The only language of Mexico of which some literary relics has come down to us, with few and negligible exceptions, after Maya, is Nahuatl which is commonly called Mexican or Aztec. It was more important than any other for richness, harmony, plasticity.
Facilitated by such a precious instrument, the literature of the Mexicans – an imaginative and ardent people – in an environment which, for the sweetness of climate and the magnificence of sky and landscapes, was one of the most admirable in the world, must have reached a very high level. Some religious hymns, two songs among many composed by the poet king Nezahualcoyotl and reported by his descendant, the chronicler Ixtlilxochitl, by PB de Sahagún and others, and translated by DG Brinton, by E. Seler, by R. De Grasserie, by L. Castillo Ledón – while awaiting the much promised complete edition of Mariano G. Rojas – are, together with the Cantares de los Mexicanos, manuscripts of the Biblioteca Nacional of Mexico, and to some speeches, orations and elegiac songs, the best that has come down to us. This production continued despite religious censorship, up to over thirty years after the Conquest.
According to Itypeusa, Mexicans also passionately cultivated eloquence and studied it with care even as children: PB de Sahagún brought us some speeches of kings and dignities, full of grace and dignity for what can be judged from the Spanish translation and through the inevitable alterations. There was also a dramatic poem for open-air theaters, of which Acosta left us a report, of a grotesque genre, in which the sick and crippled were pilloried begging for health by the gods or foolish scenes were represented with actors disguised as animals, ending, generally, with general dances. According to Preuss, Mexican choreographies should be attributed a phallic character, as a ceremony of fertilization of the Mother Earth.
The sciences. – In a restricted sense, we cannot speak of Mexican mathematics or even arithmetic, which have remained in a rudimentary state, although the great hydraulic and architectural works demonstrate a very remarkable practical knowledge, confirmed in the astrochronological field by the admirable calendar. The numerical system was vigesimal, numbers from 1 to 5 were written with points, 20 with a kind of flag, 10 with a diamond, 400 with a pen or feather; according to whether a quarter, a half or three quarters of the beards are removed, it means 100, 200, 300; 8000 is represented by a stock exchange. Nor do we know much of the astronomical knowledge of the Mexicans; it is certain that they knew the cause of the eclipse of the sun, they used the gnomon and fixed the solstitial and equinoctial points of the rising and setting of the sun and calculated the culmination of certain stars, for example the Pleiades. They knew the main planets and on Venus they founded part of their chronology (Venusian year), and some constellations, such as that of Taurus, the Pleiades, the Centaurus and the circumpolar ones; they called the comets “smoking stars” and the Milky Way “robe strewn with stars”.
The Sun had been deified and made the seat of the warriors who died in battle; the new moon made us believe in the sleep of the moon, while in the spots of this star they thought they could see the body of a rabbit thrown by the gods.
Meteorology is simple and fantastic; the wind blows from various parts where hell and heaven are found and divinities preside over them; thunder, lightning, clouds and rain are attributed to the god Tlaloc and his ministers; the rainbow was a masonry arch of various colors; the snow was a forecast of new harvests; the white clouds heralded the hail, which the magicians could ward off with their spells. The year was divided into three seasons: xopan (vegetable season), tonalco (the sun comes in) which lasted 10 of their 18 months, and itztictonalco (cold, dry weather). Of the Mexican calendar, which despite numerous studies still presents many obscure and controversial points, it has been said elsewhere (see calendar): they had a civil calendar, commonly used at the time of the Conquest, and a sacred calendar, the tonalamatl, which had undoubtedly been the primitive calendar, originally based on the movements of the Moon. On 17 December 1790 a large disk was discovered in an excavation from the main square in Mexico City, joined to a quadrangular block, of olive basalt, with a diameter of m. 3.60, weighing 24,000 kg. and of the thickness of m. 1, whose face was beautifully carved and which was commonly called the “stone of the sun” or the “Aztec calendar” and which gave rise to long and learned discussions. In the center stands out the face of the sun, with the tongue out, which means light; in the second circle there are the 4 ages of the world, in the third the figures of the days of the month, in the fourth the quinary Venusino, ie each square represents the five translations of the planet; the fifth, the number 104 of the “double century”,xiuhcoatl, on whose body 260 points of the tonalamatl and the 365 days of the calendar year are marked. It also contains some constellations and other chronograph symbols.
Medicine was especially in the hands of the priests who had methods and treaties, but all the people knew the virtues of the simple and used them extensively. Of course there was no shortage of magical practices, in great honor especially in the beliefs called nahualtínhence the word “nagualism”. There was a body of medical specialists about whom we know little, which is described in Mexican manuscripts and there must have existed – although there are no known – vast and complex pharmacological formulas. The Mexicans didn’t take much interest in anatomy. They treated the sick in large hospitals which were in the main cities and knew the advantages of certain treatments: diet, massage and the hypocaust, for wounds, sores, poisonous animal bites, sprains or fractures, were well practiced; they even used anesthetics like yautli peyotl. They knew gums, drugs, medicinal herbs, as well as remedies made from animals and minerals. Their knowledge of botany seems to have been particularly remarkable; they had botanical gardens, systematic collections of plants; there is a whole literature on the use of flowers as a decorative, ritual and medicinal element. We have little information on the terrible epidemics that desolated Anahuac in pre-Columbian times; just as the existence of syphilis before the Conquest is much discussed.