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 Popothe smoking
warrior, and Iztathe 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, Popos father had
paid a visit to Iztas 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 others 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
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
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 Popos
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
Iztas father fell desperately ill, and taking advantage of the
situation, Popos father declared war on him.
Too sick to lead his men into battle,
each morning Iztas 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 fathers 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 guards body.
Crazy mad at the sight of the dead guard,
Popos 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 Iztaccihautlthe 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 Iztas 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.