When the Spanish conquered the New World they did a pretty thorough job of erasing anything good, positive or civilized from pre-Columbian American culture. The goal was to say that Americans were savages, Spanish were Civilized Christians and the culture of the latter should erase the culture of the former.
From time to time it is possible to catch a glimpse of something else. If you look very very carefully you can find traces of the rich tapestry and layered civilization that existed before Cortes arrived in Mexico.
Nezahualcoyotl (the coyote who fasts) was a philosopher king, poet and warrior who ruled about 50 years before the Spanish conquest. His deeds and his poems were passed down through oral traditions. When the native Indios learned to write they set down the history of Nezahualcoyotl on paper.
We get a picture of a wise and thoughtful king who would have been celebrated in any Western realm. He ruled the Acolhua people from his capital of Texcoco. One of his main preoccupations must have been to keep his people independent of the influence of the larger and more powerful Mexica.
As a child his father was killed by the powerful neighbouring Tepanecs, closely related to the Aztecs, who took control of Texcoco. The young Nezah was taken to the great city of Tenochtitlan where he was educated by the Mexica, learing about their legal and administrative systems.
He worked over the years to build the alliances that put him at the head of an army of 100,000 troops. On the battlefield he displayed strategic and tactical genius. His victory resulted in a new ruling order in the Valley of Mexico, the triple alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.
He then demonstrated that he was not just a warlord. He made his capital into a center of justice, learning and creativity. Spanish friars later described his capital as the “Athens of the West”. He assembled a library, built fine water gardens and held a court of “wise men”. He established strong legal systems and the rule of law. In lake Texcoco he constructed a dyke to separate fresh water from brackish. He constructed aqueducts to transport the fresh water to his capital.
He rejected the blood thirsty human sacrifice driven religions of his neighbours, which were such a powerful propaganda tool for Christian conversion by the Spanish. Instead he constructed a temple which was an empty space for an unknown and unknowable God. He did not permit any sacrifice and worshiped by the burning of incense. It was clearly in the interests of Spanish propaganda to sideline the legacy of such an evolved philosopher.
The following poem gives a sense of the man. Given that it was written 100 years after he lived, and that it was originally Nahuatl, translated to Spanish and subsequently translated to English I have taken some liberties with it. For instance in the second verse I have assumed that the “Eagles stained red” were battle standards, things we know well from the Roman legions and Napoleonic French Corps. Also in the same verse I say the Princes are scythed down. The pre-Columbian Americans had no wheat or barley. They had no scythes to harvest grain. But I am trying to convey the metaphor for the battlefield as a harvest of lives and the metaphor of the scythe just works.
Finally today is given as his birthday so he gets onto my “Poets’ Calendar”. Born April 28th, 1402. Read the poem below and take note that this was written around the time when Europe was so civilized that the English burned Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy.
A poem by Nezahualcoyotl (Edited heavily by Donal Clancy)
He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him.
Come to see the Huexotzinca.
On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
loudly cries the Mexica.
On the battlefield we raise toasts with the divine liquor of war,
where the eagle standards are stained red,
where tigers howl,
where precious stones rain from fine armour,
where rich plumed headdresses wave like fields of grain,
where princes are scythed down.
There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life.
Far off I see it. My heart yearns for it!
And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.
Thus they said:
‘When we die truly we die not because we will live,
we will rise, we will continue living, we will awaken,
this will make us happy.’
Thus the dead one was directed when he died:
‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
a new dawn has come,
hear the flame-coloured guans sing,
see the fire-coloured swallows and the butterflies fly.’
Thus the old ones said that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there’
meaning ‘He has died.’
Even jade is shattered,
even gold is crushed,
even quetzal plumes are torn.
One does not live forever on this earth.
We endure only for an instant.
Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death?
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we yet live?
Does one exist again?
Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows; just once do we live.
Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
Like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.
Our song is a bird calling out a melody,
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.
The earth is a grave and nothing escapes it,
nothing is so perfect that it does not descend to its tomb.
Rivers, streams, springs and waters flow,
but never return to their joyful beginnings.
Eagerly they rush onto the vast realms of the rain god.
As they widen their banks,
so they carve their own burial urn.
The bowels of the earth are filled with detritus,
once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of men who sat thrones,
judged cases, presided in council,
commanded armies, conquered provinces,
possessed treasure, destroyed temples,
exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power.
Vanished are these glories,
just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.
Nothing remains of them but the words of a poem.