The world was no longer young when the creator Queztalcoatl stole bones from the Land of the Dead. He gave them to Snake Woman who ground them to powder in a jade bowl. Then Queztalcoatl and the other spirits mixed their own blood with the powder to give life to the people, saying: “We bleed for them and they will bleed for us.”
Queztalcoatl cracked open Food Mountain and gave the people true corn, peppers, beans, sage and all that they needed to live. The first people to have many children were the Toltecs; they worshipped Queztalcoatl and they built a great pyramid for him in their capital Tula, so he could dwell amongst them. In return, he gave them all manner of skills: the reading of omens, the making of calendars and pots, farming, weaving, and warfare. He taught them how to find jade and turquoise and other precious stones, alive and breathing inside ordinary rocks.
The Toltecs were rich, their cities great, and food was plentiful. Their vegetables grew as tall as trees, their ears of corn so fat that a man could carry only one at a time. They had chocolate, and cotton plants that grew in every colour of the rainbow. For centuries, inside his pyramid, Queztalcoatl accepted the blood sacrifices of his chosen people as his due. It was how things should be arranged between gods and men. But both men and gods can become complacent.
Queztalcoatl’s twin, the destroyer Tezcatlipoca looked down upon them from the sky and was jealous. “They have forgotten me,” he said. “There is no light without shadow. Perhaps it is time for me to remind them who I am.” He gathered spiders’ webs and twisted them into rope, tied one end to a cloud and climbed down it until he stood outside the gates of Tula. There he changed himself into a wild man and walked bare-naked into the city, with a bag of chili peppers slung over his shoulder. He squatted in the market place, laid out the peppers on the ground and offered them for sale to the small crowd that gathered around him.
It so happened that the king’s daughter, Jade Skirt was walking through the marketplace with her serving women. She was beautiful and much admired by all Toltec men but her father, King Huemac kept her close by his side and despite many rich offers, would give her to no-one. She saw the bare-naked wild man and was immediately overcome with desire for his tototl. She returned to the palace hot, flustered and sick with passion.
When her father saw that his daughter was sick, he asked her serving women what was wrong with her. “It was the wild man selling peppers in the market,” they said. “He has bewitched her and she is burning for him.”
“Indeed,” said Huemac. “We’ll see about that.” He told his servants to search the marketplace and when they returned empty-handed, he issued a general decree to all Toltecs to look for the wild man. At last he was found and brought before the king.
“Who are you, who has so upset my daughter?”
“I’m just a poor savage, selling a few chili peppers.”
“Put on a loincloth or something. Don’t you realise where you are?”
“I always go naked, your majesty. I’ve never known any different.”
“Naked or not, you’ve upset my daughter so you must cure her.”
“It wouldn’t be right, your majesty. I’m only a pepper man. Better to kill me instead.”
“There’s nothing more to be said,” pronounced the king. “You must cure her.” He clapped his hands and servants took the wild man aside, cut his hair, bathed and oiled his skin and tied a loincloth about his waist. When he was presentable, Huemac summoned his daughter. “She’s yours,” he said. So they were married; Tezcatlipoca became the king’s son-in-law and Jade Skirt was soon cured.
Soon though, Huemac heard that people were sniggering and mocking him for marrying his precious daughter to a wild man. His courtiers pressed him to do something before his subjects lost all respect for the throne. “What do you suggest that I do?” he asked.
“Declare war on our enemies at Grass Mountain and send the wild man into the thick of the fighting with the reserves, they’re just boys and old men. We’ll win the war but he’s sure to be killed.”
“And if he isn’t killed?”
“Then he’ll be a hero. You’ve nothing to lose.”
So the army marched to Grass Mountain but Huemac’s enemies were strong and his army retreated; all but the reserve. Using Tezcatlipoca’s voice of power, the wild man rallied the boys and old men under his command: “Come uncles, brothers, sons. Come.” They swung their war clubs, yelled and charged. Their foes, hearing the blood-curdling cries and seeing such determination, dropped their weapons and ran.
When word of the rout got back to Tula, Huemac ordered his own turquoise-covered shield and head-dress plumed with quetzal feathers to be brought from the armoury as gifts. He went in person to the edge of the city to meet his son-in-law; drums were beaten and conch-shells blown in triumph as Huemac himself painted the victors’ faces yellow to honour the occasion. “You are a most worthy husband to my daughter and a welcome guest under my roof,” he said. The wild man smiled innocently whilst Tezcatlipoca inside him, fought to contain his malice. “We should celebrate,” he said.
That very night, the king himself announced that there would be dancing.
Tezcatlipoca led the way out of the city followed by hundreds of carousing men and women. He beat a pounding rhythm on his drum as the crowd danced wildly, unable to keep their feet still. Further and further from the city he led them; closer and closer to the edge of a canyon. As they bumped and jostled, pranced and leapt, those nearest the edge were pushed over the precipice onto the rocks below. As they died they were turned into rocks themselves upon which more and more people fell and were killed. They seemed not to realise what was happening; it was as though the dancing had made them drunk. Tezcatlipoca screamed with delight: “Forget me, would you?”
Night after night, they returned to the same spot to dance as if nothing had happened. Tezcatlipoca had the whole of Tula under his spell. The flower of the city’s youth fell to their deaths.
When his bloodlust was assuaged, he turned his attention to his age-old rival. Disguising himself as a wizened, white-haired old man, he paid Queztalcoatl a visit in his pyramid. “What is it grandfather?” said Queztalcoatl. “What do you want from me?”
“I want nothing,” said the old man, holding out a bowl of agave wine. “In fact, I’ve brought you something.”
“What is it?”
“Medicine. How are you? Tell me, how are you feeling?”
“I’ve been here so long,” said Queztalcoatl, “that I can hardly move. I hurt all over.
“Then, drink this medicine. It will make you better. It will soothe your head and your body. Then it will go to work on your heart and make you think about going away somewhere else.”
“Where the sun rises; where all your aches and pains will go away; where you will feel as young as a child again. Drink the medicine.”
Queztalcoatl made no move to drink.
“Try a little. Just a little,” said the old man, putting the bowl down in front of him.
Queztalcoatl took a sip and then another. “It tastes good,” he said. “Makes me feel good, too.” He drank more deeply, draught after draught until he had emptied the bowl. The drunker he got, the more he wept for his years of suffering and the more he yearned to feel young again. As Tezcatlipoca had hoped, he decided to leave Tula and travel to where the sun rises.
Stretching out his arms, Queztalcoatl broke down the walls of his temple and stepped out. He looked around at the half-deserted city that had once been his favourite. There was no sacrifice on the round stone at the foot of the pyramid; of priests and acolytes, there was no sign. His compact with the Toltecs was over. He set fire to the houses and palaces and cast the city’s treasure into ravines and canyons; he set free the captive birds and followed them eastward.
Still in the guise of an old man, Tezcatlipoca watched him go, wondering for a moment what he would do now that King Huemac was dead and he had no more use for Jade Skirt. Tezcatlipoca smiled a terrible smile, then twisting and turning like a black whirlwind, he shed his mortal form, took on the aspect of an enormous jaguar, licked his lips, and sprang into the sky. With his interfering twin out of the way, mankind would soon worship once again at the altar of destruction.
Queztalcoatl went on his lonely way. He stood beneath the Old Age Tree; he traversed Stone Crossing; he cast his necklace into the water at Jewel Spring; at Sleeping Place, his snores were like thunder. He passed between White Woman Mountain and Popocatepetl, and made his way to the sea. When he reached the shore, he wove live snakes together to make a boat and set off across the water towards the house of the dawn. Whether or not he ever got there, nobody knows.
From that moment on, Queztalcoatl disappeared from human history, though not from the minds of men. Four hundred years after the destruction of Tula, Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, convinced that the invading Cortes, arriving at his shores in “floating pyramids” with his men from the east, was in fact the god returning, declined to defend his realm. Instead, he sent an envoy to Cortes with gifts of jewels and this message: “Montezuma humbly begs that you let him die and when he is dead you may come and enjoy your mat and your throne which he has been guarding for you.”
Cortes accepted the gifts but decided not to wait.
Freely adapted from The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs by John Bierhorst (Quill First Edition, William Morrow Publishers, New York, 1984). This is one of a growing collection of sideways looks at traditional stories that I am currently writing under the overall title of The Untold Tales © Geoff Mead 2014