Chapter 11

People of the Pleiades: The Aztec Interlude


            Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to the geographic diffusion of the calendar by the Toltecs is the fact that we have indisputable evidence of its presence in the far reaches of western Mexico by at least the early decades of the twelfth century. As the Codex Botturini makes abundantly clear, when the Aztecs began the migration which took them from their homeland in the marshes of Aztlán to the small rocky islets in Lake Texcoco, which ultimately became the spectacular capital city of the vastest indigenous empire Mesoamerica was ever to know, each move along the way was documented both in space and in time. Whereas the identification of many of the place-names they used can only be guessed at (e.g., "place of the sand spider," or "place where spear-throwers are made"), the temporal sequence of the events which transpired can be precisely pinned down year by year.

            The Aztecs record that their departure from their island home (subsequently identified as Mexcaltitán on the coast of Nayarit) occurred in the year "1 Flint-Knife." Because they already knew the significance of the "binding of the years" ceremony, they celebrated four such events in the years "2 Reed" while en route. Four years after the last celebration -- in the year "6 Reed" -- the narrative ends abruptly, due to the Codex Botturini having been damaged. Yet, from the evidence at hand, it is obvious that their migration took some 187 years to complete. This is because there are 27 years between "1 Flint-Knife" and the first occurrence of "2 Reed," and 52 years between each recurrence of a year of that name, followed by four additional years -- i.e., 27 + 52 x 3 = 27 + 156 = 183 + 4 = 187. Inasmuch as their arrival in the Valley of Mexico is known to have taken place about the beginning of the fourteenth century, this would mean that their departure date was most probably in the year 1116.

            Ironically, most of the ancient native accounts herald the beginning of the Chichimec period with the next time the year "1 Flint-Knife" occurred -- i.e., 52 years later in 1168. This is because earlier in the decade, Tula, the capital of the Toltecs, had been overrun by barbarian Chichimecs and put to the torch. In the Codex Botturini the Aztecs record that they had left the "place of the reeds," or Tula, in the year 1163, so there is strong circumstantial evidence that it was the Aztecs themselves who had been the culprits. just as the Toltecs had been the undoing of Teotihuacán, so the Aztecs appear to have been responsible for bringing down the remnants of the first Nahua civilization on the Mexican plateau.

            Ultimately, the irony was to become even greater, for once they became fully aware of what they had done, the Aztecs revived the memory of the Toltecs as the greatest people who had ever lived. They were heralded as the first people who had learned to count, the first to understand the movements of the sun and to measure the passage of time, and the most consummate artisans who had ever molded clay or worked in feathers or textiles. Indeed, the highest compliment an Aztec could pay to anyone was to liken him to a Toltec!

            As might have been expected, the Aztec migration essentially followed the line of least resistance. This was the corridor afforded by the Río Grande de Santiago, Mexico's second-largest Pacific-flowing river, and by its major tributary, the Lerma, whose headwaters rise in the highland basin of Toluca, some 100 km (60 mi) to the west of the Valley of Mexico. The basin of Toluca, however, was not an especially attractive goal in its own right, for it was the loftiest of all the intermontane basins of the Mexican plateau. With an elevation of 2640 m (8660 ft), it was both cold and arid compared to the Valley of Mexico just over the next mountain ridge to the east. Moreover, in the middle course of the Rio Lerma, the Aztecs most probably ran afoul of the Purépecha, or Tarascans, and therefore may have been obliged to detour north and eastward along the valley of the Río Túrbio instead, thus ending up in the open plains to the north of Tula. On the other hand, it is just as likely that the urban metropolis of the Toltecs was their goal from the outset, and that they had moved upstream toward it as directly as they could. In any event, as the Codex Botturini informs us, the Aztecs had reached Tula by the year 1145 and did not depart until 1163.

            Whereas the place-name evidence indicates that the first phase of the Aztec migration had brought them into what is now the state of Hidalgo, most of the places mentioned in the second phase of their account have been identified with localities in the present state of México. At the close of this second phase, they had reached Chapultepec, on the western outskirts of modern Mexico City, and celebrated their fourth "binding of the years" ceremony in 1299. Of the third and final phase of their migration, all of which focused on the Valley of Mexico, only the fragmentary record of four years remains, though it is generally agreed that the actual founding of Tenochtitlán can be assigned to the year 1325.

            The Valley of Mexico not only lay some 400 m (1300 ft) lower than that of Toluca, and thus enjoyed a somewhat more temperate climate, but it also embraced the largest body of water on the entire Mexican plateau -- a feature sometimes known as the Lake of the Moon. Although it consisted of basically one extensive articulated basin, it had three major components, partially separated from one another by higher ridges of land which formed irregular peninsulas. The southernmost arm of the body of water was known as Lake Chalco, whereas the largest and most central portion was known as Lake Texcoco, and the northern arm was called Lake Xaltocán. The marshes along the edges of the lake had very early come to be appreciated for their abundance of waterfowl and for such aquatic animals as the axolotl, a large salamander which was esteemed for its flesh.

            Technically, the Lake of the Moon was what the geomorphologist calls a playa lake. As such, it was chiefly fed by run-off from the adjacent mountains, and therefore it was seldom very deep. Depending upon the amount of summer rainfall received, the lake was often very irregular in volume and in shape as well. Naturally, the longer the dry season continued, the more the water evaporated and the more the lake's shorelines contracted. At the same time, the brackishness of the water increased as the proportion of dissolved salts in the remaining water rose toward the saturation point and then began to crystallize out in the form of salt pans along the edges of the lake.

            Had the Lake of the Moon been a classic playa lake, it would, of course, never have been the magnet for human settlement that it actually was. This is because, in addition to the summer run-off, its water supply was augmented by seepages of groundwater out of the volcanic formations on the south and especially the southwest sides of the lake. Because this water had percolated through lava rather than through limestone it contained little or no dissolved salts and was therefore fresh rather than brackish. Indeed, having been filtered through the volcanic formations, it was also cold, clear, and pure, so a more fortuitous combination of circumstances can scarcely be imagined -a plentiful supply of water on the very edge of a semi-desert basin. (The Aztec glyph for Chapultepec very pointedly depicts the flow of water from beneath the mountain.)

            Unlike typical playa lakes in other of the highland basins of the Mexican plateau, the Lake of the Moon had drawn settlers to its shores through all of human history. We know, for example, that prehistoric man was hunting mastodons on the shores of the lake at Tepexpán as early as 9000 B.C., and we have already spoken of the first agricultural villages of El Arbolillo and Zacatenco dating to about 1500 B.C. The earliest Olmec-inspired settlements at Tlatilco, Tlapacoya, and Cuicuilco were sited near the western and southern edges of the lake as well, perhaps at least in part because the freshest waters of the lake were to be found in these quadrants. Certainly by the time the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the late thirteenth century, all of the best land surrounding the lake had long since been occupied. Indeed, at the time of their arrival, the western, southern, and eastern shores of the lake had been consolidated into the three distinct kingdoms of Atzcapotzalco, Culhuacán, and Coatlinchán, respectively, so it was into this political constellation that these newly arrived barbarians from the west intruded at the beginnings of the fourteenth century.

            Needless to say, the Aztecs were not particularly welcome in the already relatively densely settled Valley of Mexico, for it was all the local inhabitants could do to feed themselves in this marginal semiarid upland environment. According to the Aztecs' own tribal legend, the god of war, Huitzilopochtli, had promised that their migration would be over when they found an eagle with a rattlesnake in its beak sitting on a cactus on a small rocky island -- surely a combination of signs that they would not be likely to miss. Perhaps it was this augury which led them to look in the middle of the Lake of the Moon for their "promised land." On the other hand, another version of their arrival in the basin of Mexico states that when they asked for land on which to settle, they were offered a couple of small rocky islets in the middle of the lake roughly equidistant from each of the existing cities --essentially a no-man's land inhabited only by rattlesnakes and scorpions. Indeed, it has been suggested that this was done in the hope that the latter would make short work of the Aztecs, but apparently the willingness of a starving Chichimec to eat almost anything had probably been overlooked. In any case, to acquire sufficient land on which to settle, the Aztecs set about driving stakes into the shallow lake bottom and then scooping up mud and stones to build out the perimeters of their islands, much as they witnessed had been done in the heavily cultivated chinampas (sometimes erroneously referred to as "floating gardens") around Xochimilco at the south end of the lake. Thus, with an immense input of arduous and disciplined labor, the Aztecs gradually transformed the little rocky islands of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco into the nuclei of two intensely cultivated garden cities, the former serving as their religious and political nerve center while the latter increasingly took on the functions of a busy marketplace.

            It should be noted in passing that whatever scenario one prefers for the founding of the Aztec capital, its siting had nothing to do with such concerns as solsticial orientation. There was no real choice as to where the city should be located, for its foundations were fixed by the geographic "accident" of the two little islands in the middle of a lake in which none of the original inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico had any interest or saw any value. It was an extremely difficult site on which to build any kind of a permanent settlement, but once the city had begun to take shape the advantages of its location gradually became increasingly apparent. From a commercial standpoint it was easily accessible to water craft carrying foodstuffs and other bulky supplies from the adjacent shores of the lake, and from a military standpoint it was sufficiently buffered by the surrounding expanses of water to enjoy a very defensible location. Therefore, although Tenochtitlán possessed none of the astronomical significance of many earlier Mesoamerican ceremonial centers, what was initially a very difficult site was ultimately transformed into a central place with a situation of paramount importance.

            Several decades were to pass, however, before this vigorous, upstart people were to have so securely established themselves as to ensure their survival in the hostile physical and cultural environment in which they had settled. All the while, they remained the political tributaries of the king of Atzcapotzalco, but by the 1360's they felt that they were ready to found a kingdom in their own right. However, because they were sorely aware that they lacked the proper "pedigree" of nobility, they requested that a prince from Culhuacán become their king. Of course, such a choice linked them dynastically to a southern rival of Atzcapotzalco and in that sense it was a brilliant tactical move as well. Thus, in 1364 Acamapichtli ascended the throne in Tenochtitlán, becoming in the process the first of the monarchs of the Aztecs.

            Acamapichtli's 40-year reign was largely a peaceful one, for it definitely was in the interests of the Aztecs to maintain as friendly relations as possible with the more powerful city-states that surrounded them. His successor, Huitzilíhuitl, also made an advantageous move by marrying one of the daughters of the king of Atzcapotzalco and then inducing her to implore her father to reduce the onerous tributes he had been exacting from the Aztecs, which he agreed to do.

            On the death of Huitzilíhuitl in 1417, Chimalpopoca, a nephew of the king of Atzcapotzalco, became the third regent of the Aztecs. In the following year, he led his armies in the defeat of Coatlinchán, seizing the southeastern mainland of the lake for the growing Aztec city-state. However, within the decade an environmental crisis brought the Aztecs and their recently acquired relatives-by-marriage likewise to the point of blows. The expanding island city-state of Tenochtitlán was rapidly outgrowing its supply of fresh water, both for domestic consumption and for irrigating the chinampas on which its food was grown. Whether the request for help which they addressed to the rulers of Atzcapotzalco was rudely phrased or not, the latter used this as an excuse to move against what they now perceived was an alarmingly expanding rival. Secret emissaries were sent into the Aztec capital, and in 1426 both the king Chimalpopoca and his son were assassinated. This treacherous act was followed by an economic blockade of the island towns which, together with the increasingly desperate water supply problem, obliged the Aztecs to react with violence.

            What ensued depends on whose account one wishes to believe, that of the Aztecs or that of their confederates, the nearby city-states of Tacuba and Texcoco. According to the Aztec version, they alone resisted the attacks of Atzcapotzalco and finally rose up to conquer their oppressive neighbor in 1428. Tacuba and Texcoco, on the other hand, argued that it was their alliance with the Aztecs which ultimately turned the tables on Atzcapotzalco. In any event, what is certain is that, following the election of Itzcóatl, the son of Acamapichtti, as king and the establishment of a supreme council of advisors, the Aztec state was launched upon an entirely new course of action from that time forward. Although the council included the first Montezuma (Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina), a son of Huitzilíhuitl; Nezahualcóyotl, the poet-king of Texcoco; and Tlacaélel, another son of Huitzilíhuitt, it was the latter more than any other single individual who came to shape the destiny of the Aztec people.


            For the better part of the next fifty years, three different kings occupied the Aztec throne, but throughout this entire time the real power resided with the royal counselor, Tlacaélel. At his direction, Itzcóatl began a series of reforms granting titles to the nobles and redistributing landholdings to enhance their status. Perhaps Tlacaélel's chief contribution was to forge a "historic conscience" among the Aztecs by burning the books of conquered peoples and the old accounts of his own people. He rewrote history to exalt the origins of the Aztecs and to establish a genealogical link with the Toltecs. He elevated Coatlicue, the hideous mother of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, to a special position of honor in the Aztec pantheon, and gave a new interpretation to the Aztecs' religious philosophy. The present world of "the fifth sun" had begun, he argued, with the sacrifice of the gods, especially of Quetzalcóatl, at Teotihuacán. Thus, if the gods had sacrificed themselves so the sun would move and man could live, then man should sacrifice himself so that the sun could live. This, he maintained, was the only way to postpone the final cataclysm. For Tlacaélel, war was not alone a tool of conquest, subjugation, and exploitive tribute acquistion, but also a means of ensuring a continuous supply of human victims for the sacrificial altars of the Aztec temples. He not only planned and carried out the first military campaigns of the Aztecs, securing control over the Valley of Mexico, but he also launched the so-called "flower wars" whose divine mission it was, in alliance with Huitzilopochtli, to subjugate all other peoples and nations in order to preserve the world. As the champions of such a noble cause, he assured the Aztecs that they would be invincible in battle.

            When Itzcóatl died in 1440, he was succeeded on the throne by Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina. Although the kingship was first offered to Motecuhzoma's half-brother Tlacaélel, the latter refused, no doubt because the reigns of government were already firmly in his hands. Under his guidance, the "first Montezuma" proceeded to build a great new temple in honor of their father. However, the precariousness of Tenochtitlán food and water supply manifested itself again in 1454 when a famine struck the Valley of Mexico and took a heavy toll of life during the following two years. Perhaps in part to ensure that such privation would not endanger the growing city-state again, the construction of an aqueduct from Chapultepec was begun and a military campaign was launched into the Gulf coastal region which concluded with the annexation of the area around Veracruz in 1463. This lush tropical coastland provided the Aztecs with a treasure house of resources, including corn, beans, fruit, cotton, wood, and medicinal plants as well as gold dust, jewelry, precious stones, rock crystal, feathers, live birds, jaguars, seashells, and turtles. After 13 years of labor, the Chapultepec aqueduct was finally completed in 1466.

            It was also during the reign of the "first Montezuma" that the Aztecs carried out an expedition which probably ranks as the closest thing to a scientific endeavor that they ever mounted. At Tlacaélel's urging, a party was sent out to look for Aztlán, the original Aztec homeland, and to learn if Coatlicue, the mother of the war god, was still living there. Given such a sponsor and such a questionable goal, it is small wonder that, when the expedition returned after an appropriate length of time, it could happily report that Coatlicue was indeed alive and well and that she sent her greetings!

            Motecuhzoma's passing in the year 1468 once more provided Tlacaélel with an opportunity to reign as king, but again he declined, and Axayácatl, the grandson of Itzcóatl, next assumed the mantle of royal leadership. In 1473, the market center of Tlatelolco was finally and formally annexed by Tenochtitlán, having remained a separate political entity ever since its founding at the same time as the Aztec capital. It was in the same year that the great calendar stone which has since become the virtual hallmark of the Aztec civilization was also dedicated.

            However, five years further along, when the Aztec armies turned their attention westward toward Michoacán, they suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Tarascans, or Purépecha. Some reports state that as many as 30,000 Aztec warriors died in this one battle on the approaches to the Tarascan capital. Undoubtedly, the Tarascans' mastery of advanced metallurgy and possession of superior weapons were of decisive importance in the campaign's outcome, but some scholars have likewise attributed the Tarascan victory to their superb military organization. Wherever the truth may lie, we do know that the defeat was extremely demoralizing to the Aztecs. It was as though the war-god had abandoned them, their sacred mission to save the world had been aborted, and the myth of Aztec invincibility had been shattered. It was clear that, as a resuit of this single bloody disaster, the violent and short-lived Aztec Empire had already passed its psychological peak, and within a matter of months Tlacaélel is reported to have died. Axayácatl himself is said never to have recovered from this stunning blow, and after a lingering malaise of three years, he too passed away.

Figure 57.

This reproduction of the Aztec calendar stone found in the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City shows how brilliantly the original was painted. In the third ring from the outside are depicted the 20 symbols of the days of the sacred almanac. They are meant to be read in a counterclockwise direction, beginning at the top left.


            In 1481 Tizoc, the brother of Axayácatl, was elected king, but his reign was both brief and depressing. No doubt in a vainglorious attempt to rekindle Aztec pride and fervor, he began the construction of the largest temple to the war-god ever undertaken, but he died in 1486 before he saw it completed. At this juncture, a third brother, Ahuízotl, was elected king, and the following year the new temple was dedicated in the presence of invited dignitaries from tributary states both far and near. (Even the king of the hated Tarascans was reputedly in attendance.) The Aztecs "pulled out all the stops" to make this event the most memorable that had ever been witnessed up until that time, for over the course of the four days that the celebration went on, it is variously reported that between 20,000 and 80,000 human victims had their hearts torn out on the sacrificial stone at the temple's top. The continuing "flower wars" with nearby Tlaxcala helped to supply many of the victims, but new military campaigns against the Huastecs to the northeast and the Zapotecs to the south also made their contributions.

            If Tenochtitlán's thirst for blood was in any measure satisfied by this horrendous ceremony, that satisfaction was only temporary at best. Just as pressing, if not more so, however, was the growing city's thirst for water, and in 1499 a new aqueduct was opened into the city from the southwesterly precinct of Coyoacán. Although the entire project was carried out against the advice of some of the earlier residents of the district, the Aztecs soon found that the volume of water they had directed into the city was far too great to be satisfactorily contained. As a result, lake levels were seriously upset and the Aztec capital was flooded, apparently with a considerable loss of life. Indeed, Ahuízotl himself was injured during the inundation, and after a lingering illness passed away in 1502.

            Against this sobering backdrop, his son, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (the "second Montezuma"), assumed the throne, intent on restoring whatever grandeur he could to the Aztecs. His first move was to deify himself, but in order to do this, he had to arrange for the assassination of most of the court officials who had earlier served his father, for they obviously knew too much to go along with his grandiose ambitions. When his supposed ally, Nezahualpilli, the king of Texcoco (actually a secret enemy), came forward with ominous predictions as to the imminent demise of the Aztec Empire, Montezuma was visibly shaken, and the subsequent occurrence of other mysterious omens only served to heighten his anxiety. Visions of men on horses, a smoking comet in the sky, and the destruction of the temple of Huitzilopochtli by fire unnerved him further. Worst of all was Nezahualpilli's prophecy that Quetzalcóatl would soon return to rightfully claim his kingdom, for such a warning the exiled king of Tula had himself delivered, as all the heirs of the Toltecs well knew.

            When Montezuma led his people in the celebration of the "binding of the years" in 1507, he may well have doubted whether the world as he knew it would endure another 52 years. Perhaps already then the first reports were beginning to reach him of "great white houses" out upon the sea amidst the islands of the rising sun. Certainly, within a few years, these Spanish exploring vessels were being sighted off the coast of Mexico itself, and with an almost inexorable rhythm, the approach of impending doom cast its lengthening shadow over the melancholy emperor and his terror-ridden state. In what has to be one of the most remarkable coincidences of all human history, Hernán Cortés and his small band of conquistadores landed on the beach at Veracruz in the fateful Aztec year of "1 Reed" -- a year of the same name as that of Quetzalcóatl's birth and therefore one in which all Mesoamericans would have expected him to return. Paralyzed with a fear instilled by the prognostications of his own sacred calendar, the hapless Montezuma was at a loss as to how he should receive the strange white "gods" who had arrived on his shores.

            It is beyond the scope of this work to discuss the Spanish conquest, but if there is any further irony to be appended to this account of the rise and fall of Mesoamerican civilization, it can only be this: The flame of Mesoamerican intellect which had first been kindled with the passage of the zenithal sun over Izapa at noon on August 13, 1359 B.C., was extinguished on the causeways of the Lake of the Moon as the sun was setting on August 13, 1521. With all the poignancy of a Greek tragedy, the cycle had now come full circle. Tenochtitlán lay in ruins, and Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs, was in chains. The Mesoamerican age was over.

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