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Aztec Mythology and the Love of Reading Rooms

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Photograph showing the National Palace with Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl towering over Mexico City, with two small heart graphics overlay at the top of the photograph.
Detail of W.H. Jackson, photographer. [P]opocatapetl and Iztachihuatl from the cathedral. 1880. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

(The following is a guest post by Dani Thurber, Reference Librarian, Hispanic Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division)

A couple of weeks ago I began searching for love stories and poems from Latin America in preparation for a Valentine’s Day event. My colleagues in the Hispanic Reading Room had some amazing suggestions by renown Luso-Hispanic authors and poets, but for some reason I kept thinking about the legend of Popocatepetl (pronounced: poh-poh-KAH-teh-PEH-tehl) and Iztaccíhuatl (pronounced: ee-stok-SEE-wot), a captivating love story rooted in topography and Aztec mythology.

While there are multiple versions of the story with shifting details, the tale goes something like this: Long ago a warrior named Popocatepetl fell in love with Princess Iztaccíhuatl, daughter of a mighty ruler and Chief of the Tlaxcaltecs.  As one of the Chief’s favorite warriors, Young Popocatepetl is called upon to fight in a war against the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, enemies of the Tlaxcaltecs. Before departing, Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl profess their love and ask the Chief for permission to marry. The Chief accepts but only after Popocatepetl fulfills his duty and returns victorious from battle. Sadly, as it happens, a jealous rival of Popocatepetl lied to Iztaccíhuatl, telling her that her beloved died in combat.

In her grief, Iztaccíhuatl dies of a broken heart. Popocatepetl returns victorious but only to find his beloved had died. Overwhelmed, Popocatepetl wanders for days carrying Iztaccíhuatl and finally lays her body on top of a great mountain, covering her with a blanket of white snow and placing a kiss on her lips. Popocatepetl took on a torch and to honor Iztaccíhuatl, he knelt beside his beloved never wanting to be parted again. And that is where they remain today, the great Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, massive volcanoes located at the outskirts of Mexico City.

As a librarian, I wanted to know more, find the original sources, but I also wanted to explore what the Library of Congress had in its collections related to the great twin volcanoes of Mexico. My search so far has led me to books, maps, and plenty of photographs and images. What follows is my story of a little journey I took to learn more about this epic tale of mythic love.

Prints and Photographs Reading Room
My first stop was in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room where I saw El Mac’s Ixtaccihuatl (2009), a fine print inspired by the tale of the volcanic lovers. It depicts Popocatepetl embracing Iztaccíhuatl in their human form, rendered in the artist’s signature brushwork style. It is important to note that Aztec mythologies have served as rich sources of inspiration for Latino and Chicano artists and this print is a great example of this marriage of traditional sources and contemporary artistic expression.

Librarian pointing at the fine print displayed on a table.
Dani Thurber with El Mac’s Ixtaccihuatl in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo credit: Katherine Blood.


Performing Arts Reading Room

Next, I went to the Performing Arts Reading Room, the primary access point to the Library’s Music Division collections. There I found an interesting item in the form of sheet music for timpani solo titled The stone tears of Ixtaccihuatl (1987) by American composer Meyer Kupferman. While I do not play the timpani or read sheet music, Kupferman’s work was a reminder of the vast and diverse collections housed by the Library’s reading rooms, and of the power of a love story to transcend medium and format.

Close-up of sheet music.
Detail of Meyer Kupferman’s The stone tears of Ixtaccihuatl (1987). Library of Congress Music Division. Photo credit: Dani Thurber.

Geography and Map Reading Room

In the Geography and Map Reading Room, I looked up a fascinating map titled Mapa de peligros del Volcán Popocatépetal (1995) or the “Popocatépetal Volcano Hazard Map.” The map was created through a survey project that gathered information about the state and likelihood of eruption of Popocatépetal. Interestingly, different retellings of the myth have also been analyzed to track past eruptions.  

Woman reviewing map laying on table.
With the Instituto de Geografía, UNAM. Mapa de peligros del Volcán Popocatépetal (1995) Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Photo credit: Amelia Raines.

Hispanic Reading Room

Lastly, I returned to my home reading room, the Hispanic Reading Room, where I first began my search and where I still have a pile of books to get to on the legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

4 Books on a table
Assortment of items from the general collections in the Hispanic Reading Room

I recommend consulting the following resources which aided me in this quest:

Fine Print Collections in the Library of Congress 

Overview introducing 60,000 artist prints (15th-21st centuries) in the Prints & Photographs Division, including collection summaries, searching and viewing, sample images, and related resources elsewhere in the Library of Congress and other institutions.

Latin America and the Caribbean in Photographs at the Library of Congress

This guide describes groups of photographs of Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, 1840s-present, in the Prints & Photographs Division. It outlines helpful search strategies and highlights important collections and creators.

Latinx Studies: Library of Congress Resources 

This guide provides curated Library of Congress resources for researching Latinx Studies, including digitized primary source materials in a wide variety of formats, books and periodicals, online databases, and research strategies.

Mexico: Hispanic Reading Room Country Guide 

This guide provides curated Library of Congress resources for researching Mexico, including digitized primary source materials in a wide variety of formats, books and periodicals, online databases, and tips for searching.

Prints and Photographs Online Catalog 

The Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) contains catalog records and digital images representing a rich cross-section of still pictures held by the Prints & Photographs Division and, in some cases, other units of the Library of Congress.

Comments (3)

  1. Dani, thank you for this wonderful exploration! As a literature student years ago and as a librarian at LC I had seen references to Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl. Your article brought them to life for me in just a few words and images. Your examples are beautiful and intriguing and make me want to see more.

  2. I love this post, especially for the way that author Dani Thurber writes it as a story with an odyssey through reading rooms, and how she illustrates it with photos of herself with the works on reading room tables. It makes me able to imagine myself in the rooms, and makes them more approachable by any of us. Brava!

  3. Thank you very much for such interesting love history happened in the Ancient Mesoamerica. I got inspired about searching and discovering more about other histories. ¡Muchas gracias!

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