The Birth of Huitzilopochtli
The winter solstice is also the birthday of Huitzilopochtli, chief god of the Mexica (and important to all “Aztecs”). In honor of that fact, here’s my translation of his “origin story.”
Information on original text. The manuscript known as the Florentine Codex is a three-volume copy of a Nahuatl-Spanish bilingual work titled Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España housed in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana library in Florence. The 2400-page ethnography is the result of decades of research conducted by Nahua men in the 16th century under the guidance of Franciscan monk Bernadino de Sahagún, who compiled the texts into twelve books ranging in subject from religious and philosophical practice to history and botany. The monk’s goal was to not only better prepare Catholic clergy for the work of converting indigenous Mexicans, but also to preserve what he saw as the valuable and worthwhile traditions of the region. “The Birth of Huitzilopochtli” is part of the first chapter of book three, The Origin of the Gods.
Story background. Huitzilopochtli was the god of war worshipped by the Mexica, a group of Nahua people who entered Central Mexico in the 11th century and went on to found what we now call the Aztec Empire. The god was elevated to the head of the shared Nahua pantheon; made the principal solar deity, Huitzilopochtli was one of two divinities worshipped at the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan. At the base of that pyramid lies a massive disk carved with the form of his dismembered sister, Coyolxauhqui, onto which sacrificial victims were hurled. This origin story seeks to explain this and many other rituals associated with the worship of Huitzilopochtli.
Note on the translation. The two best-known and most-anthologized English translations of this story are by Dibble and Anderson (1952) and León-Portillo (1980). While impressive, the former suffers from the use of stilted, quasi-biblical language that ill-advisedly tries to mimic Nahuatl text structures; the latter, though more accessible, seeks to shoehorn the story into verse despite the fact that there is little internal or external evidence that the narrative was collected in poetic form (though it may ultimately derive from an epic song). I have endeavored to craft a version that is accessible to present-day readers, availing myself of both advances in our understanding of classical Nahuatl in the past decades and also the flexible registers of modern English.
The Birth of Huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli was greatly revered by the Mexica. They believed his beginning, his origin, was like this:
At Coatepec, on the way to Tollan, there once lived a woman named Coatlicue, mother of the Centzonhuitznahuah, the Four Hundred Gods of the Southern Stars. Their older sister was called Coyolxauhqui.
And Coatlicue did penance: she swept, she was consecrated to sweeping. In this way she paid her sacred debts at Coatepec. Once, when she was sweeping, feathers drifted down onto Coatlicue, something like a ball of down. Right away, Coatlicue snatched it up and nestled it near her stomach. As soon as she had finished sweeping, she went to draw forth the feathers she had hidden at her waist, but she found nothing there.
At that very moment, Coatlicue conceived.
When the Centzonhuitznahuah saw that their mother was now with child, they said, very angry, “Who did this? Who got her pregnant? She’s dishonored us, brought shame on us!”
And their older sister, Coyolxauhqui, spoke to them. “My brothers, she has indeed dishonored us. We simply must kill our mother, that wicked woman who is now with child. Who made that thing inside her?”
When Coatlicue learned of this plot, she became very frightened, very worried. But Huitzilopochtli — the child that lay within her — calmed her. He called out and spoke to her. “Don’t be afraid. I already know what to do.”
Hearing the words of her son, Coatlicue was comforted, her heart reassured, as if she had merely been startled.
At this point, the Centzonhuitznahuah — after reaching a consensus and declaring their intent to kill their mother because she had become an embarrassment — trained like mad. They were furious. As if her heart might burst from her chest, Coyolxauhqui riled her brothers up, fueled their rage so they would kill their mother.
And the Centzonhuitznahuah suited up, arming themselves for battle.
Now these gods, the Centzonhuitznahuah, were like master soldiers. They coiled their locks and wrapped them, winding their hair — their locks — about their heads.
But one of their uncles, Cuahuitlihcac, was a spy. Whatever the Centzonhuitznahuah said he immediately repeated, informing Huitzilopochtli.
Huitzilopochtli replied, “Pay very close attention, dear uncle. Listen carefully — I already know what to do.”
At this point — after finally resolving, united in their reasoning, to kill, to murder their mother — the brothers immediately set off, Coyolxauhqui leading the way. Each had trained hard, worked tirelessly, armed himself for battle. They had exchanged gifts, draping themselves with paper ornaments and reed headdresses, nettles dangling from the painted paper. Then they had tied bells around their calves: “shrieking bells,” those were called. The heads of their arrows had been notched.
So they set off at once, in formation, each in his platoon, sparring as they went. They travelled bent beneath their gear, Coyolxauhqui leading the way.
Cuahuitlihcac rushed right up Mount Coatepetl to warn Huitzilopochtli. He told him, “They’re already coming.”
Then Huitzilopochtli said, “Mark closely the places they come to.”
Soon Cuahuitlihcac announced, “They’re beside the skull rack.”
Once more Huitzilopochtli spoke forth: “Where are they now?”
His uncle answered, “They’re at the terraces.”
Again Huitzilopochtli called out to Cuahuitlihcac: “Check where they are now.”
He responded, “On the landing.”
Once more the child asked, “And now?”
Then Cuahuitlihcac said, “They’re coming up the mountainside!”
And Huiztilopochtli called to Cuahuitlihcac a final time, saying “Keep an eye on their progress.”
Then Cuahuitlihcac exclaimed, “They’ve reached the summit at last! They’re here now, Coyolxauhqui in the vanguard!”
At that very moment, Huitzilopochtli was born.
From the start he wore his gear — his tehuehuelli shield, his darts, his blue dart thrower named Xiuhahtlatl. Across his face ran diagonal stripes, smears of fetal feces, called “the baby’s face-painting.” A feathery down covered his forehead and ears. The sole of his left foot, the long and thin one, was feathered as well. Both his thighs and upper arms were streaked with sky-blue pigment.
When Huitzilopochtli gave the order, the one named Tochancalqui lit Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent. The child stabbed Coyolxauhqui with that weapon and then sliced off her head, which rolled to a stop at the edge of Mount Coatepetl. Her body went tumbling down, smashing into pieces, until her arms, legs and torso crashed in different places.
And then Huitzilopochtli rose against the Four Hundred Gods of the Southern Stars — he pursued them, hurled himself among them, drove them down, scattered them from the summit of Mount Coatepetl.
Once he had chased them down to the ground, to the foot of the mountain, he harried them, pursuing them around Mount Coatepetl. Four times he ran them around, herding them in circles. The battle cries they flung in flight were in vain; they taunted him with shouts and beat their shields to no avail.
There was nothing they could do, no feat they could perform, no way to fend him off.
Huitzilopochtli routed them, forced them to retreat. Then he thoroughly destroyed them, truly massacred them, utterly annihilated them.
And when even then he wouldn’t leave them alone, clinging to them all, they begged and begged him, saying, “Let this be over!”
But this did not sate Huitzilopochtli’s rage. He was audacious in his pursuit of them. Only a handful survived to flee his presence. Those who slipped from his hands headed south, and that is why we call the South Huitzlampa: the remnant of Centzonhuitznahuah that escaped Huitzilopochtli’s clutches fled in that direction.
At this point — once he had slain them and had his fun — he stripped away their goods, their paper accouterments, their reed headdresses. He took them as his property, appropriated them as his own, claimed them as his due, as though seizing his rightful insignia.
Huitzilopochtli was also called a terrible miracle because his mother Coatlicue became pregnant only after feathers fell on her: no one ever presented himself as his father.
The Mexica took great care of him. For his sake they followed the ancient customs and honored him. And through Huitzilopochtli they became strong.
Such was the worship that has come down to us from Coatepec, as was done in ages past.
That is the end.
Original Nahuatl Text
In Huitzilopochtli in cencah quimāhuiztiliāyah in Mēxihcah. Ihuin in quimatiyah in ītzintiliz in īpēhualiz:
Ca in cōatepec īhuīcpa in Tollan cemilhuitl quitzticah ōmpa nenca cihuātl ītoca Cōātlīcue īnnān centzonhuitznāhuah. Auh īnhueltiuh, ītōca Coyolxāuh.
Auh in yehhuātl Cōātlīcue oncān tlamahcehuaya, tlachpānaya, quimocuitlahuiaya in tlachpānalli. Inic tlamahcehuaya in Cōatepec. Auh ceppa in ihcuāc tlachpānaya, in Coātlīcue īpan hualtemoc ihhuitl, iuhquin ihhuitelolohtli. Niman concuitihuetz in Cōātlīcue; īxillān contlālih. Auh in ōtlachpān niman conquīzquiya in ihhuitl, in īxillān ōquitlālicah, aoc tleh quittac.
Niman ic otztic in Cōātlīcue.
Auh in ōquittaqueh in Centzonhuitznāhuah in īnnān ye otztli, cencah cualānqueh, quihtoah āc ōquichīhuilih in? āquin ōcotztih? Tēchāhuilquīxtia, tēchpīnāuhtia.
Auh in īnhueltiuh in Coyolxāuh quimilhuih, noquichtihuān, tēchāhuilquīxtia. Zan ticmictiah in tonān in tlahuēlīlōc in ye otztli. āc ōquichīhuilih in īihtic ca?
Auh in ōquimah Cōātlīcue, cencah momauhtih cencah motequipachoh. auh in īconēuh in īihtic catca quiyōllāliāya. Quihuālnōtzaya quilhuiāya: māca ximomauhtih. Ye nē nicmahti.
In ōquicac in Cōātlīcue in ītlahtōl in īconēuh cencah moyōllālih, motlālih in īyōlloh, iuhquin iuhcāntlamat.
Auh in ye iuhqui, in Centzonhuitznāhuah in ōquicentlālihqueh in īntlahtōl, in ōquicemihtohqueh in zan quimictīzqueh in īnnan, yehīca ca tlapīnāhuīti, za cencah mochicāhuayah. Cencah cualānqueh. Iuhqui in quīzaya in īyōlloh, in Coyolxāuhqui quinyōlēhuaya, yōllohcocōlcuītiaya in īoquichtihuān in mācueleh miqui in īnnān.
Auh in Centzonhuitznāhuah niman ye ic mocencāhuah moyaōchihchīhuah.
Auh in yehhuāntin Centzonhuitznāhuah iuhquin tequihuahqueh catcah. Tlahcuiyayah, tlacuahuihcuiyayah, quicuahuihcuiyayah in īntzon, in incuātzon.
Auh in ce ītōca Cuahuitl ihcac, necoc quitlalihtinenca in ītlahtol. In tlein quihtoāyah Centzonhuitznāhuah niman conilhuiāya, connōnōtzaya in Huitzilopochtli.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli quihuālilhuiaya in Cuahuitl ihcac: cencah tleh ticmomachitia notlahtziné, huel xonmotlacaquīlti. Ye nē nicmahti.
Auh in ye iuhqui, in yēqueneh ōquicemihtohqueh, in ōcentetix in īntlahtōl, inic quimictīzqueh, inic quitlahtlātīzqueh in īnnān. niman ye ic huih. Tēyacāna in Coyolxāuhqui. Huel mochihchicāhuah, mocecenquetzah, moyāōchihchīuhqueh. Īntech quitlālihqueh in īmāmatlatqui, in aneucyōtl, īntzītzicāz āmatitech pipilcac tlahcuilōlli. īhuān in coyolli īncōtztitech quiilpihqueh, inin coyolli mihtoāya oyohualli. īhuān in īnmīuh tlatzontectli.
Niman ye ic huih. Tehtēcpantihuih, tlatlamantihuih. Tlayehyecōtihui. Momāmahtihuih, tēyacāna in Coyolxāuhqui.
Auh in Cuahuitl ihcac niman ye ic motlalotitlehco, in quinōnōtzaz in Huitzilopochtli. Quilhuih, ca ye huītzeh.
Niman quihtoa in Huitzilopochtli, huel xontlachiya cān ye huītzeh.
Niman ye ic conilhuia in Cuahuitl ihcac, ca ye Tzompantitlan.
Ye no ceppa quihuālilhuia in Huitzilopochtli, cān ye huītzeh?
Niman conilhuih, ca ye cōāxālpan huītzeh.
Ye no ceppa quihuālilhuih in Huitzilopochtli in Cuahuitl ihcac: tlā xontlachiya cān ye huītzeh.
Niman ic conilhuih, ca ye apetlac.
Ye no ceppa quihuālilhuih: cān ye huītzeh?
Niman conilhuih in Cuahuitl ihcac: ca ye tlatlacapan yahtihuitzeh.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli ye no ceppa quihuālilhuih in Cuahuitl ihcac. Quilhuih, tlā xontlachiya cān ye huītzeh.
Niman ic conilhuih in Cuahuitl ihcac: ca yēqueneh huālpanhuetzi, yēqueneh huālahci, tēyacāntihuītz in Coyolxāuhqui.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli niman ic huāllācat.
Niman ītlatqui huālyetiyah: in īchīmal tetehuelli, īhuān in īmiuh īhuān in iahtlauh xoxoctic mihtoa xiuhahtlatl. īhuān īxtlan tlatlaān, ic ommīchīuh in īconēcuitl, mihtoāya īpilnechīhual. Mocuāpotōnih īxcuac īhuān īnahnacaztlān. Auh ce pitzāhuac in īcxi īōpōchcopa, quipotōnih in īxocpal. īhuān quitexohhuāhuan in īmetz ōmextin īhuān ōmextin īacōl.
Auh ce ītōcā Tōchancalqui contlatih in Xiuhcōātl, quihuālnāhuatih in Huitzilopochtli. Niman ic quihxil in Coyolxāuhqui auh niman quechcotōntihuetz, in ītzontecon ōmpa ommocāhua in ītēnpa Cōātepētl. Auh in ītlāc tlatzintlān huehuetzico, tetextihuetz: cēceccān huehuetz in īmā, in īicxi īhuān ītlāc.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli niman ye huālēhua, quinhuāltoca, īntlan aqui, quinhuāltemohuia, quinhuāltepēhua in Cōātepētl īcpac.
Auh in oquimāxitico in tlālchi, in tlatzintlān, niman ye ic quintoca, quinyayahualochtih in Cōātepētl. Nāppa in tlayayahualochtih, in quinyayahualochtih. Oc nēn quihuāloyohuihtihuiyah, oc nēn quihuāloyohuiāyah, huālmochīmalhuītectihuiyah.
Aoc tleh huēl quichīuhqueh, aoc tleh huēl āxqueh , aocmo huel quitzacuilihqueh.
Zan quincemēhuītih in Huitzilopochtli: quincentepotztih, huel quinpohpoloh, huel quimīxtlātih, huel quinpōctlāntilih.
Auh in zā aocmo huel quincāhuaya, in ōhuel in centech mopilo, cencah quitlahtlāuhtiayah, quilhuiāyah: mā īxquich.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli ahmo ic moyōlcēhuih. Ca cencah īntech motlahpalo in quintoca. Auh zā quēzquitotōn īīxpanpa ēhuaqueh. In īmācpa quīzqueh ōmpa itztiyahqueh in Huitzlāmpa. Inin motēnēhua Huitzlāmpa, yehīca ca ōmpa itztiyahqueh inin Centzonhuitznāhuah, in oquīzquintin īmātitlampa quīzqueh in Huitzilopochtli.
Auh in ye iuhqui, ōquinmictih, ōīēllelquīz, quincuīlih in īntlatqui, in īnechichicuah, in aneucyōtl. Quimotlatquitih, quimāxcātih, quimotōnaltih, iuhquin quimotlahuiztih.
Auh in Huitzilopochtli nō mihtoāya tētzāhuitl, yehica ca zan ihhuitl in temōc inic otztic in īnān in Cōātlīcue; cayāc nēz in ītah.
Yehhuātl in ōquipiyayah in Mēxihcah. Inic ōtlamanītiāyah, quimāhuiztiliāyah. īhuān in ītech mochicāhuayah in Huitzilopochtli.
Auh in yehhuātl in tlamāhuiztiliztli ōcatca, ca ōmpa tlamantli in cōatepec, in iuh mochīhuilih ca ye huehcāuh.
Ca ye īxquich.