Prayer during Time of Pestilence

Totonac Civilization, mural in Mexico City finished in 1950 by Diego Rivera.

Totonac Civilization, mural in Mexico City finished in 1950 by Diego Rivera.






If anyone thinks the ancient citizens of Mexico were dumb bunnies or primitive pagans, please read this prayer translated from Uto-Aztecan. Its rhetoric, wisdom and stylistic power is palpable today.

Prayer to Tezcatlipoca during Time of Pestilence

(from Donald N. Yates, Merchant Adventurer Kings of Rhoda: The Lost World of the Tucson Artifacts, p. 27, 2018).


The Toltecs had a highly organized religion. Archeologists have mapped pilgrimage routes that extended from Michoacán and the Chalchihuites homeland in West Mexico to places in the American Southwest. They had epic legends, priestly orders, their own writing system and a great fondness for speech making on all occasions. George Kennedy, among others, has studied their rhetoric through Aztec continuances. There is no reason not to believe the Tucson Basin served as a vital hearth for cross-cultural influences between the Toltec Chichimeca and “Roman” peoples during the Pioneer Period of the Hohokam and beyond. The Toltecs’ homeland, described as Huehue Tlapallan, meaning “Old Red Land,” was evidently identical with the city of Rhoda and Red City to the South of the Hopis. Tlapallan was the original land of Quetzalcoatl, and the country to which he was urged to return before his death. After 900, the direction of the spread of civilization was reversed, taking Kokopelli, cliff dwellings and Quetzalcoatl back southward. The primitive Aztecs followed similar trading paths and met up with their more civilized Uto-Aztecan speaking predecessors and others in the Valley of Mexico around 1000. To help the reader imagine a depth of psychology and polish of manners incapable of being conveyed by the mute stones and petroglyphs and pottery sequences of archeology, here is one of the long, elegantly expressed prayers to the Toltec god Tezcatlipoca preserved verbatim by Sahagun in the sixteenth century. It was ritually spoken from on high by the chief priest with the people assembled and present and is titled “Prayer to Tezcatlipoca, Used by the Priest in Time of Pestilence.” Others, given at length by Bancroft and taken from the same source, include prayers of daily grace, in illness, for succor against poverty, for favor in wartime against the enemy, for a newly elected ruler, excommunication and to get rid of a ruler, confession and absolution and thanksgiving by a ruler. In language and style Toltec rhetoric and composition compare well with the Latin written during the Carolingian renaissance reviving Greek and Roman eloquence—or with that of the Hebrew Bible, for that matter. Consider, for instance, this prayer of the ruler giving thanks to Tezcatlipoca: “See good, O Lord, to give me a little light, though it be only as much as a fire-fly gives out, going about at night; to light me in this dream, in this life asleep that endures as for a day; where are many things to stumble at, many things to give occasion for laughing at one, many things like a rugged road that has to be gone over by leaps. All this has to happen in the position thou hast put me in, giving me thy seat and dignity (pp. 229-30).” We can imagine public prayers like this being offered in a Uto-Aztecan language similar to Pima/Papago or in the Purépecha language of the Tarascan colonists on Tumamoc Hill, in Snaketown, at the St. Mary’s Site, Hodges Ruin, Grewe/Casa Grande or at Chaco Canyon, as well as in La Quemada, Altavista, Cholula, Tula, Chalchihuites, Culiacán, Amapa, El Opeño, Casas Grandes or Guasave. The overtones with a Jewish synagogue prayer are striking. The implicit theology of One God is astonishing. Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Native Races: Myths and Languages (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1882), pp. 200-204; translated from the Spanish of Bernardino de Sahagun, who set down the prayer along with many others of great length from field research conducted with Nahuatl speakers in Tepeopulco, Hidalgo, about 1550, including it in his encyclopedic work Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (p. 132, n. 61).


Text of Prayer

Bearded Semitic merchant wearing keffiyah

Bearded Semitic merchant wearing keffiyah, from Hodges Ruin, Tucson, dated to Cañada del Oro period ca. 500-700. Rafael Serrano, after figurine published in Kelly (1978), p. 199 in Yates, Merchant Adventurer Kings (2018).

O mighty Lord, under whose wing we find defense and shelter, thou art invisible and impalpable even as night and the air. How can I that am so mean and worthless dare to appear before thy majesty? Stuttering and with rude lips I speak; ungainly is the manner of my speech as one leaping among furrows, as one advancing unevenly; for all this I fear to raise thine anger, and to provoke instead of appeasing thee; nevertheless thou wilt do unto me as may please thee. O Lord, that hast held it good to forsake us in these days, according to the counsel thou has as well in heaven as in hades,—alas for us, in that thine anger and indignation has descended in these days upon us; alas, in that the many and grievous afflictions of thy wrath have overgone and swallowed us up, coming down even as stones, spears, and arrows upon the wretches that inhabit the earth,—this is the sore pestilence with which we are afflicted and almost destroyed. Alas, O valiant and all-powerful Lord, the common people are almost made an end of and destroyed; a great destruction and ruin the pestilence already makes in this nation; and what is most pitiful of all, the little children that are innocent and understand nothing, only to play with pebbles and to heap up little mounds of earth, they too die, broken and dashed to pieces as against stones and a wall—a thing very pitiful and grievous to be seen, for there remain of them not even those in the cradles, nor those that could not walk nor speak. Ah, Lord, how all things become confounded; of young and old and of men and women there remains neither branch nor root; thy nation and thy people and thy wealth are leveled down and destroyed. O our Lord, protector of all, most valiant and most kind, what is this? Thine anger and thine indignation, does it glory or delight in hurling the stone and arrow and spear? The fire of the pestilence, made exceeding hot, is upon thy nation, as a fire in a hut, burning and smoking, leaving nothing upright or sound. The grinders of thy teeth are employed, and thy bitter whips upon the miserable of thy people, who have become lean and of little substance, even as a hollow green cane. Yea, what doest thou now, O Lord, most strong, compassionate, invisible, and impalpable, whose will all things obey, upon whose disposal depends the rule of the world, to whom all is subject,—what in thy divine breast hast thou decreed? Peradventure has thou altogether forsaken thy nation and thy people? Hast thou verily determined that it utterly perish, and that there be no more memory of it in the world, that the peopled place become a wooded hill and a wilderness of stones? Peradventure wilt thou permit that the temples, and the places of prayer, and the altars, built for thy service, be razed and destroyed and no memory of them be left? Is it indeed possible that thy wrath and punishment and vexed indignation are altogether implacable and will go on to the end to our destruction? Is it already fixed in thy divine counsel that there is to be no mercy nor pity for us, until the arrows of thy fury are spent to our utter perdition and destruction? Is it possible that this lash and chastisement is not given for our correction and amendment, but only for our total destruction and obliteration; that the sun shall nevermore shine upon us, but that we must remain in perpetual darkness and silence; that nevermore thou wilt look upon us with eyes of mercy, neither little nor much? Wilt thou after this fashion destroy the wretched sick that cannot find rest nor turn from side to side, whose mouth and teeth are filled with earth and scurf? It is a sore thing to tell how we are all in darkness, having none understanding nor sense to watch for or aid one another. We are all as drunken and without understanding, without hope of any aid; already the little children perish of hunger, for there is none to give them food, nor drink, nor consolation, nor caress—none to give the breast to them that suck; for their fathers and mothers have died and left them orphans, suffering for the sins of their fathers. O our Lord, all-powerful, full of mercy, our refuge, though indeed thine anger and indignation, thine arrows and stones, have sorely hurt this poor people, let it be as a father or a mother that rebukes children, pulling their ears, pinching their arms, whipping them with nettles, pouring chill water upon them; all being done that they may amend their puerility and childishness. Thy chastisement and indignation have lorded and prevailed over these thy servants, over this poor people, even as rain falling upon the trees and the green canes, being touched of the wind, drops also upon those that are below. O most compassionate Lord, thou knowest that the common folk are as children, that being whipped they cry and sob and repent of what they have done. Peradventure, already these poor people by reason of thy chastisement weep, sigh, blame, and murmur against themselves; in thy presence they blame and bear witness against their bad deeds and punish themselves therefor. Our Lord most compassionate, pitiful, noble, and precious, let a time be given the people to repent; let the past chastisement suffice, let it end here, to begin again if the reform endure not. Pardon and overlook the sins of the people; cause thine anger and they resentment to cease; repress it again within thy breast that it destroy no farther; let it rest there; let it cease, for of a surety none can avoid death nor escape to any place. We owe tribute to death; and all that live in the world are the vassals thereof; this tribute shall every man pay with his life. None shall avoid from following death, for it is thy messenger what hour soever it may be sent, hungering and thirsting always to devour all that are in the world and so powerful that none shall escape; then indeed shall every man be punished according to his deeds. O most pitiful Lord, at least take pity and have mercy upon the children that are in the cradles, upon those that cannot walk. Have mercy also, O Lord, upon the poor and very miserable, who have nothing to eat, not to cover themselves withal, nor a place to sleep, who do not know what thing a happy day is, whose days pass altogether in pain, affliction, and sadness. Than this, were it not better, O Lord, if thou should forget to have mercy upon the soldiers and upon the men of war, whom thou wilt have need of sometime; behold it is better to die in war and go to serve food and drink in the house of the sun, than to die in this pestilence and descend to hades. O most strong Lord, protector of all, lord of the earth, governor of the world, and universal master, let the sport and satisfaction thou hast already taken in this past punishment suffice; make an end of this smoke and fog of thy resentment; quench also the burning and destroying fire of thine anger; let serenity come and clearness; let the small birds of thy people begin to sing and to approach the sun; give them quiet weather so that they may cause their voices to reach thy highness and thou mayest know them. O our Lord, most strong, most compassionate, and most noble, this little have I said before thee, and I have nothing more to say, only to prostrate and throw myself at thy feet, seeking pardon for the faults of this my prayer; certainly I would not remain in thy displeasure, and I have no other thing to say.

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