The origins of an epic journey that would result in the Aztecs becoming the lords and masters of much of Central Mexico lie to the west and north of present-day Mexico City. But the centuries-long lure that prompted wave after wave of migrants, among the last of whom were the Aztecs, to move south was the Central Valley. Technically, the Central Valley is not a valley at all but an oval basin surrounded by mountains on three sides and high terrain to the north. The basin is roughly 70 miles (120 kilometers) from north to south and 40 miles (70 kilometers) from east to west.
When the Aztecs arrived, this closed drainage basin contained three large lakes at slightly different elevations and of varying degrees of salinity. Lake Texcoco lay in the center and received water from Lake Xaltocan in the north and Lake Xochimilco in the south. Accordingly, Lake Texcoco, as "the ultimate destination of all drainage, was extremely saline." Xochimilco was about nine feet (three meters) higher than Texcoco and contained the freshest water, especially along its southern shore, which contained numerous springs. This permitted the growth of floating vegetation "so thick one could walk on it," as well as crops that were later planted on artificial islands known as chinampas. However, during heavy seasonal rains and runoff these lakes became one continuous body of water but still at slightly varying levels. Abundant fish and game from nearby forests meant that hunters and gatherers did not have to travel far to find food.
With certainty, homo sapiens have lived in the basin for at least fifteen thousand years. To the north of present-day Mexico City, the largest city in the world at the end of the twentieth century, the unearthed bones of an extinct mammoth display the unmistakable marks of stone implements used for butchering. Carbon-dating has determined that this animal died more than fifteen millennia ago. Human remains found in the Central Valley, so-called Tepexpan Man (actually a woman), date from about ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago.
About ten thousand years ago, hunting and gathering was still the only mode of life in the Central Valley, but that was true for almost all other areas of the Americas. However, the end of the last Ice Age, combined with increasing population and the extinction of such megafauna as giant turtles, mammoths, and mastodons, provided impetus for primitive agricultural experiments. The potential for productive lakeside crops, generally adequate precipitation, and a usually frost-free climate made the basin one of the most desirable locales in all of Mexico.
The emergence of an agriculture-based society in the Central Valley was driven by necessity. Preparing land for sowing, cultivating, and harvesting of crops proved much harder than reaping the fruits of a benevolent nature by gathering nuts and wild fruits and periodically killing plentiful game. But the shortage of meat made farming a much more dependable source of food. From a native plant called teosinte, which resembles corn (maize), came the lifeblood of sedentary living and urbanization. By about five thousand years ago, inhabitants along the shores of lakes with fresh water and at lower elevations in the surrounding mountains began to cultivate corn.
As Richard MacNeish has observed, agriculture was the "decisive step [that] freed people from the quest for food and released energy for other pursuits." Only in agriculture-based societies can such specializations as stone carving and masonry, carpentry, pottery making, and metalworking develop. Food supplies beyond the dietary needs of those producing them also permit the rise of religious leaders, who gain prominence through their knowledge of time and seasonal changes—so essential to crop-dependent people—as well as through their role as intermediaries with the gods. And, of course, wealth and the opportunities for education produced a class of nobles from whom would come political and military leaders.
A truly great city in the Central Valley with the "roots and basic cultural molds that would later be diffused throughout the central zone of Mexico appear to be found in Teotihuacan," located about fifteen miles (twenty-five kilometers) northeast of the megalopolis that is present-day Mexico City. Teotihuacan's architecture, its pyramids with their special orientation, and its plazas and palaces all helped provide a model for later urban centers in the region. Those structures and others built by an unidentified people reflect sophisticated knowledge and the use of surveying equipment. Millions of tourists have flocked there to view the great pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. They marvel at the Avenue of the Dead and the so-called Ciudadela (Citadel) with its frieze consisting of alternating stone heads of Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed rain god, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. No less can be said about Teotihuacan's murals, "sculptures, superb ceramics, and obsidian work." It can also be argued that urbanization itself in the Valley of Mexico began in Teotihuacan. The City of the Gods, another name for San Juan Teotihuacan, reached its cultural climax around 450–500, although it would be occupied during a decline that continued over the next 250 years.
A complex set of deities appears to have been venerated at Teotihuacan. In addition to Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, figures of Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlaloc's faithful companion, and Huehuehteotl, the old god of fire, have been found at the City of the Gods. Since the true structure of the belief system at Teotihuacan in ancient times is as yet unclear, the interrelatedness of these deities and their relative importance is uncertain.
Teotihuacan's murals, which León-Portilla has described as "ancient codices placed on walls," support the high position scholars give to the god Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl. Like many pre-Columbian gods, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl had multiple forms—"the creator god [of man and earth], the morning star, the wind god, a culture hero, the emblem of the priesthood." The plumed serpent, along with other deities, gave solace and "legitimation of power and authority" in an uncertain world that would witness the rise and fall of great urban centers that antedated by many centuries the arrival of Europeans in Mexico.
Finally, in addition to Teotihuacan's architecture and murals, thousands of clay-figurine representations of the city's most important religious and political leaders stand as mute evidence of what had been and what was to come. To Nahuatl-speaking people, Teotihuacan represented "the most ancient root of their religious thought, of their art, and, of the principal institutions of the subsequent cultures of Anahuac (central Mexico to the water's edge)."
Despite its earlier brilliance as an urban center that may have contained more than two hundred thousand inhabitants at its peak, for reasons unknown, Teotihuacan was in full decline during the years 650–750. Around the end of this period, its ceremonial buildings were burned, and the site became a ghost of its former self.
About two centuries later, a small village about forty-five miles (seventy-two kilometers) north-northeast of present-day Mexico City began to attract a few settlers and grow in importance. It was a slow process that led to the founding of Tollan (present-day Tula, Hidalgo). Little by little a new ceremonial center emerged, and the City of the Gods' influence on religious institutions and the worship of Quetzalcoatl seems apparent.
Soon added to the mix of people at Tollan were warlike nomads (Chichimecs) from the north. Their importance is borne out by the sculpting of gigantic stone warriors, some of which may be seen on the remains of a pyramid at Tula. These plainsmen and those already living at Tula came to be called Toltecs. It is essential to note that for the future Aztecs, Tollan (the "Place of Rushes") "was a symbol of sacred space and Quetzalcoatl was a symbol of sacred authority." Quetzalcoatl was likewise "the standard for the vital relationship between kingship and divinity," or, as Camilla Townsend observes, "his name became a priestly title . . . whose role it was to connect those on earth with those beyond."
What seems apparent in the rising importance of Tollan are the multiple influences of the people who had occupied Teotihuacan and their descendants, for it is unlikely that the Toltecs on their own could have achieved so much so quickly without patterning themselves after those who had resided at the City of the Gods. To be toltecayotl (Nahuatl for the quality of being Toltec) meant significant accomplishments in art, architecture, painting, and sculpture in Central Mexico during the years 950–1150, or, as Gordon Brotherson notes, "indeed the very notion of skill." The Toltecs were also great potters, creating multiple designs in clay.
By the middle years of the twelfth century, the southern end of the Central Valley, wherein lay the freshest water, older cities—some dating from the Teotihuacan period or even earlier—had become permanent fixtures on the landscape. These urban centers included Azcapotzalco, Culhuacan, Chalco, Texcoco, and Xochimilco, and by the thirteenth century, these city-states with varying degrees of power and influence claimed control over the valley.
In the process, arable land in the basin became scarce, and latecomer nomads from the north found no desirable places to settle. Among the last to arrive were the Aztecs, who spoke the same language as the older residents. Aside from that advantage, however, these interlopers brought little with them other than "their indomitable force of will, by which they transformed themselves in less than three centuries into the supreme masters of ancient Mexico."
The mythic origin of the Aztecs has become a passionate and politically charged topic among Latino activists. It has also occupied the attention of chroniclers and scholars since the sixteenth century. As I mention in the Introduction, among the early and most important of the missionary/ethnographers in New Spain was the remarkable Dominican Father Diego Durán. Durán was born in Seville and arrived in Mexico at an early age—not so early, in his words, as to acquire his "milk teeth" in Texcoco, where his family settled, but "I got my second ones there." As a young man he undertook the study of Nahuatl and thoroughly mastered the language of the Aztecs. Because of his command of their native tongue, Durán gained the confidence of "informants who told him the stories, histories, myths, and anecdotes of their ancestors."
The Aztecs' story begins with their origin on an island called Aztlan in Lake Mexcaltitlan. The location of this island and lake are much in question but appear to have been situated north and west of Tula, and Aztlan may well be more of a concept than an actual site. Durán's informants recounted that seven tribes—each prompted by a god—came forth from seven caves (collectively called Chicomoztoc). The Aztecs were the last to leave Aztlan, perhaps around 1111. Again, because their origins were similar to those of tribes already settled in the Central Valley, the Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, so communication was not a problem for them. A well-accepted and perhaps more appropriate name for the Aztecs is Mexica ("they of Mexico"), for, to be precise, many cultures in the Central Valley can rightly be called Aztecs, that is, "people of Aztlan."
In their journey from Aztlan to Tula, the Aztecs divided themselves into seven clans and carried an image of Huitzilopochtli ("Hummingbird from the Left") concealed in an ark of reeds. The idol was so sacred and so revered that no one dared look at it, much less touch it. When the Aztecs reached more-favorable locales, they stopped for as many as twenty years, during which they constructed ball courts and temples to house their idol. They also planted such crops as beans, amaranth, and chiles.
On other occasions, the wayfarers left before crops reached maturity and therefore suffered many hardships, during which they apparently, by necessity, abandoned elders who could not keep pace. Often "going hungry, thirsty and almost naked," their spirits were lifted by the prospects of better days. Dreams sent to Aztec priests by Huitzilopochtli promised that his chosen people would someday become kings, lords, and rulers of countless vassals. And in that bright future, the Aztecs would come to enjoy great riches and fine clothing. In the meantime, however, they frequently supplemented what at best was haphazard agriculture by hunting deer, rabbits, birds, and snakes.
Given that the Aztecs had a priesthood, knew and used the ritual calendar of pre-Spanish Mexico with its fifty-two-year cycle, practiced agriculture, and spoke Nahuatl, they were never as far from civilized life as were the nomadic Chichimecs from the north, who dressed in skins and sought shelter in caves. Accordingly, the Aztecs "definitely come within the pale of Middle American civilization, though possibly situated at the farthest extreme of its cultural spectrum."
It took about fifty years for the Aztecs to reach Tula. By then, the city was in full decline. Its principal inhabitants were unimpressive bands of Otomi and more primitive Chichimecs. The Aztecs lingered at Tula long enough to get a sense of it as a once-great center of Toltec culture and to make a few minor improvements around the city. They also established a fictitious bond with the Toltecs and later projected themselves as heirs of that civilization. Equally important, a new personification of Huitzilopochtli sprang up. This fully armed avatar of the god was of virgin birth from Coatlicue, the monstrous snake-skirted woman whose monolith stands in Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology and History.
Huitzilopochtli took on warrior god aspects, and under his influence the Aztecs became increasingly combative. As "masters of violence" they showed a tremendous proclivity for warfare and in short order came to love the clash of arms so much that their own death became essentially meaningless. In their later quest for dominance in the Central Valley, the Aztecs' willingness to bear arms and serve as mercenary allies would stand them in good stead.
After enjoying a few years of repose, the Aztecs received a severe tongue-lashing from Huitzilopochtli, their divine guardian or tutelary numen. How dare they come to enjoy peace and comfort and forsake their martial mission! When they departed Tula, the Aztecs destroyed what few improvements they had made and left the city in ruins. Much later, Tula would serve as the principal inheritance of Moctezuma II's son Pedro. At this earlier time, however, the Aztecs followed the leadership of Huitzilopochtli, who said, "I will serve as your guide; I will show you the way." Lake Texcoco in the Central Valley would be their next stop. The exact year of their arrival is unknown, but it was likely around 1250.
From the very beginning of their presence around the lakes, the Aztecs were seen as unwelcome squatters. The newcomers were expelled from one settlement after another over several decades, until at last they settled at Chapultepec, the famed "Grasshopper Hill," near the end of the 1200s. Chapultepec also provided nothing more than a brief respite, because the much more powerful people of Azcapotzalco claimed the site and forced the Aztecs to vacate it. Next came a temporary refuge on the south side of Lake Texcoco, a site claimed by Culhuacan. The settlers, still relatively few in number, begged the local king (Coxcotli) to assign them a permanent residence, and he agreed to do so.
The new locale was Tizapan, a barren and rocky region to the south of present-day Mexico City that was filled with poisonous vipers. Regarding the Aztecs as undesirable neighbors, Coxcotli hoped they would either starve or be killed by the snakes. Quite the opposite happened: "Instead of dying from the bites of vipers, the Mexica killed them and transformed them into their sustenance."
The Aztecs, in addition to their penchant for waging war, were like their contemporaries in Renaissance Europe in another respect. They quickly saw the benefits of strategic marriages with the daughters of their more powerful and settled neighbors. With this strategy, they especially sought to shed their image as semibarbarous nomads and establish ties with the Culhuas, who could claim descent from the Toltecs. Thus they lived and plotted at Tizapan for about twenty-five years, during which time the Mexica strengthened their ties with Culhuacan by serving as its ally in a war against Xochimilco.
In about 1323, at the behest of their ancient numen, the Aztecs nearly made a fatal mistake. They asked the lord of Culhuacan (Achitometl) to give them his virgin daughter so that they might pay her a "special honor" by making her a goddess. To his eternal regret, the aging Achitometl agreed. Unknown to him, the Mexica immediately sacrificed and flayed his daughter to honor their deity Xipe Totec. They then invited Achitometl to a darkened temple filled with incense. When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness and the smoke had cleared a bit, he saw an Aztec priest dancing in his daughter's skin.
Understandably, the king of Culhuacan "howled for his warriors to avenge the deadly insult." They pursued the bewildered Mexica, who thought they had bestowed a great honor on the young virgin, and drove them into the waters of Lake Texcoco. There the Aztecs took refuge on one of several "squashy little islands" named Zoquitlan, which has been translated as "Mudville."
Because Zoquitlan was a no-man's land bordering the territory of Azcapotzalco, Texcoco, and Culhuacan, none of the three powers asserted sovereignty over it, fearing that such action might prompt war with a powerful neighbor over an essentially worthless and swampy island. This would later prove to be a bad mistake, especially on the part of Azcapotzalco.
Left undisturbed, the Aztecs soon observed the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Huitzilopochtli, reflected today in the motif of Mexico's flag and its coinage. Their fierce war god had told his people that the end of their long migration from Aztlan would be foretold by seeing an eagle with a snake in it beak perched on a nopal cactus. Having observed this omen on Zoquitlan, the Aztecs had found a permanent home. Here the Mexica began the construction of their great capital on the renamed island of México-Tenochtitlan in 1345.
Around 1372, the Aztecs decided to choose a leader with ties to an external dynasty that would lend greater prestige to their island kingdom. Since their relations with Culhuacan had improved markedly after a disastrous start, and since the Culhuas were heirs of the Toltecs—whom the Mexica wished to emulate—the choice of an Aztec nobleman married to a princess of that city-state had much to recommend it. So it was that Acamapichtli became the first in a line of Aztec kings that would extend into the 1520s. At the same time as Acamapichtli's accession, a son of Tezozomoc, the powerful Tepanec monarch, became the first ruler of the Tlatelolco dynasty.
Acamapichtli and his followers soon faced a crisis with the powerful Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco. The Tepanecs decided to exert a questionable claim to the island of México-Tenochtitlan, primarily because they had the strength to do so and because they wished to squelch any increase in power by the Aztecs under their new monarch. Accordingly, the Tepanecs arrogantly insisted on tribute items spelled out in such excruciating detail that it seemed impossible for the Aztecs to provide them. For example, not only were the Mexica to supply ordinary items such as ears of corn, beans, tomatoes, chiles, and wild amaranth, they also were to bring a heron and a duck. Both fowl must be sitting on eggs, and at the precise moment of delivery to the Tepanecs, the chicks were to be pecking out of their shells. This, however, turned out not to be a problem. Huitzilopochtli's numen was equal to the task, and the Tepanecs had to acknowledge that their most outlandish demands had been satisfied.
Aztec submission to the humiliating demands of the Tepanecs continued throughout the reign of Acamapichtli and that of his tlatoque successors, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca. Particularly onerous were the demands of Tezozomoc, the high lord of Azcapotzalco, made during the early years of his reign. Still, despite the galling persecutions of the Tepanecs, the Aztecs continued to build their capital with calculated slowness. Should the city manifest too-rapid growth, it would surely alarm their more powerful enemy. And the Mexica knew full well the inevitable outcome of an all-out attack by Tepanec warriors—certain defeat, destruction of their city, and enslavement of all survivors.
Early on, the Aztecs began to create arable plots in the shallows of Lake Texcoco, which contained the freshest water. This involved making chinampas, a system of agriculture and land reclamation already in use by older basin cultures. The enclosures were enormously labor intensive, and the snail's pace with which they were built failed at first to alert the watchful Tepanecs.
Chinampas started with the cutting and weaving of mud-soaked reeds that poked through the surface of Lake Texcoco. Lashed together to form crude rafts of vegetation, these artificial islands (erroneously called floating gardens) were maneuvered into location and then covered with mud brought in by canoe or by silt scooped up from the lake's bottom. Vegetable, corn, and amaranth seeds were then planted in rich, saturated soil that had been elevated a few inches above lake level. This form of agriculture required no irrigation and, barring floods—unfortunately, a recurring hazard in the basin—or drought, the populace of México-Tenochtitlan had a dependable food supply, often from two harvests each year. This is especially important, because the Aztec capital could support a large population.
The Aztecs in this manner continued to build gardens and fields that lay adjacent to their ever-expanding city. Separating the chinampas at regular intervals were sluggish canals that permitted poled canoes to course amid the crops. The water in Lake Texcoco was always too saline to be potable, and the constant disturbance of the lake's silt-laden bottom made it exceedingly turbid for other domestic uses. Consequently, all fresh water had to be transported by canoe from Chapultepec into the city, where it was dispensed at the public market.
Any interruption of the supply of potable water would place the Aztecs in dire straits. The springs at Chapultepec poured forth thousands of gallons of pure water each day, but that source belonged to Azcapotzalco. This fact alone does much to explain the Mexica's near-total subservience to their hated Tepanec masters. That stranglehold had to be broken if the Aztecs were to achieve the greatness promised by Huitzilopochtli.
As Tezozomoc aged and entered the final years of his rule as tlatoani of Azcapotzalco, he became less demanding of the Mexica—for example, they did not have to deliver any more miraculously timed hatchings of heron and duck eggs. But his death in 1426 "completely changed all this." Tezozomoc's fierce son Maxtlatzin, became the new Tepanec ruler, and he despised the Aztecs. To demonstrate his awesome power, Maxtlatzin apparently arranged the assassination of Chimalpopoca within his own city of Tenochtitlan. Stunned and frightened by the powerful Tepanecs, the Mexica then elected their fourth king, Itzcoatl, the son of Acamapichtli.
Itzcoatl, the new tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, received conflicting advice from his most trusted advisers. Should he or should he not humble himself before the great Maxtlatzin? Were the Aztecs now strong enough to wage a war that would liberate them from Tepanec vassalage and in doing so secure a dependable source of water for their city? As the debate continued, Tlacaelel Cihuacoatl ("Snake Woman"), destined to become perhaps the most influential Mexica leader in the fifteenth century, entered the arena. This nephew of Itzcoatl, then only twenty-nine years of age and full of fight, counseled war with Azcapotzalco, and he eventually carried the day. Finding a willing ally in the equally persecuted Texcocans, the Aztecs launched the first war with the Tepanecs in 1427. This date also marks the year when the Aztecs became an imperial power.
The battles that followed were fierce. They began on an elevated causeway that linked Tenochtitlan with dry land. Down this corridor marched the Tepanec army, confident of victory. Legend holds that the Tepanecs' humpbacked numen of war, Coltic, clashed with the Mexica's counterpart, Huitzilopochtli. Burr Brundage has properly labeled this battle "an Aztec Armageddon." Blood flowed into the canals, and the Aztecs fought as they "had never fought before." The dead and wounded on both sides sank into the muddy bottom of Lake Texcoco, but in the end, warriors of the great Huitzilopochtli forced Coltic and his followers to flee.
Next, the Aztecs launched an all-out siege of Azcapotzalco, one of the great urban centers in the basin, which Tezozomoc had made into an imperial city. For four months the Mexica and their Texcocan allies fought desperate battles with Tepanec warriors. When the city finally fell to Mexica forces led by Tlacaelel, a horrible slaughter ensued. The pent-up rage of the Aztecs vented itself. "King Itzcoatl ordered the soldiers who had remained with him to devastate the city, burn the houses, and spare neither young nor old, men or women."
Tacuba (or Tlacopan), which had remained neutral throughout this phase of war with the Tepanecs, became the most important city on the west side of Lake Texcoco. In slightly more than one hundred years it would become the patrimony of Moctezuma II's principal heir, known to the Spaniards as doña Isabel. Following the destruction of Azcapotzalco, Tacuba joined Tenochtitlan and Texcoco in a triple alliance (in 1428), which would last for slightly less than a century.
During successful wars with the Tepanecs, which established Aztec ascendancy, four great leaders took center stage. Two of them are familiar names—King Itzcoatl and young Tlacaelel. The latter is often regarded as the bona fide military genius of his time. Another brother of Tlacaelel was Moctezuma Ilhuicamina. Last but hardly least was brilliant Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco. This future "poet king" was the wisest of the wise and an unparalleled engineer.
At the conclusion of the Tepanec wars, the three Mexica leaders all held titles of office. Itzcoatl, of course, was king of the Aztecs; Tlacaelel became lord of the House of Darts; Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, general of the Mexica armies. But none would be as important as Tlacaelel, who became chief counsel of Itzcoatl and continued as the power behind the Aztec throne. He would perhaps occupy that role for approximately five more decades.
As a result of the Tepanec wars, Tenochtitlan controlled land on the shores of Lake Texcoco. Not only did this give the Aztecs access to the great freshwater springs on Chapultepec's heights, but the conflict also brought hundreds of defeated and enslaved Tepanecs under Aztec control. The Mexica used this slave labor to link their city to surrounding lacustrine sites by building additional elevated causeways. Construction involved moving by hand thousands of tons of rock and dirt, which served as fill. Eventually, these corridors, all of which contained a number of gaps covered by removable bridges, ran to the south, west, and north of the capital. The bridges permitted canoe traffic to circle the lake by passing under their spans, and their movability gave security to the city should it be besieged by outside forces. But given where the Aztecs were headed over the next ninety years, the prospect of a native power greater than theirs must have seemed highly improbable.
Peace in the early 1430s, in the aftermath of some five years of war with the Tepanecs, permitted Tlacaelel to institute a number of reforms. But first he had to "modify" Aztec history. Tlacaelel would change the history of his people by declaring that Huitzilopochtli needed a great temple built in his honor. In gratitude, Huitzilopochtli would then assure the success of Aztec expansion at the expense of other people living in the basin and, in the process, remake their histories, too.
Huitzilopochtli was perhaps the most important deity in the Aztec pantheon, although his sanctuary atop the Great Pyramid in Tenochtitlan would later be shared by a similar structure devoted to Tlaloc, the rain god. Like other important Mexica gods, Huitzilopochtli had many forms: he was "a sorcerer, an omen of evil; a madman, a deceiver, a creator of war, a war-lord, an instigator of war."
Almost half of the designations for Huitzilopochtli relate to war, and in that context he would become exceedingly important. With Tlacaelel in command, the Aztecs conquered the people who controlled Xochimilco, Cuitlahuac, and Chalco, all located near the southern end of Lake Texcoco. This completed, the Mexica seized and burned the codices and picture manuscripts of the defeated. They then did the same with similar sources of their own. Now "history" could be reformulated in such a manner as to deny their seminomadic origins. In the process, the Aztecs claimed ties with the ancient Toltecs and even with the powerful Purepechas (Tarascans) of present-day Michoacán, who were not Nahua in origin. Part and parcel of this approach was to elevate their numen, Huitzilopochtli, and his mother, Coatlicue, to a level "with the creator deities of the Toltec period." Thus the Aztecs adopted a vision of Tollan as the wellspring of high culture, political organization, and refined arts. Or, to again use the words of Gordon Brotherson, a Mesoamerican "image in time." This projection intensified throughout the fifteenth century and reached its climax under the reign of Moctezuma II in the early sixteenth century.
Tlacaelel also drew on ancient Nahua beliefs to give still another vitally important role to Huitzilopochtli's numen. According to the Aztecs' cosmogony, the world had gone through four cycles, each ending in cataclysm. They, however, lived in the fifth era, the new Sun "of movement," which was destined to end in calamity, as had the previous Suns of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. Huitzilopochtli, now identified with the sun itself, must be fed the "the precious liquid" (blood) that kept humans alive so that the great orb would have the energy to make its daily journey across the sky. And as long as Huitzilopochtli received a continuous supply of blood from sacrificial victims, the Mexica's world would never end. So, how would the Aztecs ensure this dependable supply of food for their war/sun god?
The obvious answer is that they would launch successful conquests of other peoples in Central Mexico. Young men would then be marched into Tenochtitlan and sacrificed. Above all, an absolutely dependable source of human hearts and blood had to be found. Given the success of Aztec imperialism, what if the Mexica should run out of enemies and not be able to acquire the requisite number of sacrificial victims, or what if their wars had to be fought in such distant regions that capturing and marching prisoners back to Tenochtitlan was not feasible? Still another consideration was the quality or acceptability of certain tribes' blood as an appropriate offering to Huitzilopochtli. Preferred victims came from five city-states that contained quality people, rather than crude barbarians like the Huastecs. The choice of these nearby cities as a source of largely Nahuatl-speaking victims may have been a matter of convenience.
Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (Moctezuma I), Itzcoatl's successor, relied heavily on his brother and principal adviser, Tlacaelel, and the latter thought it important that a great king have his house and court in order. Joining the new Aztec king were a host of appointees—agents, stewards, headwaiters, doormen, pages, and lackeys. Also needed were officers of the treasury charged with keeping track of tribute from subject people. Functionaries likewise included a multitude of religious ministers, in such profusion that there was one for each five commoners.
Tlacaelel also insisted on enlarging the great pyramid. To honor the god of war properly, the Aztecs under Moctezuma Ilhuicamina undertook conquests of nearby dominions and later of those more distant. In each case, the offerings to Huitzilopochtli and other deities increased commensurate with the expanding scale of the Great Temple (Templo Mayor).
The logistics of acquiring sacrificial victims in remote lands and then marching them back to Tenochtitlan must have proved especially troublesome. Accordingly, the resurgence of flower wars (xochiyaotl), many years after the death of Itzcoatl in 1440, became commonplace. The guerra florida took place between the Aztecs and specific opponents, among which were the inhabitants of Tlaxcala, Huejotzingo, and Cholula. These engagements may be compared to a tournament in that they took place at arranged times and on specified grounds. Such contrived combat between forces roughly equal in size was conducted in theory on a "give-and-take basis." In short, the Mexica recognized that they would lose warriors, who would be sacrificed on the altars of their opponents, while they themselves would likewise obtain an acceptable number of victims.
In practice, however, this must have been difficult to orchestrate. Grown men clashing with weapons almost certainly presented a problem, because "violence, once unleashed, is notoriously difficult to control." Almost certainly, some of these sham battles must have turned into mortal combat, especially as the demands for sacrificial offerings increased.
Following the first ten years of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina's reign, a disaster of biblical proportions began in the first years of the 1450s. Four years of famine, presaged by a plague of locusts in 1446 and a devastating flood in 1449, prompted Moctezuma Ilhuicamina to seek the help of Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, his old ally in the Tepanec wars. Under the direction of the Texcocan sage, workers constructed a bulwark against future inundations. A dike, which also served to separate sweet water from the saline waters of Lake Texcoco, stretched for 5.4 miles (9 kilometers) across Lake Texcoco. Ironically, its completion was followed by four years of very poor harvests, occasioned by drought and crop-killing frosts.
Nezahualcoyotl also turned his attention to supplying potable water to Tenochtitlan. He supervised the construction of two parallel aqueducts of wood and stone that ran three miles (five kilometers) from Chapultepec's underground springs into the heart of the Aztec capital. Each aqueduct, elevated so as not to interrupt boat traffic on the lake, was approximately six feet (two meters) in diameter, although only one was used at a time. This arrangement permitted repairs and cleaning of the unused channel, ensuring that Tenochtitlan had an uninterrupted flow of that other "precious liquid"—water.
During the great famine that spanned the years 1450–1454, Aztec conquests of outlying areas were generally placed on hold. However, campaigns over the next fourteen years of Moctezuma's reign reached into the northern Gulf Coast—the modern-day states of Puebla and Tlaxcala—as well as Oaxaca in the south. Thus, when this powerful king died in 1468, the Aztecs had conquered areas once controlled by Huastecs in the north and by Mixtecs in the south.
Counting 1468, it was still fifty-two years before Spanish forces led by Cortés would land. In the calendar system used by the Aztecs, the equivalent of a century was a fifty-two-year cycle, arrived at by meshing the "gears" of two disks—one containing 365 teeth (the solar calendar) and one containing 260 teeth (the ritual calendar), each representing a day. A given day on the first calendar coincided with a given day on the second calendar only once in fifty-two years, and then the cycle (called a bundle, or binding, of years) repeated. The years of the solar calendar had four names (Rabbit, Reed, Flint, and House), which were preceded in each cycle by numbers one through thirteen.
With the death of Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, the title of tlatoani was perhaps offered to Tlacaelel. If so, he declined the honor, remarking that, "after all, the previous kings did nothing without my opinion and counsel, on all matters, civil or criminal. . . . Thus, do not worry, because I will point out to you who should be your king and lord."
Tlacaelel's choice as the new king of the Aztecs was Axayacatl, Itzcoatl's grandson. In 1469, the year of Axayacatl's accession, a son of the new king named Xocoyotzin (the future Moctezuma II) was about two years of age. In the first years of Axayacatl's reign, violence erupted between Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco in 1473. The Tlatelolcas were also Mexica, as well as kinsmen of the Aztecs. They occupied a city just north of México-Tenochtitlan, and they had always been subjects of the rulers of Tenochtitlan.
Trouble started between the two cities when some mischievous sons of noblemen in Tenochtitlan encountered maidens in the Tlatelolco market who were the daughters of Tlatelolca lords. Flirting and joking by the young males received similar responses from the young virgins, who allowed the former to accompany them toward their homes. En route the maidens were set upon and violated. The young women's male relatives vowed revenge, and matters escalated in the next few days, when a newly dug canal for canoe traffic into Tlatelolco was presumably vandalized by Tenochcas. And at this juncture the Tlatelolcas declared themselves independent.
Both Tlatelolcas and Tenochcas began arming themselves to settle real and imaginary issues. For example, in past military campaigns warriors of the two cities had fought side by side, but the Tlatelolcas believed that their men had not received the credit due them in victories boasted of by the Aztecs.
The initial clash of arms was horribly destructive of life on both side, but the Tenochcas had the upper hand in a battle fought within their city. Then, inspired by a fiery speech delivered by Tlacaelel, they prepared for all-out invasion of Tlatelolco. The old warrior reminded his legions that "the enemy lies right behind our houses. You will not have to climb mountains or go down cliffs. You will not have to march through valleys." Victory would require little more effort than shooing flies off their bodies. The leaders of Tlatelolco were equally militant and overconfident by declaring that Tenochtitlan "will become the dung heap and place of excrement for Tlatelolcas."
The final clash of arms went decisively against the Tlatelolcas. As the tide of battle turned against them, warriors took to their heels rather than fight. Desperate to halt the Aztec juggernaut, Tlatelolco's leaders resorted to a diversionary tactic: They ordered a large number of women to disrobe completely and form a squadron in front of the Tenochca attackers. Some of the naked women slapped their stomachs in a suggestive manner, while others squirted milk from their breasts. It was all to no avail. The women were captured, and the leaders of Tlatelolco died fighting atop an altar to Huitzilopochtli.
Thinking their armies invincible, Axayacatl and Tlacaelel carried out an ill-advised invasion of the powerful Purepechan kingdom to the west and northwest of Tenochtitlan. The Purepechas, armed with copper weapons, resoundingly defeated the Aztecs, at this juncture their only loss in real warfare against other native forces.
This, however, was nothing more than a bump in the road of Mexica imperialism. Tlacaelel appears to have died in the late 1470s, but his passing certainly did not spell the end of Aztec imperialism, and human sacrifice on an unprecedented scale lay in the near future.
Shortly after the death of Tlacaelel and Axayacatl (1481), Tizoc became the new king, but he proved to be of a different mettle from his predecessors in that he had little taste for warfare. It seems that "members of Tizoc's court, angered by his weakness and lack of desire to enlarge and glorify the Aztec nation, hastened his death with something they gave him to eat. He died in the year 1486, still a young man."
What Tizoc lacked in martial spirit was more than compensated in Ahuitzotl, the third of three brothers to succeed Itzcoatl. Chosen in the year of Tizoc's death, Ahuitzotl ordered the largest expansion ever of the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan. To obtain an appropriate number of sacrificial victims, the Aztecs marched their armies "to the far corners of Mesoamerica." Their conquests stretched as far as the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, to Soconusco, and into Guatemala. Then came long marches for captives who would surrender their hearts and blood to commemorate the completion of work in 1487 on the Great Temple, which now towered more than one hundred feet (about thirty-one meters) from its base.
Intended victims ascended steps leading to the top of the pyramid, where one at a time each was handed over to four priests, each of whom seized a limb and flopped the unfortunate on his back. He was then bent backward over a large convex stone, the techcatl. With pressure on his limbs, the victim's back was severely bent. A fifth priest then plunged a razor-sharp flint knife into the taut belly just below the rib cage, ripped out the heart, held it skyward as an offering, and then threw it into a sacred receptacle, where it was burned. "The body, spilling blood, was then flung off the stone and went tumbling and bumping down the steep slope [of the pyramid] to come to rest on the flat space near the base called . . . 'the blood mat.'"
The ritual slaughter was immense and continued for four days. With machinelike efficiency, Aztec priests dispatched an undetermined number of victims—estimates range into tens of thousands. One can scarcely imagine the tons of human hearts and rivers of blood resulting from this religion-inspired massacre.
It should be noted, however, that the Aztecs did not invent human sacrifice, even within the confines of Mesoamerican culture. What sets them apart in that milieu is the scale and "inflationary process" of their immolation of people. If at one time ten sacrifices seemed sufficient to propitiate a god, it was not long until that number escalated to a thousand. This may be explained in part by the Aztecs' controlling such a densely populated, large empire. A corollary argument—that such massive and horrific public executions served as an instrument of terror by which subject peoples were cowed into subservience—does not stand up well to analysis, because other cultures in Mesoamerica did not treat their prisoners any better. And the leaders or princes of those outlying communities did not themselves have to face being "altar fodder" in Tenochtitlan.
A bizarre and "highly contentious theory" that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism because they lacked animal protein has been advanced by Michael Harner and Marvin Harris. Since the consumption of human flesh was an exclusive privilege of the nobility, it hardly aided the dietary needs of common people. Furthermore, only the arms and legs of sacrificial victims were consumed—a clear indication that cannibalism involved more than the consumption of "human livestock" for sustenance. In short, Aztec "sacrifice, inseparable from religion, involved the killing of certain people on certain occasions and was in no sense an act of mass gourmandism."
In my view, the most plausible explanation for large-scale human sacrifice in the Aztec empire is offered by Nigel Davies. Increasingly, scholars have questioned Huitzilopochtli's position in the Aztec pantheon—important, without question; preeminent, questionable. For example, it is well to remember that Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli had altars atop the Great Temple. Furthermore, it can be argued that Huitzilopochtli was in contention for supremacy with either Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl, although the latter seems not to have been especially venerated at Tenochtitlan. Leaving this question aside, as well as the names and overlapping functions of other Aztec deities, who shared a "very crowded pantheon," each god had its cult of followers. And "to preserve the cosmic order, the gods demanded ever vaster ceremonies . . . [and] the mania for religious ceremony knew no bounds, a process generated less by piety than by a compulsive will to power." Likewise, the deities' elite cults sought to differentiate themselves from lesser folk not just by engaging in ritual and ceremony but also by a "mania for lavish display, which thus tended to become an obsession."
Aztec elites valued such goods as jade and quetzal feathers, made more exotic because they came from distant lands. So the Mexica's military arm was the key to exacting tribute items from afar and to acquiring sacrificial victims beyond those supplied by the flower wars. The lavish ceremonies carried out at the Great Temple served the state "in the same way that individuals may strive for wealth, not to eat more food or drink more wine but to display their success to others." In gratitude, sacrifices were made to a multitude of deities, which pleased their cults of followers and served to sustain and increase these immolations.
Rapid expansion of the Aztec empire is associated with the reigns of Moctezuma I (1440–1468) and Ahuitzotl (1468–1502). Because the latter died at a relatively young age, scholars have widely attributed his death to an accident that befell him some two years earlier. Another engineering project, which brought sweet water from Coyoacan to Tenochtitlan, was to be the highlight of Ahuitzotl's internal improvements for the Aztec capital. When a holding dam burst in 1500, it produced such a volume of water that a flood enveloped Tenochtitlan, killing hundreds. Panicked by fear of drowning, Ahuitzotl supposedly fled his palace in such haste that he failed to duck beneath the stone lintel of a low doorway. Having never fully recovered from head injuries, he died of complications from a severe concussion. However, Diego Durán offers a more plausible explanation for Ahuitzotl's death. The Dominican chronicler states that the emperor died of a malady contracted during his last military campaign: "It was a strange and terrible illness and the doctors could not understand it. . . . With the disease he withered up, began to lose his vigor, and when he died he was reduced to skin and bones."
The new tlatoani of the Aztecs was thirty-four years old and took the name Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma the Younger), to distinguish him from his great grandfather, Moctezuma Ilhuicamina. The new emperor, also known as Moctezuma II, appears to have been a man of great talent but false modesty. And he was the last Aztec emperor to receive the full ceremony of coronation. His principal successors, Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtemoc, were engaged in defending Tenochtitlan against the Spanish and did not have the luxury of formal induction into office.
This second Moctezuma was the sixth emperor since the Mexica freed themselves from Tepanec subjugation and the ninth since the line began near the end of the 1300s. He was a seasoned warrior and a profoundly religious person who was given to meditation and private study. Sources generally agree that on the occasion of his choice by electors as tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, he had to be informed of the honor in the temple of Huitzilopochtli, where he had gone to meditate.
Once in office, Moctezuma II shed his pretensions of modesty and took steps to put his stamp on internal and external affairs. He dismissed the bureaucrats who had served Ahuitzotl and replaced them with servants and officials of his own choosing. He did so because those appointed by his uncle "were of low rank or children of commoners." As such, they were viewed as unworthy to serve a high-ranking individual like him. Sons of the highest nobility in Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tacuba, all products of the elite centers of learning (calmecac), became members of his personal staff. These pipiltin (nobles) were further educated in the precepts of their new mentor.
Initially, Moctezuma II was far less bellicose than was Ahuitzotl. As León-Portilla has conjectured, Xocoyotzin's scholarly bent drove him to consult the surviving ancient codices to guide his actions, rather than to follow automatically the aggressive policies of his immediate predecessor.
At some point in the early 1500s, Moctezuma II married Princess Teotlalco, who became his principal wife. Of particular interest here is a daughter named Tecuichpotzin, likely born in 1509. In the years prior to the birth of his beloved daughter, Moctezuma II displayed an arrogance unparalleled in the annals of Aztec kings, and "his status now verged on the divine."
Since Moctezuma placed himself on a footing that approximated that of the creator gods, any offense—real or imagined—to his person was tantamount to blasphemy or treason, and punishment was likely to be death. Many years after his death, Diego Durán questioned an Indian informant about the facial features of the emperor: "Father, I shall not lie to you or tell you things I do not know. I never saw his face." The Indian explained that had he dared lay eyes on Moctezuma, "he would have been killed in the same way that others who looked upon him were slain."
Moctezuma II paid a high price for making himself a near man-god, probably patterned in the main after the tutelary numen Huitzilopochtli. How could he explain failures or adverse circumstances when he presented himself as a quasi all-powerful deity? Most tyrants know the answer. They are never at fault; others must shoulder the blame. In the near future, things were about to go badly for Xocoyotzin.
By the time of Tecuichpotzin's birth, Spaniards had conquered and partially settled Española, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Their expeditions also touched the shores of present-day Colombia and Panama by 1509, and within two years, Diego de Velázquez would initiate the conquest of Cuba. Given the far-reaching extent of Aztec imperial contacts, it is perhaps likely that rumors of a different kind of human being reached the fringes of the Aztec world.
Prior to the arrival of Spaniards in New Spain, Moctezuma opened a campaign against Tlaxcala that went badly. The Aztecs suffered through indecisive battles and, worse, defeats. In one engagement, the Mexica lost a majority of their forces, including their leaders, while taking only sixty prisoners. By 1518 the outnumbered Tlaxcalans stood unconquered, because they "had fought all the harder . . . having more to lose than their opponents." Significantly, when Cortés arrived in the following year, "he found the Tlaxcalans roused but not routed."
Nevertheless, the Aztec armies did score victories in other areas, including a campaign into Chichimec territory by way of the Huastec region. The Mexica also occupied parts of present-day Tabasco/Campeche, a possible foothold for expansion into Yucatán. Furthermore, by 1519 the powerful Cholulans had become an ally of the Aztecs. As Ross Hassig has noted, "How far the Aztecs might have expanded had the Spanish conquest not cut their rule short we cannot say. But there is little evidence that . . . [they] had already achieved their height and were on the wane."
The two Spanish sea expeditions that foretold Cortés's landing on the coast of present-day Veracruz were led by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, to Yucatán in 1517, and by Juan de Grijalva, along the coast of Veracruz in 1518. When news of the first sighting of a Spanish ship, described by a peasant as a "round hill or house" moving about on water, reached Moctezuma, far from lapsing into lethargy and depression, he "actually behaved like the experienced twenty-year sovereign he was." From this point on, the emperor had the sea watched from several locations.
Two years passed, and the floating houses appeared yet again. The ships of Fernando Cortés and his men appeared off the coast of present-day Veracruz. They brought with them "huge deer," which they had tamed and learned to ride; they had "magical sticks" that resounded like thunder and spit lightning; and they had ferocious dogs that obeyed their masters.
The decision about how to respond to this unsettling news lay with Moctezuma II. His course of action was far more certain and constant than is generally portrayed. He would watch the intruders very carefully and gather information about them, and he was not without hope. Perhaps if he offered sumptuous gifts, the unwelcome guests would be satisfied and go away; perhaps the powerful Tlaxcalans, whose empire lay between the coast and Tenochtitlan, would defeat them; or perhaps they could be invited into the capital, where they would be cut off from the coast. What did not occur to Moctezuma was that these bearded strangers would have a falling out among themselves, or that Fernando Cortés would have to deal with powerful enemies in his own world.