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Part 5 Part 7

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (6)

Enter the Mexica

Dramatis Personae

Groups Individuals

The Aztec view of their own history begins with their migration from Áztlan, the mysterious northern "place of the herons" motioned earlier. Their departure, they said, occurred in the year "one-flint," probably about AD 1111 or so. [Note 7] They settled for a time in a land of great plenty called Chicomóztoc ("place of the seven caves"). [Note 8] However they somehow offended their patron god Huitzilo-póchtli ("left side of a hummingbird") by cutting down a forbidden tree, and he condemned them to leave Chicomóztoc and to wander until they received a sign that would permit them to settle again.

7. Mesoamerican calendars are a complex topic. The general idea of a calendar was widespread, but the details varied from place to place and time to time. In all cases, units of time were counted by counting days or years using a sequence of numbers or arbitrary signs, much the way a speedometer turns. And like a speedometer, when all the "digits" had been exhausted, the system began again. In the case of the Mexica, years were counted with a series of four names (house, rabbit, flint, and reed) combined with the numbers one to thirteen: one-rabbit, two-reed, three-flint, four-house, five rabbit, six-reed, etc. By the time the series returned to one-rabbit again, 52 years had passed. For modern historians, these seemingly precise dates can be ambiguous because it is not always agreed which 52-year series is being referred to, or where the starting point for the series was, or whether the early author correctly remembered the date.

8. Nobody is sure where Chicomóztoc was. La Jolla (Nahuatl: Cozcápan) has seven caves, but it is doubtful that the Mexica came from La Jolla. After all, if they had done that, they would have taken Jordan's class and would have known what would happen if they continued to do what they were doing. In 1971 a tunnel was discovered under the great pyramid of the sun at Teotihuácan. Its side chambers suggested to some that the Aztecs might have known this tunnel and been inspired by its configuration either to create or, more likely, to reenact the Chicomóztoc myth.

They wandered, they said, for half a century, settling for a time at a place they called Coatépec ("hill of snakes") somewhere near Tóllan, the Toltec capital. There they tried to engage in agriculture, but their attempt at an irrigation system failed, and once again they had to resume their wandering. (Their patron god, Huitzilo-póchtli, was also said to have been born at Coatépec, and the name was used to refer to the main pyramid dedicated to him in Mexico City.)

map of unknown origin
This exaggerated map of the Valley of Mexico shows Tenochtitlan in the middle of the lake, represented by an eagle on a cactus. Immediately to the north of it is Azcapotzalco, the superpower of the region. On the peninsula to the southeast lies Colhuacan. In the front of the picture, away from the lake, lies Cuauhnahuac (modern Cuernavaca).

Eventually the Mexica found themselves in the Valley of Mexico, which centered on a large, shallow lake —Lake Tetzcóhco, apparently named after a kind of grass. (Modern spellings are Texcoco and Tezcoco.) Bernardino de Sahagún, described in the appendix on sources and one of the best early authors on Aztec life, tells us that his Nahua informants told him that about twenty years after the fall of Tóllan, groups of Chichimecs from the north had come to Lake Tetzcóhco, founded several settlements, and took up farming the nearby lands and exploiting the lake for fish.

Naturally the towns squabbled among themselves and sought to subordinate each other, both out of both a need for self-defense and out of a desire to receive whatever goods might be available from a conquered neighbor. [Note 9]

9. Nahua speakers referred to their homeland as Anáhuac ("near the waters"), which appears to be a reference to Lake Tetzcóhco. But despite the literal meaning of the word, it refers today to an area stretching across the modern states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, Hidalgo, México, Tlaxcala, and the Federal District of Mexico City.

The two most important of these towns, claiming to be successor states to the old Toltec empire, were Azcapotzálco ("the beehive") on the west side of the lake, and Colhuácan ("place of the ancestors"), farther south on a peninsula sticking into the lake from its east side. [Note 10] The people of Azcapotzálco referred to themselves as Tepanecs (or Tepanécah, singular: Tepanécatl). Those of Colhuácan are known in English by their Spanish name, Culhua (Nahuatl: Cólhuah or Colhuáqueh, singular: Colhuácatl). [Note 11]

10. The lake actually had different names in different parts. A large round bay at the north was Lake Zompanco (now spelled Zumpango) at its north end and Lake Xaltócan in its southern part. The main body of the lake was Lake Tetzcóhco. To the south of the Colhuácan peninsula it was called Lake Xochimílco on the west and Lake Chálco on the east. Today a small portion of Lake Xochimílco remains in the Mexico City suburb of the same name. The remainder has long since been filled in and covered with buildings.

11. The same words appear as Acolhuácan and as the Acólhuah. (or Acolhuáqueh) when they refer to the earliest Chichimec settlers to Colhuácan.

There were other, smaller towns, which often got the worst of it in conflicts with Azcapotzálco or Colhuácan. North of Colhuácan (and perpetually at war with it), directly opposite Azcapotzálco, lay the town of Coatlíchan ("home of the serpent"). South of Colhuácan, at the southeast corner of the lake lay the town of Chálco (said to mean "place of mouths"), which was at war with pretty much everybody pretty much all the time. And east of Lake Tetzcóhco, towards the north, lay a town, also called Tetzcóhco, which may have been the earliest of them all, for it had apparently been founded in Toltec times as a remote outpost of the empire centered at Tóllan.

Lake Texcoco & the Triple Alliance
(within the modern Ciudad de México) Lake Texcoco
This map can be accessed at any time using the "Maps" link at the top of each page.

Both Azcapotzálco and Colhuácan boasted "Neo-Toltec" dynasties. That is, their rulers claimed to be descended from Toltec "nobility" and to be entitled, therefore, to re-establish the old Toltec hegemony: to become, in effect, the new rulers of the universe. More importantly from the Mexica perspective, neither of them saw much reason why the Mexica newcomers should have a piece of the action.

In 1299, the Mexica won the consent of the Tepanec leader of Azcapotzálco to settle in Azcapotzálco territory a little to the north of the main town, near the hill of Chapoltépec (the same "hill of the grasshoppers" to which the Toltec king Huémoc was supposed to have fled because of the drought). Farming was not likely to be very good in a place full of grasshoppers, so if the name meant anything, the settlement was a bit ill-starred. However the agreement was that the Mexica would work as laborers and as mercenary soldiers in the armies of Azcapotzálco, giving it an edge up over its perpetual enemies across the lake at Colhuácan.

The decision was not universally applauded in Azcapotzálco, we are told. To hear the Aztecs tell it, rumors had been spread about them by a certain Cópil, the descendant of a sorceress who had been ostracized and ejected by the Mexica in the course of their travels south. Cópil was set on vengeance and was eager to prejudice the Tepanecs against the Mexica. That might not have been difficult, for the Mexica were just as violent and possessive as the other groups living around the lake. The difference was that they came later, and hence had not successfully staked out territory of their own.

Although the Mexica did remain at Chapoltépec and did work as warriors for the king of Azcapotzálco, relations remained tense. How long this went on is unknown. Some sources suggest it was only a few months, others that it was as much as twenty years. But at length the Tepanec leader got fed up, either with them or with their reputation, and drove them out of his territory.

Later accounts say that as the Mexica were leaving they managed to capture Cópil, behead him, cut out his heart, and cast it into the lake. Whoever hurled it must have done so with remarkable zest, for it landed, we are told, on an island several miles away, an island that was destined to become the central plaza of today's Mexico City.

The obvious place to take refuge was with the enemies of Azcapotzálco: the Culhua, i.e., people of Colhuácan. The leader of Colhuácan was a certain Coxcóxtli, who was just as suspicious of Mexica intentions and their reputation for violence as the Tepanecs were, but who felt a certain comradeship with anybody who claimed to hate Azcapotzálco. After the Mexica promised their assistance in any battles against Azcapotzálco, Coxcóxtli gave them permission to settle at a place about ten kilometers west of Colhuácan itself, out at the very end of the peninsula. It was called Tizápan ("place of chalk"), and it proved to be a rocky, volcanic field too full of snakes for any Culhua to want to live there.

Although the Aztecs did not have a fully functional writing system, they did have conventionalized glyphs for various things, including locations. The "Hill of Grashoppers" was represented in Aztec "script" by a grasshopper sitting on a hilltop. The same sign is used today as a symbol of the Chapultepec stop on the subway line.

Undeterred, the Mexica moved in —it was the only place available. Fired by determination or desperation, they killed and ate the snakes, piled mud from the swamps into islands to make fields (called chinampas), and set up housekeeping with a view back across the water at the very "hill of the grasshoppers" that they had been forced to leave. (Click here for more about chinampas.)

Relations between the Mexica and King Coxcóxtli may have grown gradually warmer, or political expediency may have prevailed. Whatever the cause, when the Mexica told King Coxcóxtli that their god Huitzilo-póchtli wanted one of his daughters for them to worship as a goddess, the king agreed and sent a favorite daughter for this honor. She was transferred with all due ceremony to the Mexica, and the king himself was invited to come shortly thereafter to see the ceremonies to be held for her.

It was not the ceremony he had anticipated. When he arrived and had been seated as an honored guest, a priest entered the room dressed in his daughter's cut-off skin. Flaying people and dressing in their skin was to become a frequent form of human sacrifice in later Aztec times, and probably had been practiced previously, either by the Mexica or by other groups, although this was the earliest such event described in our written sources. It came as a great shock to Coxcóxtli, who did not take it well. He ordered an immediate attack upon the Mexica settlement at the "place of chalk," and once again they found themselves driven from their homes.

photo by DKJ
An eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake remains the quintessential icon of modern Mexico. This fine example was part of a fountain in Baja California, far from Tenochtitlan. Both eagles and snakes had symbolic resonance for the Nahuatl-speaking world, and were easily assimilated to the politics of the Aztec state.

When they had been expelled by the Tepanecs a generation earlier, the Mexica had sought refuge with the Tepanec enemies, the Culhua. Now, expelled by the Culhua, they fled back to the Tepanecs, who were willing to help any enemy of the hated Culhua. The king of Azcapotzálco, the very town that had driven them out earlier, now ceded to the Mexica the swampy island the Mexica called Acatzíntlan ("place of Lord Áca" —Lord Áca was one of 108 Chichimec leaders said to have led a group from the seven caves.)

As the Aztecs told it, this was the very island where Copíl's heart had landed, and on their arrival, they saw the sign that the god Huitzilo-póchtli had told them would signal their final dwelling place: an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake.

And so it came about that in the year one-flint (1324 or 1325), the "city" of Tenochtítlan was founded, on an island in a swamp, at the site that is today Mexico City's central plaza or zócalo (a.k.a. "Plaza de la Constitución"). Later tradition held that the leader at the time was a rather shadowy figure, probably in his twenties, vigorous and charismatic, named Tenóchtli ("born of stone"), who named the city after himself. [Note 12]

12. Most authors suggest that the name derives from nöchtli, the name given to the bright red fruit (Spanish tuna) of the nopal cactus (which sometimes serves as a symbol of the human heart (Macazaga 1979: 140, 1983:77). However nöchtli has a long "o," while the "o" in Tenochtítlan is short, which makes such a reconstruction much less likely (Karttunen 1982: 225).
The island was not necessarily virgin land when the Mexica moved onto it. Macazaga (1979: 140) argues that it was named Tenochtítlan by a prior group of immigrants who had, presumably, been absorbed by Azcapotzálco. (One might even imagine that the shadowy Tenóchtli was invented to justify the continued use of an already established name. That would at least explain the absence of much in the way of traditions about him.) It is not clear whether there were any people still living on the island when the Mexica moved there. If so, they were probably not numerous.

Dumped as refugees on this swampy shore, the inhabitants set to work once again catching fish and grasshoppers and edible frogs, and piling up mud from the swamps to make little islands on which to farm. This time, however, the prophecy of the eagle and the snake on the cactus created a mythological basis for believing that their settlement would be permanent.

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