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A Pre-Columbian Bestiary: Tepeyólotl

By Ilan Stavans

In A Pre-Columbian Bestiary: Fantastic Creatures of Indigenous Latin America, Ilan Stavans collaborates with illustrator Eko to tell the stories of religious and mythical creatures from various Indigenous cultures of Latin America. In the excerpt below, Stavans describes Tepeyólotl, the Aztec god of earthquakes.

(teh-peh-yoh-loh-tl, Aztec)

This is the god of echoes and earthquakes. The word is derived from the Nahuatl words tepētl (mountain) and yōllōtl (heart or interior). Tepeyólotl is usually depicted as a cross-eyed devil with a swelling and rolling body at the end of which emerges a crown of feathers. Tepeyólotl is believed to have been the inspiration for the pale-skinned humanoid monster with his eyeballs in the palms of his hands in Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006).

An echo is a reflection of sound. And an earthquake is the shaking of the surface of the earth that results in an explosion of echoes.

Since time immemorial, Mexico City has suffered from earthquakes. This is because Tepeyólotl, a sibling of Quetzalcóatl, was angry for having been exiled from the divine pantheon. To quiet him, Quetzalcóatl forced him to drink a potion that made him sleep. But the potion was imperfect, and now Tepeyólotl suffers from tremors. Every time he threatens to wake up, the ground in Mexico City shakes, which results in buildings crumbling, fires, death, and loud echoes.

In the earthquake of 1985, witnesses claimed to have seen a cross-eyed devil with a rolling body spit feathers near destruction sites. In his collection of Yiddish poetry Shtot fun palatsn (City of Palaces, 1936), with illustrations by Diego Rivera, Yitzhak (aka Isaac) Berliner, a Polish immigrant to Mexico, writes to Tepeyólotl (my translation):

You shake the heart, Tepeyólotl,
deity of tremors and fears, returning us
to the origin
where death
reigns supreme.

From A Pre-Columbian Bestiary: Fantastic Creatures of Indigenous Latin America by Ilan Stavans. Forthcoming from the Pennsylvania State University Press. By arrangement with the publisher.

Related Reading:

"El Little Príncipe": Translating Saint-Exupéry's Classic into Spanglish

Damián Cabrera on Hybrid Languages, Dust, and the Invention of Paraguay

The Indigenous Writing Project: Contemporary Guaraní Poetry

Published Oct 28, 2020   Copyright 2020 Ilan Stavans

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