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The Ilhuica of the Nahua: Is Heaven just a Place?

  • John F. Schwaller (a1)

Extract

The Nahua concept of heaven was one of the central issues that the missionary friars confronted as they attempted to reconcile Christian and Nahua thought in the early sixteenth century. The Nahua believed in the existence of both celestial heavens and subterranean hells, as possible destinations for individuals after death. The celestial realms, of which there were thirteen, were in general pleasant places. The subterranean realms were unpleasant. Unfortunately for the friars, the mechanisms whereby one could come to enjoy or suffer in these realms depended not on the quality of one’s life, but rather on the particulars of one’s death, the date of one’s birth, and other features of one’s existence. For instance, those who died by water, or lightening, were consigned to the heaven of the god of rain, Tlaloc. For the Nahua this post-mortem existence was corporeal, although the nature of one’s body might change in the process. The Nahua did not have any easy equivalent for the Christian soul. This essay will look particularly at the Nahuatl word for the sky, ilhuicatl, and how it functioned in both pre-Columbian thought and in the works written after the conquest with greater, or lesser, degrees of Christian input.

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1 My deepest thanks go to R. Joe Campbell, Frances Kartonnen, and Kay Almere Read who have read this work in various stages of its development and provided me with wise counsel and suggestions. Any errors, misinterpretations, or other shortcomings are obviously my own.

2 Burkhart, Louise M., The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth Century Mexico (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1989), pp. 4758 . See also, McKeever Fürst, Jill Leslie, The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

3 Ilhuicac consists of the stem form of the noun (ilhuica-) plus the locative suffix (-co) in which the final -o- has been suppressed. Ilhuicatl itic or itec (ihtic or ihtec) is a postpositional phrase, the Náhuatl equivalent of the prepositional phrase in English. It literally means “inside of’ as inside of a belly. Many sources also read ilhuicatli itech or ilhuicatitech, another postpositional phrase roughly equivalent to “attached to the sky,” but defined as “m the sky.” Alonso de Molina, Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana v mexicana y castellana, intro, by Miguel León-Portillo (Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, 1970), second part, f. 37v. Kartunnen, Frances, An Analytical Dictionary of Náhuatl, second edition (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 1992), pp. 99100, 103-104 . Campbell, R. Joe, A Morphological Dictionary of Classical Náhuatl (Madison, WI: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1985), p. 123 .

4 The Náhuatl word for dirt or earth is dalli. Tlalticpac is tlalli, plus a ligature (-f(-) and a postposition (-icpac) meaning “on or at the head (top) of.” Campbell, Morphological Dictionary, p. 342. Kartunnen, Analytical Dictionary, pp. 94-95, 277. A related word is tlalticpactli, “it is the surface of the earth.”

5 Mictlan is a combination of micqui, “a dead person” and postposition (-tlan) meaning “place of.” Campbell, Morphological Dictionary, 189. Kartunnen, Analytical Dictionary, pp. 147, 282-283. A related word is mictlanti, “it is the place of the dead.”

6 The huei tlahtoani was the highest ruler of the Mexica. The title literally means “great speaker” and has been commonly translated as emperor.

7 Davies, Nigel, The Aztecs (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980), pp. 4950 ; Tezozomoc, Fernando Alvarado, Crónica mexicayotl (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1992), pp. 9495 .

8 Cantares mexicanos, facsimile edition (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1994); Bierhorst, John, Cantares mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985). Many scholars take serious issue with much of Bierhorst’s work in translating and interpreting the poems of the Cantares. Nevertheless, he has done a fine job in transcribing the text.

9 Garibay, Angel María, Poesía Náhuatl, (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1993), vol. 1, secondedition.

10 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 162-163. Bierhorst English translation of the Náhuatl.

11 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 162-163. Bierhorst English translation of the Náhuatl.

12 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 252-255. Bierhorst English translation of the Náhuatl. Bierhorst curiously translates the words “to say, “ ihtoa, and “to talk,” tlahtoa, as “to sing.” In this selection quitoa would usually be translated as “they say it,” while tlatoa would be “he talks.”

13 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 378-379. Bierhorst English translation of the Náhuatl.

14 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 378-379. Bierhorst English translation of the Náhuatl. In this quotation, Bierhorst has gone a bit beyond the literal meaning of the words, as in many other instances. Here he has translated teopan as “spirit land.” Teopan literally means “divine land” or “land of the gods.” Only in an extended poetic sense one could say it is “spirit land,” but it conforms more to his unique interpretation of the poems than to what most other scholars have found in the collection.

15 Garibay, Poesía, pp. 73-74. Garibay translates the passage as: “Hágame yo collares de diferentes flores; estén en mi mano, haya mi guirnalda de flores. ¡Tenemos que dejar esta tierra, solamente la damos en préstamo unos a otros! ¡Oh, tenemos que irnos a su casa!” Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

16 Garibay, Poesía, pp. 27, 29. and 61. Omeyocan is a place of divine origins, where the lord and lady of Duality supervised the creation of the world. Tamoanchan is a mythic place from where the Nahua and other Mesoamerican peoples began their migrations that brought them into the civilized world of Mesoamerica. Xipe Totee is a Nahua god associated with the spring and regeneration. He was tradition ally depicted as a priest wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

17 Garibay, Poesía, p. 15. Garibay translates the passage as: “Niebla hay cantos de escudo: lluvia de dardos sobre la tierra: con variadas flores se rodea el cielo mientras retumba estrepitoso, con escudos de oro se hace en él baile.” Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

18 Garibay, Poesía, p. 38. Garibay translates the passage as: “Tu corazón se revuelve, oh Cuauhtemoctzin: delante del Águila la tierra se convulsiona los cíeles se mueven: es que ha quedado abandonado el chichimeca Hombre-Ciervo.” Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

19 Burkhart, Slippery Earth, pp. 28-29, 40-42.

20 My thanks to Prof. R. Joe> Campbell for his expertise in providing me with all the oceurrences of ilhuicatl and its variants in the Florentine Codex, the Coloquios y doctrina Christiana, and in the Psalmodia Christiana.

21 Molina, Vocabulario, part 2, f. 37v.

22 Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex, translated and edited in 12 vols, by Dibble, Charles and Anderson, Arthur J. O. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 19501979), Book 11, p. 247. In all selections from the Florentine Codex I have modified Sahagún’s idiosyncratic orthography to the more standard system to assist in comprehension.

23 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11, p. 247. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

24 It should be noted that all of these references, save one, appears in the Appendix to volume One, which is a kind of short doctrinal piece and quite different from the rest of the Codex.

25 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 1, p. 2. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

26 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 9, p.25. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

27 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11, p. 68 Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

28 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 3, p. 29. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

29 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 8, p. 17. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

30 The suffixes include yollo, seen earlier in the selection means “heart.’ The last part is titech: the ligature -ti and a postposition -tech meaning “adjacent to or attached to.”

31 Máynez, Pilar, El calepino de Sahagún: Un acercamiento (Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Econòmica, 2002), p. 134 .

32 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 2, p. 186.

33 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11, p. 115.

34 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 1, p. 63. Dibble and Anderson English translation of the Náhuatl.

35 The Náhuatl word teocuitlatl literally means “god excrement.” The term in fact was somewhat vague in pre-Columbian times, referring either to gold or silver. Sometimes for clarification gold was called cuztic teocuitlatl, “yellow god excrement,” silver, yztac teocuitlatl, “white god excrement.” Molina, Vocabulario, Spanish—Náhuatl, f. 91, 96v.

36 Schwaller, John F., “‘Centlalia’ and ‘Nonotza’ in the Writings of Sahagún: A New Interpretation of his Messiological Vision,” Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl, vol. 33, pp. 295314

37 Two different transcriptions and translations are available for the Coloquios: Sahagún, Bernardino de, Coloquios y doctrina Christiana, ed. Portilla, Miguel León (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1986), pp. 114115 , lines 268-271; Bernardino de Sahagún, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogue of 1524,” edited and translated by Alva, Jorge Klór de, Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics 4:2 (1980), p. 74 , lines 266-269. Translation of Náhuatl by Schwaller.

38 This is the English version of the Creed that is generally accepted by major Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and Episcopal Church.

39 Sahagún, Coloquios, pp. 162-163, lines 1203-1205, 1211-1212; Sahagún, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogue,” p. 136, lines 1214-1217, 1223-1224. Translation of Náhuatl by Schwaller. Not only are tlaticpac and ilhuicatl placed in juxtaposition, so are in ¡olii and in nemi (the heart, the life) which might potentially constitute a diphrase relating to the energy of life.

40 Sahagún, Coloquios, pp. 128-129, lines 565-567; Sahagún, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues,” p. 94, lines 565-567. Translation of Náhuatl by Schwaller.

41 Sahagún, Coloquios, pp. 168-169, lines 1340-1347; Sahagún, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues,” p. 145, line 1360. Translation of Náhuatl by Schwaller. The empyrean heaven was the highest of the celestial spheres surrounding the earth, in classical thought. It was composed of fire. Consequently it became associated with the Christian heaven, being the highest heaven.

42 Sahagún, Coloquios, pp. 146-147, lines 899-901; Sahagún, “The Aztec-Spanish Dialogues,” p. 117, lines 909-911. Translation of Náhuatl by Schwaller.

43 Sahagún, Bernardino de, Psalmodia Christiana (Christian Psalmody), translated by Anderson, Arthur J. O. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993).

44 The work exists only in manuscript, although editions of the manuscript held in Paris were published in the nineteenth century. The various manuscript copies are also known by different titles including the one noted here as well as Arte de la lengua mexicana and Gramática y vocabulario de la lengua mexicana. Schwaller, John F., A Guide to Náhuatl Manuscripts Held in U. S. Repositories(Berkeley: Academy of American Franciscan History, 2001), pp. 11112 .

45 Maxwell, Judith M. and Hanson, Craig A., Of the Manners of Speaking That the Old Ones Had: The Metaphors of Andrés de Olmos In the TULAL Manuscript (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), pp. 58, 89-91.

46 Maxwell and Hanson, Of the Manners, p. 174, Translation by Maxwell and Hanson.

47 Maxwell and Hanson, Of the Manners, pp. 89, 174.

48 Clearly Sahagún’s Coloquios and the Psalmodia were also written as spiritual guides, but since they form part of the over-all picture of the Sahaguntine opus, they were considered along with the Florentine Codex.

49 Doctrina cristiana en language española y mexicana por los religiosos de la Orden de Santo Domingo, facsimile edition (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1944, f. 12. Original Spanish gloss: “El un lugar alla en el cielo: a donde todos los plazeres eternos y perdurables, y todas las riquezas y todo el descanso y glorias mas sin comparación que nosotros podemos pensar ni dezir.” The Spanish gloss” of the material is exceptionally more rich and complete than the actual Nahuatl. Schwaller English translation of the Nahuatl.

50 Cenpapacoaya should probably have a final -n, cenpapacoayan. The root stem of the word is paqui, meaning “to be happy.” The -cen means “the one”; while the -yan refers to a place where the action of the verb occurs. The repetition of the first syllable of paqui, -papa, and the adding of the impersonal suffix -oa changes the sense to mean “to rejoice.” So all together the word would be “place of great rejoicing.”

51 Doctrina cristiana, f. 18.

52 Doctrina cristiana, f. 11v and 48. The two expressions use two different words for a ruler. The first is based on the word tlatoque the plural form of the word tlahtoani, meaning “one who is accustomed to speaking,” which was the title used by the rulers of the large city states of the Nahua, especially the person known as the Aztec emperor. The second word is based on tecpan which refers to the palace of a local ruler, a tecuhtli, and so this word is doubly a residence, but of a ruler with slightly less stature than a tlahtoani. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

53 Doctrina cristiana, f. 14v. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl. This reading must be taken as a tentative one. The print face of the original makes it difficult to be sure about some of the words, especially quimocenpelia. Original Spanish gloss: “Y despues que nosotros muriéremos lleve las nuestras animas alla a la su casa real al cielo: a donde para siempre tiene aquellas sus muy grandes riquezas y sus perdurables gozos que es su gloria.”

54 Doctrina cristiana, f. 54. This is just one of dozens of references to Mary as Queen of Heaven.

55 Doctrina cristiana, f. 24v. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl. Original Spanish gloss: “Luego en continente mando Dios a los otros buenos angeles sus escogidos que los echassen de alla del cielo.”

56 Doctrina cristiana, f. 17v. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl. Original Spanish gloss: “Porque el sabe todas las cosas que en el mundo fueron: y todo lo que en el mundo universo se ha hecho: y todo lo que al presente se haze. Asi alia en el cielo como aca en la tierra, como por todas partes del mundo.”

57 Molina, Alonso de, Confesionario mayor en la lengua mexicana y castellana (1569), facsimile edition (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1984), f. 17. Original Spanish gloss: “Y abre de par en par, todas las puertas de la gloria.” Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

58 Molina, Confesionario, 19v. Original Spanish gloss: “Y de todos los sanctos de la corte del cielo.” Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

59 Molina, Confesionario, 27v-28. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

60 Compare Molina, Confesionario, f. 92v, lines 14-15, and Molina, Confesionario, f. 121, lines 2-3.

61 Molina, Alonso de, Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana y mexicana y castellana, facsimile edition, intro, by Portilla, Miguel León (Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, 1970), Náhuatl—Spanish, f. 37v.

62 Molina, Vocabulario, Spanish—Náhuatl, ľ. 92. Interestingly “xuchitlalpan” and “yectlalpan” are two terrestrial paradises in Nahua mythology.

63 Gaona, Juan de, Colloquios de la paz y tranquilidad en lengua mexicana (Mexico: Pedro Ocharte, 1582) unnumbered Prologue, t’. 5v-6.

64 Gaona, Colloquios, f. 17v.

65 Gaona, Colloquios, f. 11. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

66 Gaona, Colloquies, f. 106. Schwaller English translation of the Náhuatl.

67 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 268-269.

68 Bierhorst, Cantares, pp. 352-353.

69 Portilla, Miguel León, Aztec Thought and Culture (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), pp. 9394 .

70 Alva, Bartolomé de, A Guide to Confession Large and Small in the Mexican language (1634), ed. Sell, Barry D. and Schwaller, John Frederick (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), p. 89 .

71 Alva, A Guide, pp. 78-79.

72 Alva, A Guide, pp. 94-95.

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The Ilhuica of the Nahua: Is Heaven just a Place?

  • John F. Schwaller (a1)

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