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The death of Moctezuma (2)

Pic 1: Giant stone warrior figures at the Toltec site of Tula
Pic 1: Giant stone warrior figures at the Toltec site of Tula (Click on image to enlarge)

2.3 Huémac’s suicide and the end of the Toltec empire: a very ‘original’ myth
Huémac, the mythical-historical king of Tollan, succeeds Quetzalcóatl in the year 9-Rabbit. According to the Anales de Cuauhtitlan he marries a mocihuaquetzqui (a woman who has died in childbirth and has become a goddess) by the name of Coacueye (‘she with the serpent skirt’), who dwells in a place called Coacueyacane. There isn’t space here to recount the full story of Huémac’s epic deed which finally led to the collapse of the Toltec empire and the king’s suicide. Suffice to mention just a few of the key points:-
• Huémac succeeds Quetzalcóatl to the throne of Tollan
• Huémac shows disrespect to the Cihuatlatlacatecolo (‘women of evil spirits’) who trick him
• The ‘women of evil spirits’ together with Tezcatlipoca are due to come from the ‘place of the soft fruit’
• Huémac ends his role as ‘The Feathered Serpent’ and is replaced by Cuauhtli
• The Toltecs suffer a terrible famine
• The practice of human sacrifice is established under the influence of Huémac
• Many omens are witnessed in Tollan
In his Memorial Breve Chimalpain writes:-
- In the town of Tullan a star appeared to give out smoke. The Toltecs took this as a sign
- They went to the ‘place of maize’ Cincoc
- There Huémac sacrifices a child to the gods of water
- Huémac tries to enter the cave Cincalco. He can’t
- After these and other hardships Huémac hangs himself, in the cave.
This story establishes an organized, symbolic and thematic window, looking through which the Mexica people can view, filter and organize historical events – and more generally, the world around them.

Pic 2: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: a captive is sacrificed before Moctezuma’s messengers (Book 12)
Pic 2: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: a captive is sacrificed before Moctezuma’s messengers (Book 12) (Click on image to enlarge)

2.4 The myth of the flight to Cincalco
Once he has taken the decision to go to Cincalco, the resting-place reserved for children, those who have been ritually skinned or strangled, and perhaps also those who have committed suicide, Moctezuma begins the ritual procedure required for those seeking refuge in this space-time afterlife ruled by Huémac. He gathers a group of sorcerers – the only ones skilled in undertaking a shamanic descent into the world of the dead – sends for the sacrifice and ritual skinning of a group of slaves, and prepares to offer xolos (servants or slaves).
The entrance to Cincalco, like the access to Mictlan, involves passing a series of initiation tasks. Moctezuma’s envoys will need to return four times before he can be admitted.

First expedition
In the first phase of what in ceremonial protocol would be a ritual death associated with suicide, Moctezuma’s guide is the avatar of the god Xipe Totec: Totec Chicahua(c), ‘our lord with strength’. Huémac asks what is the cause of Moctezuma’s troubles, and he sends the dwarves back to the world with a splendid array of vegetables. These envoys see themselves as being ‘punished’, and are stoned in the context of the myth – something perhaps that, in terms of Mexica ritual practice, parallels the solemn sacrificial end meted out to sorcerers, hunchbacks and slaves, ritually fulfilling roles laid down in the myth.

Pic 3: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: Moctezuma’s emissaries return with bad news...
Pic 3: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: Moctezuma’s emissaries return with bad news... (Click on image to enlarge)

Second expedition
The Mexica tlahtoani sends forth a second expedition to Cincalco, bearing similar offerings and a reply to Huémac’s question: ‘that the affliction stems from certain things said to him by Nezahualpilli at the time of Moctezuma’s impending death; that he cannot rest or allay his fears, and wants to know his fate.’ The blind man Ixtepetla guides this second ambassadorial mission to Cincalco, a pleasure-filled place described clearly by the re-tellers of the myth as akin to the Christian concept of Hell.
The result of this second mission is also negative. Huémac urges Moctezuma to enjoy his earthly benefits and denies him entry to Cincalco.

Third expedition
After ordering the luckless envoys to be executed, Moctezuma sends two Acolhuas – in Durán’s words, two of his ‘chief allies’ – who return with different news. According to Huémac, arrogance and cruelty are the faults which will lead to the destruction of the Mexica empire and to the death of Moctezuma. This time Huémac agrees to the tlahtoani’s request, ordering him to fast and do penance for 80 days.

Pic 4: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: the burning of Aztec temples is predicted...
Pic 4: Scenes of foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: the burning of Aztec temples is predicted... (Click on image to enlarge)

Fourth expedition
At the end of Moctezuma’s 80 day penance, the final expedition arrives at Cincalco seeking orders from Huémac, who commands the king to meet him, four days later, at Chapultepec, at a place called Tlachtonco. ‘On hearing this, Moctezuma was much relieved; the next day he ordered the Xolos slaves, the dwarves and hunchbacks, to reconnoitre Chapultepec.’
On completion of Moctezuma’s penance, Huémac comes for him to take him to Cincalco. The tlahtoani and his people go to the meeting fully prepared for the ceremony. Everything is in place for Huémac to take Moctezuma to Cincalco, that is, in order to bring about the solemn suicide by hanging.
However, at this crucial moment the Tzoncoztli, also called by Durán texiptla, the ‘apprarition’ of Huitzilopochtli, wakes up and, urged on by the god, runs to Tlachtonco to prevent what is about to happen.

Pic 5: The beginning of the end: the Spanish shackle Moctezuma, Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 5: The beginning of the end: the Spanish shackle Moctezuma, Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

3. Moctezuma Xocoyotzin’s funeral rites

The controversy surrounding Moctezuma’s death continues with the issue of his funeral rites, though for different reasons. One hypothesis suggests that the Spanish, about to be overwhelmed by the enemy, ditched his body without a second thought. In his Segunda Carta de Relación, Cortés writes:-

I had two Indian prisoners remove his corpse and take him off to the hills, and I don’t know what they did with him.

Clavijero offers a more solemn account of the event:-

Cortés informed Cuitlahuatzin of Moctezuma’s death through the offices of two high-ranking prisoners who had witnessed his end. He ordered six Mexican nobles accompanied by a group of priests who were also in prison to dispose of the royal corpse.

Clavijero’s version seems to be tinged with romanticism and hard to accept. Given the critical situation that Cortés found himself in, it’s hardly likely he would have allocated prime time to informing Cuitlahuac of Moctezuma’s death, or that he would have released several key nobles and priests.

Pic 6: The Spanish toss the bodies of Moctezuma and Itzcuautzin into the water, Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 6: The Spanish toss the bodies of Moctezuma and Itzcuautzin into the water, Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Sahagún confirms the disrespect the Spanish showed for the body of Moctezuma:-

Four days after being forced out of the temple, the Spanish returned to throw the dead bodies of Motecuhzoma and Itzcuauhtzin into the water’s edge at a placed called Teoáyoc, named after the figure of a tortoise carved in stone there.

An illustration from the Florentine Codex, drawn by an indigenous tlahcuilo (painter) from his own viewpoint, shows the Spanish hurling Motecuhzoma and Itzcuautzin into the water. Once found and identified, their bodies were taken away by the local people.

Then they carried Moctezuma in their arms to a place called Copulco. There they placed him on a wooden pyre and set fire to his body. The flames began to crackle, to hiss and sizzle; the higher they reached, the more they appeared as tongues shooting up to the sky. And the body of Moctezuma reeked and stank of scorched flesh as it burned.

From Copulco, Moctezuma’s ashes were taken to Chapultépec and buried perhaps in the cave of Cinalco where Huémac had committed suicide:-

The Indians who had taken him off disappeared from our sight, and we never knew for certain what they did with him, though we assume from the wailing and mourning we could hear from there that they must have buried him in the hill and fountain of Chapultépec.

Pic 7: Moctezuma’s body is carried away (top) and burned (bottom), Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 7: Moctezuma’s body is carried away (top) and burned (bottom), Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

- The ritual procession
The book Anales de Cuauhtitlan has left us a more detailed version of what might have been the ritual surrounding the death of Motecuhzoma:-

It was at Tecuilhuitontli that Motecuhzoma died. After his death, it was the one called Apanécatl who carried him away. He was then taken to Huitzillan. From there they sent him away. They also took him to Ehecatitlan where they shot him with a dart. They also took him to Tecpantzinco where again they sent him away, and again, they took him to Acatl iyacapan, where finally he was allowed in. Asked Apanécatl: ‘Lords, Motecuhzoma grieves. Am I to carry him around for ever?’ Then the Lords ordered: ‘Take him in!’ And he was handed over to the servants, and later he was cremated.

The wanderings of Motecuhzoma’s body prior to its cremation could have been due to the feelings of rejection shown to him by his fellows, according to some sources. It’s more likely though that the route via Huitzillan, Ehecatitlan, Tecpantzinco and Acatl yyacapan was associated with a ritual procession. Sure enough, those places relate to the four entrances to the sacred precinct and hence to the four cardinal points. Huitzillan is to the South, Ehecatitlan to the West, Tecpantzinco to the North and Acatl yyacapan a short distance from the Templo Mayor, to the East.

Pic 8: New Fire Ceremony, Codex Borbonicus folio 34 (detail)
Pic 8: New Fire Ceremony, Codex Borbonicus folio 34 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The cremation of Motecuhzoma at Copulco

It’s interesting to note that the temple at Copulco - the place where, according to several sources, Motecuhzoma was burnt – was also home to the fire priests (tlenamacaque) charged with lighting the New Fire every 52 years. In this sense Motecuhzoma’s cremation could well have taken on a cosmic importance linked to the New Fire Ceremony. In pre-Hispanic times the ceremony took place at Huisachtlan (Iztapalapa) where the Copulco priests made a new fire on top of the chest of a captive. Once the bonfire was alight, the captive’s heart was taken from his chest and thrown into the fire. In fact the captive’s entire body was cast into the flames of this new fire.

It’s quite possible that the disastrous situation in which the Mexica and their allies found themselves might have provoked a ritual cremation of Motecuhzoma’s body, as a way of bringing to a clear end the tragic present and bringing about a renewal of (sacred) time. In fact the New Fire Ceremony or ‘tying of the years’ represented a critical moment between two cycles of time. If the new fire failed to light and a new cycle failed to start, the world would collapse into chaos.

Despite the supreme skill of the Fire Priests of Copulco, the fire that incinerated Motecuhzoma’s body could not ignite a New Flame that would have given new life to Náhuatl culture. For the Mexica people, night had arrived for good.

Pic 9: The Spanish assault a Mexican temple, Florentine Codex Book 12
Pic 9: The Spanish assault a Mexican temple, Florentine Codex Book 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

Motecuhzoma’s ashes are consumed by chiefs

The Codex Tudela furnishes us with a slightly different version of the story of Motecuhzoma’s cremation. According to this account, Cortés first ordered the burning of all the Aztec temples. On the death of Motecuhzoma,

The Indians took his body and hurried away with it to the fallen temple, still burning, and threw the body of Motenzuma (sic) into the blaze; and they say that after it had burnt, the chiefs swallowed the ashes.

The act of hurling the Tlahtoani’s body into the flames of a burning and fallen temple (perhaps the Main Temple) has a symbolic value of great importance to indigenous beliefs. The consuming of the ashes diluted in water by the chiefs shows that they considered themselves to be related to Motecuhzoma. This act of consuming his dead body also refers to a ritual of renewal or reincarnation.

For the conclusion of this article, and details of image sources, follow the link below...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 24th 2010

The death of Moctezuma (3)

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