WIFE DOTTIE AND I had a brief encounter with Nahautl, the Aztec language, during our first session of Community College Japanese class. As a first example, Sensei-san taught us “Watashi no nomae wa _______ desu,” “My name is _____.” A Hispanic classmate smiled while he pronounced his name, a long, complex collection of l’s, n’s, and t’s with occasional vowels. “It’s my Nahautl name,” he said, “but call me Bob.”
I was reminded of this when reading Andrew Robinson’s “Examining the Aztecs,”Science, June 18, 2021. His article is a book review of Frances F. Berdan’s The Aztecs: Lost Civilizations.
By the way, Robinson notes, “… the Aztec language, Nahautl, is still spoken by 2 million people. The Nahautl word for ‘email,’ for example, is ‘tepozmecaixlatiltlahcuilloli’ (‘apparatus where writing is delivered to your face’).”
Frances F. Berdan is professor emerita of anthropology at California State University San Bernardino. Her speciality is history and culture of the Aztecs, a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico from around 1300 into the 1500s.
Eagle on a Cactus. Robinson writes that the Mexican flag “shows an eagle and a serpent on top of a cactus—a clear reference to a famous 16th-century Aztec depiction of the founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan (now the site of Mexico City), in 1325.”
This same Aztec hieroglyph appears in the Codex Mendoza,dating from around 1541.
A Much-traveled Codex. Robinson notes that mules likely carted the codex down from the mountains to Veracruz, where it was loaded on a Spanish treasure ship. However, he writes, “the ship apparently fell victim to a seaborne attack by French privateers, and the codex ended up in France in the hands of a cleric and cosmographer to King Henry II.”
Robinson continues, “Having passed through four subsequent owners [other thieving possessors?], all of whom fortunately acted as good stewards, it eventually came into the collections of the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1659.”
Aztec Beliefs. Robinson comments, “… the Aztecs had a strong interest in the natural world, including the heavens, although there is no evidence that they separated the natural from the supernatural.”
Part of this, Robinson notes, was “the notorious Aztec penchant for human sacrifice…. ‘Humans were burdened with a debt to their gods for their very existence,’ and they believed they must repay it with their blood—and sometimes their lives.”
Aztec Achievements. Robinson writes, “According to one study, 85 percent of 118 plants used by the Aztecs that are ‘ethnohistorically identified with curative properties’ are efficacious in modern medical terms.” These include treatments for headaches, stomachaches, coughs, fevers, parasites, skin sores, insomnia, and unstable mental states.
Robinson observes, “ ‘They drew on their predecessors’ fount of knowledge based on millennia of celestial observations….” The Aztecs identified solar and lunar movements, patterns of eclipses, the repeated appearance of comets, and the occurrence of meteor showers.
“Instead of a man in the Moon,” Robinson says, “the Aztecs saw a rabbit.” In their creation mythology, the gods hurled a rabbit onto the Moon to dim it. No doubt it missed the eagle on the cactus. ds