Edgar Anaya Rodríguez
Popocatépetl's birthday is celebrated with passion but the origins of this ritual are buried deep in the ground.
Nothing was missing at the annual party for saint Gregorio Chino Popocatéptl that was celebrated according to the Mexican tradition. There was food, music, gifts and the traditional birthday song was sung. Even fireworks were let off and the people cheered.
On seeing the saint happy, the organizers of the fiesta were satisfied, including the main one, Don Antonio. Everything was worth while; the heavy walk up the mountain, the costs and the time invested in the preparations on the whole of that day, March 12.
THE WORKERS OF THE WEATHER
In the 16th century, Sahagún spoke of the fertility rites practiced by the "shamans and witchdoctors, who brought about hail", and who with their prayers and body movements, stopped the hail and brought about rain for the crops with their "magical wands".
Today the wind and the clouds are analyzed by groups of men and women who know about the weather, known as the
tiemperos (weather people) or granizeros. (hail people). Farmers from the neighboring villages and towns come to them and pay them to prevent hail from falling or to bring about rain. That is why they call themselves the workers of the weather.
They have not inherited this gift from their predecessors but rather from the sky and the word. The worker of the weather (the tiempero) is someone who has survived being struck by lightning or who has been named by Gregorio Popocatépetl himself, personified by that old man that so many have reported seen in the fields and the villages surrounding the volcano.
Antonio Analco, one of the tiemperos,
tells us: "When I was a boy, when I was a boy-ero, I saw a man in the fields and I asked him: ' Who are you? I don't know you.' He replied 'I am Gregorio Chino Popocatépetl , and you are going to work with me. There, up in the smoking mountain, that's where you are going to work. You're going to be with me. I will always receive you when you come to visit me', he said. 'Alright', I said. Then I had a lot of dreams. I saw him in different ways in my dreams".
"God, the Father gave me that gift", adds Antonio Analco, "and I'm going to use it as long as I'm alive."
It is quite clear to the people of these towns and villages that Gregorio Popocatépetl is as much a volcano in nature as a man-deity. At the same time, it is water that trickles from the springs, fertilizing ash and an impressive part of the scenery; as a human, it is for many, the old man who suddenly appears and then disappears, the same that asks for food and gifts, but which he will only accept if they are placed in the sacred places at the top of the volcano.
"Of course I've seen him…several times", says Doña Anselma Hernández who, 70 years of age, barefoot and wearing only a sweater to keep her warm, goes up the volcano each year to an altitude of more than 4,000 meters. "I've been going up the volcano for years now. They sat that this fellow is going to cover us in ash, but will the old man do to us? We even went up when he was throwing out rocks: we didn't see anything, but he did see him on my daughter's birthday, with his long beard. I said to him: 'Cut that beard off. You look like a goat!'" Some time later, they left some disposable razors in the sacred place.
A VOLCANO PAINTED THE COLOR OF "TLALOC BLUE"
Deity of the mountains, of water and of fertility, Tlaloc was directly associated with Popocatépetl, who is a mountain, provides water and fertility. The Dominican monk, Diego Durán wrote in the 16
th century that "the Indians revered the mountain in time of old because it was the mountain+ of all mountains. This was especially so among those who lived in the surrounding areas. They made very ordinary sacrifices and offerings to it…" At about the same time, Sahagún wrote that the Indians made sacrifices and offerings to the deities of water and that they made models of it with amaranth seed paste.
Several pre Hispanic altars have been found on Popocatépetl, as well as cups with the face of Tlaloc on them. They have also found rupestrian (cave paintings) paintings there on the same themes.
The pre Hispanic fiestas in honor of the deities of rain took place between February 2 and April 22 in our calendar, a period of rituals that coincides with that of the
tiemperos of Puebla, as February 2 is the day on which the seed is blessed and March 12 –Popocatépetl's birthday- is when the preparatory ceremony for the formal petition for rain takes place. The actual ceremony takes place on May 2.
Along with the weather, the place is another dimension of the ritual done to the volcano. This is a rocky crest some 45 meters long by 15 meters high known as "El Ombligo". Situated on the eastern side of the volcano, about 2,000 meters from the crater at an altitude of 4,300 meters, it is a rock formation that breaks the dull monotony of the gray ash bed covering the mountainside and is a magical place. This pre Hispanic altar is the meeting point between the human world and the underworld and the celestial plain and it is almost a monument to syncretism, where the green vegetation and fruit meet with the three permanent wooden crosses for a few hours: the religious images of Catholicism meet with the spirits of the volcano. "El Ombligo", says Julio Glockner in his book,
Los volcanes sagrados (the Sacred Volcanoes), "a central part of the world, a sacred space where there is a relationship with the gods with one's ancestors."
BETWEEN THE MOUTH AND THE STOMACH BUTTON
It's March 12, the day of San Gregorio Magno; it is 7 of the clock in the morning and time for the
tiempero to leave and do his work. The going is uphill, all uphill. The forest in the skirts of the mountain fall behind us and the yellow colored pasture lands are ahead of us; the pace is increasingly low and the weight of the griddles, the firewood, the pots and the bottles gets heavier. Tickling the clouds, El Ombligo is becoming increasingly visible and the oxygen increasingly thin; one step forward turns into two back in the blackened ash surrounding the sacred rocky crag. The icy wind does nothing to discourage the
tiempero's daughters, who are wearing only a thin dress and a small sweater, who are accompanying us up Gregorio's back. Don Antonio, the spiritual leader of the community, is at the front of the group of family and friends that arrive at El Ombligo first. He clears the area of the remains of the last ceremony and heads towards the volcano muttering prayers rather like a child who humbly greets the priest. He covers the three wooden crosses with red flowers, the places the fruit and offerings being made to the mountain on the blanket of color with a great deal of ceremoniousness; the bread and the tortillas, the bottles of tequila, brandy and beer; a big candle. Among the pre Hispanic aroma of incense, the
tiempero lifts the pot with the meal in it and offers his prayers to make the offering to the volcano (sometimes the offering includes turkey's blood). Lastly, the gifts, which Gregorio Chino has requested during the year, (in the past this list has included an accordion, a soldier's battle dress and a suit) are placed on the "altar". In a similar ceremony, Rosita Iztaccíhuatl is offered women's underwear, earrings and shoes on her birthday, August 30.
Don Antonio and his helpers place the clothes on the crosses; the food is placed on a blanket placed over the black ash. This time, the food was a
guajillo chili dish with dry fish; one of the helpers made an offering of an arrangement of vegetables –the man giving back to nature what he has taken from it-, but the main gift was the gold necklace, which Gregorio has requested from the
tiempero in his dreams.
The solemnity and the muttered prayers give way to joyousness and the clamor of the attendants, who start off the celebration by singing
Las mañanitas (the traditional Mexican birthday song), which is often sung al capella, depending on the budget. Fireworks explode in the sky and the people join in a chorus of effusive cheers. "Don Goyo, Don Goyo, ra ra ra!"
Now that Don Goyo has been given his food and presents, Don Antonio and the people can enjoy their own, which they warm up on a fire. Then Don Antonio goes through the ritual of the Dance of the Ribbons. To the sound of a harmonica, the mayors and the women of the village twine or braid the ribbons, a symbol of the rainbow, on a wooden pole. This twining of the ribbons on a pole, in this variation on the dance of fertility that is very popular in Mexico and in Europe, is a request made by the volcano to the
tiempero every year. It is possible to read or predict the weather in the coming months in the way the ribbons have intertwined themselves
"When the weather gets bad, I know which of the clouds has the rain, the wind or the hail".
Under the evening sun and the cool air, the people got together to sing a farewell song to the mountain. This is almost a hymn to syncretism.
"Good-bye beautiful hill/ we are on our way/ Only God Knows/ when we'll come again. /Farewell, farewell, we are on our way/ May Jesus Christ be praised/ we commend ourselves to thee/Farewell Mountain of Christ".
Once the farewell prayers are over, the last ritual in the ceremony, Don Antonio turns to everybody and says: "Thank-you all!" And then it is time to start the long way back. His wife, Doña Inés, was the last to leave the Ombligo. Before she left, she bade farewell to the sacred mountain: she knelt and lowered her head and profound, softly spoken words emanated from her mouth. Tears as shiny as the ice on the mountain came out of her eyes, but they were warm. A few moments later, she started her descent through the clouds down to Earth.
Source: México desconocido # 289 / March 2001