The Nahualts, Mexica or Aztecs, which is a more popular name to define the inhabitants of the centre part of Mexico at the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, placed great importance into two elements of our physical body, the face and heart. According to Dr. Leon-Portilla, both elements defined our personality. The face symbolised our ego, shaped from child to adulthood, transforming itself into a more matured and grounded being. The mission of sages was to develop in men a face, which voiced an interest in eliminating human’s anonymity (man’s lack of face). To achieve this, wise men put a mirror before their fellow men, so that self-knowledge caused each individual to be prudent and careful. The heart was Yollotl, root, ollin (movement), a dynamic quality in human beings. It was related to movement, to dynamism, shaping our personality. It was the idea of human beings giving their hearts to anything and the importance of controlling this, so they don’t lose it. The Nahualts were aware of the problems involved in an attempt to establish values in a changing world. They were aware of what changes were visible, what was manifested in the senses. Both face and heart, could be modelled and transformed and it became imperative an adequate carving of individual personality. The Nahualts placed great importance into the social customs and the living in accord with the gods and divined world, respecting the inherited culture brought by the Toltecs, Chichimecs, Acolhuas, Telpanecs and other original cultures which inhabited Mesopotamia.

Man needed to have knowledge of himself and nahualts aimed at having an ethical life. That kind of life did not relate to a future destined in the afterlife, but derived from personal and social needs. It was necessary to discover what was appropriate and righteous in order to possess a true face and heart, for only with this could man be firmly fixed, well founded and true. A quest for self-completeness and sincere social approbation motivated their conduct. The two motifs were in essence one, for true social approval was merited only by the well-developed face and heart who practiced on earth what was appropriate and upright. Besides, the Nahualts believed that could only know themselves as a group through the mirror of history, therefore they had a strong historical consciousness (Xiuhamatl, book of the years).

This evolved into Aztec thought, where they believed to be a people of a mission, the people of the sun, creators of and heirs to a culture symbolised by the word Toltecayotl (the summing up of ancient wisdom and art). Toltecatl means artist. An artist was born, not made, and depended on having a wise face and a strength heart, but also on a propitious date of birth. The artist had to keep his destiny always in mind, to make himself worthy of it and to learn to converse with his heart. He couldn’t though escape his destiny. The artist emerged as a man able to communicate with his own heart, who pondered over ancient myths, traditions and great doctrines of his religion and philosophy. By communicating with his own heart, the artist discovered and activated his potential destiny; he was divinely inspired, he was transformed into a Yolteotl, a deified heart; he became a visionary, eager to transmit to objects his divine inspiration.

Nahuatl philosophy, as the Hindu Upanishads, was attributed not to isolated thinkers, but to schools directed by wise men, by the Tlamatinime. The development of Nahuatl philosophy from Toltec times must be credited to whole generations of wise men. The Tlamatinime were teachers, psychologists, moralists, cosmologists, metaphysicians and humanists. They were responsible for writing and for guarding the songs and poems in which they preserved their scientific knowledge. They guarded for the maintenance of those customs, myths and behaviours among society and in each individual raised within the community, becoming the shapers and guides for the community and in accordance to the divine world. They were the teachers at the Calmecac, schools for the community. They functioned as teachers and psychologists. They gave face to others. They also took on the role of moralists, making others to be prudent and careful. They were capable of perceiving problems in a-little-while-here nature of all that exists in the ephemeral quality of this life, in man’s very being, about whose essence so little is known. They recognised problems related to the mysteries of the hereafter, where there may or may not be a new life. All of this they achieved with songs and flowers.

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A Tlamatinime

Nahualts loved flower and song, symbol of the only truth. They investigated it with insatiable curiosity; they applied their light to the world, to the conditions of Tlalticpac. They refused to accept the idea of total destruction, either by the prophesied end of the fifth sun or by the inevitable death, more immediate and personal, of the individual. The religious answer to this cataclysmic future was sacrificial blood. The philosophical answer was of three schools of thought: a no afterlife belief, man’s destiny to end at Mictlan or Ximoayan, where perhaps there is only suffering (even though this school showed skeptical thoughts about this), or the path through flower and song, in which the world is seen as a dream, and happiness is sought elsewhere. This third school of thought had confidence on the giver of life, who wouldn’t have sent man to earth to live in vain. This school of thought believed that face and heart could lift man up from the evanescence of a dreamlike world. In so doing it, man achieved the desired happiness beyond, in the place where one truly lives.

The Tlamatinime and Calmecac, the school for intellectual development, in their effort to develop faces and hearts, conceived as systems a social order, an ethical code, and a theory of history, art and education. These institutions constituted the basic foundation of all forms of human life. In Nahuatl, as in other cultures, education aimed at the concern by the elders for integrating the individual, from the very beginning, into the life of the group of which he could always be a significant part. Therefore, not just parents, but wise men, taught self-control, strength, self-awareness and self-discipline. In the Calmecac, wise men taught rigidity of life intended to strengthen the dynamic aspect of the personality, the heart. The human will was given shape and directed towards self-control and discipline. The aim of education was to endow the face with wisdom and the heart with strength. Tlamatinime carried their missions as moralists, developing a heart solid as a rock, master of itself.

There are recorded conversations between the Tlamatinime and the Spanish friars, in which the former were neither passive nor submissive. The Tlamatinime’s conversations confirm an organised knowledge of the divine. In their discourse, the Tlamatinime first humbled themselves before the friars, praising the Spanish for their voyage. However, they contradicted the friars, challenging them without fear. The Spanish friars mentioned that Aztec gods were dead. The Nahualts wise men showed no fear of death. If their cosmological world was to be destroyed by the new arrivals, they were prepared to die too. This shows a confidence in their cosmological, divine and philosophical world. In those conversations, the Nahualts mentioned knowledge as being inherited by their ancestors. There was a relationship between their beliefs and the ancient knowledge handed down through generations. They believed on an origin of all things into a period of darkness, where and when no well-defined forms existed, a vague pre-cosmic interval beyond all determined time and space. This was the time when the activity of the divine forces began. Another of Tlamatinime’s arguments was that Aztec’s divinities maintained life through ages. The gods, the cosmic forces, determined also the production of things, they made rain possible. Sahagun, a Spanish missionary priest, speaks of Nahualts’ wise men as being possessors of the codices and of the Amoxtli, the ancient Nahuatl books of paper made from the bark of the Amate (wild fig tree), folded like a screen or an accordion. The wise men were “black and red ink” colours, symbolising in Nahuatl mythology the presentation of knowledge about things difficult to understand and about the hereafter. The colours represented writing and wisdom passed on from person to person by tradition. The Tlamatinime were astronomers, who not only measured and observed the stars, but also plotted their courses by exact mathematical calculations involved in the calendar. There were two calendars, the Tonalpohualli and the Xiuhpohualli. The former was the almanac of divination calendar, used in casting horoscopes and in interpreting the influences affecting man’s lives from birth to death. The latter was the solar or year-count calendar.

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Picture of Ometeotl

The Nahualts believed life on earth to be a dream. It was a recurrent idea appearing in the poems and in the discoveries of the elders, Huehuetcatolli. Life on earth, Tlalticpac, was transitory, in the end everything vanish. Convinced that the physical world appeared to be dream, it could not reveal to them the fundamental principle of foundation which they sought. The Nahualts spoke of truth, Neltiliztli, as root, base, foundation. The root Nel means solid firmness or deeply rooted. Truth was understood as well-grounded stability. Life was understood as transitory, temporal, so people searched for certainty in an Earth world of emptiness. Facing the unequivocally transitory nature of earthly things, the Nahuatl became deeply involved in an attempt to discover a foundation, a true basic principle, for man and for the universe. We find a progressive rationalisation of the religious conception of the world implicit in Nahuatl myth. In the annals of Cuauhtitlan for example, truth is wrapped in the vestments of myth. It is considered to be the product of wisdom, symbolically attributed to Quetzalcoatl, who was the wise deity.

The annals mention of the dual god Ometeotl, who inhabited the place of duality (Omeyocan). According to the writer, this divinity is the celestial body giving life to all things that share its radiance. He is the lord and lady of our sustenance, both night and day. He is the generative nucleus and universal cosmic energy from which all life gained sustenance. He supported the earth’s foundation and furnished the power which produced changes in the sky and the clouds. Ometeotl is seen as at the very centre of the universe, from where he sustains the world, at the midpoint of the four cardinal directions, the four divinities constituting the primal forces that activated history on Earth. These four sons gave time and space, both factors an essential combination to regulate the occurrence of cosmic events. Ometeotl, as dual being, produced the world by means of the four cosmic forces (his sons).

The four sons symbolised the cardinal points, elements of earth, wind, fire and water, symbolised night, fecundity, life, the region of the dead. Their actions were violent and from that struggle for supremacy was the history of the universe shaped. Tells the myth of creation of the Nahualts that at the beginning of the creation of the universe there was an equilibrium of forces, but the position of the four gods were not as the one taken by the dual god, who was root and support of the universe. The four gods were in a precarious and unstable position, battling between them for the control over the sun and therefore over man and over the destiny of the world. From this struggle, wind, earth, fire and water came suddenly upon the scene from the four directions and clashed violently. With a dialectic rhythm which attempted in vain to harmonise the dynamism of opposing forces, the various suns appeared and vanished. The Mexicans aimed at stopping or delaying this process, by which a cataclysm would follow with the end of the fifth sun. It is there a powerful motivation for the Aztecs in their collaboration with the sun, which soon transformed into a truly mystical inspiration, so they came more and more to unify their personal and social activities with the idea of collaboration with the sun. They spent their time providing Chalchihuatl, the sacrificed blood, as a nourishment for the sun.

The problems of truth and roots formulated by the Nahuatl sages were the fruit of rational meditation and embodied doubt concerning the meaning of life and the infinite. This element of doubt differentiate Tlamatinime from religious priests, in that they could poised questions in conflict with religious thoughts. The Nahuatl world had philosophers, painters, sculpture makers, myth writers and curators, they had priests and guardians of the sacred objects. Sahagun mentions that the Nahualts were perfect philosophers and astrologers. The Tlamatinime had various roles, but one that was most important to the community was to be guides and masters of the populace by teaching them the arts inherited by the ancestors. They were instructors of the mythological poems expressing the divine messages to the peoples of the earth. An example of these poems is one from Nezahualcoyotl, which expresses a depth of thought. On it, Nezahualcoyotl asks what the mind and heart can discover of real value on earth.

The Nahualts believed in Topan, that which is above, the region of the gods and the region of the dead, which was unknown and was called Mictlan. The Tlamatinime knew about this. These masters formulated what we today call a metaphysical order or noumenal world. This metaphysical world was permanent, transcendental and it contrasted with Tlalticpac, the visible, immanent, manifold, phenomenal, that which is upon the Earth. The Nahualts believed about the myths of the four historical ages, which flourished and ended. They lived on the fifth age, the age of the sun movement, Ollintonatiuh, an age that could end with famine and an earthquake, putting an end to that last age. The fifth age was created at Tehotihuacan out of the competition of two divinities. This age brought up to the Nahualts the concept or idea of movement as an important force in the image and destiny of the world. The myth tells that Nanahuatzin, “The pimply one,” daringly threw himself into the fire in order to become the sun, creating a new age. This story hints at the hidden roots of Nahuatl philosophy, as the sun flourishes out of sacrifice, and Aztecs mysticism follows this origin by understanding that only through human sacrifice can life and existence be prolonged. Right after the sacrificing and flourishing of the sun occurred, the myth speaks of the wind moving the sun into movement. Dr Leon-Portilla lists the characteristics of this myth, being the first one an urgent and logical need to conceive of the world as having a solid foundation. Only that which was firmly based and permanent could be considered true. The writer believed Ometeotl to be the organiser and foundation of the cosmic forces, creator of the ages through their struggle and conflict. Another important characteristic is a cyclical evolution of the foundations of the world. The world is not static; it is ever moving, subjected to the influence of the cosmic forces. An equilibrium between forces brings an age into existence and a disequilibrium withdraws Ometeotl support and therefore turns into chaos. Disequilibrium is the latent principle of evolution, proof of Ometeotl perpetual action. These cosmic periods and the elements related to each period are not static, they are identified with the cosmic forces which erupt violently from the four corners of the universe. A third characteristic, the author mentions, is that the cosmovision of the Nahualts has a universe divided into four well-defined directions, which although coincide with the cardinal points, encompass that each includes a whole quadrant of universal space. Besides, in this quadripartite universe, a seemingly endless struggle unfolds among the four cosmic forces. Each of the cosmic forces is eager for supremacy. Hence, while there is a perpetual struggle between them, by an opposition of elements, the history of the cosmos is created. The universe, as well as the dynamic quality of time, creates and destroys through struggle. This is the central category of Nahuatl cosmological thought. Each period or age existed when one element prevailed over the others, in a competition over supremacy, but the harmony had been destroyed over the ages. From gods sacrificing themselves at Tehotihuacan, a fifth age, the sun of movement, begun. The sun moved, always followed its path, as a consequence of the gods (the cosmic forces). Motion appeared as a consequence of the spatialisation of time and of the years and days toward the four directions. The four gods appear to have a space within the fifth period. Space and time combining and interpenetrating, made possible the harmony among the gods and consequently made possible the sun movement and the existence of life.

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Image of Quetzalcoatl

Curiously, there is a common Nahuatl root for the words movement, heart and soul. Life is inconceivable without the element of movement. Movement and life resulted from the harmony achieved by the spatialisation of time. So long as the four directions had assigned thirteenth years of time, harmony existed and the fifth sun would continue moving. As it is already mentioned, the Aztecs continued nourishing this sun daily with Chalchihuatl, the precious sacrificial liquid, blood. So what is the cosmology, the mysticism of all those myths of origin? The law of the universe is the alternation of distinct qualities radically separated, which dominate, vanish and reappear eternally. Besides, the Nahuatl phenomena and human activity penetrates each place and each moment, so that they become impregnated with their own peculiar qualities. Each “place-moment” complex of location and time determines in an irresistible and foreseeable way, everything existing within it. The Nahualts become the “people of the sun” as they struggle to war, for mystic imperialism, and to find the precious liquid to feed the sun and therefore to maintain the fifth age and their existence. The political figure Tlacaelel became the creator of the mystic-militaristic conception of the “people of the sun,” elevating Huitzicopochtli, god of war, to a pantheistic position of power and the subsequent need to subdue all nations to this god providing sacrificial blood for the nourishment of Tonatiuh, the heavenly body “which makes the day.” Dr Leon-Portilla states that it was Tlacaelel, who brought up the idea that the sun had to receive sacrificial blood, for its sustenance and constant movement, turning war in essential for live.

Nevertheless, the Nahualts sought with equal anxiety an explanation of life and of man’s work, for both were threatened with extermination by the prophesied end of the fifth sun, the present age. They created a strictly metaphysical concept in regard to the divine and to a possible life after death, We find speculations and doubts in Nahuatl philosophical thought regarding salvation. The problem of the divine and of the survival and destiny of man are imbedded in Aztec thought as inherited from their ancestors. The Nahualts doubted and questioned the nature of existence, the divine and life after death. They gave a dubious value to that earthly knowledge which aspired to reach out from the world of illusion in search of a rational explanation for what transcends our understanding, what might be beyond. Poems are found which speak on the evanescence of earthly things as a basic theme. The theme of a transitory nature of life on earth is present in their cosmovision. The Tlamatinime arrives to the conclusion that nothing in life endures, that nothing is true, nothing has a foundation in life, and therefore they became obsessed with finding authentic meaning for human activity and thought. They said: “if life is a dream, our words are incapable of coming near to what transcends us, the beyond.”

Death comes as an awakening from a dreamlike existence, after which one enters the world of the beyond, the region of the dead. The first attempt to escape dream and illusion inquired into the truth of the “giver of life” (Ometeotl) through the medium of religious offerings. Unlike the blood thirsty mystical approach of the Aztecs, the Tlamatinime searched for a form of knowledge which embodied the truth. In their quest, they explored the possibilities of a new way of saying “true words” about what is above us, what is beyond. This new form of knowledge found expression in their poetry. The only truth on earth was poetry, “song and flowers.” They believe this form of expression to come from authentic inner experience, to be the result of intuition. Poetry was seen as a creative and profound expression which, through symbol and metaphor, allowed man to discover himself and then to talk about what he had intuitively and mysteriously perceived. Nahualts believed that poetry enraptures man, and by intensifying his emotions and his perceptive powers, it enabled man to perceive what they ordinarily would not. Poetry seen as born from inspiration emanating from beyond, and it is this inspiration that enabled man to speak the only truth on earth.

Poetry was seen as something perennial and indestructible. Although flowers are considered a symbol of beauty, but that they perish, when they were related to song, represented poetry and were everlasting. The Tlamatinime accomplished somehow with poetry to create an authentic theory of metaphysical knowledge. They saw poetry as a vehicle of metaphysical expression relying on metaphors, as an attempt to vitiate the transitoriness of earthly things, the dream of Tlalticpac. Wise men did not believe to form rational images of what is beyond, but they were convinced that through metaphors, by means of poetry, truth was attainable. Metaphor and metaphysics had basically and fundamentally one and the same function, to put things beyond, to reach the divine. The Nahualts believed that through poetry wise men was able to reach the path to the opposites, the god of duality. With the help of poetry the Tlamatinime were confident that could reach Omeyocan, the place of duality, where the dual god dwelled. They believed that generation and conception were moments inseparably unified in the dual divinity. Both concepts made possible his very existence and that of all things. From a dynamic point of view, all existing things received truth, foundation, from this timeless ambivalence on Ometeotl. Duality and truth were inherent in him; all else was like a dream, hence why the importance of reaching it with poetry.

Another of Tlamatinime’s duties in life was to place a mirror before people, so they could become more prudent and wise, to endow with wisdom the countenances of others, so that a face was assumed and developed… to humanise the will of people. The Nahualts believed that man was born without an identity, he was born anonymous. In his eager quest for a face, for self-identification, man plunged into a questionable existence on Tlalticpac. In surrendering his heart to all things, leading it nowhere (Ahuilpa), he was in fact losing it, because on earth it is difficult to aspire to anything of significance. The wise men tried guiding their fellow Nahuatl companions to avoid this pointless life. These masters sought a meaning for man and his activities. Man was seen as capable of becoming real being, possessing an origin, a definite nature, and faculties, and capable of becoming aware of the mystery of a life beyond death. Man was seen as a creator of a way of life, author of educational, ethical, legal and aesthetic principles. A supreme aim and a personal life through ideals was the mainspring of Nahuatl thought and actions, man aiming at lighting the divine spark in his heart, transforming himself into an artist, a poet, a sage, etc. With this gift, man would have been capable of making things divine.

The nature of man and his life on earth was a significant problem to the Nahualts, as it was also the question of his origin. To understand man’s life on earth involved careful deliberation. Human being’s destiny, and a possible afterlife were other problems requiring an answer. The Tlamatinime referred to man’s faces and hearts, as if speaking of their egos or intrinsic selves. The wise man taught men to assume and to develop a face (Ixtli), referred as the ego. The allusion was metaphysical. It referred with face to an ego self assumed and developed through education. The heart (Yollotl) signified man’s movement, dynamism, the active searcher of the self. The same idea related to the deepest longing imbedded in the heart of the Tlamatinime to discover poetry and wisdom, is beautifully expressed in poems. There was an association of heart with the dynamism quality of the ego, which endeavour to fill its own emptiness by searching for wisdom and art. Face and heart were seen as nothing else that the personality of the individual. It was not though a definition based on cold rationalisation, but was fresh and full of vitality. The face reflected the internal physiognomy of man, and the beating of the heart symbolised the source of dynamism in human will.

Besides, it was necessary to teach each generation a rule for living. The discovery of what was appropriate and right helped man to find themselves and thus to escape the worst of the misfortunes, which at the time was to lose their own heart. Behind all of this was the Nahuatl idea of man as open and broad, which allowed for education to give shape and meaning to the human face and to humanise its heart and will. Only with an authentic face and heart could man arrive to his individual truth, and thus be able to follow the path leading him to the only truth on earth. There was certain destiny brought up by the day, year, hour you were born… but besides the soothsayer being able to balance an unfortunate birth by for example giving a name, destiny was also modified by one’s own personal control. Although the Nahualts certainly believed in the strong influence of the various signs and dates of the Tonalpohualli, it is also true that they considered self-control an important force in overcoming destiny.

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Drawing representing a Calmecac

The Tlamatinime were masters concerned with the problem of man’s free will. Nahualts believed man’s fate to belong to the divine. Men were born never to rest, but to live, to work, to suffer, to fight and to seek a face and a heart. Man yearned for what was true on earth, for only by finding truth will man put an end to his restlessness and find within himself the foundation he seeks. In Nahuatl thought, an ethical live guaranteed the approval of the gods and the immediate social consequence of this approval, the attainable happiness on earth. One’s destiny after death was a matter of the gods.

The legendary Quetzalcoatl was the symbol of Nahuatl knowledge. In a more rational version of the myth of origin, it attributes to Quetzalcoatl the latest creation of man. There is a relation between the birth of man and the deity’s visit to Mictlan, the region of the dead. He decided to search for the bones of men so that he might be recreated to inhabit the earth. The story goes that Quetzalcoatl, as symbol of wisdom, begins a dialogue with the lord and lady of the region of the dead, masks of the supreme being Ometeotl. The Gods were eager for man to be born, hence why Quetzalcoatl’s visit to Mictlan. This story implies the mystic-militaristic conception of the Aztecs which affirmed the sun’s need for human blood to continue its life. Quetzalcoatl and his feminine version, Cihuacoatl, were seen as the creators of man, who were nonetheless Ometecuchtlu-Omecihuatl, inheritors of men (Teyocoyani). The political organisation of the Aztecs goes around these concepts, where the King is Quetzalcoatl and the lieutenant is Cihuacoatl. Both gods are, together with the source of supreme power and with creative wisdom personified in Ometeotl, the cause for man’s birth.

The title of Quetzalcoatl would have been given only to those with “his good heart, humane and stout,” If it was clear that the candidate had a god in his heart and that he was wise in the things of god, the office of high priest could be conferred upon him. He would have received the title of Quetzalcoatl, personification of wisdom, symbol of the origin of everything precious since the days of the Toltecs.

Wise men lived in the shadow of the Aztec empire, on the great symbol of Quetzalcoatl, the symbol of wisdom, who attempted to discover the meaning of life on an intellectual plane. In this sense, humanism and barbarism coexisted in Nahuatl culture. The Tlamatinime went around the question of whether things and men had a real truth or foundation, or were they merely dreamlike, as were those things coming into one’s semiconscious mind at the moment of awakening. The question of own truth was the most pressing, since this reality embraced origin, personality and final destiny. The Tlamatinime searched on the beyond for an answer to truth, but then they looked at poetic inspiration, at metaphor, conceived within the very depths of one’s being or perhaps emanating form the interior of heaven. Flower and song placed god in man’s heart, making it true and causing it to create what today we call art, giving a divine quality to things. The painters, the singers, the sculptures, and all those worthy of the title Toltec (artist), were deified hearts, visionaries who, having truth themselves, were empowered to create divine things. Memorising the divine hymns, contemplating the heavens and the orderly motions of the stars, admiring painting and sculpture, the students of the Calmecac were taught to awaken in their hearts a thirst for the light and the creative power of Ometeotl.

Based on the book “Aztec Thought and Culture, the birth of philosophy among the Nahualts” by Miguel Leon-Portilla

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