Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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Titillatio: A Brief Mythology, Ancient History and Philosophy of Tickling

Tickle

Aristotle defined man as a rational and political animal. But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes, “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces an independent movement in the intelligence which is recognizable.” He continues to argue that touch is the most primary sense and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch because of the delicate nature of their skin. He says that, although other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, a man’s sense of touch is the most fine-tuned. This leads to some of us to think that tickling is a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Thanks to our sophisticated and discriminating access to the world around us, we are particularly vulnerable to tickling.

However, this “privilege” did not last long as many scientific researches have refuted Aristotle’s claim about how tickling could only effect human beings. It has been found that monkeys are ticklish too, and a recorded laughter-like ultrasonic chirping in tickled rats also exists. But, the most famous ticklish animal is the trout as it would fall into a trance-like state when its underbelly is lightly rubbed. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Maria says, while planning to trick Malvolio, “Lie thou there; for here comes the trout that must be caught with tickling.”

Neuroscientist Robert Provine posed a rather elaborate speculation which links tickling with both humorous laughter and the prehistoric birth of comedy. He writes, “I forge recklessly into the paleohumorology fray, proposing my candidate for the most ancient joke—the feigned tickle (Real tickling is disqualified because of its reflexive nature). The ‘I’m going to get you’ game of the threatened tickle is practiced by human beings worldwide and is the only joke that can be told equally well to a baby human and a chimpanzee. Both babies and chimps ‘get’ this joke and laugh exuberantly.” His argument is that proper ticklish laughter is not actually funny because it is too much of an automatic or neurological reaction. To make tickling funny, it needs to be distanced from reflex. It is the suspended gesture that gets a laugh – the real gesture might get one slapped. Therefore, a child will wriggle and squirmed when tickled, but they will actually laugh only if they perceive the tickling as a mock attack, a caress in a mildly aggressive and irritating disguise.

The ambivalence of tickling, a delight that can quickly become excruciating, would seem particularly well suited to describe the concept of pleasure-in-pain that so fascinated thinkers from Plato, Nietzsche, Freud etc. They agree that tickling serves as an alternate way of thinking about pleasure,  as titillation and excitation. Nietzsche put it, “What is the best life? To be tickled to death.” – I hope someone would do a research on whether this man was ever tickled in his life. However, he is not wrong about this. Foot tickling for sexual arousal was used in the Muscovite palaces and courts for centuries. Many of the Czarinas (Catherine the Great, Anna Ivanovna, Elizabeth and others) were participants of this activity. The practice was so popular that eunuchs and women were employed as full time foot ticklers. They developed this skill so well that their occupations brought prestige and good pay. Anna Leopoldovna had at least six ticklers at her feet. While the ticklers performed their task, they also told bawdy stories and sang obscene ballads. This was done to work the ladies up to an erotic pitch so that they could meet their husbands or lovers in a sex impassioned mood.

But can one actually die from tickling? Yes. When children enthusiastically tickle one another, it serves the double purpose of inspiring peer bonding and honing reflexes and self-defense skills. In 1984, psychiatrist Donald Black noted that many ticklish parts of the body, such as the neck and the ribs, are also the most vulnerable in combat. He inferred that children learn to protect those parts during tickle fights, a relatively safe activity. However, the tickling itself can be torture enough. Tickle torture can be an extended act of tickling where the recipient of the tickling would view it as a long time or tickling of an intense nature. This can be due to the length of time they are tickled, the intensity of the tickling or the areas that are being tickled. This can simply be a 30-second tickle applied to the victim’s bare feet, which can seem like a much longer time if the feet are very ticklish.

Mythology is littered with spirits who uses tickling as a torture device. In Inuit mythology, Mahaha is a maniacal demon that terrorized parts of the arctic. This creature is described as a thin sinewy being, ice blue in colour and cold to the touch. His eyes are white and they peer through the long stringy hair that hangs in his face. This demon is always smiling and giggling – taking pleasure in tickling its victims to death with sharp vicious nails attached to its long bony fingers. All of its victim have a similar expression on their dead faces – a twisted frozen smile.

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Leshy – Imagine being tickled by him!

A Leshy is a spirit of the Slavic forests. They serve as the protectors of the various forests and its animals, having a close bond with gray wolves and often being accompanied by bears. They naturally are the form of a large human-looking being, but can shape-shift into any plant or animal. They have long hair and beards made of living grass and vines. In the center of a forest, they are a tree-like giant, who camouflage nicely with their long limbs, grassy eyebrows, and no detectable shadows.  A leshy has the ability to imitate voices of people familiar to wanderers.They will cry out and get their victims to wander deeper into forests or caves. Being tickled to death by a Leshy has been known to happen. This is most likely because they don’t know when “fun” is enough and wind up accidentally killing their victims.

Of course, if something exists in mythology, it would also exist, up to a point, in history. Chinese tickle torture is an ancient form of torture practiced by the Chinese, in particular the courts of the Han Dynasty. Chinese tickle torture was a punishment for nobility since it left no marks and a victim could recover relatively easily and quickly. In ancient Japan, those in positions of authority could administer punishments to those convicted of crimes that were beyond the criminal code. This was called shikei, which translates as ‘private punishment.’ One such torture was kusuguri-zeme: “merciless tickling.” Dutch physiologist Joost Meerloo recounts an especially cruel tickle torture employed by the ancient Romans. On the scaffold, the soles of a victim’s feet were covered with a salt solution so that a goat, attracted by the salt, would lick it off with his rough tongue and continually tickle the skin. By so doing, the salty skin was gradually rasped away. Then, the wounded skin would again be covered with the biting salt solution—ad infinitum, till the victim died from the torture.

In Laurent Joubert’s Renaissance treatise on laughter, he reports hearing “of a young man whom two girls were tickling importunately to the point that he no longer uttered a word. They thought he had fainted until, thunderstruck, they realized he was dead, asphyxiated.” A news item in Illustrated Police News, 11 December 1869, recounts the story of a young wife whose husband, his name was Michael Puckridge, claimed that he had a cure for her varicose veins. After he persuaded her to allow herself to be tied to a plank, she found that her husband had instead devised a plan to tickle her into insanity. The plan worked as she was institutionalized as a result of her husband’s diabolical featherwork.

Me and History (Part 2) – Phil Turner: History is All Around Me

I am very happy to be able to get writers and bloggers, David Leonhardt and Phil Turner‘s, contribution for “Me and History” – They both talk about the light and dark sides of history, both of  referencing things that we see and experience every day which I have never fully appreciated before.

After last week’s discussion on how even weather has its own history, Phil Turner tells me about his own experience with history as a Briton living in Ireland, as well as the historical figures he admires.

Q. If I say the word “History”, what would come immediately to your mind?

A. Phil Turner (The 5 Currencies Guy)

I live in Ireland, where History is all around me in the form of broken down cottages whose owners were forced to emigrate and leave their homes behind. These cottages are now owner-less; nobody can improve them or knock them down.

It is the 100th anniversary of the failed 1916 Easter Rising this year, and you would think it had succeeded with all the hullabaloo about it.

The Irish tricolour brings back the history of the foundation of the Irish Republic – No blue or red of the British flag, orange and green to represent Protestants and Catholics united under one flag.

The political parties here in Ireland date back to the civil war of the 1920s when one party wanted to compromise with the British and the other wanted to hold out for a total victory. Sinn Fein is a recent addition to the political scene and has its power roots in Northern Ireland. The political agenda in Ireland has changed in the last 20 years and few people now want unification with Northern Ireland.

The drive for unification comes from some of the Northern Ireland political parties, but I suspect they are out of touch with their voters because I doubt if any sane voter in Northern Ireland would give up free health care and education for the mess that the Republic’s health and education systems are today.

Q. What is your favorite era to learn/read/find out more about in history? Can you tell my why that is?

A. Phil Turner (The 5 Currencies Guy)

My favourite era of history is the early 20th Century. There was a lot happening worldwide and in Britain and Ireland at that time.

As a Briton living in England, I was not taught anything of the British atrocities in Ireland. This part of history has been removed from the school curriculum until students specialise after age 16. Perhaps it is guilt that has made politicians of all parties adopt this policy of maintaining ignorance in the British population of the monstrosities that were carried out on their behalf. The ignorance even extends to the name of the Irish Republic, with many Britons calling it Southern Ireland, which existed in the late 1920s, but not since.

This period also includes the horrors of World War 1, where entire generations of men and boys from various towns were wiped out by the stupidity and bloody-mindedness of generals and politicians.  Thankfully even Hollywood has been unable to glorify the slaughter of 1914- 1918.

Irish men were encouraged to sign up for the British army and most never returned. A cynic would say they were encouraged in order to remove men of fighting-age from the Irish population, so the rest of the people would be more easily kept under the British thumb.

Q. Who is your favorite person from history? Can you tell me why?

A. Phil Turner (The 5 Currencies Guy)

Martin Luther King Junior is my favourite person from history.

He was one of the bravest people who ever lived and he began the changes in inter-racial attitudes that are still so poor in America.

I find his speeches to be some of the most powerful in terms of the message he was putting across as well as the motions he stirred. His body language while speaking is still a marvelous example of how one man can get his message across to a crowd of thousands. Check out his hand gestures and the crowd-dominating thumbs up gesture is there and plain to see.

It is amazing that his speeches are still quoted today, so many years later and that even foreigners like myself would recognise him in the street.

MLK ranks with Gandhi in my mind as someone who preached peaceful resistance to unreasonable laws. I have little respect for most politicians and leaders, but Martin Luther King Junior was an amazing man, a man out of his time and one whose message has outlived him.

That Martin Luthor King Junior was assassinated by a white man with a rifle reminds us that America’s gun laws have always been crazy.

Martini

 

 

 

 

 

Me and History (Part 1) – David Leonhardt: Only Storytellers Should Teach History

Some time ago,  I conducted a group interview on how to make history interesting to learn . The interview was  very well received, and I personally learned a great deal. I therefore decided to expand my questions and give these creative, thoughtful experts a room to do what they do best: think, consider and write.

The first expert is David Leonhardt, an author and blogger, sharing with me his thoughts of history, especially how it impacts his work.

Q. If I say the word “history”, what would come immediately to your mind?

A. David Leonhardt (President, THGM Writers)

When I hear the word “history” I think of storytelling.  In fact, that’s what the word means.  Go back a couple centuries, and nobody was using the modern truncated “story” form of the word.

I am a storyteller.  When I blog, I am almost always recounting some story, rather than just listing the steps to follow to get some task done.  So I am a big fan of history.

I recently ghostwrote a non-fiction novel.  It’s not history in the sense that most people would think of it, but it was a series of events that happened, and that is history.  I blogged about the research tools I used to bring the story to life. One of those tools is Weather Underground’s weather hindcast tool. It is aptly named “Historical Weather”.

Weather has its own history, and it has played an immensely powerful role in human history.  It has been the decisive factor in many battles.  It has been the cause of the rise and fall of agriculture-based empires.  It has served as a portent to many decision-makers.

In the book I wrote, I used weather history to set the mood.

When the weather was dim and overcast, it set a sombre tone to the story.

When clouds kept the stars out of site, it helped confirm the hopelessness the protagonist felt.

When things were looking bleak, the sunny day was…not mentioned.  No, a good storyteller doesn’t tell the whole story.  I used historical weather only when it confirmed the emotions and the mood of the human history.  I left it out when it would have spoiled the mood. Weather as a metaphor for mood.

In that same novel, I included well-known historical events as points of reference for the readers. For example, including Hurricane Katrina and the attack on the Twin Towers gave readers a sense that this story is real, that it fits into history as they know it.  There are plenty of dates in the novel, but people remember the stories better than the dates.

What people seem to dislike most about history is remembering dates. Dates are only numerical markers of a timeline of events.  They are important for comparing multiple events, what happened first, what happened last.  But all those numbers spoil a good story.

Imagine Lord of the Rings full of dates.

Imagine The Firm full of dates.

Imagine 1984 full of dates.  OK, bad example.

History teachers are too often guilty of bogging down the story with dates.  Only storytellers should teach history.  The dates should be used only as a teaching aid, not as something to memorize.

NEXT WEEK: Me and History (Part 2) – Phil Turner: I Live in Ireland, where History is All Around Me

Martini

 

Now on Kindle: “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses”

Following the successful launch of the online course by the same name, “Introduction to Mahabharata: Lessons on Life and Businesses” is now available in eBook form.

We seldom look at mythology as something that has practical lessons to make our life easier. Yet, it is closer to real life than we imagine. The Five Pandava Brothers of the ancient Hindu Epic Mahabharata represents many facets of ancient and modern lives from imperfections to ideal business leaders.

Martini Fisher introduces a different way to look at the Ancient Epic Indian Literature that is Mahabharata and presents its practical lessons for the modern audience.