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Part 10 Part 12

The Aztecs: A Tributary Empire (11)

Tlacahélel, the Woman Snake

Dramatis Personae

20. Sources conflict regarding the dates of his life. Tlacahélel was probably born in 1397 or 1398 or perhaps 1392, and probably died in 1480 or 1487 or perhaps 1492 —or perhaps other dates. What impressed most early chroniclers was that he lived a very long time —between 88 and 95 years— and was on the scene as an active imperial adviser for most of the period of Aztec power.

The reign of Uncle Itzcóatl (Emperor 4) and the creation of the Triple Alliance can be said to mark the true beginning of the Aztec Empire. It made the Triple Alliance the region's most powerful force, to whose will other states had to bend. But it also entailed substantial changes in the organization of Mexica society itself. The chief architect of those changes seems to have been a remarkable figure named Tlacahélel. [Note 20]

Tlacahélel was one of the sons of Emperor 2 (Huitzilíhhuitl) and hence the cousin of Emperor 3 (Chimal-popóca, the cute little kid). This made him the nephew of Emperor 4, Uncle Itzcóatl.

21. Rebellions by the towns sharing a common hatred of an overlord state were one of the most important dynamics of Mesoamerican political systems. As we shall argue below, this was exactly what was destined to spell the end of the Aztec empire itself. Tlacahélel was astute in manipulating this, but perhaps failed to see that his own state was destined to fall before a similar coalition.

We are told that Uncle Itzcóatl was ready to surrender to Máxtla and the overwhelming strength (and landlord status) of Azcapotzálco when the impetuous young Tlacahélel convened the leaders of Tenochtítlan and convinced them that it was possible to take up arms against Azcapotzálco by uniting the towns where Azcapotzálco was hated and all attacking it together. [Note 21] He himself volunteered to go to Azcapotzálco as a high-risk ambassador to demand its surrender before the fighting was to start.

22. The name Tlacahélel was also given to his grandson and to his great grandson, Juan de Santo Domingo de Mendoza Tlacaeleltzin, the Spanish puppet ruler of part of Chálco in the middle of the 1500s. Neither measured up to their illustrious forebear.

This act of courage, and the subsequent success of the allied states, made him the darling of the court in the short term, and in the long term the life-long trusted adviser to Emperor 4, Uncle Itzcóatl. Tlacahélel was consistently brilliant, if brutal, and in the end served not only Uncle Itzcóatl, but also Emperors 5 (the half-brother of Chimal-popóca and of Tlacahélel), 6, 7, and probably 8 (all grandsons of Uncle Itzcóatl). His continuing centrality in the inner circle of Aztec administration provided a continuity of leadership that has led many modern authors to regard him as the true creator of the Aztec state. [Note 22]

Aztec Royal House
photo by DKJ
Antonio Velasco Piña's 1979 fictionalized expansion of Tlacahelel's life, Tacaelel: El Azteca entre los Aztecas, is but one of the many manifestations of the interest and esteem he awakens in Mexico. It begins with a quotation from Fernando Alvarado Tezozómoc's Crónica Mexicáyotl: "And this happened in the time of the lord Tlacahélel, the woman-snake, the conqueror of the universe" [oquipan oquimatian mochiuh in tlacatl catca in itoca Tlacayelleltzin cihuacohuatl in cemanahuac tepehuan].

Tlacahélel is much honored today for his genius and his effectiveness in establishing the economic and political basis of the great Aztec tributary empire. (Mexico's most prestigious annual prize for research in economics is called the "Tlacaelel Prize." The same name is given for the best undergraduate thesis in economics.) However, if Tlacahélel were still alive, he would be almost certainly be tried and executed for crimes against humanity, a distinction he shares with many pivotal figures in human history.

As the chief advisor, Tlacahélel bore the title (which he appears to have made up) of cihua-cóatl, or "woman snake" (not "snake woman" as some authors have it). It is conveniently translated into English as "viceroy" or "grand vizier," but it is useful to understand the implications lurking in the Náhuatl word itself:

  1. A snake (cóatl) was a powerful and ancient symbol in Mesoamerica, and the metaphorical associations for the Nahua were quite different from what they are for English speakers. Taken literally, the word cóatl could refer to long narrow animals, including worms (even tapeworms) as well as snakes. But it also referred to twins, and by extension to reciprocity and cooperation. [Note 23] Coa-téquitl ("snake work") was communal labor, for example, and the verb coa-nótza ("snake-calling") referred to inviting someone to be your guest. Thus the use of snake imagery in Tlacahélel's title would, perhaps, have implied his cooperative role in governance.
23. It is possible that in early Náhuatl there were two separate words which had simply become homonyms by the fourteenth century. Snake imagery is pervasive throughout Mexican archaeology, and metaphorical extensions were always available, but the association with reciprocity or communalism is difficult to document for earlier periods because of the absence of linguistic data. However, wherever archaeologists find representations of snakes, they must at least entertain the possibility that they symbolize cooperation.
  1. The first, "woman," part (cíhuatl) was understood as contrasting with "man" and for the Nahua this suggested a subordinate status, as an Aztec wife was expected to be subordinate to her husband. It also suggested a concern with family and home as against the external world, and the duties of the "woman snake" especially included the immediate governance of the city of Tenochtítlan itself. (In principle, the emperor himself would have been the "man-snake" or oquich-cóatl, but the title seems not to have been used.)

Tlacahélel was not the only cihua-cóatl of the Aztecs, but he was the first of only two. Cihua-cóatl was also the name of a goddess associated with midwifery and specifically with the bearing of children who would become future warriors. By selecting the title for himself, he was in a sense proclaiming himself the midwife of a new warrior state, although perhaps that is a feature of the title we can appreciate better in retrospect than he could when it was merely an ambition.

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