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Miguel León-Portilla (1999)

Time, space, and writing among the OlmecsTime and space among the MayaThe Toltec roots of Aztec cultureFlower and song in Aztec composition

THERE IS PROBABLY no more eloquent picture of the inner and outer life of any culture than its literary production. In the case of ancient cultures, if a literary legacy remains, it serves as key to a deeper understanding of the past. In the broadest sense, literature includes oral traditions, inscriptions, and the contents of codices, texts, and documents. These contain the myths and legends, the chronicles and history, ritual hymns, a variety of poetry, discourses, the beginnings of a theater, and governmental and religious proclamations—in other words, an image of the everyday life of a people.

In the case of ancient Mexico, where isolated cultures flourished for thousands of years, it is stimulating to study their arts as uncovered by archaeology. But it is equally fascinating to delve into their ways of thinking, feeling, and acting as expressed in their literary creations. Some inscriptions in stone have been deciphered, there are documents and manuscripts in archives and libraries, and there are a few pre-Columbian codices or painted books (León-Portilla 1969: 3).

These masterpieces of American literature can best be understood in the context of the systems of belief and the social dynamics that nourished the creativity and imagination of ancient Mesoamerican peoples. Although many cultures contributed to this legacy, we will focus on the Olmecs, Mayas, Toltecs, and Aztecs.

The question of origins is always extremely difficult. In this case, archaeology has not yet found the answer. But there is considerable evidence that permits a few words about the possible mother culture from which so many peoples derived, among other things, the precious knowledge of writing and the measurement of time (León-Portilla 1969: 9).


The home of the Olmecs was situated along the Gulf of Mexico, in the modern states of Veracruz and Tabasco, a region known to the Aztecs as Rubberland. These people date back more than 900 years B.C.E.

Having identified certain characteristic traits in many of their works, archaeologists have found traces of their presence, or at least influence, in many other areas, some far away from Rubberland. The oldest inscriptions discovered in Mexico up to the second half of the twentieth century all show some relation to the Olmecs. Among these are the “C” stelae found in Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, the inscriptions on the famous Tuxtla jade figurine, and the still more ancient glyphs on the stelae at the ceremonial center of Monte Albán in Oaxaca that antedate the splendor of Zapotec culture. These Olmec-type inscriptions all point to an invention of the art of recording the past. Alfonso Caso sums up concisely what is known to date about the origins of writing and the calendar in ancient Mexico as a result of archaeological findings:

According to the Carbon 14 test, it has been determined that there was writing and a calendar system in Mesoamerica at least as early as 600 B.C. But since the calendar of that time shows an extraordinary perfection and is already related to many other aspects of Mesoamerican culture (ceramics, sculpture in stone, jade, pyramids, palaces, and so forth), it can be stated positively that it was the result of a long process of development that began many centuries before the Christian era (Caso 1964: 167-68 in León-Portilla 1969: 9).

Apparently the same Aztec elders who rescued many texts and poems also knew of the antiquity of the invention of writing and the calendar. In a text in which they speak of the origin of their culture, they say that “in a time which nobody can reckon and about which nobody exactly remembers,” many years before the building of Teotihuacan, along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico lived a people whose wise men and priests possessed painted books and a knowledge of measuring time. These people appeared in the North, not far from the mouth of the Pánuco River, and among them were

Those who
carried with them
the black and red ink,
the manuscripts and painted books,
the wisdom.
They brought everything with them,
the annals,
the books of song, and their flutes
(Códice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia, VIII, fol. 192r. in León-Portilla 1969: 10).

These wise men cannot be positively identified as Olmecs, to whom archaeology has ascribed the oldest writing. However, archaeological discoveries give some support to the Aztec belief that, before the days of Teotihuacan, there was a people along the Gulf Coast who possessed the art of writing and the calendar. The accepted fact is that the methods of preserving knowledge and memories of the past among the native groups of Mexico have been carried in a cultural sequence with roots over two thousand years old.

This rapid survey of Mexico’s past shows that the various nations speaking the Aztec or Nahuatl language, the Maya, and the peoples of Oaxaca, as well as other groups, were cultural descendants of a people who created a historical consciousness and highly developed institutions. They were totally isolated from the ancient civilizations of Europe and Asia, in possession of their own culture hundreds of years before contact with the Western world resulted in their destruction (León-Portilla 1969: 10).

These roots grew diverse cultural branches bearing rich artistic expressions that show an ongoing concern with the calendrical measurement of time cycles, with the concepts of time and space, and with the relationship between life and death. The Maya, especially, seized on these dimensions of experience in the development of astronomy and mathematics, the calculation of time, and the prediction of events.


The Maya culture of Mesoamerica was heterogeneous in its social institutions and ritual life, exhibiting a complexity and diversity that survives to this day from southern Mexico to Honduras (see Map). However, a few overarching patterns, especially those related to time and space, seem consistent in the archaeological record. According to J. Eric S. Thompson, “No other people in history has taken such an absorbing interest in time as did the Maya, and no other culture has ever developed a philosophy embracing such an unusual subject” (1954: 162 in León-Portilla 1988: xviii; see also Thompson 1960: 314-16).

Map: The Maya world, in Miguel León-Portilla’s Time and reality in the thought of the Maya (1988: xxii).

It must be recognized that, in the present state of investigations, it is impossible to establish adequately a scheme of the evolution of the mythological and religious thought of the various groups embracing the great cultural tree of the Maya. It would be dangerously naïve to presuppose that worldview and religious concepts were one and the same in different areas and diverse periods covering what is generically known as “Maya culture.” Thus the mere theme of its evolution immediately poses a mass of problems.

Nonetheless, this does not invalidate the existence of rich indigenous sources, possibly a path leading to different Maya forms of meaning concerning the subject of time. Eventually, an approach to what was an “overwhelming preoccupation,” with no break in Maya history, could cast light on the problem itself of variants and affinities in the different stages and areas in which this culture flourished. Despite the differences in styles, symbolism, and other patterns and institutions of the various Maya groups, their interest in time never disappeared. This affirmation is valid at least from the moment the first stelae of the Classic period were erected, about the third century C.E., until the appearance of the Postclassical codices and of the more recent colonial manuscripts of the Yucatec Maya. In these manuscripts are preserved the prophecies of the katuns, or twenty-year cycles, and many other calendar texts. Such is the case of the books of Chilam Balam from Yucatán and other native productions from Chiapas and Guatemala. More recent proof of this continued interest is offered by the discovery of texts of similar content, and of calendars based on Maya tradition presently being used among groups in very distinct areas. To cite a single example, in 1936, Alfonso Villa Rojas discovered the Chilam Balam de Tusik (Villa Rojas 1945). Moreover, it can be demonstrated that quite a few traits, essential to the pre-Hispanic concept of time and space, have survived among contemporary groups belonging to the same family (León-Portilla 1988: xix-xx).

A retracing of the main chronological pursuits of the Maya is a step required in trying to understand their concept of time. Among their sages, outstanding features of mathematical knowledge were applied to calendar computations and endeavors in astronomy. Restricted to arithmetic and geometry, Maya mathematics from the beginning of the Classic period (around the third century C.E.) included, nonetheless, two extraordinary and closely related discoveries: the concept of zero, principally as a symbol of completeness, and a vigesimal counting system in which unities acquired value according to positional functions. What is known about this today comes from the inscriptions in the Maya codices and on the stelae erected in the early centuries of the Christian era. There is no parallel in the Old World until around the eighth century C.E., at which time Hindustani scholars arrived at a concept of zero within a decimal system of numeration. Europe was not to possess these discoveries until many centuries later, benefiting from diffusion by the Muslim civilization through Spain (León-Portilla 1988: 1-2).

Having mastered these findings, the Maya developed temporal computations of high precision. Among those to be recalled here are the various calculations with reference to the solar year, to what is now called the synodic revolutions of Venus, and to the lunation periods, including the tables elaborated for predicting eclipses. Mathematical knowledge also made it possible to register any date in their so-called Long Count or Initial Series system, and, of greater importance, the corresponding correction formulae for adjusting and correlating with distinct astronomical cycles the dates expressed in terms of their calendar (León-Portilla 1988: 2-3).

Along with a unique concept of time without limits either in the past or future, the Maya established a reference point, marking a sort of beginning for their chronological era. Accordingly, all calendar inscriptions on their stelae are computed with reference to this beginning point which, in terms of our own calendar, is situated at 3,133 B.C.E. Various investigators, including Silvanus Morley (1947: 282-84), considered this reference point a fixed base in Maya chronological computations. But rather than restrict their concept of time without limits, this date seemed to refer to an especially significant event in their past. This, as Thompson (1960: 149) has indicated, could supposedly be “regarded as the last creation of the world,” that is, the “age” and “sun” in which men were made from corn, according to the narrative given in the Popol Vuh (Recinos 1953: 174-76). Surprisingly, Maya chronology of the Classic epoch thus developed with a belief in limitless time yet with a reference point in order to effect computations.

The Classic Maya system known as the Long Count became simplified in later centuries (from the eleventh on) when replaced by the so-called u kahlay katunob (count of the katuns or twenty-year periods), in which one single hieroglyph could express the day that concluded the corresponding period or katun. The date of the final day in each katun always coincided with an Ahau day, the sign of the sun, as can be seen in the celebrated “wheel of the katuns” preserved by Landa (Fig. 1) (16th century in 1938: 204) or in the series of katuns included in the Codex Paris (pages 1-11), and in various books of the Chilam Balam that abound in recollections and predictions considered as attributes or “burdens” of the diverse katuns. This new system was to have great importance—along with the computations of the solar year and with the tzolkin or count of 260 days—as much for registering the principal events of the past as for providing the prophecies of priests and sages with a framework.

Fig. 1: Wheel of the katuns, according to Fray Diego de Landa. The passing of each katun should be read clockwise (20 x 360 days = 7,200). The katuns receive their calendrical designation depending on the name of the last day of the same, which is always an Ahau, accompanied by a numeral between 1 and 13. Only after 256 years of 365 days, approximately, will the same date be repeated; that is to say, an Ahau day with the same number as the termination of a katun (León-Portilla 1988: 9).

The underpinnings of the prophetic and astrological fixation of the Maya explain in part the sophistication of measurements of time developed by this culture. At the core of this relationship between time and prediction is the unit known as tzolkin, whose prophetic implications affected the entire people. This 260-day count directed the norms applicable to all important acts in life. Actually, the tzolkin and the count of the katuns were to outlive the Spanish conquest, as is proved, among other texts, by the celebrated Yucatec books of Chilam Balam.

The precision achieved by the Maya in their various systems for measuring time was obviously connected with their astronomical observations and knowledge. On studying inscriptions in which calendar corrections are employed, evidence is gained, among other things, of three most important discoveries, striking examples of Maya astronomical learning: the length of the tropical year, the synodic revolution of Venus, and the lunation periods (León-Portilla 1988: 9-10).

The richness of Maya thought about time, besides the strictly calendrical and chronological knowledge, becomes evident through the terms, glyphs, concepts, and texts related to this theme. The sole enumeration of the principal symbols and concepts having temporal connotations is in itself eloquent:

a) Those which express periods or cycles of time: kinh (day), uinal month (20-day period), tun (year), katun (twenty years), baktun (four hundred years), and so forth;
b) The numerical glyphs and their variants;
c) Glyphs of the twenty-day series;
d) Glyphs of the eighteen months and of the five days at the end of the year;
e) Glyphs of the cosmic directions within their temporal relationship;
f) Symbols and attributes of the gods who bear the burdens of time;
g) Glyphs of the divisions of the day and the night;
h) Glyphs of the patron deities and protectors of determined periods or cycles;
i) Expressions of strictly astronomical character as related to computations of cycles of the sun, Venus, the moon, eclipses, and so forth;
j) Symbolism of the fiestas, ceremonies, and rites, determined by the calendrical computations; and
k) The late texts, especially those related to prophecies of the diverse katuns
(León-Portilla 1988: 14-15).

Two conclusions may be reached, at this point, as a result of the confrontation of the different mentioned sources: the first refers to the particular influence which, since Classic days, the complex of symbols related to kinh exerted over the thought of the Maya. Kinh—sun-day-time—was not an abstract entity but a reality enmeshed in the world of myths, a divine being, origin of the cycles that govern all existing things.

Many are the faces of kinh, but its essence is always divine. Time permeates all and is limitless. Thus, the priests computed millions of years into the past and as many others into the future. Time is an attribute of the gods: they carry it on their backs. In a word, kinh appears as the heart of all change, filled with lucky and unlucky destinies within the cyclic reality of the universe and most probably inherent to the essence of divinity itself.

Secondly, from the beginning of the Classic period to post-Conquest times, when time was reckoned in accordance to the “wheels of the katuns” and continued, for longer than a millennium and a half, not a little of the old symbolism perdured. This has occurred in spite of innovations and outer influences through the centuries. Maya computations of and concern for time doubtlessly reveal a penetrating mind. Its study, notwithstanding the difficulties involved, can open a door to a unique way of reasoning.

A post-Conquest collection of chants from the town of Dzitbalché in Yucatán, studied by Alfredo Barrera Vásquez, offers a hymn that contains a solemn and profound declaration of what the primordial reality of time may have meant to priests and sages. Though the date of the composition of this hymn is undoubtedly late, the ideas expressed reflect ancient tradition:

Only Thee
do I trust entirely,
here where one dwells.
For thou, oh great kinh,
providest that which is good,
here where one dwells,
to all living beings.
Since Thou abidest to give reality to the earth,
where all men live.
And Thou are the true helper
who grants that which is good
(Barrera Vásquez 1965: 46-47 in León-Portilla 1988: 33-34).


Toltec history centers around the great city of Tula, home to sages and artists whose impact was incorporated into the songs, myths, and aesthetic ideals of the later Aztecs. Toltec culture began to flourish in approximately the eighth century C.E. The creative output of Tula reached its peak in the twelfth century, during the era of the historic Quetzalcoatl, the one who introduced the Toltecs to Ometeotl, the god of duality. The teachings of Quetzalcoatl fostered an excellence in the arts that resonated throughout central Mexico.

Bernardino de Sahagún’s Aztec informants traced the origins of their culture back to the “golden age” of the Toltecs, an idealized time when all was good and beautiful. The word Toltecayotl came to signify for them the sum total of all the arts and ideals inherited form the Toltecs. The Nahuas (Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs) claimed to be the heirs of the Toltecs, and they described them in this way:

The Toltecs were a skillful people;
all of their works were good, all were exact,
all well made and admirable.
Their houses were beautiful, with turquoise mosaics,
the walls finished with plaster,
clean and marvelous houses, which is to say,
Toltec houses, beautifully made,
beautiful in everything ….
Painters, sculptors, carvers of precious stones,
feather artists, potters, spinners, weavers,
skillful in all they made, they discovered
the precious green stones, the turquoise;
they knew the turquoise and its mines, they found
its mines and they found the mountains hiding
silver and gold, copper and tin,
and the metal of the moon.
The Toltecs were truly wise;
they conversed with their own hearts ….
They played their drums and rattles;
they were singers, they composed songs
and sang them among the people;
they guarded the songs in their memories,
they defied them in their hearts
(Códice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia, VIII, fol. 172v. and 176r. in León-Portilla 1963: 167-68).

These texts show how highly the Nahuas of the early Conquest period regarded their Toltec ancestors. They held that all their art originated in the Toltec period, as well as their highest religious, ethical, and philosophical concepts. For the Nahuas, the word toltecatl had come to mean “artist.” In the descriptions of characteristic features of singers, painters, sculptors, potters, and other artists, it is always stated that they were “Toltecs,” that they worked like “Toltecs,” that their creations were the fruit of Toltecayotl. There is even a text in which the artist is described and referred to precisely as a toltecatl.

The Nahuas believed that artists were born and not made. One could become like the Toltecs only if it had been so ordained. The artist’s destiny was marked by two characteristics: first, the possession of a series of particular qualities—most importantly, a face and a heart, a well-defined personality; and, second, a propitious date of birth—one of the several days which, according to those who knew the prophetic calendar, were favorable to artists and the production of their works. This second element was necessarily conditioned by the fact that the artist had to keep his destiny always in mind, to make himself worthy of it, and to learn to converse with his own heart. Otherwise he would destroy his own happiness, lose his place as an artist, and turn into a foolish and dissolute fraud:

He who was born on those dates
(Ce Xóchitl: the day named One Flower),
whether a noble or not, became a lover of songs,
an entertainer, an actor, an artist.
He bore this in mind, he deserved his well-being,
he lived joyfully; he was contented
as long as he bore his destiny in mind,
as long as he guided himself and made himself worthy of it.
But he who did not heed this,
if he considered it of no account,
if he scorned his destiny,
even though he was a singer, an artist, a craftsman,
he thereby ruined his happiness, he lost it.
(He did not deserve it.) He held himself above others;
he squandered all of his destiny,
which means he grew conceited and insolent.
He looked down on others; he became a fool,
dissolute in appearance, in his heart,
in his songs and thoughts;
he became a poet of foolish and dissolute songs
(Códice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia, VII, fol. 300 in León-Portilla 1963: 168-69).

The Cantares mexicanos in the Mexican National Library contain several documents describing gatherings of poets, singers, and dancers. In the Historia Chichimeca, Ixtlilxóchitl also speaks of something very much like what we might call today academies of music and of literature. Almost all of the ancient chroniclers and historians affirm that there were many different types of artists in the pre-Hispanic Nahuatl world. A whole section of the Sahagún documents is devoted to the categories of artists: the feather artist, the painter, the potter, the goldsmith, the silversmith, and others.

The tlacuilo, “the painter,” was of utmost importance in Nahuatl culture, for it was he who painted the codices. He knew the different kinds of Nahuatl writing as well as all the symbols of mythology and tradition. He was a master of the symbolism that could be expressed in red and black ink. Before he began to paint, it was necessary for him to learn how to converse with his heart. He had to become a yoltéotl, one with “a heart rooted in God,” into which had entered all the symbolism and creative force of Nahuatl religion. With God in his heart, he would then attempt to transfer the symbols of divinity to his paintings, codices, and murals. And, in order to be successful in this, he had to know better than anyone else the colors of all the flowers, as though he were a Toltec:

The good painter is a Toltec, an artist;
he creates with red and black ink,
with black water ….
The good painter is wise,
God is in his heart.
He puts divinity into things;
he converses with his own heart.
He knows the colors, he applies them and shades them;
he draws feet and faces,
he puts in the shadows, he achieves perfection.
He paints the colors of all the flowers,
as if he were a Toltec
(Códice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia, VIII, fol. 117v. in León-Portilla 1963: 172-73).

A rich study of Nahuatl art could be based on texts such as those cited above. One could also examine the codices, which represent pictorially much of what is to be found in the histories themselves, and in this respect the Mendocino and Florentine codices would be especially valuable. This material could then be related to works of art that archaeological investigation has discovered. Only by reconstructing the Nahuatl world through an assimilation of the codices, texts, chronicles, and archaeological findings will it be possible to understand the forms and symbols peculiar to the art of the Nahuas.

Such a study would present a detailed analysis of the Nahuatl artist, heir to the great Toltec tradition—a man of foreordained destiny, according to the Tonalamatl, Book of the Days and Destinies. The artist would emerge as a man able “to communicate with his own heart (moyolnonotzani),” who ponders over the ancient myths, the traditions, and the great doctrines of his religion and philosophy. By communicating with his own heart, he discovers and activates his potential destiny; he is divinely inspired, he is transformed into a yolteotl, a “deified heart;” he has become a visionary, eager to transmit to objects his divine inspiration. He may choose the amate paper of the codices, the surface of a wall, precious metals, plumes, or clay as the material for his art and symbol. With these soul-less substances he devises a metaphor of “flower and song.” Thus the artist permits the people to see and “to read” in the stone, on the walls, and in all works of art a meaning for their lives on earth (León-Portilla 1963: 172-75) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Map of the country of flower and song, heartland of Nahuatl poetry, art, and symbolism (León- Portilla 1992: xii).


Coalitions like that between the peoples of Tenochtitlan, Tezcoco, and Tlacopan created networks of cities, towns, armies, and centers of learning. As the peoples of central Mexico intensified their contact with one another, the benevolent god of the Toltecs (Quetzalcoatl) was displaced by Huitzilopochtli and other deities that legitimized the spread of empire and a growing obsession with human sacrifice. This shift away from the balanced teachings of the sage Quetzalcoatl is reflected in many of the questions addressed by poets and composers of the fifteenth century, some of whom sang the glories of war, and some of whom resisted the hegemony of state religion.

The rich legacy of texts from this epoch shows many hymns addressed to well-known gods. The works preserved in the Códices Matritenses, the Códice Florentino, the Anales de Cuauhtitlán, the Cantares mexicanos, and the Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, and other works written down by Nahuatl-speaking scribes under the tutelage of missionary friars like Bernardino de Sahagún, show a notable variety of genres and themes.

These are the genres that both the Cantares mexicanos and the Códices Matritenses register: xopancuicatl (songs of springtime), xochicuicatl (flowery songs); totocuicatl (songs of birds), michcuicatl (songs of fish), icnocuicatl (songs of orphanhood), cozcacuicatl (necklace songs), teuccuicatl (songs of the lords), tlaocolcuicatl (songs of suffering), cuauhcuicatl (songs of eagles), yaocuicatl (songs of war), atequilizcuicatl (songs of pouring water), cihuacuicatl (songs of women), cococuicatl (songs of doves), cuecuechcuicatl (provocative songs), and huehuehcuicatl (old songs, or songs of old people). In addition to these genres, other indications tell about the manner in which the songs were intoned and accompanied, such as Otomicayotl (in the Otomi manner), Chalcayotl (as those of Chalco), Huaxtecayotl (in the manner of the Huaxtecs), and so forth in these moods: Mexicayotl, Tlaxcaltecayotl, Matlatzincayotl, Huexotzincayotl, and Chichimecayotl (León-Portilla 1992: 28-29).

Two kinds of notations accompanying the songs deserve special attention, as they are indicative of the various manners in which these compositions were chanted. One is the inclusion of several nonlexical syllables, such as aya, iya, huiya, ohuaya, and others. Such syllables often appear at the end of the paragraphs in which the songs are originally placed. The same syllables are also sometimes inserted within the text of one paragraph. In both cases, their function seems to be exclamatory and perhaps also complementary to the rhythm and cadence of the expression.

The other genre of notation is more directly related to the tone and musical accompaniment of the songs. There is actually a gloss in fol. 7r. of the Cantares mexicanos that sheds some light on this: “Here the songs named true Huexotzincayotl begin …. And in this manner the drum will have to resound: one word is being left and the others fall with three ti, but one begins well with only one ti. And the same is repeated until the drum will resound again” (León-Portilla 1992: 28-29).

According to Ángel María Garibay K. (1953-1954: II, 38), “it is evident that such syllables are indications related to the rhythm of the music.” And he adds, as a plausible hypothesis, the idea of a correspondence of each syllable with a musical pitch. A different interpretation was proposed by Karl A. Nowotny, who takes the various syllables as markers of different tones, ascending or descending (Nowotny 1956: 186 in León-Portilla 1992: 29) (see also Stevenson 1968: 46-54; and Stevenson, “Music in the American Viceroyalties,” in this collection of writings).

The universe of sound hinted at in these documents was anchored in a world kept in motion by rituals and feasts that reflected a concern with the measurement and cyclical nature of life. Song, music, and dance blossomed in the contexts of ceremonies that served many purposes, from the sanction of power to the marking of temporal cycles.

Conquerors and friars provide vivid descriptions of what they thought of the indigenous feasts they viewed with astonished eyes. Native chroniclers, who in some cases had participated in them, depict their ancient splendor. Colorful images of the celebrations that occurred during the solar year appear in some of the extant pictoglyphic books or indigenous codices. There, and also in several mural paintings, are representations of sound scrolls, or volutes, coming out from musical instruments and from the mouths of priests and other personages, including gods and goddesses. Some sound scrolls are more complex, depicted with flowers affixed along their edges. They symbolize the flowery words, those that were sung or recited in the feasts (León-Portilla 1992: 3).

Flowery sound scrolls emerging from human mouths in mural paintings and cylindrical tripod vessels of classic Teotihuacan convey inscribed signs, which can be thought of as glyphic sequences. One can identify in some of those sequences the signs of water, shells, flowers, footprints, interlaced bands (the glyph of movement ?), circles, human or animal heads, stylized feathered eyes, hearts, hands, conch-shell trumpets, and several other signs. Some scholars are inclined to see in these sign sequences (infixed in the flowery sound scrolls) “graphemes” conceived to be “read” following their linear arrangements (Langley 1986: 125-32; Barthel 1987: 9-18). If such an interpretation is correct, we would have in those Teotihuacan paintings from around 400 -– 450 C.E. the first extant records of pre-Columbian songs in the Americas, or at least summary glyphic enunciations of them.

To find full renditions of old native chants in Nahuatl (Aztec or Mexican), one has to turn to a few extant 16th-century manuscripts. In them, the fruits of native inspiration are in linear alphabetic writing. Those concerned with such transcriptions of the words to be sung or recited in the feasts tell about the origin of these compositions. A striking coincidence is discernible in their testimonies. The ethnographer-friars Andrés de Olmos and Bernardino de Sahagún, as well as natives like Chimalpahin, Alvarado Tezozomoc, and some others, insist they obtained these productions from oral tradition that was closely linked to the contents of the pictoglyphic books. According to Sahagún: “All those things about which we [he and the old native informants] conferred, they gave me by means of their paintings which is the writing they had in their ancient times” (Sahagún [16th century] in 1956: I, 105). Among those paintings, or pictoglyphic books, were the ones they named cuicamatl (“papers of songs”) (Códice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia, VIII, fol. 192 r. in León-Portilla 1992: 4).

Alvarado Tezozomoc says in his Crónica mexicayotl that the texts he transcribes, including a few songs, could be recalled because “the ancient men and women, our fathers, our mothers … told them, repeated them, had them painted for us also in their books.” Following the contents of those pictoglyphic books, the songs were learned and intoned in the calmecac, or priestly schools (Códice Florentino, vol. 3, book 3, fol. 39r. in León-Portilla 1992: 5). An indigenous singer beautifully describes it:

I sing the pictures of the books,
and see them widely known,
I am a precious bird
for I make the books speak,
there in the house of the painted books
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 14v. in León-Portilla 1992: 4-5).

The corpus of extant Nahuatl songs is integrated by several independently formed collections. Such collections are the following:

The twenty sacred hymns collected by Bernardino de Sahagún;
The songs scattered in several annals and other Nahuatl manuscripts like the huehuehtlahtolli, testimonies of the “ancient word;”
The manuscript known as Cantares mexicanos kept at the National Library of Mexico, collected for a priest, probably Sahagún;
The manuscript entitled Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, housed at the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin, and probably a result of the searches done by the Tezcocan Juan Bautista Pomar
(León-Portilla 1992: 18).

The texts collected in these works show the tlamatinime to be men and women deeply immersed in the social and intellectual issues of their time.

Pre-Columbian thinkers were convinced that, if man lacked a solid foundation, even his most profound thoughts and accomplishments could not possibly convey truth—they could not have any real significance and they would not endure. In the same way, the problem of the nature and truth of the universe loomed over them:

Is anything stable and lasting?
What reaches its aim?
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 10v. in León- Portilla 1963: 28).

Convinced that the physical world, in which even “gold and jade are broken” and which appears to be only a dream, could not reveal to them the fundamental principle or foundation which they sought, the tlamatinime, sages, moved to the metaphysical level: topan, “the world above and beyond us.”

Running parallel to the popular religion were the more profound theological speculations of the Nahuas. Their quest for rational answers ultimately led them to question and to formulate problems in a philosophical manner about the very things the people accepted and believed. They expressed poetically some of the first difficulties they had come upon through rational inquiry. Consciously seeking knowledge “concerning what transcends our powers of understanding, the beyond,” the tlamatinime compared their metaphysically directed knowledge with the ideal of true knowledge, to the extent that man is able to grasp it (León-Portilla 1963: 71).

Several of the poems attributed to the well-known king Nezahualcoyotl (1-Rabbit, 1402 – 6-Flint, 1472)—the “poet king,” architect, and sage—show that deliberation on the evanescence of earthly things was a basic theme and point of departure for his speculation. Two of his philosophical poems illustrate this concern:

Is it true that one lives on earth?
Not forever on earth, only a little while here.
Though jade it may be, it breaks;
though gold it may be, it is crushed;
though it be quetzal plumes, it shall not last.
Not forever on earth, only a little while here
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 17r. in León-Portilla 1963: 72).

The other poem, also commenting on the transitory nature of life on earth, is preserved by Ixtlilxóchitl in his History of the Chichimec nation:

When you depart from this life to the next, oh King Yoyontzin,
the time will come when your vassals will be broken
and destroyed,
and all your things will be engulfed by oblivion ….
For this is the inevitable outcome of all powers,
kingdoms, and domains;
transitory are they and unstable.
The time of life is borrowed,
in an instant it must be left behind
(Ixtlilxóchitl, Obras históricas, II: 235-26 in León-Portilla 1963: 72).

The poet-king Nezahualcoyotl’s concern with the impermanence of life is given voice through “flower and song,” a metaphor for the creative process manifested through composition. This tendency to bind two words in the expression of important concepts is a central characteristic of the Nahuatl language. In Llave del Nahuatl (Key to Nahuatl, 1940) Garibay K. calls this technique difrasismo.

In xóchitl in cuícatl, “flower and song,” is one of the many examples of difrasismo mentioned by Garibay K. In addition to the literal meaning, the phrase is a metaphor for poetry or a poem. In the text quoted above, the conclusion of the tlamatinime was that “the only truth on earth” was poetry—“song and flowers.” (On the significance of the metaphorical use of flowers in the poetic imagery of song texts composed by the P’urhépecha of present-day Mexico, see E. Fernando Nava López, “Musical traditions of the P’urhépecha (Tarascos) of Michoacán, Mexico,” in Performing Beliefs: Indigenous Peoples of South America, Central America, and Mexico, ed. by Malena Kuss [Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004], 247–260.)

Poetry is, then, a creative and profound expression that, through symbol and metaphor, allows man to discover himself and then to talk about what he has intuitively and mysteriously perceived. Because he feels that he will never be able to express what he longs to express, the poet suffers. Nevertheless, his words may at times embody authentic revelation. This quality is beautifully illustrated in the following Nahuatl poem, in which the very soul of poetry is discernible:

Eagerly does my heart yearn for flowers;
I suffer with songs, yet I create them on earth,
I Cuacuauhtzin:
I crave flowers that will not perish in my hands!
Where might I find lovely flowers, lovely songs?
Such as I seek, spring does not produce on earth;
indeed, I feel tormented, I, Cuacuauhtzin.
Perchance, will our friends be happy; will they feel pleasure?
Where might I, Cuacuauhtzin, find lovely flowers, lovely songs?
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 26r. in León-Portilla 1963: 76).

This yearning for the true expression of poetry—“Eagerly does my heart yearn for flowers …. Where might I find lovely flowers, lovely songs?”—tormented the Nahuatl thinker. “I suffer with songs,” he says, “yet I create them on earth ….” Seldom do his words satisfy his desire to attain “the only truth,” for the authentic poetry—“song and flowers”—“spring does not produce on earth.” Where, then, does poetry come from? The tlamatinime also speculated on this new question. Addressing their priests, they inquired:

Our priests, I ask of you:
From whence come the flowers that enrapture man?
The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 34r. in León-Portilla 1963: 77).

These questions about the origin of poetry attribute to it another unique quality. Poetry “enraptures man,” and by intensifying his emotions and his perceptive powers, it enables him to perceive what he ordinarily would not. The answer given by the priests concerning the origin of poetry follows:

Only from His home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven,
only from there comes the myriad of flowers ….
Where the nectar of the flowers is found
the fragrant beauty of the flower is refined ….
They interlace, they interweave;
among them sings, among them warbles the quetzal bird
(Cantares mexicanos, fol. 34r. in León-Portilla 1963: 77).

In this way the Nahuas described the divine origin of poetry. It is born of inspiration emanating from beyond—from “what is above us.” And it is this inspiration which enables man to speak “the only truth on earth.”

*Editor’s note: I wish to express my gratitude to Carol Robertson for the editorial inspiration she brought to this article. With love, it is dedicated to her memory.



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