The Zapotec Legend of Princess Donají

It is raining on Oaxaca Valley. For sure rain God Cocijo has answered the prayers of his beloved Zapotec people.

This great Mesoamerican civilization established its home in Oaxaca Valley over 2,500 years ago. We have two stories about its origin: the first tells us that the Zapotecs emerged naturally from the Earth or caves or that perhaps they turned from trees or jaguars into people. The second claims that they are the Cloud People, Be´ena´Za´a in the Zapotec language, and that they are descendant from supernatural beings that lived in the sky.

This enormous civilization inhabited three different cities in the Oaxaca Valley. First, they founded San José el Mogote in about 1400 BC. Later on, about 500 BC, they established their capital in Monte Albán where they have their most brilliant and culturally productive period. In order to build Monte Albán they did the arduous work of leveling the top of a mountain. They reached a peak population of over 16,500 between AD 300-500. By 800 AD Monte Albán was completely abandoned. Then, the Zapotecs moved to Zaachila where they established the new capital. It is widely agreed that Zaachila was the last city inhabited by this wonderful civilization.

The Zapotecs developed a calendar and a basic form of writing through carvings. By 200 BC they were using the bar and dot system of numerals used by the Mayans. The early Zapotecs were sedentary, agricultural people and hunters. As time passed they became craftsmen and they are still recognized for their black pottery, wood carvings and their precious weavings. A lot of this valuable work is exhibited at the Regional Museum of Oaxaca.

Every civilization has its heroes, and the Zapotecs are no exception. The person who deserves such a title is the Princess Donají. A popular legend tells us that Princess Donají was the daughter of King Cosijoeza, the last King of the Zapotec civilization. During that time there were endless battles between Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Donaji is said to have mended the wounds of enemy prisoners, even releasing them once they had healed. In one of these battles, the Princess was taken as a pledge of peace and in case the Zapotecs didn´t keep their word, she would die in the hands of the Mixtecs.

One night after the peace offering was made, Zapotec warriors burst in the Mixtec territory, and when the Mixtecs realized they had been betrayed, they killed Donají immediately. The Zapotecs bitterly grieved the loss of their admired princess.

Many years had passed when a humble shepherd who was walking close to Atoyac River saw a beautiful lily flower. He did not hesitate to make it his own, and decided to take it from its roots. As he dug, he made an astonishing discovery: the lily flower was attached to an ear of a fresh and beautiful face - the face of Princess Donají´s. Nowadays, her innocent and pretty face is represented on the coat of arms of Oaxaca City.

The story of the princess is reenacted each year at the Guelaguetza festival.