Old Gods' Tales, New Reading

Anthropologists have traditionally considered writing one of the hallmarks of civilization. The development of a body of literature is a crucial aspect of a society’s art history, and this is no less true in the case of Pre-Columbian art than in any other. Both oral and written traditions are art forms that create and record cultural myths; those traditions in turn become ingrained in the collective consciousnesses of the societies to which they belong.

The last time I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, four years ago, my parents and I made our usual stop at one of the Librerías Gandhi in the city. We each gathered a stack of books that interested us and piled them onto a table in the coffee-shop bookstore. I picked up “Cantos y Crónicas del México Antiguo,” edited by Miguel León-Portilla. Today it is one of those books I must always have on my shelf to consult, and to look through from time to time, even if I haven’t ever read it all.

The other day I came across a little red book in the Tozzer library with the title “Literatura indígena de América” stamped in white capital letters across the spine. The same Miguel León-Portilla had written the first chapter. It began with his definition of literature: “That careful expression of thinking and feeling, either of a person in particular, or, by way of tradition, of a people” (my translation). Under his definition fall forms of expression not always thought of as literature in the traditional sense, such as oral literature and images. After checking out the book, I felt compelled to explore my “Cantos y Crónicas” once more.

“Cantos y Crónicas” falls under León-Portilla’s definition of literature. It contains mythical stories and epic poetry that define Mexico before the conquest. Leafing through it this time, I found one story particularly interesting: an excerpt León-Portilla had translated from what he simply calls “Manuscript of 1558.” The excerpt tells how the heroic god Quetzalcóatl braves the underworld and the dual gods who rein there (Mictlantecuhtli, the god, and Mictlancíhuatl, the goddess) in order to retrieve bones with which to fashion mankind. Quetzalcóatl is able to trick the gods, who do not want him to take the bones, with the help of his nahual. “Nahaul” was a word for a person’s double—his soul, his totemic animal. Quetzalcóatl means “Feathered Serpent,” and his nahual was said to be a double of his own form.

When Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancíhuatl find out that Quetzalcóatl has stolen the bones, they order a hole to be dug for him to fall into as he escapes from the underworld. Quetzalcóatl falls into the trap and dies, only to come back to life and converse with his soul, his totemic animal, saying, “What shall I do, my nahual?” His soul responds: “Seeing as things turned out badly, let things unfold as they may” (my translation). In the end Quetzalcóatl takes the bones to Cihuacóatl, the Serpent-Woman goddess who grinds the bones and mixes them with some precious clay and some of Quetzalcóatl’s blood to make humans.


It is one thing to go to a museum and see painted and carved clay, one thing to admire the visual art of Pre-Columbian peoples, but it is quite another experience to read a myth like this one and quietly imagine a dialogue between a god and his soul. I wonder, as the followers of Quetzalcóatl might have, what conversations my nahual and I might have, what it would be like to speak with jade serpents and feathered jaguars. Reading this story is an interactive experience, and though it may be a Spanish translation from an acid-free page and not red-and-black images on amatl paper, we can hear from afar the voices of the past telling us these stories, giving us a deeper perspective on the people made of bones, clay, and blood.

—Columnist Alexandra V. Mendez can be reached at


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