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Aztec Origins

The Mythology of the Aztecs and the Founding of Tenochtitlán


Mexico's Coat of Arms

Mexico's Coat of Arms features an eagle on top of a cactus with a snake in its mouth: Aztec symbolism for the founding of Tenochtitlán/Mexico City.

Mexican Government

Tenochtitlan is an archaeological ruin located under the streets of modern Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico. According to historical documents, the Aztecs wandered for years in search of a new homeland before locating the capital city for their empire at Tenochtitlán in 1325.

The Origins of the Aztecs

The Aztecs, or Mexica as they called themselves, were not originally from the Valley of Mexico, but rather migrated from the north, from a mythical island called Aztlan, "The Place of Herons." Historically, the Mexica and other tribes located in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, known as the Chichimeca, left their homes because of a great drought. This story is told in several surviving codices (painted folding books), in which the Mexica are shown carrying with them the idol of their patron deity Huitzilopochtli. After two centuries of migration, at around AD 1250, the Mexica arrived in the Valley of Mexico.

An Occupied Land

When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, it was not an empty place. Because of its wealth of natural resources, the valley has been continuously occupied for millennia. The Valley of Mexico lies ~7,000 feet above sea level, and it is surrounded by high mountains, some of which are active volcanoes. Water coursing down in streams from these mountains created a series of shallow, marshy lakes that provided a rich source for animals and fish, plants, salt and water for cultivation. Today this area is almost completely covered by the monstrous expansion of Mexico City.

  • Teotihuacan: Almost a thousand years before the Aztecs, the city of Teotihuacán (between 200 BC and AD 750) flourished there. Today Teotihuacan is a popular archaeological site a few miles north of modern Mexico City that attracts thousands of tourists each year. The word Teotihuacán is a Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Aztecs) meaning "The Birthplace of the Gods." We don't know its real name, but the Aztecs gave this name to the city because it was a sacred place associated with the legendary origins of the world.
  • Tula: Another city that developed in the Valley of Mexico before the Aztecs was the city of Tula, the capital of the Toltecs between AD 950 and 1150. The Toltecs were considered by the Aztecs as brave warriors who excelled in the arts and sciences. Tula was so revered by the Aztecs that the king Motecuhzoma (aka Montezuma) sent people to dig up Toltec objects for use in the temples at Tenochtitlan.

Aztec Arrival in Tenochtitlán

About 1200 AD, when the Mexica finally arrived in the Valley of Mexico, both Teotihuacán and Tula had been abandoned for centuries but other groups were already settled on the best land. These were groups of Chichimecs, related to the Mexica, but who had migrated from the north in earlier times. The Mexica were forced to settle on the inhospitable hill of Chapultepec, or Grasshopper Hill. They became vassals of the city of Culhuacan, a prestigious city whose rulers were considered the heirs of the Toltecs. As acknowledgement for their assistance in battle, the Mexica were given one of the daughters of the King of Culhuacan to be worshipped as a goddess/priestess. When the king arrived to attend the ceremony, he found one of the Mexica priests dressed in the flayed skin of his daughter: the Mexica reported to the king that their God Hutzilopochtli had asked for the sacrifice of the princess.

The sacrifice and flaying of the Culhua Princess provoked a ferocious battle, which the Mexica lost. They were forced to leave Chapultepec and move to some marshy islands in the middle of the lake.

Tenochtitlán, "The Place of the Fruit of the Prickly Pear Cactus"

After they were forced out of Chapultepec, according to Mexica myth, the Aztecs wandered for weeks, searching for a place to settle. Huitzilopochtli appeared to the Mexica leaders and indicated a place where a great eagle was perched on a cactus killing a snake. This place, smack dab in the middle of a marsh with no proper ground at all, was where the Mexica founded their capital, Tenochtitlán. The year was 2 Calli (Two House) in the Aztec calendar, which translates to AD 1325.

The apparently unfortunate position of their city, in the middle of a marsh, actually facilitated economic connections and protected Tenochtitlán from military attacks by restricting access to the site by canoe or boat traffic. Tenochtitlán rapidly grew as a commercial and military center. The Mexica were skillful and fierce soldiers and, despite the story of the Culhua princess, they were politicians who created solid alliances with the surrounding cities.

The city grew rapidly, with palaces and well-organized residential areas and aqueducts providing fresh water to the city from the mountains. At the center of the city stood the sacred precinct with ball courts, schools for nobles, and priests' quarters. The ceremonial heart of the city and of the whole empire was the Great Temple of Mexico-Tenochtitlán, known as the Templo Mayor or Huey Teocalli (the Great House of the Gods). This was a stepped pyramid with a double temple on top dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the main deities of the Aztecs.

The temple, decorated with bright colors, was rebuilt many times during Aztec history. The seventh and final version was seen and described by Hernan Cortés and the Conquistadors. When Hernán Cortés and his soldiers entered the Aztec capital on November 8, 1519, they found one of the largest cities in the world.


Smith Michael, 2003, The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell Publishing

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