Reckoning the Hill within Nahua Cosmovision

By Jessica J. Stair

During the fall of 2015 I had the pleasure of conducting dissertation research in Mexico. In addition to the rich archival materials I examined and the supportive colleagues with whom I consulted, one of the most striking and perhaps unexpected realizations I made was related to the significance of the landscape in relation to my subject of research.

I study a corpus of late 17th- to early 18th-century manuscripts created by indigenous communities in Central Mexico known as the Techialoyan Codices. These manuscripts were produced in response to the viceregal policy of composición, which required landowners to produce papers concerning the legitimacy of their land claims. If communities did not have the original grants of sale, they took whatever means necessary to prove their claims, including producing manuscripts that asserted to be from an earlier time. Roughly thirty-five of the Techialoyans are known, and their pages are filled with vibrant depictions of hills, valleys, plants, and bodies of water, which describe the boundaries of the communities’ landholdings.

Within Pre-Columbian and early colonial manuscript traditions, places are often represented with a uniform pictograph of a hill. These glyphs tend to have a similar visual appearance and serve as a base to which an affix is added to indicate the particularity of the place. In the Codex Boturini, Chapultepec is represented with the generalized hill glyph as the base and the addition of a grasshopper. The Nahuatl word for grasshopper is “chapolin,” “tepetl” means hill or mountain, and “-c” is a locative suffix, therefore Chapultepec literally means “Grasshopper Hill.” Its visual correspondence is represented with a hill mounted by the insect.

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Facsimile of Codex Borturini, Museo Nacional de Antropología. (Photo by Jessica J. Stair.)

The Techialoyans do not strictly adhere to this glyphic tradition, as they were produced roughly one hundred years later when visual conventions had significantly evolved. However, the image of the hill is a prominent and repeated feature throughout the corpus. For instance, Chapultepec is depicted as a rounded hill covered with one large grasshopper and six smaller ones.

In indigenous manuscripts a hill glyph represented an altepetl, an ethnically based, socio-political entity. The Nahuatl word, altepetl, derives from the word “atl,” meaning water and “tepetl,” meaning hill or mountain. Successive hills create coves in which water can be held. A mountain and watery cove would have been considered an ideal place for indigenous groups to settle. This idea connects to the mythical migration narrative, which describes the Mexica, also known as the “Aztecs,” as coming from an aquatic underworld in Aztlán. They emerged from the caves of Chicomoztoc and set out on a long journey before ultimately settling in Tenochtitlan.

Considered as living entities, hills and mountains held immense significance in Nahua cosmovision. Not only did they connect to the foundational acts of their ancestors, they also provided sustenance to support growing communities. The representation of hills in both the glyphic forms of early manuscripts and the evolved modes of the Techialoyans do not merely represent a place, they connect to the profound, primordial idea of giving and supporting life.

As I traveled across the magnificent landscape of the Valley of Mexico, I was struck by the multitude of mountains and hills. It is no wonder that the hill featured as a significant aspect of Nahua cosmovision; it is an ever-present feature of the landscape and shows up repeatedly in manuscripts to communicate the idea of place, which ultimately links to ancestral times.

This idea struck me most, though, when I was traveling on the bus from Mexico City to Puebla and I looked out the window to see a distinctive two-peaked mountain range. I thought to myself how familiar it looked because I had just seen a depiction like this one the previous day in the Techialoyan of Ixtapalapa at the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia. I came to find out that, indeed, the distinctive mountains at which I was gazing were those of Ixtapalapa.

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View of Ixtapalapa. (Photo by Jessica J. Stair.)

At that moment, I realized just how closely linked the past and present can be. The places depicted in manuscripts that were created three hundred years ago still exist. The names and the landscape features remain the same. At the time the manuscripts were painted, the artists may have recalled a time when their ancestors founded the altepetl at the base of the same hill. Despite the myriad changes that have taken place in this region over time, the hill is a crucial aspect that remains to remind us of the interconnectedness of time and space in the Nahua world.

 Jessica Stair is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley.  Stair_Picture
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