The Two Volcanoes

There was a time, rather long ago, when I used to have a keen interest in volcanoes. This would have been around the time I was nine: I would spend hours on the internet—much to the chagrin of my parents—reading about volcanoes, looking at pictures and videos, and I also had a stack of illustrated science encyclopaedias for the sole purpose of looking at pictures of volcanoes. It was quite an obsession at the time, and I even dedicated a blog to it: The Kid Volcanologist.

Unfortunately, the blog has been dead for quite a while now—it’s still on the web of course, here—because my interests moved on, as is typical of children.

But a few years ago, I had come across a story, a folktale, about two volcanoes: that of Popocatepetl (take your time) and Iztaccihuatl. While this tale attracted at first because of my former interest in volcanoes, it has since remained with me for its romantic aspects and its harking back to a lost culture.

Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl are two volcanoes in Mexico, the former being active, and the latter, dormant, and are the second and third highest peaks in Mexico, both reaching altitudes of over 5000 metres. Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl are Nahuatl (a prominent language in the Aztec Empire) words meaning “Smoking Mountain” and “White Woman” respectively.

These two mountains feature in a famous Aztec folktale—which I had the pleasure of reading by chance in an English textbook (the title of which I can’t recall)—in which they are star-crossed lovers:

Iztaccihuatl was a princess, the daughter of a great chieftain, who—in transgression of all possible court protocol—fell in love with a general in her father’s army: the brave Popocatepetl. Popocatepetl was not a prince, and there was much disapproval. But—perhaps because indigenous peoples have been better at accepting all kinds of love than most mainstream civilisations—Iztaccihuatl’s father agreed to allow the two to marry, but on condition that Popocatepetl return victorious from the next military campaign.

Popocatepetl was a ferocious and brave warrior, sure to return from battle victorious. Iztaccihuatl waited expectantly for her lover to return while the royal court watched with a twinge of disapproval, and Citlaltepetl, a prince and one of Iztaccihuatl’s royal suitors, burned with jealousy. At last, unable to bear the thought of the princess being wed to anybody else, Citlaltepetl falsely informed Izta that Popocatepetl had died in battle, in hopes that she would marry Citla instead.

The serene Iztaccihuatl was stricken by grief and wept and wept. She wept until she could breathe no more, and then lay down and died.

In the meantime, Popocatepetl had vanquished his enemies and returned victorious. He headed to the palace, only to find his beloved dead. In anguish, he cursed the tribe and Citlaltepetl for this horrible dishonour, and, inconsolable, roamed the streets of the city for days, carrying Iztaccihuatl’s body on his shoulders, until, exhausted, he decided to place her body down. He knelt beside her and vowed thence to stand guard over her reclining body till his dying day with a smoking torch and, in his grief and rage, rained down fire and lava upon the earth.

Citlaltepetl was cursed to watch this unmatched display of love for all eternity, and he still stands today, watching the two volcanoes from a distance—he is the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest mountain, a short distance from the two volcanoes.

Popocatepetl is an active volcano, continuously smoking, and occasionally erupting, and Iztaccihuatl truly resembles a sleeping woman covered in a white blanket of snow—Tefiti, the island of the reclining Earth goddess in Moana, is strangely reminiscent of Iztaccihuatl (the idea I mean, not physical likeness).

This legend has a strange poignancy attached to it: the bards and grandmothers who told these stories are no more, having been brutally vanquished by Europeans centuries ago, but their voices—speaking about their love for their surroundings—continue to reach us through the unending existence of nature.

People, especially animist or tribal cultures, tend to anthropomorphize natural formations like mountains and rivers, imagining them as people or deities. The spread of Abrahamic religions and thinking across the world has eradicated thinking of “Nature” as a mother and of mountains and rivers as “people” or “gods” in favour of a more abstract concept of an omnipresent and invisible being (“Worship the Creator, not the Creation”) and as a result, we are today accustomed to thinking of animism and nature worship as childish idolatry, even if we aren’t religious. But that’s far from the truth: tribal and indigenous societies, by viewing nature as sacred and sentient, and divine or at least “human”, formed a deep bond with their surroundings and cultivated a deep respect for the world that sustains us, something that, in today’s era of environmental degradation, perhaps we could do well to learn from instead of belittling.

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