Aztec Myth of Popocatépetl

According to legend, the smoke given off by Popocatepétl signifies his eternal love for Iztaccihuatl.
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The snow-capped stratovolcano Popocatépetl appears in legends among a number of Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan. Popocatépetl smokes and erupts with fair regularity a mere 10 miles from Iztaccíhuatl, a dormant volcano that resembles a sleeping woman. The shape of Iztaccíhuatl and active nature of Popocatépetl inspired an Aztec story about war, lies and everlasting love.

1 The Hill that Smokes

While history has established the bitter rivalry between the Aztec and Tlaxcala states, the myth of Popocatepétl adds a further dimension of romance and tragedy to their strife. According to legend, the cacique, or chief, of Tlaxcala decided to lead an uprising against the Aztecs. Prior to the Tlaxcala army's departure, the great warrior Popocatépetl fell in love with Iztaccíhuatl, the cacique's daughter. He asked the cacique for permission to wed Iztaccíhuatl.

2 The Tlaxcala Rebellion

The cacique agreed, on the condition that Popocatépetl help to defeat the Aztec army. Popocatépetl left with the Tlaxcala army immediately, invigorated by the promise of Iztaccíhuatl's hand. But as the daughter of the cacique, Iztaccihuatl was hardly lacking in suitors. While her fiance was away at battle, his rival Citlatepetl spread a rumor that the great warrior had fallen to the Aztec troops. Iztaccíhuatl was horrified to hear that her love had perished at war.

3 The Lies the Kill

Iztaccíhuatl eventually perished in her grief, never learning that her fiance had survived and defeated the enemy army. When Popocatépetl returned from war victorious, he expected to marry Iztaccíhuatl as a reward for his heroism. Instead, he was desolated to find his beloved had died. Caring for neither the glory nor wealth that came with his status as a war hero, he spirited away Iztaccíhuatl's body, determined to create a memorial befitting their love.

4 A Monument for the Ages

Popocatépetl carried Iztaccihuatl's body to the top of a mountain. He ascended to the top of an adjacent peak and lit a smoky torch in her honor, planning to watch over her for an eternity. Time eventually obscured both lovers in snow, but Popocatépetl's torch burns on as a constant reminder of his passion. His rival may have turned into a third volcano, Pico de Orizabo, who is forced to watch the other volcanoes as penance for causing Iztaccihuatl's death.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.