Monday, 22 January 2018

Hungry Coyote III

The Hanging Gardens

Nezahualcoyotl had a favourite residence on the side of a mountain known as Texcotzingo. The mountain was a sacred site for the Aztecs. Nezahualcoyotl’s villa there was surrounded by gardens similar to the palace gardens in Texcoco. They were embellished with four ritual baths[i], ponds and watercourses; one pond was flanked by the statues of three frogs, representing the three cities of the Triple Alliance.

The gardens also contained shrines and a cave where rituals were believed to take place[ii]. The gardens at Texcotzingo were designed to;

‘Address the eternal forces and phenomena seen and experienced in the natural environment.’[iii]

The gardens were extensive, providing food in the way of maize, beans and squash, there was a collection of medicinal plants in the extensive grounds which were dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc. The gardens were used for study of the plants that were collected from all parts of the Mexica Empire. The gardens were surrounded by woods through which Nezahualcoyotl used to hunt upon occasion. It was here too that he entertained his fellow Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

Texcotzingo was used to administer water rights; it was here that Nezahualcoyotl allocated water sources and aqueducts to specific towns and to his relatives, appointees, allies and their families. The ceremony was a sign of increasing centralisation and the personal involvement of the Tlatoani in control of resources.

Prince of Poets

Huehuetl drum
Nezahualcoyotl was considered by his peers to be the greatest poet of his times. His compositions influenced other poets both stylistically and content wise; his thoughts, symbols and use of myth affected Mexican culture. Long after his death poets would stand by the huehuetl drum and cry ‘I am Nezahualcoyotl, I am Hungry Coyote’ and sing his poems to keep them alive[iv]. The following three poems and portions of poems are examples of his work;

‘I begin to sing, I elevate to the heights the song for He By Whom All Live. Yayahue ohuaya ohuaya.

The festive song has arrived: it comes to reach up to the Highest Arbiter. Oh lords, borrow precious flowers! Ahuayya ohuaya ohuaya.

Already they are being renewed: how will I do it? With your branches I adorn myself, I will fly: I am unfortunate, for that reason I cry. Ohuaya ohuaya.’[v]

‘Flowers of raven, flowers you scatter, you let them fall in the house of flowers. Ohuaya ohuyaya.

Ah, yes: I am happy, I prince NezahualC├│yotl, gathering jewels, wide plumes of quetzal, I contemplate the faces of jades: they are the princes! I gaze into the faces of Eagles and Jaguars, and behold the faces of jades and jewels! Ohuaya ohuyaya.

We will pass away. I, NezahualC├│yotl, say, Enjoy! Do we really live on earth? Ohuaya ohuaya!’[vi]

‘I erect my drum, I assemble my friends. Aya! Here they find recreation, I make them sing.

Thus we must go over There. Remember this. Be happy. Aya! Oh my friends! Ohuaya ohuaya!

Perhaps now with calm, and thus it must be over There? Aya! Perhaps there is also calm There in the Bodyless Place? Aye! Ohuaya ohuaya!

Let us go. But here the law of the flowers governs, here the law of the song governs, here on earth. Ehuaya! Be happy, dress in finery, oh friends. Ohuaya ohuaya.’[vii]

Modern critics view Nezahualcoyotl’s works as philosophical, showing great depth of feeling, mourning over the transitory nature of life and enjoyment of life’s brief pleasures.

Like all Nahuatl poets Nezahualcoyotl used extended metaphors in his work which followed the ceremonial language, for instance the waters of lakes, springs and streams were often referred to as ‘skirt of jade’, one of the names of Chalchuitlicue, the goddess of water. Nahuatl poetry used extended metaphors for not only the gods and goddesses, but also places, actions, heroes and significant objects and concepts. Poetry was referred to as ‘flowers and song’, valued items were ‘precious stones, gold, jade, flowers, fine feathers’.

More than a Poet

Isthmus of Tehuantepec and Gulf of Mexico (L)
Nezahualcoyotl was not only a great lyric poet, but was famed as an architect, engineer, city planner, warrior, law-giver and philosopher. The cultural institutions he established included a library of hieroglyphic books and a self-governing academy of scholars and poets. He transformed Texcoco into a centre for art and culture.

According to one Texcocan chronicler Nezahualcoyotl was charitable, often buying items for twice their worth from the poor and them giving them to the sick and indigent. In periods of scarcity Nezahualcoyotl would remit taxes from his vassals and give out donations from the royal granaries.

From 1450-4 a great famine spread across the central valleys of Mexico. The famine started with early frosts that killed off the maize cobs in two successive years. Some sources state that people started selling their children into slavery in return for food. 

The famine resulted in the Triple Alliance becoming more aggressive and spreading their armies far and wide to conquer the cities of the valleys. They took the rich food producing region of Totonacapan and from there marched onto the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the coastal region. Following the famine the Mexica rulers opted to reduce the number of consumers by increasing human sacrifice, rather than increasing agricultural output.

Apparently Nezahualcoyotl, during a period of fasting at Texcotzingo, had a vision of;

‘The unknown God, the Cause of causes’[viii]

to whom he dedicated a mountain top temple which had no replicas of the ‘invisible god’ and nor were blood sacrifices allowed. The only sacrifices permitted were those of sweet scented gum and flowers. He also reduced the huge numbers of human sacrifices down to a basic minimum to keep the support of his peoples, but he taught his children to only give lip service to the bloodthirsty gods.

‘He taught his children not to confide in idols, and only to conform to the outward worship of them from deference to public opinion.’[ix]

Nezahualcoyotl promoted a renewal of Toltec learning, based on the peaceful religion of Quetzalcoatl, at a time when the Aztec cult of sacrifice was in the ascendant. All the Nahuatl-speaking city-states in the Valley of Mexico looked to Hungry Coyote's Texcoco as the cultural centre of their world.


The date of Nezahualcoyotl's death is recorded as being June 4, 1472 at the age of seventy. Nezahualcoyotl was succeeded as Tlatoani by his eight year old only legitimate son[x] Nezalhualpilli[xi], born in Eight Rabbit (1464) who was to continue his father’s patronisation of the arts.

Shortly before his death Nezahualcoyotl called to him those of his children he bestowed his confidence upon, along with his advisers and the ambassadors from Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan. Before this audience Nezahualcoyotl bestowed upon Nezahualpilli his robes of state. He asked one of his sons to guide Nezahualpilli as he grew and then allegedly said to those assembled;

‘Do not bewail me with idle lamentations. But sing the song of gladness and show a courageous spirit, that the nations I have subdued may not believe you disheartened, but may feel that each one of you is strong enough to keep them in obedience!’[xii]

Nezahualcoyotl was survived by many concubines and an estimated 110 children. He was deified after death and enshrined on the sacred mountain. At Texcotzingo personal shrines to Nezahualcoyotl were erected in the gardens, these had monuments commemorating his achievements as well as a sculpture of a seated coyote. The monuments faced east to associate Nezahualcoyotl with the rising sun.


The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico – Nigel Davies, Penguin 1985

The New World – Nicholas Hordern, Aldus Books/Jupiter Books 1971

The Ancient American Civilisations – Friedrich Katz, Phoenix Press 2000

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztecs and Maya – Charles Phillips, Hermes House 2010

The Conquest of Mexico – WH Prescott, JM Dent and Sons Ltd 1978

The Aztecs – Richard F Townsend, Thames & Hudson Ltd 2010


[i] Carved out of the bedrock, these baths were part of a ritual zone on the mountain about 180’ below the summit
[ii] The statues and shrines were defaced by the Spaniards during the conquest, as were all such religious places across the empire
[iii] The Aztecs – Townsend
[iv] Poetry was passed on by oral tradition and one of Nezahualcoyotl’s descendants Juan Bautista Pomar collated Nezahualcoyotl’s works some fifty plus years after his death. More works were collected by a Fra Bernardino da Sahagun in the Florentine Codex
[vi] Ibid
[vii] Ibid
[viii] The Conquest of Mexico - Prescott
[ix] Ibid
[x] He married late in life
[xi] Fasting Prince, possibly named after the period of fasting Nezahualcoyotl is said to have undertaken before Nezhualpilli’s conception
[xii] The Conquest of Mexico - Prescott

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