General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Sep 2017/8 Reed
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What does (my) name Cuitlahuac mean?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Cuitlahuac Gonzalez: I hope that you might be able to help me. I’m 23 years old and I don’t really have a clear understanding of the meaning of my name, which I think is pretty pathetic on my part. Every time I visit Mexico, I seem to get a different meaning. I know that Cuitlahuac was emperor for only a short period, but during this time he lead the massacre of ‘La Noche Triste’ but I would like to know more of the details. For example, was there a symbol or an element associated with Cuitlahuac? Is there any direct translation, a meaning that this name takes on (I’m hoping for Almighty Powerful God!)? How is the name written in Nahuatl? And any other information you might have will definitely be helpful. I would like to thank you in advance for taking the time to read my inquiry and hope that you are able to help. (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Monument to Cuitlahuac (and to Cuauhtemoc),Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City
Pic 1: Monument to Cuitlahuac (and to Cuauhtemoc),Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

.Cuitla. – .n. cuitlatl - excrement, residue, or a growth. (.A. - n. atl - water)
.Hua. - possessive .C. - describes location, ‘where’.
“Where those who have cuitlatl are”
Possibly, “Where those who have cuitlatl in the water are”.

Pic 2: Cuitlatl, or excrement
Pic 2: Cuitlatl, or excrement

Although many people might think that the name Cuitláhuac reflects negatively upon its bearer, they couldn’t be more wrong! Remember, Cuitláhuac was a respected and trusted Aztec emperor; his name would have paid tribute to his high position in society. From our study of other Náhuatl words, we can conclude that cuitlatl, or excrement, was often linked to precious items:-
Teotl (god/divinity) + Cuitlatl = Teocuitlatl (gold)
Iztac (white) + Cuitlatl = Iztaccuitlatl (silver)
The name glyph shown in Picture 2 is the sign for excrement, which was often symbolically linked with the earth. This sign helps to indicate that Cuitláhuac’s name has more to do with excrement than to the vegetation or gold that other translators have mentioned.

Pic 3: An image of Cuitláhuac from the manuscript called Primeros Memoriales
Pic 3: An image of Cuitláhuac from the manuscript called Primeros Memoriales (Click on image to enlarge)

Cuiltáhuac’s rule
Cuitláhuac was the eleventh son of the former Aztec emperor, Axyácatl, and a king who was very close to his elder brother and
predecessor, Moctezuma. Before ascending the throne of Tenochtitlan, he was king of the nearby kingdom of Iztapallapan. When he came to power, on the Aztec day of 8 Wind, Moctezuma was still alive but imprisoned by the Spanish within one of his own palaces. It’s reasonable to believe that he headed the onslaught against the Spanish following Moctezuma’s death. This was one of the greatest displays of resistance shown by the Aztecs, who managed to kill many of their rivals that attempted to flee the city with heavy gold loot. Cuitláhuac’s election, a process traditionally performed after an old emperor’s death, indicates that the Aztecs had lost faith in Moctezuma. Their decision came too late, however, as Cuitláhuac’s initial triumph in battle was quickly followed by a tremendous and lengthy onslaught by the Spanish and their allies. By then, Cuitláhuac had fallen ill with smallpox. He died on December 3rd, 1520,*

*The dates of Cuitláhuac’s ascension and death are quoted from Alvarado Tezozómoc’s “Historia Mexicáyotl”.

Pic 4: An Aztec warrior wields his spear, Florentine Codex, Book XII
Pic 4: An Aztec warrior wields his spear, Florentine Codex, Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Cuitláhuac was the 10th emperor to govern the vast territories dominated by the Aztecs. Alas, he was never able to fully enjoy the pleasures of his status, having instead to face the chaos provoked by the arrival of Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors. Described as courageous and full of spirit, Cuitláhuac died eighty days after his coronation, leaving the ill fated and final Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, as his successor...

Pic 5: An Aztec man dies from smallpox, Florentine Codex, Book XII
Pic 5: An Aztec man dies from smallpox, Florentine Codex, Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

Ascension: 16th September, 1520.
Length of reign: 80 days.
Cause of death: Smallpox.
Father:King Axayácatl.
Brother: Moctezuma Xocoyótzin.
Mother: Aztec noblewoman, daughter of the King of Iztapallapan.
Children: Five children who maintained their status as nobles after the Spanish conquest. Three of their names are recorded: Alonso Axayaca Ixhuetzcatocatzin (governor of Iztapallapan), Doña Ana and Doña Luisa.

What really won the war against the Aztecs? Read about the illness that claimed Tenochtitlan...
Cuitláhuac was amongst the first Aztecs to fall prey to smallpox, an illness that until recently continued to kill people all over the world. Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a sixteenth century Franciscan monk in Mexico, described the havoc it wreaked on the indigenous population:-

“He [Cuitláhuac] was taken by a pestilence that had never before been known to Mexico or any of the lands nearby. It affected peoples’ faces because it made many holes in them. So many people died that not enough graves could be made in time. Their dead bodies were piled together, which caused a great stink.”

The smallpox virus was carried to Mexico by a soldier who sailed in Captain Pánfilo de Narváez’s crew. Soon it spread past the Mexican borders to Central and South America. Its presence was felt in the Incan highlands before Velazquez ever arrived.

• Molina, Fray Alonso de “Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana y mexicana y castellana”, preliminary study by Miguel León Portilla, 4th edition, Editorial Porrúa, 2001, Mexico City, Mexico.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernadino de “Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España”, Prologue by Angel María Garibay, 6th edition, Editorial Porrúa, 1985, Mexico City, Mexico.
• Smith, Michael E. “The Aztecs”, 2nd edition, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK, 1996.
• Tezozómoc, Alvarado, “Historia Mexicáyotl”, UNAM, 1986, Mexico City, Mexico.

• Pic 1: Photo by Ian Mursell
• Pics 2 & 3: thanks to Julia Flood
• Pics 4 & 5: scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thanks for sharing - interesting!
Mexicolore replies: You can probably tell from Julia’s article here that the literal meaning of the name is much more limited; however Ilhuikamina is adding a poetic interpretation that could have some validity, in that, in pre-Hispanic times (as Brooke noted below), Cuitlahuac was an island village near Lake Chalco. In Rudolf van Zantwijk’s words ‘It was a chinampa village and remained so until recent times. Cuitlahuac occupied a special status in the Aztec empire, because an aristocratic family who lived there, the Tzompan, was supposed to have descended from Mixcoatl [tribal god of the Cuitlahuacas]. It also appears that Cuitlahuac’s calendrical system had predominated for some time in central Mexico, which indicates a long period of strong administrative influence... The early importance of Cuitlahuac is also apparent from the fact that in its foundation legend it is called Tollan-Cuitlahuac... “Official” history has almost ignored the role this city played in the Aztec past...’ (from ‘The Aztec Arrangement’). In summary, the association of the name with a thriving and important chinampa settlement from pre-Hispanic times is highly plausible.
Mexicolore replies: It seems this is the pretty much the truth; we’ve consulted 7 Náhuatl dictionaries in our resource centre and the 5 that mention Xilotl refer to the unripened/tender ear of corn (as opposed to ‘elotl’ which is the ripened equivalent). It seems a nice enough name to us!
Mexicolore replies: You’re more than welcome, Cuitlahuac. Thanks again for giving us permission to include your question in our ‘Ask Us’ section.
Every good wish for the future. Keep in touch!