General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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The eagle and the snake...

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to Jesse: Hi Mexicolore! I’ve had this question lingering in the back of my mind for a while, some codices don’t have the snake in the eagle’s mouth as the foundation of Tenochtitlan. What is the real story behind it? I’ve also seen an alternate version of the Mexican flag that was discovered by a man named Dr. Ignacio Romero Vargas called the panketzalli I believe (don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right) and I heard it was said to have been held up on the night of “la noche triste” when Cuitlahuac kicked Cortez and the Spaniards out of Tenochtitlan. The flag seems to have a symbol in the mouth that represents water and fire, can you please explain to me the real story behind it? And if the snake is an incorrect interpretation? Thank you! (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Huitzilopochtli, patron of the Panquetzaliztli festival, Codex Tudela folio 25
Pic 1: Huitzilopochtli, patron of the Panquetzaliztli festival, Codex Tudela folio 25 (Click on image to enlarge)

A good question, and in asking it you’ve touched on something fairly sensitive. The panketzalli that you refer to is what members of the Mexika/La Raza/Chicano movement in the USA fiercely believe is the ‘original Mexika flag’ that was taken by the Spaniards and is now ‘secretly’ kept in the Vatican. This movement is very strongly committed to the idea that ‘Mexika’ history needs to be reclaimed from white people, and the panketzalli is seen as a symbol of reconnecting to their indigenous past. We can’t speak on behalf of this movement, but we’ve never seen or heard any evidence to support the idea of there being a secret ‘Mexika flag’ in the Vatican.

Pic 2: Detail from the title page of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 2: Detail from the title page of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

(Interestingly, panketzalli is similar to the Náhuatl name for the annual Panquetzaliztli festival, a highly important one in the Aztec calendar, dedicated to the Mexica tribal deity Huitzilopochtli. The festival’s name means, significantly, ‘Raising of the Banners’, and preparations for it would begin 40 days before the festival itself.)

Returning to the main question, the bottom line is this: the snake appears to be an add-on: you’re right essentially in that some historical documents include it, others don’t. What’s interesting is that, while several of the manuscripts drawn AFTER the Conquest include the snake, none of the iconographic examples from BEFORE the Conquest do. Here we reproduce several ‘classic’ examples of the foundation image taken from post-Conquest sources: whilst the Codex Mendoza title page (Pic 2) has no snake, the Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme by Diego Durán (Pic 3) shows it clearly.

Pic 3: The founding of Tenochtitlan from Diego Durán’s ‘Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España’, folio 14v
Pic 3: The founding of Tenochtitlan from Diego Durán’s ‘Historia de las Indias de la Nueva España’, folio 14v (Click on image to enlarge)

In other documents - we show here an example from the Tovar Manuscript (Pic 4) - the eagle is shown devouring another bird. However when we look at PRE-HISPANIC representations, the snake is absent! The best example of this is found on the rear of the famous teocalli (temple) to sacred warfare, now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The predator is instead depicted carrying (consuming?) the Mexica emblem of sacred war, the (teo)atl tlachinolli, formed from the union of two primeval elements, (divine) water and fire (learn more from the link below). By coincidence, the atl tlachinolli icon bears a significant resemblance to the form of a serpent: in Eduardo Matos Moctezuma’s words, the two ‘could be confused’. Gordon Brotherston concurs, suggesting that some scholars have ‘misread’ the water-and-fire symbol.

Pic 4: The founding of Tenochtitlan from the ‘Manuscrito Tovar’, plate IV
Pic 4: The founding of Tenochtitlan from the ‘Manuscrito Tovar’, plate IV (Click on image to enlarge)

We decided to undertake a simple survey of literature on this topic, all of it in sources accessible to the general public, to see how many scholars mention the snake and how many don’t. The results are enlightening...

SOME SCHOLARS THAT MENTION THE SNAKE in describing the foundation of Tenochtitlan:-

• Esther Pasztory (Aztec Art)
• Ignacio Bernal (original catalogue of the National Museum of Anthropology)
• Michael Coe (Mexico: from the Olmecs to the Aztecs)
• Felipe Solís Olguín (British Museum Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler catalogue)
• Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (Arqueología Mexicana Nov-Dec 2009 and Royal Academy of Arts Aztecs catalogue)
• Frederick Hicks (The Aztec World)


Pic 5: Detail from the rear view of the ‘Teocalli de la guerra sagrada’, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 5: Detail from the rear view of the ‘Teocalli de la guerra sagrada’, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

SOME SCHOLARS THAT DON’T MENTION THE SNAKE in describing the foundation of Tenochtitlan:-

• John Pohl and Claire Lyons (The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire)
• Serge Gruzinski (Painting the Conquest)
• Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (Handbook to Life in the Aztec World)
• Caroline Dodds-Pennock (Bonds of Blood)
• Rudolph van Zantwijk (The Aztec Arrangement)
• Michael Smith (The Aztecs)
• Inga Clendinnen (Aztecs)
• Frances Berdan (The Aztecs of Central Mexico: An Imperial Society)
• Richard Townsend (The Aztecs)
• Roberta Markman and Peter Markman (The Flayed God: the Mythology of Mesoamerica)

Pic 6: The founding of Tenochtitlan, from ‘Libro de los Dioses y Ritos’ by Diego Durán folio 226v
Pic 6: The founding of Tenochtitlan, from ‘Libro de los Dioses y Ritos’ by Diego Durán folio 226v (Click on image to enlarge)

A couple of eminent scholars appear to be ambiguous on the point - Elizabeth Boone (Stories in Red and Black) and Jacques Soustelle (The Every-day Life of the Aztecs).

Now, a number of key scholars have made detailed studies of the all-important pre-Hispanic atl tlachinolli symbol and at the same time make no reference to the snake, or infer - as one or two experts have suggested - that it could be an element introduced after the Conquest to suit creole and mestizo ideologies. These include:-
• Alfonso Caso (El Pueblo del Sol)
• Richard Townsend (British Museum Moctezuma catalogue)
• Gordon Brotherston (Mexican Painted Books)
• Laurette Séjourné (Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico)
• Doris Heyden (México: Orígenes de un Símbolo)
• Alfredo López Austín (The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon)

Pic 7: The founding of Tenochtitlan, from the Codex Aubin, folio 9
Pic 7: The founding of Tenochtitlan, from the Codex Aubin, folio 9 (Click on image to enlarge)

The symbol for sacred war was first ‘revealed’ to the Mexica on their long, arduous journey south from their mythical homeland, Aztlán, precisely at the place where the Aztec priests beheld the sign of the eagle on the cactus blossoming from a stone, as Huitzilopochtli had prophesied to them. Under the sacred stone was a fountain and, paraphrasing Caso, a stream of blue water and another of red gushed forth from the spring, indicating the hieroglyphic (teo)atl tlachinolli, which means “(divine) water, burnt fields,” or ‘the holy war which had as its objective the offering of the blood and hearts of the victims to the sun.’ Notice that what Séjourné calls ‘the fruit of the miraculous stone’ is given the shape of a human heart in the teocalli de la guerra sagrada, an icon still maintained today in the Mexican flag design (see pic 8). Heyden points out that the Náhuatl term for the heart of a sacrificial victim - quauhnochtli - meant ‘prickly pear of the eagle’, and that the eagle, together with the stone and cactus roots, represented the heart of Copil (Huitzilopochtil’s sacrificed nephew - see below).

Pic 8: Sacred hearts: artists’ representations of prickly pear cactus fruits as human hearts
Pic 8: Sacred hearts: artists’ representations of prickly pear cactus fruits as human hearts (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Séjourné, archaeologists have been mistaken in assuming the atl tlachinolli symbol refers to ‘external’ warfare (ie as waged by one people against another); instead she argues that it refers to the individual Aztec soul, that can only be truly liberated through ‘the fire of human sacrifice and penitence’; she points out that the symbol always accompanies Quetzalcóatl in his role as the Lord of the House of Dawn (the Morning Star Venus, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli - see an example by following the link below). The most powerful illustration, for Séjourné, of the union of these opposite forces (water and fire) in a sacred ‘formula’ is the juxtaposition of the two great shrines to Tláloc and Huitzilopochtli atop the Great Temple in the heart of Tenochtitlan.

Pic 9: The union of glyphs for water and scorched earth: ‘atl tlachinolli’ symbol on the Malinalco war drum
Pic 9: The union of glyphs for water and scorched earth: ‘atl tlachinolli’ symbol on the Malinalco war drum (Click on image to enlarge)

Townsend follows the research of Zantwijk and analyzes the founding image of Tenochtitlan as a depiction, not only of the place glyph and legendary vision but also of an ancient dual system of social organisation, linked to cosmological forces and based on male/female principles at the heart of the contrasting political roles of the Mexica ruler and his ‘prime minister’:-

The ‘tlahtoani’ [Great Speaker or ruler] functioned as external affairs chief, commanding the warriors in offensive actions and conducting relationships with foreign peoples. In this capacity he was symbolically associated with the sky, the sun, and great birds of prey, especially the eagle. He was complemented by the internal affairs chief, known as the ‘cihuacóatl’ (‘woman serpent’), responsible for matters concerning agriculture, defence and administration. The ‘cihuacóatl’ was symbolically associated with the earth, ground water and food production...

Pic 10: Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican history, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 10: Detail from Diego Rivera’s mural of Mexican history, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Zantwijk first made the connections between the key founding symbols (heavenly eagle and earthly stone) and offensive/defensive roles/seasons, linked to individual chiefs representing powerful calpolli or communities, in his 1977 book The Aztec Arrangement. He identifies the eagle, not only with the sun and with the animal spirit (nahualli) of Huitzilopochtli, but also with Cuauhtlequetzqui, the Mexica high priest who killed Copil (Huitzilopochtli’s nephew) in a duel, and threw his heart into the reeds of Lake Texcoco, in the exact spot where, some 40 years later (in the year 1-Flint or 1324) the Mexica were to see the sign of the eagle on the cactus rock. The significance of this lies in Cuauhtlequetzqui’s name, which means ‘He Who Raises The Fire Of The Eagle’...

Gordon Brotherston flags up another aspect of this parallel - and keeps an open mind on the possible presence of the pre-Hispanic snake in the foundation emblem - pointing out that ‘according to the Aztlan Annals one of the four bearers who carried Huitzilopochtli during the migration [from Aztlan] was called Cuauhcóatl, a name which contains the concepts of both eagle (cuauhtli) and snake (coatl)’. Intriguingly, this could be the same person: in the Crónica Mexicayotl Tezozomoc relates the legend of the migration and names one of the god bearers as ‘Eagle Who Goes Into The Fire OR Eagle Snake’.

Pic 11: Representations of the different national emblems used throughout Mexico’s history, surrounding a relief of today’s official emblem
Pic 11: Representations of the different national emblems used throughout Mexico’s history, surrounding a relief of today’s official emblem (Click on image to enlarge)

In his splendid book The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon the eminent Mexican scholar Alfredo López Austín draws these threads together, stressing that the union of two opposite forces - that ‘symbol of the binary opposition between water and fire’ - represented an important agreement and compromise between two of the principal founders of Tenochtitlan, Cuauhtlequetzqui and Tenoch (Rock Cactus). These two leaders spoke on behalf of opposing deities - one solar, the other aquatic - and through their political unity, according to the Nahua historian Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, ‘the prophecy will come to pass that no-one in the world will ever be able to destroy or erase the glory, the honour and the fame of México-Tenochtitlan’. To López Austín, the founding of the great Aztec capital began with a miracle, the story of which has been (re)mythologized, based on just one of several different versions, each of which can be interpreted on different planes of meaning...

Pic 12: Statue of the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City by Carlos Marquina
Pic 12: Statue of the founding of Tenochtitlan, Mexico City by Carlos Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

Moreover, in his essay El águila y la serpiente in Mitos Mexicanos edited by Enrique Florescano, López-Austín shows that images of eagles devouring snakes are clearly present in pre-Hispanic art, ancient representations of age-old binary opposites - specifically sun (eagle) and water (snake) that could easily be associated with the dry and rainy seasons so central to Mesoamerican life.

Pic 13: The union of fire and water: detail from folio 35 of the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca
Pic 13: The union of fire and water: detail from folio 35 of the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (Click on image to enlarge)

Doris Heyden places the foundation story into an even broader context: recalling the ancient Mesoamerican belief that some men are descended from rocks, she suggests that the stone in the foundation emblem is a fundamental symbol for great ancestry. She likens the arrival at ‘Place of Cactus Rock’ (Tenochtitlan) to a symbolic return to the Mexica’s original home of Aztlán, a watery paradise (similar to Tlalocan or Tamoanchan) whence the Mexica had been guided by the Eagle (Huitzilopochtli) flying overhead. On the Teocalli of Sacred Warfare the glyph for Tenochtitlan grows from the jaws - in the CENTRE of the body - of a figure lying on the ground that appears to be the earth monster (Caso and Séjourné claim it is the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue), symbolizing the earth giving birth to the roots of the prickly pear cactus that grew from Copil’s heart. Heyden argues that this representation of the Tenochtitlan glyph growing from the heart (of the earth) could refer to the act of dedication of the Main Temple of the Aztecs, since it was common practice to place the heart of a sacrificial victim at the base of a new temple.

Pic 14: The head of Huitzilopochtli, in his guise as a humming-bird, perches victorious over the corpse of Copil, out of whose body a cactus grows: detail from Codex Azcatitlan f.12v
Pic 14: The head of Huitzilopochtli, in his guise as a humming-bird, perches victorious over the corpse of Copil, out of whose body a cactus grows: detail from Codex Azcatitlan f.12v  (Click on image to enlarge)

So what are we to conclude? The snake certainly appears to be a mere bit-player in the foundation drama compared with the central roles of the eagle, prickly pear cactus, stone, and sacred war symbol, yet it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Whilst post-Conquest ideologies have conspired over the centuries to present the emblem in far too simplified, indeed a patronising setting - Good Eagle vanquishes Bad Serpent - we now realise just how many levels of meaning, complicated by several contradictory and ambiguous versions of the original story, can be brought into play in our struggle to interpret this key event in Mexican history, an event that (as López-Austín emphasizes) fuses legend with official history, miracle with reality.

What should be of little surprise though is that this monumentally important foundation event should, through the centuries, come to represent not just the foundation of a great city, but rather of an entire nation...

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: detail of the front cover of Burning Water by Laurette Séjourné
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Tudela scanned from our own copy of the Colección Thesaurus Americae 2002 facsimile edition, Madrid
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian LIbrary, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, 1938, London
• Pix 3, 6 & 7: public domain
• Pic 4: image from the Tovar Manuscript scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1972
• Pic 5: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 8: illustration top L from Wikipedia (detail), top R courtesy Phillip Mursell, bottom (detail) scanned from our own copy of Burning Water by Laurette Séjourné
• Pic 9: illustrations courtesy Phillip Mursell; photo of drum detail by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 10: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 12: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 13 & 14: public domain

‘The Aztec symbol for war’

See the ‘atl tlachinolli’ symbol accompanying the Morning Star god

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Mexicolore replies: Several school books on the Aztecs do a reasonable - usually very condensed - job including this story. Here are a couple of very different ones:-
• Simplest, most attractive and cleverly designed as a folding-screen booklet is ‘The Aztec Story’, the whole reverse side of the gallery resource for children visiting the 2002-3 ‘Aztecs’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. Text by Annie Harris. Published by Burlington, 2002.
• Longest, beautifully written and illustrated, is the chapter ‘The Long-Ago People’ in The Sun Kingdom of the Aztecs by Victor W. von Hagen (Brockhampton Press, 1960).
These may be hard to get hold of, so we may prepare our own version for the website... When we do, it will appear in the ‘Aztec Stories’ section.
Mexicolore replies: No, we haven’t... Thanks for the tip. Any suggestions how to access this?
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this interesting suggestion, Azcatl. All these things are interconnected. Serge Gruzinski in ‘Painting the Conquest’ suggests - in his interpretation of the image in Pic 13 - that the union of water and fire, the glyph for sacred war, is ‘the image of cosmic flames leaping from precious water (which also represents blood leaping from sacrificial victims captured in battle).’