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An Aztec Mexica Nahua teenager

Nahua women poets

It’s bad enough that few are aware of the rich poetry tradition of the Mexica/Nahua/Aztecs; even fewer know that women poets feature in the anthologies of Aztec poetry. We even have the names of one or two of them. In his book Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World Miguel León-Portilla includes one. But it’s the one he DOESN’T include that earns his richest praise... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: ‘Nahuatl women, composers of songs’; Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 1: ‘Nahuatl women, composers of songs’; Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

The female poet he names (and whose poem he transcribes from Nahuatl) is Macuilxochitzin, a Mexica woman of noble lineage (daughter of powerful prime minister Tlacaelel), born around 1435. However pride of place in his anthology appears to go to an anonymous girl poet:-
The indigenous chroniclers speak also about several Nahua women versed in the art of poetry. Ixtlilxochitl mentions some of them... Chimalpahin, in his Relations, as well as the Anales de Cuauhtitlan also mention women who composed songs and transcribe a few fragments of their productions.
A magnificent example of the tenderness of Nahua women and their talent for poetry is found in a lengthy song in the frequently quoted Cantares Mexicanos in the National Library of Mexico. It is the transcription of a Cozolcuicatl, ‘a cradle song’, composed for the little Ahuitzotl who later was to become lord of the Mexica. It is known that this song was the work of a woman because several times she mentions herself in it: ‘I am a Mexican maiden... I, the little maid, conceived my song in the interior of the house of flowers.’

Pic 2: Two young Nahua women, one playing a conch shell trumpet; (detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 2: Two young Nahua women, one playing a conch shell trumpet; (detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

But while this poem, one of the most beautiful in the collection, can be assigned to a young girl of Anahuac who knew how to compose songs, unfortunately her name is not recorded nor is anything known about her... It is indeed unfortunate that no other precise references have been found in the sources that permit us to identify the authors of several compositions that undeniably were the work of talented Nahua women...

Here is the opening of the song, from the Cantares Mexicanos (fol. 39v), following a drum introduction:-

A yn ompeuh y ye nocuico xochicalitec niman nocõmama nopillotzi noconahuiltiz ololotzin ololo mahcehua in conetl Ahuitzotõ oo huiya macaoc xichoca nopilliitzin y toconitotiz y moxochitzini huan mocacalatzin ololotzin.
Nahuatl nichuihuixohua ye nimexicatl nichpotzintli ye nochimalcozoltzin nicmamatiuh oncan onotiuh aytzi ye noyaoxochiconetzin oo huiya.

Pic 3: A young Nahua woman; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional
Pic 3: A young Nahua woman; detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional (Click on image to enlarge)

My song’s begun within that House of Flowers, and at once I carry off my little princeling. I’ll pleasure the little jewel. He dances, this little babe, this little Ahuitzotl.
Cry no more, my little princeling. These flowers and these bells of yours! You’ll dance with these, O little jewel.
I, a Mexican girl, am rocking the world! Off I go, carrying my shield cradle, for there beyond is where he lies, this treasure, this little war-flower babe of mine.

Quote from Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World by Miguel León-Portilla, 1992, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Song from Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs translated from the Nahuatl with an Introduction and Commentary by John Bierhorst, 1985, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Pictures sources:-
• Main pic (detail from a mural by Regina Raúll, Paisaje Mexica [1964], National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) - photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 2: photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 12th 2020

emoticon Ode to our young Nahua poet (Aztec limerick #16):-
An anonymous Aztec girl poet
Wrote a cradle song: you may not know it.
Metaphorically speaking -
Sweet tenderness seeking -
’neath the war cry, ever there, just below it...

Aztec Song feature

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