Poems VII and IX of the
Aztec Codex ‘Songs of Mexico’
Translated from the Nahuatl by David Bowles
The codex known as “Cantares Mexicanos” (“Songs of Mexico”) is the larger of the two surviving collections of Aztec cuīcatl (songs). It consists of 85 folios on which 91 cuīcatl were compiled in Nahuatl using Roman script somewhere around 1585. These cuīcatl range widely in genre, from ecstatic hymns celebrating humanity’s reciprocal relationship with heaven to historical ballads, bawdy satire, and philosophical musings. Most, however, are meant to accompany nehtōtiliztli or ritual dances. Some of the songs are ascribed to various philosopher-poets of the Aztec Triple Alliance; the two translated below are anonymous compositions.
These translated pieces were primarily intended to celebrate war. Both are Nahuatl versions (or emulations) of native Otomi songs. The Otomi were the original indigenous people living in the Central Mexican Plateau when the Nahua tribes began to arrive in that area in about 1000 CE. Well-regarded by the Mexica and other Nahua groups (whom we collectively call the Aztecs), the Otomi became a symbol of fierceness (an elite military order was named for them), and their expressive songs were adapted into Nahuatl. These particular adaptations are also arguably xōpancuīcatl, or songs of spring, a genre in which the good things in life are celebrated while their fleeting nature and the greater bliss of the afterlife is stressed. The emotional agony of mourning the ephemeral and longing for the eternal is a key feature of such verse. They were meant to be performed in the plain or straight style, which may mean that warriors marched to the song on their way to battle.
Few translations of these poems exist in English. D.B. Brinton contributed versions in 1890. John Bierhorst’s scholarly rendering of the entire codex into English in 1985 includes more dynamic takes, but these are in prose and have stirred no small controversy among the community of Nahuatl scholars for their imposition of the North American indigenous Ghost Dance tradition onto pre-Conquest oral verse in Mesoamerica. As is the case with many cuīcatl, there is still a need for a poet to craft versions that appeal to a modern reader, attempting to recreate with the tools of modern verse the feel and impact of the originals. As in my collection “Flower, Song, Dance,” I have endeavored to accomplish this task in the following translations.
VII. Another Otomi Song
What seems to be the matter, friends,
Fierce warriors of Chiapas?
Could your pain be connected
To your recent inebriation?
You tossed back that mescal
And got completely drunk.
Give me your hands—
Let me help you off the floor
Where you passed out.
Time to sober up, brothers!
Let’s head yonder,
To our mansions
In that Spring Kingdom!
Come escape your drunkenness—
Just look at the tough spot
You put yourselves in!
That’s how it was in ages past—
The god would give out mescal
Here on earth, putting men
In a really tough spot.
Then he would order
The flood and fire of war,
Slaying them in battle.
He would grind down
Like prized jade,
Like sacred turquoise,
Like bracelets set
With precious stones,
Those princes who were drunk
On that flowery, chalk-white liquor.
So come, brothers:
Lift your battle cry!
Let’s sip from the delicious,
Among the blooms of our home,
That flowery world in the sky,
Where soul-pleasing petals,
Sprayed with the water of life,
Spread their sweet perfume.
In our homeland, Chiapas,
Power and kingship are glorified.
Shield flowers blossom
In that land of bountiful harvests.
How is it possible
You can’t hear, friends?
Let’s go! Let’s go!
Leave your mescal,
In our heavenly home
Let’s take deep draughts
Of that flower-dew wine
That we’re made to desire
Till our hearts are numbed
By the fragrance.
With enlightened minds
And joyous hearts
We’ll go smoke the flowers
Of that rich demesne,
Where we’ll rise with the sun
From amidst the blooms
Over the land of bountiful harvests.
What seems to be the matter?
Come listen to our song—
We are your brothers!
Note: Chiyapan was an Otomi kingdom near the present-day Mexican state of Chiapas.
VII. Otro [otoncuīcatl]
Tlein mach ōamāxqueh, in antocnīhuān
in anchiapanēi caotamih,
ōmach amēi llel ahcic: inīc ōamihuintiqueh
octīzatl in ōanquiqueh Ic ōamihuintiqueh,
xichuālcuicān, in amomā in anhuehuetztoqueh
ximozcalīcān in antocnīhuān nipa tiāzqueh
in tochān, xōpantlālpan ye nica anmāquīzah
in amihuintiliz xitlachiyacān
ohuihcān ye anmaquiah.
Ca yeppa iuhqui in tīzaoctli in tlalticpac
quitēi maca ahuihcān īc tēi calaquia
teōātl tlachinōlli quihtoa
tēi xaxamatza tēi pohpoloa
oncān in xaxamāni in tlazohchālchihuitl,
in teōxihuitl in māquiztli tlazohtetl
in tēi pilhuān in coninih in xōchitīzaoctli
cuelcān in antocnīhuān in tonihcahuaca.
Mā ye tiquitih in xōchitlālpan
in tochān xōchitlālticpac ilhuicpa
in huelic xōchiāmemeyallotl onahhuiaxtimani,
tēi yōlquihmah yōlilizahhuachxochitl in tochān
in chiappan oncān timalalo in tēi ucyotl
in tlahtahcāyōtl in chīmalxōchitl
Ouēi nmach in ahmō antlacaquih in antocnīhuān
tonhuiān tonhuian xiccāhuacān,
in tīzaoctli teōātlachinōlactli
mā ye tiquitih in ōmpa tinectiloh
in tochān xōchiahhuachactli
zan īc ahhuiācāihuinti in toyōllo,
tēi tlamachtih tēi yōlquihmah
netlamachtilōyān in toquīzayan xōchitlālpan
tōnacātlālpan tlemach ōamāxqueh
xichuālcaquicān in tocuīc
IX. Another Sad Otomi Song
To you, Lord of the Near and the Nigh,
I address my melancholy words,
Lifting sighs in offering
Here before you.
In anguish upon this earth,
I give voice to my troubles.
Lord, greatly do I suffer—
Never has joy or wealth been my lot.
In vain I till the soil
Though it is not growing season,
Ah! And nothing but affliction
Bursts into bloom here.
Ah! In peace there by your side,
In your presence may I quickly be.
Please will it so.
Let my heart find its ease
There at your feet.
I will dry my tears forever
By your side, in your presence,
Giver of Life.
What kinds of creatures are these men
Who live in search of earthly fame?
They cry out to no one:
They dwell in prideful ignorance.
Ah! They simply deceive themselves,
Never crying out to you,
Lord of the Near and the Nigh,
Because they believe they will live
Forever on this earth.
I slake my raging passions
When I see them
Nonetheless I am encouraged
Though poor and in pain.
For there in the Place of the Shorn
Our true nature is revealed,
No matter what we are.
Only then will every heart
Be satisfied at last.
Let no one here on earth
Shape his heart that way:
We dwell in mourning,
Weeping we live
And then but briefly,
For soon it all will end.
Yes, and then we will follow,
Like those princes who once reigned.
Follow this example, friend,
You who are unhappy,
Who suffer on earth—
Just wreathe yourself
With flowers of compassion,
With tearful blooms,
And give him all the glory,
Lifting petaled sighs in offering
To The Lord of the Near and the Nigh.
I have garlanded myself
With strings of kindly flowers,
And shield blossoms
Lie sighing in my hands.
I entone a somber song—
Like a necklace of jade
I offer this holy melody,
Twining it around my jade drum.
A singer, I buttress my hymn
At heaven’s edge, drawing it down
From celestial residents:
Orioles, quetzals, rosy spoonbills,
Trilling cranes that wing delight
To the Lord of the Near and the Nigh.
IX. Otro tlaōcolcuīcaotomitl
In titloqueh in tināhuaqueh
in tlālticpac ye nicān nitlatēnmati,
ninotolīnia, in aīc ōnotech ahcic in pāctli in
necuiltōnōlli ye nicān tleh zannēn nāyico ca
tlacahzo ahtle nicān xōtla cuepōni.
in nēntlamachtilli tlacahzo
zan īhuiān in motloc
in monāhuac Mācuēl ehhuātl
mā monāhuactzinco o cēhuiti
in noyōlia, ninīxāyōhuātzaz
in motloc monāhuac
in tlālticpac in ayāc contēnmatih
o tlacahzo zan moztlacahuiah
in titloqueh in tināhuaqueh
inīc momatih ca mochipa tlālticpac
niquimitta, tlacah mīxītl tlāpātl ōquiqueh
īc nihuālnēllacuāhua in ninotolīnia
o tlacahzo ōmpa in xīmohuayān neittōtīuh,
quinihcuāc ye pachihuiz ye tēyōllo a.
Mācayāc quēn quichīhua
in īyōllo in tlālticpac ye nican
ca zā cuēl achīc ontlamiz
oo, tlacazho zan
tontlatocatīhuih in iuh
oo tlahtohcātqueh tēpilhuān.
Mā īc ximīxcuīti in tinocnīuh
in ahtihuellamati in tlālticpac
māoc ye ximahpāna
in īhuīcpa toconiyāhuaz
in tloqueh in nāhuaqueh.
īca ye ninahpāna
niquēhua in tlaōcolcuīcatl
yēctli cuīcatl nicahhuachxōchilacatzoa
ilhuicatl ītech nictlaxillōtia
in nocuīcatzin in nicuīcani
ye niquincuīlia in ilhuicac chānehqueh:
o zacuantōtōtl quetzaltzinitzcantōtōtl teōquechōl
in on tlahtoa quechōl in quicehcemēltia
in tloqueh in nāhuaqueh.
A Mexican-American author from deep South Texas, David Bowles is an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Drawn to the culture and history of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, he focuses on the study of indigenous philosophy, mythology, and legend through primary sources. In 2014 the Texas Institute of Letters awarded his book “Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry” the Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translation. Bowles is the author of several other books, including the Pura Belpré Honor Book “The Smoking Mirror” and the forthcoming “Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Mexican Myths.” Translations by Bowles have appeared in Asymptote, Translation Review, Metamorphoses, Rattle, Axolotl, Huizache, Somos en escrito, BorderSenses, Eye to the Telescope, and Parabola.