The Road to Anåhuac
This tale is partly legend, but it also contains a grain of truth. The great migration of the Aztecs in search of their new home really did take place.
In the year 1160, when the migration began, the Aztec tribes were still in their Dark Ages. They lived like barbarians, rough and uncivilized. Some historians trace their old homeland to northern Colorado, in what is now the United States. The old Aztec legends call it Aztlån, the White Land, and say that is surrounded by water. But where ever it was, another Land by the Water, Anåhuac, was waiting for them far away to the south.
One day, the legends say, a strange bird told the Aztecs to leave their country. It flew over the White Land crying ‘ti-hui, t-hui,’ which are the Aztec words for ‘we must go’.
What can this mean? cried the puzzled people. They quickly gathered together. “The bird is calling us, said the priests. “He wants us to follow him.”
The bird flew off towards the south. The tribes chose one of their number, Tecpaltzin, to lead them. “We shall go,” declared Tecpaltzin. “A new homeland awaits us.”
And so it was decided. The men set to and built boats, and soon the Aztec people were able to cross the water.
The legend also tells us that eight tribes of the Nahuas Indians came from the Ancestral Cave. These tribes had settled on the southern bank of the river Colorado, and were amazed to see the Aztecs arriving in their boats.
“Where are you going?” the princes of the Nahuas asked them.
“To find a new homeland,” replied Tecpaltzin. The Nahuas were very excited.
“May we come with you?” they asked eagerly. The Aztecs agreed, and so they set out together.
The Aztec tribes decided to make a statue of their sun and war god Huitzilopochtli. Then the war god spoke to them through the statue:
“I shall lead you. I shall fly with you in the shape of a white eagle, with a serpent in my beak. Follow me wherever I go. Where I settle, build a temple to me, with a bed for me to rest on. Build your houses round the temple, and destroy the villages you find there. Worship the eagle and the tiger, and be a brave and warlike people. That is my command.”
So spoke the god Huitzilopochtli. He had given the Aztecs a great task: to be noble, fight for the truth, and keep order in the world. His words were symbolic. But the Aztecs misunderstood, and they thought they were to enslave other people, occupy their countries, destroy their homes and behave like tyrants. And that is what they did.
The Aztecs praised their god, and swore to obey him. They set off on the great journey with the Nahua tribes. Three priests and a priestess bore the god’s statue on their shoulders on a bed of reeds. On they went until they reached a suitable place to set up camp.
It was getting on towards evening. The Aztecs built a mound of earth and set their god on it. But before they could eat they heard cries coming from the tree. Alarmed they look up at the top of the tree, and at that moment, it split in two. They were terrified, for they knew this must be a sign from their god. They fell to their knees, weeping. Suddenly the god began to speak: “Wait, my Aztecs. you must part from the Nahua tribes. Call them here and tell them they must make their way alone.” Tecpaltzin summonded the Nahua chief. “Our god has spoken” he announced.
“We are listening,” replied the chiefs.
“He has ordered us to wait. The time has come to say goodbye.”
The Nahuas were very sad. “But what about us?” they asked.
“You must go on without us,” Tecpaltzin told them.
“Can’t we stay with you?” asked the Nahuas asked sadly.
But Huitzilopochtli had forbidden it, for he did not wish his people to share the promised land with the Nahuas. So the Nahuas parted from the Aztecs and went on their way alone.
The Aztec tribes stayed for some time at that place and it is said that the chiefs of the tribes gave the people a test. They offered them two bundles, one of jewels and the other of sticks and memorial stones. “Choose!” ordered the chiefs. Those who chose the sticks and stones showed more wisdom, for people who are to conquer other nations must value useful things more than beautiful ones.
The long caravan of wanderers set off again. After some time they came to a land where acacia trees and cacti grew. Suddenly they heard cries, and saw a band of sorcerers who had fallen from the acacias and been caught on the cacti. They had tried in vain to free themselves, but the spines had torn their clothing, scratched their faces and hands and held them fast.
“Save us,” cried the sorcerers, “or we will die.”
Huitzilopochtli spoke to his people: “Set them free. Let them obey you as their masters, and serve you from now on!”
So these were the first of the Aztecs’ subjects. The tribes were on their way to founding a new empire.
It was at this spot, too, that Huitzilopochtli gave them another important order: “It is my will that from now on you call yourselves not Aztecs, but Mexicans.” And his people obeyed him.
Some of the Mexicans continued straight on towards Anåhuac, the central plateau valley of the great country we now call Mexico. But the others were to continue their wanderings for years to come. They reached they place “Where the Huaxtecs wept”, and then, eventually, the came to Coatlicamac, and their sacred rite of kindling the New Fire was celebrated on the mountain of the nake Coatepec. Then, for some years, they lived at Tollan, which people now call Tula. Up and down over Mexico, hither and thither they wandered. Not until the year 1216, after a migration that had lasted for nearly 60 years, did they come upon Anåhuac, the high plateau valley.
They stopped dumbstruck. Far below stretched the high plateau, dotted with lakes and bordered by mountains. It was, the ancient legends tell, a “Field of Dazzling Whiteness”. Everything seemed to be brilliant white: the trees, the reeds, the meadows, the water – even the fish and the frogs. Were they really all so white, or was it simply that the new Mexicans were blinded by the beauty unfolding before their eyes?
The people fell to their knees and prayed. The chiefs and the priests wept with joy.
“At last we have come to our sacred land,” they told the Mexicans. “It is Anåhuac, the Land by the Water. Our wishes have been granted. Rejoice, everyone. Rejoice, for our god has led us to the promised land.” But could their wanderings really be over? Anxiously they awaited a sign from their god.
And suddenly the voice of Huitzilopochtli thundered forth.
“Stay, Mexicans! With all your strength and all your wisdom, make this country your own. Though you sweat blood and tears, you shall win what you have been seeking. Gold and silver, precious stones and splendid finery shall be your reward. You shall harvest cocoa, and cotton, and many fruits. Beautiful gardens will delight your eyes. This is your country!”
The Mexicans praised their god and vowed again to obey him. Down they went into Anåhuac, the lake-dotted Valley of Mexico. Here the Mexican chiefs sent messengers to announce their arrival, and then entered to do homage to the King. But the King was clever enough to recognize that these would be the new masters of his country, for he knew that his own star was on the wane.
“Noble lords,” said the king to the chiefs of the Mexicans. “My house rests not only on me, but on my son. He is now of an age to take a wife. Honour me by choosing one of your daughters to become the queen of Zumpango.”
A girl was chosen, and the wedding took place. From that marriage sprang the royal house of Mexico, whose 300-year reign was to end only with the arrival of Hernån Cortés and the Spanish conquistadors. Moctezuma II, last of the line founded at Zumpango, was the mighty Aztec emperor we know as Montezuma.
Yet when the “White Gods” sailed in from the eastern ocean, Montezuma welcomed them joyfully, for an old Aztec prophecy had predicted their coming. His trusting people were betrayed and slaughtered, his empire plundered and destroyed.