Last updateFri, 07 Aug 2020 12pm

A little-known poet king formed canny political alliances and took what he wanted

He is known to have been a poet, philosopher, architect, designer and was hailed as a progressive leader.

He was the son of kings, educated by his country’s finest minds, skilled at warfare. A man of many talents, capable of both great statecraft and great deceit.

A contemporary of Columbus, of Johann Gutenberg, of the Mings in China, of Joan of Arc, this complicated, forceful and talented man knew none of them. His wisdom and his ways sprang from the same source of human capabilities but from different wells. When he was only seven, his father, the king, gave him over to the wisest men in the land for training in the arts and sciences. When he was 16 his father was murdered and his kingdom usurped. The youth was hidden from his enemies to insure the succession.

Finally, through the intercession of two canny aunts of royal blood he was permitted to continue his studies and military training in the capital city — where he could be easily watched. He returned from hiding a polished, regal young man of 24 and soon created suspicion among the kingdom’s ruling group — as well he might have, for within a year he had organized a revolt and retaken his throne. In the next year he was proclaimed ruler of the land.

He then used his talents in statecraft to form an alliance among the three division of his kingdom. Once peace was insured he occupied himself with public projects. He brought water to the capital by means of a long canal, and in 1430 he planted a forest on a high hill overlooking the city. On the edge of a lovely lake he created a center for the arts and learning that was the first of its kind in the land. He worked feverishly, designing palaces for the national archives, botanical gardens, a zoo, baths and grottos and special living quarters for the men who gathered in the capital city to exchange learning and receive wisdom.

The history of this poet king relates that one day he wandered along the lakefront and found himself in the territory of a feudal lord who promptly invited him to stay for dinner. To do honor to his king the lord commanded his intended bride to serve him food. This was a mistake. The young king, who had, we are told, fathered some 70 sons, but had yet to take a wife, looked at the girl and knew that he had found his queen. But the problem of her engagement to the feudal lord frustrated his desires. He swiftly hatched a ruthless plan.

He proclaimed a poetry contest, a kind of “Meister-singer” competition, which, presumably, he reckoned would be a good, noisy place for his men to murder the lord whose betrothed he coveted — without anyone guessing the truth. A ruse not as easy to carry out as it at first had seemed to the impetuous king.

The lord got wind of what was planned and although accepting the inevitable, he composed a sonnet in which he disclosed the treachery of the king in such a manner that those who were present understood. His poem failed to save him from the king’s assassins, but he died an openly brave and uncowed man.

This complex king was an unusual man, indeed. He is said to have believed in a single, “unknown” god and commanded a temple built in honor of the diety, but without a single representation within. At the same time, perhaps covering all bets, he built temples to other gods respected by his people, though he went so far as to blaspheme at the dedication ceremony to the god of warfare. He composed a song for the event in which he predicted the destruction of the god and all civilization.

We are told that at the age of 70 he felt death approaching and dismissed his staff to be alone. He sat in a palace room contemplating the transience of life and composed this poem:

“I, the king ask / Do we really live with roots in the earth, / No, not forever in the earth / Only for a short time. / Even that which is jade is broken / Even a feather is torn. / No, not forever of the earth / Only a little time here.”

Who was this 15th century ruler whose story appears so much the stuff of history books? A European? Was he from the Orient? Russia? Africa? None of these. Another world? Almost. And what a pity, for he was one of us.

Our ghost man, our unknown fellow, was Netzahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco, lord of Mexico, of Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan. He was the great builder of the Aztec capital, planter of the ancient ahuehuetes of Chapultepec, the great tlatoani who lived in palaces and built temples which were the marvel of his time.

Netzahualcoyotl and hundreds of other pre-conquest New World leaders have found almost no place in the body of the world’s historic literature, aside from obscure footnotes, a few scholarly books and a single popular novel of general circulation. We are all losers; for in the history, legends and myths that men share is our common bond, the “brotherhood” we tend to honor all to glibly.

The English in the north of the New World, the Spanish conquistadores in the south found upon their discovery of American cultures and men very different from their own, men whose very skins were neither white nor black, but “red,” whose language they did not understand, whose ways seemed wild, thus savage in the conquerors’ tongues. Gold and riches the world men had, and gold and riches these Europeans understood. The rest was savage and, to mankind’s tragic loss, has mostly remained so for 500 years.

Today, beyond the easy questions of minority rights, of repairing old social wrongs, there exists the equally urgent question of cultural conscious raising, of a new and general recognition that Netzahualcoyotl and thousands of men with strange names like his, not only in the New World, but in Africa, India, China and Australia, are all a part of our fabric; that they, too, just as the familiar Roman Caesars, as Abraham, Confucius, Moliere, or some nameless Hottentot poet, have helped make us what we are.

To think of the Netzahualcoyotls of the world still as exotic savages is to confine our minds and imaginations to the later Middle Ages and to defraud still more generations of the rich and colorful heritage of fact and fiction that is our common right, the web that makes us truly human.

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