Aztlan. A word fraught with nuances, echoing differently in the minds of Chicano activists, Mexican scholars and a spectrum of folks in between.
But what did the “Aztecs,” the Nahuas believe about Aztlan?
This article is the first in a series reviewing the contents of indigenous texts and informant testimony during the first century after the Spanish Conquest.
Let’s review some basics. Most know Aztlan as the original homeland of the Aztecs. Some Mexican Americans use the term to [re]claim the US Southwest (though the Native nations occupying the land at the time of the Spanish Conquest have the better argument for sovereignty). I’m pretty sure the Chicano poet Alurista got that ball rolling in the 1960s, but we’ll come back to this debate at the very end.
Anthropology, archaeology and linguistics all support the idea that the indigenous Mexican groups speaking Uto-Aztecan languages first emerged from the area near Utah thousands of years ago, moving south in waves.
Speakers of Nahuatl — the Nahuas — reached Central Mexico by about 500 CE (AD). By the time Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, the Nahuas had already been there a thousand years. There are some interesting implications about the facts of that migration, but I’ll save them for the final piece in this series.
Right now I’m interested in the PERCEPTION of the Nahuas about their place of origin.
Let’s begin with pictorial codices. In Nahuatl these were known as āmoxtin, painted books. They were meant as aides-mémoire so learned folk could recite the histories of the Mexica.
First up is the Codex Boturini, also known as the Tira de la Peregrinación de los Mexica (The Pilgrimage Strip) because its accordion-folded folios expand into a strip. This codex was produced between the years of 1530 and 1541 by an indigenous scribe. It visually depicts the long exodus of the Mexica (one tribe of Nahuas).
Folio 1: A figure leaves an island nation: Aztlan, shown with six clan glyphs. A pair of rulers observe. The date is 1-Reed. The figure travels to [teō]Colhuahcān, the “sacred curved mountain.” In one of its caves, the god Huitzilopochtli speaks or sings amid the the thorny foliage.
Folio 2: The figure must lead or represent the Mexihtin (as the Mexica were known at that time). At the curved mountain, they are joined by other tribes: Huexotzincah, Chālcah, Xōchimīlcah, Cuitlāhuacah, Malīnalcah, Chīchīmēcah, Tepanēcah, Mātlatzincah.
Leading from this place are the teōmāmah or “god-carriers,” priests who carried the sacred bundles (containing physical relics of the Mexica people’s deities) and/or statues of the gods
Folio 3: Later, the tribes settle, building a temple near a shady tree & feasting. Huitzilopochtli gets angry, snaps the tree, and makes the tribes go their separate ways. The Acolhua leader is sad when the Mexihtin leader Aacatl tells him. The other leaders beg the god to let them follow him.
This very same scene is represented in the Codex Azcatitlan, created or copied in the latter third of the 16th century on European paper and bound like a book. The manuscript tells the history of the Mexica, including their migration to Tenōchtitlan from Aztlān.
Folio 1: In Aztlan (with four smaller clan glyphs here), a council (left side) appears to discuss the departure of the Mexihtin, while a group of people (right side) wave goodbye to their fellow citizens. There’s no clear indication of WHY the tribe is abandoning the city.
Folios 2–3: Three rulers (info from other codices suggests they may be members of the Aztēcah Chicomoztocah, a tyrannical aristocratic class) watch as the boat[s] leave. We see a 3D drawing of Aztlan’s temple, which looks like the one in Tenōchtitlan. Others say goodbye.
Folios 4–5. Again the Mexihtin arrive at the curved mountain of Colhuahcān. Huitzilopochtli is in the cave[s], from which emerge the same tribes as in the Tira.
The cave[s] inside the mountain? Other sources call it Chicomoztoc (“Seven Caves”). We’ll learn more about them in other codices.
Someone reciting the tale of this exodus might have said something like the following: “The Mexihtin Aztēcah left the island of Aztlān on 1-Reed. Crossing the water, they arrived at Colhuahcān, where Huitzilopochtli spoke. At his command, eight other tribes left their homes in the caves of that mountain to follow the god-bearers of the Mexihtin, who led the people into the desert.”
That’s the gist of these first few pages of sacred pictorial story-telling, minus details we cannot know.
As indigenous people began using Roman letters as a way to record their native languages, a hybrid sort of āmoxtin arose, giving us a written Nahuatl narrative to accompany the images.
For example, the Aubin Codex (1608) combines a pictorial history of the Mexica with printed text in Nahuatl (on European paper, bound). It records the names of the tribes who traveled with the Mexica after their departure from Aztlán, plus the history of Tenōchtitlan and its fall.
Its first full folio depicts the island city-state of Aztlān. We see four clans of Aztēcah depicted (as in the Codex Azcatitlan — these may be the clans that leave). Beneath this are named the eight tribes beyond the water (with clan glyphs, leading me to wonder whether Colhuahcān was considered part of Aztlan).
Folio 2: Here begins the Nahuatl text. This page describes the beginning of the exodus from Aztlān. Here’s the original:
And here’s my “normalized” transcription (noting long vowels and glottal stops):
And my translation:
Here is painted the story of how the Mexica came from the place called Aztlan. They left from the midst of the water. There were four clans [calpōlli]. And they traveled to do penance in their boats; they went to pile up their branches of fir at the place called ‘Quinēhuayān.’ It’s a cave. That’s where the eight clans [calpōltin] emerged.
The first clan are the Huexotzincah. The second clan the Chālcah. The third clan the Xōchimīlcah. The fourth clan, the Cuitlāhuacah. The fifth clan, Malīnalcah. The sixth clan, Chīchīmēcah. The seventh clan, Tepanēcah. The eighth clan, Mātlatzincah. There where Colhuahcān stands, they had their homes.
When they [the Mexihtin Aztēcah] crossed the water from Aztlan, they quickly came to Colhuahcān. When those living there had seen them, they spoke to the Aztecs: ‘O our lords! Where go ye? Let us accompany you.’
And the Aztecs said: ‘Wherever shall we lead you?’
Okay. Couple of things to discuss. First, the Mexihtin are going to perform ritual penance (not necessarily to abandon Aztlan). The area near Colhuahcān is called Quinēhuayān, a place name derived from the adjective “quinēhuac” or “having missed the mark.” Makes sense for a place of penance.
Some people have mistranslated this as “place of possession,” since the phrase “ītech quinēhuac” (having had the wrong [medicine] thrown at one) can mean bewitched or possessed. But that’s pretty clearly NOT what’s intended here (and the place name would need to be “Tētech Quinēhuayān”).
Also, note the way the eight tribes address the Mexihtin Aztēcah. They use very formal diction and call them “our lords.” They ask the penitents to lead them away from their caves.
There’s a clear implication that the future Mexica are superior to them. That’s awfully convenient. We’ll come back to it soon.