fredag den 12. februar 2021

Ears of Nopal: Reading the name of a Teotihuacán Fertility Goddess

In addition to my project on Nahuatl landscape, I am also working on another project, with the aim of trying to advance an important question in Mesoamerican studies: What was the main language spoken in Teotihuacan? And, specifically, could it have been an early form of Nahuatl? Nahuatl is of course one of the languages often mentioned as a potential language of the people of Teotihuacan, but other possibilities sometimes mentioned are Totonac, Mixe-Zoque or an early form of Otomí-Mazahua.

To engage this question I work to combine my knowledge of the deep history of Nahuatl with analysis of the iconography and writing found at Teotihuacan. Here, I work closely with my colleague Christophe Helmke who is an archaeologist and epigrapher with expertise in Mesoamerican writing systems - especially of the Maya and Teotihuacan. A guiding assumption of mine is that talking about Nahuatl at Teotihuacan is really an anachronism. I believe that the distinctive features of Nahuatl, such as the tl sound, the vowel system with only four vowel qualities instead of five, and the complex verbal morphology developed relatively late. This means that instead of trying to look for Nahuatl in Teotihuacan, we should look for something older which is perhaps similar to Nahuatl, but which is in some ways more similar to other Uto-Aztecan languages such as Cora and Huichol. This requires us to reconstruct the different stages of Nahuatl: from proto-Corachol-Nahuan (the language ancestral to both Nahuan and Corachol languages), to early proto-Nahua (the stage before undergoing the changes that are common to Nahuan languages today) to late proto-Nahuatl (the stage when it had developed all the traits common to all Nahuan languages today).

In this blogpost, I apply this method to one image from Teotihuacan, in an attempt to show why I think this approach is likely to be valuable and to advance our understanding of the culture and language of Teotihuacan.

As I was looking in Arthur G. Miller's 1973 "The Mural Painting of Teotihuacan" I came across the following illustration (Miller's Figure 234). This is a rendering (the original is badly damaged) of a detail from the mural at the Portico at Tetitla, depicting a frontal face. Miller (1973:121) describes that "flowering opuntia cactus pads hang from the ears." 


Figure 234 from Miller 1973:121

Looking at it, it could not avoid striking me immediately that in Cora and Huichol the words for "ear" and "nopal cactus" (the opuntia cactus which is edible and very delicious) are almost identical. In Cora, naká means "nopal" while nasaíh means "ear", and in Huichol naká means "ear" while nakári means "nopal. In Nahuatl of course, the word for "ear" is nakastli, which is clearly related to the Cora and Huichol word, whereas the word for "nopal cactus" is nohpalitl (the origin of the Mexican Spanish word "nopal").  

This to me is an enticing similarity. If the word for ears and nopal cactuses are similar, could that one the reason for depicting ears or earrings as nopal pads? To answer whether this is even possible we have to try to reconstruct the history of the words in Corachol and Nahuatl, to make sure that the similarity can even be old enough to be relevant to understand a mural painted in Teotihuacan around 1500 years ago.

Ears and nopales in Cora, Huichol and early Nahuatl

In a previous blogpost, I described some apparent semantic changes in words related to meaty or umami-flavored foods in the development of Nahuatl and Corachol. Specifically, I argued that the Nahuatl word for "meat", nakatl, might well be related to the corachol word for the nopal cactus - both of which may fulfill the same function of protein and umami-flavour in the foodways of a nomadic desert people. If the original meaning of the word *naka in the ancestor language of Corachol and Nahuatl was indeed  "nopal cactus", then presumably the Nahuan ancestors later began to employ the word to mean “meat”, and caused the word that originally meant “meat” to shift to the meaning "beans" (another protein-rich umami tasting food). 

Cora naká and Huichol nakári differ only in the Huichol suffix -ri, which may well be cognate to the Nahuatl absolutive suffix. Cora also originally had an absolutive suffix, so the word may originally have been nakát in Cora, but the word doesn't appear in the earliest vocabulary of Cora, Joseph de Ortega's vocabulary from 1732, where some nouns still have their absolutive suffixes. I would suggest reconstructing the proto-Corachol form as *nakáti "nopal". The ancestral proto-Corachol-Nahuan word would also have been *nakáti before, the early proto-Nahuas split off and changed its meaning to "meat". 

The Nahuatl words for "nopal cactus" nohpalitl and its fruit no:chtli, can be derived from a reconstructed root *náwa-. Perhaps náwa is related to the Corachol word nawá which refers to an alcoholic beverage based on fermented corn - but the similarity could also be a coincidence.  In nohpali- the root *náwà is followed by another root -pali, which can be reconstructed as *pári, likely the same found in words for flat oblong things. In no:chtle, it is followed by the suffix -tsi, probably a diminutive.  So, this gives the following set of cognates for the meaning nopal/meat. So in early proto-Nahuatl we would have náwapári "nopal", which became nohpalitl in late proto-Nahuatl, and náwatsi "tuna/cactus fig", ultimately becoming no:chtli in late proto-nahuatl. 



  • Cora Mariteco                       naká            "nopal"
  • Huichol                                   nakári        "nopal"
  • Proto-Corachol                   *nakáti
  • Early proto-Nahuatl          *náka-tɨ       "meat"


  • Early Proto-Nahuatl          *náwàpàrì   "nopal"
  • Early Proto-Nahuatl          *náwatsi      "tuna/cactus fig"

The words for "ear" show a curious effect in which the Cora and Huichol words are quite different, but nonetheless easily derived from a form that is similar to that of Nahuatl. This kind of effect is one of the things that have convinced me that Corachol and Nahuatl are quite closely related within the Uto-Aztecan family. What happens here is that, Cora has nasaíh (Ortega's vocabulary gives naxaihti, with the absolutive suffix), but Huichol has naká or naaká. So, Cora has /s/ and Huichol has /k/ - but there is no known sound change in corachol that will give an /s/ from a /k/ or vice versa. So what has happened? Are these not cognates? When we look at Nahuatl nakas-tli "ear" we see both the /s/ and the /k/, and we begin to see what has happened. 

In Nahuatl and in Corachol there is a process by which unstressed short vowels are deleted. And stress tends to fall on every other syllable. So if you have a word with three syllables with stress on the first and last syllable 'CVCV'CV, the vowel in the middle syllable is likely to disappear. This creates a consonant cluster, and indeed in Nahuatl most consonant clusters come from vowels that have disappeared in this way, and for Nahuatl roots that end in a consonant it is usually the last vowel that has disappeared. From this, we can surmise that nakastli is likely to have had a vowel between the s and the absolutive suffix, nakasVti. This vowel could not have been /i/, because in Nahuatl when /i/ is lost the preceding consonant is palatalized, so that should give us *nakaxtli. Indeed the most likely consonant in this position would be /a/, so let's reconstruct *naakásà- as the root for early-proto-Nahuatl (first syllable long, because otherwise it would probably have been lost too).

In Cora and Huichol when a vowel is lost and a consonant cluster arises, sometimes they simply delete the first of the two consonants - so now the entire unstressed syllable has disappeared. This is why Cora has dropped the /tɨ/ syllable in the word for "nixtamal" proto-Corachol-Nahua *nasitɨma, which became proto-Cora *násimwá, and why proto-Corachol-Nahua *siku-(teni)putsi became Cora siputsi, Huichol xɨtemútsi and Nahuatl xik-tli (Nahuatl just used siku, and didn't add the teniputsi element, though it appears in the word te:mpotza referring to pursing one's lips). If proto-Cora and Proto-Huichol differed in how the accent was placed on a word (and we know they sometimes did), they would end up each losing a different syllable.

This suggests the following development led to Cora nasaíh and Huichol naká and Nahuatl nakastli

·       nakasa > proto-Cora *nákàsá(-hiti) > náksáhí násaíh

·       nakasa > proto-Huichol *naakásà > *nakás naká

·       nakasa > Early proto-Nahuatl *naakásà-tɨ > *nakás-tɨ > nakastli

It is clear that Nahuatl and Huichol must have shared the same accent pattern on this word, leading to the loss of the final vowel of naakásà, whereas in Cora the *kà was unstressed and became lost. (The reason I reconstruct the first syllable as long in Huichol and Nahuatl is that long syllables cannot be lost even when unstressed, in Huichol a variant pronunciation has a short vowel as in Nahuatl, but this is likely to be a subsequent shortening after the accent pattern had reconstituted itself after the process of syncopation).


  • Cora Mariteco                       nasaíh                      "oreja"
  • Proto-Cora                           *nákàsáhi
  • Huichol                                   naká, naaká           "oreja"
  • Proto-Corachol                   *nakasa                     "ear"
  • PreProto-Nahuatl              *nakása                     "ear"
  • Proto-Corachol-Nahua     *nakasa                     "ear"

What this exercise in reconstruction shows us, is that the near-homophony, and the ensuing punnability, between the words for “ear” and “nopal” go back to the common ancestral language of Corachol and Nahuatl. The cactus/ear pun works even at this deep stage of the languages' development. 

Could the nopal-ears of the depicted face be a logogram, with the value NAKA?

The name of the"Great Goddess" of Teotihuacan?

The image of the face with nopal-ears is part of the mural that has been interpreted as a procession of priestly figures (see Helmke and Nielsen 2014: 91-94; see also Miller 1973: Figs. 229-239). The mural has also been called the Mural of the Great Goddess” because some scholars, notably Esther Pasztory (1973) have identified it as depicting a deity that she considered the “great Goddess” of Teotihuacan. Pasztory proposed that the Great Goddess was the main deity in Teotihuacan, a goddess of fertility and rain, and she identifies this goddess in many murals. More recently, the idea of a “Great Goddess” complex as described by Pasztory has fallen out of favour among epigraphers working with Teotihuacan iconography, since it seems to include things that are really best understood as being different elements. Zoltán Paulinyi (2006), for instance, argues that Pazstory and others who posit a Great Goddess in Teotihuacan are conflating several different figures into one, and he prefers distinguishing between several of these figures, and he calls the cactus-ear face for "the Opuntia Deity". Paulinyi may be right of course that the different depictions described by Pasztory as "the great Goddess" may in fact be different, but here we are interested specifically in what he calls the "Opuntia Deity".


Another figure in the Tetitla murals that
Pasztory believed to represent "the Great Goddess".
(Adrián Hernández, wikicommons).

If the painters of the mural intended the opuntia pun to be a phonetic clue to allow us to "read" the image as a word, then perhaps they are a clue to the identity or name of the figure whose face is depicted? I think there is reason to think that this is possible. 

The Huichol people of Jalisco and Nayarit are well known for being among the most religiously conservative Uto-Aztecan peoples. They still practice a polytheistic religion, with many narratives and deities that echo those we know from the sources about the Aztecs. One of the central deities of the Huichol is a founder goddess, a goddess of the earth, rain and fertility, known sometimes as "Grandmother Growth" (Zingg 2004:112). She was the one who taught the first human Watákame how to survivethe flood and how to cultivate corn, and she also saved the animals in a boatmade from ficus bark (amate paper). Her name in Huichol is Nakawé.  

The name of Takutsi (grandmother) Nakawé is sometimes translated as "hollow ear", and it is explained that she is so named because she listens and was the only deity to realize that the diluvial flood was coming. But one might also suggest an etymology of "big ear" since the syllable , is potentially related to the Nahuatl word we:yi "big". She is in many ways comparable to the Nahuatl deity Tlalteuctli, the Earth Goddess, and like the Aztec aquatic monster Cipactli from whose body the world was created, Nakawé gave parts of her body to humans for their sustenance. Perhaps it was her ears then, which became the nopal cactus whose sweet fruits and nutritious pads sustain the people and wildlife of the vast Mexican deserts? 

Already in 1974, Peter Furst who had done extensive work with the Huichol, suggested that the Great Goddess proposed by Pasztory might be related to the Huichol deity Nakawé. He saw the similarity between the aquatic and chthonic and pro-social aspects of the Huichol goddess and Pasztory's proposal that Teotihuacan society was united by a shared belief in a benevolent goddess of fertility, rain, earth and growth. So, Furst was the first to independently suggest the relation between the Huichol deity Nakawé and the goddess of Teotihuacan (though not specifically the opuntia deity), the reading of the puntia earring as a logogram for NAKA provides independent evidence for this identification (though Furst may of course have been wrong in thinking the same identification applied to all the depictions of the deity proposed by Pasztory).

If my reasoning and conclusions here are sound and can be accepted, then the nopal cactus ears in the Tetitla murals juxtaposes ears with nopal pads as earflares thereby employing the logogram NAKA as a phonetic reinforcement that aids in identifying the name of the figure so depicted. This in turn strongly suggests that:

1.     In the period when the Tetitla murals were painted (perhaps about AD 300-500?), there were speakers of a Uto-Aztecan language closely related to Corachol and Nahuan at Teotihuacan 

2.    They used phonetic principles to write names of individuals and/or entities in their iconography, integrating logograms for their phonetic values into depictions of persons and places.

3.    The phonetic signs cannot be read by simply using the phonetic values of Nahuatl or Cora or Huichol, because the language recorded is older than any of them. Therefore, comparative studies of the Coracholan and Nahuan languages using historical reconstruction may yield keys to reading the phonetic values of such signs. 

References Cited:

  • Furst, Peter T. (1974) "Morning glory and mother goddess at Tepantitla, Teotihuacan: iconography and analogy in pre-Columbian art." Mesoamerican Archaeology: New Approaches, edited by Norman Hammond, pp. 187-215.. Austin: University of Texas Press..
  • Helmke, C. and J. Nielsen. “If mountains could speak: Ancient toponyms recorded at Teotihuacan, Mexico”  Contributions in New World Archaeology, Vol. 7: 73-112:
  • Miller, A. G. (1973). The Mural Painting of Teotihuacan. Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
  • Paulinyi, Z. (2006). The" Great Goddess" of Teotihuacan: fiction or reality?. Ancient Mesoamerica, 1-15.
  • Pasztory, E. (1971) The mural paintings of Tepantitla, Teotihuacan. Ph.D. Dissertation. New York: Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University.
  • Pasztory, E. (1974). The iconography of the Teotihuacan Tlaloc. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology15.  Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.
  • Zingg, Robert Mowry. 2004. Huichol Mythology. University of Arizona Press.

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