(Retold with considerable poetic license, a few hours of cursory research into innumerable inconsistent sources, and some outright fibs)
Once upon a time long ago, well before the Spanish conquistadores arrived with their weapons and priests and futile attempts to erase the colorful legends of the people already inhabiting this golden land, there lived a mighty Aztec emperor who had reigned over the best part of the land for a long time and liked his job.
But he was growing old and in his wisdom realized that there were young whippersnappers out there who were eager to whippersnap up his territory. As any good Aztec ruler would, the emperor wished to be the vanquisher rather than the vanquishee. So he decided to go on the offensive against these acquisitive neighbors before he was forced into adopting a defensive position that might end in checkmate.
He called forth all his brave and youthful warriors, of which he had quite a number. His favorite, though, was Popocatépetl, who was not only courageous, valiant, and handsome, but coincidentally was also madly in love with the emperor’s daughter.
The daughter, whose name was Ixtaccíhuatl, was ravishingly beautiful, pure as a soap bubble, and had a marked tendency toward histrionics. Popocatépetl found her irresistible, of course, and immediately agreed with her father’s proposition: if Popo (as his mother and nannies called him) should go to war and return victorious, he could have Ixtaccíhuatl as his bride.
For luck, the emperor sacrificed a few virgins that weren’t his daughter. Off went Popocatépetl on his mission, for a year or maybe two.
Every day while he was gone, the lovely Ixtaccíhuatl paced the parapets and bulwarks and such, peering into the distance, anxiously awaiting the return of her true love from the killing fields. In between pacing, she put quetzal feathers in her lustrous raven hair, painted sinuous designs on her arms and around her belly button, hung around with jaguars and her ladies in waiting, and gave herself pedicures.
Little did he know that an even more treacherous enemy had beat him to the emperor’s palace, this one the ugly green-eyed snake named Jealousy (or Nexicolhuiliztli in Nahuatl). A fellow fighter, who had perhaps deserted a tad early in order to make his well-timed entrance, arrived to kneel before the emperor and announce that the troops were returning victorious.
Unfortunately, he added, head bowed to hide his deceitful smirk, the good and valiant Popocatépetl had been killed in the final battle.
Alas! Our Ixta, hurrying down to her father’s throne room upon sighting the messenger, overheard this announcement and fainted dead away. Her father sent for every manner of healer and curandero in the empire, but although Ixta opened her sultry eyes once or twice, she refused to eat or drink or listen to reason and proceeded to die of a broken heart.
Later that same afternoon, the gallant hero Popocatépetl strode in to claim his land grant, his promotion, his noble titles, and his biggest prize of all: the beautiful Ixta. Upon discovering her lifeless but still comely form reclining on the funeral pyre, he snatched her up and took to the hills, mourning yet fleet of foot.
He laid her upon a mountain top and swore his undying love. He would crouch there beside her, he promised, for eternity. In between his avowals of constant devotion, he swore in another manner entirely at the lousy backstabbing SOB who’d lied to his Ixta. He was sad, and he was pissed.
Well, the gods watched all this, as they do, and it just broke their hearts. They decided in their omniscience and omnipotence and all that to make the two lovers into mountains, which loom in their snow capped glory above Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) to this day.
Ixtaccíhuatl (whose name in Nahuatl, by the way, means White Woman) was fittingly given the form of a curvaceous reclining woman.
Popocatépetl (whose anger has not diminished over time) became a stately and still very active volcano, Mexico’s second tallest peak at 17,800 feet. His name, by the way, means Smoking Mountain. One has to wonder whether his mother ever regretted the choice of that name, bestowing upon him the destiny to which he rose.
Epilogue: Popocatépetl came back to life in 1994, after nearly fifty years of dormancy. On April 16 of this year, he began a vigorous eruptive phase, spewing ash and volcanic rock into the sky. Minor earthquakes are continual. Residents in the several villages on and near the mountain report a constant rumble, a roar at times that sounds like a freight train.
The Mexican government has raised its alert level, and recently staged evacuation rehearsals. Vigilance is high. Interestingly, some reports say that Popo is apt to act up during presidential election years. I haven't looked into that, but I wouldn't blame him.
Of course, we know from whence his real anger stems.
Ixtaccíhuatl continues to sleep. Perhaps someday she, too, will remember, will summon her own latent power and rise anew.
In the meantime, we humans can only watch...and wait.
The Popocatéptl/Ixtaccíhuatl story is an old and popular one with many different versions. The preceeding, obviously, is my own fractured rendition.
Aztec weapon names from www.aztec-history.com
Aztec pictures from various websites. The three paintings of Popo and Ixta on the mountain are by prolific Mexican calendar artist Jesus Helguera (1910-1971).
The Nahuatl word for "jealousy" is from the University of Oregon, Wired Humanities Project, Nahuatl Dictionary.