Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind

Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind


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For at least two millennia before the advent of the Spaniards in 1519, there was a flourishing civilization in central Mexico. During that long span of time a cultural evolution took place which saw a high development of the arts and literature, the formulation of complex religious doctrines, systems of education, and diverse political and social organization.

The rich documentation concerning these people, commonly called Aztecs, includes, in addition to a few codices written before the Conquest, thousands of folios in the Nahuatl or Aztec language written by natives after the Conquest. Adapting the Latin alphabet, which they had been taught by the missionary friars, to their native tongue, they recorded poems, chronicles, and traditions.

The fundamental concepts of ancient Mexico presented and examined in this book have been taken from more than ninety original Aztec documents. They concern the origin of the universe and of life, conjectures on the mystery of God, the possibility of comprehending things beyond the realm of experience, life after death, and the meaning of education, history, and art. The philosophy of the Nahuatl wise men, which probably stemmed from the ancient doctrines and traditions of the Teotihuacans and Toltecs, quite often reveals profound intuition and in some instances is remarkably “modern.”

This English edition is not a direct translation of the original Spanish, but an adaptation and rewriting of the text for the English-speaking reader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806122953
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/15/1990
Series: Civilization of the American Indian Series , #67
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 237
Sales rank: 228,183
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Director of the Inter-American Indian Institute in Mexico City, Miguel León-Portilla is a significant young Mexican scholar. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees (summa cum laude) form Loyola University at Los Angeles and the Ph.D. from the National University of Mexico. La filosofía náhuatl: estudiada en sus fuentes, the Spanish version of this book, received high praise from both Mexican and American scholars.

Jack Emory Davis, associate professor of Romance languages at the University of Arizona, prepared the original translation. He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degree from Tulane University.

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Aztec Thought and Culture

A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind

By Miguel León-Portilla, Jack Emory Davis


Copyright © 1963 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8856-0


The Birth of Philosophy among the Nahuas

The religious world view of the Nahuas at the beginning of the sixteenth century is known today because of the work of such investigators as Eduard Seler, Alfonso Caso, Angel María Garibay K., and Justino Fernández. These scholars have reconstructed the Nahuatl Weltanschauung from direct sources, but with different points of view. Alfonso Caso, in particular, has recreated the essence of the Aztec concept of the universe, demonstrating that the various cosmic beliefs of the Nahuas revolved around the great solar myth which enthroned the Aztecs specifically as "the people of the Sun."

If the Nahuatl wise men had done nothing more than create and preserve a rich mythology, their thought could not be discussed as philosophy. For although myths and beliefs constitute the primary attempts to solve the mysteries of the universe, true philosophic development requires conscious and formal inquiry.

To establish a universally acceptable definition of philosophy would be a formidable task. Genuine philosophizing arises from the explicit perception that problems are innately involved in the essence of things. A sense of wonder and a mistrust of the solutions derived from tradition or custom are requisite to the formulation of rational questions about the origin, the true nature, and the destiny of man and the universe. The philosopher must experience the need to explain to himself why things happen as they do. He directs himself to the meaning and true value of things, seeking the truth about life and life after death, even speculating on the possibility of knowing anything at all of that afterlife where myths and beliefs find their final answers.

Is there, then, proof that such an attitude actually existed among the Nahuas? Were there men who began to look skeptically upon the myths and to try to rationalize them by formulating questions in abstract and universal terms about man and the world? The Nahuatl documents discussed in Appendix I give an affirmative answer. These documents speak for themselves, but, in spite of every attempt at accuracy and fidelity to the original texts, the translations can hardly express the conciseness and subtle shades of meaning characteristic of Nahuatl. An analysis of various compound words for which only the roots are given in the Nahuatl dictionaries of Molina and Rémi Simeón illustrates this elusive quality. Nahuatl, like Greek or German, is replete with long compound forms juxtaposing various roots, prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. Since a complex conceptual relation can thus be expressed in one word, the Nahuatl idiom often becomes a marvel of "linguistic engineering." Nahuatl is, therefore, adequate for the expression of philosophical thought.

The Nahuas first expressed their doubts in the form of short poems. These poems, along with religious songs and epic and erotic poetry, are among the documents in the pre-Columbian collection of Mexican songs of the National Library of Mexico and in certain other collections.

A poem attributed to the famous Nezahualcóyotl questions the possibility of finding satisfaction in earthly things:

What does your mind seek?
Where is your heart?
If you give your heart to each and every thing,
you lead it nowhere: you destroy your heart.
Can anything be found on earth?

Three philosophical attitudes expressed in this poem reveal the depth of thought of the Nahuas. The poet first asks himself what the mind and heart can discover of real value here on earth. The mention of the heart in line two alludes to the person considered in a dynamic sense—the being who seeks and desires something. In Nahuatl, yóllotl (heart) is derived from the same root asollin (movement), which may be defined as the dynamic quality inherent in the human being.

The second important idea is contained in the third and fourth lines. Man, a restless being, gives his heart to anything (timóyol cecenmana), and proceeding without a definite destination or goal (ahuicpa), he loses his heart, again in the sense of his dynamic being.

Of urgent importance is the question in the last line, "Can anything be found on earth?" In tlaltícpac can mach ti itlatiuh? The poet questions the possibility of finding anything on earth (in tlaltícpac) capable of satisfying the heart (the whole dynamic being) of man. This last expression is frequently opposed to the idiomatic complex topan, mictlan, "that which is above us" (the world of the gods) and "that which is below us" (the region of the dead)—that is, the unknown. Tlaltícpac (that which is on earth) is consequently what is here, what changes, what is visible, what is manifest to the senses. The Nahuas, then, were aware of the problems involved in an attempt to establish values in a changing world.

Other Nahuatl texts in the National Library collection deal more explicitly with the urgency and difficulty of the search. The ambiguity of the final purpose of human action is thus expressed:

Where are we going?
We came only to be born.
Our home is beyond:
In the realm of the defleshed ones.
I suffer:
Happiness, good fortune never comes my way.
Have I come here to struggle in vain?
This is not the place to accomplish things.
Certainly nothing grows green here:
Misfortune opens its blossoms.

The Nahuas sought with equal anxiety an explanation of life and of man's work, for both were threatened with extermination by the prophesied end of the Fifth Sun, the present age. According to their cosmogonic myth, there had been four historical ages, called Suns—those of earth, wind, fire, and water—and each had been destroyed; the present epoch was that of the Sun of Movement, Ollintonatiuh. During this Sun, their elders said, there would be earthquakes and famine, and finally mankind would vanish forever. To the conviction that all things must perish was added a profound doubt about what exists after death:

Do flowers go to the region of the dead?
In the Beyond, are we dead or do we still live?
Where is the source of light, since that which gives life hides itself?

These questions clearly imply a distrust of the myths concerning the hereafter. Those who questioned themselves in this way were not content with the answers provided by religious and traditional thought. They doubted; they admitted that much had not been adequately explained. They longed to see with greater clarity the real outcome of our lives, and, through this, to learn what importance there might be in this struggle. For if nothing except misfortune "grows green" on earth, and if the beyond is inscrutable, it is appropriate to question the meaning of human life, in which things exist for the moment, only to disappear forever:

Truly do we live on earth?
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.
Although it be jade, it will be broken,
Although it be gold, it is crushed,
Although it be quetzal feather, it is torn asunder.
Not forever on earth; only a little while here.

Life in tlaltícpac is transitory. In the end everything must vanish; even rocks and precious metals will be destroyed. Is there anything, then, that is really stable or true in this world? Such is the question the Nahuatl poet asks of Ipalnemohuani, the supreme god, the Giver of Life:

Do we speak the truth here, oh Giver of Life?
We merely dream, we only rise from a dream.
All is like a dream ...
No one speaks here of truth....

The recurrent idea that life is a dream appears not only in these songs, but also in the moral exhortations of the Huehuetlatolli, the "discourses of the elders." With the denial of all stability and permanence in tlaltícpac, there arises the profound and anguished question: Has man any hope for escape from the unreality of dreams—from this evanescent world?

Does man possess any truth?
If not, our song is no longer true.
Is anything stable and lasting?
What reaches its aim?

The word "truth" in Nahuatl, neltiliztli, is derived from the same radical as "root," tla-nél-huatl, from which, in turn, comes nelhuáyotl, "base" or "foundation." The stem syllable nel has the original connotation of solid firmness or deeply rooted. With this etymology "truth," for the Nahuas, was to be identified with well-grounded stability. The question, "Does man possess any truth?" should be construed as, "Does he have firm roots?" This idea is amplified by the next question: "Is anything stable and lasting?" which in turn acquires a much fuller meaning when related to the Nahuatl conception of a transitory temporal existence. Thus the Nahuatl concern about whether anything "is true" or "is stable and lasting" actually questioned the possibility of escaping the elusive present and finding something more certain than the emptiness of earthly things. One may speculate on the relationship of this attitude to Western European philosophical thought concerning the substantiality of what exists or appears to exist. The Scholastic philosophers believed that being was sustained by a transcendental principle. Other thinkers have associated reality with a universal immanent substance, as in Hegelian pantheism. Existentialists see reality as "existing," without any foundation at all. In any case, what is of most interest here is the fact that the Nahuas, facing the unequivocally transitory nature of earthly things, became deeply involved in an attempt to discover a foundation—a true basic principle—for man and the universe. How else to interpret their questions: "What is there that is stable and lasting?" and "Does man possess any truth?"

To appreciate the intellectual progress indicated by such an acute self-questioning about the truth of man, we need merely recall that this same problem, stated in a similar way, did not emerge in Greek philosophy until the time of Socrates and the Sophists, approximately two centuries after Thales of Miletus. They were the first to apply philosophical modes of thought to the subject of man. The Nahuatl enunciation of such questions is sufficient evidence that they were not satisfied by myths or religious doctrines. Their writings evince a vigorous mental development, an interest in the value, stability, or evanescence of things, and a rational vision of man himself as a problem.

That such texts as these—chosen from many which touch upon similar themes—exist does not in itself prove that there were men dedicated to the intellectual formulation of metaphysical questions, or, above all, that there were men who attempted to answer them. Such speculations could easily have had a more or less spontaneous origin independent of the activities of professional wise men or philosophers. So the problem remains: Is there historical evidence that such scholars did exist among the Nahuas? The answer provided by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his native informants will next be considered.

References to the existence of Nahuatl wise men or philosophers occur often in Sahagún's General History. In the introduction to Book I, Sahagún writes: "The knowledge or science of these people has great fame, as will be observed in Book X, Chapter XXIX. It is stated that the first settlers of this land had perfect philosophers and astrologers." And in the prologue to Book VI, which contains his treatment of "the Rhetoric, Moral Philosophy, and Theology of the Mexican People" and is a treasure trove of Nahuatl beliefs and doctrines, Sahagún stresses the authenticity of his data.

In this book it will be seen very clearly that the claims of some rivals that everything written in this History represents lies and inventions are themselves intolerant lies. It would not be within the power of the human mind to invent what is written here, nor could any living man counterfeit the language set forth herein. If we were to question all the prudent and enlightened Indians, they would confirm that this language is indeed that of their ancestors and that it describes their activities and work.

The original Nahuatl texts, it must be stressed, are not the work of Sahagún, but of his elderly native informants from Tepepulco and Tlateloco. They are describing what they saw and learned as young men in the Calmécac, the institutions of higher learning, before the arrival of the Spaniards, and they speak with authority on these matters.

In the text now to be considered there appears the marginal notation "Sabios o Philosophos [wise men or philosophers]," written in a hand unquestionably that of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. This is a clear indication that he firmly believed that these lines described the functions and activities of men who deserved to be called philosophers.

1. The wise man: a light, a torch, a stout torch that does not smoke.

2. A perforated mirror, a mirror pierced on both sides.

3. His are the black and red ink, his are the illustrated manuscripts, he studies the illustrated manuscripts.

4. He himself is writing and wisdom.

5. He is the path, the true way for others.

6. He directs people and things; he is a guide in human affairs.

7. The wise man is careful (like a physician) and preserves tradition.

8. His is the handed-down wisdom; he teaches it; he follows the path of truth.

9. Teacher of the truth, he never ceases to admonish.

10. He makes wise the countenances of others; to them he gives a face (a personality); he leads them to develop it.

11. He opens their ears; he enlightens them.

12. He is the teacher of guides; he shows them their path.

13. One depends upon him.

14. He puts a mirror before others; he makes them prudent, cautious; he causes a face (a personality) to appear in them.

15. He attends to things; he regulates their path, he arranges and commands.

16. He applies his light to the world.

17. He knows what is above us (and) in the region of the dead.

18. He is a serious man.

19. Everyone is comforted by him, corrected, taught.

20. Thanks to him people humanize their will and receive a strict education.

21. He comforts the heart, he comforts the people, he helps, gives remedies, heals everyone.


LINE 1: The wise man: a light, a torch, a stout torch that does not smoke.

The wise man: this is the usual translation of the Nahuatl word tlamatini. The word is derived from the verb mati, "to know." The suffix ni gives it the substantive function, "he who knows" (Latin sapiens). The prefix tla before the verb form indicates that "things" or "something" is the direct object. So, etymologically considered, tla-mati-ni means "he who knows things" or "he who knows something." The character of the tlamatini is here conveyed metaphorically by describing him as the light of a stout torch which illumines but does not smoke.

LINE 2: A perforated mirror, a mirror pierced on both sides.

A mirror pierced on both sides: tézcatl nécuc xapo. The allusion here is to the tlachialoni, a type of scepter with a pierced mirror at one end. This object was part of the equipment of certain gods, who used it to scrutinize the earth and human affairs. Literally, as Sahagún notes, tlachialoni "means a lookout or observatory ... because one observed or looked through it by means of a hole in the middle." Applied to the wise man, it conveys the idea that he is himself a medium of contemplation, "a concentrated or focused view of the world and things human."

LINE 3: His are the black and red ink, his are the illustrated manuscripts....

Here the wise man is described as the possessor of the codices and of the Amoxtli, the ancient Nahuatl books of paper made from the bark of the amate (wild fig tree) folded like a screen or an accordion. Only relatively few of these priceless manuscripts escaped destruction at the time of the Conquest. The fact that important philosophical concepts were preserved in these codices is proved by the Codex Vaticanus A 3738, the first "pages" of which contain stylized drawings of the Aztec conception of the supreme principle, the directions of the universe, and so on.

LINE 4: He himself is writing and wisdom.

The Nahuatl expression used here, Tlilli Tlapalli, means, literally, that the wise man is black and red ink. But since these colors symbolize throughout Nahuatl mythology the presentation of and knowledge about things difficult to understand and about the hereafter, the obvious metaphorical implication is that the wise man possesses "writing and wisdom."


Excerpted from Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel León-Portilla, Jack Emory Davis. Copyright © 1963 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface to the Paperback Edition,
Preface to the First Edition,
Pronunciation Note,
Introduction: Philosophy and Culture in Ancient Mexico,
I. The Birth of Philosophy among the Nahuas,
II. The Pre-Columbian Concept of the Universe,
III. Metaphysical and Theological Ideas of the Nahuas,
IV. The Approach to Man in Nahuatl Thought,
V. Nahuatl Man: Creator of a Way of Life,
VI. Conclusion,
Appendix I,
Appendix II,

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