Cacamatzin (1494-1520), an aristocratic but illegitimate son of an illustrious father known for his learning in doctrine, poetry, and astronomy, was intensively trained—like all boys of the Mexica (Aztec) nobility—in both warfare and song. An extraordinary essay by Inga Clendinnen, “The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society” (Past and Present No. 107, pp. 44-89, 1985, available online in JSTOR) very persuasively explores the links between the Aztecs’ highly aestheticized poetry on the one hand, and their warfare and human sacrifice on the other; she provides lots of compelling detail about Mexica ritual, lifeworld, and belief. But Aztec poetry and death are not opposite poles of a schizophrenic society, she argues. Rather, they are two consonant, interrelated aspects of the same Aztec religious understanding (a stance that I think we cannot possibly inhabit): life is unremittingly cyclical, shockingly fragile and ephemeral, deeply ceremonial and heirarchical, and has been unremittingly established thus by gods who require the spilling of great quantities of human blood as an analogy to the rain that they themselves provide for human crops.)
Motecuhzoma (called mistakenly in English Montezuma), the ruler of the Aztecs, was Cacamatzin’s uncle. Cacamatzin ended up being one of Motecuhzoma’s ambassadors to meet the advancing Hernán Cortés in 1519. After much discussion among the Aztec nobility, Cortés and his men were allowed to enter Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica. But there at the heart of the city, the Spaniards then took Motecuhzoma prisoner, along with others of his court—an act for which the Mexica, the brutally dominant power of the Valley of Mexico, were completely unprepared, because such behavior was unknown in their society; they could not have imagined this possibility.
Then, however, Cortés, interrupting his own dealings with Motecuhzoma and his improvization of a conquest in the face of a vastly more numerous Mexica nation, had to leave Cacamatzin, Motecuhzoma and others in the custody of his subordinate Pedro de Alvarado while Cortés himself went to meet Spanish enemies who had come, just at this crucial moment, with the intent of removing him from power. Under Alvarado’s temporary power, Motecuhzoma was suddenly killed, many of the other Mexica leaders were killed, and others, like Cacamatzin, were tortured to reveal the location of their gold, and killed. In the resulting chaos, Alvarado had to flee the city with his men. Later, in a long siege and conclusive battle, Tenochtitlan would be conquered and effectively destroyed, along with many of its inhabitants.
This familiar story is summarized by Miguel León-Portilla in Quince poetas del mundo nahuatl (1994, Fifteen Poets of the Nahuatl World—nahuatl was the language of the peoples in the Valley of Mexico), and in translations of León-Portilla’s work into English.
What I notice, without knowing even one word of nahuatl, when I look at the bilingual Mexican edition, is the use by Cacamatzin of anaphora and phonetic figures. Evidently these—as gestures of linguistic authority and also of the pleasures of language—are hard-wired among our human linguistic capacities. Which again confirms for me that at its heart, poetry is first of all (not not only) a certain stance toward language.
Even without knowing a word of nahuatl, we can see the poetic figures in the opening lines (and in all the more than 50 lines of this song):
tla oc xoconcaquican:
ma ac azo ayac in tecunenemi.
ma zo ilcahui,
ma zo pupulihui,
The hard “c” is very frequent in all transcriptions of nahuatl that I have seen, so perhaps it is so common a sound (like our English “schwa,” the sound of “uh”) that it wasn’t even noticed as a repeated sound by the nahuatl ear. But the anaphoric figure in lines 5-6 is evident, as is the repetition of the final vowel sound of lines 5-6, and the doubling of “pupu” in line 6. Translating loosely from Leon-Portilla’s Spanish, I would phrase the meaning of these lines as: “My friends, / listen to this: / let no one live with the presumption of royalty. / Let rage, disputes, / be forgotten, / let them disappear / when on this earth the time is right for that.” (This is a song of resignation to death–reflective, melancholy, expressing as much awe as it does sadness, and it was apparently regarded by the Aztecs as a great composition, in after years, when it was still sung.)