Aztlan Affirmed, Part IV: Other Cities, Other Tongues

This is the fourth entry in my series examining indigenous sources to see what the Nahuas / Aztecs had to say about the legendary land of Aztlān.

The Codex Chimalpopoca was a three-part Nahuatl document (with some passages in Spanish) copied sometime in the early 17th century by Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl, a historian descended from the kings of Tetzcohco (more about him later).

I say “was” because it was lost in 1949.

It’s listed under “Colección Antiguo no. 159,” supposedly sitting in the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia located in Mexico City.

But it’s not there. Someone misplaced or stole it. Thankfully, there’s still a handwritten copy at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and a photographic copy made in the 1940s.

There’s not much information about Aztlān. In the section known as Anales de Cuauhtitlan (Cuauhtitlan was the 4th most important city in the Triple Alliance), the codex says the Mexihtin left Aztlān in the year 1 Rabbit (1090 CE).

11:23–24: “Ce tōchtli - Aztlān ic huālolīnqueh Mexihtin.”

It also equates Aztlān with Colhuahcān.

83:38: “Auh inic huāllahqueh in Colhuahcān in Aztlān inic huāllahqueh in Mexihtin ōmpōhualxihuitl on caxtōlli īpan ye xihuitl.”

The Codex Chimalpopoca also mentions Chicomoztoc.

1:24: “Ce ācatl - īpan quīzqueh Chicomoztoc in Chīchīmēcah ōmihtoh ōmotēnēuh.” (In 1 Rabbit [635 CE], it is said, it is mentioned that the Chichimeca came out of Chicomoztoc [455 years before the Mexica].)

In 79:31–33, the codex also tells us that the demigods known as Mīmixcōāh (cloud serpents) lived in Chicomoztoc before humans (at least, those Cloud Serpents who survived a rebellion against their father, the Sun).

Chief among these deities was Mixcōātl (THE Cloud Serpent), principal god of the Otomis and Chichimeca. The codex depicts him as guiding the Toltecs like Huitzilopochtli does the Mexica.

This emergence and guidance story would become very common in Anahuac. It’s clear that the Toltecs believed that their ancestors had been the ones to emerge first from Chicomoztoc (inside Colhuahcān or Colhuahcatepētl, as some documents call the curved mountain), guiding other Nahua tribes.

The Historia Tolteca Chichimeca — also “Anales de Cuauhtinchan” or “Book of Conquista” — is a codex set down on European paper around 1560, probably at the behest of a noble Nahuan family from the former city-state of Cuauhtinchan to reclaim its rights from the Spanish crown.

The codex begins with the story of how the Tōltēcah Chīchīmēcah emerged from Chicomoztoc and went out into the world, conquering people and building cities.

You’ve probably seen this image from the codex. It’s the most famous representation of Chicomoztoc in existence:

Image for post
Image for post

Eventually, though, the Tōltēcah return to Chicomoztoc. Here’s an image depicting the lush beauty of that place, full of white ahuehuete flowers, white cane, white willows, red cotton, water, and ball games.

Image for post
Image for post

The city of Tōllān (Tula) has fallen, its last king, Ce Ācatl Topiltzin Quetzalcōātl, has departed, and the Tōltēcah need allies. They convince other Chichimeca tribes to leave: Tōtōmīhuahqueh, Cuāuhtinchāntlācah, Texcaltēcah, Mālpantlācah, Ahcolchīchīmēcah, Tzauhctēcah and Zacatēcah.

Image for post
Image for post

Together, these nations take back Tōllān. The Tōltēcah support them in establishing their own kingdoms in Anahuac (the future Valley of Mexico).

Note that future kings and emperors would claim Toltec and Chichimeca ancestry. Like the Greeks for the Romans, they set a standard

.The Nahuatl word for “art” or “craftsmanship” is “tōltēcāyōtl” … “the Toltec Way.” An artist was known as a “tōltēcātl.” A Toltec.

Also, when the Mēxihcah arrived, there were lots of ACTUAL descendants of the Tōltēcah still around. They had a better claim to dominion.

We’ll come back to that soon enough, I promise.

First, let’s take a look at a few Spanish and one French manuscript, all connected to indigenous authors in one way or another.

As I’ve said before, we don’t have any original pre-Colombian Nahua codices that show Aztlān; just a few copies of them survive. In addition, a Spanish-language description of some of the originals was made in the 1530s, most likely by Fray Andrés de Olmos.

Olmos, a Franciscan friar, became fascinated with Nahua culture. After hearing a Spanish translation of the recitation of a few indigenous hieroglyphic codices, he set down the history of the Mēxicah.

He called his text Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas. In English, it’s History of the Mexicans as Told by Their Paintings (“mexicano” in 1530 meant “Mexica” or “Aztec”). The manuscript, also called the Codex Ramírez, is preserved to this day in the library of the University of Texas at Austin.

What does it say about Aztlān?

The painted books claim, Olmos reports, that 130 years after the Flood, the Mexica resided in a city called “Azcla” to the northwest of Tenochtitlan. That city was dominated by a mountain from which a river flowed. On the other side of the river was another city, Colhuahcān.

Image for post
Image for post

Wanting to conquer new territory, the Mexica set out from their homeland, leaving behind their great temple but carrying with them the god “Vchilobi” [“Huichilobi, garbled Spanish for “Huitzilopochtli”].

“Azcla” is Aztlan, by the way. It may just be a weak attempt at phonetic representation (the “tl” sound doesn’t exist in Spanish), but also note that in 1530, the “c” could represent a /ts/ sound before i/e.

The Histoire du Mechique (History of the Mexica) was translated by French Franciscan priest André Thevet in the 1540s from an unknown Spanish document that appears to have been a summary of the history recited from a painted book by a Nahua informant. Today the manuscript sits in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, in Paris.

The text is garbled by this literary game of “telephone.”

Thevet claims that the “m” in “Mēxihcah” is barely pronounced and gives a folk etymology for Mexico (“where the wind blows down the maguey”). He reports that, near the mountain Florida natives call Quivira, two brothers lived next to a huge cavern from which the wind emerged. Because the younger worshiped a different god, they began to fight. The younger lost, but his god promised to take him and his people to a better place.

The god led them to Colhuahcān, which Thevet identifies with Culiacan (in modern Sinaloa). There they lived for many years before their god or their own will caused them to abandon it and travel southwest.

If you’ve read my first article on pictorial sources, you’ll see the alignment.

Another source.

Juan Bautista Pomar (1535–1601) was the mestizo great grandson of Nezahualcoyotl. In addition to compiling 36 Nahuatl songs from his native Texcoco (the so-called “Romances de los señores de la Nueva España”), he wrote a brief history of that kingdom.

Granted, he was trying to get the Spanish crown to recognize the legitimacy of his land claims (as well as the essential difference of his ancestors … he swore that Nezahualcoyotl had doubted the Nahua pantheon and worshiped a strange, invisible god).

Still, it’s information.

Among other things, this “Relación de Texcoco,” in clarifying the difference betwee “Colhuaque” (a group of “newcomers” he lumps the Mexica into) and Acolhuaque (his own people), declares that “Colhuaque” is from Colhuahcan, “the city they came from, out in the West.”

So was their homeland Aztlan or Colhuahcan? Could it be both?

One last source. I’ve mentioned Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl Cortés, whose handwritten copy of the Codex Chimalpopoca was the only version of that document to survive. That historian was castizo (meaning he had one indigenous grandparent and three Spanish ones). Born around 1568, he descended from the last tlahtoāni of Tetzcoco (Ixtlilxochitl II) and the penultimate ruler of Tenōchtitlan (Cuitlahuac).

Nevertheless, he was poor.

But Ixtlilxóchitl was a star alumnus of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, where he had studied Nahuatl, Spanish and Latin. So when the viceroy of New Spain asked for a chronicle of indigenous history, he created the Relación histórica de la nación tulteca.

In the early 1600s, Ixtlilxóchit lrefined and reorganized that information into the Historia chichimeca. Its tenth chapter gives an origin story for the Mexica that echoes other non-Mexica sources, with a new twist.

When Tōllān fell, a noble named Huetzitin escaped the Toltec empire’s destruction with his family. They traveled through the Purépecha kingdom of Michhuahcān to the “province of Aztlān,” where they lived three generations, until Huetzitin’s great-grandson Ocēlōpan II agreed to lead the “Mezitin” [Mexihtin] to Toltec territory. Huitzilopochtli was carried at the vanguard of their long trek.

Here, perhaps more than in any other document, we see the Mexica’s destiny entwined with that of the Toltecs who’d ruled before they arrived in the Valley of Mexico.

As I keep saying, I’ll come back to this crucial point in the analysis part of my series.

That’s up next.

Read the rest of the series.
Part I: Pictorial Sources
Part II: Nahua Historians
Part III: Indigenous Informants
Part IV: Other Cities, Other Tongues
Part V: Commentary

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store