Aztlan and the Origin of the Aztecs

This 1810 map of New Spain was made by Alexander von Humboldt who, apart from being a gifted cartographer, was also one of the greatest scientific explorers of all time. As a renowned scientist, Humboldt enjoyed the patronage of the court and had full access to the Spanish archives in Mexico. With these resources, he was able to produce a number of excellent maps including this one which contains the best depiction of the region at the time. He left a manuscript version of it in Washington D.C. on his visit in 1804 which was to prove of considerable interest to the new government of the United States. You can view this map in its entirety at the Virtual Map Library at the University of Texas.

Amongst its notable features, Humboldt’s map preserves the tradition that the Aztecs migrated into Mexico from the land of Aztlan, a mysterious place which the Spanish thought was located near the Great Salt Lake in modern day Utah.

One of the sources for such a belief is this quote by Fray Alonzo de Posada in 1686 who says in a special report to the Council of the Indies “From the Rio San Juan, which runs west for 70 leagues and is possessed by the Navajo nation, the trail passes into the land of the Yutahs, a warlike nation. Crossing this nation for 60 leagues in the same northwest direction one comes to some hills, and travelling through that country for another 50 leagues, more or less, one arrives at the great lake in the land Indians of the north call Teguayo. The Mexicans call the lake Copalla, according to their ancient traditions the place where all Indians, even those of Mexico, Guatemala and Peru originated.”1
1 – While that sounds a little far fetched, it’s worth noting that native speakers of languages closely related to the Nahuatl of the Aztecs continue to live throughout the American South West.

The Aztecs certainly migrated from somewhere but in reality, the Aztlan myth probably has its roots in their decsion to build their capital in a swamp. If you were going to build a city, you probably wouldn’t choose to build it in the middle of a swamp but as relative latecomers to the already densely populated Valley of Mexico, they had been forced onto the marginal lands by their more powerful neighbours.

Despite their humble beginnings, in time the Aztec society grew in power until the city they founded, Tenochtitlan, came to dominate the entire country of Mexico. At its pre-Columbian peak Tenochtitlan had a population of more than a million souls and today as Mexico City it ranks as the second most populous city in the world – after Tokyo and slightly ahead of Sao Paulo and New York – with a population of over sixteen and a half million.

Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of a swampy lake and the Aztecs believed that they, as a chosen people, were brought there by their god Huitzilopochtli who had led them into their promised land. It was, after all, from here that they would go on to conquer the Mesoamerican world. The Aztecs differed from the other societies in the Valley in that they claimed to have come from the north, from a land they called Aztlan. Aztlan was said to be an island in a lake just like Tenochtitlan. In mythic terms it must have seemed appropriate that their new home should in many ways resemble their old one. It also may have served as an explanation as to why their ancestors built such a great city in such an inauspicious setting.

The mythical land of Aztlan – which is also the source of the name Aztec – served as a common point of reference for all Aztecs but its symbolism was limited to being just a starting point of their epic migration to their new homeland. The invading Spanish, on the other hand, were fascinated to hear tales about this mysterious Aztlan kingdom which they then projected further and further to the North, into New Mexico and into lands that are today part of the United States. This was a country which they imagined held fantastic riches and so the myth of Aztlan started to grow and become embellished with other myths (such as the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola) becoming a kind of northern El Dorado.

In this context it’s interesting to compare the style of narrative employed by the Aztec writer Fernando Alvarado Tezozomoc in his history of Mexico, the Crónica Mexicayotl
I have here, here I will start it,
here it is written the story of the old Mexicans.
And there their dwelling the place of the name Aztlan,
because of that their name is Aztecs,
and there their dwelling they called by a second name Chicomoztoc,
and their names are Aztecs and Mexicans;
and today in truth no more do they call them that,
their name is Mexicans;
and then well after they came here [to Tenochtitlan] to take their name of Tenochcas
And from there left the Mexicans from the place of the name Aztlan,
which is in the middle of the water,
from there the seven calpulli departed towards here
The Aztlan of the old Mexicans that which today they call New Mexico
with that of Fray Diego Durán, a mestizo of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. Durán wrote in his History of the Indies of New Spain (1581) which drew upon native oral traditions but, in stark contrast to Tezozomoc’s matter-of-fact-ness about Aztlan, weaves a wonderfully surreal tale about a lost paradise.

In Durán’s version, Aztlan is a Garden of Eden where the people still live an idyllic existence and where neither disease nor death is known. The story begins with the great king Moctezuma I, at the peak of his power, on hearing of the utopian land of his ancestors decides to send a mission there.


This story has a decided post-Columbian feeling about it containing a melancholy over the Aztecs’s loss of innocence and the corruption of urban life. It also contains (no doubt with the benefit of a little hindsight) a prophesy about the coming defeat at the hands of foreign invaders.

Durán’s tale has a dreamlike quality about it and some exquisitely surreal moments and I think it makes a cracking good read. In typical Laputan Logic style, I’m just going to quote it here in full
…Emperor Moctezuma, then reigning in full wealth and glory, believed himself to be almost a god. The wizards and priests of his kingdom, much wiser and richer than him since they dominated their inferior desires, told him: “Our lord and king! Do not boast of what you reign over. Your ancestors, the emperors you believe dead, surpass you in their world the same way as the sunlight surpasses any firefly.”

Then the emperor Moctezuma, moved more by curiosity than pride, decided to send a high commission loaded with presents to his ancestors’ land, that is, the blessed Dawning Mansion. This is beyond the seven Pacaritambo caves from where the Aztec people reputedly came from, and which is praised so much in their ancient traditions. The obstacle consisted, however, in obtaining the proper means and the way to reach successfully such an obscure and mysterious region. This way seemed to be known by no one.

Then the emperor appointed Tlacaelel, his minister, and said: “You ought to know, O, Tlacaelel! that I have gathered a host of my best heroes and leaders to send them, fully loaded and furnished with much of the wealth that the great Huitzilopochtli has decided to provide us for his glory, to carry all this and reverently deposit it at his majestic feet. We also have faithful news that the mother of our god, still living, may be pleased when knowing about our greatness and splendor, which we, her descendants, have gained with our arms and heads.”

Tlacaelel replied: “Powerful lord: by speaking the way you have spoken, your heart has not been moved either by mundane business or by its own majestic goals; rather, an excelsior deity moves you to begin such a tremendous adventure as the one you intend. You must know, O great lord, that what you have determined to do is not for strong or valiant men, politicians, or cunning men; no, you must look for wizards and sorcerers, who will be able to find, with their art, the way that will lead us to those places. Because you must know, O great prince, that, according to our ancient history, such a path has been broken for a long time, and from this side, it is covered thickly with thorny bushes and with great brambles, and these are full of invincible beasts. All of it is in the midst of deep lagoons and swamps, which are filled with reeds and rushes. Anyone intending such a bold adventure will lose his life.

Seek then, lord, as a solution to such impassable obstacles, those wise people I am telling you about; they, with their magical arts, will be able to overcome such human barriers, and will bring you accurate news about such a region. It is accurately said that when our ancestors lived there, before coming to the lakes of Mexico where they saw the prodigy of the cactus or burning bush, it was a marvelous and pleasant mansion. There, they enjoyed peace and leisure, and everything was happiness as in dreams; they lived for centuries, never becoming old or weary. They knew not about sickness, pain, physical and enslaving necessities that we suffer so much. But after our ancestors departed such a paradise to come here, everything became thorns and thistles: the bushes became prickly, the stones became sharp and wounded them, the trees of the land became hard, thorny and barren. Everything there turned against them so that they never would be able to turn back, and would then be able to fulfill their mission in this side of the world.”

Moctezuma agreed to accept the advice of Tlacaelel, and called the royal historian Cuauhcoatl, “Eagle Serpent,” (it means “Dragon of Wisdom,” and it is constantly mentioned by the “Right Hand” adepts or white magicians) a venerable old man whose age no one knew. He went to his quarters in the mountain, and, after reverent salutations, addressed him: “O ancient and noble father, I desire to know the true story, the knowledge that is hidden in your books about the Seven Caves from which our ancestors came forth. I wish to know about the place wherein dwelt our god Huitzilopochtli, and out of which he led our forefathers.”

“O mighty lord,” answered Cuauhcoatl, “I, your unworthy servant, can answer you. Our forebears dwelt in that blissful, happy place called Aztlan, which means Whiteness. In that place, there is a great hill in the midst of the waters, and it is called Coihuacan because its summit is twisted; this is the Twisted Hill. On its slopes were caves or grottoes where our fathers and grandfathers lived for many years. There they lived in leisure, when they were called Mexitin and Azteca. There they had at their disposal great flocks of ducks of different kinds, herons, water fowl, and cranes. Our ancestors loved the song and melody of the little birds with red and yellow heads. They also possessed many kinds of large beautiful fish. They had the freshness of groves of trees along the edge of the waters. They had springs surrounded by willows, evergreens and alders, all of them tall and comely. Our ancestors went about in canoes, and made floating gardens upon which they sowed maize, chili, tomatoes, amaranth, beans and all kinds of seeds, which we now eat and which were brought here from there.

However, after they came to the mainland and abandoned that delightful place, everything turned against them. The weeds began to bite, the stones became sharp, the fields were filled with thistles and spines. They encountered brambles and thorns that were difficult to pass through. There was not a place to sit, there was no place to rest; everything became filled with vipers, snakes, poisonous little animals, jaguars and wildcats and other ferocious beasts. And this, O powerful king, is the answer I can give you to what you ask of me.”

The king replied to the elder that such was the truth since Tlacaelel gave the same account. He then ordered to be found, in all the provinces of the empire, as many sorcerers and wizards as could be found. Sixty men, old and proficient in the arts of magic, were brought to him. Once reunited, the emperor spoke to them: “Fathers, elders: I have determined to find the place were Mexicans lived long ago, and to know it, who inhabits it, and to know our god Huitzilopochtli’s mother. Therefore, prepare to go there in the best way you judge and return here soon.”

He then ordered to prepare many blankets, luxurious costumes, gold and rich jewels, cacao, cotton, teonacaztli, black vanilla flowers, rich feathers, and more. That is, the best of his treasury was given to the sorcerers, in addition to their wages and provisions for their routes so that they could thoroughly fulfill their mission. Thus, the sorcerers departed, and, some time later, reached a hill called Coatepec, in Tula. There, they traced magic symbols upon the ground, made the invocations and magic circles, and smeared themselves with the ointments, which wizards still use nowadays.

So it was upon that hill that they invoked the demon (referring to their respective familiar Daemons, the individual Lucifer of everyone) and begged him to show them the home of their ancestors. The Devil, conjured by these spells and pleased, turned them into birds or wild beasts such as ocelots, jaguars, jackals, wildcats, and took them, together with their gifts, to the land of their forebears.

On reaching the shores of a great lagoon from the midst of where emerged the hill called Coihuacan, they resumed their human forms. The chronicle tells us that as they stood on the shore of the lake they saw fishermen going about in canoes, whereupon they called to them. The natives, seeing the strangers and hearing them speak the same language, rowed to the shore and asked them what they wanted and where they came from. The Aztec magicians answered, “Sirs, we have come from Mexico, and we are the envoys of the emperor Moctezuma there. We have come to seek the homeland of our ancestors.”

The people of that place asked them, “What god do you adore?” to which they answered, “The great Huitzilopochtli!” They added that Moctezuma and his prime minister, Tlacaelel, had sent them to Coatlicue, “She of the Snaky Skirt,” mother of Huitzilopochtli, and the Seven Caves, Chicomoztoc. They also wished to deliver a gift to the Lady of the Snaky Skirt if she were still alive, or to her servants if she were dead. The fishermen then went to call the custodian of the mother of Huitzilopochtli, who ordered that the Aztecs be brought to him.

By canoe, the sorcerers were taken across the lake to the hill of Coihuacan where the old priest, who took care of the “Lady of the Snaky Skirt” lived at the foot of the hill. He said to them, “Welcome, my children. Who sent you here?”

“Lord,” they answered, “Moctezuma and his prime minister, Tlacaelel, also called Cihuacoati, sent us.”

“Who are Moctezuma and Tlacaelel?” asked the old man. “They were not among those who departed from here. Those who went from here were called Tezacatetl, Acacitli, Ocelopan, Ahuati, Xomimitl, Ahuexotl, Huicton, and Tenoch. These eight men were the leaders of the wards. In addition to these, the four keepers of Huitzilopochtli also departed, two of them being Cuauhtloquetzqui and Axolohua.”

“Sir,” answered the Aztecs, “we confess to you that we are acquainted with those men, but we never met them. The leaders you mention are gone from the earth; all of them are dead. We have heard their histories, that is all.”

The old man was amazed at this, asking, “Lord of All Created Things, who killed them? Why is it that all of us are still alive here in the place they abandoned? Why is it that none of us have died? Who are your leaders now?” The wizards answered that they were the grandsons of the men he had named. The old man wanted to know who was now the custodian of the god Huitzilopochtli, and he was told that it was a great priest called Cuauhcoatl, who could speak to the god and received orders from him. “Did you see the god before coming here?” asked the ancient man. “Did he send a message?”

The Aztec messengers responded that they had not seen him, but that they had been sent by the king and his prime minister. The old man then asked, “Why does he not let us know when he is to return? Before departing, he told his mother that he would return, and the unfortunate woman is still waiting, sad and tearful, with no one to console her. Do you wish to see her and speak to her?”

The old man said, “Pick up what you have brought and follow me.” They put the gifts on their backs and followed the old man who climbed the hill with ease. They went behind him, their feet sinking into the soft sand, walking with great difficulty and heaviness. The elder turned his head, and when he saw that the sand had almost reached their knees, he said, “What is the matter? Are you not coming up? Make haste!”

When they tried to do this, they sank up to the waist in the sand and could not move. They called to the old man who was walking with such lightness that his feet did not seem to touch the ground. “What is wrong with you, O Aztecs,” said he. “What has made you so heavy. What do you eat in your land?”

“We eat the foods that grow there and we drink pulque.” The elder responded, “Such food and drink, my children, as well as your burning passions, have made you heavy, and they make it difficult for you to reach the place of your ancestors. Those foods will bring death. The wealth you have we know nothing about; we live poorly and simply. Give me your loads and wait here. I will call to the mistress of this land so that you may see her.” He picked up one of the bundles and carried it up the hill as if it were straw. Soon he returned for the others and carried them up with great ease.

Presently an old woman appeared, the ugliest and dirtiest that one could possibly imagine. Her face was so black and covered with filth that she looked like something straight out of Hell. “Welcome, my sons!” she said. “Know that since your god, my son Huitzilopochtli, departed from this place, I have been awaiting his return, weeping and mourning. Since that day, I have not washed my face, combed my hair or changed my clothes. My sadness and mourning will last until he returns. Is it true, my children, that you have been sent here by the seven leaders whom my son took away with him?”

The envoys lifted their eyes, and seeing the hideous and abominable woman, they were filled with fear and did reverence. “O great and powerful lady, we did not see or speak to the heads of the tribes. We were sent by your servants, Moctezuma and Tlacaelel, to visit you and seek out the place where their ancestors lived. They commanded us to kiss your hands in their name. We wish you to know that Moctezuma now rules over the city of Mexico. He is not the first king, but the fifth. The previous ones lived with great hunger and poverty until they conquered other provinces. Accept these gifts, part of the wealth of your magnificent son, Huitzilopochtli.”

She then replied, once she finished crying: “I thank you for the news you bring me. Tell me, nevertheless, if the masters (priests) who accompanied my son are still alive?”

“They are dead, O lady, and we knew them not. Nothing remains from them except their shadows and vague memories.”
She, in tears again, asked them: “Who killed them? Here, all their companions are still alive.” She then went on: “What have you brought me; is it food? This is what has burdened you. This is why you have not been able to climb the hill.”

Then, the old woman addressed them, saying: “Tell my son that the years of his pilgrimage have been completed, for he brought peace to his people, and many people have become his subjects. By the same token, strangers will take everything away from you, and he will have to return to our shelter, once his mission is fulfilled.”

She then gave them a mantle and a loincloth (or chastity belt), and dismissed them. As the messengers descended the hill, they heard the old woman calling after them, “Stop so that you can see how men never become old in this country! Do you see my old servant? Watch him climb down the hill! By the time he reaches you, he will be a young man.”

The old man descended, and, as he ran, he became younger and younger. When he reached the Aztec wizards, he appeared to be about twenty years old. Said he, “I am young now, this is what happens: I begin to climb again, and, when I am halfway up the hill, I will be older.” He ascended again, and, about halfway up, he was like a man forty years of age. The farther he went up, the older he became.

“Behold, my sons, the virtue of this hill; the old man who seeks youth can climb to the point on the hill that he wishes, and there he will acquire the age that he seeks. That is why we live to old age, and that is why none of the companions of your ancestors have died since the departure of your people. We become young when we wish. You have become old, you have become tired because of the drinks you drink and because of the foods you eat. They have harmed and weakened you. You have been spoiled by those mantles, feathers and riches that you wear and that you have brought here. All of that has ruined you.”

And as an exchange for what they brought, she brought them all kinds of aquatic birds of those lakes, all kinds of fish, vegetables, flowers, mantles and loincloths of maguey fibre; one for Moctezuma and another for Tlacaelel. The messengers smeared themselves as they did the first time, and turned into wild beasts as before, in order to cross the connecting land, and returned to the Coatepec hill. There, they regained human form, went to the courts, fully aware that at least twenty of them were missing because the devil undoubtedly decimated them in exchange for his work. They had walked three hundred leagues in eight days, and he could have brought them faster, as he did with someone who he had brought in three days from Guatemala. This was done to satisfy a lady’s wish, who wanted to see her lover’s beautiful face, as related in the first sworn statement of the Holy Inquisition in Mexico.

Their accounts astonished Moctezuma. He called Tlacaelel, and together they commented about the fertility of their elders’ holy land, its luxurious trees, unequalled abundance, for all sowing times were simultaneous: while some ripened, others were blooming or budding, and others were bearing fruits; thus, misery was unknown there. On referring to such land of happiness, the king and his minister began crying bitterly, feeling homesick, and wishing greatly to return one day, once their human mission down here would be fulfilled.
As the colonial period wore on and promises of finding fantastic cities of gold gradually faded so too did interest in Aztlan. However in the twentieth century it once again became an important symbol, this time of solidarity amongst the Chicanos of the south western part of the United States. In the face of hostility from their neighbours, the Chicanos began to identify with their indigenous rather than Spanish heritage. In Aztlan they began to see their common origin and proud history but also (and more importantly) a homeland to which they had finally returned.

Or, when you consider the history of these former Spanish territories, never really left.
“We did not, in fact, come to the United States at all. The United States came to us.”
-Luís Valdéz