florentine Codex Book 4
Aztec singers/dancers/musicians, Florentine Codex Book 4 (Click on image to enlarge)

The two collections of lyrics contain a number of repetitions and variations of the same song, and from these we can learn about the ideal structure of an Aztec song. It does not rhyme, and it does not count syllables, but in its way, the Aztec song is as strict in form as a sonnet, although it is radically different in principles. In Nahuatl high style, whether prose or verse, elements are paired, giving rise to difrasismos. Such a pair of words or phrases is often described in English as a couplet, and in Nahuatl formal rhetoric, couplets are frequently embedded within couplets. Whatever is worth saying is worth saying twice. And whatever is worth saying twice is worth saying four or eight times.

Instruments in the Emperor’s palace store, Florentine Codex Book 8
Instruments in the Emperor’s palace store, Florentine Codex Book 8 (Click on image to enlarge)

This is reflected in the structure of the songs. The majority of them consist of four stanzas, each stanza consisting of a pair of verses. We know that the verse pairs go together, because each of the two elements ends with an identical coda. The coda is made up of syllables that can be compared to tralala in English songs. The syllables have no meaning of their own but serve to tell the hearer that one verse is over and another is about to begin. A typical coda in Nahuatl songs is ohuaya ohuaya, but there are longer ones such as ayie a oo ohuaya and ohui ohui ilili y yao ayyahue o amaha ilili ahua y yaohuia.

Song of Xipe, Florentine Codex Book 2
Song of Xipe, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

An eight-verse Nahuatl song begins with a stanza consisting of a pair of verses, each ending in the same coda. Then comes another stanza, often with a different shared coda. Then comes another stanza, followed by the fourth. Rather than progressing from a beginning to a middle to an end, the organization is circular. In some repetitions, we find different order of the stanzas, but within the stanzas, the verse pairs are inseparable. In a few cases where one of the verses has been forgotten, a dummy verse has been substituted ending with the same coda as its partner within the stanza.

A huehuetl drummer leads a group of Aztec singers, Florentine Codex Book 9
A huehuetl drummer leads a group of Aztec singers, Florentine Codex Book 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

Here is an example of a Nahuatl song that has more of a beginning-to-end story than most. The singer is Quaquauhtzin, and he implies that he has gravely offended some of his audience. He says he is sad and is going away, perhaps to death. In the remaining time, he asks his listeners to enjoy themselves.

(1a) Here are my jade teponaztli and my green-bird conch that I blow, I Quaquauhtzin. I have arrived, I have arisen, I the singer. Ayyo huiya.

(1b) Now enjoy yourselves, let rise here those whose hearts I offend. I lift my voice in song. I have arrived, I have arisen, I the singer. Ayyo huiya.

Song of Atlahua, Florentine Codex Book 2
Song of Atlahua, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

(2a) Loosen your heart, let your heart be coming here, you who hate me and wish my death. When I have gone and have perished, then perhaps never more will you come to cry and be sad over me. My friend, I am already going, already going. Yehua ohuaya.

(2b) My heart says I am not coming again, I will not come again to be born on the well-sheltered earth, but I am already going, already going. Yehua ohuaya.

(3a) My heart yearns for flowers. I am sad in song. I only try out songs on earth, I Quaquauhtzin. I wish for flowers. May they come lie in my arms. I am discontent. A yo haye yho ohua yhua ohuaiya.

(3b) Where shall we go where we never die? Though I were of jade or of gold, I would be melted and drilled through. My spirit melts. I, Quaquauhtzin, am afflicted. A yo haye yho ohua yhua ohuaiya.


Performing ‘flower-songs’, Florentine Codex Book 3
Performing ‘flower-songs’, Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

(4a) Do nothing but enjoy yourselves, each enjoy, my friends. Will you not enjoy yourselves? Will you not be content, my friends? Where shall I get fine flowers and fine songs? Y ahua yia o ahua yia ohuaya ohuaya.

(4b) Never are there two times of blooming here. I am afflicted, I Quaquauhtzin. Will you not enjoy yourselves, will you not be content my friends? Where shall I get fine flowers and fine songs? Y ahua yia o ahua yia ohuaya ohuaya.



(This song appears twice in the Cantares Mexicanos. The English translation was originally made by James M. Lockhart and has been slightly emended and regularized by Frances Karttunen.)

Picture sources:-

All images 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

Aztec Poetry

Diphrases or couplets in Náhuatl

Examples of Aztec hymns and prayers - Tlacatecco website
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