Peter C.B. Sorensen

HistoryRutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

HistoryRutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Memory, Performance, and Syncretism in 16th Century Aztec Songs

"Axaycatl gets up from the eagle mat, the jaguar mat and blows on the incense burner so that it will smoke a bit more. It will never be extinguished as he waves his shield to push the air and pokes the coals with his spear so that it will smoke a bit more."1 These lyrics preserved the community's memory of an Aztec emperor's moment of reflection on his failure to defeat an army of enemy warriors in the 1470s. In the mid-16th century, this "Huehue Cuicatl," or "Old Man's Song," was bound in a collection with ninety other songs in a text which is now called the Cantares Mexicanos, now housed in the Biblioteca Nacional de México in Mexico City. It is considered a national treasure. The songs illuminate numerous topics, including memories of the pre-colonial period, events surrounding the Conquest of Mexico, and the transformation and adaptation of Catholicism into early colonial indigenous beliefs. The document was recorded entirely in Nahuatl, the indigenous lingua franca of Central Mexico which Franciscan friars had converted to Latin script. Due to the difficulty of the metaphorical language that makes up the document, it has been understudied, and often accused of being "tainted" by Spanish influence. I use a methodology that incorporates archival sources, the most advanced Nahuatl language analysis, which includes working with indigenous Nahua speakers, to historically analyze the contents of the song lyrics. I argue that indigenous singers purposefully adapted small elements of Catholic rhetoric to the songs while preserving long held beliefs and details of everyday life surrounding the conquest of Mexico.