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How Music Came to the World book cover

‘How Music Came To The World’

Our daughter Romy, a teacher in Querétaro, Mexico, recommended to us recently this book, published in the USA. It’s a sympathetic re-telling for children by Hal Ober of the Nahua (Aztec) myth of the divine origin of music. Beautifully illustrated by Carol Ober, and published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston in 1994, we reproduce the text here, together with just a few of the illustrations, and further information (not provided in the book) on the background to the story. We would strongly encourage teachers in the UK to buy the book. It contains 33 superb full colour pictures - a delight to both eye and ear...

Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl; from ‘How Music Came to the World’
Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl; from ‘How Music Came to the World’

One day two gods met on a wild and windy plain. One was Tezcatlipoca, the sky god. The other was Quetzalcoatl, the wind god. They were both very powerful. Sometimes they fought each other. But sometimes, like this time, they helped each other.

Tezcatlipoca spoke first. ‘What took you so long?’ he said.
’It’s the hurricane season,’ said Quetzalcoatl. ‘I’ve been busy. I’ve been whipping up the waves.’
’This is more important than hurricanes!’
’I’ll be the judge of that,’ said the wind god.
’Stop huffing for a moment and listen,’ said Tezcatlipoca. ‘What do you hear?’
Quetzalcoatl listened. ‘Nothing,’ he said.
’Exactly! Nothing! No one sings. No one plays a note. The only sound to be heard is the sound of your roaring. We need to wake up the world, Wind. And I don’t mean hurricanes. We need music!’
’Music?’ said Quetzalcoatl. ‘What does that have to do with me? I have no music.’
’I know,’ the sky god said, ‘but I’ll tell you who does have it: the Sun. He surrounds himself with singers and music-makers who play and sing for him all day long, and he won’t share their music with us.’

Quetzalcoatl hurls himself into the air; from ‘How Music Came to the World’
Quetzalcoatl hurls himself into the air; from ‘How Music Came to the World’

‘Won’t share?’ said Quetzalcoatl. ‘That’s not fair.’
’I know,’ said Tezcatlipoca. ‘So listen, Wind. I want you to travel to the House of the Sun. I want you to bring back the best singers and the best musicians. Remember,’ he said as the wind god unfolded his wings, ‘we need to wake up the world. We need music!’

Quetzalcoatl hurled himself into the air. He flew over land and sea, searching the endless coastline for a single beach. He knew there was only one way he could travel to the House of the Sun.
Spying the beach at last, he landed and called out the names of the sky god’s three servants: Cane and Conch, Water Woman, and Water Monster. When they were all before him, he ordered them to make a bridge.
The servants grabbed hold of each other. They began to grow tall and thin and to twine together like a rope. They turned into a strong rope bridge that disappeared into the sky.
Quetzalcoatl climbed the bridge, following it higher and higher, as the earth grew smaller and smaller below.

The Sun cries ‘Stop playing!’ - from ‘How Music Came to the World’
The Sun cries ‘Stop playing!’ - from ‘How Music Came to the World’

Finally he came to the House of the Sun. He could see its towers shimmering in the distance. Getting to them was not so easy, though. He had to find his way through a maze of streets with high walls. He kept getting lost and going around in circles.
Nearly ready to give up, he heard a beautiful sound that he had never heard before. It was cool and bright. It was sweet and light. It was music.
Quetzalcoatl followed the sound until it led him out of the maze. Then he saw the musicians in the great courtyard of the Sun.
The flute players were dressed in golden yellow. The wandering minstrels wore blue. The lullaby singers were dressed in white, and the singers of love songs wore red.

Suddenly the Sun saw Quetzalcoatl. ‘Stop playing!’ he cried. ‘Stop singing! It’s that terrible wind! Don’t even speak to him, or he will take you back to that silent planet of his!’

Quetzalcoatl took the musicians in his arms; from ‘How Music Came to the World’
Quetzalcoatl took the musicians in his arms; from ‘How Music Came to the World’

Quetzalcoatl lifted his wings and called ‘Musicians! Come with me!’
None of them said a word.
Again the wind god cried out, ‘Singers! Musicians! The Lord of the Sky commands you!’
The musicians remained silent.
Quetzalcoatl did not like to be ignored. He exploded with anger, like a hundred hurricanes going off at once. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed and clouds swirled around the House of the Sun, turning the daylight into darkness.
The wind god roared as if there was no end to his voice. Everything fell down. The Sun flickered like a tiny flame. The musicians ran to the wind and huddled in his lap, trembling with fear.

Instantly the wind’s anger passed. The thunder faded and the clouds vanished. Quetzalcoatl took the musicians in his arms and left the House of the Sun, moving through the maze as if it were not there.
The wind god was filled with great happiness as he followed the sky bridge back to earth. He felt like a father carrying his children home.

All over the earth the musicians wandered, filling the air with music; from ‘How Music Came to the World’
All over the earth the musicians wandered, filling the air with music; from ‘How Music Came to the World’

The earth could also feel that something new was coming - something it needed and had been secretly wishing for. As the wind god came nearer, the earth let out a slow sigh of relief. Its fruit began to ripen and its flowers began to bloom with new, deeper colours. The whole planet seemed to be waking up from a long sleep.
Finally Quetzalcoatl touched down on the earth with the musicians and singers. They looked around curiously at the silent, waiting planet. Then they began to play.
Through forests and valleys and deserts and oceans they wandered, filling the air with music.
Soon people learned to sing and play, and so did the trees and birds, the whales and wolves, the running streams, the crickets and frogs, and every other creature.
From dawn to dusk the melodies spread until music covered the earth.
The wind god was pleased. So was the sky god. The musicians were happy with their new home.
And ever since that day, the earth has been filled with music.

Huehuetl and Teponaztli; from the Florentine Codex
Huehuetl and Teponaztli; from the Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Background to this story

With very few adaptations, Hal Ober follows the version of this story written by Irene Nicholson in her book Mexican and Central American Mythology (Newnes Books, 1983). Nicholson quotes as her source ‘a sixteenth-century Nahua manuscript’. We’ve researched this and found there were actually two such documents, Histoire du Méchique by André Thévet (ascribed to the Franciscan Andrés de Olmos) and Historia Eclesiástica Indiana written in 1596 by Friar Gerónimo Mendieta. The names of the three servants of Tezcatlipoca vary in the texts. We feel the second version, by Mendieta, is worth reproducing here, as it’s ‘short and sweet’ and specifically mentions the two Aztec drums of divine origin, the huehuetl and the teponaztli.

Aztec musicians: detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Aztec musicians: detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Humans who had worshipped those dead gods who had left them their mantles as remembrances were said to be walking around sad and pensive, each one wrapped in a mantle, looking and searching to see if they could see their gods or if they would appear. They say that one of the followers of Tezcatlipoca (who was the principal god of Mexico), persevering in his devotion, came to the seacoast, where three forms or figures appeared, and they called to him and said, ‘Come here, so-and-so, you are such a friend of mine that I want you to go to the house of the Sun and bring singers and instruments from there so that you can make a feast for me. In order for you to do so, you will call the whale, the siren and the turtle, who will make a bridge that will allow you to cross over.’

Musicians playing huehuetl and teponaztli drums; detail of a mural by Regina Raúll, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Musicians playing huehuetl and teponaztli drums; detail of a mural by Regina Raúll, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Once the bridge was made, and after singing his song, the Sun heard it, and told his people and servants not to answer the song because whoever did so would be taken away. And it happened that some of them, thinking that the song was melodious, answered him and he brought with them the drum they call ‘huehuetl’, and with them the ‘teponaztli’. They say that with those they began to have feasts and dances for their gods, and that the songs that the singers sang at those festivals were considered to be prayers, performing them in the same tone and movements and with such good sense and judgment that they did not miss a single note or a step. That same arrangement is followed today.

Ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, showing four symbolic colours used to represent the four sacred directions
Ballcourt, Codex Zouche-Nuttall, showing four symbolic colours used to represent the four sacred directions (Click on image to enlarge)

The English translation of Mendieta’s text comes from a highly recommended little book by our Panel of Experts member Alfredo López Austín The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon: Mythology in the Mesoamerican Tradition (University of Utah Press, 1996). López Austín adds some fascinating commentary:-

’Music, numbers, elements, order, spaces, times, colours - fundamental cosmic laws that appear, suggestively, throughout the width and breadth of the planet.
’It is common in Mesoamerican traditions to find that the four colours associated with the quadrants of the earth’s surface were symbols of an order that governed the entire universe. In Mesoamerica, the four colours represented the correspondence between times and spaces, and they designated the places through which time flowed. At the ends of the world, four trees held up the skies, and the divine forces that came from on high and from below flowed inside their trunks. The colours might vary, and it is possible that besides the four colours at the ends of the world there was a fifth colour, that of the central tree, the axis of the universe. But in the codices, in songs, and in narrations the symbolism of colour was always important...’

Night and day, Codex Borbonicus
Night and day, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

Now, turning to the myth itself:-
’There were two characters who represented the two halves of the universe. One, Tezcatlipoca, was the god of darkness. The other, the sun, was warm and celestial. Tezcatlipoca had the assistance of his agent and creature Ehecatl, the wind god, cold like himself, black, shadowy, and armed with a bloody thorn. The sun, on the other hand, had an orchestra composed of musicians dressed in four colours.
’Tezcatlipoca’s dark son had the mission of trapping the musicians with his melodious song. The sons of the sun had the obligation to ignore the dark, cold, nocturnal call. What did Tezcatlipoca propose to do? He wanted to begin the fight, the alternation of the two opposites. The sun, in turn, wanted to keep the light of his sons pure. He didn’t want it to alternate with the wind’s blackness and coldness. But the world had to begin its course, and destiny had to be fulfilled. The song’s strength was greater than the musicians’ resistance, and one by one they were captured so that the dances and feasts could begin on earth.

Opposite forces combine to form the great Movement sign, Codex Borgia
Opposite forces combine to form the great Movement sign, Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

‘The mention of the four colours indicates the distribution of the musicians at the four corners of the universe. The lord of night’s successive conquest of each of the sun’s servants shows the way in which each unit of time emerged in its turn from one of the four corners of the world by way of one of the cosmic trees. Time was the union of the opposing forces - the luminous and the obscure, the colourful and the black, the day and the night, the dry and the wet. The alternation and the cycles were established. The dance and the feast were thus changed into symbols of the gyration of the gods, converted into time. They represented the existence on the earth’s surface of a motion that created all the realities of history.
Human expression of beauty was made the equivalent of the supreme beauty of the gods - the geometric order of movement. Dance, the maximum fusion of the divine and the human, is the gyration of colours that follow the command of the musical instruments.’

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 25th 2013

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