"Mexico’s Mountain of Flame"
By Ruth Ross Merrimer
July 2003 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 19, Number 11

      In an area extending from San Blas on the Pacific coast, through the central area of Guadalajara, the Valley of Mexico, and reaching all the way to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico is crossed by a broad band of volcanic mountains called the Sierra Volcanica Transversal. The tallest, most famous and most beloved of all the mountains in this huge lineup are Popocatepetl (popo-ca-ta-patl), soaring 17,887 feet, and Ixtaccihautl (Esta-cee-watl), 17,343 feet. Standing sentinel over the millions of residents of Mexico City, these two snow-clad giants are among the tallest mountains in the Western Hampshire.
      Affectionately called Popo—the smoking warrior, and Izta—the sleeping woman, the volcanoes were worshiped by the ancient Mexicans centuries before the emergence of Christianity, and though they are no longer worshiped, Popo and Izta, and the legend that tells about them, are still loved and revered by the Mexicans.
      Many centuries ago, a rich and powerful Aztec mayor of the city of Campeche had an only child, a daughter called Izta, whose young life had been spent in preparation for the time when her father died and she would become ruler of his realm. Because of her beauty and high position, many young men wanted to marry her, but Izta harbored a secret. She had already fallen in love with Popo, the eldest son of the ruler in a neighboring kingdom, whom she had been forbidden to ever see again. Some years before, Popo’s father had paid a visit to Izta’s father to discuss the idea of combining their two empires and forming one powerful kingdom, making them impervious to attack and take over by other kings wishing to enlarge their kingdoms. While the two kings met in daily talks of the way to accomplish this, they encouraged Popo and Izta to spend their time together, in the hope they would fall in love and marry. Such a union would ensure their direct descendants would rule the combined kingdom for centuries to come.
      During the visit, Izta took Popo on long walks to see the fields of corn, grain and melons her people cultivated on communal farms, and showed him the warehouses where grain was stored for the times when Tlaloc the Rain God withheld his life-giving rains. While being carried on litters by slaves, the young couple nestled in each other’s arms, speaking of how they would improve the lives of their people when they became rulers, and the sacrifices they would make to their many gods to keep drought and pestilence from overtaking their lands.
      Izta took Popo to a village where the most talented artisans of the kingdom lived, and showed him the beautifully carved images and paintings that were used to decorate their temples. On one visit, she had the most creative make a likeness of her favorite deity, the Goddess of Love, which she attached to a thin thread of dried deerskin and hung around Popo’ s neck. When not visiting the many villages of the kingdom, the young couple spent their days relaxing under a shade tree or swimming in the streams. In the evenings, they joined their fathers and tribal elders around a campfire, singing of the glories of their ancestors. After everyone else had retired, they made love and gave thanks to the Goddess of Love for bringing them together. With each minute and hour they spent together, they fell more deeply in love.
      One night a terrible argument broke out between the two kings over who would be the most powerful in their shared kingdom. As their argument grew more heated, the warriors of each king grabbed their weapons and faced off, ready to defend their respective leader. A ware they would be the first to be killed if a fight broke out, both kings ordered their warriors to stand down, and Popo’s father gave an order to his men to prepare for their return home.
      Forbidden to ever see or speak to each other again, Popo and Izta managed a last meeting where they pledged their undying love. As they kissed and hugged, they prayed their fathers would reconcile, so they would be free to marry and live happily ever after. But it was not to be. Their hopes for a truce were dashed when Izta’s father fell desperately ill, and taking advantage of the situation, Popo’s father declared war on him.
      Too sick to lead his men into battle, each morning Izta’s father would give her his battle plan for the day and she would carry the orders to his commanders; sometimes leading the men into battle. One morning, she went to her father’s bedside to receive his orders only to find him dead. With her father dead and no one to guide her, Izta surrendered rather than have her warriors slaughtered in battles they could not win.
      Popo rejoiced when his father brought him the news of their victory, thinking that now he could claim Izta for his wife. His father was horrified at the mere thought that the daughter of his hated enemy might some day occupy his throne as queen, and to eliminate the possibility, ordered Izta be sacrificed to the God of War who had brought him victory.
      Popo pleaded with his father to spare Izta’ s life, promising he would take her with him into exile and give up his right to succession. But, despite his tearful pleas and promises, his father would not give in. Izta must die.
      Early one morning, as the sun made its first appearance over the mountains, Izta was brought to the sacred place of sacrifice where the people had gathered to witness the event. Standing alone from the crowd at the altar, Popo prayed for a miracle that would save her life. Approaching the altar where she would receive the thrust of the obsidian knife that would take her life, Izta paused before Popo, whispering she would be waiting for him in the after-life. Then, overcome with emotion and the dread of dying, she slumped to the ground in a faint. When a guard screamed at Izta to rise and nudged her limp body with his foot, Popo became enraged at this affront to his beloved, and grabbing a spear from one of the warriors ran it clear through the guard’s body.
      Crazy mad at the sight of the dead guard, Popo’s father ordered his men to kill both Izta and Popo. Throwing themselves on the ground in numb horror, the people turned their heads to shut out the bloody spectacle of warriors plunging their spears again and again into the bodies of the young lovers. At this very instant, wave after wave of terrible roars came down from the heavens, striking fear in the hearts of the people, causing them to call on their gods to save them. In the dead silence that followed the roars, the people raised their heads, staring in disbelief. The bodies of Popo and Izta had disappeared, and towering over the spot where they had fallen, stood two enormously tall mountains; jutting so high in the sky they completely eclipsed the familiar smaller mountains that had always been there.
      Atop one of the new mountains lay the perfect form of a woman in repose, her breasts pointing up to the sky, while smoke and fire spewed miles up into the sky from the phallus-shaped peak of the other new mountain. The people named the mountain with the form of a woman Iztaccihautl—the sleeping woman, and called her companion Popocatepetl, Aztec for “smoking warrior.”
      Because of their love for each other, and their belief that miracles could happen, the Goddess of Love had fulfilled Popo and Izta’s wish to be together through all eternity. And despite the passage of time, Popo continues to let off smoke and fire as a reminder to all who watch that he will keep vigilance over Izta’ s sleeping form until young lovers no longer pray to the Goddess of Love.
      (Ed. Note: This is another in the collection of stories compiled by Ruth Merrimer, soon to be published as “Tall Tales & True Stories of Mexico.”

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