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Mexico Guru

The Purépecha Nation

Great architects they weren’t.

The Purépecha empire---whose boundaries roughly equaled those of present-day Michoacán, in western Mexico---left few physical testaments of their culture. No stelae carved with hieroglyphic writings or stellar monuments to the gods and kings like those at Palenque or Teotihuacan.

What historians know about this formidable society---one strong enough to rebuff both the Aztecs and the fierce, barbaric Chichimec tribes of the great deserts to the north---was discovered through other means.

They asked them.

Because unlike the mysterious Teotihuacanos, who abandoned their glittering city at the height of its power, and the Maya of Palenque and Chichén Itzá, the Purépecha civilization was thriving at the time of the Spanish invasion. Many of their codices were translated and recorded in the Spanish text Relación de Michoacán, chronicling a civilization whose ancestors may have relocated from as far south as the Andes.

Mysterious Origins and Unique Talents

The Purépecha language, which is unrelated to any other in Mesoamerica, has been linked to Quechua, the native language of Peru. Excellent metalsmithing skills and certain building styles also seem to link the Purépecha to tribes much farther south. The Purépecha (the name they called themselves; the Spanish called them “Tarascos” and the Aztecs called them Michoacanos, or “Masters of Fish”) forged weapons of bronze and copper cookware. No other Mesoamerican people did this work. They were renowned for making jewelry and other luxury items of silver, copper, and gold as well as items of obsidian, turquoise, and feathers. Craftsmen belonged to guilds, and each had its patron god.

This was an organized civilization of soldiers, bureaucrats, and storytellers as well as skilled craftsmen. Nahuatl-speaking tribes from the north contributed to society, however people of pure Purépecha descent were apparently at the top rungs of society.

Tarascan Trilogy

The Tarascan or Purépecha religion centered around a three-part universe: sky, earth, and underworld. Honored above other deities were three supreme gods. The most important was Kurikaweri, god of war and of the sun. Offerings to the sun god included self-sacrifice (blood-letting), human sacrifice, and the burning of firewood. Kurikaweri’s domain was the sky; he was associated with falcons, hawks, and eagles.

Wife of the sun god, Kwerawáperi was a creator goddess, the mother earth deity who controlled life and rain, death and drought. The most important offspring of Mother Earth and Father Sky was Xarátenga, goddess of the sea and the moon. Xarátenga’s domain was in the West (the Pacific Ocean), and she was symbolized as an owl, a crone or a coyote.

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Purépecha engaged in human sacrifice, but not to the extent of their enemies, the Aztecs. Both were Late Postclassic empires. The Aztecs established Tenochtitlán on Lake Texcoco in the late 13th century; the Purépecha, on Lake Janitzio, with their base of power in Tzintzuntzan, about 1325.

Tzintzuntzan means “place of the hummingbirds.” This may have been a descriptive name, the onomatopoeic sound of the beating of the hummingbird’s wings, or a reference to a minor deity. Although not terribly important in the Purépecha religion, the hummingbird icon was apparently adopted by their Aztec rivals. The name of the important god Huitlzilopochtli means “Hummingbird on the Left.” It is thought to refer to the Purépecha nation, located to the south (or left) of the Aztec’s capital at Tenochtitlán.

Purepecha Indians of Michoacan.