Toward a poetry and poetics of the Americas (10): The birth of the war god (Aztec)

Bas-relief of Coyolchauhqui, from Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan
Bas-relief of Coyolchauhqui, sister of Huitzilopochtli, from Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan

                        old Coatlicue snake woman

            ’s sweeping up

a feather falleth on her

                        more like a ball of feathers ’twas

            ’twas fluff

that moment she did pick it up

                        deposited it betwixt her legs

            then ended

sweeping would want to take it out

                        from legs but nothing’s

            there that instant

she’s grown pregnant


            the 400 Brothers saw

their mother

                        a great anger

            fills them

“who hath made thee pregnant

                        “made thee into mother


“it lays on us

                        “it shames us

            (says their sister Coyolxauhqui)


                        “who has laid it

            “on us has made

“what grows betwixt her legs

                        Old Mother knows it now’s

            so scared a great weight

lies on her the child

                        between her legs brings

            comfort (sez)

“I know now what I have to do”

                        Snake Woman hears her boy’s


was a great comfort

                        calmed her heart

            was blowing full of

little blisses



                        thus joined

            400 Brothers would agree

in turn

                        those southerners did then


how they would take their mother’s


            for shaming them

so fierce 400 Brothers were

                        were full of

            wrath as if their hearts were

leaving them for anger

                        sweet sister Coyolxauhqui

            ’s working up & cooling

anger of her brothers

                        will go & kill

            old mother

they prepare for


            are dressed for it

400 Brothers

                        strut like generals

            spinning & tangling

of hair

                        entanglement of headhairs

            was among them one

brother Cuahuitlicac

                        but couldn’t keep his


what 400 Brothers said

                        he told to Huitzilopochtli



                        “little uncle

            “thou should be always standing guard

“I got

                        “some planning of my own


                        so had made up their minds to

            kill her

be finished with old mother

                        so fancy

            had started marching

’twas little sister guided them

                        so like a bunch of dudes

            dressed up for war

had passed out


            paper costumes

for adornment

                        “thrust forward

            “strut in files

“be like a perfect squadron

                        “little sister

            “guide thy way



                         but Cuahuitlicac has made it

            to peak of mountain

there he would speak with

                        Huitzilopochtli (sez)

            “they’re coming”

(Huitzlipochtli sez) “fix

                        “your sights on them

            “which way they

“coming” (sez)

                        “now ’mongst the linnets”

            (sez) “now which way”

(sez) “Snake Sands”

                        (sez) “now which”

            (sez) “Hanging Terraces”

(sez) “now”

                        (sez) “Mountain Slope”

            (then sez) “& now”

(sez) “at the peak now

                        “now 400 Brothers

            “come sweet sister





                         was born that moment


lined up his gear

                        his shield of eagle feathers

            arrowheads blue

spearheads (“turquoisedarts”

                        so-called) & paints

            his face with

colors like the “painted child”

                        puts on his head a bonnet

            of rare feathers

fits in earplugs (but also had

                        one skinny foot wore

            feathered sandal on the left painted

his thighs & arms

                        in blue) then one

            called Tochancalqui set fire to

the turquoise spears

                        went to give Huitzilopochtli

            orders with his dart

the newborn wounds their sister

                        Coyolxauhqui cuts

            her throat the head

’s abandoned on Snake Mountain while

                        body goes rolling down the slope

            smashes to smithereens

here & there

                        go hands

            go feet

goes torso




                         now was Huitzilopochtli

            swollen now was going in pursuit of


                        now was stalking them

            would make them shimmy down would make

400 Southerners

                        climb the summit of

            Snake Mountain (& when

he sees them all before him

                        when he spots them

            on the slope that instant

he pursues them

                        stalks them like rabbits

            around the mountain

four times Huitzilopochtli made them

                        go around it four times

            pace off the circuit of Snake Mountain

would vainly try to freak him

                        with din of timbrels

            vainly would tumble towards him

to sound of bells on ankles

                        & banged their shields)

            they could make nothing

happen nothing

                        worked out now

            now nothing for defense

they had were stalked by


            drove them off

demolished them

                        destroyed them

            wiped them out

did nothing so much as chase them

                        hard did stalk them


& they would plead with him

                        they’d say

            “enough’s enough





                         but Huitzilopochtli couldn’t stop

            with greater fire

would burn his anger at them

                        & pursued them

            only a few escaped his presence

squirmed from his hands they headed

                        south (would afterwards be called

            the Southerners

400 brothers gone

                        that one direction)

            those who had fled his hand like those

he killed on whom

                        he gorged his anger


did strip their clothes from



he took possession of & joined

                        unto his office

            made them the marks of what

he would become



SOURCE. English working by Jerome Rothenberg after Spanish prose version in Ángel María Garibay’s Epica Náhuatl, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1945.


(1) Going back to Nahuatl sources delivered soon after the Conquest. Huitzilopochtli himself was not only the Aztec war god, but god of the Fifth Sun — of the era, that is, into which this world was moving, itself represented by the (hieroglyphic) sign “movement”; more specifically, according to Laurette Séjourné (Burning Water, 1956), by a movement towards liberation from contradiction & duality: “Huitzilopochtli, image of this sun, disguised as a (humming)bird & with fire as his sign, represented the soul of a combatant in the holy war.” He is also in this mode the counterpart to his sister Coyolxauhqui (above) as goddess/image of the moon.


(2) From another manuscript of Bernardino de Sahagún, the following hymn to Huitzilopochtli gathers praise names & powers, as noted/translated circa 1890 by Daniel G. Brinton (Rig Veda Americanus):


Can maceualli
Can tlacatl catca.
Quiyocoyani in yaoyotl
Ca itechpa mitoaya
Tepan quitlaza
In xiuhcoatl
Quitoznequi yaoyotl
Teoatl tlachinolli.
Auh iniquac ilhuiq'xtililoya
Tealtilaya impochteca.
Auh inic mochichiuaya:
Xiuhtotonacoche catca

Only a subject,
Only a mortal,
A magician,
A terror,
A stirrer of strife,
A deceiver,
A maker of war,
An arranger of battles,
A lord of battles;
And of him it was said
That he hurled
His flaming serpent,
His fire stick;
Which means war,
Blood and burning;
And when his festival was celebrated,
Captives were slain,
Washed slaves were slain,
The merchants washed them.
And thus he was arrayed:
With headdress of green feathers,
Holding his serpent torch,
Girded with a belt,
Bracelets upon his arms,
Wearing turquoises,
As a master of messengers.