Nahuatl literature with Characteristics origin genres and authors

Nahuatl literature

The Nahuatl literature includes all literary production in Nahuatl, the language of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico and its surroundings during the time of the conquest. It is also called the Old Mexican language. The poetic production of Nahuatl literature was abundant and of high popular eloquence.

All the chroniclers agree that codes for a moral life and correct social conduct were transmitted in this way. Collective singing, almost always accompanied by dance, was the means of propagation of poetic production. The higher classes of society (rulers, warriors, priests) created and propagated the works.

This abundant production disappeared for the most part with the arrival of the Spanish; The interest in the domination of the conquerors was stronger than that of preservation. However, the contents remained in the memory of the indigenous survivors.

In secret, the oral tradition of transmitting ancestral memory among the Mesoamerican settlers was continued. Later, some missionaries began to collect all these songs. Sometimes the Indians themselves wrote them and in others they dictated them, preserving part of this cultural legacy.

Origin and history of Nahuatl literature

Pre-Hispanic Nahuatl Literature

Pre-Hispanic Nahuatl literature, like other ancient literatures, was transmitted orally throughout the generations.

In ancient Mexico the spoken word or oral tradition was reinforced by the use of painted books, in which history and native religion were preserved and passed down through successive generations.

The Mixtec and Aztec peoples, speaking Nahuatl, also had a very efficient system of written communication through a combination of pictorial and phonetic elements.

On the other hand, some experts point out that before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Nahua culture had already developed shows that can be considered theatrical.

Nahuatl literature after the conquest

When the Spanish conquered Mexico and founded the Nueva España colony, its indigenous population tried to maintain its centuries-old literary tradition.

In Central Mexico the Nahuatl used symbols, such as pictograms and ideograms, and exceptionally phonetic glyphs. Written texts served as an aid to maintain oral tradition.

As literacy used to be a prominent feature of indigenous elites for centuries, it is no wonder that they very early adopted the Roman alphabet and used it for their own purposes.

Especially for the Nahuatl of Central Mexico, this “new” system allowed them to write about things in a detailed and aesthetically demanding way. They could also read everything they had to memorize in the past.

Already in the middle of the 16th century, Nahuatl authors or scribes began to use the Roman alphabet.

Over time, they created a different type of literature that differed considerably from the pre-Hispanic pictorial-oral type, as well as from the European, although it was rooted in both.

Characteristics of Nahuatl literature

Nahuatl literature has a series of characteristics that make it unique with respect to any ancient or contemporary literature:

Limited literary genres

Two main types of literary genres can be distinguished from its pre-Hispanic tradition: the cuícatl and the tlahtolli . The first term translates song, poem or hymn. On the other hand, the word tlahtolli means word, story or speech.

Oral tradition

Like all pre-Hispanic cultures, in its beginnings Nahuatl literature was orally transmitted. Thus, both the meter and the rhythm used in the compositions were constructed to facilitate memorization.

Writing support

At some point in its cultural development, the Nahuatl civilization introduced the use of codices or books. These were made of a special paper that they themselves made from tree bark, leather or cotton strips.

Although this pictographic writing was difficult to interpret, the priests and sages used it as a support in the systematic oral transmission of Nahuatl literature.

Themes of the works

One of the outstanding characteristics in the themes was religiosity. This was the supreme reason for both individual and state life. They felt like the people chosen by their gods to worship them.

Thus, they subordinated this religiosity to the rest of the themes. In their epic poems they praised the victories of their gods, and in their tlahtolli they imparted knowledge and moral standards for living according to divine laws.

Likewise, they believed that honorable death in battle was well regarded by their divinities. They also believed in the existence of an afterlife after death. These two ideas were repetitive themes in his artistic production.

It is not limited to pre-Hispanic times

Ancient Nahuatl literature was written by members of the different cultures that populated what is now Mexico. However, after the conquest, Nahuatl continued to be used by indigenous peoples, by monks and other Castilian settlers. From these, codices and literary compositions emerged that are preserved today and are discussed later.

Genres of Nahuatl poetry

Traditional Nahuatl poetry can be divided into several genres depending on the topic they deal with:

  • Los  Xopancuícatl : cheerful poems and songs about life.
  • The  Xochicuícatl : nobility and human friendship are described.
  • Los  Yaocuícatl : songs close to the epic about warriors.
  • Los  Cuecuechcuícatl : erotic songs.
  • The  Teotlatolli : explanation of what was the origin of the universe and the world.
  • The  Icnocuícatl : sad reflections on death.
  • The  Teocuícatl:  hymns dedicated to the gods.

Representatives and outstanding works 

Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472)

This great tlamatinime (wise man) of Texcoco was recognized by his people for the amount of architectural works built during his mandate, and for the body of laws and institutions of the State that he left as a legacy. Among the poems attributed to Nezahualcóyotl can be mentioned:

  • In chololiztli (The flight).
  • Ma zan moquetzacan (Get up!).
  • Nitlacoya (I’m sad).
  • Xopan cuicatl (Song of spring).
  • Ye nonocuiltonohua (I am rich).
  • Zan yehuan (He alone).
  • Xon Ahuiyacan (Be cheerful).

Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui (late 14th century – mid 15th century)

Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui was a cuicani (poet / singer) who ruled Teotlalcingo. The themes of his poems were related to thoughts he had about life.

Among the poems attributed to Tochihuitzin are: Zan Tontemiquico (We come alone to dream) and Cuicatl Anyolque (You have lived the song).

Ayocuan Cuetzpalin (late 15th century – early 16th century)

In expert reviews, Ayocuan is referred to as a teohua (priest). In his compositions he sang to the brevity of human life.

Scholars of his work attribute to him the poems Ma Huel Manin Tlalli (May the earth remain forever), Ayn Ilhuicac Itic (From within the heavens), Huexotzinco Icuic (Besieged, hated, Huexotzinco would be).

Tecayehuatzin (Approx. Second half of the 15th century – early 16th century)

Tecayehuatzin was the ruler of Huexotzinco, and is remembered for his poetic phrase “Flower and song is what makes our friendship possible.”

The poems Tla Oc Toncuicacan (Now let us sing), Tlatolpehualiztli (The beginning of the dialogue) and Itlatol Temiktli (The dream of a word) are attributed to him .

Florentine Codex (Bernardino de Sahagún)

It is about 3 volumes in which the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún described the Mexican customs, traditions and way of life.

Nican mopohua (Antonio Valeriano, 1556)

It is a story written in Nahuatl that narrates the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the hill of Tepeyac.

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