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The story of the Mexica sacrifice of a Colhua princess

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Ibod: Hi I have some confusion about the story of “Aztec sacrifice a Culhuacan princess”. How could the Aztecs sacrifice a Culhuacan princess when their first king’s mother is a Culhuacan princess, or is the story of a Culhuacan princess’s sacrifice a myth? Many thanks. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Codex Boturini, fol. 20. Mexica leader Huitziihuitl and his daughter Chimaláxoch are captured and brought by Colhua warriors to King Coxcoxtli. The Aztecs were imprisoned (right) at Contitlan
Pic 1: Codex Boturini, fol. 20. Mexica leader Huitziihuitl and his daughter Chimaláxoch are captured and brought by Colhua warriors to King Coxcoxtli. The Aztecs were imprisoned (right) at Contitlan (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s probably, in David Carrasco’s words, ‘a combination of legend and history’. No images exist of the particular incident in question, but it’s very much part of the final stages in the mythical foundation story of Tenochtitlan, and the context for it is depicted in important migration story manuscripts such as the Codex Boturini (pic 1) and the Codex Azcatitlan. Richard Townsend (The Aztecs) places it within the narrative as ‘the point [at which] the migration myth enters the realm of actual history.’ It’s worth quoting Townsend’s telling of the story in detail... (Note that Colhuacan is often also written Culhuacan)

Pic 2: The glyph for Colhuacan (right): shown here defeated, years later, by the Aztecs; Codex Mendoza fol. 2r (detail)
Pic 2: The glyph for Colhuacan (right): shown here defeated, years later, by the Aztecs; Codex Mendoza fol. 2r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Returning to Chapultepec, [c. 1325 CE, having earlier reached the Basin of Mexico after travelling through Coatepetl and Tula, and receiving a hostile reception from the tribes already settled in the Basin] the Mexica soon faced another threat, this time from a coalition led by the Tepanecs of Atzcapotzalco and supported by neighbouring Culhuacan... [pic 2] The Mexica were seen to be dangerous squatters and were decisively defeated [pix 1 & 3] in the woods in the area of modern Chapultepec Park in Mexico City... Eventually the main group of Mexica refugees made their way to Culhuacan to beg protection of its rulers. The council of Culhuacan decided to grant the supplicants some land at Tizaapan, an inhospitable lava-flow near today’s University City. Displaying courage and endurance, and drawing on their long experience of hunting and gathering, the Mexica proceeded to adapt themselves to this unlikely environment...

Pic 3: A repeat of the image shown in picture 1, this time depicted in the Codex Azcatitlan, fol. 10 (detail)
Pic 3: A repeat of the image shown in picture 1, this time depicted in the Codex Azcatitlan, fol. 10 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

As a degree of acceptance grew, courtship and intermarriages also began. Soon the Mexica were styling themselves “Culhua-Mexica”, and by virtue of newly established bonds of kinship, they began to regard themselves in some measures as part of “Toltec” civilisation, for Culhuacan was a town where Toltecs had settled after the fall of Tula.The Mexica position within Culhuacan was strengthened when they were enlisted as allies in a small-scale war against neighbouring Xochimilco. In the ensuing battle along the lakeshore the Mexica warriors saved the day... Aspiring now to higher status the Mexica boasted of their achievements in the marketplace. This insolence failed to impress the old Culhua nobles...

Pic 4: Following the death of the princess, the Mexica are driven out of Colhua territory and into marshlands. Note the glyph for Tizaapan as a collection of dots by the waterside, and the use of shields as makeshift rafts; Codex Azcacitlan fol. 11
Pic 4: Following the death of the princess, the Mexica are driven out of Colhua territory and into marshlands. Note the glyph for Tizaapan as a collection of dots by the waterside, and the use of shields as makeshift rafts; Codex Azcacitlan fol. 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

As discontent arose, the Mexica themselves precipitated their own violent departure. Obeying the promptings of Huitzilopochtli’s priests, they had approached Achitometl, one of the Culhua magnates, asking for his beautiful daughter as their “sovereign” and “wife of Huitzilopochtli”*. Not understanding the implications of this request, Achitometl acceded to the honour; his daughter went to Tizaapan, where she was splendidly arrayed and sacrificed. Following an old custom, the body was flayed and a priest donned her skin in an ancient agricultural rite symbolising the renewal of life. The unsuspecting chieftain Achitometl, invited to participate in the concluding festivities, suddenly recognised the skin of his daughter on the body of the priest. The outraged Culhua took arms and were joined by others and, in the wild melee of javelins and arrows, the Mexica were once again driven into the reeds and brackish swamps of Lake Tezcoco. [pic 4] The next day they made their way in canoes and makeshift rafts across the water to the uninhabited islands.

Pic 5: Colhua warriors chase the fleeing Aztecs. The gloss ‘colhuaque tetoca’ means ‘The Colhua follow people...’
Pic 5: Colhua warriors chase the fleeing Aztecs. The gloss ‘colhuaque tetoca’ means ‘The Colhua follow people...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Although this episode reads as a single event in the migration, it is also a stylised way of expressing the tribe’s intention to become a settled agricultural people by ceremonial marriage with a female who was the symbolic personification of an “earth mother” deity...

* Note Berdan & Rieff Anawalt’s comment here that ‘By the fourteenth century, Colhuacan’s greatest assets were its princesses. Because this centre could truly claim ruling lineages dating back to the revered Toltecs, the sequential, newly arrived Chichimecs were eager to marry into these royal lines so as to attain legitimacy. The Mexica were no exception.’

Sources:-
The Aztecs by Richard F. Townsend, Thames & Hudson, London (2000)
The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction by David Carrasco, OUP (2012)
The Codex Mendoza, Vol. II: Description, Bibliography, Index by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of California Press, Oxford, 1992
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, New York (2006)
Codex Azcatitlan: Commentaire; commentary by Robert H. Barlow with Michel Graulich, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (1995)
Códice Boturini; commentary by Patrick Johansson, Arqueología Mexicana, special edition, no. 26, December 2007.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of a hand-made facsimile edition of the Codex Boturini; private collection
• 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, Waterlow, London, 1938
• Pix 3, 4 & 5: images scanned from our own copy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (where the original is held) facsimile edition of the Codex Azcatitlan, Paris 1995.

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