Written April 2020
Upon seeing its vastness and pristine order, the first Europeans arriving to the Aztec Empire thought they were having an otherworldly in a glorious dream
The binding of things to other things
As above, so below: was the sacred theorem echoing across the ancient world, on every landmass, spanning uncounted millennia. In realization of this axiom, the passionate Aztecs did not merely emulate the cosmic systems and principles in their earthly existence.
They were active participants in the manifestation and maintenance of the sacred order through their architecture, rituals, civic and spiritual lives. To maintain this order was a continual act of transformation, and uncompromising sacrifice. No act was more essential and metamorphic to this end than the willing and frequent offering of their own blood, and even life, to their Gods.
The New Fire Ceremony, literally translated as: ‘The Binding of the Years,’ was a ritual, performed every 52 sun years. The ceremony, central to Aztec belief and practice, marked the synchronistic completion of a series of distinct, but interwoven, day-counts and astronomical cycles of different lengths. These cycles, each essential to life in its own way, divided and enumerated time: – daily time, yearly time, and universal time.
Taken together, the cycles functioned as a sacred and a mundane calendar, an astrological chart, an almanac, a basis for divination and a cosmic clock.
Fire was time, in the Aztec ontology: the central or focal point of all activity, but, being like time, fire was an entity which had no independent existence. If the stars did not move as required, one cycle of years could not roll over to the next, so there would be no New Fire to mark its beginning, indicating that time had run out for the Aztec people. To be an Aztec meant that you were, quite literally, always waiting for the end of time.
On the night of the New Fire Ceremony, everyone waited for the heaven’s sign: when the tiny, seven-starred medallion of the Pleiades passed the sky’s zenith on the stroke of midnight, all rejoiced in the knowledge that another cycle had been granted them. And it was not forgotten that time and the fire must be fed.
The spiritual navel, or omphalos, of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire was Templo Mayor, a great basalt stepped pyramid whose flat top supported two shrines to the all-powerful Gods: Tlaloc Lord of Rain, and Huitztilopochtli, Lord of War, patron of the Mexica people.
Twice a year, the equinox sun rose above its massive edifice and hovered exactly over the pyramid’s summit, atop the grand staircase, (which corresponded to the mythic Serpent Mountain, legendary birthpl ace of Sun God, Huitztilopochtli).
It was only fitting that, at the end of time, the New Fire of life was distributed from the top of the pyramid, outward in the four directions. The number four was very important.
Grand Counselor to the Emperors of Tenochtitlan
Son to King Huitzilihuitzli, the second ruler of Tenochtitlan
Brother of Emperor Moctezuma I
Father of Princess Xiuhpopocatzin
Tlalcael speaks (remembering his 6th year, 1403):
I was six, the first time I waited for the world to end.
All of our houses in all of the villages were swept bare and stripped of furnishings, pots, ladles, kettles, brooms, and even our sleeping mats. Only ash-cold cinders lay in the square hearth, in the center of every home. Families with children and servants, sat on the flats of their roofs all night long, watching the stars; and the stars watched us back. The Gods saw us, in the dark, alone, naked of possessions and all means of survival.
They knew that we came to them vulnerable, waiting for a sign, a sign that the world had not ended and that the sun would rise that dawn. I was also waiting, but not on my roof. I was half a day’s march away on the Hill of the Star with my father, the Tlatoani or Emperor of Tenochtitlan, and his cabinet of nobles and Fire Priests, also waiting. The HIll of the Star (literally, ‘thorn tree place,’ Huixachtlan), was the sacred volcanic mountain that overlooked the Mexica Valley.
At midnight, ‘when the night had divided in half,’ (Larner, Updated 2018) the entire land watched with a single in-held breath, as the fire constellation, also called Marketplace, Tiyānquiztli [Pleiades] traversed the summit of the starry dome and did not stop. All sentient beings exhaled as one. The world did not end that midnight.
Instead, myrial the dials within dials of the great cosmic clock synchronized for one glorious ‘tick,’ and reset for another 52 years, until the next synchronization. The two well-worn calendar rounds culminated at midnight, and in that instant, time finished, and time began.
Father explained to me that it was during this ceremony that our priests would re-calibrate the timing of the new cycle. The sky watching took place over several nights. On the night when the Pleiades reached the top of the sky on the stroke of midnight – that would be our first midnight for the new 52 year cycle.
The exact timing of this event was crucial, because it was upon this moment that all others hung. And, it was by only observing the midnight transit of the Pleiades that our priests could ascertain the timing of the midday transit, which was always exactly six months into the future. That second transit could not be calculated by eye, because, of course, the Pleiades would be invisible while it was merged into the midday sun. Nevertheless, the priests had to know the correct day because that was the very day and time when the sacrifice of Toxcatl, the yearly decapitation of the human incarnation of Lord Tezcatlipoco, would be performed.
The God-fearing rulers of Tenochtitlan understood that their power was always and only equal to the veracity of their alignment within the cosmos. Our ceremonies, sarifices, the layout of our cities, and even our recreational activities, were modeled to reflect this connection at all times. If the connection weakened or severed, human life became unsustainable.
At age six, I had already been shown by my father how to find the tiny Pleiades cluster, by first locating the brightest nearby star [Aldabaran], aoccampa, ‘large, swelling’ (Janick and Tucker, 2018), and measuring five finger-widths northwest. My job was to keep close watch and yell out when the cluster reached its highest point. The priests would confirm if it coincided with midnight.
That night, when I gave the shout, the priests immediately responded but we all waited in utter stillness for a further five minutes, until it was undeniable that the Pleiades had cleared the midpoint and was heading toward the west. This was the sign for the gathered nobility on The Hill that the Gods had granted our faithful people another 52 year cycle, and fire would again warm the hearths. The gathered crowd sprang into life.
The heart must be removed and replaced with the New Fire
At the makeshift altar on The Hill, my father’s priests had adorned a mighty warrior with a feathered headdress and gold and silver decorations. The captive was led, as glorious as any God, up a small platform, visible to all who waited in the city below. His painted skin glowed chalk-white in the moonlight.
Before the small crowd of elites, my father, King Huitzilihuitl and the embodiment of God on earth, commanded his Fire Priests to “create fire.” They madly spun the fire sticks upon the outspread chest of the warrior. As the first sparks fell, a fire was made for Xiuhtecuhtli, Lord of Fire himself, and the high priest “speedily slashed open the breast of the captive, seized his heart, and quickly cast it there into the fire.” (Sahagún, 1507).
Inside the hollow of the warrior’s chest, where the mighty heart had beat second before, the fire sticks were again twirled madly by Fire Priests, until, at length, a new spark was born and a glowing cinder burst into a tiny flame. This divine flame was like a drop of pure sunlight. A new creation was conceived out of the darkness when the fire of humanity sparked up to touch the cosmic Sun.
In pitch darkness, our small hill fire could be seen throughout the land. Without so much as a torch, for the villages were still without a flame, the families of Tenochtitlan climbed expectantly down from their roofs and looked to the direction of the great pyramid, Templo Mayor.
Templo Mayor stood in the center of the city, radiating its life-sustaining light outwards to the four cardinal directions (Maffie, 2014) , an action soon to be simulated by the central hearth in the center of each home in every village. With all haste, the precious fire spun on the Hill or the Star was carried to Templo Mayor, the center of our world.
In a perfectly choreographed dance, the glowing cinder was shared out to runners in the four cardinal directions, who, in turn shared it with hundreds more runners, who seemingly flew through the darkness, lofting their blazing tails of fire to the far corners of the city and beyond.
Every hearth in every temple and finally every home was lit for the new creation, not to be extinguished for another 52 years. By the time my father had led me home from Templo Mayor, our hearth was already blazing. There was rejoicing in the streets as the dark gave way to dawn. We spattered our own blood into the fire, from shallow cuts made by father’s razor-edged flint knife.
My mother and sister spattered drops from their ears and lips, but I, who had just seen my first heart torn from a man’s chest, told my father to cut the flesh near my ribcage so I might mix my blood in Xiutecuhtli’s flames. My father was proud; my mother was happy and carried her copper soup pot to heat on the hearth. A sprinkle of blood, nicked from the earlobe of the baby still in the cradle, completed our family offering.
Our blood had bought one more cycle, we paid gratefully for time.
Fifty-two years later, I would repeat the same vigil, waiting for the Pleiades to cross its zenith. This time, I was not Tlacaelel, the boy of six, but Tlalacael, Master of Ceremonies, forger of an empire, Chief Counselor to Moctezuma I, who was the emperor of Tenochtitlan, the mightiest ruler the Nahuatl-speaking tribes had ever bowed down before.
I say the mightiest but not the wisest. I pulled the strings behind each king’s illusion of glory. I remained in the shadows for, what is glory compared to immortality?
Each man exists in the certainty of his death. For the Mexica, death was ever topmost on our minds. What remained unknown was the instant our light would be extinguished. We existed at the pleasure of the Gods. The fragile link between man and our cosmic cycles hung ever in the balance, like an aspiration, a sacrificial prayer.
In our lives, never was it forgotten that Quetzaoatl, one of the four original creator sons, had to steal bones from the underworld and grind them up with his own blood to create humankind. Nor was it forgotten that all the Gods threw themselves into the fire to create our current Sun and set it in motion.
For that primordial sacrifice, we owed them continual penance. We sacrificed dearly. We lavished upon them exquisite gifts of cocoa, feathers, and jewels, bathed them extravagantly in fresh blood and fed them on pulsating human hearts to renew, perpetuate and safeguard creation.
I will sing you a poem, by Nezahualcóyotl, The King of Texcoco, one leg of our all-powerful Triple Alliance, a peerless warrior and famed engineer who built the great aqueducts all around Tenochtitlan, and my spiritual brother:
For this is the inevitable outcome of
all powers, all empires, and domains;
transitory are they and unstable.
The time of life is borrowed,
in an instant it must be left behind.
Our people were born under the Fifth and final Sun. This Sun was destined to end through movement. Perhaps Xiuhtecuhtli will send fire exploding from inside the mountains and turn all humans to burnt offerings; perhaps Tlaltecuhtli the massive crocodile, Lady Earth, would roll over in her sleep and crush us, or swallow us in one of her million gaping maws.
The Intersection of Death
For the Aztec, there were four paths into the afterlife.
If you should die as a hero: in the heat of battle, through sacrifice, or in childbirth, you would go to Tonatiuhichan, the place of the sun. For four years, the heroic men would help the sun rise in the east and heroic women would help the sun set in the west. After four years, you had earned rebirth on earth as a hummingbird or butterfly.
If you died by water: drowning, lightning, or one of many kidney or swelling diseases, that meant you were chosen by the Rain Lord, Tlaloc, and you would go to Tlalocan, to serve in the eternal water paradise.
If you should die as an infant, or a child, by child-sacarifice or (strangely) by suicide, you would go to Cincalco, presided over by a maize goddesses. There you could drink the milk that dripped from tree branches and wait for rebirth. A life undone.
An ordinary death
Regardless of how well or badly you passed your days on earth, if you were unfortunate or unremarkable enough to die an ordinary death: old age, accident, broken heart, most diseases – you would spend eternity in Mictlan, the 9-leveled underworld. You would be judged. Trails by river, freezing mountains, obsidian winds, savage animals, deserts where even gravity could not survive, awaited you there.
The path to paradise was paved with blood.
Xiuh = year, turquoise, extends to fire and time; Popocatzin = daughter
Daughter of Grand Counselor, Tlacalael,
Granddaughter To Former King Huitzilihuitzli,
Niece Of Emperor Moctezuma I,
The Crocodile Goddess
Tlaltecuhtl’s voice: the original earth goddess, whose body formed the earth and sky in the creation of the present world, the Fifth Sun
Princess Xiuhpopocatzin speaks (her 6th year 1438):
My story is not simple. Will you be able to listen?
There is blood and death and the Gods themselves are beyond good and evil.
The universe is a grand collaboration, flowing inward as a river of life-sustaining blood from humankind to their precious Lords, and radiating outward to the four directions from the God of fire in the central hearth.
To listen, leave your judgements at the door; you may collect them later if they still serve you.
Enter my home, the house of Tlacaelel:, shrewd Chief Counselor to King Itzcoatl, fourth emperor of the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan.
The year I was born, Father was offered the position of Tlatoani (ruler, speaker), but deferred to his Uncle Itzcoatl. He would be offered the kingship again and yet again but, each time, would decline. My father, Tlacalael, was like the warrior moon, the evening star, always seen in reflection, his mind in the shadows, preserving his essence. They called him the king’s ‘Serpent Woman.‘ I called him the king’s nahual, the dark guardian, spirit or animal guide.
Was it terrible to be his daughter? Who can answer such questions? An ordinary man would not have known what to do with me. I was his youngest, his only girl, Xiuhpopocatzin of Tenochtitlan, a late offspring, born when he was 35, during the reign of Itzcoatl.
I would be an advantageous wife to the prince of Texcoco or the King of Tlacopan to reinforce the nubile Triple Alliance my father had forged in Itzcoatl’s name. As well, I had a strange attribute, my hair grew black and thick as a river. It had to be cut every month and still reached below my hips. My father said it was a sign, those were the words he used, but he never explained anything.
When I was six, Father came looking for me in the forest where I went to listen to the Ahuehuete trees, trunks as wide as houses. It was from these trees that musicians carved their huehuetl drums.
The drummers would tease me, “Xiuhpopocatzin, daughter of Tlacalael, which tree has the music inside it?” and I would smile and point to one.
Silly musicians, the music is inside every tree, every beat, every bone, every running waterway. But today, I had not come to hear the trees. I carried the spiny thorns of the Maguey plant in my fist.
I am dreaming.
I was standing on a hill that was a spine that was a fin that was Tlaltecuhtli, blessed crocodile Mother Earth. My father knew her as Serpent Skirt, Coatlicue, mother of his pet God, the bloodthirsty Huitzilopochtli.
But I know the two goddesses to be one because The Great Midwife, Tlaltechutli herself, told me. I often knew things my father did not. It was always like that. He was too impatient to decipher the cacophony of dreams and, being a man, he judged all things according to his own character. Because he did not know this,he could not understand the idols of the goddess. For instance, he saw Coatlicue and called her, “the mother whose head is off.”
I tried to explain once, that that goddess, in her aspect as Serpent Skirt, mother of Huitztlipochtli, depicted the writhing energy lines of the earth which raised up to the top of her body. So instead of a head, she had two intertwined snakes meeting where her third eye might be, staring out at us. [In sanskrit, she is Kali, the shakti Kundalini] He did not understand and got quite fumey when I said that it is we humans who don’t have heads, just inert knobs of bone-flesh on top.
The head of Coatlicue IS pure energy, just like the body of her mother, her nahual, the Crocodile Goddess.
The green, undulating Tlaltechutli whispered, if I was not afraid, I could put my ear near her dark place and she would sing to me about creation. Her voice was a tortured moan, as if issuing from a thousand throats giving birth.
I bowed to her, “Tlaltecuhtli, Blessed mother. I am afraid. But I will do it. Sing into my ear.”
She spoke in metered verse. Her voice twanged the cords of my heart, pummeled the drums of my ear.
Tlaltechutli’s story of our creation:
Before manifestation, before sound, before light, was the ONE, Lord of Duality, the inseparable Ometeotl. The One without second, the light and the dark, the full and the empty, both male and female. He (who is also ‘she’ and ‘I’ and ‘that’) is the One we never see in dreams because He is beyond imagination.
Lord Ometeotl, “the ONE”, wanted another. At least for a time.
He wanted to make something. So he divided his beingness in two:
Ometecuhtli the “Lord of Duality,” and
Omecihuatl the “Lady of Duality” : The first creator split in two
Such was their overwhelming perfection; no human may look upon them.
Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl had four sons. The first two were his twin warrior sons who rushed in to take over the show of creation from their omnipotent parents. These sons were the smoky, black Jaguar God, Tezcatlipoco, and Windy, White feathered Serpent God, Quetzacoatl. Those two hooligans were ever playing their eternal ballgame of dark versus light, an irresolvable battle in which the two great deities take turns at the helm of power, and the fate of the world flip-flops through the ages.
After them came their little brothers Xipe Totec with his flayed and peeling skin, the God of death and rejuvenation, and the upstart, Huitzipochtli, War God, they call, Hummingbird of the South.
So each direction of the cosmos was guarded by one of the brothers: Tezcatlipoca – North, black; Quetzalcoatl – West, white; Xipe Totec – East, red; Huitzilopochtli – South, blue. The quadruplet creator-brothers diverged their cosmic energies out into the four cardinal directions like fire from a central hearth, or like the blessed pyramid, Templo Mayor, radiating nourishment and protection throughout the realm.
In the direction of “above” was the 13 levels of heaven, starting with the clouds and moving upwards through the stars, planets, the realms of the ruling Lords and Ladies, ending, at last, with Ometeotl. Far, far below were the 9 levels of Mictlan, in the underworld. But in the great expanse between, in the place where the flying Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl were trying to create this “world and a new human race,” was ME!
Child, I was not “created” like they were. What no one noticed was at the exact moment Ometeotl took the plunge into duality, I ‘was.’ In every act of destruction or creation, there is something left over – that which remains.
As such, I sank to the bottom, the residue of their new experiment in duality. As above, so below, I have heard them say. So, you see, there had to be something leftover, if they wanted duality and, they came to notice that I was the un-made ‘thing’ in the endless oneness of the primordial water.
Tlaltecuhtli said gently, “Dear one, can you bring your cheek a little closer so I can breathe in the human on your skin?”
I lay my cheek down next to one of her many mouths, trying to avoid being splashed by the jagged river of blood pouring into her massive lips. “Ahh she groaned. You smell young.”
“Do you plan to eat me, Mother?’ I asked.
“I have already eaten you a thousand times, child. No, the bloodthirsty God of your father, Huitzilopochtli, (also my son), gets me all the blood I need with his ‘Flower Wars.’
My thirst is slaked with the blood of every warrior who falls on the battlefield, and once more when he is reborn as a hummingbird and dies again. Those not killed are captured in the Flower Wars and sacrificed on Templo Mayor, to Huitzilopochtli who, these days, boldly claims the spoils from the original God of the Fifth Sun, Tonatiuh.
Now, Huitzilopochtli has been handed the glory for his role in guiding your people to their promised land. He also gets the choicest part of the sacrifice – the beating heart -, for himself, but the priests do not forget their Mother. They roll carcass after bleeding carcass down the steep temple stairs, as if down blessed Serpent Mountain itself , (where I gave birth to Huitzilopochtli ), onto my breast, for my tribute, my share of the spoils.
Down tumble the severed bodies of the captives, full of pungent, refreshing blood, landing on the lap of my dismembered moon daughter who lies in pieces at the foot of Templo Mayor. Moon daughter’s great round stone figure lies there, just as she lay at the foot of Serpent Mountain, where Huitzlipochtli left her for dead after slicing her up.
Wherever she lies, I spread out below her, feasting on the remains, on the underside of things.”
I dared to speak here. “But mother, my father tells the story that your daughter moon, the broken Coyolxauhqui, came to Serpent Mountain to murder you when you were Coatlicue, about to bear the God, Huitzilopochtli. Father said your own daughter, the Moon goddess, could not accept that you were impregnated by a ball of hummingbird feathers and she doubted the legitimacy of the conception, so she and her 400 star brothers planned your murder. Do you not despise her?“
“Ahhh, must I endure the lies again about my daughter, the misconstrued Moon, Coyolxauhqui?” As her voice lifted in exasperation, every bird on the earth’s surface took flight at once, and resettled.
“Your mind has been fogged with the man’s retelling of history. That is why I called you here. All my daughters and I are one. I will tell you what transpired that morning when your father’s impudent God Huitzilopochtli was re-born. I say re-born because, you see, he had already been born as one of the four original creator sons of Ometeotl. His birth to me was a later addition, an inspiration, by your father, Tlacalael, to give him a miraculous conception. (In fact, all birth is miraculous, and a man is but a trifling factor in it, but that is another story.)
“It was not so many years ago when I walked upon my own surface as the earth daughter, Coatlicue. Some hummingbird feathers slipped under my Snaky Skirt, leaving me a child who cleaved fast to my womb. How the bellicose Huitzilopochtli boiled and writhed in me. Coyolxauhqui , my moon daughter, with a ringing voice and bells on her cheeks was in her last term, so we were both full and expectant mothers together. I went into labor first, and out popped her brother Huitzilopochtli, red as blood, turquoise as the human heart cradled in veins.
The moment he emerged full-grown from my womb, he began attacking his sister, bit out her ringing heart, sliced her full glowing glory to slivers, and threw her into the sky. After devouring his sister’s heart, he devoured the four hundred hearts of the 400 southern stars, stealing a bit of essence from each for himself, to shine like the Sun. Then, he licked his lips and tossed them into the sky as well. He reveled in his victory, and called himself hotter than fire, brighter than Sun. Actually, it was the lame and pock-marked God, Tonatiuh, originally known as Nanahuatzin, who threw himself into the fire to start this present creation.
But your father appropriated that role for Huitztilopochtli and redirected the sacrifices. And my son, Huitzilopochtli was insatiable. He proceeded to tear through the cosmos, after the moon and stars, he was bellowing for more, seeking the next victim and the next until…I swallowed him. Hehehe.
Your people bow down to him, patron of Mexica, guiding them to the sign of the serpent-eating eagle who alighted on a cactus, and thereby bequeathing to them to the cursed land which grew into their mighty Empire of Tenochtitlan. They feast him on thousands upon thousands of hearts to sustain his light to illuminate their glamorous race against time. I have no complaints; I am given my share.
But I give them a small reminder each night when he passes down my throat and through my womb. Why not? Let them remember that they need Me. I let him rise again each morning. For his impudence, I gave him only half the revolution of each day, and the other half to Coyolxauhqui, his bell-faced Moon sister. Sometimes I spit them out together to let them fight to the death, devour one another, only to be reborn [eclipse].
Why not? Just a reminder that the days of man never last long. But the mother endures.”
Her image began to undulate like a mirage, her skin shuddered slightly, like a shedding snake. I called out to her, “Tlaltecuhtli, Mother…?”
A breath. A moan. That voice. “Look beneath the feet of the many idols your people carve. What do you see? Symbols to the Lady of Earth, Tlaltecuhtli, the squatting tlamatlquiticitl or midwife, the primordial crust, the one with eyes in my feet and jaws at every joint.”
Earth Deities: Tlaltechutli engraved under Coatlicue’s feet
“Listen, Child. I want my side of the story recorded by a priestess. That is why I called you. Can you remember it?”
“I am not a priestess, Mother. I will be a wife, perhaps a queen, breeder of warriors. “
“You will be a priestess, or I better I eat you here now.”
“You had better eat me then, Mother. My father will never agree. No one disobeys my father. And my marriage will secure his Triple Alliance.”
“Details, details. Remember, in my form as the fearsome Coatlicue, I am the mother of your father’s mentor, Huitzilopochtli, War God with pretensions to be the Sun. Your father fears me. Your father fears you, for that matter. heheh..
“Dear, Can you stroke my claws? My cuticles need stimulating. That’s a girl. Now, don’t interrupt me…
“Back to my story: The original sons of our first creator, the Lord of Duality, Ometeotl, were the Jaguar Lord and the Feathered Serpent: young Tezcatlipoco and Quetzacoatl. And the two of them were flying all over, making plans and decisions about a visionary race of humans they were charged with creating. It wasn’t all hard work: the sons spent most of their time playing their endless ballgames between the light and the dark: light conquering darkness, darkness obliterating light, all very predictable. All very epic, you know?
But they had nothing really, till they spotted me. You see, the Gods needed to be needed, and served, and fed, so they had to have humans. For humans, they needed a world. Everything they tried fell down through the nothingness into my snapping jaws. As you see, I have a fine set of jaws at every joint.”
“And eyes and scales all over,” I murmured, transfixed by her shimmering surface.
“They called me Chaos. Can you imagine? They did not understand.
Only Ometeotl understands me because I came into existence the moment he split himself in two. Before that, I was part of Him. At the moment I was ejected into the light of duality, I became the currency, the negotiation. And that makes me, the way I see it, the only thing of real value under the Fifth Sun. Otherwise, they had nothing but a hollow universe full of their ideas.
Tezcatlipoco, Jaguar, and Quetzacoatl, Feathered Serpent, were playing ball. I was in the mood for a little entertainment, so I introduced myself to the meddlesome brothers. I swam up to the surface of the primordial sea where Tezcatlipoca was dangling his silly foot to entice me. Why not? I wanted a closer look. I was smug with the knowledge that I was the raw material for their dream of humankind and they were in dire straits.
As for that God’s silly foot, I ate it. Why not? I snapped it right off; tasted like black licorice. Now, that Lord Tezcatlipoca has to go limping and spinning around his own axis until this day [Big Dipper]. The self-satisfied twins, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were merciless. In the form of two great serpents, black and white, they encircled my body and wrenched me in two, heaving my chest up to form the vault of heaven forming all 13 levels starting low with the clouds and ending high up in the undivided Ometeotl. My crocodile back formed the earth’s crust.
As I lay sobbing and panting after the ordeal of being split, crown to toe, the Lord and Lady of Duality were horrified by the bare cruelty of their sons. The Gods all descended, offering me gifts and magical powers that no other being possessed: the power to bear jungles full of fruit and seeds; spurt water, lava and ash; to germinate corn and wheat and every single secret substance needed to bring forth, nourish and heal the human beings who would walk upon me. Such is my power; such is my lot.
They say I am insatiable because they hear me moaning. Well, you try being constantly in the throes of labour. But I never hold back. I give my abundance as endlessly as time. ”
Here she paused to smell my skin,” Which, Dear Child, is not endless, as we live in the Fifth and final Sun. But (I think she licked me) it has not ended yet, nor have my mysteries.
“You moan, Mother, because you are in labor? They say you cry out for human blood.”
“The blood of every creature is mine blood. From butterfly to baboon, they all have their own delectable flavor. Yet, it is true, a most delicious essence lives in the blood of human beings. Humans are tiny universes, seeds of infinity, containing a particle of all things on the earth and sky and light they receive as a birthright from Ometeotl. Microcosmic tidbits.“
“So it is true, about our blood.”
“Hmmm, I love the blood. But the sounds, they just come through me to bring the world forth, to hum the trees and rivers, mountains and corn into being. My groans are a song of birth, not of death. Just as Ometeotl gives to each newly born human a precious name and a tonali, a personal day sign which accompanies all who enter this plane of suffering, I sacrifice myself to sustain and grow their little bodies. My song vibrates through all substances and strata of the earth and invigorates them.
Midwives, tlamatlquiticitl, perform their duties in my name and supplicate their great squatting Mother Tlaltachutl to guide them. The power to give forth is the gift given me by all the Gods. It is to recompense me for my suffering.“
“My father says, when you swallow the Sun each night, you must be given blood to appease you, and the Sun must be given blood to rise again.”
“Your father will say what he thinks serves your people.”
“Mother, mother…They say this Fifth Sun will end with the movement of the earth, mighty upheavals of fire rocks from the mountains.”
“So it might. ‘Things slip…things slide.’” (Harrall, 1994) Tlaltechutli shrugged her mountainous shoulders as a landslide of boulders poured past me. Her image began to cloud again, like the shedding snake.
“I must go now, you are waking up,” she whispered, her voice like a thousand wings.
“Wait, Mother, I have so much more to ask.” I began to cry. “Wait!”
“How will my father agree to my being a priestess?”
“Precious feather, precious necklace. I will mark you, Child.”
Tlaltachutli spoke no more. As I was waking, I heard the voices of all the world’s midwives, tlamatlquiticitl, floating on the wind. The voices repeated the same phrases in our familiar ritual: “Precious feather, precious Necklace…” I knew the words by heart.
Precious feather, precious necklace…
You have come to arrive on earth, where your relatives, your kin, suffer fatigue and exhaustion; where it is hot, where it is cold, and where the wind blows; where there is thirst, hunger, sadness, despair, exhaustion, fatigue, pain. . ..” (Matthew Restall, 2005)
Even at my young age, I had witnessed, with each arriving newborn, the revered midwife would take on the mantle of the great ruler himself, the tlatoani: ‘the person who speaks’ the ways and truths of the Mexica. It was understood that midwives who ushered in the new souls had a direct line to the Deities, in the same way the Kings had, which explained their both using the title, tlatoani. A family gathered for the birth of a new soul would be reminded about tlamaceoa, the ‘penance’ each soul owes to the Gods, in order to repay their original sacrifice in the process of creating the world. (Smart, 2018)
But why were the midwives speaking now, as if I was being born? Wasn’t I already born? It was only later that I understood: I was being reborn, into the service of the Goddess.
I was fully awake before the voices of the midwives stopped. I had memorized their words: Sacrifice to the Mother in the Ahuehuete forest; gather thorns from the Maguey cactus… Remember…”
I went to the forest, as instructed, and made a small fire to the crocodile goddess who had soothed me so tenderly in my dream. I chanted to her a song my mother had sung to me when I was an infant on her breast. I felt the goddess listening, undulating under me. To honor her, I painstakingly drew two eyes on the two soles of my feet, just like the ones all over her body, with ink we made from tree bark and copper shavings. With the maguey thorn I pricked my fingertips, lips and earlobes and poured my small libation on the fire. After the exertion of my own small blood-letting ritual, I fainted into a light sleep. It was the first time I had made the cuts myself. It would not be the last.
I dreamt the goddess had swallowed me and I was being pushed out from between her two main eyes. My feet seemed to be wounded in the process and I woke from the pain, only to find them covered in blood. The two eyes I had drawn had been carved into my skin while I slept by a hand that was not mine.
I looked around the forest.. I began to cry, not from confusion or pain, despite my bloodied soles, but from the sheer awe and power of Tlaltachutli to put her mark upon me. In a daze, I rubbed the wounds with hot ashes from the fire to clean them, and wrapped both feet tightly in cotton cloth so I could walk home despite the throbbing.
By the time I arrived home it was nightfall and the cuts had dried. My father was angry, “Where have you been all day? I looked for you in the forest where you go? You are too young to wander away from your mother…”
He looked at me deeply and something told him that things were not the same. He kneeled and opened the cloth binding my feet and, upon finding the death eyes glaring out from under my tiny feet, he touched the ground with his forehead, his face white as bleached linen.
“I will begin the priestess training,” I said solemnly. What could he say, seeing I was marked?
After that, he often prayed fervently before his idol of Coatlique, whose clawed feet were covered with eyes. My father got me special skin sandals as soon as the wounds healed, and told me not to show anyone. He, who was always looking to turn the workings of the Divine to the advantage of his people.
Whom had I to tell, anyway?
The blood that falls
Violence, for the nahuatl speaking people, was the dance between the sacred and the profane.
Without this indispensable partnering, the Sun could not cross the ballroom of the sky and humanity would perish in darkness. Bloodletting was a direct vehicle for transformation and the means for union with the Divine.
Depending on the type of sacrifice, different forms of union were manifested. The unflinching self-mastery of the warriors who offered up their beating hearts; the ecstatic self-surrender of the ixiptla, those possessed by Divine essence (Meszaros and Zachuber, 2013) ; even the trustful innocence of children flicking blood from their own penis’, lips or earlobes into the fire: in all instances, what was sacrificed was the outer material shell to profit the higher soul.
In this context, violence was the single most noble, great-hearted and enduring gesture possible. It took the European mind, cultivated in materialism and acquisition, alienated from its inner and outer God, to label what we now call the Aztec people, as ‘savages.’
The Aztecs would say, the sun shines for you today, but it wasn’t always like this.
In the first incarnation of the world, the northern Lord, Tezcatlipoca, became the First Sun: the Sun of Earth. Because of his injured foot, he shone with a half-light for 676 “years” (13 bundles of 52 years). Its giant inhabitants were devoured by jaguars.
In the second incarnation, the western Lord Quetzalcoatl, became the Sun of Wind, and his world perished by wind after 676 “years.” Its inhabitants turned to humanoid monkeys and fled to the trees. In the third incarnation of the world, Blue Tlaloc became the Rain Sun. This world perished in rains of fire, after 364 “years” (7 bundles of 52 years). They say, some winged things survived.
In the fourth incarnation, Tlaloc’s wife, Chalchiuhtlicue became the Sun of Water. Her beloved world perished in the floods of her tears after 676 “years” (some say 312 years, which is 6 bundles of 52 years.) Some finned creatures survived.
In this current, fifth incarnation of the world, the gods held a meeting. Things had ended poorly thus far.
What God would sacrifice himself to make this Fifth Sun? No one volunteered. In the darkened world, a great fire provided the only light. At long length, little Nanahuatzin, the lame, leper God, offered himself up, and leapt courageously into the flames. His hair and skin crackled as he fainted in agony. The humbled Gods bowed their heads, and Nanahuatzin resurrected himself as the sun, just above the eastern horizon. The Gods rejoiced.
But sickly, little Nanahuatzin did not have the strength for the long journey. One by one, the other Gods sliced open their chests and offered up the pure pulsating vitality of their hearts, then cast their glorious bodies into the fire, their skin and golden ornaments melting like wax in the lapping flames, before the Fifth Sun was able to ascend. And that was the first day.
The immolated Gods would have to be resurrected. And the sun would need boundless quantities of blood to stay in orbit. For these tasks, humans (as yet uncreated), would owe unremitting penance to their makers, particularly to the Sun, known then as Tonatiuh.
Much later on, when the War God, Huitzilopochtli, reached down to guide the Mexcia people, he became exalted above all other gods, and took over the post of the Sun. His appetite was exponentially greater.
It fell to humans to crank the cogs of the cosmos. Human ears had to check the pulse of the rivers, the heartbeat of the earth; human voices had to whisper to the spirits and modulate the rhythms of the planets and stars. And each and every minute wheel, tick and flow, sacred and mundane, had to be copiously oiled with the blood of man because life was not a given.
Hueytozoztli: Month of Long Vigil
Honoring the deities of agriculture, maize and water
Xiuhpopocatzin speaks (rembering her 11th year, 1443):
During the reign of Itzcoatl, his advisor, Tlacaelel, destroyed much of the Mexica written history, to exalt and install Huitzilopochtli in the position of the former Sun
Tlacalael burned the books. My own father, in his service as Cihuacoatl, to the emperor, was empowered with the guiding vision and authority in all matters of strategy. Yes, father’s purge of our history was in King Itzcoatl’s name, but the elites all knew who was really in charge. It was always and ever my father, the King’s “serpent woman.”
He gave the order but it was I who heard the voices of our ancestors from the Place of the Reeds [Toltecs], the sighs of Quiche and Yukatek [Mayans], the moans Rubber People [Olmecs] lodged in our collective memory – complaining.
The voices cried and whispered for the whole twenty days and nights of Hueytozoztli , the fourth month, when we honored the ancient ones of crops, maize, fertility… Hueytozoztli, it was ‘the Month of Great Vigil.” All through the land, everyone took part in domestic, local or statewide rituals during the heat of the dry season, to usher in the new growth cycle.
In the villages, the ‘flaying of the skin’ sacrifices were performed, and the priests wore the fresh carcasses, parading through the towns to honor Xipe Totec, the God of fertility and rejuvenation. To him we owe the new growth on the corn as well as the blight should he be angry that year.
On Mt. Tlaloc, the men sacrificed to the mighty God of rain by spilling the blood of a weeping young boy. His throat was slashed over lavish mountains of food and gifts brought by the leaders of all the neighboring tribes to Tlaloc’s cave. Then the cave was sealed and guarded. Due penance for the all-needed rain. It was said that Tlaloc was touched by the earnest tears of a child and sent the rains.
My vigil during this month of “Great Vigil”, was to stay awake each night until the stars retreated to listen for instructions from the ancient ones carried on the wind.
Without our sacred knowledge, all is extinguished in the darkness of ignorance. I wondered how my father could justify it with his own sacred duty to advise the King in service of the Gods? He said it was a rebirth for the Mexica people [Aztecs], that we were Huitzilopochtli’s ‘chosen people’ and he was our patron, like unto the Sun for us, to be worshipped above all other deities. The Mexica people would burn forever in the glory of his light.
“Rebirth. What do men know about birth?” I asked him. I could see my words cut into him. Why did I always fight? After all, he was a noble and selfless warrior.
When Tlalacael tried to silence the old stories contained in the codices, perhaps he overlooked the fact that you cannot bury voices. The knowledge is still in the heads and hearts and songs of the old folks, the shamans, the diviners, the midwives, and the dead.
So greatly did we honor the spirits in all things that it was said, we Mexica women, “would breathe on dried grains of maize before cooking them, believing that this would cause the maize not to fear the fire. We women would often pick up maize grains that were found on the floor with reverence, claiming “Our sustenance suffereth: it lieth weeping. If we should not gather it up, it would accuse us before our lord. It would say ‘O our lord, this vassal picked me not up when I lay scattered on the ground. Punish him!’ Or perhaps we should starve.” (Sahaguin by Morán, 2014)
My head hurt. I wanted the voices to stop. I wanted to do something to appease the ancestors whose precious gifts, the history we recorded in our sacred books, had been usurped by a more convenient myth.
In Tenochtitlan, during the fourth month, when all the Lords of agriculture were appeased, we also honored our tender patron, Chalchiuhtlicue, the presiding deity of Fourth Sun, and the beneficent Goddess of flowing water, who so lovingly tended the water, streams and rivers.
In a ritual of three parts, each year, the priests and youths chose a perfect tree from the forests away from the city. It had to be an enormous, cosmic tree, whose roots grabbed the underworld and whose finger branches touched the 13 heavenly levels. In the second part of the ritual, this monolithic tree was carried by a hundred men into the city and erected in front of Templo Mayor, the greatest pyramid in Tenochtitlan. Above the main staircase, on the highest level of the pyramid, were shrines to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, Gods of war and rain. There, the tree was a magnificent offering from nature herself, for Lord Tlaloc.
Finally, this same massive tree was carried to the shores of nearby Lake Texcoco, and floated out with a convoy of canoes to Pantitlan, the ‘place where the lake had its drain.’ (Smart, 2018) A very young girl, robed in blue with garlands of shimmering feathers on her head, sat silently in one of the boats.
I, as a priestess in training and daughter of Tlalacael, was allowed to ride out with my father’s crew on the canoes to where they tied the boats for the ritual. The girl and I brushed by each other. We were in different canoes but close enough to hold hands. She was clearly a peasant but had been fattened on llama flesh and intoxicated with cocoa and grain spirits; I could see the alcohol glazing her pretty eyes. We were of nearly the same age. Our reflections merged in the water and imperceptibly smiled at one another.
The chanting began as I gazed deeply into the lake beneath us. As if on cue, a sort of whirlpool formed on the surface, the opening the priests had been seeking. I was certain I heard the laughter of loving water mother, Chalhciuhtlicue, Jade Skirt, her hair swirling about her head as if beckoning us to the other world, the watery region beyond the water.
The voice of the priest and the voices in my head spoke faster and faster, “Precious daughter, precious goddess; you are going to the other world; your suffering is over; you will be honored in the western heaven with all heroic women, and those who die in childbirth. You shall join the Sun’s setting in the evening.”
At this instant, the priest caught the silent blue girl in a swift grip, expertly slit across her neck, holding her open throat below the surface to allow her blood to mingle with the water’s flow.
The voices stopped. The sole sound was the ringing inside me. A pure, high note like Tezcatlipoca’s flute communing with the Gods. The old priest was chanting and praying tenderly to the Goddess who so loves humanity that she gives us rivers and lakes, but I heard no sound coming from his moving lips. After a long moment, he let go. The feathered child floated in the whirlpool for a final spin and slipped gently under the surface, welcomed by the other side.
After her, the giant tree that had been cut in the mountains and erected in front of Templo Mayor before it was floated out to pantitlan, was fed down the whirlpool and accepted.
With no voices in my head, and no formulated thoughts beyond a yearning for dissolution in the ringing silence of Chalhciuhtlicue’s water, I plunged headlong into the lake. I had a vague yearning to follow the somber girl to the “other place,” most likely, Cincalco, the special heaven reserved for infants, and innocent children, who are fed by milk dripping from nurturing tree branches, while waiting for rebirth.
The aged priest, with that hand that slit throats as painlessly as feathers brush across a cheek, snatched me up by one wet ankle and lifted me carefully back on board. He barely rocked the canoe.
When the voices began again, the priest’s was the first I heard, chanting to direct his fine offering to the goddesses’ abode. He still gripped me by one foot, to make sure I could not dive in again. He chanted, without moving his eyes from the water until he uttered the last syllable, and the whirlpool, which he had opened with his power, receded back into the calm lake surface. The Goddess was gratified.
Immediately after, there was a gasp and my foot was dropped with a clatter of oars into the canoe. The people in all the little boats which had rowed out to Pantitlan with us stared out at the sound through the torch-lit dark.
The priest had seen Tlaltecuhtli’s mark, the two eyes on the soles of my feet.
With lightning speed, he knelt, wrapped my feet in a skin, and forbade anyone present to utter a sound, with his terrifying glare. He was one of my father’s men; weren’t they all? He would understand this was the work of the Goddess. He quickly shot a look at Tlacaelel, assessing if my father already knew. Serpent woman that he was, of course he knew.
We traveled home in silence, except for the voices of the ancients which were calmer now. I was shivering. I was eleven that year.
When we got home my father grabbed me by the hair, which was nearly down to my knees by then. I had upset the ritual, and revealed my secret eyes. I did not know for which one I would be punished. I could feel his rage through his grip, but my hair was wet and slick, and I knew my father would never dare hurt me, so I tried to pull free.
“Let go of me,” I cried, and twisted until my hair slid from his grip. I knew my hair especially scared him and used that to my advantage. “Your touch turns me to ice.”
“Your life is not yours to sacrifice.” he cried, stepping back from me.
I stood my ground, glaring at my father, whom every man feared. I, even as a child not as high as his chest, was unafraid.
“Why can I not die to honor our ancestors, to sacrifice myself to the goddess in the sacred month of Hueytozoztli while I am young and strong? Do you want me to live an ordinary life and suffer in Mictlan after I die of old age?”
I was ready for another fight but I was unprepared for a display of emotion. His eyes were filled with tears. I could see he cried for concern for me. Out of confusion, I kept up the attack, “And how could you burn the sacred books, erase the history of our race, the Mexica people?”
“You cannot understand.” He spoke gently. “The Mexica need the history we have given them. Look at all the progress our embattled people have made. We had no homeland, no food, no place to rest our children before our patron God, Huitzilopochtli, led us here to the Island of Texcoco, where we saw the great omen of the eagle eating a serpent, atop a cactus plant, and made our flourishing city here on this inhospitable marshy island. That is why the eagle and cactus is the symbol on our Tenochtitlan flag, because we were chosen by Huitzilopochtli and guided to this spot to prosper.”
The Mexian Flag, was inspired by the symbol of the founding of the Aztec Empire
“Many say, Father, that our tribe was chased away from everyplace else because we waged war on our neighbors, captured their warriors and even their women to sacrifice to our hungry God.”
“You are young; you think you understand everything. Huitzilopochtli has given us our divine mission to ‘feed the Sun with blood’ because we are the only tribe brave enough to fulfill it. The mission is serving creation, serving our Gods and our people well. Yes, we feed him with blood, our own and our enemies’ and they live by our patronage.
We maintain the universe through our sacrifices. And in turn, we, who have created the grand Triple Alliance of Nahuatl peoples, have become very powerful and very great. Our neighbors all pay us tribute in skins of animals, cocoa beans, essences, precious feathers, and spices, and we let them govern themselves freely.
In exchange, they understand that they must do their part to sustain our God. Our enemies fear us but we do not wage war with them or take their land. And our citizens prosper; from nobility to peasants, all have a good education, fine clothing and plentiful food and places to live. “
“But the voices…they are screaming…”
“The voices have always been there, Dear. Sacrificing yourself to escape them is not a noble deed. Your ears are tuned towards them more than most. I used to hear them, too, but less and less now. You can guide them.”
I hated my father. Was he lying? I hung on his every word.
“I’ll tell you a secret; the codicies and the books of wisdom are safe. Only burned for show, for the masses, for whom sacred knowledge only confuses and complicates their simple lives.”
“Why is it your right to keep me from the water to the other world, where everything is silent peace? Why can I not give what we ask so many others to give to our Gods?”
“Because, I told you, our life is never our own, and the ancestors have chosen you for something else. Have you not noticed that they tell their secrets to only a few? Do you suppose they would be happy if I let you die? ”
I did not know if he was telling me the unseen truth, or simply lying to manipulate. Nothing was beyond him for he was beyond everything, even good and evil. I did not entirely trust him, nor could I live without the mirror he held to the world, just for me to gaze into.
‘The King Must Die’
Kings, priests, and shamans in traditional cultures, were god’s representative on earth – ever since the regretful passing of that distant golden age when humans could communicate directly with their gods.
The king’s job was to protect his people and make his kingdom fruitful and prosperous. If he was thought weak or sick, his kingdom was vulnerable to enemy attack, and his land subject to drought or blight. The body of the ruler was not just a metaphor for his kingdom but an actual microcosm. For this reason, there are ancient, well-documented traditions of king-killing, practiced in civilizations as far apart as Egypt and Scandinavia, Mesoamerica, Sumatra and Britain.
The more completely the earthly king could embody the Godly presence and consciousness, the more auspicious and successful the sacrificial outcome. At the first sign of decline, or after a predetermined term (which usually coincided with an astronomical or solar cycle or event), the king would promptly take his own life or allow himself to be killed. His body would be dismembered and eaten (in a sanctifying – rather than cannibalistic – ritual act) or dispersed throughout the kingdom to protect crops and people (Frazer, J.G., 1922). This ultimate act of benediction assured the king the status of divine immortality, both on earth and in the afterlife, and, more immediately, his sacrifice was an absolute requirement for the well-being of his subjects.
The concepts of dismemberment and imbibing, transubstantiation, rejuvenation of the sacrificial victim is a known mythic theme: Osiris was cut to bits and restored to bear a son; Visnu sliced goddess Sati into 108 pieces, and wherever the parts fell, became a seat of the goddess on earth; Jesus’s body and blood are ritually eaten by Christians the world over.
Over time, as the global consciousness degenerated towards materialism (as it continues to do till this day), and the sacred rituals lost much of their power and purity. Kings started sacrificing their sons instead of themselves, then other people’s sons, then surrogates or slaves (Frazer, J.G., 1922).
In highly spiritualized cultures, such as the Aztecs whose minds and hearts were still receptive to “the other side,” these temporal, human gods (or goddesses) were fully expected to not only resemble god, but to attain and display a divine inner consciousness. In the Nahuatl language, the word for humans whose bodies were inhabited or possessed by god’s essence, was ixiptla.
The man who became god
In Tenochtitlan, during the month of Toxcatl, dryness, a captive slave was turned into the God Tezcatlipoca and sacrificed at high noon – decapitated, dismembered, his flayed skin worn by the priest, and his flesh ritually distributed and eaten by the nobles. One year earlier, as a blemishless warrior, he competed against hundreds of men, to be chosen as the ixiptla, God-for-a-year.
The emperor of Tenochtitlan (who was also a human representative of Tezcatlipoca) understood that this God impersonator was a death-surrogate for the king. After painstaking preparation and training, the slave-God was let to roam the countryside. The entire kingdom showered him with gifts, food and flowers,worshipped him as the God incarnate and received his blessings.
In his final month he was given four virgins, daughters from noble families, to be his wives for 20 days before being killed. In this manner, the entire life-drama of a god-king was summarily enacted. Each step in the year-long preparation had to be achieved unconditionally to ensure the power of all-important ritual.
Xiuhpopocatzin speaks (remembering her 16th year, 1449)
When I was 16, chaste as sand, I carried the seed of God in my belly.
Oh how I loved him, Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, the Jaguar-Earth-First Sun, Lord of the Northern darkness, the Pole Star, my one and only ever beloved.
It was the month of Toxcatl,‘dryness’, when the earth shrivels and cracks, when my lover, my husband, my heart, was willingly sacrificed. I will tell you what happened.
But the end of his story was written before the beginning. So I will tell you the last part first:
My love would be the Savior Hero in the great ceremony of Toxcatl. The obsidian blade would take his head shimmering with feathers, just as the Pleiades merged with the midday Sun, exactly above, opening up the channel to heaven. His soul would soar up to join the Sun in its marvellous flight across the sky each morning; and the kingdom would increase and flourish under the greatness of his legacy. His sacrifice would be scrupulously accomplished and, with no delay, a new Tezcatlipoca would be chosen and trained for the following year.
I loved him upon sight, first as a slave; I loved him each dawn as he trained in the temple courtyard; I loved him as a lover, as a husband, as the father of my child; but I loved him by far the most as the God into which he transformed, before my eyes, out my arms.
Lord Tezcatlipoca, whose abode was the North Pole star, was the Lord of rejuvenation, resuscitation. Our king-for-a-year, servant and master of the four quadrants of the universe, Jaguar God with blackened skin and a golden stripe across his face…but he was not only like that.
I went with my father, the day they chose him, the new recruit from among the hundreds of slaves and captured warriors vying for the honor of being chosen. When I reached my 14th year, I left home to be trained by the old priestesses, but my father,Tlalcalael, often sent for me on matters of important ritual. “I need you to ask the ancestors…,” he would begin, and off we went.
On that morning, I trailed behind him and his men and surveyed the shining field. So much bare skin, braided and beaded glistening hair, rippling tattooed arms. I was sixteen and all-eyes.
Our Tezcatlipoca had to be in the “bloom of vigor, without blemish or scar, wart or wound, straight-nosed, not hooked nose, hair straight, not kinked, teeth white and regular, not yellow or skewed…” My father’s voice went on and on.
We were to choose the voice of God for that year, the touch of the Divine upon the earth to nourish and enlighten the people. All the warriors were given swords, clubs, drums and flutes and commanded to fight, to run, to play music.
“Tezcatlipoca must blow the pipes so beautifully that all the Gods lean down to hear.” It was because of his playing that I instructed my father to choose my beloved.
He faced North, the direction of Tezcatlipoca, and of death, and blew a note so pure and low that the ancient crocodile of the earth, Tlaltecuhtli, vibrated and groaned, her thighs quivered between the tree roots. Her voice, the voice of the ancient One, groaned in my ear.
“Ahhh, again… the foot is dangled…but this time for you, my child…”
“He is the one, Father,” I said. And it was done.
Such an extraordinary year was that. I watched our chosen one, from the shadows, our protégée-God, adorned with human and animal skins, gold and turquoise obsidian, garnets, garlands and hair-loops of iridescent feathers, tattoos, and ear spools.
They took him as a brazen youth and trained him to be a God, not just in dress and form, but in truth. It was I watching his perfect mouth and lips as the king’s men teased the courtly dialect from his uncultured tongue. I was carrying water from the well in the courtyard, as the court magicians taught him the secret symbols and gestures of dancing, walking, and erotica. It was I, unseen, who swooned in hiding when his flute-playing floated up so exquisitely that the Gods themselves joined in the conversation.
The heavenly God, Tezcatlipoca, looked down from his astral home in the constellation of the ‘big dipper,’ and watched his human impersonator, and decided to enter him. He inhabited the body of my shining beloved as a hand moves inside a glove. I was hopelessly in love when he was still a captive and then a struggling spiritual initiate, but when he fully incarnated the Dark Jaguar God himself, he was the soul of the earth to me.
After the period of training, my love was ordered to walk the kingdom, wandering where he pleased, trailed after by hordes of young men and women, exalted, entreated, engaged and feasted by all he passed. He had four young boys attending to his every inhalation and another four fanning his exhale. His heart was exuberant and overflowing; he wanted for nothing, and passed his days puffing on his smoking tube, pulling flower blossoms from thin air and singing the quarters of the cosmos into harmony on his four flutes.
But by night he would return to rest in the temple, and I would see him gaze into his smoky mirror and wonder about the limitations and darkness of human existence. Such a heavy weight it must have been – to be given the vision of the creators, even briefly.
One night, I was sweeping the temple floors when I saw him kneeling in the dark. His eight attendants, just little boys, were fast asleep in a pile on the floor. I nearly fell over him in the dark.
“You,” he said. “You who watch me. You who have the voices near you. What do they say, long-haired girl?”
My heart stopped; my skin was numb.
“Voices?” I faltered. “What do you know about voices?”
“Well, you answer them, sometimes,” he smiled. “Can your voices answer your questions?”
“Sometimes,” I said, nearly whispering with trepidation.
“Do they answer all your questions?”
“Not all,” I said.
“Ahhh. Ask them to me,” he teased. “I will tell you.”
“Please, ask them to me.” He sounded so beseeching. I took a breath.
“Are you afraid to die?” I blurted out. The very thing one must not ask. The very thing I kept wondering about, but would never, ever ask, about his harrowing end, looming so near to him.”
He laughed. He knew I did not mean to hurt him. He touched my hand to let me know he wasn’t angry, but his touch sent heat up the hair on my legs and arms.
“I was,” he answered in all seriousness. He was not making fun of me. “You see, Tezcatlipoca has done strange things to me. I am the most alive I have ever been, but half of me is beyond life while the other half is beyond death.”
I said no more. I did not want to hear any more. I swept the stone floor furiously.
Moctezuma I, the current king of Tenochtitlan, sometimes took my beloved to his kings’ quarters for days at a time, and dressed him in his own clothes and warriors’ shields. In the minds of the people, the king was also Tezcatlipoca. My Tezcatlipoca was the one who died each year for the enduring king. As such; the two were nearly one, reflections in a mirror, interchangeable.
One day, as he was emerging from the king’s chamber, I stepped out from the shadows, hoping to meet my lover’s gaze. But that time, his eyes looked through me to other dimensions, like the full God he had become.
The time of Toxcatl arrived, the fifth month of our 18-month calendar round. Toxcatl meant ‘dryness.’ It was the month of his sacrifice, at noon, after only 20 more sunrises, and 19 sunsets. I was nearly 17. The head priestess called me to her.
“Prepare,” was all she said.
Four daughters from the Mexica nobility were chosen each year to become like the four earth goddesses, the four wives of Tezcatlipoca’s ixiptla. Although I was a priestess, not living with my family, and had renounced my noble status, they chose me as the fourth wife. Perhaps they did this because I was the first born daughter in the royal line of Tenochtitlan kings, or, more likely it was because I was so obviously in love with him, they feared I would die.
I fasted for three days and bathed in the sacred springs, sprinkled my own blood generously into the fire pit, rubbed flower oils into my hair (now down past my knees), and adorned my legs and wrists with paint and jewels and feathers. I visited the Ahuehuete forest and made sacrifices to Mother Tlaltecuhtli. The four earth goddesses of Xochiquetzal, Xilonen, Atlatonan and Huixtocihuatl were called up from the earth, and down from their heavenly abode, to bless us, as the four given wives of the Chosen One.
We were mere girls who became women overnight; no sooner women than wives; no sooner wives than Goddesses. Our world was turned on end as we five children, or five young women and a young man, or five Gods in human form, enacted the ancient rituals on which the continuation of the universe depended.
The 20 days of my marriage, during the month of Toxcatl, passed in a strange dream. The five of us abandoned ourselves to forces way beyond our limited existence, intoxicated with the sensual extravagance of the moment and the emptiness of eternity. It was a time of total surrender, absolution, dissolution within and inside each other and the godly presences.
On our last midnight, the night before we were all to be parted, drunk on rich black cocoa, chanting, and endless lovemaking, we followed Him outside, hand in hand in hand. The women playfully braided my hair in four, each took a fat strand and pretended to wheel around me, like the four pola voladores taking their 13 death-defying turns in mid-air. Just like those men, suspended far above the earth and spinning, we understood the frailty and the interconnectedness of all life. We laughed until we cried.
I opened my braids and fanned my hair out on the dry earth, and the five of us lay down upon it like a bed. Our husband lay in the middle, like the pollen-drenched center of a flower, and we four women spread around him, naked as petals, watching the stars.
“Be still, my blessed wives of the great earth. Look to the North and gaze at the brightest star; push all other thoughts away.” We lay in inner silence in union for several long minutes.
“I see,” I cried. “I see the stars spinning around and around that central point, each in its separate channel.”
“Yes, around the pole star.”
“The ruler is the bright one, the Pole Star, remaining still in the center.”
“Exactly,” Tezcatlipoca smiled. “I am that star. I will be with you, centered in the Northern sky, still, watching, never setting.”
Soon, the other wives saw the vision also: all the northern stars spun into fast orbits, rotating around the center point above the horizon, creating a whirling pattern like a spinning top.
“Why are we able to see the movements in the sky when you are with us,” asked Atlatonan, “but when we are alone, they look like ordinary stars, Lord?”
“I will tell you a story,” he said.
“My father, Ometeotl, made men and women out of the shards of bones stolen by Quetzalcoatl and his double, Xolotl from the underworld. (For, unless you bring your double with you into the underworld, you will not return.) He, Ometeotl, the One creator, ground the bone fragments and mixed them with the spit and blood of the Gods to form his most perfect creation – humankind. He looked tenderly upon these noble creatures walking the earth, but after a short while, the Gods blew mist into the humans’ eyes so they could see only through a haze.”
“Why?” we all asked in unison.
“To keep them from becoming too much like the Gods themselves. They were afraid humans would stop serving their lords and masters if they thought themselves equals. But, as the incarnation of Tezcatlipoca, I am able to use my mirror to reflect the truth back to humans, brush the mist from people’s eyes so they may glimpse reality, at least fleetingly. Tonight my beloved sisters and wives can watch the sky as the Gods see it.”
Xochiquetzal began to sob, “You know, we will not keep living when you have left. We have decided to die with you, Jaguar Lord.”
“Your life is not your own to take,” he said. Those words again. My father’s words.
“Keep watching, in a few hours you will see the Sun God rise, and he will dispel these dark night thoughts. You have my seed within you now, to bloom and invigorate the noble bloodline, to deify the flesh of all men. The path laid out for you is to stay and tend that tiny spark until it becomes a flame and then you will feed the fire of your race. You can tell your warrior sons and warrior-bearing daughters about their father, Tezcatlipoca, the captive slave, the King’s mirror, the Dark Jaguar Lord whose head hangs on the skull rack in the mighty Templo Mayor and whose soul flies with Huitzilopochtli.”
“Until you are reborn as a Hummingbird as all the warriors are,” I smiled.
“Yes. After four years in the service of the Sun, I will be the hummingbird who comes to visit at the windows of my sons and daughters.” We laughed at the thought.
We lay on our backs, on the wide, soft circle of my hair. He reached for his flute at the same moment that I slipped the obsidian knife out from His belt, so he never felt it.
Still laying down, He began to play a song, so beautiful and sad we dampened the dirt with tears. So delicate and pure that the all Lords and Ladies under the twelfth Heaven stopped what they were doing to look down and smile and hum.
The melody had a strange effect on us, it was both deepening and soothing our pain. He said simply, “I am also the God of memory.”
He sighed deeply, “I will tell you my last secret: the closer to death, the greater the beauty. “
At that moment, I sliced off my hair with the obsidian knife, from ear to ear. Everyone startled and rose together, gasping at my mass of hair, splayed out like a carcass on the dry earth, our wedding bed, our funeral shroud. I scooped it up and gave it to our beloved.
“When you lie across the burning hot stone where they will cut you, promise that you will place the hair beneath you.”
In solidarity, the other three wives cut off their hair and added theirs to mine, adding, “that we may lie with you one final time.” He fastened the long sheath of our four hairs combined to his Jaguar cloak. We had kissed the face of God and we knew we would never touch another man as long as we might live.
The next morning, the beautiful pipes of the four directions were ritually broken and our beloved was taken into isolation. He would sit in silent meditation to prepare, during his last five days, for death.
Oh, only for so short a while you have loaned us to each other,
because we take form in your act of drawing us,
and we take life in your painting us, and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while have you loaned us to each other.
Because even a drawing cut in obsidian fades,
and the green feathers, the crown feathers, of the Quetzal bird lose their color, and even the sounds of the waterfall die out in the dry season.
So, we too, because only for a short while have you loaned us to each other. (Aztec, 2013: original: 15th cent.)
We goddesses-turned-girls again wept until the rain God, Tlaloc, could stand no more and he poured water down upon us to drown out the wailing. That was why the rains came early that year, instead of waiting for the little boy to be sacrificed on Tlaloc’s Hill.
The death of the greatest warrior
Flower Wars were bloodless battles designed to capture enemy warriors for sacrifice
Tlacalael speaks for the last time (1487):
The morning before the day I die:
I am too alive.
My body is boiling with the blood of a hundred thousand hearts plucked like flowers from a hundred thousand warriors, blooming. Blooming in battle with their shining feathers and gems; blooming, as they are bundled and paraded through town, freshly gathered captives, still fragrant from the women they slept with the night before war. They bloom tomorrow, for a final time, as flowers to our Gods, pulsating hearts ripped from their twitching bodies and offered up to the rays of the sun in the hands of our priests, translators between man and God, the executioners.
Today’s bouquet is the spoils of the latest “flowery battle.” After all, that is why I named them the “flower wars,” why we take such pains to contrive these battles, staged with our weaker enemies to capture but not kill their ripest warriors.
Our Gods need fields from which to reap souls for their supper. These grow on the lands of our rivals and we harvest them, in controlled numbers, to keep the cycles going. Their hearts bloom for us. They could refuse to play their parts, but we outnumber them and they survive at our pleasure. The blood of our enemy warriors races through the veins of the Mexica nobles of Tenochtitlan. This precious essence, only available from a human life, satiates the voracious one, the fratricidal usurper, the red-faced Huitzilopochtli, the extrinsic visage of our Fifth, and our final, Sun.
Today, I live, my body seemingly ever vital, fed by fresh blood.
Tomorrow is the last and most important day of the great ceremony of Xipe-Totec [equinox], when the sun rises due east, the day of equilibrium when daylight and darkness are of equal hours. We have staged this extravaganza to rededicate Templo Mayor, just rebuilt. In an unparalleled celebration, I have arranged for our newly inaugurated, but fearless and strategic emperor, Ahuitzotl, to sacrifice 20,000 warriors, over the course of four days, on the 19 altars of Tenochtitlan.
The military guards, adorned in Huitzilopochtli’s headdress of eagle feathers, now guard the roadway leading up to the great steps. Tonight, the last quarter of our group of enemy captives, to be sacrificed from dawn to dusk tomorrow, are in frenzied celebration on their last night on earth before earning their eternal glory, and their certain escape from the doldrums of Mictlan. The great display should secure the emperor a reputation as one of the mightiest rulers of Tenochtitlan.
Our bounty of 20,000 hearts will surely be a worthy prize satiate our patron Sun, Huitzilopochtli. When all is accomplished, the blessed ones on high will rejoice in the pouring forth of our hearts to them.
The rising and setting Sun will nudge open the gates between the worlds, at dawn and again at dusk. It is then, at the closing hour, that I shall walk through the beckoning gates, to join the legions of warriors who bring up the morning Sun. At the request of four successive kings, have I stayed so long on earth, but my ancestors call to me now.
And Huitzilopochtli, now engorged with the blood of 20,000 hearts, will welcome me, once his greatest warrior. I cannot, as this civilization cannot, keep up this level of intensity forever. I shall leave at the peak of things, and ride out tomorrow on a wave of blood.
You, my most beloved daughter, Xiuhpopocatzin who shudders at my touch, have asked me such questions.
‘Why promote Huitzilopochtli, the warring patron Mexica to such high status as to throw the other Gods into shadow? Why nourish the image of a god whose very appetite would rape the earth to feed the sky?’
Why? To fulfil the destiny of the Mexica race, descendents of the mighty Toltecs, to play the final act in our cosmic play.
Your questions plague my peace, Child. ‘Why did I not endeavor to keep the balance, the balance of all the calendar wheels and all the rotating orbits of the planetary bodies and seasons, spinning gently in eternal equilibrium? Why did I not sacrifice only as many lives as were required to oil the mechanisms of the heavens, instead of making an institution of wholesale slaughter, an empire of blood and power?’
I tried to tell her, you don’t understand. Our people, our empire did not create the imbalance; this is our inheritance. This entire empire was born to end the cycle. The Fifth Sun, our Sun, was created in the sign of movement. It will end in great turmoil rising up from the ground. It was my destiny to counsel the emperors on how to exploit our last moment in the light, for the Glory of our people. Every part I played was only and always in the impeccable execution of duty, out of my undying love for our Gods and our people.
Tomorrow, I die.
I am 90 sun cycles old, the oldest Mexica man alive. Our Nahuatl-speaking heros have left in battle to join Huitzilopochtli in the eastern rising Sun. The great sons of the Triple Alliance have met their just rewards, as did the generations of emperors whom I advised. Our empire is built; we are at the pinnacle.
In the words of my soulmate, King Nezahualcoytl, Fasting Coyote, poet, and genius engineer of the Mexica Universe,
“Things slip…things slide.” (Harrall, 1994)
This is my time. I will pass the holy books, the laws and formulas, printed on the skins of trees and animals, to my daughter, Princess Xiuhpopocatzin. (Although she is a priestess, not a princess now.) They reveal the secrets of the stars and the way in and out of this cosmic net. She hears the voices and they will guide her. She is fearless so the kings will listen to her wisdom. In her small hands, I leave the final chapter of our people.
The voices have the final word
Xiuhpopocatzin listens (1487):
Tlalcalael left me the texts. He left them outside my door at the temple, wrapped tightly in linen and skins, as one leaves a baby by a stream, with a reed basket and a prayer.
I understood it was his farewell. I understood that I would not see him again after the Equinox ceremony ending the month Xipe Totec, after he and his men feasted Huitzilopochtli on 20,000 bloody hearts, pressed into the mouths of the stone idols, and smeared on the temple walls.
The codices, I touched them tenderly, our writings, our sacred texts, blessed codices, divining scrolls. I sat down on the ground and held them, as one holds a child.
I began to cry. I cried for the loss of my legendary father, for the shock of this inheritance, this awesome entrustment. And I cried for myself, although I was a grown woman now, with a grown son; I had not cried since the night I was torn from my beloved, when I was 16.
I cried for the souls, living and dead, who had kept the records of our greathearted and uncompromising people, left now in my keeping. As I rocked back and forth, back and forth, holding them, slowly, slowly, the texts.
…began to sing.
Clutched to my breast, they sang of the forsaken wandering, and the dreadful starvation of the past, of the unspeakable suffering and heedless slaughter of our people.
They sang of the ineffable glory of the present, the majesty of our rulers, and the incomparable power of our Gods. They sang about the emperors and about my father.
More slowly yet, the voices began to sing about the future, perhaps a time not too far away. My father used to say we, under the Fifth and final Sun, hover between the precipice of glory and the brink of destruction.
Here is dust beneath my fingers, here is our future carried back to me on the voices of the wind:
Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow
are left in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw warriors and wise men.
We know it is true
that we must perish,
for we are mortal men.
You, the Giver of Life,
you have ordained it.
We wander here and there
in our desolate poverty.
We are mortal men.
We have seen bloodshed and pain
where once we saw beauty and valor.
We are crushed to the ground;
we lie in ruins.
There is nothing but grief and suffering
in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw beauty and valor.
Have you grown weary of your servants?
Are you angry with your servants,
O Giver of Life? (Aztec, 2013: original: 15th cent.)
In 1519, during the reign of Moctezuma II, the Spaniard, Hernan Cortez, arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula. Within two short years of his first footprint in the dust, the mighty and magical empire of Tenochtitlan had fallen.
A little information about interlinking Aztec calendars
The Sun calendar round: 18 months of 20 days each, plus 5 uncounted days = 365 day year
The ritual calendar round: 20 month of 13 days each (half a moon-cycle) = 260 day year
Each cycle, (the time period of 52 years between one Binding of the Years ceremony and the next) was equal to:
52 revolutions of the solar year (52 (years) x 365 sunrises = 18,980 days) OR
73 repetitions of the ceremonial year (72 ritual years x 260 sunrises = nine Moon cycles, also = 18,980 days)
Every 104 years, (e.g. the culmination of two 52-year calendar rounds or 3,796 days, was an even greater event: 65 revolutions of Venus (around the Sun) resolved on that same day as the 52 year cycle after having completed exactly 65 orbits of the Sun.
The Aztecs calendar quite accurately fit the entire cosmos into synchronized cycles, resolving together and using whole numbers that were factors or multiples of their sacred week and month numbers, 13, and 20.
Aztec, P. (2013: original: 15th cent.). Ancient Aztec Perspective on Death and Afterlife. Retrieved 2020, from http://christicenter.org/2013/02/ancient-aztec-perspective-on-death-and-afterlife/
Frazer, J. G. (1922), The Golden Bough, New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co, (p. 308-350)
Harrall, M. A. (1994). Wonders of the Ancient World: National Geographic Atlas of Archeology. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society.
Janick, J., and Tucker, A.O. (2018),Unraveling the Voynich Codex, Switzerland: Springer National Publishing AG.
Larner, I. W. (Updated 2018). Myths Aztec – New Fire Ceremony. Retrieved March 2020, from Sacred Hearth Friction Fire:
Maffie, J. (2014). Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Matthew Restall, L. S. (2005). Selection from the Florentine Codex . In Mesoamerican Voices: Native-Language Writings from Colonial Me;