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Professor Gordon Whittaker

The Aztecs have been called many things...

This is Part 1 of a two-part article very kindly written specially for us by Gordon Whittaker, Professor, Linguistische Anthropologie und Altamerikanistik, Seminar für Romanische Philologie, Universität Göttingen (Germany).

Map of ‘The Valley of Tenochtitlan as seen by Cortez’ published in 1869 by George F. Cram in Illinois
Map of ‘The Valley of Tenochtitlan as seen by Cortez’ published in 1869 by George F. Cram in Illinois (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs have been called many things over the centuries, not least by their enemies. Indeed, there are quite a number of seemingly interchangeable labels applied to them even today by scholars and the lay public. But which to use when? Let’s go through the list and see what we can make of them.

First, there’s the term Mexica (roughly pronounced May-SHE-ka with the accent on the second syllable), which comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. This means literally ‘those of (the city of) Mexico,’ which was the name given to the capital city both of the Mexica state and of the empire over which it ruled from the early 1430s right up to the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This term is reflected in the expression Cortés used for the Aztecs: los de México ‘those of Mexico.’

Painting of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and environs, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Painting of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and environs, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

There has been some uncertainty with regard to the exact meaning of the city name, but there is good reason to see it as a picturesque description of the island city’s symbolic location in the heart of Metztliapan ‘(In) the Waters of the Moon,’ the sad remains of which are now known as Lake Texcoco. According to this, Mexico (pronounced May-SHE-ko) would come from an original Metzxicco ‘In the Centre (literally, Navel) of the Moon,’ which is what the city is called (in translation) by the Otomi, who lived in the Valley of Mexico alongside the Aztecs.

Painting of the founding of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Painting of the founding of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This is, however, complicated by the fact that they were called Mexitin (May-SHE-tin) during their migration into the Valley and before they founded the city in the 14th century. At this earlier point in their history they were named after their leader Mexi, who was later deified and merged with their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli. By the time they reached the site of their future capital, the Mexitin included among their foremost leaders an individual called Tenoch, who may well live on in the name of the settlement that rose to dominate the city of Mexico and the empire it eventually built – Tenochtitlan. The name Tenochtitlan is often taken to mean ‘By the Opuntia Cactus (tenochtli),’ on which according to one tradition Huitzilopochtli in the form of an eagle came to rest, signalling where he wished his city to be built. But there is also the possibility that the settlement was named after Tenoch himself, as another tradition would have it, and that only later, after Tenochtitlan had risen to a position of prestige and power, was the name reanalyzed to bestow a more worthy mythic aura and implicit destiny upon it.

Lords of Tlatelolco alongside the pictographic sign depicting Tlatelolco in a folio (19r) of the Codex Mendoza showing tribute paid to Tenochtitlan
Lords of Tlatelolco alongside the pictographic sign depicting Tlatelolco in a folio (19r) of the Codex Mendoza showing tribute paid to Tenochtitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

There are two interesting things about this. Firstly, the mythic tradition effectively excludes as chosen ones of Huitzilopochtli the Mexitin who founded a rival settlement, Xaltelolco (‘At the Sand Dunes,’ later renamed Tlatelolco ‘At the Earthen Mound’ to indicate a more solid foundation for a city) on a smaller island immediately to the north.

Pre-Hispanic settlements around México-Tenochtitlan, painting in the Hotel Majestic, Mexico City
Pre-Hispanic settlements around México-Tenochtitlan, painting in the Hotel Majestic, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Secondly, the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan – and the Aztecs in the narrowest sense – are usually called Tenochca ‘those of Tenochco,’ which implies that the original settlement was later renamed, just as the northerly one was. The suffix -co ‘in, at’ can be added not just to common nouns of every shape and colour but also to proper nouns (such as the names of deities and persons) to form place names. The suburb of Churubusco, for example, which is famous today for its film studios, was originally a settlement south of Tenochtitlan called Huitzilopochco ‘At Huitzilopochtli(‘s Place).’ So it is quite possible that Tenochtitlan was indeed originally named after an early leader, just as the Tenochtitlan quarter of Copilco is named after – and commemorates the sacrifice of – Copil, Mexi’s nephew and an acclaimed enemy of the Tenoch faction. The semi-legendary strife between the two groups offered a foretaste of the later civil war of 1473 in which Tenochtitlan vanquished its sister city, Tlatelolco, a war that ended similarly in the death of the rival’s king.

Open-air model of the city of Tenochtitlan, Zócalo, Mexico City
Open-air model of the city of Tenochtitlan, Zócalo, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Both original settlements came to be regarded as part of the greater city of Mexico, which is why this name was often added to the name of each of the twin cities. The imperial capital is thus referred to in various early sources as Mexico Tenochtitlan or as Tenochtitlan Mexico, the order of the names being unimportant. Within a generation after the Spanish Conquest the Aztecs of the city of Mexico were already being called in Spanish Mexicanos, which adds a further complication to the naming issue. This is because the citizens of New Spain decided after their successful War of Independence from Spain in the early 19th century to name their new state Mexico after its capital and thus the nation was called Mexican to match. However, the Aztec language, Nahuatl, continued (and continues today in some areas) to be called Mexicano by Spanish speakers, which makes the confusion all but perfect.

School children study a model of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
School children study a model of Tenochtitlan, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars still fail to agree on what to call the founders of Tenochtitlan and its expansionist state. Some call them Tenochca, since it is their Mexica city which came to dominate the empire the Spanish encountered in 1519. Most prefer Mexica, since this is the most common label used in Nahuatl texts and was certainly the name the lords of the empire used most often for the population of the empire’s ruling kingdom, called Mexicapan after the Mexica. Three such kingdoms made up the excan tlatoloyantli, the so-called Triple Alliance at the core of the empire, the other two being Acolhuacan, the capital of which was the culturally influential city of Tetzcoco on the east shore of the lake, and Tepanecapan, the political centre of which was the tiny city of Tlacopan on the west shore, right at the gateway to Tenochtitlan.

Picture sources:-
• Map of Valley of Tenochtitlan scanned from personal collection
• Painting of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and environs: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Painting of Founding of Tenochtitlan: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from Codex Mendoza scanned from our copy of the 1938 Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London
• Painting of pre-Hispanic settlements map: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photos of open-air model of Tenochtitlan and school children studying model by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 13th 2009

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Gordon Whittaker tells us that the Náhuatl phrase at root means ‘governance in three places’. Hope this helps!
Mexicolore replies: Gordon Whittaker tells us that the word simply means ‘In the land of the Mexica’ in Náhuatl; it can refer both to a local barrio (neighbourhood) and/or to a wider regional area. As such it’s impossible to point to a specific ‘source’ for the term.
Mexicolore replies: I wish we knew!!!! GW keeps promising it......
Mexicolore replies: Yes, we’re aware of the ‘snake’ issue and hope to add an article about its mysterious role in due course... (UPDATE 2011): We’ve now tackled this intriguing issue in our ‘Ask Us’ section ‘The foundation symbol’.