Nowadays we use the phrase “Aztec Empire” for the group of city-states that controlled Central Mexico at the time of the Conquest. But it wasn’t an empire, really, and they weren’t Aztecs anymore.
The weird thing is that we actually know what its people called this polity. Its English translation is “the Triple Alliance.” I’m going to explain the origin of that name for you, as well as its member city-states.
This name was reported to us in the early 1600s by native Chalcan historian Domingo Francisco Chīmalpahin Cuāuhtlehuanitzin. Like the Tepanēcah before them, the Mexica and their allies used the expression “In Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān.” But does it really mean “Triple Alliance”?
The first word is a locative, derived from “ēyi” (three) and “-cān” (place). It translates best to “in three places.” Then “tlahtōlōyan” comes from “tlahtōlo” (to be judged, decreed, said) and “-yan” (place where X happens). The word designates a place where decisions are made. In essence, “In Ēxcan Tlahtōlōyan” means “the three places where decisions are made” or “the locus of decision-making is in three places.” So “Triple Alliance” is not a bad translation.
But what were those three places? Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan, Tetzcohco, & Tlacōpan. The three city-states that united to overthrown the Tepanēcah. Let’s start with the weakest of the 3, the one that doesn’t get talked about enough.
Tlacōpan literally means “place of the tlacōtl.” Now, a tlacōtl can be a stick or rod, but here the root means “stem” (of a flower). So the city-state is literally “place of the flower stems.” If you look at the glyph for “Tlacōpan,” you can clearly see the stems for which it was named. The mountain and the river signify ‘altepētl’ or ‘city,’ which is made up of the words ātl (water) and tepētl (mountain). The Nahuas believed you need both to found a city.
See, though Tlacōpan was small, it was strategic. Its people were Tepanēcah, so their participation legitimized the overthrow of Āzcapozalco, seat of Tepanec power. To keep the city-states of the western shore of Moon Lake (modern-day Lake Texcoco) in line, a Tepanec ruler had to be in the triumvirate. The city-state (which the Spanish would end up calling “Tacuba”) wielded less power than the other two members of the Alliance. It only received a fifth of the tribute that came into the “imperial” coffers. Perhaps as a consolation prize, its king had a nifty title: Tepanēcatēuctli, lord of the Tepanēcah
More powerful was the city-state of Tetzcohco (commonly called “Texcoco” now). When the Triple Alliance was first conceived, the Tepanēcah had overrun the city, killing its king and sending the teenage crown prince, Nezahualcoyōtl, into hiding. But he had an ace up his sleeve.
Nezahualcoyōtl’s mother was from Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan. His uncles, though vassals of the Tepanēcah, ruled that stronger city. They appealed to “Emperor” Tezozomoc (who was also related to these Mēxihcah aristocrats), and he allowed them to give the prince sanctuary.
Big mistake. In a few years, the crown prince took back his city, and the Alliance overthrew Āzcapotzalco. (A story for another time.)
But back to etymology. The city-state was called “Tetzcohco.” What does it mean?
Yikes. We … kind of … don’t know. Now, you’re probably going to do a Google search and find all sorts of proposed Nahuatl etymologies for Tetzcohco, but let me tell you in advance: they’re nonsense.
Juan Bautista Pomar, the mestizo great-grandson of Nezahualcōyotl tells us clearly in his Relación de Texcoco. The city was founded upon a hill called “Tetzcotl.” The name came from a group of Chīchīmēcah who were led to the area in the 13th century by legendary King Xolotl. His people established multiple cities in the area, slowly adopting Nahuatl as a lingua franca.
Four generations later, King Quinatzin founded Tetzcohco, making it the center of the kingdom founded by Xolotl. This new ruler was the first to use exclusively Nahuatl in his court. These Chīchīmēcah had been adopting the Toltec way, just like their neighbors the Ahcolhuah … who banded with the Tepanēcah and forced most inhabitants from the city in 1337.
Tetzcohco became the capital of Ahcolhuahcān. The old tongue was lost. So … no one knew what the hell “tetzcotl” meant any more! But it MAY have been the name of a local flower. Or perhaps it was pronounced like a Nahuatl name for a flower. Glyphs can function like rebuses, you see. Let’s look at the 3 main glyphs for Tetzcohco. (This won’t actually help, but it’s cool.)
In the first one you’ll see the hill, “Tetzcotl,” with some interesting flowers growing out of it. We’ve no idea what species.
The second one represents the city as the capital of Ahcolhuahcān (because Ahcolhuah sounds like “water shoulder” — arm emerges from water glyph).
And here’s the third glyph used for Tetzcohco, which combines the other two. And also, here’s the glyph for tlahtōlōyān (place of authority/decision-making).
The third city-state of the Triple Alliance was Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan. I’ve discussed the origin of “Mēxihco” extensively elsewhere, so you might want to check that out. But the origin of Tenōchtitlan is another matter.
At the end of his human existence, Huitzilopochtli, who’d guided the Mēxihcah to Ānāhuac, faced off against his nephew, Copil. After killing his nemesis, the mortally wounded god told high priest Cuāuhtlequetzqui to hurl Copil’s heart toward Moon Lake. Then he prophesied:
“When all seems lost, then you will discover the place where Copil’s heart has fallen. There, upon a rock, a cactus will have sprung, and perched on that cactus you will encounter me again in eagle form. I will speak to you, and your journey will have reached its end. Upon that spot you will build a city from which to rule Ānāhuac.”
This cactus upon or amid the stone was called “tenōchtli” in Nahuatl. Generations later, legendary chieftain Tenōch led the Mēxihcah to the island where that “stone cactus” stood, an eagle perched upon it. It was their god. You’ve seen this confluence of signs depicted all over, I’m sure, like on the Mexican flag and coat of arms:
However, the “snake” in the eagle’s mouth above (and in so many Colonial-era depictions of the founding of Tenōchtitlan) probably originated as a speech scroll or the glyph “teōātl tlahchinōlli” (divine-water burnt-thing). This difrasismo (metaphorical doublet), often rendered “flood & fire,” stands for battle/war (“divine water” referring to blood, “burnt-thing” the battlefield).
Here’s an image from the Mexica temple to warfare: glyph is near the eagle’s beak.
Here’s the glyph by itself as well:
And a speech scroll:
An outsider, unfamiliar with Nahua glyphs, could easily mistake speech scrolls or teōātl tlahchinōlli for a curling snake. We don’t know for sure. But we do know the snake doesn’t appear in pre-Colombian representations. It’s a later addition to this image.
Take a look for yourself:
Back to the etymology. Huitzilopochtli told the Mēxihcah they’d arrived in their promised land. A city was indeed built there: Tenōchtitlan, “the land beside the stone cactus.”
Here’s Tenōch’s name glyph. See the tenōchtli glyph attached to him?
Now look at the glyph for the city-state of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan. They both feature a stone from which a cactus grows.
A final note: there were two other ways of referring to the Triple Alliance. The Codex Osuna calls them “in ētetl tzontecomatl in āltepētl” or “the three head city-states.” Pomar at one point also uses “Ēxcan Tzontecomatl Tlahtōlōyan” (three head places of authority).
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, though we tend to think of the king of Tenōchtitlan as the “huēyi tlahtoāni” (“great speaker” or “emperor”), Pomar refers to “yehhuāntin in ēyntin huehhuēyintin tlahtoqueh,” or “they, the three great speakers.” Power divided by three. Calls into question the label “empire,” doesn’t it?
Read the whole story of the founding of the Triple Alliance in my book Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico.