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Aztec legend of the creation of the moon (Traven)

The Creation of the Moon

This is the second part of Ben Traven’s classic ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’, illustrated by Alberto Beltrán, first published in 1968. If you enjoy this beautifully told legend as much as we do, you’ll want to read the whole book! Though now out of print, second hand copies are still obtainable on the internet... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Graphic from ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’
Graphic from ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’

In the years that passed men realised that they enjoyed a beautiful Sun during the day, but they feared the darkness of the night. And so, according to the legend, the son of Chicovaneg set out on another journey to create for mankind a lesser Sun, one exclusively for the night. And here is what the legend tells of that feature ...
When the son of Chicovaneg grew up, the men of his tribe called him Huachinog-vaneg because he dreamed so much, and because his thoughts were more often in the sky with his father than on earth with his people. Often for long hours he sat in the shade of a tree, sad-faced and lost in meditation.
One day his mother Lequilants found him thus. “My son,” she said, “why is it you are so sad? Everywhere people are happily rejoicing in th Sun your father gave them.”
Huachinog-vaneg arose, bowed before his mother, put his face over her hand in greeting, and said, “Oh, my beloved and honoured mother, and why should I not be sad? My father did great deeds on earth and in the skies. I feel unworthy of my father and of you.”

Graphic from Ben Traven’s book
Graphic from Ben Traven’s book

“My son,” she told him, “you, too, are a creator. Do you not create beautiful houses out of stone, with sand and lime, so that people may live secure from storms and wild beasts?”
”It is true,” the son replied, “but I have taught many to build as perfectly as I do. And time will decay these houses and also the temples and high pyramids I have built. After several summers no person will remember the one who built them - or even his name.”
Whereupon the mother said, ‘My son, not all men can create a new Sun, but there is ever a need for houses to be built, for fields to be tilled, mats to be woven, pots and plates to be made and fired, and trees to be planted. For if all this were not done, of what use would be the perfect Sun in the sky?’
’Honoured mother, you speak wisely. But you are a woman, while I as a man, with different ways and other thoughts, am driven on by ambition. Many times when I have sat alone, under a tree, I have spoken to my father. Know that it is my ardent wish to go to him.’
To this Lequilants said: ‘No mother, no wife or lover has the strength to prevent a man of strong mind from doing what he earnestly desires to do. Take me to the house, my son. Let me lean upon your arm, for now I feel my years.’
The son saw his mother to the house. She put out the light of the pine-wood torch and covered the embers on the hearth with ashes. But Huachinog-vaneg left the door open so that he might see the stars.
’Come here, my son,’ said his mother, ‘and sit beside me. I am afraid of the dark tonight as every night.’
’Do not be afraid, mother. I am with you.’
’Yes, my son, and I am glad. But there are mothers who have lost their sons, and mothers who are alone because their sons are far away, and there are those who never had a son. All are afraid of the dark night - as I am afraid when you are not here.

Florentine Codex image of two moons, from the Aztec legend
Florentine Codex image of two moons, from the Aztec legend

‘I have thought at times that the people of earth also need a Sun at night. But who could create a Sun for the night only? It would be more difficult I think that it was to create the Sun for the day. The kindling of the Day Sun needed great courage, but only a man who is truly clever could create a Sun of the Night. For think! Such a Night Sun must give light but not heat; otherwise no living thing could recov er from the day’s heat, and all life on earth must sleep and rest and gain strength for the coming day.’ Huachinog-vaneg pondered his mother’s words. ‘You are wise, my mother,’ he said. ‘It would indeed be difficult to create such a Sun for the night.’
’Imagine how difficult, my son!’ said Lequilants. ‘For the Night Sun must not disturb mankind, neither the animals and plants of the earth in their rest. Nor should it shine always with a full light. Rather, its light should increase and decrease gradually so that earth’s living things could grow accustomed to both light and darkness. And there should be nights on earth when the Night Sun disappears completely, so that people may know what true darkness means, and the usefulness of the stars and how satisfying complete stillness can be. How can any man on earth be clever enough to create such a Sun? Yet one dreams of such things as I often do.’
Said Huachinog-vaneg, ‘It is a beautiful dream, my mother, and I am happy you shared it with me.’

Graphic from ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’
Graphic from ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’

Time passed. One day Lequilants found her son sitting on the ground, sketching many rings in the soil.
She came to him and said, ‘What thoughts are you lost in my son? A new building, or what?’
’I have thought much about your dream of a Sun for the night,’ he told her, ‘and now I believe I have discovered the way to create it. There is a very wise and learned man who all his life has studied the paths of celestial bodies. I am sure that with his guidance I can create the Night Sun which the world needs - one that you and all people on earth would like to enjoy, one that will give light but not heat, one that will slowly grow and then become small again, one that will even disappear at times so that its existence will be more appreciated by men.’
Said Lequilants: ‘Go, my beloved son. My blessings are with you in all your wanderings and doings. Go and create a Sun of the Night so that mothers need not fear the darkness any longer. Should you meet your father, greet him for me and tell him that I think of him always in true love and admiration. When I look up in the dark sky and see that you have kindled the Sun of the Night, I shall know that my days are fulfilled, and that I can leave this earth as wife of the bravest man and mother of one of the cleverest men who ever lived.’
Huachinog-vaneg went first to the sage Nahevaneg, and asked him, ‘O Wise Man, where can I find the Serpent with feathers? I need his help for I seek to create a Sun for the Night.’

Aztec feathered serpent figure Quetzalcoatl
Aztec feathered serpent figure Quetzalcoatl

Nahevaneg replied: ‘The Feathered Serpent is the symbol of our world, and as there can be only one such symbol, there is only one Feathered Serpent. Your father freed the Feathered Serpent to help him create the Sun. And after the Sun was kindled, he ordered the Feathered Serpent to stretch itself around the world where the arc of the sky rests on the earth or the great ocean. And there the Feathered Serpent lies to this day guarding the world against the evil forces that live beyond, always and forever ready to destroy the world. (Photo: Xavier Miró)
’Your father is not only brave but also cunning. He knows that the Serpent likes to drink deeply of the sweet dreams that flow along the horizon’s edge, streams of morning dew from flowers that grow, some at sunrise, some at sunset, streams that mix with star dust to make a sweet and heavy wine of strange power. How the star dust sparkles in this rare wine! And how the Serpent loves it! This wine at the world’s edge is the drink that alone can quench the Serpent’s thirst. So Chicovaneg descends at the end of each day to see that the Feathered Serpent has not taken too much of this ethereal wine.
’When Chicovaneg finds the Serpent awake and on guard, his radiant face paints the evening sky a golden red. But when he finds the Serpent asleep or drowsy with wine, he is angry, and his eyes flash like fiery wings dipping in and out of the dark evening sky. So you see, Huachinog-vaneg, the Serpent, busy as it is, cannot help you.’

Rabbit in the moon image from the Codex Borgia
Rabbit in the moon image from the Codex Borgia

As the sage was speaking, a rabbit came jumping along, nibbling eagerly at the lush cool grass growing near their feet.
’Take a rabbit along with you, son.’ said the sage. ‘A rabbit can leap, is a friendly companion, and can be of good use to you.’

Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia
Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia

Huachinog-vaneg accepted the sage’s counsel. He lifted the rabbit up by its ears and held it softly in his arms. Then he thanked Nahevaneg and bade him farewell.
Now Huachinog-vaneg set himself to the task of making two shields. As soon as he had found a convenient place to work he made a heavy shield to carry on his right arm. Then he made another of the fine silky fibres of the maguey plant. It was so light and wondrously woven that when he held it against the Sun, he could see the Sun like a dark disk behind it. This shield he did not fasten to either arm, but carried it first in one hand, then in the other. He had no need of a spear, for he meant to follow the golden road his father had built from which all evil spirits had been driven back into darkness. In that bright light and always in full view of his father, he need fear no enemies.
He provided himself also with a strong and long lasso, and when finally he was ready, he took his rabbit - Tul by name - and travelled to the end of the world.

Graphic from Ben Traven’s book
Graphic from Ben Traven’s book

At the world’s end there was a deep cavern in which lived the great tiger Cananpale-hetic. This tiger came out of his cavern and said to Huachinog-vaneg: ‘Do not fear me, for understand, I am the world tiger. Here is the very spot from which your father started on his journey. It was here he hesitated, because he feared to jump to the lowest star. Here in his hesitation he stamped one foot, and then the other, treading so hard that this cavern was formed. I fled here, pursued by savage coyotes which the evil gods sent to destroy me. It was then Chicovaneg saved me from the coyotes, and offered me this cavern as a home. And he sent the Feathered Serpent to kill the coyotes, so I was left in peace to heal my wounds. Now I remain here for eternity, to protect the road from the earth up to the lowest star.

Aztec tiger mask (Photo: Sean Sprague)
Aztec tiger mask (Photo: Sean Sprague)

‘Rest here, Huachinog-vaneg, and gather strength for your difficult task. And your rabbit Tul may eat all it desires of the green prairie grass that lies around us.’
Huachinog-vaneg rested, and Tul ate well. Then together they climbed the rock Chabuquel.
Huachinog-vaneg looked at the lowest star and saw that it was too far away to reach in one leap. He became afraid and much discouraged, but Tul said, ‘I will go ahead and jump while you wait here. If I fall into the abyss of Balamilal, I alone will be lost. Find another rabbit then - there are many. I, myself, have a hundred and forty sons. You may select the strongest one, and tell him that I, his father, command him to follow you, and he will come.’
Then Huachinog-vaneg said, ‘Hear me well, Tul. We are friends, and I do not want to lose you. Let us wait here until the rock Chabuquel has grown a little more; then the jump to the lowest star will be easier than it is today.’

Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia
Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia

But the rabbit Tul replied, ‘My life is not so long as yours, Huachinog-vaneg. I cannot wait.’
And before Huachinog-vaneg could reply, the rabbit Tul had jumped. He fell back at first without touching the lowest star. But he tried again and again, and at last the tip of one of his long ears touched the star, and he struggled with his legs to get a foothold. A branch of a thornbush helped Tul to scramble onto the star. Then free of the thorns, he leaped up onto a high rock, jumping up and down until Huachinog-vaneg could see him. Huachinog-vaneg threw his lasso to the star; Tul caught it and fastened it onto the peak of a rock, and Huachinog-vaneg swung through space on the lasso and landed on the star.
Together in triumph they went to greet the inhabitants of this first star.
And thus did they wander from star to star, taking only tiny fragments from each one; for the Sun of the Night did not need to be as large or as bright as the Sun of the Day. To make a lesser and cooler light than that of the great Sun, Huachinog-vaneg tied each bit of star as it was given him to the lasso and let it down into the black void to cool off.
And Huachinog-vaneg said to Tul: ‘My Sun will not be as beautiful or as marvellous as the Sun created by my father; but the Sun I have almost completed is as my mother wanted it, sometimes great, sometimes thin, and sometimes invisible.’

Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia
Small rabbit image from the Codex Borgia

‘How clever you are!’ said Tul. ‘How did you manage to do that?’ And Huachinog-vaneg showed him. He took the shield in his left hand and moved it slowly in front of the shield of the Night Sun which was fastened on his right arm. As the shade of the lighter shield moved across the heavier shield, the Night Sun became smaller and smaller until it was completely shadowed and only its darkened outline was visible. And slowly, slowly, Huachinog-vaneg moved the lighter shield along, letting the Sun-of-the-Night shield become larger and larger until it regained its full size.
When his mother looked up at the sky and saw this, she called her neighbours together, and said: ‘Now I can lie down and die in peace, for I have done my duty on earth. I have repaid the good earth for the life it granted me. I had a brave husband, and I bore him a son who was wiser and cleverer than he.’ Saying this, she bent down to earth, and died on her knees.

Graphic from Ben Traven’s book ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’
Graphic from Ben Traven’s book ‘The Creation of the Sun and the Moon’

The men of her tribe took her up to the highest mountain peak in the centre of the land, where she would be closest to her husband and her son. And the sky covered her body with a white mantle of eternal snow. The first ray that Chicovaneg sends to the earth each morning kisses her forehead before it reaches other people, and the last ray in the evening envelops her body in a red-gold glory.

Painting of Popocatepetl from Ixtla at dawn, by and with kind permission of Richard Ferguson
Painting of Popocatepetl from Ixtla at dawn, by and with kind permission of Richard Ferguson

Huachinog-vaneg journeyed steadily across the firmament bringing the light of the Night Sun to mankind. And so faithfully did the Night Sun make its changes that people on earth came to look to it for the order of the days and the hours and the months and the tides.
Once Huachinog-vaneg stumbled on his way and was late in his journey, and the people became confused in their accounting of the time. And so it is to this day.
Wherever Huachinog-vaneg went, the rabbit Tul leaped in his way, full of pranks and play. Now Tul was in front, now behind, and now between his legs; at last Huachinog-vaneg became impatient with Tul’s antics, and he said: ‘The people on earth will think that I stumble drunkenly across the heavens, and they will build no more temples to me and no pyramids, or any longer name days after me. It would be better for both of us if you went down to earth to join your family. You will live happily there, begetting perhaps a thousand more sons. I know that you love the nights more than the days, so when you wander at night longing to find the choicest cabbage leaves, I will send you the brightest light; my light will help you to see the coyotes or the wild cats who are after you. So I think it is time for you to go, Tul.’
Tul knelt before Huachinog-vaneg and blinked, his eyes moist with tears, as he said: ‘I learned long ago that human beings do not know gratitude, Huachinog-vaneg. But you are not part of the people any more; you are a god now and people build temples and pyramids on earth in your honour. Now to my surprise I learn from you that even gods know no gratefulness. And I hoped that your people on earth would make me half a god, if not a whole one, for I helped you reach your first star, and I have been a true friend and useful companion to you since the day we met for the first time.’

Small rabbit image from Codex Borgia
Small rabbit image from Codex Borgia

Huachinog-vaneg answered: ‘But don’t you understand? You are in my way, leaping and jumping as you do. So leap and jump back to earth, Tul. I thank you for your help. Anyway, perhaps I might have found my way without you.’
’I am not very sure of that,’ Tul replied. ‘For I remember too well how frightened you were, standing there by the cavern of the tiger, hopping from one foot to the other, afraid to make the leap. Now I’d have to jump from star to get back to earth from where we came, and my bones are old. If I fail in just one leap, I’ll fall into the bottomless void, and go falling forever. You couldn’t come to help me, now that your godly duty is to mark the times of the month and the year to people on earth.’
’Or perhaps I would arrive on earth - but with broken legs, unable to search for my food at night or for the hole in which I lived with my family, no matter how much light you sent me. I’d be unable to escape from the coyotes and dogs trying to catch me. And should an eagle spy me, I wouldn’t be able to sprint to a burrow before he’d swoop down and gobble me up. So, Huachinog-vaneg, like it or not, there’s no other remedy, I’ll leap around your legs as long as is good for my health.’
Angered by these words, Huachinog-vaneg grabbed Tul by his long ears and lifted him to hurl him forevermore into the black void of Balamilal. But Tul turned his face to Huachinog-vaneg, grinned and blinked, and cheerfully kicked his legs above the black void to show he was not afraid. And seeing those great kicking legs Huachinog-vaneg suddenly remembered how this rabbit had leaped out into space for him, risking his life every time, over and over, so that he, Huachinog-vaneg, could beome a god. And gratefulness rose up at last in his heart.

Graphic from Ben Traven’s book
Graphic from Ben Traven’s book

He embraced Tul and said to him: ‘You shall stay with me forever. I will put you in the middle of my great shield and carry you around with me on my trips across the firmament. And the people down on earth shall see you there for ever and ever in the very centre of my shield.’

Image of Aztec rabbit in moon with the kind permission of Jim Mikoda, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum
Image of Aztec rabbit in moon with the kind permission of Jim Mikoda, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum

Then Huachinog-vaneg removed some of the little star-fragments from the middle of his big shield and set the rabbit Tul there, where he can be seen to this day.
And this is how the rabbit Tul became part of the Mexican people’s calendar, as a grateful reminder of his help in kindling for them the glorious Sun of the Night.

Note! Some have suggested - as reflected in some of the images - that the hero of this story is a hare rather than a rabbit; we’ve decided to leave it as rabbit, and so remain faithful to Ben Traven’s original.

Read about different world myths relating to the moon
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Mexicolore replies: Gracias por compartir tus recuerdos con nosotors, José.