Myths and legends of every people of the earth are closely linked to the territory in which they are born. So it was also for the Mayans and the Aztecs who lived in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In this zone, two of the many volcanoes of that land rich in history have become symbols of a tragic love story.
Volcanoes were very important to the Aztecs: in their pantheon, the deity that represented them was Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of the day, of heat and fire, the lord of the volcanoes, and the personification of life after death. He was also the lord of light in the darkness, of food in the famine, and of the heat in the cold. The deity was considered both the mother and the father of the gods who lived in the Mitclan, an underground world also populated by the souls of the less valiant dead. In the ancient history of Mexico, volcanoes were therefore sacred places, dear to the gods, often protagonists of legendary tales.
In Aztec mythology, two volcanoes that rise near Mexico City were once two human beings, a man and a woman united by a great love, which later turned into two craters, now considered the symbol of their love.
The two volcanoes are located in the regions of Puebla, México and Morales, in central Mexico, and are visible both from the city of Puebla and from Mexico City. Popocatepetl, which means “mountain of smoke”, is 5,426 meters high and is the second highest peak in the nation, still active as a volcano.
Instead, already for thousands of years, the Iztaccihuatl volcano, or “the white woman”, is the third Mexican relief (5230 meters high) and has four single snow-capped peaks reminiscent of a sleeping woman’s head, chest, knees and feet, looking from the east or from the west.
The first archaeological finds in the two volcanoes date back to 1889, when it was clear that the Aztecs used to climb these peaks, perhaps to celebrate religious ceremonies, or to get in touch with the energy of the Earth.
Popocateletl and Iztaccihuatl are also known by two short monikers: Popo and Izta, and their story is shrouded in the mists of time.
Thousands of years ago, when the Aztec Empire was in its heyday and dominated the Valley of Mexico, it was common practice to subject neighboring towns, and to require a mandatory tax. It was then that the chief of the Tlaxcaltecas, bitter enemies of the Aztecs, weary of this terrible oppression, decided to fight for his people’s freedom.
The chief had a daughter named Iztaccihuatl: the most beautiful of all the princesses, who had professed her love for young Popocatepetl, the most handsome and valiant warrior. Both professed a deep love for each other, so before leaving for war, Popocatepetl asked the chief for the hand of Princess Iztaccihuatl. The father gladly agreed and promised to welcome him back with a big celebration to give him his daughter’s hand if he returned victorious from the battle.
The brave warrior accepted, and departed keeping in his heart the promise that the princess would be waiting for him to consummate their love.
Soon afterward, a love rival of Popocatepetl, jealous of the love they professed to each other, told Princess Iztaccihuatl that her beloved had died in combat.
Crushed by such tragedy and overwhelmed by sadness the princess died, without even imagining it could be a lie.
Popocatepetl returned victorious to his people, hoping to find his beloved princess, but upon arrival, he received the terrible news of the death of Iztaccihuatl.
Devastated by the news, he wandered about the streets for several days and nights, until he decided he had to do something to honor her love and to assure that the princess would not ever be forgotten.
He ordered a great tomb built under the sun, he carried the dead Princess in his arms, took her to the summit and laid her on a great mountain. The young warrior lovingly kissed her cold lips, took a smoking torch and knelt in front of his beloved to watch over her eternal sleep. From then on, they continue together, facing each other. Eventually the snow covered their bodies, forming two majestic volcanoes that would remain joined till the end of time.
The legend tells of the pain of the great warrior Popocatepetl: when he remembers his beloved, his heart, that preserves the fire of eternal passion, shakes and his torch smokes. That’s why, even today, the Popocatepetl volcano continues spewing fumaroles.
Iztaccihuatl instead sleeps quietly, perhaps being content to have Popocatepetl next to her, for eternity.
As for the coward, Tlaxcala,who lied to Iztaccihuatl, overcome with repentance for the tragedy that ensued, he went off to die very near his land. He also became a mountain, Pico de Orizaba, another of the region’s volcanoes and now, from afar, watches the eternal dream of the two lovers, never again to be separated.
An Aztec love story that continues to fascinate anyone who listens to it, and has been passed on from generation to generation since the time of the Aztec Empire, in the XIV century. It seems that during the starry nights, many in Puebla and Mexico City turn their gaze to the two volcanoes, trying to see the outlines of the two unlucky lovers who lived in a world that is no longer there, mysterious but now too far away.