If anything separates a religious individual from an atheist, it is a belief in the soul. Of course, the value of the soul varies in importance between different faiths. For some, the importance of the soul eclipses that of the body, while in others the body and soul are more or less united. Furthermore, the nature of souls is different as its role in a religion. For some, such as Christianity and Egyptian Polytheism, morality is an important component of the soul and determines where the soul goes in the afterlife. Nevertheless, it is the composition of the soul that interests me here. Ancient Mexican’s had very complex beliefs about the soul, which are interesting in their own right. However, they can also be used to explain details about human nature and society.
For the Mexica the soul was divided into three pieces: Tonalli, Teyolia, and Ihiyotl. Each part of the soul comes from a different source, resides in a different part of the body, and composes a different part of a person’s identity/personality. In turn, each part of the soul is comprised of seven other fragments, usually depicted as serpents. Non-human animals also have these ‘compound’ souls, and may even be more complex (that is, have more soul fragments) than people if the animal has a notable special trait such as venom. Plants were not thought to have Teyolia or Ihyotl, but they did have Tonalli. This constituted a fundamental difference between plants and animals that existed in Nahua thought.
Tonalli ultimately comes from the sun, although it is possible to get some from other sources of fire, or even from particularly enigmatic individual who have an excess of it. It is absorbed with sunlight and resides in the top of the head, including the hair. In order to fully understand Tonalli, we have to look at the sacred calendar, the Tonalpohualli. The Tonalpohualli deserves an essay of its own, but here are some brief notes. The calendar has 260 days, divided into 13 ‘weeks’ known as Trecenas. Each day has a number, 1-13, based on its position in the Trecena, and there are 20 of them in total. There is a second cycle of 20 days, this time distinguished by a symbol (each Trecena also has a symbol which is derived from the day symbol of the Trecena’s first day). The combination of 20 symbols and 13 numbers ensures that each day has a unique name. Furthermore, each day has its own unique set of divine patrons who give it spiritual power.
When a person is born, and so first fully exposed to sunlight, they absorb some of the spiritual power, and this influences every action they take in the future. Typically, every day has a few good, bad, and neutral influences, although some days were worse than others. Traditionally, historians have interpreted this as ‘fate,’ but I don’t agree. The Tonalpohualli only lists vague tendencies, such as a weakness for alcohol or a talent for art, not specific predetermined events. These tendencies could be overcome, or avoided entirely with the proper education, preparation, and training. Nor does it in anyway determine human action. It cannot cause you to do anything particular, which is why all that training and education was important.
Tonalli influence is not restricted to birthdays. The spiritual power carried by a date affects everyone on that particular day. Consequently, some days were good for certain activities while other days were bad for those same activities. However, unlike the tonally acquired at birth, the effects only last through the day. People absorb more Tonalli when young, and as they age, their ability to absorb it declines. Thus, people ‘cool down’ as they get older.
The second part of the soul, the Teyolia, sometime also called yolotl resides in the heart. Although Teyolia is also considered a form of ‘divine fire,’ it came from within, rather than the sun. Every living thing had Teyolia, as did some ‘living’ inanimate entities, such as mountains, lakes, rivers, and cities. It can be stronger in some people than others, which is usually considered a good thing. Unlike the Tonalli, Teyolia is not absorbed from the outside world, although certain social actions can increase it, and does not dissipate upon death. Ultimately, it is the Teyolia which goes to the afterlife, although it can become trapped within the body, becoming lost and confused upon a person’s death. Eventually however, the Teyolia will be absorbed into the earth.
Despite its importance, it is not entirely clear what exactly Teyolia actually does. Different sources give slightly different explanations. Generally, they all agree that it provided vitality. Some state that it provided ‘character,’ aptitude, and ability, especially those related to passion and intensity. Other’s suggest that it was also related to willpower and memory. Miguel León-Portilla states that Teyolia can be compared to the western concept of personality. I agree that they can be compared, although we shouldn’t necessarily assume they are always the same as Teyolia can encompass talent and creativity. I interpret Teyolia as a force, the secondary effect of it is to provide vitality, energy, willpower, courage, and similar traits. This may have tertiary consequences, such as an increase in creative confidence, but this is an indirect effect.
The third and final part of the soul. Unfortunately, there is much less information available on the Ihiyotl, so it is much harder to comprehend its full effect on human life. It is thought to reside in the liver, although it was also present is breath and flatulence. It entered the body at birth, and usually remained there. Sometimes though it could leave the body for short periods, although it would eventually return. It also smelt bad, such as death and decay. The Ihiyotl remained in the body after death and decayed back into earth.
The few descriptions that exist of Ihiyotl suggest that it was much more ‘medical’ in concept than other souls. By this, I mean it was more indicative of overall human health. The Ihiyotl is thought to respond to the health and moral balance of an individual, which would explain its connection to the liver. Both work to keep an individual healthy. Thus, the Ihiyotl also provided vitality, though a different kind from that provided by the Teyolia. Beyond this, it has also been connected to emotions and desires. However, I’m not sure it Ihiyotl causes emotions, or if it manages them. Unfortunately, I don’t have any more insight on this particular subject.
Applying the Metaphysics of the Soul:
I believe that the Nahua understanding of the soul is an extremely good way to understand the human condition and helps to resolve some complications with understanding the complex relationships between people, societies, and events. First, it provides a good explanation as to why people’s personalities are not always consistent. Tonalli effectively grounds individuals into the flow of time, while the Teyolia remains relatively stable, Tonalli shifts day by day. Thus, we can see personality (part of it anyway) as interactions between someone’s more long-lasting characteristic with the short-term influence of the Tonalli. We are essentially composite beings, and our identities are shaped, though not determined by the circumstances of our lives and the conditions of our world. Furthermore, souls have a variable amount of strength, and change as people age. Thus, our personalities also change as we age, and we are not entirely consistent.
Second, Nahua soul metaphysics can help negotiate through several tricky philosophical problems. In European though, there is a tension between ideas such as personal responsibility and social causes, as well as between concepts of fate and free will. For example, it tends to believe that people either have complete free will, or the events of their lives are completely pre-determined. Of course, no one really beliefs this, but the consequences of this type of thinking still has an effect on modern philosophical and political discourse. Any debate on poverty, or another social …
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