8 julio, 2024

Nahuatl literature: history, characteristics and representatives

What is Nahuatl literature?

The nahuatl literature It includes all the literary production in the Nahuatl language, the language of the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico and its surroundings during the time of the conquest. It is also called the Old Mexican language. The poetic production of Nahuatl literature was abundant and highly popular eloquence.

All the chroniclers agree that codes for a moral life and correct social conduct were transmitted in this way. Collective singing, almost always accompanied by dancing, was the means of spreading poetic production. The highest classes of society (rulers, warriors, priests) created and propagated the works.

This abundant production disappeared for the most part upon the arrival of the Spanish; the interest in the domination of the conquerors was stronger than that of preservation. However, the contents remained in the memory of the indigenous survivors.

In secret, the oral tradition of transmission of ancestral memory among the Mesoamerican settlers was continued. Later, some missionaries began to collect all these songs. Sometimes the Indians themselves wrote them and other times they dictated them, preserving part of this cultural legacy.

Origin and history of Nahuatl literature

Pre-Hispanic Nahuatl Literature

Pre-Hispanic Nahuatl literature, like other ancient literatures, was transmitted orally through the generations.

In ancient Mexico the spoken word or oral tradition was reinforced by the use of painted books, in which native history and religion were preserved and transmitted through successive generations.

The Nahuatl-speaking Mixtec and Aztec peoples also had a highly efficient system of written communication through a combination of pictorial and phonetic elements.

On the other hand, some experts point out that before the arrival of the Spanish, the Nahua culture had already developed shows that can be considered theatrical.

Nahuatl literature after the conquest

When the Spanish conquered Mexico and founded the colony of New Spain, its indigenous population tried to maintain its centuries-old literary tradition.

In Central Mexico, the Nahuatl used symbols, such as pictograms and ideograms, and exceptionally phonetic glyphs. The written texts served as an aid to maintain the oral tradition.

Since literacy used to be a prominent feature of indigenous elites for centuries, it is not surprising that they very early adopted the Roman alphabet and used it for their own purposes.

Especially for the Nahuatl of Central Mexico, this «new» system allowed them to write about things in a detailed and aesthetically demanding way. They could also read everything they had to memorize in the past.

Already in the middle of the 16th century, Nahuatl authors or scribes began to use the Roman alphabet.

Over time, they created a distinct type of literature that differed considerably from the pre-Hispanic pictorial-oral type, as well as from the European, although it was rooted in both.

Characteristics of Nahuatl literature

Nahuatl literature has a series of characteristics that make it unique compared to any ancient or contemporary literature:

limited literary genres

From its pre-Hispanic tradition, two main types of literary genres can be distinguished: the cuícatl and the tlahtolli. The first term translates song, poem or hymn. On the other hand, the word tlahtolli means word, story or discourse.

Oral tradition

Like all pre-Hispanic cultures, in its beginnings Nahuatl literature was transmitted orally. Thus, both the meter and the rhythm used in the compositions were built to facilitate memorization.

writing support

At some point in its cultural development, the Nahuatl civilization introduced the use of codices or books. These were made of a special paper that they themselves made from tree bark, leather, or cotton strips.

Although this pictographic writing was difficult to interpret, the priests and wise men used it as support in the systematic oral transmission of Nahuatl literature.

Themes of the works

One of the outstanding characteristics in the themes was religiosity. This was the supreme reason both individual and State for their lives. They felt like the people chosen by their gods to worship them.

Thus, they subordinated this religiosity to the rest of the themes. In their epic poems they praised the victories of their gods, and in their tlahtolli They imparted knowledge and moral norms to live according to divine laws.

Likewise, they believed that honorable death in battle was well regarded by their divinities. They also believed in the existence of a future life after death. These two ideas were recurring themes in his artistic production.

Not limited to pre-Hispanic times

Ancient Nahuatl literature was written by members of the different cultures that populated what is now Mexico. However, after the conquest, Nahuatl continued to be used by indigenous peoples, by monks and other Castilian settlers. From these arose codices and literary compositions that are preserved today and that will be discussed later.

Genres of Nahuatl poetry

Traditional Nahuatl poetry can be divided into several genres depending on the subject they deal with:

The Xopancuícatl: happy poems and songs about life.
The Xochicuícatl: nobility and human friendship are described.
The Yaocuícatl: songs close to the epic about warriors.
The Cuecuechcuícatl: erotic songs.
The Teotlatolli: explanation of the origin of the universe and the world.
The Icnocuícatl: sad reflections on death.
The Teocuícatl: hymns dedicated to the gods.

Representatives and outstanding works

Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472)

This great tlamatinime (wise) of Texcoco was recognized by his people for the number of architectural works built during his tenure, and for the body of laws and State institutions that he left as a legacy. Among the poems attributed to Nezahualcóyotl we can mention:

in chololiztli (The flight).
ma zan moquetzacan (Get up!).
nitlacoya (I’m sad).
xopan cuicatl (Song of Spring).
Ye nonocuiltonohua (I’m rich).
zanyehuan (He alone).
Xon Ahuiyacan (Be cheerful).

Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui (late 14th century – mid 15th century)

Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui was a cuicani (poet/singer) who governed Teotlalcingo. The themes of his poems were related to thoughts he had about life.

Among the poems attributed to Tochihuitzin are: Zan Foolish (We came only to dream) and Cuicatl Anyolque (You have lived the song).

Ayocuan Cuetzpalin (end of the 15th century – beginning of the 16th century)

In expert reviews, Ayocuan is referred to as a teohua (priest). In his compositions he sang to the brevity of human life.

Scholars of his work attribute the poems to him Ma Huel Manin Tlalli (May the earth remain forever), Ayn Ilhuicac Itic (From within the heavens), Huexotzinco Icuic (Besieged, hated, Huexotzinco would be).

Tecayehuatzin (Approx. second half of the 15th century – beginning of the 16th century)

Tecayehuatzin was the ruler of Huexotzinco, and is remembered for his poetic phrase «Flower and song is what makes our friendship possible.»

The poems are attributed to him Tla Oc Toncuicacan (Now let us sing), tlatolpehualiztli (The beginning of the dialogue) and Itlatol Temiktli (The dream of a word).

Florentine Codex (Bernardino de Sahagún)

These are 3 volumes in which the Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún described Mexica customs, traditions and way of life.

Nican mopohua (Antonio Valeriano, 1556)

It is a story written in Nahuatl that narrates the apparitions of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the Tepeyac hill.

Themes of interest

Poems in Nahuatl.

Words in Nahuatl.

Mexican skulls.


Garibay K., AM (s/f). Nahua Literature. Taken from mexica.net.
Heyworth, R. (2014, September 17). Chicomoztoc: the birthplace of Mexico. Taken from uncoveredhistory.com.
University of the Count. (s/f). Nahuatl and Mayan literature. Taken from universidaddelconde.edu.mx.
Arthistory (2017). Literary genres in Nahuatl. Taken from artehistoria.com.
Guzman, OL (2013, May 23). Tlahtocuicayotl: My Lengthy Monologues. Bloomington: Xlibris Corporation.
Keen, B. (1990). The Aztec image in western thought. New Brunswick:: Rutgers University Press.
Hart, SM (1999). A Companion to Spanish-American Literature. London: Thames.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *