Mexico City

Eternal Funeral Pyres

The myth behind the Mexican volcanoes Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl

The Iztaccíhuatl volcano is 51 miles from Mexico City but visible from almost any rooftop. Izta, as she is called, looks from a distance like a sleeping woman. Climbers walk along her hair, her neck, her knees. The crest of El Pecho—the chest—is her highest peak, at over 17,100 feet. She is kept eternal company by the adjacent Popocatépetl, a still-active volcano 700 feet taller.

Accounts of Izta date back centuries. The daughter of a beloved Aztec Emperor, she fell in love with Popocatépetl, a valiant warrior. She called him Popo. Izta’s father told Popo that if he went to battle for their people and returned victorious, he and Izta would be free to marry. Popo went, not knowing that Izta’s father only suggested this because he was certain Popo would not return. Faithful, Izta watched. She waited. A jealous suitor, spurred by frustration, told her that Popo died in battle, alone. Izta, believing the lie, was devastated and soon fell ill and died. After his many brutal months at war, Popo returned to his home to find his love dead. He took Izta in his arms and carried her into the woods; he laid her down on a funeral pyre, lit a torch and knelt beside her.

Some say that it was the work of the sympathetic gods that made Izta and Popo into mountains; others say that it was the accumulation, across an eternity, of dirt and stones and snow, which eventually buried them, with only the vague outlines of their human forms preserved. On a clear day, one can sometimes see a thick pillar of smoke rising from Popocatepétl’s peak. Supposedly this is from the torch Popo lit at the top of that lonely mountain, which still burns to this day.


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