The Americas 62.3 (2006) 391-412
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The Ilhuica of the Nahua:
Is Heaven Just a Place?
John F. Schwaller
The Nahua concept of heaven was one of the central issues that the missionary friars confronted as they attempted to reconcile Christian and Nahua thought in the early sixteenth century.1 The Nahua believed in the existence of both celestial heavens and subterranean hells, as possible destinations for individuals after death. The celestial realms, of which there were thirteen, were in general pleasant places. The subterranean realms were unpleasant. Unfortunately for the friars, the mechanisms whereby one could come to enjoy or suffer in these realms depended not on the quality of one's life, but rather on the particulars of one's death, the date of one's birth, and other features of one's existence. For instance, those who died by water, or lightening, were consigned to the heaven of the god of rain, Tlaloc. For the Nahua this post-mortem existence was corporeal, although the nature of one's body might change in the process. The Nahua did not have any easy equivalent for the Christian soul.2 This essay will look particularly at the Nahuatl word for the sky, ilhuicatl, and how it functioned in both pre-Columbian thought and in the works written after the conquest with greater, or lesser, degrees of Christian input.
The Nahuatl word for the sky, as noted, is ilhuicatl. Two forms of the word also appear frequently in texts: ilhuicac, "in the sky," and ilhuicatl itic, "within the sky."3 In much of the existing Nahuatl literature from before the conquest, [End Page 391] ilhuicatl is simply a geographical marker indicating the sky. Within Nahua geography there were three planes along the vertical axis: the sky, ilhuicatl, the surface of the earth, tlalticpac, and the underworld, mictlan. Tlalticpac means "on the surface of the earth / dirt."4 Mictlan refers to the subterranean world and means the "place of the dead."5 While humankind inhabited the surface of the earth, other creatures, forms of men, and beings, inhabited the thirteen levels of the sky and the nine regions of the underworld.
The word ilhuicatl was common enough in texts dating from before the Spanish conquest. In fact it formed part of the name of one of the most famous huei tlahtoani6 of the Mexica. The ruler in the mid-fifteenth century, responsible for beginning the expansion into empire, was Motecuhtzoma Ilhuicamina. This name could be translated and "he scowls in lordly anger, he shoots arrows to the sky." He is also know as Huehue Motecuhtzoma, or Motecuhtzoma the elder, to differentiate him from the tlahtoani who governed at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, Motecuhtzoma Xocoyotzin, or Montecuhtzoma, the younger. While it is not exactly clear how the elder Motecuhtzoma received his epithet of Ilhuicamina, it probably resulted from the story of his birth. According to the legend, the tlahtoani, Huitzilhuitl, in a dream, was led to woo, Miahuaxihuitl, the daughter of the ruler of nearby Cuernavaca [Cuauhnahuac]. The ruler of Cuernavaca was a sorcerer and closely guarded his daughter from all potential suitors. In another dream, Huitzilhuitl was directed to place a precious stone in an arrow, and to then shoot the arrow into the compound of Miahuaxihuitl. On a stroll she found the lovely arrow, and feeling that it was heavier than it should be, broke it open. Upon finding the stone, she put it between her teeth to test it. Upon doing so, she accidentally swallowed it. In this way she magically became pregnant, and bore a son, Motecuhtzoma Ilhuicamina. Consequently his epithet of "he shoots arrows in the sky" may come from miraculous conception.7 [End Page 392]
In order to explore the use of the term ilhuicatl and its variants prior to the conquest, one must also consult pre-conquest texts. The materials available were all copied down after the conquest. As a result, unfortunately, many of these texts have been corrupted by Christian influences between...