Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Nezahualcoyotl, King of Tezcoco

[A. D. 1470]. In this year departed the greatest hero of that ancient Indian history, Nezahualcoyotl, King of Tezcoco. Son of a king who was murdered by the tyrant Tezozomoc, his youth was passed in constant peril from the designs that tyrant and his son entertained against his life. Possessed of extraordinary courage and endurance, he had always kept in view the exalted station it was his right to occupy, never for a moment faltering until he was at last seated upon the throne of Tezcoco. Then, instead of devoting himself to murdering and plundering his neighbors, like his cousins, the Mexicans, he gave all his energies to promote, the growth and welfare of his kingdom. It needed a man of his character and ability to knit together its dismembered provinces, and firmly grasp the helm that guided it on its course. On rejecting the bloody and barbarous creed of the Mexicans, refusing to worship God through the sacrifice of his fellow-men, he showed himself to be a long way in advance of those people. By erecting to that God a temple, dedicated to the "unknown god of causes," he humbly acknowledged his inability to comprehend Him; nor was he presumptuous enough to believe that any man on earth had ever been appointed His especial agent. In this respect he ranked even in advance of the Spanish priests, who converted the Indians from a worship of their deities by main force, and caused to be exterminated those whom they could not convert. He was tolerant in religion, thus showing a spirit almost five hundred years in advance of his time. He instituted tribunals, and ordered that no lawsuit should be prolonged over eighty days; at the expiration of that time a general assembly met in the palace, and all cases pending were at once decided upon. This shows that he had a hatred of those vultures of the law that prey upon society. The unsettled state of his kingdom called for severe laws; it makes one shudder to read of the penalties he caused to be inflicted: death, for drunkenness, for treason to the state, for taking anything from another's field,—even the taking of seven ears of corn was enough to incur the penalty. But to provide for travellers passing through his kingdom, he caused the highways to be sown with corn, which was free to all. Another instance of his wisdom and foresight was the preservation of his forests. He fixed limits to their destruction, establishing boundaries beyond which no one was allowed to cut. Wishing one day to see if the law was observed, he went out in disguise, into the forest. He found a poor boy on the edge of the wood carefully gathering up a few chips some one had left. The king asked him why he did not go into the wood, where there was plenty.

"Because," answered the boy, "the king has forbidden it." His family was in great want, but though the disguised king urged him to break the law, he remained firm, Preferring to suffer from want rather than to incur the penalty. Moved by this scene, the king is said to have enlarged the boundaries.

Armor and shield


Though without books or letters, he instituted academies, where oratory, history, poetry, sculpture, and works in feathers, gold, and precious stones were greatly developed. He was himself at the head of a council of music, with the kings of Mexico and Tacuba as associates. Music and poetry, being capable of being transmitted by ear and mouth, have lived longest. It is in his poems that this king shows his elevation of thought, and comes down to us as the exemplar of the progress of his nation on the road from savagery to civilization.

Would you like to read one of these poems, composed five hundred years ago, before the so-called discovery America? The whole poem is too long for repetition here let a verse or two suffice. It is said that he compose sixty hymns in honor of the Creator of Heaven. In one o his poems he lamented the fall of the tyrant Tezozomoc whom he compared to a "large and stately tree, which had extended its roots through many countries and spread the shade of its branches over all the empire; but which at last, worm-eaten and wasted, fell to the earth, never. to resume its youthful verdure."

This poem commences in this way,—

"O king, unstable and restless,

when thou art dead then shall thy people be overthrown and confounded;

thy place shall be no more;

the Creator, the All-Powerful, shall reign."

And it ends with this delightful verse,—

"Let the joyous birds sing on and rejoice in the beauty of spring,

and the butterflies enjoy the honey and perfume of the flowers,

for life is as a tender plant that is plucked and withers away."

Song of the King of Tezcoco

On the Mutability of Life

"Now will I sing for a moment,

Since time and occasion offer,

And I trust to be heard with favor,

If my effort proveth deserving;

Wherefore thus I begin my singing,

Or rather my lamentation.

Fair Acolhuacan thou hast chosen

As thy dwelling-place and thy palace;

Thou hast set up thy royal throne there,

With thy own hand hast thou enriched it;

Wherefore it seems to be certain

That thy kingdom shall prosper and flourish.

And thou, O wise Prince Oyoyotzin,

Mighty monarch and king without equal,

Rejoice in the beauty of spring-time,

Be happy while spring abides with thee,

For the day creepeth nearer and nearer

When thou shalt seek joy and not find it.

A day when dark Fate, the destroyer,

Shall tear from thy hand the proud sceptre,

When the moon of thy glory shall lessen,

Thy pride and thy strength be diminished,

The spoil from thy servants be taken,

Thy kingdom and honor go from thee.

In Mexico, proudest of cities,

Reigned the mighty and brave Montezuma;

Nezahualcoyotl, the just one,

Of blest Culhuacan was the monarch;

To strong Totoquil fell the portion

Of Acatlapan, the third kingdom.

I would that those living in friendship,

Whom the thread of strong love cloth encircle,

Could see the sharp sword of the Death-god.

For, verily, pleasure is fleeting,

All sweetness must change in the future,

The good things of life are inconstant."

This song, with others of the Tezcocan King's productions, were preserved in the memory of the "old ones," and "written in Aztec, after the Spanish conquest, when they were translated into Spanish by Ixtlilxochitl, a direct descendant of the royal poet." To this learned writer, Ixtlilxochitl, we owe these valuable remains of the monarch, and to the fact that he was his descendant, doubtless, is due the favorable picture  that is drawn of this king.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


We are told that Nezahualcoyotl delighted in the study of nature, and became a fair astronomer by studying the heavens. Such plants and animals as he could not keep alive at his court he caused paintings to be made of, by skilled native artists. These were seen by a learned Spanish naturalist, after the Conquest, who declared they were true to the life.

Mention has been made of the palaces and temples this king erected, one of the former being large enough to contain several thousand people, as we shall see when we come to speak of the Conquest. That temple which he built in honor of the unknown God, was a high tower, consisting of nine stories, the last one dark and with vaulted roof, painted blue within, and with cornices of gold. Plates of fine metal were hung here, which it was the duty of watchmen to strike at intervals, when the king would fall on his knees in prayer.

"The elevated genius of this king," says the Jesuit historian, Clavigero, whose account we have been mainly following, "actuated by the great love he had to his people, produced so enlightened a capital that in future times it was considered as the nursery of the arts and the centre of cultivation. Tezcoco was the city where the Mexican language was spoken in the greatest purity and perfection, where the best artists were found, and where poets, orators, and historians abounded. The Mexicans and many others adopted their laws; and, if we may be allowed the application, Tezcoco was the Athens  and Nezahualcoyotl the Solon  of Anahuac."

Contrast this pleasing picture of this centre of culture and refinement with that of the city in the lake, Tenochtitlan, hot with the lust for blood that poured in streams from its reeking altars.

In many respects Nezahualcoyotl reminds us of King David, mentioned in the Bible; he seems to have had similar talents to, as well as the vices of, that noted monarch. We may trace the likeness even to the similar manner in which each possessed himself of his wife,. the mother of his favorite son. The Tezcocan King became enamored of the wife of Temictzin, a brave Tlaltelolcan general, and he sent him to the wars, instructing his generals to put him in the front ranks, and when he was surrounded by his enemies to retreat and leave him. This they did, and he was killed; and after waiting awhile, for decency's sake, Nezahualcoyotl married the wife of the man he had murdered, and by her he had Nezahualpilli, his only legitimate son and heir.

The remains of some of the works of the departed emperor still exist, near Tezcoco, in the limits of the city that yet bears its name. A few miles distant from the ancient city arc the ruins of Tezcosingo, the pleasure retreat of Nezahualcoyotl and his son. There is there a reservoir hollowed from solid rock, near which is a stone bench or seat, and into which a pipe once conducted water from an aqueduct. This is called "Montezuma's Bath," though it undoubtedly was the work of the Tezcocan King. Near this is a great embankment, nearly two hundred feet high, on the top of which are pipes for conducting water. This aqueduct lies between and connects two hills, and all these remains are in a most charming, secluded vale, lying among the hills overlooking the vale of Tezcoco, the great lake and the as city.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


A visitor to Tezcoco may find many remains of the former greatness of this "Athens of Anahuac," if he search diligently. The ruins of three great pyramids are still pointed out, and from one of the, no loner ago than last year (1881), was dug a large, sculptured slab, which was thought to be a portion of a Tezcocan calendar stone.