Aztec, literature on the

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Aztec, literature on the

Aztec, literature on the

Pre-Columbian Indian lore and the downfall of the Aztec Empire (1375-1521) of central Mexico at the hands of Spanish conquistadores inspired dramatic, often contradictory Nahuatl codices and Spanish chronicles. The narratives, recorded in pictographs and words on cloth, hide, and paper, contain CREATION myths, ritual calendars, astral and geological marvels, PROPHECY, herbalism, trades and artistry, dynastic and military biography, and tactical and diplomatic details. In the pre-Columbian decades, Nezahualcoyotl (1402-72), a poet-sage and ruler of Texcoco, spoke from an existentialist point of view the brevity and fragility of life. He encouraged monotheism through gifts of incense and garlands to Moyocoyatia, the creator and supreme being. One of his hymns, “Flowers Have Come” (ca. 1460), speaks humbly of borrowing “your flowered drum, / your bells, / your song” as elements of peaceful worship (Roberts 1991, 302). The gentle verse refutes claims of the brutal Aztecs reported by travelers from Spain.

In 1568, the soldier of fortune Bernal Diaz del Castillo (1496-1584) of Medina del Campo, Spain, corrected mistaken or false accounts with Historia verdaera de la conquista de la Nueva Espana (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain), a military account of Hernan Cortes's crushing of the Aztec realm (1519-21). Written with a veteran's swagger, the text employs the lingua franca of the conquistador in terms of safe harborage, substantial rations, and the occasional comely female. During a onesided battle at a low point during their conquest, Diaz regrets losing female servants, equipment, cannon, and men drowned and slain by Indians; he and other warriors cry to the Virgin Mary and

to Santiago de Compostella, Spain's patron saint. Diaz, like WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S Falstaff, speaks the survivor's wisdom: “That man would, indeed, have been a fool who had thought of anything else but of his own safety!” (Diaz 1844, 350). In Diaz's account, even Cortes runs for his life.

Writing Imperial History

While Diaz was reliving his expeditionary glories and brushes with death in the New World, Dominican monk and translator Diego Duran (ca. 1537-88) took a chronicler's view of the fall of the Aztec Empire. Published in 1867 as Historia de las Indias de Nueva-Espaha (The History of the Indies of New Spain), the Aubin Codex is a history of the Aztecs in text and pictures, as overseen by Duran. Begun in 1576, it outlines royal genealogies and ritual and is substantiated in part by the Dominican historian BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS'S Brevisima relation de la destruction de las Indias (A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1542). Written during the golden age of Mexican historiography, the codex predicts disaster for the highland Mexica at the hands of Spain, a muscular, enterprising empire in the first decades of its powers.

Duran's lethal vision accounts for the collapse of the Aztec civilization. In April 1520, during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli, some 600 Aztec citizens drummed and danced naked at the sacred Patio of the Gods when 50 Spanish soldiers, led by Lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado, closed three gates and, amid wails of trapped celebrants, cut down 200 Indian nobles with sword slashes. The narrative reports: “Everywhere were intestines, severed heads, hands and feet. Some men walked around with their entrails hanging out due to knife and lance thrusts” (Duran 1994, 537). Duran supplied an Aztec account of the death of 54-year-old Montezuma II on La Noche Triste (the night of sor- rows)—June 30, 1520—in the 18th year of his reign at the Temple of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). (Many Spanish accounts say Montezuma was killed by his own people. Indigenous accounts blame the Spanish, and one reports Cortes pouring molten gold down the emperor's throat.) The codex blames the emperor for a fatal error in allying with Cortes, whom the Aztec considered a double dealer. A subsequent Nahuatl publication, Anales de Tlatelolco (Annals of Tlatelolco, 1528), assembles anonymous Aztec reflections on the state of the traumatized nation following conquest.

Polished Chronicles

More thorough reportage appeared in the latter portion of the 16 th century. Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), a Franciscan Latin grammarian, dictionary compiler, and mendicant friar from Leon, Spain, earned the title of father of modern ethnography and became the world's first anthropologist for his detailed study of Mesoamerican aborigines. He excelled at recording and analyzing Mesoamerican speech, the most researched language indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. From Nahua elders, he collected elements of native culture and religion for his Florentine Codex, a 12-volume encyclopedia completed in Nahuatl and Spanish and illustrated between 1547 and 1569. Among his contributions to the literature of empire is a floor plan of the Temple of Tenochtitlan and a description of the Aztec refusal to claim Emperor Montezuma's remains. Before Cortes breached the inner sanctum, prophets warned the emperor, “His power and his pride are coming to an end” (Sahagun 1979, 33). A frequently quoted addendum from 1585 reports a more insidious onslaught, the plague of 1576, when tongues turned black and eyes yellow, boils arose behind the ears, and lips and genitalia developed gangrene. Sahagun himself saw thousands of victims die in an advanced state of putrefaction. Until 1979, the Catholic church suppressed uncensored sections of the work, later known as the Historia General de las cosas de Nueva Espaha (A general history of things in New Spain).

Recovered literature from the preconquest era introduced Europeans to the authentic Aztec philosophy of life. A song collection by native scribes for a Catholic missionary, the Cantares Mexicanos (Mexican songs, ca. 1590), contains 91 of some 175 known Nahuatl verses and music representative of an oral culture. Included in the text are variations of the Romances de los sehores de Nueva Espaha (Ballads of the Lords of New Spain, 1582), collected by historian Juan Bautista Pomar (ca. 1535-90) of Texcoco, Mexico, a bilingual mestizo who investigated preconquest customs by interviewing elderly Aztec. The collection, like the extant Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, reflects monotheistic teachings obviously interpolated by Pomar. Universal in scope, like the Hebrew singer David's Psalm 8 (see PSALMS), the Nahua poetry captures the blaze of the quetzal's feathers, blossom songs, and the intimate joys of weddings as well as questions of life's meaning and the mysteries of death. The bard proclaims, “The Giver of Life makes us live, he knows, he decides, how we men will die. Nobody, nobody, nobody, truly lives on earth” (quoted in Portilla and Shorris 2002, 79). Of the spiritual comfort of prayer, a verse states, “Where the smoke is rising, I shall go there, I shall go, I shall go to lose myself, I shall lie down on the mat of precious feathers” a source of comfort combining the softness and brilliant colors of the quetzal, the Aztec holy bird. From these sources, William Hickling Prescott compiled his three -volume History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843).


Boone, Elizabeth Hill. Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs. Translated by John Bierhorst. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo: Containing a True and Full Account of the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico and New Spain. Translated by John Ingram Lockhart. London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1844.

------- . The True History of the Conquest of New Spain.

5 vols. Edited by Genaro Garcia. Translated by Alfred Percival Maudslay. London: Hakluyt Society, 1908-16.

Duran, Diego. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Las Casas, Bartolome de. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Edited and translated by Nigel Griffin. London and New York: Penguin, 1992.

Portilla, Miguel Leon. Bernardino de Sahagun, First Anthropologist. Translated by Mauricio J. Mixco. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

----- , and Earl Shorris. In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamercian Literature—Pre-Columbian to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth Prayers from around the World. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Sahagun, Bernardino de. Florentine Codex. Translated by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. Anderson. Santa Fe: Monographs of the School of American Research and Museum of New Mexico, 1979.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Morals of History. Translated by Alyson Waters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.