General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Stone figures of an Aztec woman and man

Mum and Dad

The Aztecs/Mexica were great masters of their language, Náhuatl, and over time produced great poets and orators (see our pages on Aztec Poetry and Aztec Language..) Respect for one’s elders was a core belief, and all individuals were thought to take on more and more teotl or life-force in the process of aging. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Ahuehuete tree, from the Florentine Codex, Book XI
Ahuehuete tree, from the Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

What better first example than an Aztec saying about one’s parents? The metaphor of a tree is a natural one: for the Aztecs the term ‘tree trunk’ (cuauhtlactli) was also used to refer to a human torso*, a tree was called Tota (‘Our father’), trees - like flowers and plants - were considered to have souls, and it had long been a serious criminal offence to cut down a living tree, without permission of the community.

A mother, a father is as
a foundation, and a covering
like the silk cotton tree, the cypress tree.
They afford shadow, shade, shadowing
as a cool bower, as a spindle.

The ‘Arbol del Tule’ outside Oaxaca City - the stoutest tree in the world!
The ‘Arbol del Tule’ outside Oaxaca City - the stoutest tree in the world! (Click on image to enlarge)

Book 11 of the Florentine Codex expands on this with its description of the cypress tree, called ahuehuetl in Náhuatl or ahuehuete today in Mexican Spanish -

It is large, high, thick, shady, shadowy. There is constant entering into its shade; under it one is shaded. It is said that a mother, a father become the silk cotton tree, the cypress. It shades things, it forms a shadow... It takes the form of a spindle whorl. It thickens, extends its branches, extends branches everywhere, forms foliage. It sheds foliage, it sheds butterfly-like leaves. It towers above, it excels.

An Aztec musician plays under the ‘Tota’ tree, Atlas de Durán folio 263v
An Aztec musician plays under the ‘Tota’ tree, Atlas de Durán folio 263v (Click on image to enlarge)

The ahuehuetl was a favourite tree for Mexica palace and formal city gardens: fast-growing relatives of the redwood, these huge trees could reach a height of 200 feet and were splendid in their rich green finery.

No tree in the world offers more protection under its branches than the spectacular 2,000-year-old cypress known as the Arbol del Tule, just outside Oaxaca City, southern Mexico. It has the stoutest trunk (with a circumference of almost 120 feet) in the world!

What can YOU see in the Tule Tree?! It’s famous for the myriad figures people see in its gigantic trunk...
What can YOU see in the Tule Tree?! It’s famous for the myriad figures people see in its gigantic trunk... (Click on image to enlarge)

Quote from Of the Manners of Speaking That the Old Ones Had: The Metaphors of Andrés de Olmos in the TULAL Manuscript (1547/1992).

Info from Everyday Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, 1968, Florentine Codex: Book 11 - Earthly Things by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, translated by Charles Dibble and Arthur Anderson, 1963, Mitología y Simbolismo de la Flora en el México Prehispánico by Doris Heyden, 1983, and Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, 1990.

Picture sources:-
• Photos of figures in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore.
• Illustration from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.
• Photo of the Arbol del Tule from Wikipedia
• Illustration from the Atlas de Durán, public domain.
• Photo of the Tule tree by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

emoticon • The Aztecs called tree branches ‘hands’, a treetop is ‘hair’, the bark is ‘skin’ and the wood is ‘flesh’! We should learn from them...

Aztec Poetry

Aztec Sayings

Learn more about the Aztecs and trees...

Wikipedia’s entry on the ‘Arbol del Tule’
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: We’re sure you’re right. Checking both older (Rene Simeon, Cecilio Robelo...) and newer (eg Cesar Macazaga Ordoño) Náhuatl dictionaries, they all concur with this derivation. Thanks for pointing this out!