The Names of the Mexica Kings

(Originally a long Twitter thread.) Below I’m going to dissect linguistically the names of the kings (tlahtoānimeh or tlahtohqueh) of Tenōchtitlan, most of whom bore the title “huēyi tlahtoāni” or “emperor” of the “Aztec Empire.” I’ll go in reverse chronological order.

The last tlahtoāni (the word literally means “speaker”) was Cuāuhtemōc. This name is constructed as a compound verb. “Temōc” is “descended,” from “temo,” which means “descends.” The root “cuāuh-” or “eagle” appears to have been compounded onto it. This blend creates a new verb, “cuāuhtemo,” or “eagle-descends” or “descends like an eagle.”

The upshot is that Cuāuhtemōc literally means “[he] descended like an eagle.” Most sources you see get this slightly wrong (“he who descends like an eagle” or “falling eagle”). Here’s Cuāuhtemōc’s name glyph or royal seal: an eagle dropping toward its prey.

Before Cuāuhtemōc was the brief reign of Cuitlāhuac, who succumbed to smallpox after the Spanish were driven out of Tenōchtitlan (and before they returned to lay seige to the city). He shares his name with his grandfather and a Nahua city-state. It’s a strange name. On the surface, it seems related to “cuitlatl” or “excrement.” Some scholars have glossed the name of the city-state as “where people possess dung” (i.e., of the sort one trades commercially).

But there’s bit of a problem with that derivation. Adding -huah (possessor suffix) gives us “cuitlahuah.” Short vowel in the second syllable and glottal stop at the end. You’d expect the city-state’s name to be “Cuitlahuahcān” if this gloss were correct. So scratch that.

Now, “cuitlatl” is also a color name. Dark gray. Couldn’t this be a compound? Cuitla- plus, I dunno, ātl (water)? “Where people possess dark water”? Gah. Can’t be. We still have that glottal. No, most likely there was a verb (derived from “cuitlatl”) constructed thus: cuitlāhua. It’s not recorded anywhere, but it works morphologically (like “tomāhua” — “grow thick” from root “toma-” thick). The adjective form of this would be “cuitlāhuac” (like “tomāhuac,” thick).

But what would this hypothetical verb mean? It would still have something to do with dung, sad to say. Probably “to have dung” or something along those lines. So this guy is still King Dung-owner, I’m afraid. Here’s his glyph. Looks like a poop emoji over his shoulder.

Before his short-lived reign, Cuitlāhuac’s younger brother — the most famous of all “Aztec” sovereigns — had ruled for 18 years. In English, he is known as Montezuma; in Spanish, Moctezuma. But in Nahuatl, he was called Motēuczōma, second of his name. The people gave him a name suffix: Xōcoyōtzin — literally “beloved younger son,” but here meaning “the younger” to differentiate him from the first Motēuczōma, whom I’ll discuss below. The name is pronounced (approximately) “moh-tekw-SOH-mah.”

Those who know Nahuatl immediately notice that his name is a present-tense verb, based on the reflexive action “mozōma” or “to become angry,” from the transitive verb “zōma” or “to anger.” The ruler’s name reads like a new compound combining that verb and “tēuctli” or “lord”

The root is “tēuc-” and appears to be combined with “zōma” to make “tēuczōma” or “to lord-anger.” This is made reflexive with the prefix mo- and becomes “to lord-anger oneself” or “to become angry like a lord.” There are other verbs that incorporate “tēuc-” in this way, like “motēuczahua” or “s/he fasts like a lord,” from “mozahua” or “s/he fasts.”

So this huēyi tlahtoāni’s name means “he is angry like a lord.”

Here’s his name glyph or royal seal, from Codex Mendoza, folio 16. A turquoise crown floats above his head, stressing his lordliness.

Before him ruled Āhuitzotl, one of the most beloved sovereigns of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan. He expanded the borders of the Triple Alliance vastly, conquering the Mixtec and Zapotec peoples, his campaigns reaching modern-day Guatemala. He was the father of Cuāuhtemōc. His name rocks.

You see, an āhuitzotl was a legendary creature that lived in fresh water. Think a cross between a dog and an otter, with monkey-like hands, FIVE of them (one at the end of its tail). It supposedly had spiny protrusions along its spine, perhaps of tufted fur. Etymology? Well, āhuitzotl contains the root “ā-” or “water,” plus “huitz-” that means “sharp/thorn” (like “huitzolli” or “sharp thing”). So it’s pretty clearly an allusion to the appearance of the creature. Here’s Āhuitzotl’s glyph, with one of them hanging in the air.

Now we come to the Millard Fillmore of Nahua rulers, Tizoc, older brother of Āhuitzotl, who ruled a handful of years before dying, probably poisoned at the command of Tlācaellel, who had been serving as chief royal advisor for decades. He was a horribly ineffective leader. His name’s harder to work out, but it’s clearly verb. “Izo” is a variant of the verb “ihzo,” meaning “to perforate to drain blood.” It’s been attested as transitive and reflexive. Second-person-singular (“you”) verbs get t- as a subject prefix, so that gives us a few options:

“Timizoc” would be “you pierced and bled yourself,” whereas “tiquizoc” would be “you pierced and bled it/her/him.” If it were possible for “izo” to be intransitive (i.e., not to require an object … a usage that isn’t attested), then you could have “tizoc” or “you pierced and bled.”

Normally, if the verb is only transitive, that would be expressed with an indefinite object suffix: “titēizoc” (you pierced and bled … someone). But there are verbs in Nahuatl that can be both transitive and intransitive. Another possibility is an irregular passive, making “tizoc” mean “you’ve been bled.”

But, yeah, take a look at the two versions of his name glyph.

Clearly, piercing is involved, somehow.

Before him ruled Āxāyacatl, younger brother of both Tizoc and Āhuitzotl (as you can imagine, they were both pretty upset to get passed up in favor of their 19-year-old sibling). His name seems easier: ā- (water) plus xāyacatl (face/mask). Water mask. Water face. Got it. But…

What the hell is a “water mask”? One interesting fact is that “āxāyacatl” is also a species of insect, a “water fly” still called “axayacate” in some regional dialects of Mexican Spanish. But that can’t be it. Look at his glyph. There’s literally water on a face.

So … maybe it’s metaphorical? Here’s a clue. “ocxāyacatl” is formed from “octli” (pulque/wine) and “xāyacatl.” but it doesn’t mean “wine face.” It means “the face of a clearly drunken person.” Perhaps Āxāyacatl makes reference to weeping? Teary face?

Still, it may just be some sort of ritual mask, like the mexāyacatl (agave mask) or the xiuhcōāxāyacatl (dragon mask), etc. It was definitely used as a design element, as we see in terms like “āxāyacayoh tilmahtli” (“cape with the water-mask designs”).

Okay, on to his predecessor! The first Motēuczōma — second “emperor,” who established the Flower Wars and increased sacrifices after a devastating two-year drought/famine — had the name suffix “Ilhuicamīna,” which is possibly the most bad-ass nickname of any Nahua ruler. See, “ilhuicatl” is “heaven” and “mīna” is “to shoot arrows (at/against something).”

His second name was literally “he shoots arrows agaist heaven.”

Okay. Full disclosure. It also means “he shoots arrows into the sky.” But I prefer the angry lord, storming heaven. And here’s his glyph. Notice the symbol for heaven, pierced by an arrow. That rocks. Hell, yeah.

Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna

Keep in mind that when he was a young man, Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna (along with Tlācaellel and Nezahualcoyōtl) was instrumental in overthrowing the Tepanec Empire. He DID defy heaven.

The fourth tlahtoāni of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan, the very first “emperor” of the Triple Alliance of Ānāhuac, was Itzcōātl. He was the grandson of Tezozomoc, who ruled the Tepanec Empire from Āzcapātzalco (most people don’t realize the aristocracy weren’t pure Mēxihcah … they had intermarried with the Cōlhuahqueh and the Tepanēcah). With his generals, Motēuczōma and Tlācaellel, Itzcōātl secured victory over the Tepanec Empire and established “In Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān” or the Triple Alliance of Anahuac (what we call the “Aztec Empire”), complete with a newly redacted history.

His name’s straightforward: “Itz” is “obsidian” and “cōātl” is serpent. So, obsidian serpent. You can see it in his glyph.


The third tlahtoāni of Tenōchtitlan was Chīmalpopōca. brother of Motēuczoma Ilhuicamīna and Tlācaellel. When their grandfather waged war on Tetzcohco, leaving their cousin Nezahualcoyōtl an orphan, Chīmalpopōca convinced that Tepanec emperor to let the teenager stay with him. A few years later, however, the emperor died, and Chīmalpopōca backed the wrong son for succession. He ended up a prison, and when he died in captivity, his younger brothers, uncle, and cousin created the Triple Alliance that would topple the Tepanēcah.

His name is straightforward. “Chīmal-” is a noun root meaning “shield” and “popōca” is a verb that means “emits smoke.” So “chīmalpopōca” means “shield-smokes,” more idiomatically either “[his] shield emits smoke” or “[he] emits shield smoke”

This name may be a reference to what was called in Nahuatl poetry “chīmalteuhtli” or “shield-dust,” the smoky haze of a battlefield. But seminal scholar Garibay Kintana affirmed it was a name for the sun at its zenith: hot and hazy and impossible to look upon. Sounds right. Here are someis his glyph or royal seal. Definitely smoke coming off a shield.


The second tlahtoāni of Tenōchtitlan was Huitzilihhuitl, father of Chīmalpopoca (by Āyauhcihuātl, the daughter of the Tepanec Emperor), Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna (by Miyāhuaxihuitl, princess of Cuauhnāhuac, modern Cuernavaca) and Tlācaellel (by Queen Cacamacihuātl).

This king also had a daughter, Mātlālcihuātzin, whose hand he gave in marriage to the king of Tetzcohco. She would later give birth to Nezahualcoyōtl, possibly the greatest ruler Mesoamerica ever knew.

Huitzilihhuitl is also a straightforward name. “Huitzil-” is a noun root meaning “hummingbird,” and “ihhuitl” means “feather.” So “hummingbird feather.” His glyph bears that out pretty clearly.


Now we come to the very first tlahtoāni of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan.

It’s the year 1375, and legendary Mexica chieftain Tenōch has just died. Because it’s the Nahua custom in city-states, the leaders of the Mēxihcah decide to select a king, a man of royal lineage. It’s tough. You see, the Mēxihcah have been nomads, then outsiders, and finally guns for hire for so many years, they don’t have an established aristocracy. So they reach out to the half-Mexica, half-Colhua prince of Cōlhuahcān (where they’d spent a generation in bondage): Ācamāpichtli. He agrees to rule them.

Hence racial/ethnic mestizaje and foreign rule are in on the ground floor of Mēxihco’s founding, as well as an appeal to ancestral glories: the cōlhuahqueh claimed descent from the Toltecs, and the Mēxihcah wanted that legendary glow on their rulers.

The city blossomed. Many of its major features (great temple, division into calpolli, etc.) date from Ācamāpichtli’s rule (including its vassalage to the Tepanēcah instead of the Cōlhuahqueh, ironically).

His name is easy: “āca-” is “reed/s” & “māpichtli” is “fist[ful].” Fistful of reeds. Let’s see that glyph!


So there you have it. All the names of the tlahtohqueh of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan. If you want to know more about the Triple Alliance of Anahuac (the “Aztec Empire”), its myths and legends, check out my book FEATHERED SERPENT, DARK HEART OF SKY: MYTHS OF MEXICO! (…)

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

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