General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Mexicolore contributor Raul Macuil Martinez

The fate of the wise tlamatque - spiritual leaders of Nahua communities

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Raúl Macuil Martínez of Leiden University, the Netherlands, for allowing us to present here some of the content from his doctoral thesis, titled ‘The Tlamatque, Guardians of Heritage: Intercultural Dynamics in Nahua Society (Mexico)’. Dr. Martínez, a Nahuatl speaker himself from Apizaco, Tlaxcala, carried out much of his field work in the Nahua community of Santa Catarina Acaxochitlan, Hidalgo. (This summary, compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore, is based partly on the thesis itself and partly on the paper ‘Learning from the Tlamatquegiven by Dr. Mártinez at the conference on Mesoamerican Manuscripts in Oxford in June 2016: his talk is available as a podcast - follow the link below)

Pic 1: Dr. Martínez presents his paper at the Oxford Conference on Mesoamerican Manuscripts, 2016
Pic 1: Dr. Martínez presents his paper at the Oxford Conference on Mesoamerican Manuscripts, 2016 (Click on image to enlarge)

In every Mesoamerican culture there is a term for local ‘wise people’ (the nearest we have in English is the old-fashioned term ‘sages’) - usually elders in the community charged with giving advice, guidance and support to individuals in the form of spiritual healing, carrying out rituals and offerings that pass on moral knowledge to the next generation, and maintaining the ethical values of the community. Amongst the Nahua (descendants of the Mexica/Aztecs), such people are called in Nahuatl tlamatque (singular tlamatqui) - ‘people who have knowledge’. These individuals have always been highly respected for their wisdom and experience, often passed down from generation to generation. We know that such sages were key figures in indigenous Mexican communities before the Spanish invaded.

Pic 2: An Aztec newborn child is ritually washed, presented with symbolic gifts and introduced by his/her parents to teacher-priests. Codex Mendoza, fol. 57r
Pic 2: An Aztec newborn child is ritually washed, presented with symbolic gifts and introduced by his/her parents to teacher-priests. Codex Mendoza, fol. 57r (Click on image to enlarge)

Today’s Nahua communities inherited the role of the tlamatque from the religious teachers (‘masters of youth’) of the Mexica (Aztecs) - depicted in the Codex Mendoza (pic 2) giving advice to parents of a newborn child. Education, whilst universal, was harsh: its aim was to drum respect - for Mother Earth, for spirits, for ancestors, for elders, for others in the community... - into Aztec youth, and by so doing (and continuing to do today) ‘through family and school education, different ethical values governing the life of the community are carried through generations’. It was in every sense ‘education for life’, and was strictly imposed: your first warning was oral, your second would be physical! The Mexica spoke of building a ‘strong and resilient heart’ in each individual, training the community’s next generation of citizens...

Pic 3: Sacred mountains: ‘Matlalcueyetl’ mountain, seen from Tlaxcala (bottom left); Culhuacan mountain (with Huitzilopochtli inside a cave), Codex Azcatitlan fol. 3a (top right)
Pic 3: Sacred mountains: ‘Matlalcueyetl’ mountain, seen from Tlaxcala (bottom left); Culhuacan mountain (with Huitzilopochtli inside a cave), Codex Azcatitlan fol. 3a (top right) (Click on image to enlarge)

By studying Nahua literature both prior to and since the Spanish invasion, Dr. Martínez demonstrates that ‘part of the ancestral wisdom and knowledge of past generations continues to be passed down: rites dedicated to sacred mountains, respect for the earth, representation of ancestors in genealogies and maps, rituals recorded in these manuscripts... What we see today is the result of intense intellectual activity paired with serious reflection on the Nahua realm of the sacred, in tune with the Mesoamerican vision of the world. And all of it written and thought through in Nahuatl. This activity is experienced today through the words of the tlamatque: their speeches, prayers, ‘readings’ of grains of maize, and stories embodying the cultural values of the local community. This is the essence of la palabra florida, la palabra sagrada (spiritual discourse).’

Pic 4: The Santa Catarina community give offerings to the earth
Pic 4: The Santa Catarina community give offerings to the earth (Click on image to enlarge)

The past transcends time and space, living on in Nahua thinking and narratives, keeping alive within these communities today their world view and meaning of life on earth for future generations. And it is very much the expression of a community’s feelings rather than of any individual. ‘It is the community that speaks through these texts and not an individual. It is the community that seeks and prays for the good of the altepetl (village/town).’ At the heart of the spiritual life of each Nahua community is its relationship with (mother) earth - seen as a living entity (a gigantic reptile) with her own personal name, Maceuatenancatzintli, ‘The Venerable Mother of our People’. Mountains too are seen as living beings with names. The ancient spirit that lives in a mountain continues to communicate with the sages through dreams, asking for prayers, for offerings, for the burning of copal or other incense, for the community to go and spend what we might today call ‘quality time’ with him/her at home. Mountains, in turn, are believed to be storehouses of foods, such as sacred maize.

Pic 5: ‘Tlamatque’ in action: with village officials blessing a house (top left); incensing an altar (bottom left); praying for/’cleaning’ a dancer before a ceremony (right)
Pic 5: ‘Tlamatque’ in action: with village officials blessing a house (top left); incensing an altar (bottom left); praying for/’cleaning’ a dancer before a ceremony (right) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sadly, ever since the Spanish invasion of Mexico, the role of the tlamatque has been constantly eroded, derided and stigmatised; in turn these community leaders have consistently, over centuries, been discriminated, persecuted and accused of being witches, non-believers, shamans, ‘medicine men’, ‘faith healers’ and clairvoyants and other more or less derogatory terms. Even the Spanish language has become complicit in this: local people, when speaking of the tlamatque in Spanish refer to them as brujitos (literally, little witches). Whereas when Nahuatl is used the negative aspect disappears and they are referred to by their proper term ‘those who know things’, i.e., sages. And it isn’t just the people who have suffered this undermining of their status: parts of the sacred landscape have too. Dr. Martínez cites examples of mountains near his native community that are referred to by the Spanish term cerro brujo (‘witch mountain’) whereas in Nahuatl the original name means ‘good mountain’.

Pic 6: Respect for elders: a wedding scene in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 61r). Only the elders, the grandparents speak, giving advice to the bride and groom. They are respected for their age, wisdom and experience
Pic 6: Respect for elders: a wedding scene in the Codex Mendoza (fol. 61r). Only the elders, the grandparents speak, giving advice to the bride and groom. They are respected for their age, wisdom and experience (Click on image to enlarge)

Dr. Martínez rails against what he calls this ‘offensive discriminatory terminology’. The tlamatque have traditionally been revered as individuals who know, use and perform sacred language and rituals, who are able to speak with gods and ancestors - often through the medium of dreams - and who maintain religious life in Nahuatl communities.
The fact that they have survived through centuries of repression is a tribute to the strength and resilience of Nahua culture, to the value placed - since long before the Aztecs - on respect for elders and ancestors throughout Mesoamerica; testament indeed to a culture that, far from being ‘dead and gone’ and belonging to the past and to the vencidos (‘defeated’), is very much alive, has warmth, essence and a presence today - the Mesoamerican vision of the world.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 2 & 6: images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition (London, 1938)
• Pic 3: photo by Raúl Macuil Martínez; image from the Codex Azcatitlan supplied by Dr. Martínez, downloaded from amoxcalli.org
• Pic 4: photo by Arturo Castelán Zacatenco
• Pic 5: photos by Valeria Ramirez Corona, except bottom left photo by Raúl Macuil Martínez.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 12th 2017

Listen to Dr. Martínez’ paper ‘Learning from the Tlamatque’...
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