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from the October 2005 issue

Opening Poem of the Cantares Mexicanos

Note: This poem was originally written in Classical Náhuatl. It is the first poem in the group known as the "Cantares Mexicanos." The Náhuatl title is "Cuicapeuhcáyotl", which León-Portilla translates as either "the start or beginning" or in a second sense, which means "the origin of the songs." The series of poems were written down in the Roman alphabet by Nahuas, whom we know as Aztecs, under the guidance of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in the 16th century. The character of the Cantares is deeply mystical, a series of metaphors, only some of which we understand. Fray Bernardino thought the poems were the work of the devil. If so, the devil was a very good, if somewhat obscure writer. Fray Bernardino, who was a far more accurate ethnographer than Herodotus, did his investigations of the Mexica (there were no Aztecs until 1821, when the successful revolt against Spain required a new name for the country) with the express intention of replacing the indigenous culture with Roman Catholicism. To destroy it, one had to know it. Yet he saved a great literature, a philosophy that has been compared to the pre-Socratics and has overtones that relate to existentialism.

In the poem the images are beautiful, at times touching, the language in the original is very formal, and we have attempted to give the work in translation that formality without resorting to Elizabethan English, a mistake made by some early translators. We have not accepted either the strange notion that the Cantares relate to the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians. It is unlikely that the Nahuas intended here to describe the return of warriors from the dead. Náhuatl speakers were all but obsessed with language. Their very name, Nahua, means "clear speaker." The poet, who refers to himself as "I, the singer" enters the forest in search of the most beautiful flowers to give to the various categories of princes (eagles, tigers, etc., symbols of rank) and to mystical figures or perhaps more accurately concepts. Ipalnemoani is the Giver of Life or the Source of Life. Tloque Nahuaque is literally "Close and Near," but the words form a difrasismo, two concrete terms that represent an abstract concept; in this case, omnipresent or universal or all pervasive. The two terms of the difrasismo are commonly translated as Lord of the Close and Near, but Tloque Nahuaque does not include a word meaning "lord." We have taken the liberty of translating it here as the Omnipresent One, for no other reason than to bind it more closely to the mystical character of the poem.

The "Cantares Mexicanos" is also a theological work, an expression of a complex philosophy, and (we think) purposely arcane. It is written in heightened language, a series of metaphors that were more than likely comprehensible only to the most highly educated few. Mesoamerica was one of the original civilizations. At the time of the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere it had been developing for more than 2000 years. The people who settled in the Valley of Mexico were the recipients of these centuries of cultural development, and moved it forward to greater sophistication during the years between their arrival in 1325 and the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The survivors of the invasion of the cultural center of the Nahua world have continued their work, first in colonial and now in both traditional and contemporary forms.

The recognized leading historian and translator of pre-Hispanic work in Náhuatl is Miguel León-Portilla. He has been working on the translation of the Cantares from Náhuatl to Spanish for ten years. He came to immediate prominence as a very young man with a book that delved deeply into the philosophical nature of this work and others in Aztec Thought and Culture, first published in English in 1963. Librado Silva Galeano and Francisco Morales Baranda, whose first language is Náhuatl worked with him on the translation of the Cantares over most of that period. Salvador Reyes Equiguas, who sought out much of the work in this issue, including material published only in small journals or newspapers circulated in remote places, has made significant contributions to the final version of the translation.

Beginning of the Songs

I speak from my heart.
From whence shall I take the beautiful, fragrant flowers?
Whom shall I ask?
Perhaps I should ask the lovely hummingbird,
the jade-colored hummingbird?
Perchance I must ask the butterfly the color of the zacuan1. For they possess the knowledge,
they know where the beautiful,
fragrant flowers bloom.
I shall enter the forest of fir trees
where the tzinitzcan2 birds live,
or perhaps I shall enter the flowery woods
where the red quechol3 lives.
There they bow in dewy splendor
beneath the rays of the sun,
there they are made joyful.
Perhaps I shall see them there?
If they are shown to me,
I will gather them in my lap
and thus I will salute the princes;
I will please the lords.


Truly they live in this place,
I hear their flowery song.
It is as if the mountain could respond to them.
In truth the precious water flows
beside the fountain of the xiuhtototl4.
The centzontle, bird of four hundred voices,
sends forth his songs.
He answers himself with songs,
the coyoltototl answers him.
There the music of timbrels,
varied, beautiful songbirds.
There they praise the Lord of the Earth;
their voices resound.


I say, I cry out with sadness,
that I will not annoy you,
whom he loves.
Soon they kept silent.
Then the beautiful hummingbird came to speak:
singer, whom do you seek?
I answer him immediately,
I say,
where are the beautiful flowers
with which I must create joy
in those who are like you?
Later they warbled intensely to me:
singer, we must show them to you,
perhaps in this way you will truly give joy
to those who are like us, the lords.


Inside the mountains,
at the Place of our Sustenance,
at the Flowery Land they introduced me;
there where the dew shines with the rays of the sun.
There I saw
the varied, precious, perfumed flowers,
the beloved, aromatic flowers bedecked in dew,
with the splendor of the rainbow.
There they say to me:
cut, cut flowers,
those that you prefer,
enjoy yourself, singer,
you will come to proffer them
to our friends, the lords,
to those who give happiness to the Lord of the Earth.


And I put in my lap the varied,
fragrant flowers, the pleasing ones,
those that make one happy.
I say:
ah, if one were to enter,
we would take a great many.
But, now that I have become aware,
I will go and tell our friends.
We always come here to cut
the precious, varied, fragrant flowers
and to gather the diverse and beautiful songs.
With these we shall give pleasure to our friends,
the lords of the earth,
the princes, eagles, tigers.


Then I went to gather everything, I the singer.
Thus I place flowers upon the heads of the princes,
thus I adorn them,
I fill their hands with flowers.
Later, I intone a beautiful song,
with which the lords are exalted,
before the Omnipresent One.
But he who deserves nothing,
from whence must he take,
must he look for the fragrant flowers?
Perhaps he will approach the Flowered Land with me,
the Land of our Sustenance?
Those there are who merit nothing,
those there are who suffer,
those there are who do not value earthly goods.
In truth only the Omnipresent One
decides who shall deserve
the flowers here on earth.
For this my heart weeps,
I remember that I have gone over there
to contemplate the Flowery Land,
I the singer.


And I say,
truly there is no good place
here on earth,
truly there is another place where we must go,
there is joy in the beyond.
Is all only in vain on earth?
There is another place where life becomes disembodied.
I am going over there,
I am going to sing
at the side of the varied and precious birds,
there I would enjoy the gorgeous and fragrant flowers,
the most pleasing ones,
those that bring joy,
those that enrapture one with pleasure,
those that intoxicate, that with their fragrance
bring joy.


1. Beautiful golden-yellow colored bird

2. Trogon Mexicanus, a bird known for its splendid plumage

3. An aquatic bird, brilliant red

4. Cotinga amabilis or turquoise bird


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