Last Thursday night I walked from the Storyteller’s Riverhouse, past the big tree house, past the tiny post office, past the big field, to the old school house to hear the first storytelling piece of the “Going Deep: Long Traditional Story Festival” in Bethlehem, Indiana. Olga Loya would share her version of “The Aztec Creation.”
At the door to the cozy meeting hall, someone handed me a glossary of names of Aztec gods and goddesses and asked me to select an instrument from a basket. There were all kinds of rattles and odd (to me) tambourines.
In front of the rows of folding chairs, slightly to the side, a table had been draped in brightly colored cloths. On it were arranged candles, vases of flowers, and several small sculptures, including a marble egg and a person made out of pottery.
Festival co-producer Liz Warren welcomed us to the festival and to this first night’s storytelling. She said that one of the many wonderful things about this unique festival is the combination of skills and scholarship that each teller brings to it. (I agree!) Then she introduced Olga Loya.
Loya said that Aztec culture was, and is, full of ritual, ceremony, and celebration. She asked us to stand up and help her do an invocation. We all faced the four compass points, one at a time, while Loya told about what that direction’s spirit was like. She thanked it and asked it to bless us. Then we all shook our rattles or pounded on our small drums. Someone played a flute, too.
After invoking the spirits of the four compass directions, Loya called to the spirits of above and below. Then we all put our instruments aside and took up our glossaries. Loya had us pronounce each name after her.
I will have to use the Aztec names quite a few more times before they become comfortable on my tongue, if they ever do, but Loya said them as if they were family. I began to get a handle on the names by Loya telling about the gods and goddesses to whom they belonged. She told bilingually in a very natural way, too, switching back and forth between Spanish and English in a way that was easy to follow yet made the story feel even richer.
Tezcatlipoca, the god of the smoky mirror, of darkness, the one who had a mirror on the top of his foot so that he could see into people’s hearts, I began to think of as “T,” even though there were many Aztec gods whose names began with that letter. Quetzalcoatl or “Q” was the god of light. These two guys were often in discord with each other, but they just as often worked together. And as they interacted with the other gods through Loya’s telling about them, still more of the ancient Aztec world came into focus for me.
Each of the foreign-to-me gods had several aspects, which made it even more interesting, and more confusing. I tried to just let their adventures wash over me. Later, in the discussion/workshop, someone said that she loved the “swirliness” of this piece. Someone else said that she gave up trying to understand everything and just listened as if “playing in the waves.” Someone else said she tried to be an “impressionist listener,” listening like an impressionist painter paints.
The moon was created more than once, and the gods needed five attempts before they could create a sun and a set of people that could survive with it. Gradually the story moved from being just about the gods to being about their interactions with humans – about love and lust and war and peace, about birth and death and regeneration. “Good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” became irrelevant. The story was about the inevitable cycles of order and chaos. Through Loya’s telling and our listening, we saw the history of the world in great, timeless sweeps, rather than just our own, singular deaths.
At various points there were call-and-response aspects to the story, and at one point, we all picked up our instruments again and followed Loya around the room with them, portraying the god who was calling others to “Follow me!” This gave us a chance to stretch our legs and to relieve our listening fatigue a bit, without taking us out of the story.
Loya ended when the people and gods moved into the area that is now known as Mexico City. “But those are other stories to tell.” It was a very satisfying way to end.
The next morning, after a yummy communal breakfast, we all gathered in a circle of armchairs in the living room of the Storyteller’s Riverhouse.
Loya shared some more of her research into Aztec culture. I was surprised to learn that over one million people in Mexico today speak the Aztec language. Some don’t even speak Spanish.
Loya also invited us to talk about the story she had told. Some of us had heard it before when she told it at the 2006 “Going Deep” festival. For others it was completely new. We shared comments both on the effectiveness of the storytelling (“there was a smoother story arc this time!” and “consider adding more ‘tags’ for the listener” and so on) but also on what had resonated within us as we had listened the night before.
Everyone took something different from the piece, of course. Two images resonated most strongly with me, at least at first. (The story is still working on me.)
One was the Hungry Goddess. She had eyes and mouths all over her body. At each joint there was a mouth. Or an eye. The mouths went “Ayee-yee-yee!” trying to munch on something. The eyes were always looking and looking. They wanted to see what was going on with everyone, everywhere.
The Hungry Goddess cried out constantly, “I-I-I’m hu-u-un- ngry!” (“Te-e-e-ngo aaahh-mbra-a-ay!”) She was driving the other gods crazy with her wailing. The gods went to Q and T and begged them to do something.
Q and T went to the HG and said, “Can’t you please, please(!) just SHUT UP?”
But she could not. “Te-e-engo a-a-am-bra-a-ay!”
So…they tore her in two. One half of her became the sky, looking down on everyone. The other half became the earth, absorbing everyone’s confessions.
At the workshop, Loya said that the HG is still hungry but, just for fun, we practiced joyfully saying “Estoy yenna!” (“I’m full!”) too. Maybe keeping this blog will help to fill up the Hungry Goddess in me.
The other image that jumped out at me right away was when T disguised himself as a wild, naked man. He appeared before the king’s daughter, “with everything all hanging out.” He was doing it to mess up the king, but the daughter became so swollen with desire for the naked, wild man she had seen that she became ill to the point of death.
The king told his men to find that wild man and bring him in. Then the king told the wild man to marry his daughter. After they were married, “she lay with him and was cured.”
Mind you, all hell broke loose later because the people mocked the king for marrying his daughter to such a bum, which enraged the proud king and started another round of war, but I am still focused on the fact that the daughter a) couldn’t help needing what she needed and b) finally got her needs met. (Yay!)
After sharing some of her research and story development process, and after inviting all of us to talk about the piece, Loya gave us some prompts for paired conversation to further deepen our connections to the story. For example:
“The theme of struggle is powerful in this piece. The god of light and the god of dark often struggled with each other. People in the story often struggled between ‘god feelings’ and ‘man feelings.’ People often struggled between temptation and penance. Tell about a time when you struggled over a person or an object in your life.”
“The Aztec gods have many aspects. We do, too. Tell about some different aspects of yourself and how they fit together.”
“Destiny (fate) plays a large role in the Aztec creation story. Tell about a time when you knew something important was happening in your life and you could do nothing to stop it.”
There were six prompts in all. People found partners and didn’t worry about crafting stories as art. We just talked to each other about whatever one of the prompts had brought up for us in our minds.
Loya closed by repeating an exercise that she had used to open her workshop: she invited each of us to think of a sound that represented our own cultures. We went around the circle, then, sharing them.
Mine was the sound of a lawn mower in a Midwestern United States suburb. The sun is shining down on my yard as I write this, making it green. The part of me that lives in myth is grateful to the Aztec gods for creating it!
Olga Loya’s newest storytelling piece is called “Nepantla.” This is an Aztec word that means “between worlds.” “Nepantla” is actually a personal story, from Loya’s life. I hope I get to hear it some day! She will share it at the Fringe part of the 2008 National Storytelling Network’s annual conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee this August.
Also at that conference, Loya will offer an “intensive” (a longish workshop) on the “Going Deep” experience, as a way of promoting the next “Going Deep” festival. The dates, tellers, and fee have not yet been set for the next festival, but I will share them as soon they have. If you are interested, you may also want to check in with the “Going Deep” blog from time to time, too.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com