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The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl

Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and NahuaPoetics

Jongsoo Lee

Publication Year: 2008

Lee provides a new assessment of Nezahualcoyotl that critically examines original codices and poetry written in Nahuatl alongside Spanish chronicles in an effort to paint a more realistic portrait of the legendary Aztec figure. Urging scholars away from sources that reinforce a Judeo-Christian perspective of pre-Hispanic history, Lee offers a revision of the colonial images of Nahua history and culture that have continued over the last five hundred years.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Several years ago I encountered beautiful, full-colored images on the wall in a hallway at Indiana University. At first, I thought they were Buddhist paintings of the type that I had been familiar with since I was a little boy, but later I discovered that they were actually excerpts from Aztec and Maya painted books. This incident sparked my curiosity and inspired me to pursue a research agenda ...

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pp. 1-16

Nezahualcoyotl, the poet-king of Texcoco (1402–1472), has been described as one of the most important pre-Hispanic figures in Nahua history. From the conquest to the present, he has been portrayed as a symbol of the Aztec civilization and culture in historical as well as literary texts: a great conqueror who built a powerful empire before the conquest; a prudent governor...

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PART ONE: The Sources

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pp. 17

The scholars who study Nezahualcoyotl and his city, Texcoco, draw their information mainly from the chronicles of Spanish friars such as Toribio de Benavente (Motolinia), Andr

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1: The Sources, Colonial Ideology, and Texcoca Regionalism

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pp. 19-45

Long before the European invasion, the natives of central Mexico, like other peoples of Mesoamerica, were already recording their history using pictorial script. The painter-scribes, tlacuiloque, painted or wrote the indigenous pictorial texts, tlacuilolli, either on native paper or on animal skin.1 In addition, they preserved their history by memory, which could be either parallel or complementary...

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PART TWO: Revising Pre-Hispanic History

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pp. 47

From the colonial period to the present, many Nahua scholars have described Texcoco as one of the most politically powerful and culturally advanced city-states of pre-Hispanic Mexico. In this pre-Hispanic history, they present the Chichimec emperor Xolotl as the founder of the Texcoca political dynasty and the Toltec god and ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl as the impetus...

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2: Founding the Texcoca Dynasty: Chichimec Xolotl and Toltec Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl

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pp. 49-72

From the fall of the Toltec empire in the 1170s to the establishment of the Aztec empire in the 1430s, central Mexico became an arena of struggle in which multiple immigrant groups, such as the Chichimecs, and the native residents, such as the Toltecs, competed for land and political power. They frequently conducted wars against each other and sometimes peacefully assimilated ...

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3: Revisiting Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico: Texcoca Reality before Nezahualcoyotl

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pp. 73-95

For the period before Tenochtitlan gained political dominance in the 1430s in the Basin of Mexico, historiographers of central Mexico have relied mainly on Texcoca sources such as the Códice Xolotl (1996), the Mapa Quinatzin (Aubin 1886a), the Mapa Tlotzin (Aubin 1886b), and Alva Ixtlilxochitl’s works (1997). These sources, particularly the Códice Xolotl and its alphabetic counterpart...

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4: Reexamining Nezahualcoyotl’s Texcoco: Politics, Government, and Legal System

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pp. 96-127

Colonial chroniclers of pre-Hispanic Mexico paid special attention to Nezahualcoyotl and praised him as a prudent and sage king who established one of the most elaborate, civilized, and efficient political and legal systems in pre-Hispanic times. As explained in chapter 1, the Franciscan scholar Fray Toribio de Benavente (Motolinia) was the first to describe Nezahualcoyotl as a...

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PART THREE: Revising the Study of Nahua Poetics

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pp. 129-130

In the study of Nahua poetry, Nezahualcoyotl always appears as the most important representative poet whose main concerns are peace and metaphysical issues such as the ephemerality of earthly life. Most Nahua scholars from the colonial period to the present view Nezahualcoyotl’s poetry as a clear contrast to the dominant political and cultural practices such as ritual war...

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5: Nezahualcoyotl and the Notion of Individual Authorship in Nahua Poetry

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pp. 131-150

In colonial Mexico during the transition from the Aztec pictorial and oral tradition to the European alphabetic writing system, many indigenous artistic representations lost their unique form and content. They were often distorted by European or Europeanized chroniclers who interpreted the indigenous cultural tradition from the colonizer’s perspective. The notion of individual...

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6: A Reinterpretation of Nahua Poetics: Nahua Cosmogony, Nahua Songs, and Nezahualcoyotl

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pp. 151-172

As introduced in chapter 5, the Texcoca chroniclers Juan Bautista Pomar (1993) and don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl (1997) began to present a group of sages or philosophers as poets who were incredulous about indigenous gods and religious ceremonies such as human sacrifice. According to the chroniclers, these sages left their peaceful ideas in their poems, and their...

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7: A Reinterpretation of Nahua Poetic Themes: Ephemerality, War and Sacrifice, and Nezahualcoyotl

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pp. 173-189

From the colonial period to the present, the lamentation of the transitory nature of earthly life has been considered one of the primary topics of Nahua poetry. Two colonial chroniclers, don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl and Fray Juan de Torquemada, initiated this interpretive tradition in their discussion of several song fragments that they attributed to Nezahualcoyotl in their...

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PART FOUR: Revising the Study of Nahua Religion

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pp. 191

From the beginning of the encounter between Europe and the Americas, Spanish conquistadores and chroniclers insisted that the main reason they came to the New World was either to convert the barbarous natives to Christianity or to destroy their evil world. In this scheme, a special place is reserved for Nezahualcoyotl, who allegedly distrusted the bloodthirsty gods...

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8: The Westernization of Nahua Religion: Nezahualcoyotl’s Unknown God

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pp. 193-228

The image of Nezahualcoyotl as a civilized and peaceful king is particularly conspicuous in descriptions of his religious ideas and practice. Some early chroniclers such as the Franciscan missionary Fray Andr

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9: Conclusion

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pp. 229-232

The European invasion of the Americas involved not only the expropriation of land, labor, and material from the natives, but also the occidentalization of their history, arts, and religion. The native elites in New Spain strived to defend their land and to maintain their old traditions under colonial rule, in some cases to the point of sacrificing their lives. In this process of colonization,...

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Epilogue: Nezahualcoyotl and the Irony of Colonialism in Ernesto Cardenal’s Poetry

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pp. 233-239

Nezahualcoyotl has been an important source of artistic inspiration for many creative writers. Most of them write biographical novels about Nezahualcoyotl, but some of them take advantage of Nezahualcoyotl’s peaceloving ideology in order to criticize current political practice.1 The Nicaraguan priest, poet, and political activist Ernesto Cardenal re-creates Nezahualcoyotl as...


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pp. 241-253


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pp. 254-259


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pp. 260-270


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pp. 271-282

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826343390
E-ISBN-10: 0826343392
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826343376
Print-ISBN-10: 0826343376

Page Count: 294
Illustrations: 1 halftone, 41 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Texcoco de Mora (Mexico) -- Antiquities.
  • Nezahualcóyotl, King of Texcoco, 1402-1472.
  • Nahuatl poetry -- History and criticism.
  • Aztecs -- Kings and rulers -- Biography.
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