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Saturday volcano art: an Aztec volcanic vision 7 March 2009

Posted by admin in Mexico, Popocatépetl, Saturday volcano art, volcano art, volcano culture, volcano images, volcanoes.
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Codex Telleriano Remensis

This image comes from the Codex Telleriano Remensis, a copy made in Mexico in the 1560s of a contemporary Aztec manuscript consisting of calendars and registers of historical events. It is part of the page covering events in the years 1507 to 1509. There is an accompanying text in Spanish referring to 1509 that describes ‘a brightness in the night’ that was ‘very great and very resplendent’ and which ‘rose from the earth and reached the sky’. This phenomenon lasted for ‘more than forty days’ and was visible ‘from all New Spain’.

It is not clear what this ‘brightness’ may have been, but the image looks very like an erupting volcano. This has led to suggestions of an eruption at Popocatépetl, and a 1509 event is accordingly listed – usually with caveats about its uncertainty – in various reference sources. It has also been suggested that another volcano in the east of Mexico may have been responsible, such as Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl) or San Martín, or that the cause may have been non-volcanic, such as a forest fire or a celestial phenomenon such as the zodiacal light. This latter explanation seems unlikely, however, given that both the text and the image are so clear about the brightness rising from the earth towards the sky. It is also notable that the depiction of the volcanic plume (if that is what it is) is similar to representations of steam/smoke elsewhere in the codex, as on the subsequent page with its illustration of ‘steaming stones’ which produced smoke or steam that ‘reached to the sky’ in 1512.

Codex Telleriano Remensis

The 1509 phenomenon is annotated as mexpanitli, which means ‘banner of cloud’ or ‘banner of smoke’. In the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, a later collection of the histories of the indigenous people of New Spain, it is described as ‘a great brightness that rose from the eastern horizon and reached the heavens; it was shaped like a pyramid, and it flamed’, a description not inconsistent with a volcanic eruption. In a 2001 publication on Las Cenizas Volcánicas del Popocatépetl y sus Efectos para la Aeronavegación e Infraestructura Aeroportuaria, the Instituto de Geofísica of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México suggested that ‘The large plume or eruption column in the codex, which reaches to the stars, with ash or sand falling like rain, could be indicative of plinian activity’. Overall there is no doubt that the illustration in the codex looks more like an erupting volcano than anything else.

Whatever the 1509 phenomenon may have been, it was regarded with awe and wonder, and subsequent historians (such as Ixtilxochitl) interpreted it as one of the omens which presaged the landing of Hernán Cortés in 1519 and the ultimate fall of the Aztec empire.

Codex Telleriano-Remensis, at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI)
Elizabeth Hill Boone, Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007)
David Carrasco, Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982)
Las Cenizas Volcánicas del Popocatépetl y sus Efectos para la Aeronavegación e Infraestructura Aeroportuaria (Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres & Instituto de Geofísica de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2001) [PDF]
Eloise Quiñones Keber, Codex Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995)
Robert Louis Kovach, Early Earthquakes of the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Stephen A. Nelson, ‘Volcanic hazards in Mexico: a summary’, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Instituto de Geología Revista, vol. 9, no. 1 (1990), pp. 71-81 [PDF]
Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout, The Aztecs: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005)

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1. Boris Behncke - 8 March 2009

I must say that your posts are always extremely well researched and contain a lot of links to sites and publications that I have been unaware of. Imagine that not long ago in teaching a class about the coexistence of volcanoes and humans I mentioned the Catalhuyuk fresco as being believed to be the oldest representation of a volcanic eruption … thanks to your recent post on the subject the story will sound a bit different in future courses when it comes to this part. Thank you very much for all this effort and for the very sensitive choice of quotes and historical notes.

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