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Mexicolore contributor on the Aztecs Katarzyna Mikulska

Did the Aztec Tlatoani possess supernatural or divine powers?

This article has been generously written specially for us by Katarzyna Mikulska, Research Professor at the Institute for Iberic and Ibero-American Studies, University of Warsaw (Poland) and a specialist in religious pre-Hispanic codices and Nahua religion.

Pic 1: Nezahualpilli, Codex Ixtlilxochitl, folio 108
Pic 1: Nezahualpilli, Codex Ixtlilxochitl, folio 108 (Click on image to enlarge)

We don’t exactly know if the Aztec tlatoani was considered a god or not. It is not certain but he might have been believed to possess some supernatural abilities, very similar to those of Aztec gods (or at least to those that had proper names and images).
These abilities could start to be seen even when the tlatoani was in his mother’s womb. A famous tlatoani of Tetzcoco, Nezahualpilli (pic 1), was said to have been bewitched when still in his mother’s womb by a woman as an act of revenge. It was generally believed that a baby who disappeared and reappeared in the womb possessed supernatural powers. A Totonac governor of Chichimec lineage, Xihuitlpopoca (it remains an open question if we can call him Aztec, but at least he has an Aztec name, meaning “Smoking Comet” or “Smoking Turquoise”), was conceived without human intervention just like some famous Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli.

Pic 2: Life and death in human/jaguar form: contemporary mask, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: Life and death in human/jaguar form: contemporary mask, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Back to Nezahualpilli. As a baby he used to surprise his nannies because he repeatedly turned himself into an eagle, “tiger” or “lion” (probably into a jaguar). The tlatoani of Coyoacan, Tzutzumatzin was able to do the same thing: to transform himself into an eagle, jaguar, snake and even fire to avoid being caught by Moctezuma’s soldiers. This feature we may say was “standard behavior” for inviduals with supernatural abilities who could turn themselves into creatures such as birds, big felines, fish, snakes, mice, hornets, ants or bats; or into a meteorological phenomenon like rain, thunder or even a flying fire ball. Therefore two of the famous “magicians” judged by the Inquisition in 1536 and 1537, Martin Ocelotl and Andres Mixcoatl, were accused of turning themselves into jaguars, cats, “lions” and a large lizard.

Pic 3: Claws and talons illustrate the bird ‘nahual’ features of some deities (and humans). Itzpapalotl, Codex Borbonicus folio 15 (L), Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 18v (R)
Pic 3: Claws and talons illustrate the bird ‘nahual’ features of some deities (and humans). Itzpapalotl, Codex Borbonicus folio 15 (L), Codex Telleriano-Remensis folio 18v (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Martin could even change himself into a young boy or an elderly man. Tecum Umam is another person who fought against Pedro de Alvarado during the Spanish conquest of today’s Guatemala after turning himself into the rainforest bird called quetzal. Yet in pre-Conquest times, a large group of wizards was sent by Moctezuma Ilhuicamina, to Aztlan, the Aztec place of origin, and in order to cross the frontier between human and divine worlds, they had to transform themselves into animals.

Pic 4: Note the Spanish gloss accompanying Xilonen Chicomecoatl, Codex Borbonicus folio 31
Pic 4: Note the Spanish gloss accompanying Xilonen Chicomecoatl, Codex Borbonicus folio 31 (Click on image to enlarge)

This ability to change into another being, called nahualli was also very common among the gods. Thus the goddess Xilonen Chicomecoatl, as indicated by a Spanish gloss in the Codex Borbonicus (pic 4), se hacía león y tigre y otras cosas (“used to change into a lion, tiger and other things”). Especially some goddesses (Cihuacoatl, Itzpapalotl or Malinalxochitl) were known for their ability to turn into eagles or other predator birds. Consequently you can see them in the codices with claws or talons (see, for example, Itzpapalotl in the Codex Borbonicus or in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (pic 3).
You can see representations of Aztec gods with their nahualli in many museums: a good example is Quetzalcoatl emerging from a feathered snake in the Museum of the Louvre (pic 5).

Pic 5: Quetzalcoatl sculpture, Museum of the Louvre, Paris
Pic 5: Quetzalcoatl sculpture, Museum of the Louvre, Paris (Click on image to enlarge)

Another supernatural power shared between Aztec tlatoani and gods was the ability to foresee the future. Again the Tetzcoco tlatoani, Nezahualpilli, was a well-known soothsayer. He was one of those who frightened Moctezuma Xocoyotzin by saying that the strange signs in the sky (such as a bright stream of light) seen from the Valley of Mexico were dreadful omens for the Tenochtitlan tlatoani. Also the Totonac governor, Xihuitlpopoca, foresaw the Spanish invasion, and then just... disappeared. This is another characteristic of divine faculties: those who have them do not really die. It does not mean that they cannot cross the frontier between human and other world: certainly they do, but just like gods, they can cross it any time they want, without any repercussion, and they can come again here. The gods do it constantly, like all these deities who are patrons of time, and when coming to the surface of the earth, they influence the present cycle of time.

Pic 6: Between natural and supernatural worlds; detail of mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 6: Between natural and supernatural worlds; detail of mural by R. Anguiano (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The same applies to small deities of water, the tlalloque, who act as mediators between this and another world, in charge of the exchange of goods between humans and supernatural beings. The people who crossed this border and came back were also believed to possess supernatural abilities, not only of transforming themselves, but also of curing or being able to control rain and storms. This belief continues today: a man who survives being struck by lightning, is called granicero (meaning that he can control the hail) and has many responsibilities within his village relating to his supernatural powers, or a woman who has survived a very serious illness is believed to have passed through to the world of her ancestors for a while.

Pic 7: Statue of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City
Pic 7: Statue of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In Aztec times, some tlatoani were considered immortal, like Nezahualcoyotl (father of Nezahualpilli). He was believed to come from the gods Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli, as the chronicler Ixtlilxochitl states, and he was even thought to have the power of invisibility. By the way, other persons with supernatural powers were considered also to be undying, just as Andres Mixcoatl said about himself: “we, who are gods, we never die”. That’s why it was especially important for the tlatoani not to “die” like common people. We can assume that sometimes they used doubles, to prevent being killed. Such was the case of Nezahualcoyotl again, when he sent his human substitute for a nocturnal dance, baware that Maxtla, tlatoani of Tenochtitlan, would try to kill him.

Pic 8: Graphic showing the succession of Mexica ‘tlatoani’, exhibition on Moctezuma II, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 8: Graphic showing the succession of Mexica ‘tlatoani’, exhibition on Moctezuma II, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

When the time of his real death approached, the tlatoani with supernatural powers would just “go” to the other world, but he did not “die” in the eyes of the people. He just started another life in the afterworlds, with the ability to cross the border again at any time. This state was reached after enacting a special dramatization of travel to the ancestors’ world, and of course, the only way to “prepare one’s own death” – even if it wasn’t believed to be a real death – is by suicide. It was a common way of leaving this world behind for some famous “man-gods”, like the Tula governor, Quetzalcoatl, who burnt himself and reached the celestial and mysterious Tlillan Tlapallan region.

Pic 9: ‘Oztotl’: for the Mexica, caves were ambiguous places: associated with origins and birth but also with darkness and death. Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 9: ‘Oztotl’: for the Mexica, caves were ambiguous places: associated with origins and birth but also with darkness and death. Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Thus, the tlatoani Nezahualpilli spent six months in isolation from a normal life, keeping company solely with magicians, and then just shut himself in a cave called Xicco. It was the same cavern where his father, Nezahualcoyotl, decided to go after his human life, as well as one of the governors of Tula. It seems that the cruel Maxtla, tlatoani of Azcapotzalco, also managed to “disappear” instead of dying (Tomicki 1990). By contrast, one of the people he had tried to kill some time previously, the tlatoani of Tenochtitlan called Chimalpopoca, when captured by Maxtla, tried to run away in vain to the other world. After one of his servants committed suicide, the emissaries of Maxtla came to prevent Chimalpopoca from this escape, which might have saved this tlatoani from a real death.

Pic 10: Moctezuma debates whether to flee to the underworld, and faces (below) the cave of Cincalco, together with other ‘options’, Florentine Codex Book XII
Pic 10: Moctezuma debates whether to flee to the underworld, and faces (below) the cave of Cincalco, together with other ‘options’, Florentine Codex Book XII (Click on image to enlarge)

The same solution was attempted by Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, the last tlatoani of Tenochtitlan before the Conquest, when the fatal omens were coming to fulfillment and nothing – and nobody – was able to stop the Spaniards reaching Tenochtitlan. After consulting his soothsayers he chose one of the places in the afterworld where he would like to hide. He decided that it would be the cave called Cincalco because he knew that one of the Toltec ancient tlatoani of Tula, Huemac had chosen this place for his life after leaving the human world. Huemac committed suicide by hanging himself (or he just escaped into the cave). Moctezuma needed to ask Huemac’s permission to join him so he sent ambassadors to the Cincalco cave that was located inside Chapultepec (“Grasshopper Hill”).

Pic 11: The remains of the stone portrait of Moctezuma II, facing East towards the city of Tenochtitlan from Chapultepec hill
Pic 11: The remains of the stone portrait of Moctezuma II, facing East towards the city of Tenochtitlan from Chapultepec hill (Click on image to enlarge)

This is also a fascinating story because two of the groups of ambassadors brought back negative answers. We can suppose this was arranged by the anti-Moctezuma faction who wanted to prevent the tlatoani from fleeing. Finally the third group brought good news and Moctezuma started his preparations. He carved his image on the rock in Chapultepec beside the images of other Aztec governors. After ritual fasting and after consulting his advisors with supernatural powers he chose the right place (the ball game field), the right moment (depending on the position of the stars), the right dress (of a chosen god) and the right method for leaving this world: suicide.

Pic 12: The place glyph for Tlachco, ‘Place of the Ballcourt’, Codex Mendoza folio 31
Pic 12: The place glyph for Tlachco, ‘Place of the Ballcourt’, Codex Mendoza folio 31 (Click on image to enlarge)

Nevertheless, his grand scheme fall down. In Tlachtonco (“Place of the Ball Game”) he was stopped by an incarnation or messenger of one of the supreme gods, who sent Moctezuma back home, saying that as he was not a god, he would not succeed in escaping to another life in the afterworld, he would just kill himself. Moctezuma’s disappointment must have been great, as a few years previously the tlatoani Nezahualpilli, well-known as we saw earlier for his divine faculties, had proposed making a similar supernatural journey with him. He must have considered himself in possession of the same divine powers as the Tetzcoco tlatoani. This disillusionment led Moctezuma, when greeting Hernan Cortes shortly afterwards on the causeway leading to Tenochtitlan, to assure the Spaniard that he, the Aztec tlatoani, was not a god...

Pic 13: Caves, Florentine Codex Book XI: ‘Our mothers, our fathers have gone... to rest... in the cave... the place of the dead.’
Pic 13: Caves, Florentine Codex Book XI: ‘Our mothers, our fathers have gone... to rest... in the cave... the place of the dead.’ (Click on image to enlarge)

But maybe he was? Other colonial stories say that Moctezuma was also conceived miraculously by a virgin. And some of today’s Mexican Indians such as the Totonacs or Zapotecs believe that Moctezuma (or Montizon) is still alive, living in an underground cave, acting as a god of fertility and awaiting the opportunity to come back to life, to banish the invaders and rescue his loyal people.

Pic 14: Jaguar’s head, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 14: Jaguar’s head, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Bibliography
• Ixtlilxochitl, Fernando de Alva 1997 Obras históricas. Edmundo O´Gorman (ed.). IIH-UNAM – Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura, México
• López Austin, Alfredo 1973 Hombre-Dios. Religión y política en el mundo náhuatl. IIH-UNAM, México
• López Austin, Alfredo 2009 “El dios en el cuerpo”. Dimensión antropológica. 16 (46): 7-45
• Martínez González, Roberto 2006 “Nahualli, imagen y representación”. Dimensión antropológica 13 (38): 7-47
• Mikulska DÄ...browska, Katarzyna 2009 “Escapando a Cincalco: las facultades (no) divinas de Moctezuma Xocoyotzin”. Paper presented during Moctezuma II. International Symposium. 13-14 March 2009
• Musgrave-Portilla, Louise Marie 1982 “The Nahualli or Transforming Wizard in Pre- and Postconquest Mesoamerica.” Journal of Latin American Lore 8: 3-62
Procesos de indios idólatras y hechiceros 1912 Luis González Obregón (ed.). Publicaciones del Archivo General de la Nación III, México
• Tomicki, Ryszard 1990 Ludzie i bogowie. Indianie meksykanscy we wczesnej fazie konkwisty [The Men and the Gods. The Mexican Indians versus the Spaniards in the Early Stage of the Conquest, in Polish]. Ossolineum, Wroclaw
• Torquemada, fray Juan de 1986 Monarquía Indiana. 3 vols. Ed. Porrúa, México

Further Reading
• López Austin, Alfredo 1967 “Cuarenta clases de magos del mundo náhuatl”. Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl 7: 87-117
• López Austin, Alfredo 1973 Hombre-Dios. Religión y política en el mundo náhuatl. IIH-UNAM, México
• Martínez González, Roberto 2011 El nahualismo. IIH-UNAM, México
• Musgrave-Portilla, Louise Marie 1982 “The Nahualli or Transforming Wizard in Pre- and Postconquest Mesoamerica.” Journal of Latin American Lore 8: 3-62.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: image of Nezahualpilli scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Ixtlilxóchitl (Graz, Austria, 1976)
• Pix 2, 6, 7, 8 and 14: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: (L) image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris); scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974; (R) Image from the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, scanned from our own copy of the Eloise Quiñones Keber facsimile edition, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pic 4: (as pic 3L)
• Pic 5: photo by and courtesy of Katarzyna Mikulska
• Pix 9, 10 and 13: Florentine Codex images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 11: photos courtesy Werner-Forman Picture Library
• Pic 12: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian LIbrary, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 24th 2011

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Mexicolore replies: Cheers for this. Have now corrected pic 11!