The Names of the Mexica Queens

(Originally a long Twitter thread.) Below I will analyze linguistically the names of the cihuātlahtohqueh (“female speakers”) of Mēxihco-Tenōchtitlan, in chronological order, from the very (bad-ass) first to the (tragic and poignant) last. Strap in.

First is Ilancuēitl, who bridges the gap between the nomadic existence of the Mēxihcah and the founding of Tenōchtitlan. Sources are a little garbled about her role, with some contradictory information, but it appears she was a priestess and head of calpōlli (House) Tlācatēcpan. As Governor Tenōch ages, she is asked to manage the social and religious inner workings of Tenōchtitlan. Tenōch, meanwhile, will continue to handle diplomacy, trade, defense. The title of cihuācōātl (chief royal adviser) is established for her to differentiate their roles. That word has a fascinating etymology: also the name of a major Nahua goddess, cihuācōātl is made up of “cihuā-” (woman) and“cōātl,” which can mean “snake” or … “twin.” So the king’s adviser is either “female serpent” or “female twin.” The latter feels more likely to me, somehow.

So, in essence, Ilancuēitl becomes co-ruler alongside Tenōch. Her part-Colhua ancestry includes the Toltec roots that the Tenōchca-Mēxihcah value as lending legitimacy to their self-determination. When they reach out to the similarly half-Colhua, half-Mexica prince Ācamāpichtli to become their first king, Ilancuēitl marries him. She has already been ruling the city by herself in the wake of Tenōch’s death. Though much older than the 20-year-old king, she legitimizes his place in Tenōchtitlan.

Unable to bear an heir to the throne, Queen Ilancuēitl nonetheless forges unity among the king’s wives. Her friendship with Queen Tezcatlan Miyāhuatl (second wife of the king) becomes legendary. When the younger woman dies, Ilancuēitl dedicates herself to the care of her stepson, Huitzilihhuitl, preparing him to rule. He becomes king at age sixteen upon his father’s death, so her help is vital.

Ilancuēitl’s name breaks down like this: “ilan-” is the noun root for “old woman” and “cuēitl” means “skirt.” Sure, “old-woman skirt” may seem like a less than prestigious name for such an important figure, but the queen stands out as major legendary leader for the Mēxihca. She is one of the only queens for whom we have a name glyph, by the way (possibly because she ruled the city for a time).

Ilancuēitl

Being young and heirless, Ācamāpichtli has an affair with a Tepanec commoner who has come to Tenōchtitlan from Āzcapōtzalco to sell vegetables. She bears him a son, Itzcōātl, but the leaders of the four districts of the city aren’t thrilled with a bastard being possible heir. So each leader marries a daughter to their king. Tezcatlan Miyāhuatl becomes the second queen, mother to Huitzilihhuitl and therefore the matriarch of the Tenōchcah royal dynasty. She raises her son with her best friend Ilancuēitl, who cared for him after her death. Her name is unusually long. “Tezca-” means “mirror” and “-tlan” is “beside, near, around.” “Miyāhuatl” means “corn tassel.” So that’s “corn tassel before the mirror.” A lovely name, I think.

The third wife of Ācamāpichtli is Queen Huitzilxotzin, mother of Prince Tlatoqaca [sic] (presumably “Tlahtōlcaca”). Her name breaks down into “huitzil-” or hummingbird, “xo-” leg/foot, and the respectful suffix “-tzin.” So “Beloved Hummingbird Feet.” Maybe she had delicate tootsies?

The fourth wife of Ācamāpichtli (the last whose name we know) is Queen Xiuhcuētzin, mother of Prince Cuātlecōātl (“head of the fire snake”), whose descendants became the aristocracy of Tenōchtitlan. Her name comes from “xiuh” (turquoise), “cuē-” (skirt), and “-tzin.” Together, that’s “beloved turquoise skirt.”

Once king, Huitzilihhuitl realizes that many stronger nations are draining Tenōchtitlan of its meager resources through intense demands for tribute. He understands that he needs to get just one of them in his corner, the strongest. So the aristocrats who’ve selected him reach out to Tepanec Emperor Tezozomoc, asking him to offer one of his daughters in marriage. The emperor agrees, sending Princess Āyauhcihuātl along with a sizeable retinue. The Tenōchcah welcome her with much pomp and circumstance.

Āyauhcihuātl bears the king a son, Chīmalpopōca. Old Tezozomoc, joyous at the news, cuts the stiff tributes he gouges from Tenōchtitlan (angering his sons and other Tepanec nobles and setting the stage for a future war). Sadly, nine years later, the queen dies.

Her name is rather pretty: Āyauh- means mist, “cihuātl,” woman. “Woman of the mist.” And gone just as quickly. Chīmalpopōca will become king, be captured, get killed. The Tepanēcah will be defeated. No other descendant of Āyauhcihuātl will ever sit upon the throne of Mēxihco.

Now Huitzilihhuitl decides he wants to marry Miyāhuaxihuitl, daughter of King Ozomahtzin of Cuauhnāhuac (Cuernavaca), despite his reputation as a nāhualli (warlock). The Tenōchcah need this alliance: cotton imports will be guaranteed. But Ozomahtzin guards his daughter with magic. When Huitzilihhuitl sues for her hand, Ozomahtzin demands, “What are are you going to clothe her in, reeds and agave fiber? Get out, fool!”

But the king of Tenōchcah has a dream: the god Tezcatlipoca reveals how to make a magic dart with which to free Miyāhuaxihuitl. Ozomahtzin relents. Miyāhuaxihuitl later gives birth to Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna, adding another ethnic strand to Tenōchcah royalty.

You can probably figure out her name if you’ve been paying attention: “turquoise corn tassel.” “Miyāhua-” is corn tassel; “xihuitl,” turquoise. Huitzilihhuitl, like his father, had even more queens.

Next the king marries into Mēxihcah nobility: Cacamacihuātl, mother of Tlācaellel, architect of the Triple Alliance, “Mēxihcatl among Mēxihcah,” as the saying goes. Her name means “corn nubbin woman.” Was she short? I dunno!

The fourth and final wife of Huitzilihhuitl is Queen Miyāhuaxōchitl (“corn tassel flower” — I guess “Miyāhuatl” was a popular name), daughter of the King of Tiliuhcān (city-state near Tlacōpan). Her son Zacatzin will be killed by his half-brother Motēuczōma for singing and drumming too loudly.

When the half-Tepanec Chīmalpopōca ascends the throne, he marries his cousin Mātlālātzin. She’s a princess of Tenōchtitlan’s estranged sister city Tlatelōlco, whose first tlahtoāni — son of the Tepanec Emperor — was put in power there by Tezozomoc himself decades ago. Queen Mātlālātzin has many children, among them a son she named Tezozomoc (after the royal couple’s grandfather), who will become king of the northern city-state Ehcatepēc.

Her name is rather evocative: “mātlālā-” means “blue-green water.” Beloved blue waters. Nice.

Interestingly, Mātlālātzin’s sister Huacaltzintli marries the uncle of Chīmalpopōca, Itzcōātl, who becomes king after Chīmalpopōca was killed by the son of Emperor Tezozomoc. Huacaltzintli’s son was ALSO named Tezozomoc. Her name means “beloved carrying cage (huacalli).

After his uncle dies, Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna is selected as tlahtoāni and also marries his cousin from Cuauhnāhuac (Cuernavaca) — Chīchīmēcacihuātzin. Her name pretty clearly means “Revered Chichimec woman.” Nearly every Tenōchcah king/emperor after her will be her descendant. That’s because her daughter, Ātotoztli, will go on to marry Prince Tezozomoc (son of Itzcōātl) and give birth to Āxāyacatl, Tizoc, and Āhuitzotl.

Fascinating thing about Ātotoztli: apocryphal sources claim she rules Tenōchtitlan as regent for 6 years upon her father’s death. Several sources report there IS a six-year gap between the death of Motēuczōma Ilhuicamīna and the coronation of Āxāyacatl. Feels true to me.

Ātotoztli’s name is a little obscure, but it appears to be a species of “water” (ā-) “yellow-headed parrot” (toztli), perhaps with “bird” (tōtō-) infixed. The glyph of her namesake, a queen of Cōlhuahcān from the previous century, bears this theory up, though some suggest the name be glossed ātōtō- (water bird) + itztli (obsidian [blade]). But that’s a feather, not a knife, clearly.

Ātotoztli

After this regency (perhaps with Tlācaellel aiding his great-niece), Āxāyacatl is crowned king. He marries Princess Xōchicuēitl of Tetzcohco, daughter of Nezahualcoyōtl. The new queen’s name means “flower(y) skirt.” She becomes the mother of Cuitlāhuac and Motēuczōma Xōcoyōtzin. Some sources give her name as “Itzelcōātzin,” by the way, which means “beloved little snake.”

Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of King Tizoc’s wife or wives. He has sons, but they also pass into obscurity. The Tenōchcah will find themselves pretty embarrassed by the ineptitude of this leader, so they will erase his immediate family as much as possible. In fact, it appears that Tizoc never marries, or at least has no legitimate heirs with a queen. He does, however, have several illegitimate children, including one Tepēhuahtzin.

The next king, Āhuitzotl, marries the granddaughter of Nezahualcoyōtl: Tlīlalcapatl. This queen brings Cuāuhtemōc into the world. Her name is tough. “Tlīl-” means “ink/black,” but “alcapatl” is obscure. I wonder if modern Mexican Spanish “alcapate” (coriander) is related.

The primary queen of Motēuczōma II is Tlapalizquixōchitl. What a great name! “Tlapal-” means “red-striped” & the “izquixōchitl” is the “popcorn flower” (Bourreria huanita) used by the Mēxihcah to flavor cacao-based drinks and food. So “red-striped popcorn flower.”

By marrying Tlapalizquixōchtzin (as she is reverentially called), Motēuczōma actually becomes— in addition to hūeyi tlahtoāni of the Triple Alliance — King Consort of Ehcatepēc, because she is ruling cihuātlahtoāni of that city. A true queen, last woman to reign in Anāhuac.

There is some controversy about another of Motēuczōma’s wives. Some Spanish sources called her Teōtlālco. However, that isn’t a person’s name. Instead, it’s an adverb of place: “teōtlāl-” is “wasteland” and “-co” means “at.” Poignant, giving the impending conquest. But “at the wastelands” can’t possibly have been her name. She is also variously called “Tezalco” or said to have hailed from “Tecalco.” Now, there was a small town of “Tēccalco” in the tributary province of Petlācalco, but it’s much more likely that the Spanish simply misunderstood a Nahua informant who told them that she was from “tēccalco,” the area around the tēccalli or courthouses.

Historian Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, writing a hundred years after the fall of Tenōchtitlan, sought to clarify her identity. Though castizo (three-quarters Spanish and one-quarter Nahua), Alva Ixtlilxochitl was the great-great-grandson of Emperor Cuitlahuac, so presumably he drew upon family lore. He asserted that this queen was Tayhualcan, daughter of the tlahtoāni of Tlacōpan, Totoquihuāztli II.

But that name is problematic, too. It appears to be a corruption of “Tlaīhualcān,” meaning “place of the messenger [tlaīhualli].” That -cān ending makes it an adverb of place, just like “tēccalco,” so it’s unlikely to have been her actual name.

Regardless of this queen’s name, her daughter Tēcuichpōchtzin will be Tenōchtitlan’s last queen. She will find herself married six times throughout her strange and tragic life. Before the Conquest, it’s to Atlilxcatzin—son of previous ruler Āhuitzotl—who is both her cousin and maternal uncle. He dies in 1520.

Here’s an image of Tēcuichpōchtzin and her father, from the Codex Cozcatzin, a post-Conquest indigenous text:

Tēcuichpōchtzin addresses her father on his throne. Behind him is the glyph for Tenōchtitlan

When Cortés enters Tenōchtitlan and takes Motēuczōma hostage, the tlahtoāni hands Tēcuichpōchtzin and two other daughters of his over to the Conquistador. Then the Spanish are expelled, and Cortés attempts to take all of the king’s children with him. Tēcuichpōchtzin gets free.

Once Cuitlāhuac is crowned king, Tēcuichpōchtzin is married to him. The king pretty quickly succumbs to smallpox as the disease sweeps through the city, and the young queen finds herself married to Cuāuhtemōc (who, rumor suggests, has just had her brother killed to keep him from the throne). But then the city falls after a long siege.

Her story’s not done, but let’s dissect her name. It’s about to change. Tēcuichpōchtzin. So “tēuc-” (te:kw) means “lord” and “ichpōchtli” means “daughter.” Her name means “[the] lord’s beloved daughter.” That breaks my heart. You’re about to see why.

Cuāuhtemōc is tortured and executed. His wife becomes the special “ward” of Cortés. She “converts” to Catholicism and is baptized “Isabel Moctezuma.” In June 1526, Cortés has “Doña Isabel” marry his friend Alonso de Grado. Her dowry? The entire city-state of Tlacopan. Isabel’s new husband, as you can imagine, is quite happy happy. Alonso de Grado is named visitador general de indios, commission judge settling conflicts among indigenous people. But this position and power don’t last: a year later, he’s dead (“a natural death”).

Doña Isabel becomes a widow for the fourth time, and she’s back with Cortés. Soon she’s pregnant. Cortés wants to avoid a scandal, so her marries her to the undistinguished soldier Pedro Gallego, and a girl is born a few months later. Leonor Cortés Moctezuma, whom Cortés eventually recognizes as his daughter.

Isabel refuses to raise the child. Clearly, Cortés raped her, and the product of that violation is anathema to her. He has a family friend take the baby and care for her. In 1530, Isabel and Pedro have a son, Juan de Andrade Gallego Moctezuma. Pedro dies about a year later.

In 1532, Isabel marries her sixth and final husband, Juan Cano de Saavedra. They have three sons and two daughters: Pedro, Gonzalo, Juan, Isabel, and Catalina Cano de Moctezuma. Both daughters become nuns at the first convent in the Americas. Who can blame them or their mother after all the former queen had experienced?

Alva Ixtlilxóchitl claimed that the last Mexica queen’s birth name was Miyāhuaxōchitl or “corn tassel flower”

But despite the hardship life has thrown at her, Isabel learns to be kind as well as strong. In her will, as a final act, she gives her first, estranged daughter an ample dowry and then frees all the indigenous slaves her family owns.

Her death brings to an end the long line of Tenōchcah queens.

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