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The Aztecs and the sea

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Harry Chen: I was reading “The phoenix of the western world” by Brundage, and he described that there is a poem composed by Nezahualcoyotl about his self-identification with Ilhuicaateotl (the divine water sky, or rather the divine ocean?). But I couldn’t find this poem anywhere. Do you know where the poem can be found?
Also, I am writing a paper on “teuatl” and “ilhuicaatl” - both described in book 12 of the Florentine codex (Anderson & Dibble). If you have any recommended readings, please tell me! I’m really fascinated but could not find any relating resource. I’m hoping that you can tell me more about the Aztec’s relation with the sea. (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Land and sea: Florentine Codex Book XI
Land and sea: Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

We’ve consulted a member of our Panel of Experts to answer this - a world-class scholar on Aztec poetry, John Bierhorst*. He writes:-
’In The Phoenix of the Western World, p. 157, Brundage states: “There is a poem reputedly [my italics] by the ruler Nezahualcoyotl wherein the poet [Nezahualcoyotl?] identifies himself with a god called Ilhuicaateotl, Divine Sky Water, a deity situated in the region of the dawning. The poem appears [my italics] to designate the east as the land where this god was endowed with his green feathers, his curved scepter (chicuacolli - italics are Brundage’s), and his fan all of which recalls Quetzalcoatl. Sky Water is the common Nahuatl term for ocean, and it points to the firmament considered as the floor of a celestial ocean, the great hyaline plate supported by Quetzalcoatl on his shoulders. Divine Sky Water appears [my italics] to be the essential Quetzalcoatl, a god far removed from Tlaloc who lived below him in the hollow places of the mountain.” Brundage gives many footnotes but he does not give a footnote for this one.
There is no “Ilhuicaateotl” in the Cantares Mexicanos. Nor in the Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España. (Aztec songs outside the Cantares and Romances are discussed in ch. 9 of my Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs.) In the Cantares there are 3 occurrences of ilhuicaatl = ocean (folios 58v:15, 58v:20), = sky water (i.e. ocean) (75:1).
’I am confident that we do not have any songs (or poems) by Nezahualcoyotl, though some scholars think we do. I have checked several standard sources on Aztec religion and I find no “Ilhuicaateotl.” And a web search reveals nothing.
’My opinion is that Brundage picked this up from a dubious source, of which there are many.’

‘The Fiery Pool’
‘The Fiery Pool’ (Click on image to enlarge)

There is VERY little in the literature about the Mexica (Aztecs’) approach to the sea/ocean*. In our resource centre we do have one superb book that deals with the MAYA approach to the sea in detail:-
Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, edited by Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, 2010.
It includes a chapter by Karl Taube ‘Where earth and sky meet: the sea and sky in ancient and contemporary Maya cosmology’ in which Taube discusses how the Aztecs (like the Maya) related the sea to bloody, cosmic battles. The book contains several other references to Aztec approaches to land and sea...

*John Bierhorst reminds us, in answer to the question about the Aztecs and the sea, that ‘Probably the best you’re going to get is Florentine Codex (Anderson and Dibble ed.), Book 11, ch. 12, parag. 1 (page 247): half a page on the ocean, in Nahuatl and English.’

We hope this helps a little!

Image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994.

The Sea - ‘water which reaches the heavens’

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