Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. — Winston Churchill

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Aztecs, or Mexicans

[A. D. 1160.] Where was the land of Aztlan? the "country of herons," from which the seven tribes invaded Anahuac? We know not; various writers have assigned it as various positions, ranging all the way from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico. The preponderance of opinion, however, seems to be in favor of locating it in the north. Not that this was the original  country of the Nahuatlacas, for it is believed, with great reason, that this—the birthplace of the race—was in the south! Migrating northward, they reached a point somewhere in Southern California, and thence they went no farther northward; they may have dwelt there for ages, until this great impulse came over them to return to the south, to the birthplace of these "children of the sun." But so much of their tradition as has been accepted as history, tells us only of Aztlan as their place of residence when the great migration commenced which was to repopulate the country deserted of the Toltecs.

[A. D. 1160.] Among the Aztecs, who dwelt in Aztlan, was a person of authority named Huitziton, who was desirous that his people should leave that country and seek another. One day, sitting beneath a tree, he heard—or pretended he heard—a little bird, constantly repeating in the Aztec tongue, "tihui, tihui—let us go! let us go!" Now, Huitziton took this to be a message from the gods, directing him and his companions to change their place of residence. In those days people must have paid more attention to the voices of the birds than now, or must have given their utterances more significance. Who of us cannot recall some bird of our own land that would give us a similar message, if we would but construe it so? The singular thing about these bird-voices is, that they always speak in the language of the people they dwell amongst, and seem not to have an universal language of their own!

Valley of Mexico

Well, this was enough for Huitziton and the deluded people who listened to him, and so they packed up what few things comprised their household effects, and began to travel. It is thought that all the seven tribes started together, or about the same time, but all had got into the valley of Mexico and comfortably settled before the Aztecs finally reached it. It is thought that they crossed the river Colorado near the head of the Gulf of California, and thence went southeastwardly. There are in that part of Mexico the ruins of great stone buildings, called the casas grandes, or great houses, which it is believed the Aztecs built in the halts during this migration. They were constructed on the same plan as those of New Mexico, where the Pueblo people live, with terraces, each floor, or story, reached only by ladders. They still kept marching southward in an aimless sort of way, impelled by an irresistible instinct, and we next hear of them at Chicomortoc, or the Place of Seven Caves, which one writer thinks was near the present city of Zacatecas, where there are the remains of ancient buildings. Here six of the tribes separated from the Mexicans and went off independently, though they all subsequently met again in the Mexican valley. Here, or at some previous stopping-place, the Mexicans had made themselves a god of wood, which they called Huitzilopochtli, naming him probably from their leader, Huitziton, who was now dead. Four crafty men appointed themselves priests, and gave out that it was by the orders of Huitziton, who they said was now an immortal god, that they had made the idol. They called themselves Teomana, or god-bearers, and ever after bore this senseless image on their shoulders

Particular attention should be paid to these events, because from this time dated three important things: the change of the name of the people from Aztec to Mexican; the manufacture of that image of the god Huitzilopochtli, whose worship afterwards called for the sacrifice of millions of human beings; and the establishment of the priesthood—that curse to Mexico from that day to this!

The priests were not at all behind the Romish priests of the present day in craft and cunning, and had a communication ready from their god whenever the interest of their deluded subjects seemed to flag.

It must have been hard work for those god-bearers, this carrying of that heavy image (some writers think it was of stone, even at that time), but they were well rewarded for their pains in the respect and devotion of their followers. They had a message from Huitzilopochtli right away, to the effect that he had selected them as his own and only people, for whom he destined a glorious future—provided they always minded the priests, who delivered this message;  and he ordered them to abandon the name of Aztec and adopt that of Mexican, and to wear upon their foreheads and ears a patch of gum and feathers as marks of their distinction. They were then presented with a net and bunch of arrows as insignia.

About this time, the legend runs, there mysteriously appeared two small bundles in the Mexican camp, which were the cause of the tribe being divided into two parties. One party secured in their bundle a very precious stone, and they thought they had the best of it when it was found that the bundle of the other party only contained two sticks. From these two sticks, however, they obtained fire, which was far more useful to them than the gem, and which the other party would gladly have bargained their precious stone to obtain. This story the historians regard in the light of a fable, to teach us that the useful is always preferable to the beautiful. It served to account, also, for the division of the Mexicans into two parties, which remained distinct and jealous of one another for many years, held together only by their mutual interest in that worthless wooden god.

[A. D. 1096.] Finally, it is said, they reached the city of Tula, the ruined capital of the Toltecs, which had been abandoned nearly one hundred and fifty years before.

During all these years of travel they had moved leisurely; for, though they may have heard of the famous valley of Mexico, they had no special reason for reaching it at any particular time. It was as if we might set out on a voyage of discovery, looking for a place that suited us in its climate, soil, and appearance, and lingering on our way wherever the fancy struck us. It must also be borne in mind that it was necessary at times to make long halts, in order to plant and gather corn and cotton, and such things as they needed for food and apparel.

Aztec War God, Huitzilopochtli.

They stopped at Tula nine years. Here they had at last reached the northern verge of the Mexican valley; before them lay the promised land they were in future years to govern, where they were to erect an empire, the greatest, perhaps, in the New World, the fall of which was to include millions in its overthrow.

[A. D. 1216.] During the first years of the thirteenth century they advanced farther into the valley, which had become the objective point of so many tribes. At the city of Zumpango they were very well received by the lord of that place, Tochpanecatl, who not only entertained them well, but married one of their noble virgins to his son, Ilhuicatl. From this union descended those famous kings of Mexico, who ruled the valley over a hundred years later.

It was during the reign of one of the first Chichimec kings, who, you will remember, entered Anahuac a century earlier, in about the year 1100. The king then in power, either Xolotl, or his son Nopaltzin, let them wander where they liked and settle where they would, having nothing to fear from such a wretched band of savages as the Mexicans were at that time.

Ah! if he could have foreseen the height which those despised Aztecs were to attain, and that even his own kingdom was one day to lie prostrate at their feet, do you not think he would have killed them, then and there?

As it was, however, he afforded them no protection—as, indeed, why should he?—and they suffered much from the persecutions of petty tribes established in the valley before them. They wandered from point to point about the great Lake Tezcoco, and finally made a stand at Chapultepec, a rocky hill, situated on the western border of the lake.

[A. D. 1245.] In the annals of the Mexicans, Chapultepec is called the "hill of the grasshopper"—chapol, meaning grasshopper, and tepec  hill. They gave it this name either because they found grasshoppers there in abundance, or because they were obliged to subsist upon them as their principal food.

This place, Chapultepec, became famous in later years as the resort and the burial-place of the Mexican kings, and just about six hundred years later a decisive battle was fought there between the soldiers of two nations that at that time had not been heard of,—the troops of the Republic of Mexico and the United States!

Let us try to recall the date of Chapultepec's first appearance in history, when we shall, at a later period, wander beneath its cypress groves, with Montezuma, or heroes of a later generation.

[A. D. 1260.] After seventeen years at Chapultepec the Mexicans were driven thence to the southern borders of the lake, Tezcoco, where they existed for fifty years in a state of misery, feeding on fish and insects and reptiles of the marshes. They clothed themselves in garments of leaves, and their huts were made of the reeds and rushes surrounding the lake. They were free, however, and it is thought that they willingly endured these hardships rather than ally themselves with any other tribe.

But in the year 1314, they were made slaves by the Colhuas, who lived near the junction of the fresh-water lake of Chalco, or Xochimilco, with the salt-water lake of Tezcoco.

[A. D. 1320.] After they had been slaves some years a war broke out between the Colhuas and the Xochimilcas, both of whom were tribes that had separated from the Mexicans at the Place of the Seven Caves. The Colhuas were very willing the Mexicans should assist them in this war, but they provided them with no arms. Then the Mexicans armed themselves: they provided long poles, hardening their sharpened ends in the fire, knives of itzli, or obsidian (that volcanic glass  peculiar to the country) and shields of reeds woven together; thus armed, they rushed upon the enemy. They had resolved to take no prisoners, as that would waste their time and retard their victory; but to cut off an ear from every man they captured and then to let him go. The Xochimilcas were terrified at the savage attacks of these fierce Mexicans, for they were fighting for freedom and fought their best, and they fled to the mountains.

When the Colhua soldiers came to show their captives, after the battle, they laughed at the Mexicans because they had none. But when these artful savages opened their baskets of rushes and showed the great number of ears they had cut off, and explained that each ear represented a prisoner, and that they had done this in order to assure a more speedy victory, the Colhuas were silenced. They were so terrified at the prospect of having such terrible people among them as slaves, that they gave them their freedom and ordered them out of their country.

Perhaps they were all the more ready to do this when they were called upon by the Mexicans to witness a sacrifice in honor of their god, who had given them the victory. They had asked of the Colhuas something to place on the altar as an offering, and they had sent them a filthy bird. The Mexicans said nothing, but placed in its stead a knife and a fragrant herb. Then, after the King of the Colhuas and all his nobility were assembled, they brought out four Xochimilcan prisoners, whom they had concealed, and throwing them upon the altar cut out their hearts and offered them to their god, Huitzilopochtli. This event excited such horror that the Mexicans were at once driven forth to seek a new place of abode.

This should be noted as the first human sacrifice among them of which there is any record. It was the beginning of that terrible slaughter of men that afterwards drenched the altars of the Mexican god with blood.

The Mexicans left the south shore of Lake Tezcoco, and came at last to a point—an island, or a marshy spot—in the lake, not far from the former tarrying-place of Chapultepec, which they had left full sixty years before.

It must be remembered that we are not narrating the travels of a mighty nation, but of a battered tribe perhaps not large in number, and the petty fights and squabbles of insignificant clans, or bands; their greatness was of the future.

The Aztecs have been justly called the pests of Anahuac, for they seemed unwilling to live at peace with any other tribe. Owing to their fierce character and their bloody religious rites they were hated by all. The King of the Colhuas was a follower of the prophet of peace, Quetzalcoatl, and could not agree with the priests of the god of the Mexicans. We shall see by following this history to its termination how these priests brought final destruction to this people; such as has been the fate of all kingdoms founded in superstition and ruled by priests.

[A. D. 1325.] We now come to that period when the Mexicans were to cease their wanderings and to have a fixed abode. It was in the year 1325. They had tried to exist at many points about the lake, but had been driven from them all. They now fixed upon an island two or three miles from Chapultepec, in the lake Tezcoco. There the priests discovered an eagle, or bird of prey, perched upon a nopal, or prickly-pear, which grew out of the crevices of a rock on this small island. This the priests declared to be in accordance with an oracle communicated to them by their god, Huitzilopochtli, and here they built a hut of rushes and reeds to serve temporarily as a temple for their cherished idol. Some say that the nopal grew in the middle of a lovely pool, into which two of the priests dove clown and had an interview with old Tlaloc, the god of waters, who told them they had at last reached the spot predicted by their oracle, and there to build their city. In this manner was founded the city of Tenochtitlan, "which in future times was to become the court of a great empire, and the largest and most beautiful city in the new world." Around the temple of their idol they built their rude huts of grass and reeds, and called this nucleus of a city, Mexico, or the place of Mexitli, their war-god, this being another name for the god Huitzilopochtli. Their first human sacrifice had been attended with such good results that they resolved to celebrate the building of the new temple—humble though it was—by the taking of another victim's life. They captured one of their enemies, and cutting out his heart with a sharp knife of flint, or obsidian, offered it to their god. Thus was baptized with blood the foundation stone of Mexico, a city that two centuries later was to be wrested from the race that built it, attended by the slaughter of thousands. The condition of the Mexicans was yet very wretched, for they had made enemies of all the tribes in Anahuac, and had to depend upon their sole exertions. Their island, in the first place, was too small, and to remedy this they dug ditches and canals, and banked up the marshy places to form gardens and building spots. For food, they depended upon fish and the reptiles and insects of the lake, and at the end of the rainy season the lake was covered—even as at the present day—by innumerable water-fowl. It was at this period, or a little previous, that they constructed those wonderful floating gardens, upon which they raised their corn and vegetables.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

There has been much dispute over this subject, as to whether the ancient Mexicans ever really had any such things as these floating gardens, as none of them can be found at the present day. There is no doubt that they did have them, for if we take into account the nature of their surroundings: with no firm land extensive enough for cultivation, and the nearest shore in possession of enemies, we must see that it was necessary for them to have something of the kind. It is said that they wove together willows and rushes, and upon this floating framework piled grass, leaves, and mud, thus forming a very fertile soil, always moist and extremely productive. These little gardens they could tow about from place to place after their canoes; but though writers of a century ago or more claim to have seen these chinampas, or floating gardens, none have existed within the memory of people now living. What are now called by that name are squares of firm land surrounded by ditches, which may at one time have formed these gardens, but which have been left by the falling of the lake, and no longer float. Upon these they raised their limited supply of vegetables: corn, peppers, chia, beans, and gourds, or pumpkins.

[A. D. 1338 or 1340.] It was not long that this quarrelsome people could live together without fighting amongst themselves, and ten or fifteen years after the founding of the city the two parties—the Mexicans and the Tiatelolcans—separated, the latter going to a still smaller island near the main one. The Mexicans, however, kept the god, and, though their neighbors were more progressive at first, were in the end triumphant. Though for a while each faction had a separate government and its king, the Mexican is the one that finally absorbed the other, and whose history we shall mainly follow.

Before we close this chapter we are obliged to chronicle another deed of blood that disgraced this degraded people. Their god, through his servants the priests, had given out that they must have a maiden of foreign birth to be created the "mother of the gods." They sent to the King of the Colhuas, and asked him for his daughter to be erected to this high place in their catalogue of deities. Very much flattered, the unsuspecting chief sent his beloved daughter, whom the Mexicans conducted in triumph to their capital. There, at the command of the priests, this innocent maiden was killed and flayed, and one of the young braves of the tribe clothed in her skin. The unfortunate king was then sent for to do homage to this mother of the gods. He entered the temple with a censer in his hand, and was about to begin his worship when he discovered in the darkness that horrible spectacle of the youth clothed in the bloody skin of his unfortunate daughter. Stricken with anguish, the miserable monarch fled from the temple, calling upon his people to avenge this terrible outrage. The Mexicans were too powerful to be punished as they deserved, and the wretched father returned to his residence to mourn his daughter the remainder of his life.

The king's daughter was thus created a goddess, and as such was regarded by the Mexicans, under the name of Tetoinan, or "mother of all the gods."