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‘You are no longer called Aztecs. You are Mexica’ - Huitzilopochtli

‘You are no longer called Aztecs. You are Mexica’

Just what IS all this about ‘Aztecs’ v ‘Mexica’? Who started it? Did they ever call themselves Aztecs at all? Who first called them Aztecs and why? Does it matter? We try to unpick the whole issue, by going to some of the key primary sources to get the answer... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Clavijero’s ‘Historia’, in its Italian and English editions; key text marked
Pic 1: Clavijero’s ‘Historia’, in its Italian and English editions; key text marked (Click on image to enlarge)

Most modern sources and scholars tell us it was the German Alexander von Humboldt (Vues des Cordillères et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, 1810) and American William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico, 1843) who ‘popularised’ the term ‘Aztecs’ in the 19th century. But they weren’t the first: their predecessor was the Mexican Jesuit teacher, scholar and historian Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray who, decades earlier, in his Historia Antigua de México (first published - in Italian - in 1780-81, and translated into English in 1787) wrote (see pic 1):-
’The Aztecas or Mexicans, who were the last people who settled in Anahuac [roughly, the whole of central Mexico], and are the chief subject of our history, lived until about the year 1160 of the vulgar era, in Aztlan...’
Clavijero’s Historia has been described as ‘a superb synthesis of the best available information on its subject’ in its day (Keen, 1971: 299). Von Humboldt cites it on the second page of his book, and Prescott in notes to the first page of his opening chapter.

Pic 2: Francisco Xavier Clavijero
Pic 2: Francisco Xavier Clavijero (Click on image to enlarge)

Prescott leaves his readers in no doubt as to Clavijero’s importance: ‘He has, probably, examined the subject with more thoroughness and fidelity than most of his countrymen’ (1843: 419) and specifically declares that the Historia created something of a ‘popular interest’ in Mexican antiquities (Keen, 1971: 299). The very beginning of Prescott’s first chapter opens with ‘The country of the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs as they were called’ (1843: 9). Von Humboldt refers early on in Vues... to ‘When the Mexica or Aztecs... arrived...’ (2013: 42), constantly mixing and matching the two terms.
Why is this so important? One of Mexico’s greatest historians and scholars, Alfredo López Austin, declares that the use of the term ‘Aztecs’ - for which he blames von Humboldt - is at best ambiguous and at worst constitutes ‘historical impropriety’ (2001: 68).

Pic 3: ‘Azteca Mexica’ - one of the precious few modern books on the ‘Aztecs’ to include Mexica in the title: catalogue of a major exhibition in Madrid, 1992
Pic 3: ‘Azteca Mexica’ - one of the precious few modern books on the ‘Aztecs’ to include Mexica in the title: catalogue of a major exhibition in Madrid, 1992 (Click on image to enlarge)

As we make clear on our homepage, whilst the name ‘Aztec’ is widely used in education and scholarly literature, historically the ‘Aztecs’ called themselves the ’Mexica’ in their Nahuatl language, and today we at Mexicolore now use the two terms interchangeably with the aim of eventually weaning students off ‘Aztecs’.
McEwan and López Luján summarise the position as simply as they can (2009: 21): ‘The Mexica, comprising the Nahuatl-speaking Tenochcas and Tlatelolcas, never at any point referred to themselves or their city-states, let alone their empire, as “Aztec”. They simply considered themselves as ethnic Nahuas - speakers of Nahuatl - like many of their neighbours. At the time of the Spanish conquest they were likewise referred to by the Spaniards as Mexica’. They blame both von Humboldt and Prescott for promoting ‘Aztecs’.

Pic 4: Modern editions of ‘Crónica mexicana’ and ‘Crónica mexicáyotl’ by Tezozomoc/Chimalpahin
Pic 4: Modern editions of ‘Crónica mexicana’ and ‘Crónica mexicáyotl’ by Tezozomoc/Chimalpahin (Click on image to enlarge)

Though not explicit in his writing, Clavijero logically associates ‘Aztecas’ with their mythical homeland Aztlan. His primary source for this is the work of Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc who, in his Crónica mexicana (c.1598) wrote, with absolute clarity:-
’Their home was the place named Aztlan; hence their name is Azteca’ (Codex Chimalpahin, 1997: 69). And Tezozomoc would have known, as Keen (1971: 132) explains: ‘An authentic native voice sounds in the Crónica mexicana of Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc... son of Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin’, who served as tlatoani (Speaker or ruler) of Tenochtitlan under the Spaniards. Tezozomoc, grandson of emperor Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin, ‘had access to a rich hoard of picture writings, oral information, and written narratives’. Our story is muddied here by the relatively recent (1983) discovery that the Crónica mexicana, just like Tezozomoc’s Crónica mexicáyotl, was actually authored by Nahua historian Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, who ‘credits both Tezozomoc and himself for the information in the “Mexican History or Chronicle”’ (Schroeder, 1997: 10).

Pic 5: Page 1 of the Codex Boturini, showing (arrowed) the Aztec clan glyph fire/water at Aztlan
Pic 5: Page 1 of the Codex Boturini, showing (arrowed) the Aztec clan glyph fire/water at Aztlan (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Aztecs’ is not an outright disrespectful term, but according to Indigenous histories it actually refers to the overlords of Aztlan, said to have ‘badly mistreated’ the commoners who worked for them, specifically the people known as Mexitin*, who appeal to their gods for liberation from tyranny (León-Portilla 2000: 308). So the term ‘Aztecs’ does have historical connections with the original homeland Aztlan from where departed a total of eight (possibly seven) Nahuatl-speaking clans, in or around the 12th century. We can show this by referring to two important early 16th century documents, the Codex Boturini (also known as the Tira de la peregrinación) and the Codex Aubin. The former is - bar some glosses added later - purely pictographic, the latter also carries text written in Nahuatl (see main picture, above). Telling the story of the migration of the ‘Aztecs’ from Aztlan to the Basin of Mexico - spanning the years 1168-1325 (even these dates are not certain) - the ‘Aztecs’ are referred to both in glyph form (theirs being the fire/water glyph, meaning ‘war’) and in the written script.
The fire-water glyph (explained in the ‘Symbol for War’ link, below) features prominently atop the main temple at the heart of Aztlan on the opening page (pic 5) of the Codex Boturini (follow the second link below for a detailed look).

Pic 6: Page 2 of the Codex Boturini showing (arrowed) the Mexitin deity Tetzauhteotl/Aztec deity Huitzilopochtli being carried in a sacred bundle on the journey from Aztlan
Pic 6: Page 2 of the Codex Boturini showing (arrowed) the Mexitin deity Tetzauhteotl/Aztec deity Huitzilopochtli being carried in a sacred bundle on the journey from Aztlan (Click on image to enlarge)

On the second page of the Boturini (pic 6) the other clans are named by the glyphs tied to their temples and to human figures, and we see a set of footprints marking the journey of the ‘Aztecs’, centre stage carrying their tribal god Huitzilopochtli in a sacred bundle on the leader’s back. (Actually, it’s not yet strictly Huitzilopochtli at this point [!], it’s Mexitin* deity Tetzauhteotl - Johansson 2007). On the next page (pic 7) Tetzauhteotl/Huitzilopochtli instructs the ‘Aztecs’ to leave their companion clans (who all speak the same language) and to ‘go it alone’. Tears are shed all round. On the fourth page (pic 8), not long after leaving Aztlan, a crucial event takes place: Huitzilopochtli (now the real deal...) re-names the lineage ‘Mexica’, with the immortal words In axcan aocmo amotoca yn amazteca ye ammexica ‘From now on you are not called Azteca, you are Mexica’. To underline the change, they receive distinctive markings, symbols and attributes: the bow and arrow, bird-carrying hunting net, balls of feathers in the ears, and a horizontal line painted across the face. Perhaps ominously, we also see (even though no obsidian or flint knife is visible) the first human sacrifice take place, on the far right of the page. It is of a woman.

Pic 7: Page 3 of the Codex Boturini: Tetzauhteotl/Huitzilopochtli instructs the Aztecs to leave their companion clans
Pic 7: Page 3 of the Codex Boturini: Tetzauhteotl/Huitzilopochtli instructs the Aztecs to leave their companion clans (Click on image to enlarge)

Unfortunately, things get more complicated still. Just to give a flavour of the difficulties, by the time our ‘Aztecs’ arrive in the Basin of Mexico and proceed to found their new home, Tenochtitlan, the Indigenous histories written by Tezozomoc and Chimalpahin write in terms of the ‘Teochichimeca Azteca Chicomoztoca Mexitin who emerged and came from the great province of Aztlan Chicomoztoc’ (Codex Chimalpahin 1997: 179). Gosh! Who ARE all these people?! At the risk of gross simplification, Chicomoztoc (‘Place of Seven Caves’ - pic 10) is an alternative (‘second’) name for their mythical place of origin; the Chichimeca, a proud nomadic people from the north of Mexico, supposedly ‘barbarian’ ancestors of the ‘Aztecs’ who ‘seem to have spent most of their time forming alliances with others and deciding when and where to break them’ (Townsend, 2019: 28) (incidentally, the Tenochca specifically saw themselves as a people as Mexica-Chichimeca); and the Mexitin are essentially the Mexica.

Pic 8: Page 4 of the Codex Boturini: Huitzilopochtli re-names the Aztecs ‘Mexica’ and gives them their symbolic attributes
Pic 8: Page 4 of the Codex Boturini: Huitzilopochtli re-names the Aztecs ‘Mexica’ and gives them their symbolic attributes (Click on image to enlarge)

The real problem here is that we’re dealing with a potpourri of sometimes conflicting histories, rulers, ethnic groups, chroniclers, each pushing their own account and agenda, each trying to claim their people’s descendancy from the acclaimed and noble Toltecs (‘Mexico’s first Nahua empire’).
The name Mexica (singular, Mexicatl) eventually came into general use after the founding of the twin cities Mexico-Tenochtitlan and Mexico-Tlatelolco.
The founders of Tenochtitlan were, then, a mixed bag of Nahuatl-speaking clans - covered by the Toltec term calpulli or communities in Nahuatl - nothing like the homogeneous ‘Aztec’ society that is so often loosely suggested.

Pic 9: The Aztecs set off from Aztlan together with other related clans; Mapa de Sigüenza, a 16th century cartographic history of the migration (detail)
Pic 9: The Aztecs set off from Aztlan together with other related clans; Mapa de Sigüenza, a 16th century cartographic history of the migration (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In summary, ‘In a few texts that discuss the exodus from Aztlan, we find the word Azteca. But nowhere in any of the rich sources that include any natural speech do we find the people we are interested in referring to themselves as “Azteca”. It simply didn’t happen. Only when speaking of their ancestors emerging from Chicomoztoc might you find them saying, in effect, “They were people from Aztlan.” And the instances even of that are rare’ (Townsend 2021).

Pic 10: Chicomoztoc, Place of the Seven Caves; Historia Toltecs-Chichimeca, fol. 34
Pic 10: Chicomoztoc, Place of the Seven Caves; Historia Toltecs-Chichimeca, fol. 34 (Click on image to enlarge)

Clear now? We doubt it...
Bottom line? •Aztecs not disastrous, but very far from ideal; •Mexica much better and more politically correct, but still limited to a specific group and some way from being a clear-cut, simple answer; •Nahua - best, but really most appropriate for post-invasion; •Aztec-Mexica for pre-invasion, RECOMMENDED!

Sources:-
• Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, Domingo de San Antón Muñón (1997) Codex Chimalpahin Vol. 1, translated & edited by Arthur J.O. Anderson & Susan Schroeder, University of Oklahoma Press (includes the Crónica mexicana by Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc)
• Humboldt, Alexander von (2012) Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas - a critical edition edited by Vera M. Kutzinski & Ottmar Ette, University of Chicago Press
• Keen, Benhamin (1971) The Aztec Image in Western Thought, Rutgers University Press
• León-Portilla, Miguel (2000) ‘Los aztecas - disquisiciones sobre un gentilicio’ Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl, no. 31, 307-313
• López Austin, Alfredo (2001) ‘Aztec’, entry in The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Mesoamerican Cultures edited by David Carrasco, Oxford University Press
• Johansson K., Patrick (2007) ‘Tira de la Peregrinación (Códice Boturini)’, Arqueología Mexicana, special edition no. 26, December
• McEwan, Colin & López Luján, Leonardo (2009) ‘Introduction’ in Moctezuma Aztec Ruler, British Museum Press, London
• Prescott, William H. (1922) The Conquest of Mexico, Vol. 1, London, Chatto & Windus
• Schroeder, Susan (1997) ‘Introduction’, in Codex Chimalpahin (see above)
• Townsend, Camilla (2019) Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, Oxford University Press
• --- (2021), personal communication 11/3/21.

Picture sources:-
• Main and pix 1, 4 & 9: public domain
• Pix 2 & 10: images from Wikipedia
• Pic 3: montage by Mexicolore
• Pix 5-8: images of the Codex Boturini scanned from a hand-drawn facsimile, private collection; graphics by Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 09th 2021

emoticon Aztec limerick no. 23 (Ode to Aztlan)
They seemed like a god-chosen clan
’Mexitin’ on leaving Aztlan.
In myth, great truth-seekers -
And known as ‘Mexicas’ -
They founded great Tenochtitlan.

‘The Aztecs have been called many things...’

The first page of the Codex Boturini explained

‘The Aztec symbol for war’

Read Clavijero’s History of Mexico online
View the Codex Aubin online at the British Museum
‘Not Aztecs and Probably Not Mexica’ - excellent short article by David Bowles
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