Monday, July 17, 2023

The Saga of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw

 I've been doing some reading recently about Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, the legendary Mixtec king who founded the Tututepec Empire in Mesoamerica. It's a fascinating story, although it's a bit difficult to work out a standard version of it. The codices on which it is recorded are not fully deciphered and they also vary quite a bit -- they seem each to give regional variants of the same general legend. But roughly it seems that the story is something like this.

It was a common practice in Mesoamerica to name children after their birthday, so we know that Eight Deer Jaguar Claw was born on 8 Deer, which would have been in mid-June; he was born in the year 12 Reed, which is about 1063 in our reckoning. He was the son of a priest, Five Alligator Sun of Rain*, in Tilantongo; his mother seems to have been an important lady from Tecamachalco, named Nine Eagle Cocoa Flower. He had two brothers who end up playing a significant role in his story, Twelve Motion Bloody Jaguar, who became a warrior, and a Nine Flower Copalball Arrow, who became a priest; he also had a half sister, Six Lizard Jade Fan.

The basic story starts with Eight Deer Jaguar Claw visiting a divine oracle, Lady Nine Grass, in Chalcatongo. Lady Nine Grass seems, like the Greek sibyls, to have been a voice of the gods; she weaves in and out of all of the major Mixtec legends of the time, and seems to have an association with death. Lady Nine Grass seems to have called a meeting to deal with some major feuds and wars that were brewing at the time; Eight Deer Jaguar Claw seems to have been around twenty, and seems to have been there on behalf of his father, who had been serving as regent to the young king of Tilantongo. (All of the people who are noted especially as having been there will end up being major contenders in the struggle for control over the region, the most notable being King Eleven Wind of  Red and White Bundle and young Princess Six Monkey War Quechquemitl of Jaltapec, both of whom will be significant rivals for Eight Deer Jaguar Claw and both of whom have an impressive legendary story of their own.) After this meeting, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw has a number of adventures, which according to one version of the legend include conquering a few minor cities. He plays a ball game with a number of Toltec warriors. Ball games were not mere entertainment in Mesoamerica; they were major civic and religious events that seem to have been interpreted allegorically. Afterward, he journeys with companions to the city of Tututepec, according to one version of the legend carrying a variety of sacred objects he has obtained in his adventures, including a flint staff, a conch, a skull shield, a sacred bundle, a golden fish, and an owl spear, and seems to do a series of rituals with them during his journey, although we don't quite know what any of the symbolism of it means. Some of these objects, however, are associated in other legends with the founding of a city or the consecrating of ground for a temple, so the point of the rituals overall is to emphasize the founding of an empire. At Tututepec, he becomes king.

The coastal city of Tututepec seems to have been well placed as a mercantile crossroads, so by taking control of it, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw suddenly had a vast quantity of wealth at his disposal. Even more important than this, however, was that he was able to leverage this into a significant alliance with the powerful Toltec kingdom to the northwest of the Mixteca region, through a Toltec man named Four Jaguar Face of Night. To seal the alliance, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw undergoes a Toltec nose-piercing ceremony, which officially 'adopts', we might say, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw into the Toltec royal family. This seems to have come at an opportune time -- perhaps an opportunity time deliberately selected by Eight Deer Jaguar Claw -- because Tilantongo's ruler had died and left no obvious heir. Thus wealthy, with a significant warband, and having formal recognition as royalty by a powerful ally, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw returns to Tilantongo and seizes the throne. A major campaign follows as Eight Deer Jaguar Claw begins to subjugate the other Mixtec royal houses. A particularly troublesome center is ruled by a king named Eleven Wind Bloody Jaguar; we don't know the name of the city that Eleven Wind Bloody Jaguar ruled, but it's usually nicknamed Red and White Bundle, because that's what its place-symbol looks like. Eleven Wind Bloody Jaguar seems to have had a claim on the Tilantongo throne, and therefore dealing with him was a major priority for Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, who eventually seems to have come to some sort of uneasy treaty with him, sealed by marrying his sister, Six Lizard Jade Fan, to his rival, which he then leveraged in his favor by a marriage (perhaps only symbolic) with Six Lizard Jade Fan's daughter, Thirteen Serpent, thus marrying himself into the family, after which he conquered Red and White Bundle in 1101, killing all of the men in Eleven Wind Bloody Jaguar's family, except for one who seems to have escaped, Four Wind Fire Serpent. The whole of this sequence of events shows Eight Deer Jaguar Claw's impressive use of every means at his disposal to unify the Mixtec cities -- religious ritual, marriage (he had several), war, trade alliance, and more. While he seems to have conquered many cities directly (represented by their place-symbols being pierced by a spear), there are also a lot of cities whose representations indicate a direct surrender (which, as with us, is symbolized by something like a white flag). Thus, it seems that, once he got up a certain amount of momentum, a number of kings, seeing the tendency in events, saw fit simply to ally themselves with the juggernaut rather than be smashed by it. As a result, Eight Deer Jaguar Claw consolidated the many Mixtecan cities into one unified kingdom; literally over a hundred cities are specifically named as having joined the empire.

Some versions of the story seem to suggest that with the help of his brothers, Twelve Motion Bloody Jaguar and Nine Flower Copalball Arrow, he went on to conquer much more mythical places and regions. In particular, he seems to have sought ought a demigod-priest of the One Death, who lived in the region of the dead and was the oracle of the Sun-god himself. Thence he seems to have learned the ritual means to rule as a god-king.

Ah, but from the pinnacle the fall is far and fast. While we don't know for sure that this was the intent, it's possible to read the end of the tale as a commentary on the presumption of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw's trespass on the prerogatives of the gods. Twelve Motion Bloody Jaguar was murdered by what seems to have been a conspiracy of Mixtec rulers, apparently including a couple of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw's own nephews, and Four Wind Fire Serpent managed to organize an ambush against Eight Deer Jaguar Claw that succeeded. Thus died the greatest of all Mixtec kings, ignominiously under an assassin's violent blade. This led to a war between the Mixtec and Toltec kingdoms, but after a treaty was finally made, Four Wind Fire Serpent, who had married the daughter of Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, became the high king of the Mixtec, and Eight Deer Jaguar Claw's line continued even to the time of the coming of the Spanish.**


* There is often some variation in terms of how these names are rendered into English. For instance, Five Alligator is sometimes called Five Crocodile and Twelve Motion is sometimes called Twelve Earthquake.

** I've pieced this story together out of many different sources, but have found John Pohl's "The Legend of Lord Eight Deer", which in parts is very speculative but also hangs everything together in a way that broadly makes sense, particularly helpful. I've blended it with some more cautious accounts in light of what seemed to make the story work, but it should of course be emphasized that I am not in any way an expert on the Mixtec codices and much of our interpretation of them is rough and approximate, anyway.