Guest Blog: Thoughts on Aztec Philosophy

Guest blog by C.T. Murphy.

Games are an excellent medium for modern storytellers to explore ancient cultures and their mythologies. While many series, such as Tomb Raider, do so with some sense of realism, it’s the games that re-purposed ancient mythological ideas into their own entities that first introduced me to a wider world of beliefs. For instance, the player ability to summon a flying feathered serpent capable of conjuring storms and lightning in Final Fantasy VIII gave me a single name: Quetzalcoatl. The sheer challenge of trying to pronounce its name correctly rewarded my curiosity with a genuine interest in Aztec culture.

Powerful images and stories of ancient gods and the practices their followers maintained in their worship fascinate me. However, as a philosophy student, the practical everyday believes at the core of their religious practices fascinate me even more. While it is easy to dismiss mythology as story, those stories arise from actual believes and general opinions of how reality works or at least ought to work. In my brief studies, none have captivated my attention quite like the Aztec ideas of truth.

A carving of Quetzalcoatl at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The word for truth in the Aztec’s language (known as Nahuatl) is “neltiliztli, and it roughly translates to mean “well-rootedness”. In conjunction with a philosophical worldview that questioned the stability of life and the ability for the individual to finding lasting things, truth literally meant something that has a strong foundation, that lasts. To Aztec thinkers, life on earth was a transient state, and finding meaning was incredibly difficult.

The famous Aztec poet, Nezahualcoyotl, wrote this in his poem ‘He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him!’:

“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.”

Sometimes when unearthing ancient temples and cities, we focus on their rich mythologies rather than the very human people who invented them. There is a rich tradition of Aztec thought dedicated to thoughts that still trouble us to this day. What is the meaning of life? What are the lasting things that we can use as a foundation for more elaborate truths? Neltiliztli captures those questions perfectly, while also elucidating that not even truth itself is absolute; instead, it is simply something that is well-founded.

The elusiveness of all things is further explained by the the Nahuatl word “Teotl”, which can be translated as ‘god’, but often involves a much more complicated and nuanced explanation. In a way, it is easier to think of Teotl as a verb, rather than a noun, since it implies a divine force that is constantly in motion, encompassing all things as well as generating each thing individually. This dualistic nature manifests itself in mutual-but-opposite states, such as ‘being’ and ‘not-being’. Yet, since all things are Teotl and Teotl is all things, Teotl itself is more akin to ‘becoming’, a core belief that questions the order and permanence of the cosmos.

In other words, earthly experiences are illusory at best. Our perceptions and experiences in the earthly realm impose exclusivity on reality, forcing us to believe in dichotomous absolutes such as ‘alive’ or ‘dead’. Metaphorically-speaking, Teotl wears what the Aztecs would describe as a ‘mask’, but those who are wise and aware of the human tendency toward misperception see beyond the mask. Instead of ‘alive’ or ‘dead’, those individuals see a complimentary, independent force that is in an active state of being both alive and dead at the same time.

Aztec warriors as seen in the Codex Mendoza
Aztec warriors as depicted in the Codex Mendoza
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These concepts and more join together to create a philosophical worldview that paints our time on earth as a journey on a slippery slope. To the Aztecs, humans naturally earn for a state of truth,‘well-rootedness’, and stability. Though the journey is treacherous, the way to truth is through balance, wisdom, and an awareness of Teotl. That’s not to say that happiness is impossible during earthly life, but instead that all joy comes with peril, pain, or both.

While there are certainly aspects of Aztec culture I would never hope to emulate (human sacrifice, for one), there is a lot of beauty and truth to extract from their worldview. Reality is a chaotic flux, ever becoming, ever transforming. The journey is difficult and every step comes at the risk of falling. Yet, if we walk every step with the intent to keep our balance and to wisely choose our next move, we can find bits of stability to rely on and to ultimately give our lives the meaning we all so desperately yearn for.

I’d like to leave you with a full poem translated from the original Nahuatl by American archaeologist Daniel G. Brinton. His entire book on Ancient Nahuatl poetry can be found freely on Project Gutenberg.

1. I lift my voice in wailing, I am afflicted, as I remember that we must leave the beautiful flowers, the noble songs; let us enjoy ourselves for a while, let us sing, for we must depart forever, we are to be destroyed in our dwelling place.

2. Is it indeed known to our friends how it pains and angers me that never again can they be born, never again be young on this earth?

3. Yet a little while with them here, then nevermore shall I be with them, nevermore enjoy them, nevermore know them.

4. Where shall my soul dwell? Where is my home? Where shall be my house? I am miserable on earth.

5. We take, we unwind the jewels, the blue flowers are woven over the yellow ones, that we may give them to the children.

6. Let my soul be draped in various flowers; let it be intoxicated by them, for soon must I weeping go before the face of our mother.

7. This only do I ask:—Thou Giver of Life, be not angry, be not severe on earth, let us live with thee on earth, take us to the Heavens.

8. But what can I speak truly here of the Giver of Life? We only dream, we are plunged in sleep; I speak here on earth; but never can we speak in worthy terms here.

9. Although it may be jewels and precious ointments (of speech), yet of the Giver of Life, one can never here speak in worthy terms.

For more reading on this subject, take a look at this entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which originally introduced me to the topic of Aztec philosophy. I also recommend Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel Leon-Portilla.

The author of this guest blog, C.T. Murphy, can be found on Twitter under the name @ctmurfy. He also runs his own blog, Murf vs Internet, where he writes about gaming and other topics that take his fancy.

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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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