Indian residents have long worshipped the volcano, a powerful symbol in Mexican culture. Artists personify Popocatepetl (pronounced poh-poh-kah-TEH-peh-til) and the nearby dormant Iztaccihuatl volcano (pronounced eez-tah-ZE-wha-tul) as sleeping Aztec lovers because, from a distance, their shapes look like a man kneeling over a reclining woman. The image is sold on calendars, posters and T-shirts.
So when the volcano hurled hot rocks and ash down its slopes Tuesday, many felt betrayed by their sacred mountain, long worshipped as a god.
"There are a lot of people who are sad because he really scared us when he shot up fire and lava and almost killed us," said Iliaria Solano Jimenez, 75, a Nahua woman from San Nicolas de los Ranchos. "He kicked us out of our villages, and he no longer wants us there. Who knows why. What does he want from us?"
Residents of Solano's village used to travel up the volcano's slopes every March, at the start of every planting season. At a dark outcrop known as "the bellybutton," they left plates of food, cups of tequila and a cross decorated with men's clothing to "Don Goyo," or "Mr. Greg," the mountain's affectionate and respectful nickname.
Then they sang as a religious leader summoned the spirits of Don Goyo and his friends: the surrounding volcanoes of Iztaccihuatl, which is considered Don Goyo's wife; Malinche, which is considered his lover; and Pico de Orizaba.
"Each year when we returned, the clothing would be torn apart and all of the plates and cups were gone,"' said Solano, her weathered face framed by salt-and-pepper braids.
Solano's village stopped its yearly trips after the death of its spiritual leader, who was carried up to the outcrop on his 80th birthday to perform his last ceremony.
Yet many villages still carry out similar rituals on the volcano's slopes, whose name means "smoking mountain"' in the Nahuatl Indian language.
Solano said that even though the volcano appeared to have settled down Wednesday, she no longer trusts it and fears returning home.
"Now there is no one there to protect us,"' she said. "We asked him, 'Why are you scaring us? You've been with us for such a long time.' But he doesn't want to listen."
Others said the volcano's recent outburst would not change their view.
"Don Goyo just needs a little tequila to calm down," an elderly man told a group of reporters.