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Jesús Helguera (1910 – 1971) was a Mexican painter. Among his most famous works are La Leyenda de los Volcanes.
Much of his work reflected his own fascination with Aztec Mythology, Catholicism, and the diverse Mexican landscape. His paintings showed an idealized Mexico and it was his romantic approach that gave his paintings the heroic impact that eventually made him famous. In 1940, he created what is arguably the most famous amongst his paintings, La Leyenda de los Volcanes, which was inspired by the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
"Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl" refers to a number of mythical and folkloric explanations of the origins of the volcanoes Popocatépetl ("the Smoking Mountain") and Iztaccíhuatl ("white woman" in Nahuatl, sometimes called the Mujer Dormida "sleeping woman" in Spanish) which overlook the Valley of Mexico. The most common variety relates the Nahua romance of the princess Iztaccíhuatl and the warrior Popocatépetl.
Iztaccíhuatl's father sent Popocatepetl to war in Oaxaca, promising him his daughter as his wife if he returned (which Iztaccíhuatl's father presumed he would not). Iztaccíhuatl's father told her that her lover had fallen in battle and she died of grief. When Popocatépetl returned, and discovered the death of his lover, he committed suicide by plunging a dagger through his heart. God covered them with snow and changed them into mountains. Iztaccíhuatl's mountain was called "La Mujer Dormida, (the "Sleeping Woman"), because it bears a resemblance to a woman sleeping on her back. Popocatépetl became the volcano Popocatépetl, raining fire on Earth in blind rage at the loss of his beloved.
A different tale was told by the Nahuatl-speakers of Tetelcingo, Morelos, according to whom Iztaccíhuatl (or Istācsohuātl, as they pronounce the name) was the wife of Popo, but Xinantécatl wanted her, and he and Popocatepetl hurled rocks at each other in anger. This was the genesis of the rocky mountain ranges of the continental divide and the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt that lie between the two mountains. Finally Popocatepetl, in a burst of rage, flung an enormous chunk of ice, decapitating the Nevado de Toluca. This is why the Nevado is flat-topped, with wide shoulders but no head. Conceivably this legend preserves the memory of catastrophic eruptions.
The most popular legend about Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl comes from the ancient Náhuas. As it comes from an oral tradition, there are many versions of the same story. There are also poems and songs telling this story.
Many years before Cortés came to Mexico, the Aztecs lived in Tenochtitlán, today's Mexico City. The chief of the Aztecs was a famous Emperor, who was loved by all the natives. The Emperor and his wife, the Empress, were very worried because they had no children. One day the Empress said to the Emperor that she was going to give birth to a child. A baby girl was born and she was as beautiful as her mother. They called her Iztaccíhuatl, which in Náhuatl means "white lady".
All the natives loved Izta and her parents prepared her to be the Empress of the Aztecs. When she grew up, she fell in love with a captain of a tribe, his name was Popoca. One day, a war broke out and the warriors had to go south to fight the enemy. The Emperor told Popoca that he had to bring the head of the enemy chief back from the war, so he could marry his daughter.
After several months of combat, a warrior who hated Popoca sent a false message to the Emperor. The message said that his army had won the war, but that Popoca had died in battle. The Emperor was very sad when he heard the news, and when Izta heard she could not stop crying. She refused to go out and did not eat any more. A few days later, she became ill and she died of sadness.
When the Emperor was preparing Izta's funeral, Popoca and his warriors arrived victorious from war. The Emperor was taken aback when he saw Popoca, and he told him that other warriors had announced his death. Then, he told him that Izta had died.
Popoca was very sad. He took Izta's body and left the town. He walked a long way until he arrived at some mountains where he ordered his warriors to build a funeral table with flowers and he put Izta lying on top. Then he kneeled down to watch over Izta and died of sadness too.
The Gods were touched by Popoca's sacrifice and turned the tables and the bodies into great volcanoes. The biggest volcano is Popocatépetl, which in Náhuatl means "smoking mountain". He sometimes throws out smoke, showing that he is still watching over Iztaccíhuatl, who sleeps by his side.