At the beginning of the 1530s, that was in the decade after the Spanish conquest had begun, one or more of the original Aztec codices, which consisted of drawings, apparently were ‘read aloud’, ie. explained and commented, while the Aztec readers oral explanation was written in Spanish. It is possibly the oldest written reconstruction of one of the original Aztec codices, where we hear the Aztecs explain their own past and possibly even give an insight into the lives of the Teotihuácans. Therefore, it is a very important text.
Today, this Spanish manuscript is kept at the University of Texas in Austin and bears the title Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas (History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings) but some refer to it as Codex Ramírez Fuenleal (after Sebastián Ramírez de Fuenleal, Bishop and senior official after Cortés was deprived of his absolute power).
The writing of History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings is assumed to have been done by Andrés de Olmos, a Franciscan monk with an extraordinarily developed linguistic sense; in any case, Olmos is thought to have written most of the text, while a minor part – informations on the calendar, the celestial, slave trade and punishment for theft, drunkness and sex crimes – has been written in a different handwriting from the first major part. The German ethnographer Peter Tschohl mentions the author of the manuscript as an anonymous Spaniard, although – according to him – Mexico-scholars love to identify anonymous writers.
Olmos was born in Spain, became a monk and was then appointed to accompany the theologian Zumárraga to Mexico in 1528, where King Carlos wanted him as Americas first Bishop and Protector of the Indians.
Five years later, Olmos extraordinary ability to understand Nahuatl and his knowledge of the history and traditions of the Aztecs was accentuated. He was referred to as a specialist in demonology, the science of small and large devils, and wrote in Nahuatl a Treaty on Magic and Witchcraft. It was that book which the monk and historian Bernardino de Sahagún was accused of owning, and the possession became one of the arguments for the royal ban in 1577 against writing in Indian languages.
In History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings is told:
All having departed they came to two lofty mountains, in whose midst they encamped and remained there two years, and as the days are not painted that they occupied in reaching this spot, nothing appears more clearly than that up to the time of their resting in these sierras they reckon one year, and two years they spent there sowing what they had to eat and carry off with them, and here they erected their first temple to Vchilobo, according as they had done in that city. These two mountains stood opposite each other, and their habitation was in their middle.
I can imagine exhausted wanderers pointing out two beautiful, opposing mountains, declaring the place between them sacred and then building a temple. Their god was to be worshipped by the recreation of Coatepec, the Serpent Mountain.
After three years had passed since their departure from Aztlán, from when the Mexicans came forth, as has been told, they left the place or site of the two hills where they had remained two years, after having built a temple to Vchilobo, as has been said, and came to a valley where there were many great trees, which they named Quausticaca, on account of the many pine trees that were there, and there they stayed a year, which completed the four years since they had left their homes.
Thence they traveled onward till they came to a place which they named Chicomuxtoque, and they settled there and remained nine years, and so here they completed the thirteen years from the time of their departure and when they left there they laid the place waste; and there was born in this place, Tlacuxquin, Mançamoya-gual and Minaqueciguatle, who were the two males, and one woman, their chief personages, and here was accomplished the thirteenth year of their exodus, and they began to reckon the second thirteen.
When they had departed from Chicomuztoque, they came to a plain, which is the spot where at the time dwelt the Chichimecas, whose home was in front of Panuco, and here they remained three years, and to this valley they gave the name of Cuatlicamat. At the end of the three years they went forth and came to a ranche which they called Matlauacala, where they dwelt three years, and erected a temple to Vchilobo.
Thence they came to another ranche, named by them near the one where the Otomies lived, the indigines of the land; and here they rested five years, and erected another temple to Vchilobo, and here was fulfilled eleven years of the second thirteen since their departure.
The myth revives the experience of the Aztec almost endless wandering. The place they called Chicomuxtoque is probably the same as Tezozómoc called Chicomoztoc.
Without doubt, it has been an exhausting walk through the unknown; Hvidtfeldt & Amstrup states that the Aztec myths are told extremely elaborate of almost infinite migrations from place to place with exact indications.
The Codex was the first record that loyally maintained the oral interpretation, but we don’t get any answer of where the Aztecs originated, and the myth can not be called an instructive travel guidance. We hear that everyone is leaving, that they are pausing and how long these are – annual rhythm and timing are obviously crucial for them – there have to be sown and harvested and they have to build temples for Vchilobo. Four times they mention the three temples they have built during what I quoted. All temples were for this Vchilobo. They must have been vital to the tribe.
Yet it is as if the myth lacks flesh and blood. Something has to happen soon.
Now the travel account changes!
A CHILD IS BORN
From this sojourning place they came to a mountain opposite Tula named Coatepec, and when they came the Maçeguales held in great veneration the mantas of the five women whom Tezcatlipoca made, and who died the day the sun was created, as has been said, and from these mantas the aforesaid five women came again to life, and wandered in this mountain, doing penance, drawing blood from their tongues and ears; and when four years of their penance had passed by, one named Coatlicue who was a virgin, took a small quantity of white feathers and placed them in her bosom, from which she conceived without having known a man, and there was born of her Vchilobo, for a new birth, in addition to his other nativities, for he was a god all-powerful, and could do whatever he wished.
Maçeguales is in the codex explained as human children.
And here came again to life the 400 men whom Tezcatlipoca created, and who died before the sun was made, and when they saw the woman was pregnant, they sought to burn her, but Vchilobo was born of her fully armed, and slew the whole of the 400 men; and this the feast of his nativity and the slaughter of the 400 men they celebrate every year, as will be narrated in the chapter relating to their festivals; and before the feast there is a great general fast who shall participate, lasting eighty days, during which they only eat once a day.
No more walking. At last flesh. And blood! Coatlicue – a virgin who already had given birth to many children – has put white feathers at her breast and without close contact with any man becomes pregnant and gives birth to Vchilobo.
Oh yes! There must be something special about virgin births, something archetypal. The sources are mostly populated by warriors, chiefs and gods, most of whom seem to be men. But then it happens: a virgin giving birth sharpens the attention of the audience! On top of that, a virgin giving birth after the 400 others she already had born! And it is Vchilobo who now is born.
According to Crónica Mexicayotl, Huitzilopochtli was born 1 Flint, the year similar to our 1168. And in 1 Flint, the Aztecs had left Aztlán 104 years earlier, that is, 2 times the ‘centuries’ of the Aztec, each lasting 52 years.
Here at the museum I often have listened to a local guide who vividly narrated the story of Coatlicues pregnancy by a few feathers: She had born both Coyolxauhqui and the four hundred others, and when they heard about their mothers new pregnancy, they gathered to kill her because they would not share her with another sibling. JEALOUSY!
When they decapitated the mother jumped baby – fully armed with a serpent spewing fire – out of the uterus. The baby was Huitzilopochtli! First he beheaded his sister Coyolxauhqui and threw her into the sky, go!, where she became the moon, which, as you know, can change into nothing, disappear! The 400 other siblings he pushed away. Up on the sky with you, where they from the distance could shine like stars.
I would like to introduce you to Coatlicue, the mother. There is a terrific sculpture of her right over here, and she is also called Teteoinan which in Nahuatl means Mother of Gods. Maybe another of her names will work more immediately when you see her: Serpent Skirt, because thats what she is wearing. A skirt of serpents and skulls in the necklace. A strange doubleportrait as if she was reflecting herself, but her double-serpent-head was due to the fact that after her envious children had chopped her neck, two large serpents appeared where the head had been.
The Coatlicue-sculpture is 8 ft high, was carved during the period 1325-1521 and originally placed in the sacred Teocalli, the center of Tenochtitlán, the square which today is called Zócalo. A placement that must confirm the importance of the myth to the Aztecs. The sculpture was dug out in 1790, almost the same place as the Sun Stone and Tizoc stone were found a few months later, and immediately after reproduced in a book.
Let me briefly state: Teocalli is Nahuatl for Gods house – and that Teo has nothing to do with the Greek Teo, which also means god.
Then I return to the new newborn in the Aztec myth. Vchilobo, who we hear about in History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings (and which is spelled in 7 different ways in the 22½ pages manuscript) is identical with Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec tribal god. Other writers had their spelling; the Spanish conquistador and author Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote Huichilobos, but the god was the same.
Rules of spelling were not strictly enforced, and Spaniards had difficulties with many of the spoken words of the natives, also with Huitzilopochtli, and then it became Vchilobo or Huichilobos, where the last part of the word reminds of the Spanish word for wolf, lobo.
In Spain, so much was talked about this Mexican idol, portrayed as a devil, and gradually referred to as Vitzliputzli or as Fitzebutze to end up as Fisle Pusle in a folk tale on island Bornholm, Denmark, where he helped the troll Krølle Bølle.
Goodbye Bornholm! Back to Mexico!
According to Codex Boturini, the god Huitzilopochtli had punished his tribe by forcing it to leave because it had committed an offence by cutting down the sacred tree. As a penance, the Aztecs had erected temples for him where they arrived.
But according to Chapter 11 of History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings, he is first born now! Mysterious? Barely! This is not a chronologically progressive report but a myth. Christmas Eve Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus nine months after they remembered his death on Good Friday.
That’s how it is with myths!
The Huitzilopochtli myth should emphasize the Aztecs as the chosen, and was developed during their migration.
At the beginning of History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings, Huitzilopochtlis parents were presented as the two original gods, Tonacatecli and Tonacaçiguatl: Huitzilopochtli became the fourth in line of four sons and he was left-handed, had been born without flesh, only with bones and so he lived for six hundred years, a period when the gods did nothing, neither parents nor sons.
Huitzilopochtlis birthday was, as mentioned, Ce Tecpatl or 1 Flint, a very special day in the Aztec religious calendar that had 260 days. Men who were born on this day were destined to – as were their fate – to be brave, honorable and rich, while women would have many good qualities, be masculine, good at cooking, speak well, and be discreet. The other days of this 13-day Flint period were supposed to secure prosperity.
We are right in the middle of the worlds largest collection of Aztec art with impressive large, detailed stone sculptures, figurative, smoothened and polished, but here there are no large sculptures of their tribal gods Huitzilopochtli! Just some skulls with a flint knife inserted as a nose and they are believed to represent Huitzilopochtli.
In the capital Tenochtilán, the Aztecs had built a great double temple, and the one part was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. When he was to be celebrated, a figure of him was formed of a sticky mass; the description with illustrations can be found in Sahagúns Codex Florentino from the second half of the 16th century:
They formed it as a human being, they gave it the appearance of a human being, they made it appear as a human being. And this body they made of dough, of a dough made of the grinded prickly poppies seeds; on a bed of twigs they formed it, on twigs of hummingbird-shrub and ear-shrub.
And after he had been shaped, they stick down on his head and provide him with painted cros stripes on his face and with his snake ear-plugs of glued turquoise. And from his snake ear-plugs, the thorn disc, of gold, is carved into tabs, cut into small strips. And his nosejewel with the shape of an arrow, of gold, worked, hammered and decorated with stones, thinly hammered, trimmed with stones; also from that hung what they call the thorn disc. Cross stripes in the face; these cross-stripes on the face consist of blue color and yellow color; and on his head they put his hummingbird mask. Then they let follow what is called Anecuyotl of feathers, beautifully processed, rolled, often pointed downwards, slightly narrower downwards. Then they on his back put a lump of yellow parrot feathers; thence they hang the curl of boys hair. And they dress him in his nettle robe, black colored, in five places decorated with feathers, adorned with fine eagle feathers; and his robe, he is dressed in from below, it is provided with images of skulls and bones. And at the top they tie him with his doublet, which is also painted with bits and pieces of human bodies: there are painted bare skulls, ears, hearts, intestines, liver, lungs, hands, feet. And his loincloth; the loincloth is very precious, and its pattern also consists of bits and pieces of human bodies that are intertwined.
Thus they had recreated their tribal god: not out of stone, but of perishable material that could have been eaten by humans. His nose-ornament, however, had the shape of an arrow, of gold, worked, hammered, and studded with stones, thinly hammered, stitched with stones.
THE AZTECS CONTINUE THE MIGRATION
When thirtythree years had elapsed since their departure from their home, they went forth from Coatepec and came to Chimalcoque, where they remained three years; thence they came to Ensicox, where they dwelt another three years, and built a temple and placed the mast of Vchilobo; and after the thirty-ninth year from their departure they drew out the mast of Vchilobo, and gave it to Vingualti, to carry it with the greatest veneration on their journey.
And they came to Tlemaco, which is near to Tula, and raised a temple to Vchilobo, and remained there twelve years, and these twelve years being passed, they departed thence and took up the mast of Vchilobo, and gave it to Caçiçi to carry.
And after all this had happened, they came to Tlitlalaquia, a well known town, and it was on the borders of Tula, where they rested two years and built a temple to Vchilobo.
And after these two years the Mexicans came to the town of Tula itself, which in these days was peopled with its aborigines, who were the Chichimecas, and when they came to the said town they erected a temple to Vchilobo, and placed before it the candelabras that are now in use, in which they placed copal and other savory things.
Here it is written that Tula was populated. Apparently, it had not been a total breakdown of civilization in Tula which had been open for the Aztec migration, but the remark could also be due to the desire to give the impression that the Aztecs had met the indigenous population of Tula. Just as the remark might have been caused that according to the Aztec drawing – which had been explained to the writer of this codex – there had been people in Tula and that it was interpreted as a simultaneous civilization.
As soon as the Mexicans had come, Vchilobo appeared to the inhabitants of the country in a black form, and they heard Vchilobo wailing beneath the earth, and they asked wherefore the god of the Mexicans was weeping below the ground, and the answer: because every inhabitant of Tula was doomed to death.
Four years later, an old woman, a native of Tula, went about giving out flags of paper fastened to rods, and making it manifest to them that they should get ready to die, because their time had come; and presently they all cast themselves upon the stone on which the Mexicans were wont to offer up their sacrifices, and the one of them who took charge of the temple which was in Tula, by name Tequipuyul, who was a stranger and a vagabond without employ, and whom they believed to be the devil, slew them all; and before the Mexicans erected their temple, that stone was a temple to the inhabitants of Tula; and so were put to death all the inhabitants of Tula, so that not one remained alive, and the Mexicans were lords of Tula.
The Aztecs, through sacrifice, would unite with the gods, but the inhabitants of Tula were killed and the Aztecs took their city. Tulas original population had apparently abandoned the city, but some people lived in its ruins and they were killed.
Both the willingness to sacrifice as well the takeover of Tula became part of the Aztec mythical conceptions. It was told how the Aztecs voluntarily had thrown themselves on the sacrificial stone – the beginning of the ultimate ritual to unite with the gods – and then all of Tulas inhabitants had been killed and the Aztecs had by the gods been given power over the sacred city.
(pp. 154-165 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
476 pages + 540 pages. Richly illustrated in colors
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