Astonishing Names From History: Mesoamerica



Astonishing Names From History: Mesoamerica
"Before America was discovered by Europeans, wild cats existed in the New World. It is reported that Christopher Columbus was given one of these cats which was described as being average in size, gray/brown in color, with a prominent tail." - Paraphrased translation from: "Count de Buffon's Natural History 1767."

Mesoamerica is a term used to identify the ancient civilized region now called southern Mexico and northern Central America. Another term perhaps used more often to designate the cultures of this time in this region is "Pre-Columbian." However, the term Pre-Columbian encompasses a lot of ground. Not only the civilizations of what is now Mexico and Central America fall into this broad classification, but so do the societies of the Native North Americans, as well as the magnificent cultures of the Incas and other peoples of South America. Since these texts presented so far have been considering myths and folklore by region, let's continue this approach, and concentrate on one set of myths at a time.

The vast body of tribal folktales indigenous to North America and South America have their own sections. For now, lets focus on this part of the world, most undeniably unique, called Mesoamerica. Within this relatively small area flourished two of the greatest and most enigmatic civilizations the world has ever known: The Maya (c. 300 - 900 AD) and The Aztecs (c. 1325 - 1521 AD). Besides these "Big Two", three other civilizations rose and fell here as well. These three less famous cultures were the Olmecs (c.1500 - 400 BC), the Zapotecs (c. 300 - 600 AD), and the Toltecs (c. 900 - 1180 AD). First of these great civilizations were the Olmecs. These people were skilled artists and accomplished architects, building religious centers and impressive monuments to their ancient gods. They were an agrarian culture, relying on the production of maize for both sustenance and trade. All this they accomplished (at their civilization's height) nearly 3197 years ago and they maintained an influential role in the region for 1100 years. From the Olmecs, the religions and myths that later were adopted by the Maya and Aztecs first took form. The original religious tales and practices were raw and earth related, filled with animistic symbolism most often manifesting as a Jaguar. This then was the cat honored by these ancient people. Respected as the god (or fetish-an object or being believed to possess magical powers worthy of devotion) of nourishing rain, and by extension of the productivity of the food giving earth, the Jaguar became quite important and soon was adopted as the spiritual animal of the shaman. This led to the bizarre tales of were-jaguars which resulted from the ecstatic frenzy these shaman would put themselves into. This is a motif that spread throughout the region, becoming more refined as the centuries passed. In fact, most of the Olmec gods and cosmologies influenced the subsequent civilizations, next of which were the Zapotecs. These people were more sophisticated, incorporating more psychological observations to their myths (which were just incorporating more mature versions of the Olmec deities). One figure that remained unchanged was the anthropomorphic Jaguar deity. It was here among the Zapotecs that the first calendars and writing developed within this part of the world.

Then after several centuries of slow but extremely sophisticated social evolution, the Maya bloomed into a most impressive, well organized, and sophisticated civilization. Vast and beautiful cities of temples and pyramids rose, art and science thrived, agriculture was producing never before realized quantities of goods, and their calendar was perfected. But regardless how divergent the Maya developed from their predecessors, many of the gods remained the same, including the Jaguar god. The personalities and behavior might have been adapted a bit; an adjustment here, a new god there, new exploits incorporated into the narrative rising from singular cultural differences, but the recognizable psyches of the gods remained intact.

And all this despite the fact that the Maya developed a language all there own (the other Mesoamerican civilizations all shared a variation of a language called "Nahuatl" while the Maya developed thirty different languages during the course of their existence.) Soon, a warlike people called Toltecs stormed through the region. Around this time, (c. 1224 AD or so) the Classical period of Maya Civilization had been exhausted. Many of their greatest cities were abandoned without a clue to the whereabouts of the inhabitants. This suited the violent, barbarian Toltecs just fine. In the several decades that followed, the Toltecs built a short-lived empire that continued to honor many of the old gods, but by now these gods had taken on characteristics as cruel and bloodthirsty as the Toltecs. In fact, it was the Toltecs that began with the human sacrifices. By around 1340 AD, the Toltecs had met their match in the ruthlessness of the conquering tribe called the Aztecs.

By now (c.1340+) the culture of Mesoamerica, a slowly evolved trial and error distillation of relatively common ethnological motifs, had reached its end with the unspeakably horrifying reign of terror implemented by the blood-soaked priests of the Aztec empire. Of course they got their comeuppance (in an equally horrifying way) by those bloodthirsty Europeans. Incidentally, during this entire history, the Jaguar cats remained figures of respect and honor. The fact that there were no house-cat types here in the New World (obviously the opening quote refers to Christopher Columbus being presented with a bobcat kind of creature), didn't stop these cultures from paying their due respects to the feline ideal, even if it happened to be a large and dangerous Jaguar. This folowing compilation of names are primarily drawn from the Aztec and Maya pantheons since frankly, all Mesoamerican civilizations shared the same pantheon...sort of...and the Aztec and Maya are not only the best known Mesoamerican cultures, but without question the greatest.

ACAT (AY-kat; Male): God of life to the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec. He brings about form to all unborn things while they still gestate within their mother's womb. Very protective of children. Being the god of life, he maintains an omnipresent vigil around the mother and unborn child. The spelling of this name is the good reason to give this name to your cat.

CHANTICO (chahn-TEE-koh; Female): This Aztec goddess of fire was also the goddess of home and hearth, not to mention fertility. If that wasn't enough, she also represented a rather chauvinistic belief in the feminine inability to make decisions. She was something of a sadomasochist, enjoying extremes of both pleasure and pain, emphasizing the basic unity in each of these sensations. Not surprisingly she is symbolically associated with cactus thorns and a blazing, fire-red serpent. Besides her kinky persona, she nevertheless commanded respect since the precious gems of the earth also fell under her jurisdiction. All things considered, Chantico represented the civilizing force of fire which provided comfort within the homes of men and women through providing warmth and by allowing various new foods to be cooked. Such domestic tranquility obviously leads to leisure which in turn leads to intimacy. This is why Chantico is also the goddess of fertility. Her ambivalent character reflects a common frailty that can be found in all human beings, not just women. Having embraced the pain and happiness of life as it is, her wisdom allows her absolute access to the treasures of the earth (of which precious jewels and gems are mere metaphors). To wrap this up, Chantico is the fiery principle of will; will to familial tranquility. We humans need this symbolic language, but cats? One need only observe a napping cat by a glowing fireplace to understand that she knows all she needs to know about acceptance, the pleasures of life beside the pains, and riches.

CINTEOTL(shin-tee-OH-tuhl; Male or Female): This he/she deity was the Aztec lord of corn, though there exists an earlier Mayan likeness of him (male guise this time) which depicts him in the foolish predicament of having ears of corn sprouting from his head. The Aztecs dropped this silly portrayal and in true blood crazed Aztec fashion they dedicated a holiday to Cinteotl (sometime during what we now call April) in which the mobs attending the festivities were expected to cut themselves with knives. Once they were all a sliced-up mess, they allowed their blood to saturate piles of ceremonial twigs which were then placed by the doors to their homes - actually the whole ritual was a sacrificial rite that was supposed to insure an abundant harvest of corn. Your cat might like this name.

CIT CHAC COH (KIHT-chak-koh; Male): Most cats would have taken a perverse delight in the activities that went on during the festival of this Mayan war god. For starters, the name Cit Chac Coh translates into something close to: "Twin of the red lion" (lion in this part of the world meaning Puma.) What cat wouldn't love a holiday all to himself? There was food galore, wild dances by the warriors, games, drink, music and songs. But what would have really brightened a cats day, had they been there of course, was the ritual dog slaying carried out in the war god's temple come festival's end. Does your cat enjoy the misfortunes of dogs? Has he got a bit of a wicked, vindictive streak? Then name him after this Mayan "big cat" war god.

COATLICUE (koh-AT-lih-kyoo; Female): Claws. Cats have them and so did this Aztec goddess, Coatlicue. But claws weren't all she had. She was able to transform herself into were such nasty critters as a vicious all-devouring serpent, a monstrous crocodile, and a bigger than average frog (which understandably failed to inspire fear in the hearts of men like the other two.) Not that she had to change into these creatures to be frightful. She was said to have the enormous jaws of a dragon, a skirt woven entirely of snakes, and, as we've already mentioned, claws. Would you believe she was the earth goddess? The Great Mother? Makes sense when you stop to think that being the goddess of the earth gives her power to create and power to destroy. In her the positive and negative forces of the universe blended in an unpredictable mixture. Like many gods of these Mesoamerican cultures, the cat most revered to Coatlicue was the Jaguar (mightiest of all the New World cats). Keep in mind that just because Coatlicue, with her razor sharp claws, would destroy her creations whenever the notion happened to cross her mind, this did not make her a bad goddess. She simply represented the unpredictable fluctuations of life's fortunes. Similarly, just because your cat with her razor sharp claws often seems bent on destroying your living room furniture, this doesn't make a bad cat. If your cat displays this trying habit, not only could you give her this appropriate name, but you might want to break down and buy her a scratching post.

GUCUMATZ (goo-KOO-mats; Male): The frontiers of the Mayan civilization reached as far as present day Guatemala, and because of this, variations in mythologies developed. Case in point, Gucumatz. To the Mayans of the Guatemala region this was the name they gave to the great "feathered snake" god; a deity we will encounter again and again throughout Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayans inhabiting the larger population centers of the Yucatan Peninsula had another name for this feathered snake god. To them he was known as Kukulkan. Whatever he was called, he was rather like a prototype to the mighty Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. The Mayan god Gucumatz had many duties, which was to be expected since he was the son of the Moon and the Sun. He was the god of agriculture and as we all know, with agriculture comes civilization. Therefore Gucumatz was god of civilizations too. He was very sly, and since he was one of those shape-shifting gods you here so much about, he could assume the form of any creature or thing imaginable. With power like that, he went wherever he pleased, making his home in both heaven and hell. Even so, he was the faithful and honorable friend of Hurakan, the Mayan god of creation. This name is befitting a crafty feline, stealthy and always on the lookout for any and all birds of a feather.

HURAKAN (HOO-rah-kahn; Male): Is your cat restless? Unable to sit still for more than a few minutes? Does he tear about the house, knocking over anything not nailed down until the rooms look like a hurricane might have hit? Then here's the name you've been searching for. Ever wonder where we get the word 'hurricane?' Why, from the Mayan god of thunderstorms and destructive winds, Hurakan. This wasn't all that Hurakan lorded over. He was also the god of creation. The Mayan text of mythology and folklore known as the "Popol Vuh" tells the following tale: Gucumatz, the son of the Moon and the Sun, and Hurakan were the best of friends. One day while having nothing to do (seeing the earth had not been formed yet) Gucumatz suggested to his friend that a planet filed with all sorts of creatures be created. Hurakan liked the idea, and since he knew how to go about doing such things he got right to it. In a matter of mere seconds the earth and all its various animals was brought into existence. This pleased the egocentric Hurakan to no end. Peering down upon his new creation, he ordered the animals to praise him and glorify his name. The animals tried; they did the best they could in fact, but all that came out was a cacophony of various animals noises and calls. Hurakan didn't like this one bit, so to punish the hapless creatures he cursed them all to a life of eating each other or being eaten themselves. Next Hurakan and Gucumatz tried designing something new that they intended to call 'human'. They tried fashioning these humans out of clay which didn't work, and then they tried wood which didn't work either. In both cases the people remained silent and unable to deliver praises to Hurakan which was all he really wanted. As the conceited god prepared to destroy these things called 'human beings', they ran away from his wrath and hid in the jungles where they became the monkeys we all know and love today. With nothing to lose, Gucumatz suggested that they try making humanity out of corn. They did and it worked. Unfortunately these things called humans weren't all that Hurakan had hoped they would be. Instead of praise and worship, all the humans could do was complain: "Why is it so dark?"; "Why am I so cold?"; "Got anything to eat around here?" Sick of his entire project, Hurakan dispersed the humans throughout the planet. Because of this, new languages developed. In time, the humans learned to offer thanks to the god that created them. But even this was screwy. They took to cutting their arms to shreds so the blood might serve as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Eventually they began using other people as human sacrifices which remained quite popular for many, many years.

ILAMATECUHTLI (ihl-AH-mah-tehk-OOT-lee; Female): Some people think that cats are cruel animals and to prove their point they cite instances where cats will torturously play with a mouse before killing it. As any cat fancier knows, this activity is in fact a form of exercise to sharpen up the cat's stalking skills. Sure it looks cruel, but nature can be brutal. If your cat is prone to such behavior, relax. She's not being sadistic or cruel. She's just being a cat. If it's cruelty you want then you need look no further than to the wacky antics of those crazy Aztecs. Ilamatecuhtli was the Aztec mother goddess and each winter a huge festival was celebrated in her honor. The festivities included the arrest of a woman who was ceremoniously sacrificed in true Aztec fashion by tearing out her heart while she was still alive. Then her head was hacked off and impaled atop a pole that was held up high to lead the people in a horrific dance that must have been something like a conga line from hell. Everyone had a swell time, so much so that they all played a popular trick on one another that basically consisted of hiding sacks full of wool until coming upon a helpless individual whereupon they would use these sacks to beat the living hell out of their dumbfounded victim. Cats cruel? Don't believe it. But if you still detect a flash of sadism somewhere in the glow of your cats gaze, remember the goddess Ilamatecuhtli and her terrible festival.

ITZAMNA (ihtz-AHM-nah; Male): This Mayan god was fond of jaguars, lizards, and wisdom. He was the god of healing, and it is said that he was the founder of the whole Mayan civilization. He taught the arts of writing, agriculture, drawing, and other skills needed to maintain a complex society. He was a mighty god, perhaps a bit aloof at times but what else would you expect from an omnipotent god? He was symbolized by the rising sun and was thought to inhabit the East. He possessed a stand-offish personality from time to time and this so much like a feline trait.

MAYAUEL (my-AW-ehl; Female): Here's an unusual one. Mayauel didn't start off as an Aztec goddess. She was instead a farmer's wife charged with the dubious task of tending to the groves of agave's plants which were the source of the couple's livelihood. One day very much like the other days that passed her by, Mayauel noticed a mouse staggering through the grove obviously drunk and feeling no pain. Keeping a close eye on the pie-eyed mouse, the woman was surprised to observe the besotted critter stumble up to one of the agave's plants, take a decent mouse sized bite from the stalk, and begin sucking down the plant juice. By now the mouse was so drunk that catching him was no problem at all, so the farmer's grabbed the rodent by the tail and disposed of him properly. When Mayauel told her husband the news of the inebriated mouse, the two of them wasted no time harvesting an ample supply of the plant which they quickly set to fermenting. In a few days the couple took a swig of their handiwork and was quite pleased with the pleasant tasting result. They took another swig, then another, until they were both so drunk they hardly knew what hit them. By the time they sobered up the next day, they both knew they had a gold mine on their hands. Taking their new concoction to the local marketplace, they sold out in a matter of minutes. So delighted were the peasant customers that they declared Mayauel a new goddess. Not a bad position to be in, even if you happened to be the goddess of intoxicating beverages. Of course what cat wouldn't appreciate a drunken mouse? If you have a skilled mouser, think of the fun she'd have with a boozed up rodent. If you plan on getting your pest mice drunk just for the sheer fun of watching the cat go at it, you might want to use this name in memory of that peculiar goddess of drunkenness.

METZLI (MEHTZ-lee; Male): This god was the Aztec ruler of the moon. He was an odd looking fellow, old and decrepit with a giant seashell attached to his back which also sported a pair of colorful butterfly wings. Being the elderly geezer that he was, it came as no surprise that he had troubles recalling his name. Sometimes he would go for days insisting that his name was 'Tecciztecatl.' Fortunately no one paid much attention to him unless there was a lunar eclipse or something big like that. Eventually Metzli was put into forced retirement, replaced by a beautiful young goddess named 'Coyolxauhqul '. What kind of a cat deserves a name like Metzli? A nocturnal cat? A moonstruck cat? And old cat? A fairy-type, butterfly winged cat? How about a cat with habits as predictable as the phases of the moon? Nothing serves as a better conversation piece that a furry, four-legged, lunar calendar.

MICTLANTECUHTLI (mihkt-lan-teh-KUHT-lee; Male): Mictlantecuhtli was the lord of the underworld and looked the part. He took the form of a bloody skeleton, but basically he was a fairly nice guy who extended kind hospitality to the newly dead souls that ventured into his necropolis kingdom. If you happen to live with a cat (perhaps a black cat might be most appropriate) that has an odd sense for the macabre, then don't hesitate to name him Mictlantecuhtli, that is if you can figure out how to pronounce this absurd mishmash of letters.

MIXCOATL (micks-koh-AH-till; Male): Since cats are without a doubt consummate hunting machines, Mixcoatl might be a good name to consider since he was known as the "cloud-serpent god of hunting." He was another one of those deities that demanded human sacrifices, but he had his own special twist; he insisted that his victims be painted either red or white. It was believed that these sacrificial persons transformed into stars because Mixcoatl was also the immeasurably important god of the Milky Way and the Northern Polar star as well.

OMETECUHTLI (oh-meh-tehk-OOT-lee; Male and Female): If you've got one of those cats that prefers a solitary existence, content to keep as far away from human interaction as possible (that is, until dinner time rolls around), then he or she has much in common with Ometecuhtli, the supreme god of the Aztec people. He/She was the self created god, maker of all things, sovereign over all the other gods put together. Being such a big-shot, She/He chose to keep His/Her distance from the other gods since She/He was so far above them in every way. Also this god was the god of duality. That's why we've been using "He/She" when referring to this powerful loner. You see, Ometecuhtli was both male and female mixed into one Being. No wonder He/She kept to Him/Herself. If your cat is such a loner, don't entertain the notion that it suffers from dual sexuality, but you can bet it's hiding something from you.