- Carolina Quiroga-Stultz
22 - Pre Columbian Narratives
The Aztec world was created in several attempts. Each time the gods disagreed on detail and restarted the world again. In the afterword, we dive into the theories associated with the meaning of this creation myth and how it seems to be a more historical account than a mere story.
#Mythology, #Nahua, #Aztec, #Toltec, #Quetzalcoatl, #Tezcatlipoca, #ancientgods, #mesoamericanhistory, #conquest, #Nezahualcoyotl, #epicpoetry, #indigenousnarratives, #nativenarratives, #nativeliterature, #nahualiterature #evolution, #CharlesDarwin, #ClimateChange, #BernardinodeSahagun, #Nahuatl, #Mictlantecultli, #Mictlan, #Creationmyths, #StoriesMexico.
1. Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. Miguel Leon-Portilla. Translated from the Spanish by Grace Lobanoy and the Author. Published by the University of Oklahoma. 2. Leyenda de los Soles continuada con otras leyendas y noticias. Relación Anónima escrita en lengua mexicana. Año 1558. Publicada por la Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. http://cdigital.dgb.uanl.mx/la/1080012504/1080012504.PDF 3. PDF extract from the Códice Chimalpopoca. UNAM, Mexico, 1992. URL: https://pilaricahistoria.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/leyenda.pdf 4. The fifth sun, with ancient Mexican history and astronomy. Volume 2 Issue 6 - 2018. Zoltan Andrew Simon, Geologist and land surveyor with diploma. Canadian Hungarian amateur scholar. Canada. Published in the Arts and Humanities Open Access Journal. 5. The Nahua Myth of The Suns. History and Cosmology in Pre-Hispanic Mexican Religions. Wayne Ellet. Miami University, USA. Numen, Vol XXIII, Fasc. 2. 6. Can the position of the moon or the planets affect seismicity? Are there more earthquakes in the morning/in the evening/at a certain time of the month? USGS Science for a changing world. URL:https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/can-position-moon-or-planets-affect-seismicity-are-there-more-earthquakes-morningin-eveningat-a?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products 7. Climate Shocks. Swings between wet and dry landscapes punched some of our ancestors toward modern traits-and killed off others. Peter B. DeMenocal. Magazine Scientific American. Volume 28, Number 4. 8. Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds. Journal The Guardian. Damian Carrington. Oct 2018. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds
THE FIVE SUNS
We are Mortals, a poem by Nezahualcoyotol
I comprehend the secret, the hidden: O my lords! Thus we are, we are mortal, humans through and through, we all will have to go away, we all will have to die on earth… Like a painting we will be erased. Like a flower, we will dry up here on earth. Like plumed vestments of the precious bird, that precious bird with the agile neck, we will come to an end… think on this, o lords, eagles and tigers, though you be of jade, though you be of gold, you also will go there, to the place of the flesh-less. We will have to disappear, no one can remain.
NOTE: In order to have access to the text of the story, please consider purchasing the book!
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Very well, dear listeners it is about time to talk about the story, a story, that some had categorized as the Aztec Myth of creation. But the truth is, that it is much more complex] than that. It is a sacred narrative that has shaped the political, and religious systems of many of the ancient people of Mesoamerica.
In the book Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, Miguel Leon-Portilla, tell us that “The great myth told in Nahuatl, and other native tongues, is probably the oldest poetry of Pre-Hispanic times. Similar legends often recorded in different languages suggest a common origin for the main cultures of Mesoamerica.”
And even when the text was translated into other contemporary languages, these pre-Columbian literatures still hold their rhythmic style, expression and color. The author also points out that “these texts were memorized in the pre-Hispanic centers of learning, and recited during important religious festivals.”
In other words, these narratives were not necessarily told around the fire, with the purpose of passing down an old story, instead it was a way to invoke the gods.
Also, Portilla stresses that “the myths show a concern for detail, expressing an idea from different angles. But along with this attention to detail, there also appears the concept of the whole in which small things become meaningful. What sometimes appears to be concrete details, such as flowers, a song, quetzal plumage, or jade, and precious stones, are metaphors used to express the most subtle and beautiful abstractions.”
I believe it is time to debunk the idea that these old narratives should be considered children’s stories or simply pagan beliefs of the ancient people. On the contrary, they were expressions of artistic literature, of a religious system, of a philosophical way of understanding an interpreting their world. Most importantly, they are historical accounts of a cultural, and political evolution staged in the environmental understanding of the world they journeyed.
Before digging more into the theories of what the narrative of the Five Suns means, we should explore the number of ages or eras.
Nahuatl sources tend to agree on five ages ruled by suns of different elements, water, earth (represented by the jaguar), fire, wind and movement. However, that these sources are not the only ones depicting different cosmological periods of evolution of a culture in Mesoamerica. Other texts, such as the Popol Vuh and Chilam Balam, of Mayan origin, tell us of four cosmic periods, not five.
Furthermore, Wayne Ellet, in his article: The Nahua Myth of The Suns, tell us that early missionaries recorded the beliefs, practices, customs, and institutions of the religions of central Mexico. This resulted in more than twenty different variants of the myth of the Suns within about hundred years of the conquest. Among those missionaries that recorded different chronicles were Andres de Olmos, Bernardino de Sahagún, Diego Duran, Toribio de Motolinia, Geronimo de Mendieta.
For instance, Ellet says that Bernardino de Sahagún recorded his information after questioning native informants, and later doing cross-checking with sources from other locations. He was like an early type of journalist. Whereas part of Diego Duran’s work comes from translating directly from native history.
Other sources, such as the Leyenda de los Soles and the Anales de Cuauhtitlan, “were written as commentaries on native picture writings by bilingual and trilingual pupils trained in the missionary schools. [...]” And of course, other versions had some strong Christian influences that apparently were trying to present local traditions under a more favorable light. I assume to not scare the European audiences.
As a result of all these multiple versions, the number of world ages described by the story, vary from three to six, and even the length of each era, or the sum of all them varied as well.
Thus, the story you just heard is my literary adaptation of the most well-known of all the versions. This adaptation can be found in my latest book “The Hungry Goddess and The Five Suns,” that you can purchase online on our website www.trescuentos.com.
The book was illustrated by the Mexican-American artist Emmanuel Valtierra who has studied the way the ancient Mexica people used to illustrate their pictographic books. So, when you have this book in your hands is like going back in time, and finding one of those old pictographic codices. But the good news is that although the graphics might seem foreign to you, the text is in English!
And that was the advertisement of the day!
Let’s continue with the five ages, and how long they seemed to have lasted. Perhaps the number may give us an idea of how old this story is.
Wayne Ellet indicates that in the version of Histoyre du Mechique by the cosmographer Jean Thévet written in 1543, a single age lasted twenty three years. Whereas in the Leyenda de los Soles written around the year of 1558 by an unknown source the first age lasted 676 years; and in the Codex Vaticanus B translated by Eduard Seler, and published in 1902, one era lasted 5042 years. This means that the different sources not even agree on the length of each era.
Ellet also stresses that in one variant the destruction of the past ages is due to the vices of their inhabitants; whereas in another version the destruction was due to insufficient food.
Nevertheless, most sources agree that at least there were four cosmic ages, and the fifth is the last one. They also agree that each era ended with a cataclysm in which there was mass destruction or a transformation of the population.
Now, let’s briefly take a look at how long each era lasted according to the Codex Chimalpopoca, known as one the most reliable sources. You can find a more detail info graphic about it in our website. Just go and check the transcript of this story.
From the Codex Chimalpopoca we know that the first era lasted 676 years, and ended with the extinction of the giants; tragedy that lasted for another 10 years. The next era lasted for 364 years, and ended with some terrible winds. The third era had a duration of 312 years, and ended with a rain of fire. The fourth era lasted for 676 years and ended with a tremendous flood that continued for 52 years. This was followed by another 25 years during which the gods unleashed their wrath upon the couple that had survived.
Until here, the sum of all four ages is approximately 2115 years, give or take. Notice that we cannot add the fifth era to the math because it’s the era in which we still live.
To those who know more about the Aztec history, the count of more than 2000 years doesn’t make much sense. Their empire rose around the year of 1345 C.E, and ended with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521.
This is why we could assume that either there was a mistake in the recording process, or in the interpretation of the information, or that this story precedes the Aztecs. And they, as astute politicians, and conquerors saw a great opportunity by appropriating it and adapting it to their own political and religious needs.
The Aztecs could have known that the story itself had a powerful message, and could give credibility, and legitimize their young culture under the eyes of those who they were conquering.
In other words, this story could have been inherited or appropriated from the Toltecs, the Teotihuacans, the Maya or other ancient cultures such as the Olmec. Indeed stories are immortal.
Now, let’s dive into the multiple, and possible explanations of the story. Wayne Ellet sheds some light on this.
He says that most scholars agree “that the story of the ages of the world is an allusion to the stages of a culture, and that each new age represents a stage of new cultural progress...The fifth Sun is the synthesis [sin-the-sis] of progress achieved in the earlier ages...(thus) It is regarded as superior to all.”
Here I ask myself if we accept this consensus, then could it be that the fifth sun represents the birth and rise of the Aztec culture? If so, then the four previous ages represent previous cultures that perished overtime due to different natural cataclysms and, or political disturbances. Let’s remember that the Aztecs were not the only ones telling the story, the Toltecs apparently told it too.
In this manner, the fifth era comes to represent the most important culture in the region at the time the conquistadors arrived. Remember we mentioned this on episodes 5 and 10, when we said that the Aztecs rewrote their own history in order to present themselves as inheritors of a long ancient and royal tradition. And in this way secure their political and military conquests.
Nonetheless, the theory that says that the story is an allusion to the states of a culture is not the only theory. Wayne Ellet mentions that there had been other interpretations of the meaning of the story.
1- Among those interpretations is that the story is an imaginative account of the historic conquest and growing political power of the Nahua tribes from which the Aztecs descended. Remember that old story that tells that several tribes left Aztlán, and in doing so they became nomads, often called Chichimecas; and once the Aztecs and other Nahua tribes had secured their power in Mesoamerica, they sought to rewrite their own history and origins, making sure to align it with the Toltecs. Also remember that the Toltecs arrived centuries before, conquered the region and built a long-lasting civilization. An achievement that apparently the Aztecs wished to achieve too.
2- Another view point tells us that it could be a story of a gradual success of a new solar cult and religious system. If so, the four previous eras resemble Old Testament stories, while the fifth sun is similar to a type of New Testament that began with the sacrifice of the gods in Teotihuacan.
3- A third perspective says that it is an allegory on the progressive liberation of spirit from matter, symbolizing the life cycle of the individual from infancy to maturity . This one, kind of escapes my understanding. It makes sense to me, if we see the giants as defenseless as babies, the monkeys as young children, the turkeys as the stubborn teenagers, and the lazy people that were turned into fish as young adults. Perhaps the cataclysms that ended each era are like rites of passages that represent the stages of human development. Who knows?
4- Last, that the story could be a symbolic history listing the gradual evolution of agriculture. In some versions, it is mentioned what type of food the people ate, but there is no evidence of how they developed crops. It is only mentioned the type of food available or what they chose to eat. This could indicate an evolution of their diet but not necessarily of agriculture.
On the other hand, and to make things more complex, Ellet says that “the sequence of the world ages is disjunctive”. That is that each Sun or era is autonomous, and there is no internal change or development until the solar disk, and the landscape are destroyed and replaced.
In other words, in each era the human species starts anew. Except for that time when Quetzalcoatl brings forth from the underworld the bones of the people that perished before, so they can live through the fifth era. This was briefly mentioned in my earlier story. We will address it at the end of this episode.
Also, the only “transitional” periods are those marked by chaos, floods, battle, earthquake, and darkness. So, the story does not appear to be linear or circular in human terms.
As well, not a single version appears to address what happened to the animals that had been humans before. Did they survive to the next era? If so, can we say that there was a continuation of the animal species? If not, then why waste time transforming them? Was it an extra punishment? The story doesn’t tell us anything about it.
All this to say that it appears that there is no evidence of the evolution of our human species in the story. Let’s remember that science has thought us that we came from animals, not the other way around. Unless, that is, that the transformation into animals is an allegory to the old belief in Nahuales, that is our animal spirit.
Here, I dare to say that the transformation of the people into animals sort of touches on our relationship with other species. If you have watched the wonderful program Cosmos in Netflix hosted by the astrophysics Neil deGrasse Tyson, you already know that science have proved that we share DNA with all other beings in the planet, including the trees.
At this point, since I have brought evolution into the mix, I am going to dare to speculate a little on the subject of linearity. If you draw a line that represents an each era, you will have to stop when every cataclysm happened; and then draw another line for the next era. Thus, some will argue that there were not such abrupt interruptions in the evolution of our human species.
But remember that scientists have found humanoid species whose lineage became extinct. They might have contributed to our ancestry but they could not continue their own.
Take the famous ancestral lineage of “Lucy”, Australopithecus afarensis, and other two distinctive groups. One of them had large brains and was some of the first members of our own evolutionary family.
However, they didn’t make it as far as the Homo Erectus, because they couldn’t adapt to climate change. Basically, they did not have a flexible diet, they ate mostly grass, and related foods; whereas the Homo Erectus, our most common ancestor, who had a larger brain, and was more adaptable in his food choices, and that included meat.
Now, I am not saying that the Five Suns depicts Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but I think there are some connections, if we address it from the perspective of climate change. In the article, “Climate Shocks” by Peter B. DeMenocal published in the magazine Scientific American, fall 2019, we learn that a growing number of scientists believe that climate change played an important role in shaping human evolution.
The author reminds us that Darwin stayed that: “the disappearance of a favorite food or the replacements of a long wet season with a longer dry one creates pressures that lead, eventually, to adaptation, extinction or evolution into different species.”
In Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species” is noted that seasons of extreme cold or drought directly affected species numbers. From what we now know about our constantly changing earth, deMenocal says that “the process of change was not always subtle. Each of the big five mass extinctions, over the past 540 million years was accompanied by an environmental disruption. During each of these events, between 50 and 90 percent of all species perished, but this was followed by bursts of new species.”
He continues saying that “We mammals owe a debt of gratitude to the Manhattan-size meteorite that struck the Yucatán Peninsula in what is today Mexico, about 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs, and other less charismatic species, ushering the rapid radiation and diversification of mammals.”
I know, you may be saying, but all that happened millions of years ago, the story can’t be that ancient. Perhaps, but my point is that our planet is in constant change, geological or climatic change.
Many of the hurricanes, earthquakes, and wild fires that have impacted the Americas in the past 100 years have led to massive destructions followed by mass relocations of people. To those who lost much and left, there was an abrupt end of the life they used to know. Was there a sort of anatomical evolution, as a result of such cataclysm? Probably not, but there was a memory of an era that ended, and a new one that they were forced to start again somewhere else.
In conclusion, there is an accumulation of experience that eventually translated into long lasting knowledge and memories, and that is stories.
For instance, we are on the verge of one of those eras of massive extinction. The journal The Guardian, tell us that “Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970”. Unfortunately, we cannot blame nature for this one, but ourselves. People don’t seem to be worried about it, in the end is the animals that are going extinct, not us.
However, what people do not stop to consider is the impact that the animal extinction will have on our immediate future. So, that is something to think about, but more importantly to act upon.
There is much more we could say about the story of the Five Suns, including that it could be a historical account of a journey that began in Aztlan. Where each total-sun eclipse, and the natural disaster associated with it represent the tragic culmination of each era. Those events could have indicated to the Nahua tribes, that it was time to start somewhere else. This could be the birth of the fifth sun, the beginning of a long journey that ended when the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlán.
The truth is that all we have from the past are the monuments, artifacts, drawings and stories. Some stories may seem to be drawn out of imagination. They seem too wild to be true, but in reality, by following the story of the epic poem The Iliad, is that Schlieman found, and excavated the legendary city of Trajan in 1870. Sometimes, what appears to be a product of mere imagination is far more real than it seems.
To me each story is someone’s cultural journey in this chaotic and ever changing world.
Personally, I am more inclined to believe that the first four eras give us hints on how previous Mesoamerican civilizations went in declined or ended; and that the fifth one, is the way the Aztecs, added themselves to the historical equation.
In addition, if we pay attention to the scene in which the gods sacrificed themselves in order to give movement to the new sun, we find the justification for human sacrifices that the Aztec religious cult demanded.
We also find the excuse to foster a political strategy known as the flowery wars, that kept the Aztec military in shape and provided the habitual sacrificial lambs, but that of course is another cuento.
To finalize our program I will leave you with the short story of how Quetzalcoatl gave the life back to the humans beginning the fifth era.
The following story is based on the version from the book Pre-Columbian Literatures of México by Miguel León-Portilla.
And as soon as the gods came together they said:
Who shall live on earth? The sky and the earth have already been established. Oh gods, who shall live on the earth?
The gods Citlalinicue, Citlaltonac, Apantecuhtli, Tepanquizqui, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were grieved about the issue. They thought, how about recycling the old bones of those who had perished before, and so Quetzalcoatl was left in charge with the new goal. He went down to Mictlan to retrieve the bones.
He approached Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the lord and lady of the underworld, and said to them: I have come to take the precious bones that you keep here.
Mictlantecuhtli said to him: What would you do with them, Quetzalcoatl?
Quetzalcoatl answered: The gods are concerned; someone shall live on the earth.
Mictlantecuhtli replied: Very well, sound my conch shell and go four times around my domain and the bones shall be yours.
But there was a catch. The conch shell had no holes in it, it wasn’t meant to be played. Quetzalcoatl suspected the scam and called the worms. They came, and made holes in it and then the bees and hornets went inside and they made the conch sell sound loud.
Upon hearing it the sound, Mictlantecuhtli said to Quetzalcoatl: Very well. You may take the bones.
But then, while his guest walked to the place where the bones were, Mictlantecuhtli turn to those who served him and shouted: People of Mictlan! Don’t let him take my bones.
In the meantime, Quetzalcoatl gathered up the precious bones of men, and women, and made a bundle with them.
Alarmed by the imminent success of his guest, Mictlantecuhtli said to those who served him: People of Mictlan, go an dig a big hole.
The hole was dug and as Quetzalcoatl was on his way out he walked on it, stumbled, and fell in the pit. He fell down as if dead, the precious bones were scattered, and the quail bird quickly came and chewed and gnawed upon them, breaking them in smaller pieces.
After a while Quetzalcoatl woke up, he was grieved, and asked to his Nahual: What shall I do now?
The dog Xolotl, his Nahual answered him: Although the affair has started badly, let it continue as best it may.
So, Quetzalcoatl gathered up the bones, put them together, bundle them up, and carried them to Tamoanchan, the place of origin.
As soon as he arrived, the goddess Quilaztli, also called Cihuacoatl, ground them up, and put them in a fine earthen tub. Then Quetzalcoatl bled his male organ on them, and immediately the gods named Apantecuhtli, Huictlolinqui, Tepanquizqui, Tlallamanac, Tzontemoc, and Quetzalcoatl, did penance.
And they said: Oh gods, the Macehuales are born. And thus we mortals owe our life to penance, because for our sake the gods did penance. And since the bones were broken in smaller pieces that is why we don’t live forever.
In our next episode on Pre Columbian narratives, we will tell the legendary story of a remarkable man that was elevated to the status of a god, and how his departure was taken as the reason for the fall of an entire culture. Until the next cuento! **
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