Cantares Mexicanos

I wonder where I can get some good sweet flowers
Ah, here's were they live!
I call out mournfully
They took me into the valley
So fill my cloak with these sundry sweet flowers
I, the singer went to get all of them
And I say Ah this earth is not a good place
I, the singer, have entered the land of sundry flowers

The Cantares Mexicanos are a group of poems and were originally written in Classical Nahuatl. The Nahuatl title is Cuicapeuhcayotl, which translates as either the start or beginning or in a second sense, which means the origin of the songs. The series of poems were written down in the Roman alphabet by Nahuas, whom we know as Aztecs, under the guidance of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun in the 16th century. The character of the Cantares is deeply mystical, a series of metaphors, only some of which we understand. Fray Bernardino thought the poems were the work of the devil. If so, the devil was a very good, if somewhat obscure writer. Fray Bernardino, who was a far more accurate ethnographer than Herodotus, did his investigations of the Mexica (there were no Aztecs until 1821, when the successful revolt against Spain required a new name for the country) with the express intention of replacing the indigenous culture with Roman Catholicism. To destroy it, one had to know it. Yet he saved a great literature, a philosophy that has been compared to the pre-Socratics and has overtones that relate to existentialism.

In the poem the images are beautiful, at times touching, the language in the original is very formal. It is unlikely that the Nahuas intended to describe the return of warriors from the dead. Nahuatl speakers were all but obsessed with language. Their very name, Nahua, means clear speaker. The poet, who refers to himself as I, the singer enters the forest in search of the most beautiful flowers to give to the various categories of princes (eagles, tigers, etc., symbols of rank) and to mystical figures or perhaps more accurately concepts. Ipalnemoani is the Giver of Life or the Source of Life. Tloque Nahuaque is literally Close and Near, but the words form a difrasismo, two concrete terms that represent an abstract concept; in this case, omnipresent or universal or all pervasive. The two terms of the difrasismo are commonly translated as Lord of the Close and Near, but Tloque Nahuaque does not include a word meaning lord. We have taken the liberty of translating it here as the Omnipresent One, for no other reason than to bind it more closely to the mystical character of the poem.

The Cantares Mexicanos is also a theological work, an expression of a complex philosophy, and (we think) purposely arcane. It is written in heightened language, a series of metaphors that were more than likely comprehensible only to the most highly educated few. Mesoamerica was one of the original civilizations. At the time of the European invasion of the Western Hemisphere it had been developing for more than 2000 years. The people who settled in the Valley of Mexico were the recipients of these centuries of cultural development, and moved it forward to greater sophistication during the years between their arrival in 1325 and the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The survivors of the invasion of the cultural center of the Nahua world have continued their work, first in colonial and now in both traditional and contemporary forms.