Friday, 11 September 2015

Who's Who in The Aztecs

This was written back in 2007 and originally appeared in issue five of Paul Castle's excellent Shooty Dog Thing eZine. It's reproduced here due to popular request (relatively speaking) and because I didn't have anything else lined up for this week's Englishman in Texas.

As something of a pedant where Postclassic Central Mexican culture is concerned, I am often forced to apply my boot to the TV screen when some supposedly authoritative documentary fails to make the distinction between Zacatenco and Tlatilco pottery phases or tries to pass off post-conquest folklore as legitimate pre-conquest mythic history (I'm looking at you, Michael Wood). What seems particularly galling is that with such an impressive body of academic study now available, even in 2007 your average television presenter is still apparently unable to achieve the high standard of what is essentially a 1960s kid's programme. I'm referring of course to John Lucarotti's Doctor Who story The Aztecs.

The Aztecs is set in the Central Mexican city of Tenochtitlan in the year 1507 (and absolutely not 1430 as has been erroneously suggested) at the height of a culture speaking the language we know as Nahuatl. Inevitably The Aztecs is not perfect - the people in question were called Mexica rather than Aztecs (it's a long story); some aspects of set design favour Teotihuacano and Tilantongo styles over those of Tenochtitlan; a few minor theological points are fumbled; and the Nahuatl x is pronounced sh (as in sherry), so names like Yetaxa and Tlotoxl should be pronounced Yetasha and Tlotoshl - but given that the Mexica would hardly have been speaking pseudo-Shakespearean English in the first place, it's probably not worth writing to your MP about this last point.

However, these quibbles are easily ignored given the limitations of anthropological and archaeological knowledge in 1964, the restrictions of the BBC budget, and not least the fact that John Lucarotti's script revealed a genuinely sympathetic understanding of its setting. The otherwise mighty Kate Orman reintroduced the Doctor to Mexico in her novel The Left Handed Hummingbird, and whilst her writing was evidently inspired by a wealth of thorough research, I feel this was somewhat undermined by a less objective take on the subject, particularly with regard to her portrayal of Huitzilopochtli (the much revered God and culture hero) as a sort of nuclear powered Freddie Kruger. John Lucarotti's tale on the other hand presents an inordinately complex moral argument without recourse to easy solutions, and as such remains the more satisfying story to my mind.

When writing The Aztecs, John Lucarotti's only moment of weakness remains his puzzling decision to give his characters names which just sort of sound a bit Aztecy without bearing anything beyond a passing resemblance to true Nahuatl linguistics. Which finally brings me to the point of this article, namely seeing if it's possible to shoehorn the names of Lucarotti's characters into something conducive to translation...

Autloc (Muddy Waters) - Alleged High Priest of Knowledge whose general dress and conduct suggest affiliation to the Quetzalcoatl cult, although more as a senior religious instructor than a fully qualified man of the cloth. Autloc appears to be a vague phonetic anagram of Tlaloc, the rain God whose name is sometimes loosely translated as Pulp of the Earth from tlal-li (earth or land) and -oc (suffix denoting on or adjacent to) - although this interpretation is no less contested than any others that have been offered. If we take au- to be synonymous with the a- of a-tl (water), this being the only realistic available stem (auh is the particle and, then, well, or but, none of which would carry any meaning in this context) we seem to get something equivalent to Pulp of the Earth and Water which immediately brings to mind the legendary blues artist. Well, perhaps not immediately but if you've got any better ideas then I sure would like to hear them.

Cameca (Holes) - Regal Lady with a more than passing interest in William Hartnell's buns. Try as I might, I'm unable to find anything within Frances Karttunen's Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl which might allow for a less weird translation. Unfortunately this leads me to conclude that it can only be Holes, extrapolating this from the name of Amecameca (a town at the southern end of the Valley of Mexico) meaning Water Holes by virtue of the prefix am- pertaining to water.

Chapal (Grasshopper) - Architect and designer of the garden in which William Hartnell delivers an impressive oh shit! face having unwittingly accepted Cameca's proposal of marriage. Although only mentioned in passing, Chapal is ironically one of the few characters sporting an unambiguously credible Nahuatl name. Whilst John Lucarotti spells it Chapal in his novelisation, it is difficult to take this for anything other than Chapul meaning Grasshopper. A pedant might question such an interpretation based on the lack of the customary absolutive suffix -in (by which grasshopper is ordinarily written as chapul-in) to which I would testily cite the example of Atonal, ruler of the town of Coixtlahuaca circa 1458 whose name is similarly bereft of said suffix. Why Chapal should be so named is ambiguous. Either he was a native of Chapultepec (Grasshopper Hill) situated on the western bank of the lake in which the Mexica built their city, or he was a balding boggle-eyed gentleman given to dispensing inscrutable wisdom to David Carradine types. Which seems less likely.

Ixta (Face Dad) - Brave (or perhaps somewhat foolhardy) Jaguar Knight who dared to take on the mighty gob punching power of Ian "let's have a fight" Chesterton. Whether by accident or design, his name represents an unambiguous composite of ix-tli (meaning face, surface or eyes) and ta-tli (father), despite losing the absolutive -tli suffix (see also Chapal). Although Looks Like A Father might be an equally valid interpretation, Face Dad seems somehow fitting in the context of both a television programme broadcast in 1964 and a sharp dressed cat who might be considered swingin' Tenochtitlan's very own precursor to Michael Caine.

Perfect Victim, The - Okay, so we don't actually discover his name, which probably means it's something like Dave or Gordon.

Tlotoxl (Hawk something or other) - Clearly a high-ranking priest of the Tezcatlipoca cult, and a man at the peak of his profession who surely deserved a show of his own. His name might almost be an anagram of Xolotl (meaning dog, twin or monster - take your pick), but is otherwise rendered largely impenetrable by kak-handed application of Nahuatl grammar. The stem tlo- derives from tlo-tli (hawk) but the rest is anyone's guess. Possibly his parents were idiots whose general ineptitude inspired their clumsily monikered offspring to do better, as indeed he did. Whatever one might think of Tlotoxl, he clearly knew his theological onions, and it seems unfair to brand him as superstitious given that, unlike Autloc, he was at least able to tell the difference between a living God and a 1960s school teacher.

Tonila (Warmth of the Sun) - Young priest and possibly an initiate of the Quetzalcoatl cult. His name renders a perfect translation of tonal-li (solar heat, summer, day, or even soul) providing it's pronounced in whatever accent the Mexica regarded as equivalent to Cornish or perhaps Birminghamese. Given that there is no other etymological accounting for his name, it therefore seems likely that young Tonila was of rustic ancestry and may even have arrived in Tenochtitlan half expecting the streets to be paved with gold.

Yetaxa (Good Father Poo) - Deceased clergyman prone to transgender reincarnation as a lady. Blood from a stone is easier than extricating meaning from the title of said gentleman, and even the somewhat unlikely offering here is reliant upon a dubious (although not unheard of) muted c pronunciation of yec-tli (meaning something good or clean) combinated with ta-tli (father) and xayo-tl (dregs or excrement) as the word would sound coming from the lips of Elvis Presley. Aside from the wisdom of reincarnating oneself as someone who is singularly unable to name even one of the thirteen heavens and seems shaky on even the most basic theological truisms, you would think the first thing Yetaxa might have done upon finding himself reborn would have been to choose a better name. Further to which, we are once again compelled to wonder how Autloc (witness to this supposed reincarnation) came to be High Priest of Knowledge when clearly he would have been better suited to the role of High Priest of Just Saying the First Thing that Comes into Your Head.

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