Aztec Poetry
Aztec Poetry

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Aztec Poetry
(Department of History, Southwest Missouri State University)  

Aztec Poetry 
(by Nezahualcoyotl)

Mexica (Nahuatl)

(at www.mexica-
Instituto Lingüístico
de Verano, A.C.
|| Nahautl
In English & Spanish

Friends, a mission has driven us to the world ...

Poetry in the Aztec world was known as "flower and song," the Nahuatl (Aztec language) metaphors for art and symbolism. It was the highest art form and it often celebrated the transient nature of life on earth. The theme of cut flowers was regularly used to symbolize the temporary fragility and beauty of existence.

Life, so solid, so apparently real, was thus an illusion. Only by creating art, by imitating the Lord of the Close and the Near, could they aspire to immortality. Thus the idea that "art made things divine," and only the divine was true.

In this they felt they were imitating their principal deity, Omeoteotl, the creator of the universe, also called the Lord and Lady of the Close and the Near.

Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World
Full Nahuatl transcriptions of all poems, along with the English translations. Selections from two great manuscript collections of Nahautl verse from the 100-year period surrounding the Spanish conquest of Mexico indicate the high intellectual achievement of the Meso-American culture.

The Winged Serpent American Indian Prose and Poetry
Edited by Margot Astrov 1946 1974 by Beacon Press

Omeoteotl achieved immortality through creativity, and the Aztec poets sought to do the same.  The creation of poetry was a task for well-educated Aztec nobles. Individual composers like Tecayhuatzin, Ayocuan, and in particular, Nezahualcoyotl, earned renown for their poetry.

The Aztecs held a belief that the earth was but a layer between thirteen heavenly levels and nine levels of the underworld, corresponding to the thirteen hours of day and nine hours of night. The nine levels of the Aztec underworld were called Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. A wandering soul walked for four years down the first eight levels, which were extremely difficult and taxing to cross. The lowest of the nine levels was Mictlan proper, a vast cave filled with skeletons and ruled by the Lord and Lady of Death.

You are the quechol bird, color of fire,
Which flies across the plain
In the kingdom of death.

"My grandmother taught me. We just don't die. The spirits come back and we can feel their love and caring for us at day of the dead."

Ruben Maqueda
  found Jesus shrine

Canti Aztechi (Aztec Songs)

edited by Ugo Liberatore and Jorge Hernandez-Campos (Guanda, Perma, 1966).


Ritual poetry, created for communal expression, is widespread in Native America. It aims to re-create the sacred in the present moment. Communities regularly seek to be restored to their original fertility in cyclic ceremonies of renewal and thus promote the continuance of life on earth.

Lyric poetry, created by the individual is less known in the native world but was much celebrated by the Aztecs at the time of the conquest, and a century later when it was recorded by scribes.

Most of the surviving Nahuatl songs can be found in two major collections, "Romances de los señores de la Nueva España" and "Cantares mexicanos" (Mexican Songs). Both were compiled between 1560 and 1582.  A few songs are duplicated in both the Romances and the Cantares, attesting to their  popularity. Nahuatl was primarily an oral language, which still lends itself to expressive metaphors, and eloquent repetitions. Nahuatl has over a million and a half speakers, more than any other family of indigenous languages in Mexico today. The name "Nahuatl" (pronounced in two syllables, ná-watl) comes from the root nahua ([nawa]) which means 'clear sound' or 'command'. 

Cantares Mexicanos, or Mexican Songs, is the largest single collection of Nahuatl songs. They were collected by an unknown number of Aztecs who worked under the direction of a missionary during the latter part of the sixteenth century. A sense of the rhythm and rhetoric of the poets is denied the reader who does not know Nahuatal. It is inspired oratory and poetry, recited both as a pastime and to celebrate the gods.





With flowers You paint,
O Giver of Life!
With songs You give color,
with songs You shade
those who will live on the earth.
Later You will destroy eagles and tigers:
we live only in Your painting
here, on the earth.

With black ink You will blot out
all that was friendship,
brotherhood, nobility.

You give shading
to those who will live on the earth.
We live only in Your book of paintings,
here on the earth


I choose the colors,
I mix the flowers,
In the place of beautiful new songs.

A polished jewel, a jade precious and brilliant Of deepest green, it is made,
A spring flower prepared to perfume the heavens.
To the place of rosy flowers,
Toward there I sing my song.   

I am honored, I am made glad,
Chasing the much-prized flower, the aroma of the rose in the place of song.
So that with sweetness my heart is filled.
Wave after wave I send to buffet my heart.
I inhale the perfume; My soul becomes drunk.
I so long for the place of beauty.
The place of flowers, the place of my fulfillment,
That with flowers my soul is made drunk.


King of Texcoco (1431-72)


There were poets in different ages and regions in the Aztec Empire.  Nezahualcoyotl ("Fasting Coyote") of Texcoco lived from 1402 until 1472, thus predating the arrival of Cortes, and is considered a pre-eminent poet-ruler of the 15th century.

Portrait of Hungry Coyote
from Codex Ixtlilxóchitl

The Flower Songs of Hungry Coyote


The destruction of the Mexican state was foreshadowed by a series of omens and prodigies which took place during the ten years preceding the arrival of Cortes. By the "smoking stars" is meant a comet that was visible for about a year.

The sweet-voiced quetzal there, ruling the earth, has intoxicated my soul.

I am like the quetzal bird, I am created in the one and only God; I sing sweet songs among the flowers; I chant songs and rejoice in my heart.

The fuming dewdrops from the flowers in the fields intoxicate my soul.

I grieve to myself that ever this dwelling on earth should end.

I foresaw, being a Mexican, that our rule began to be destroyed, I went forth weeping that it was to bow down and to be destroyed.

Let me not be angry that the grandeur of Mexico is to be destroyed.

The smoking stars gather against it: the one who cares for flowers is about to be destroyed.

He who cared for books wept, he wept for the beginning of the destruction.


I erect my drum, I assemble my friends. Aya! Here they find recreation, I make them sing. Thus we must go over There. Remember this. Be happy. Aya! Oh my friends! Ohuaya ohuaya!

Perhaps now with calm, and thus it must be over There? Aya! Perhaps there is also calm There in the Bodyless Place? Aye! Ohuaya ohuaya! Let us go. But here the law of the flowers governs, here the law of the song governs, here on earth. Ehuaya! Be happy, dress in finery, oh friends. Ohuaya ohuaya.

Romances de los Señores #38 (23v-24v)
Translations by JOHN CURL
The Flower Songs of Hungry Coyote
(to be published soon)


All the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it, nothing is so perfect
that it does not descend to its tomb. Rivers, rivulets, fountains and
waters flow, but never return to their joyful beginnings; anxiously
they hasten on the vast realms of the rain god. As they widen their
banks, they also fashion the sad urn of their burial.

Filled are the bowels of the earth with pestilential dust once flesh and bone, once animate bodies of man who sat upon thrones, decided cases, presided in council, commanded armies, conquered provinces, possessed treasure, destroyed temples, exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power. Vanished are these glories, just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from the infernal fires of Popocatepetl. Nothing recalls them but the written page.



Songs of sadness

Where, O my heart, is the place of life?
Where is my true home?
Where my true dwelling place?
I suffer, here upon Earth.

Songs for the ancestors
(Tlapalla is "the place of the red and black " &
"marks the path of the Sun from zenith to setting").

Here the flowery death is born.
Those who took from Tlapalla,
Our ancestors, reached Earth...

The doubt

Where shall I go? Alas, where shall I go?
Doubt hangs heavy upon me.
Or here where one descends in the heart of

Song of Xipe Totec

Green serpent of the lighting...
the drinker of night

The song of Tetlepanquetzanitin

It is true we shall become friends,
It is true we shall live upon Earth,
But the time will come when
You will tire of our friendship

The academics or wise men of the Aztecs were known as the Tlamatinime (The Men with Words). They were both poets and philosophers. The Tlarnatinime taught the people through poetry, asking the cosmic question "Is There Any Truth in Man?"

Does man possess any truth?

Does man possess any truth?
if not, our song is no longer true.
Is anything stable and lasting?
What reaches its aim?

One day we must go

One day we must go,
one night we will descend into the region of mystery.
Here, we only come to know ourselves;
only in passing are we here on earth.
In peace and pleasure lot us spend our lives;
come, let us enjoy ourselves.
Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed!
Would that one lived forever;
Would that one were not to die!

Lonely as a cloud

What shall we sing, my friends?
In what shall we rejoice?
There alone our song lives,
Where our ancestors were born.
On Earth, where they lived...
I suffer here on Earth...
He who gives life conceals

Men in a casket and in an ark....
But shall I see them? Shall my eyes see
The faces of my father and my mother?
Can they offer me their song,
Their words, which I search for?
Here is no one,
They have left us as orphans, here on Earth.

Song of Friendship

I look with hatred on death and I suffer...
It matters not what precious stones
The same thread unites,
It does not matter that we are united
Like gems on the same necklace...
My friend, my true friend,
As you know, so too do I know; we live only once.
One day we shall go hence.
We are come hear only to know one another,
Only on loan have we come to Earth...
Yet we live here with dejection,
Here, where we are watched and spied upon...

Like the spring grass

Like the spring grass
We come only to sleep,
Only to dream.
It is not true, it is not true
That we have come to live on Earth!

At least the flowers

At least the flowers
But what can my heart do, if it is in vain
That we come to live upon the earth,
To flower in vain?

To the god of war, Huitzilopochtli
( Amantia and Pipitlan indicate the sea &  southern segment of the sky respectively).

Huitzilopochtli, the warrior,
He who acts on high
Follows his own path...
O marvellous dweller among the clouds...
O dweller in the region of the frozen wings....
He causes the walls of fire to fall down
Where the feathers are gathered.
Thus he wages war
And subdues the peoples...
Eager for war, the Flaming One descends,
He rages where the whirling dust arises.
Come to our aid!
There is war, there is burning.
Those Pipitlan are our enemies

Last Update: 13NOV2005
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