Yearly Archives: 2017

Reinforcements from the Otomi north

31 October 2017 Comments (0)

While Axayacatl was busy recruiting his army, which in as giant an island city as Tenochtitlan was not an easy or a short process, the independent city-states of the Toluca Valley weren’t idle as well. Not only Tenantzinco sought alliances outside of its immediate surroundings. The altepetl‘s of Tollocan and Matlatzinco had ideas of their own.

To the north of the Toluca ValleyOtomi people, who generally inhabited the Toluca Valley along with their Matlatzinca neighbors, coexisting there since the times of the legendary Toltecs, or maybe even prior to those. The Mexica considered the Otomi to be fierce, skillful warriors, if not highly civilized or otherwise worthy, according to Sahagun, Duran and Torquemada to name a few. In the latter-day Tenochtitlan, there was a special combat unit called Otomitl, where the Mexica warriors of special valor were expected to display great fits of courage worthy of elite fighters, their peers Eagle and Jaguar warriors.

Yet, besides their reputation on the battlefield, the Otomi people were considered to be barbaric, less civilized than their Mexico Valley peers, prone to be compared to the legendary Chichimecs, the ferocious invaders who were said to destroy the Toltecs some centuries ago. As a matter of fact, Mexica themselves admitted to having such origins in their own lineage, however civilized they claimed to become later on, claiming Toltec ancestry as well. Clearly influenced by traditional Mexica narrative, Sahagun, in his “General History of Things in New Spain” (Codex Florentine) says: “…some Chichimec people, such as the Otomi,… knowing agriculture, living in settled communities, and having a religion devoted to the worship of the Moon…”

Until 1474, the Otomi settlements from northern Toluca Valley seemed to be more interested in their western neighbors, the Purepecha/Tarascans, fighting off occasional advances of this organized and strong regional power. However, with the conflict in the southern part of the valley brewing, they seemed to become more involved in their southern neighbors’ affairs as well.

B’otzanga, or Tlilcuetzpalin, as the man was known in the Nahuatl-recorded history (both words mean Black Lizard in different tongues) was reported to be a war leader of Xiquipilco, an influential Otomi settlement in the mountainous northwest. Clearly an ambitious warriors’ leader, the man was reported to bring considerable reinforcements to the Tollocan and Matlatzinco’s assembled armies. Today, he is still remembered among the modern-day Otomi as a national hero, even though other sources claim that his famous duel with Axayacatl happened later on, when the victorious Mexica invaded his native mountains of the northwest. In any case, a spectacular battle and a duel of two worthy war leaders was imminent, awaited probably by both the Mexica ruler and the Otomi warlord, if the spying activities in both regions were as widespread as reported.

In the meanwhile, Tenochtitlan, busy with its war preparations which, when it came to a faraway campaign, usually took up to eight days to organize without paralyzing the giant city’s daily life, faced an annoyingly rebellious lack of tribute payment from none other than their troublesome neighbors, the newly conquered Tlatelolco. A tribute which the formerly independent altepetl was to deliver once every four moons was reported to be paid only partly, without due eagerness and goodwill. According to Duran, “… eighty days later, when the first payment of tribute was due, the Tlatelolcans did not bring slaves as they had been instructed… they excused themselves, saying that they had been unable to obtain them…”/p>

The reaction of Tenochtitlan was neither lenient nor violent. Busy with his war preparations, Axayacatl did not seem to be tempted to bring his newly gathered warriors’ force to the neighboring city in order to punish it. Instead, he decreed that “…the noblemen of this city are no longer to wear splendid mantles… they must use maguey cloaks, like people of low rank…”; Duran says that Tenochtitlan went as far as prohibiting Tlatelolcan nobles from wearing jewelry, or maybe even sandals, detained from certain appearances in public offices and places – “… like women, they were to stay at their houses until eighty days after their second payment had passed…”

That served to bring Tlatelolco back to its senses and not to be late with any further payments. Codex Mendoza, on the other hand, while going into great detail, listing every item of tribute that was to be delivered each fourth moon, does not mention any trouble in the initial payment.

An excerpt from “Morning Star”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #5.

The man nodded with surprising acceptance. “We’ll go and look there all the same. Maybe they are still around, lingering somewhere nearby.” His wide shoulders lifted briefly, decisively. “The maps and the tales of our courageous villager should reach your emperor before he sets out. They are good and extensive and they may influence your redoubtable ruler’s plans. I wonder if that boy learned something even more interesting while staying in the vicinity of the renowned Otomi leader who has no business sticking his nose into those lowlanders’ affairs.”

Necalli couldn’t help it. “Tlilcuetzalin?” It was difficult not to remember the Emperor’s reaction to the word of some fierce Chichimec or Otomi coming to join the enemy Tenochtitlan was about to engage in fighting, the unbecoming agitation he never expected to see on the Tenochtitlan ruler’s face. And that ominously spectacular name, TlilCuetzalin, Black Lizard.

“Oh yes, that’s the man. So now you know his name as well. Interesting.” The smile twisting the Texcocan’s lips held nothing but amusement this time. “I bet the Tenochtitlan emperor’s wish to be on his way tripled after your news. No wonder he looked agitated, that one. Loves spectacular ends to spectacular battles, that emperor of yours. But Tlilcuetzalin, or Botzanga as he is known among his own people, is no Moquihuixtli of Tlatelolco, far from it. He will give your emperor a decent battle and a challenging hand-to-hand if they get to it. Remember my words, YoloNecalli. It might be a battle worthy of watching, its outcome not as certain as the one we managed to glimpse back in Tlatelolco.”

A gesture of the wide palm invited Necalli to leave the comforts of the shade the Great Pyramid provided. Fascinated, Necalli followed obediently. “Who is this man?” he asked, remembering the royal hand-to-hand upon the top of the Tlatelolco main pyramid, the glimpses he managed to snatch while keeping an eye on Moquihuixtli’s exquisite chief wife on behalf of this same man of Texcoco, saving the lady from the worst aspects of conquest.

“The Otomi leader from the western valley?” His companion grinned without much mirth. “Oh, he is a renowned warrior and Axayacatl must have heard about him as well. Your villager friend’s news surely took the sleep out of Tenochtitlan ruler’s eyes. He won’t rest now and he will hurry his advance toward the west more ardently than before. Predictable that.” The frown came suddenly, replacing the amusement. “Botzanga is a great warrior and a skillful leader, a ruthless man of great merit, very sharp, very perceptive. I hope ItzMiztli did not come too close while spying after this one. He is not skilled enough yet to handle such a man. I would rest easier if it was he himself who came here to tell us the news of this man’s forces joining the Tollocans. One doesn’t go tracing a jaguar on its path, daring to follow its actual footprints, without proper training and skill.”

Necalli’s stomach twisted uneasily. “You think he managed to come close to such a man? How? It should be difficult, shouldn’t it? He is not a noble pilli and this Otomi leader must be a noble in his lands.” He tried to remember what they had been taught about the mysterious Chichimecs, the fiercest warriors and the wildest people with no scruples and no morals.

Military career

29 September 2017 Comments (0)

Youths just out of school – both calmecac and telpochcalli yet mostly from the prestigious calmecac – used to be picked by veterans as yaotelpochtli or shield-bearers. Their duty was to carry their veteran’s military equipment, spare weaponry and clothes, keep an eye on his war prisoners if he managed to capture such and other gained enemy possessions; and learn.

In return, the veteran was to put an eye on the youth he agreed to take along on the campaign while his charge went into his first battle, supervise his actual progress and practical learning. It was imperative to enjoy such real-time training after years of theoretical study in school or upon training grounds back home. Not every student of common origins could hope for such assistance in starting his military life.

Those parents who could afford it would approach veteran warriors on their sons’ behalf, offering food, drink and various gifts while asking to keep an eye on the young warrior, to help him along and teach. Thus youths of the richer families received better chances to succeed; or even to survive.

It was an accepted practice when on campaign for veterans to take care of the youths in general, not only the shield-bearers they agreed to accept, to teach them every practical aspect of warfare, including how to take a captive. If lucky, the young man would manage to capture his first war prisoner unaided. When it happened, one was safe to assume that his military career began with a smooth ascend, manifested in the permission to cut his school-style ear-long hair that would signify his elevation into the rank of telpochyahqui – ‘leading youth’ and tlamani – ‘captor’.

If the youth was assisted, his hairstyle upon his return would be altered only partly, with his ear-long hair shortened on his left side, but remained untouched on the right side – not a full honor of a true captor, but not a shameful manifestation either.

The youth who had failed to take a captive after going to war three or four times, would be called cuexpalchicacpol – ‘a youth with a baby lock’ – a shameful distinction. The young man who failed to take captives after that, assisted or unassisted, would have his head shaved and would be declared unsuitable for possible military promotion.

Of course, this was true of only those who aspired to lead or belong to one of the most prominent military orders. The bulk of the army was consisted of simple warriors who were not required or expected to achieve anything of the sort, having been drafted upon a need but not guided properly as noble youths were. Those who did it in spite of such lack of advantage were promoted accordingly, even helped to climb military ladder. The military leaders were always on the lookout for talented warriors, and for a commoner man the battlefield was the best of avenues to try and better one’s life.

As mentioned before, rank was achieved primary by taking captives and it reflected in a person’s dress as well as in his hairstyle. Valor on the battlefield was rewarded readily – with honors, insignia, armor, valuables and finally – land and a permanent minor nobility status.

When a youth took a captive without assistance, he would begin his ascendance up the military ladder. As mentioned before, one captive warranted the youth’s elevation into a rank of telpochyahqui – the leading youth and tlamani – the captor, and in exceptional cases, he might be even brought before Tenochtitlan ruler, the tlatoani himself. His face would be painted red ochre, while his temples would be anointed with yellow ochre and the tlatoani would present him with war garb to wear even in peaceful times. Sahagun says that this garb would consists of “…orange cap with a stripped border and scorpion design and two breechcloths, one carmine colored long edges, and the other of many colors…”. Codex Mendoza says that the garb consisted of “… mantle with flower design, called tiyahcauhtlatquitl – brave man’s equipment…”.

Upon taking his second captive, the warrior might be again admitted into the tlatoani’s presence, this time to be presented with a red-rimmed mantle.

For the third captive, a brave warrior would receive richly worked garment called ehecailacatzcozcatl – ‘jewel twisted by wind’ and tlepapalotlahuiztli – ‘fire butterfly device’, accompanied with a red-and-white feather tunic. At this point, the young warrior would become tiachcauh – ‘leader of youths’, and would be invited to reside in telpochcalli as an instructor, if he wished to do so, his status elevated.

For taking four captives, the warrior would be given arms device and ocelototec war garment – a mantle of two strips of black and orange with a border. His hair would be allowed to be cut like this of tequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’, and he would assume the title of a veteran as well. Such tequihuahqueh (plural for tequihuah) were those who were presented with honors, weapons and special insignia.

After the fourth captive the conditions for further advancement would change. From there, it depended on the quality of the captured enemy. Which would, of course, be different for different time periods. For example, in the later-day empire, the people called Huasteca and other coastal regions’ dwellers were held to be in a low esteem. Of those, one could capture ten more after his first four captive achievements and nothing would change, besides a few more insignificant honors and more solid status of yaotequihuah – ‘veteran warrior’.

However, if such veteran captured an enemy from places such as Huexotzinco beyond the eastern highlands, he would earn more promotions for his new feat of courage and daring, and would become cuauhyahcatl – ‘leader of a unit’. Tlatoani would present him with many gifts, a turquoise jewel for lip piercing, a headband with two turfs of eagle feathers and ornamented with silver flint knives, leather earplugs, bright-red netting cape, diagonally divided two colored cape and a leather cape – true reaches. In addition, such hero might be rewarded with land, promoted into the status of minor nobility, a hereditary title.

Taking another captive from difficult highlands regions was considered an awesome achievement, ensuring further promotions and lavish gifts. In Tenochtitlan it was paying off to be brave and daring, eager to do fits of courage on the battlefield, the surest way to ensure one’s statues and family’s future wellbeing.

The next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address the actual Mexica battle practices, tactics, strategies, sieges and more.

An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #4.

He ran his free hand through his somewhat ruffled lock of hair.

“Look, Fire Girl. I’ll tell our glorious commoner that you’ve been looking for him, yes, but…” His nostrils widened as he blew the air through them. “You know, you really shouldn’t run around and flaunt your interest in him that openly. What they are saying about you now is nothing compared to what they’ll be saying if you’ve been caught doing inappropriate things with him. And even if you don’t, your name can be slandered so easily now. Think about it.” His shoulders lifted lightly, as though reluctantly. “Good girls do not sneak into main parts of our calmecac in search of boys. Let alone commoners whose right to be here is questionable in the best of cases. Your nobility out there in the Palace would be appalled, and your noble fellow other student girls will have a field day spreading your bad name everywhere. Don’t you see it? It’s so obvious.”

He was looking at her sincerely, not admonishing or even patronizing. Still, his words hurt.

“He’ll be allowed to take me to be his woman after he is through with school.”

His laughter shook the air. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not!” Unable not to, she stomped her foot, incensed with them all, this well-meaning youth included. “The Emperor gives him important missions even now when he is so young and still in school. When he is a warrior, he will be rewarded. He will become nobility like your friend’s father. Necalli told me about his father! He was not always a nobleman, not until he was rewarded for his bravery on the battlefield.”

“Yes, I know about Necalli’s father. He was never a villager from gods-forsaken fields, a peasant who couldn’t even read or write. Necalli’s father came from a respectable family of this city before he was rewarded with lands and noble titles.”

“So what?” She stomped her foot once again. “Miztli will be rewarded anyway. He is the bravest and the Emperor knows it. You just wait and see!”

To storm away felt childish, but she couldn’t help it. How dared they, her sister and this youth, and the others? How dared they berate him and say that he would never be a noble of this city, never would be allowed to claim her for himself. It was simply not true, it wasn’t! They didn’t understand or appreciate him, but she knew who he was. And the Tenochtitlan Emperor knew it too. And he wouldn’t be too snobbish or uptight to give a reward where a reward was due. Even the highest of rewards, yes. There must be plenty of lands to offer to the promising new leaders, plenty of titles to attach to those. But could she wait until it happened? What if it took him many summers and rainy seasons to achieve that imperial favor, the highest of rewards?

Army with no Beasts of Burden

29 August 2017 Comments (0)

It is well known that Tenochtitlan’s influence, not to say outright domination, encompassed Central Mexico and after the time of its eight Tlatoani Ahuitzotl reached almost from coast to coast. However, in order to carve out such an empire one must have substantial warriors’ forces available and ready, easy to gather, to move around and send marching considerable distances, supplied with provisions and other necessities to arrive at their destination coordinated, well fed and ready to fight.

Not an easy feat at the times when no radio communication was available, and no vehicles to supplies food and other war necessities of the marching forces. In fact, even the customary beasts of burden that ancient armies of other continents used to enjoy were not available to the expanding Mesoamericans. And yet, the Mexicas and their allies did not seem to complain or feel disadvantaged. Anything but!

To organize armies of many thousands one needed a meticulous coordination, strict hierarchy of leadership and well maintained line of supplies. Not a challenge when it came to Tenochtitlan armies.

The largest unit in the Mexica and its allies’ forces was called xiquipilli, an eight thousand strong division that could move and operate independently or in coordination with another such unit. Composed from twenty smaller units of four hundred warriors each, it was an impressive force when on the march or in battle.

In Tenochtitlan, each such smaller unit of four hundred was said to be recruited from a different city district – twenty districts, twenty units of four hundred, one xiquipilli of eight thousand. However, Tenochtitlan districts’ ability to yield four hundred readily available warriors upon a request may be questioned. Let alone twice or trice this amount, because in later times, the Mexica armies were reported to move in forces that exceeded twenty thousand warriors. In this case, we may be excused for assuming that other altepetl/city-states, members of The Triple Alliance for one, contributed an additional unit of eight thousand each, with the provinces adding more warriors to the marching out forces.

And yet, even if only one xiquipilli was enlisted for each new campaign out of Tenochtitlan itself, eight thousand warriors was a large amount of people to move out without paralyzing the city’s regular life and activities. To avoid that, each campaign was organized meticulously and ahead of time, gathering, supplying and moving each unit of four hundred out of its original place of recruitment in their own districts at different times and throughout more than one day. This way, no large altepetl’s traffic and regular life got disrupted, no avenues or canals jammed, no regular activities interrupted; not to a damaging degree.

Once outside, those same smaller units could be reassembled back into their original formations. Or, in some cases, they could be ordered to move on separately upon the decision of the higher leaders – tlatoani, the ruler himself or his warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl – depending on different factors, from projected strategy to something as simple as distance toward the site of the prospected battle, or the location of supplies and the towns who were expected to provide those.

In every province, permanent stores for the army on the move were required to be maintained as a part of the tribute system. Which enabled the Triple Alliance’s armies enjoy supplies without dragging hundreds or even thousands porters along. Such lands were called milchimalli or cacalomilli, and they were set aside especially for war related production, usually close to Tenochtitlan but not always.

However, the first most immediate food-kits for the warriors to carry along were prepared in advance by their own neighborhoods-calpulli the moment the official recruitment was heralded from every plaza and square. Maize cakes, maize flour, toasted maize, beans, salt, chilli, pumpkin seeds and pinolli – everything that could be carried easily and eaten with no need to cook was tucked inside warriors’ bags. In Tenochtitlan itself the obligation to supply such parcels fell on the marketplace vendors as a part of their own private tax payment.

From the moment the ruler declared war preparations to be on, repeated by special heralds on every plaza or square of each district, the army was out of the city and ready to march in approximately five days if the prospected campaign was to be conducted relatively nearby; eight days for more distant, less familiar sites. The allies were called to arms or invited to join by special runners carrying appropriate documentation on behalf of Tenochtitlan Tlatoani.

When the ruler left on campaigns – a customary occurrence – his right hand and head adviser cihuacoatl would stay and govern the city in his absence. Out of the highest governmental body consisted of Council of Four – two highest military leaders and two secondary advisers – both warlords, tlacochcalcatl and tlacateccatl would join the ruler on the projected war expedition, taking responsibility or simply assisting with the organization of supplies, picking marching roads, devising battlefield strategy and taking care of other details connected to the initiated attack. Tlatoani was the supreme leader on the battlefield as much as in the city he ruled.

Re-training, preparations of supplies, distribution of arms and relevant items of wear before every campaign was placed on cuauhhuehuetqueh, old veteran leaders. The smallest divisions of twenty warriors, the most basic units reported in the Mexica forces, were incorporated or dispersed among larger units of four hundred once outside the city; however as whole, none of those were divided, keeping their structure and their low-rank leaders in the march as much as upon the battlefield. And so was the case with the reinforcements arriving from other cities and towns. Each marched with its own town’s unit, under its own banner and in the command of their immediate leaders that were accountable to higher leaders of the entire campaign.

In each unit veterans were spread evenly, placed between younger, less experienced warriors – a veteran per about five novices – expected to keep an eye on them and their learning. This way, the casualties expected among ‘green’ recruitments were lessened, to a degree.

On average, marching warriors were expected to move ten to twenty miles a day. Allied troops might be conducted separately toward the same destination. The assumption was that each unit of four hundred, let alone xiquipilli of eight thousand, was strong and organized enough to defend itself if surprised until other units could be alerted by professional runner-messengers.

Each xiquipilli has a standard – cuachpantli – to carry on the road and into the battle. Codex Mendoza lists four types of standards, even though there were probably additional banners for lesser divisions that were worn by the leaders of those smaller units. Such leaders were called yaotequihuaque, and they wore extra layer of colorful insignia over the customary cotton shirt armor in addition to ornaments constructed from bark paper, feathers and cloths attached to their backs by leather straps in the manner that would not interfere with their ability to war and maneuver. Those cuachpantli banners or standards served to indicate the position of each unit while helping coordinate its movements on the battlefield.

Like in any organized army, the hierarchy was the one to dictate each warrior’s clothing and decorations, or rather his right to wear such. The most basic cotton armor was called ichcahuipilli. Made of unspun cotton soaked in salt water and sewed between two layers of cloth or stitched to a leather border, it created material thick enough no prevent most arrows or darts from penetrating through such quilted barrier. The armor was sleeveless and either tied in the back or the front, or worn in a sort of a pullover that hugged the body and covered it all the way to the thigh.

Almost every warrior could afford such basic means of protection, some of which might have been supplied by their local caplullis together with customary weaponry of a simpler sort. A club or a simple spear completed by undecorated wooden shield seemed to be the most affordable weaponry among regular warriors. Those were stored in special armories – tlacochcalco – that were spread throughout the city. According to the account of one of the conquistadors (Andres de Tapia) each armory held up to 500 cartloads of weaponry each.

Two armories in the royal precinct located in the palace itself hosted permanent workshops of most skillful craftsmen, producing intricate new weaponry in considerable amounts. Those catered to the elite military orders such as Jaguar and Eagle Warriors. The various districts’ armories supplied the rest, often filled from the tribute payments brought from various provinces (according to Codex Mendoza).

Elite warriors, in addition to the basic protection the sleeveless ichcahuipilli provided, wore tlahuiztli, a war costume consisted of long sleeves and leggings to be worn over the cotton shirt armor. It was closed in the back and often decorated with animal skins and feathers sewn to the material. Besides decorative purposes, cloth with feathers was reported to provide additional means of protection.

Another decorated tunic called ehuatl was used by the warriors of the highest leading rank. Made of cloth with feathers set in rows that resembled a skirt, it also assisted in deflecting lances, arrows and even swords. It has no sleeves and no leggings, and therefore seemed to be slightly inferior to tlahuiztli.

To earn the right of wearing necklace-cozcapetlatl, armbands matemecatl and calf-bands cotzehuatl made from very thin gold, copper or bark, both covered with leather and feathers, and wristlets called matzopetztli one has to capture several enemies and distinguish himself in plenty of battles.

Helmets were also worn by elite warriors and leaders alone. Made of wood and bone and decorated with feathers, those served a purpose of additional protection as much as means to proclaim one’s rank. Some were made in a shape of a wild animal’s head – jaguar, wolf or puma – stretched over a frame of wood or quilted cotton. Its owner would gaze out from the animal’s open jaw.

Never being a symbolic figure but a true leading warrior and usually in the thickest of it, tlatoani wore customary ichcahuipilli with decorated ehuatl thrown over it, his loincloth adorned with quetzal feathers in a sort of a skirt – an additional protection in deflecting certain blows – with bracelets and anklets made of gold and a spectacular headdress called copilli encrusted with turquoise.

Tlacateccatl, his chief warlord and second-in-command, typically wore a banner – the insignia of the highest war leader – on his back, with his face and shield painted in pronounced deadly patterns. A long-sleeved ehuatl would usually complete the picture, decorated with a painted leather skirt and quetzalteopamitl made of gold and quetzal feathers, a national Mexica standard.

Elite units and warriors were easy to recognize by their special attire and insignia. Ocelopilli or Jaguar Warriors, who must have captured at least four warriors, wore tlahuiztli over ichcahuipilli with the knot of the loincloth-maxtlatl coming in a certain way out of the front opening. Helmets with jaguar markings, obsidian swords-maquahuitl and shields-yaochimalli decorated with feathers and gold completed their outfit. In similar fashion, Eagle Warriors wore a helmet made of bark and inlaid with feathers.

In addition to these two, another elite combat unit called cuauhchicque was used in order to provoke attacks, complete difficult missions and provide strategic assistance during battles. There was no hierarchy in such unit as its members were honored as front-line combatants each and every one of them. Their heads were typically shaved aside from the crest down the middle and two side tufts. They wore glaringly yellow tlahuiztli and a paper emblem attached to their backs, carrying special shields and of course, customary obsidian swords.

Not to leave warriors and leaders without moral or rather spiritual support, tlamacaztequihua or warrior-priests were present on every battlefield or campaign. Their duties varied between conduct of proper ceremonies prior to each battle and after it ended, responsibility of seeing fallen warriors into their new beginnings and attendance to other spiritual matters. Such servants of gods wore tlahuiztli colored in black and white in imitation of the night sky with stars, and conical hat of design that may appear somewhat foreign to the region of Central Mexico. Often they fought alongside other leaders as full-pledged warriors, sometimes capturing an occasional enemy.

The bulk of the army, of course, was comprised of simple warriors, novices and veterans who didn’t distinguished themselves into special promotions. Urban commoners and farmers from the countryside, those warriors wore ichcahuipilli and maxtlatl and were reportedly permitted to carry obsidian swords if they could afford such expense. Typically they used clubs and other sorts of simpler offensive weaponry, besides shooting devices such as atlatls and slings.

The next article on the subject of organized warfare, will address customs and rules concerning military career and promotions.

An excerpt from “Morning Star”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #5.

The imperial voice rolled pleasantly, making Elotl wish to hear more. Not enough to tempt him into slowing his step of course once they were in the relative safety of the outside. It was his companion who did this, clearly wishing to listen, undeterred by their dubious right to be here at all.

“He is going to tell them to start the recruiting, I’m telling you. You just wait and see.”

Elotl rolled his eyes, trying to lead them down the stairs as directed. Or better yet, somewhere out and away from here. “What does that mean? Weren’t you all preparing for war anyway?”

“Yes, we were.” The youth waved his hand impatiently, leaning toward the carved opening they had just managed to leave as though intending to try and sneak back in against every logic or reason. “We were preparing for war, yes. Making arrangements. You don’t go to war just like that, do you?” His words poured out absently, in a quiet flow, his attention clearly still on the happenings inside the luxurious hall. “But when the Emperor declares an actual recruitment, then it’s official and in less than five dawns we are all out and on our way. Eight dawns, if it’s a far away campaign,” he added as though after a thought. “But no more than that, never more than that.”

Who cares? wondered Elotl, but was wiser than to say it aloud this time, wishing to hear their emperor as well. Eight dawns to organize all those hundreds upon hundreds of warriors, then move them out, all the way to the south? No, the west. Tollocan and that other enemy altepetl of the valley spread to the west of the mighty island-capital, weren’t they? Eight dawns to do the impossible, but these islanders were not to be measured by regular standards, that much he had learn with certainty so far.

“How many warriors will they lead out?” he asked, unable to hear the orating ruler properly, bored and afraid that his companion will try to mount the stairs once again. He certainly looked this way.

“At least two xiquipilli,” was the off-handed answer. “Three or more, if Texcoco and Tlacopan are interested to participate for real.” A shrug. “Texcoco certainly is.”

“What’s xiquipilli?”

This time the youth’s gaze deigned to leave the desired doorway. “You don’t know that?” The widening eyes made Elotl’s embarrassment soar.

“Why should I know that?”

“If you want to be a warrior like your brother…” The twist of his companion’s lips held unmistakable contempt now.

“My brother is not a warrior. He is spying for your emperor. It’s a different thing.”

“He will be warring for our Emperor sooner than you think.” This time the eyes flashed in familiar fashion. “While you will be carrying food provisions in the best of cases, unless you learn like he does and not just go around talking stupid and picking fights.”

Elotl clenched his fists and said nothing, the effort of controlling his anger making his hands tremble like back in the walled gardens. What an arrogant filthy piece of rotten meat this Miztli’s friend was!

Take a stroll around Tenochtitlan Zoo

30 June 2017 Comments (0)

If you happened to wander the grand island-capital of the Mexicas for more than a few days, touring magnificent plazas and squares, endless alleys of marketplace and portable bridges stretching across intricately paved canals leading toward industrial and less glamorous parts of the city, you might play with ideas of talking your way across the central canal and into the walled enclosure of the ceremonial center. Here in the heart of the city, the Great Pyramid towered allegedly to the sky, and along with other temples and courts, warriors’ halls, armories and noble children’s school, it hosted the imperial palace and the famous royal zoo.

According to conquistadors such as Bernal Diaz, Tenochtitlan was a breathtaking sight even from the distance of the causeways that connected the famous island-city to the mainland “…gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we,—we did not even number four hundred soldiers!…”

However little could rival the ceremonial center and the palace’s grounds sprawling next to the Great Pyramid, presenting several different buildings, a whole maze of such. Diaz goes into a great detail filling pages upon pages with descriptions of incredible riches and fits of architecture the Spanish invaders had witnessed or the intricately ceremonious meals they had been invited to partake at, honored to dine in the company of the great ruler.

But this, an ordinary visitor of Tenochtitlan wasn’t likely to experience unless of a royal blood himself, arriving in great pomp and with considerable following. And yet, the famous aviary and menagerie might have been opened to the visitors at times.

The famous ‘place of animals’ spread on considerable territory in itself, taking much room with the vastness of its ponds for exotic water creatures and wooden cages and fenced enclosures for the variety of wild animals to roam; a collection that impressed the Spanish invaders so much that, aside from Diaz, famous for his detailed if not very accurate chronicles, at least two more conquistadors of the original expedition wrote about the wondrous ‘garden of beasts and birds.’

It’s hard to tell what exact animals were kept in Tenochtitlan zoo for the imperial family to enjoy and the visitors to behold. When the great capital was conquered in 1521, it has been destroyed thoroughly until nothing was left, not even the Great Pyramid, let alone vulnerable places like markets and palaces. So all we have to go by today is the words of the original conquerors whose acquaintance with the Mesoamerican flora and fauna was minimal, to say the least. When Diaz goes into great detail describing “…many kinds of carnivorous beasts of prey, tigers and two kinds of lions, and animals something like wolves which in this country they call jackals and foxes…” we can assume that he meant jaguars and pumas; and that jackals must have been coyotes, native to this continent but not to others.

According to fragmented descriptions of other conquistadors, one of Cortes’s famous letters among those, as well as parts of surviving diary from an unnamed soldier now known to us as “Anonymous Conqueror” who mentioned the famous zoo in passing, there must have also been monkeys on display, armadillos, a mysterious “mexican bull” (probably a bison according to another Spanish monk’s description), various other mountain felines such as ocelots, along with bears, wolves and coyotes, opossums and such.

A great variety of local birds is also hard to recognize from the invaders’ descriptions, but according to Diaz a separate aviary was maintained on another vast ground, presenting “… every kind of bird that was there and its peculiarity, for there was everything from the Royal Eagle and other smaller eagles, and many other birds of great size, down to tiny birds of many-coloured plumage, also birds from which they take the rich plumage which they use in their green feather work. The birds which have these feathers are about the size of the magpies in Spain, they are called in this country Quezales, and there are other birds which have feathers of five colours—green, red, white, yellow and blue… not to mention the beautifully marked ducks and other larger ones like them… All the birds that I have spoken about breed in these houses, and in the setting season certain Indian men and women who look after the birds, place the eggs under them and clean the nests and feed them, so that each kind of bird has its proper food. In this house that I have spoken of there is a great tank of fresh water and in it there are other sorts of birds with long stilted legs, with body, wings and tail all red; I don’t know their names, but in the Island of Cuba they are called Ypiris, and there are others something like them, and there are also in that tank many other kinds of birds which always live in the water…”

His intake on alligators, various turtles, lizards and snakes was as confusing at times, as those were also most likely unknown to the newcomers from another continent. He goes into some detail describing separate ponds of freshwater and holds in an obvious horror “…many vipers and poisonous snakes which carry on their tails things that sound like bells. These are the worst vipers of all, and they keep them in jars and great pottery vessels with many feathers, and there they lay their eggs and rear their young…”

Modern day historians and scholars are struggling to recognize every mentioned animal for what it might have been in fact according to Central Mexico’s pre-contact flora and fauna, while archaeologists work hard in order to find any remnants of Tenochtitlan under the present day Mexico City, including the royal palace or at least fragments of it.

According to Diaz up to 300 keepers were employed in the imperial zoo alone and an enormous amount of turkeys and dogs that people of Tenochtitlan bred for their own daily consumption was delivered to the royal zoo premises in order to feed the dwellers of those cages. One of the other two conquistadors also claimed that the famous Moctezuma II was fond of strolling through his zoo, feeding jaguars, and even petting them.

For the beginning of 16th century, the concept of caged animals kept for the pleasure of watching them seemed to be largely unknown around the world, besides Kublai Khan’s impressive animal collection mentioned by Marco Polo. This Chinese-Mongolian zoo seems to be the only possible rival to Tenochtitlan’s pleasure gardens dotted with caged animals, even though in Central Mexico itself the custom was not unknown and Texcoco, Tenochtitlan’s partner in Triple Alliance and beautiful city in itself, is reported to have pleasure gardens with caged animals as well.

An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book four

The smell grew worse as they progressed, half creeping half running, following their forceful new leader’s example. The Texcocan was sliding along, half bent and as silent and sure-footed as a predator on a trail. A hair-raising sight. The low rumbling and snarling all around didn’t help against the illusion. Was this man a shape-shifter, the mysterious nahual one heard about only in stories? And what was this place?

“Oh gods, it’s where the Emperor keeps his jaguars and pumas,” breathed Tlemilli into Miztli’s ear when a sudden roar had them jumping aside, even the fearless Texcocan. “I can’t believe it!”

“Keep quiet and talk only in whispers,” was the Texcocan’s laconic response. “We don’t have much time.” Pausing well away from the dark forms of the sheds on both sides of the path they were walking, the man shook his head, his chuckle soft, caressing the night. “Don’t lean against anything and don’t come close to these bars and screens. Stay in the middle of this path and if we are forced to run or walk away, keep to the middle of the pathways until the stench lessens.”

“Why?” asked Tlemilli, pressing against Miztli in force like back in Tlatelolco, but at the same time sounding curious and unconcerned.

“Think for yourself, girl,” grunted the Texcocan. It was easy to see the outline of his wide shoulders lifting in a brief shrug. “Exploratory paws can squeeze through those bars, always ready to pounce. Or just to explore. Neither will be pleasant to you, I can promise you that. They see perfectly well in the darkness, those magnificent creatures. And they are watching, believe me on that.”

In the faint illumination of the moonlight that sneaked here as though reluctantly, Miztli watched the man’s hand coming up, touching the scarred side of his face lightly, contemplatively, the fingers running alongside the invisible-now sight, outlining it. Could it be? he wondered, his mind painting vivid pictures of those “exploratory paws,” massive, sinewy, crowned with terrible claws, striking fast, retreating before finishing their work.

“I didn’t mean that,” protested Tlemilli without her usual passion and force. “I meant, the stench. Why did you say we can wander around freely when the stench goes away?”

“Because then you have obviously wandered far enough from those cages and ponds.” The man snorted loudly, then shook his head again. “Enough silly chattering. Tell me what your emperor wanted you to do. Why did he send you to wander around his southern guests’ windows? And do it fast, boy. Do not anger me into deciding not to help you out any longer.”

Behind his back, something was sniffing the air noisily, spreading more stench. Miztli forced his body into stillness, his instincts screaming, urging him to break into a wild run, no matter where or how. “The Emperor did not tell me to wander under those people’s wall openings,” he said slowly, trying to gain time.

Was there a way to avoid telling it all? Could he try to do that? This man was so mysterious, so obviously set on the course no one seemed to know or understand. Even Necalli admitted that his admired hero must have plenty of hidden goals and purposes, something he wasn’t ready to share with any of them. Should have seen his worshipped veteran now, slinking around Tenochtitlan Palace like a jaguar on a hunting path, spying after spies, knowing where and when and maybe even why, asking questions to missing answers, not even trying to camouflage those with made-up excuses. And why would he? How many people dared to say “no” to such a person?

“I tell what I remember, and I don’t—” he began hotly, but a low growl cut his heated tirade short. Coming from behind their backs, it made his body throw itself away and toward the opposite bushes as the icy wave cascaded down his spine and his arms shot forward, grabbing her on their way, his mind seeking routes of escape.

In the now-generous moonlight, the bear looked monstrous, rearing on its hind legs, huge paws propped against the wooden beams, leaning on those heavily, making them tremble. The grotesquely wide nostrils were sniffing the air, spewing foul odor. Or maybe it was the dreadfully dark mouth, such a fetid crevice, a putrid abyss. Tlemilli let out a strangled cry and he pressed her tighter, his mind amok, calculating their way out, finding none.

“They say those cages are mighty strong.” The Texcocan was still out there, standing in the same pose as before, in the middle of the pathway, seemingly unperturbed. His hand rested easily on the hilt of his knife, drawn already, yes, but not thrust forward; just ready. As though a knife would help against such a monster. “Like I told you two before, you better stay in the middle of the alley. There is no telling what is observing you from those bushes you are trying to dive into, carefully caged or not.”

That brought Tlemilli out of the panic-stricken stupor faster than he, his mind momentarily refusing to cooperate, resisting her pull back toward the well-swept ground but only for a moment.

The grunting, quieter but as vicious, was indeed coming from the other side of the shrubs, where a lower construction spread into the darkness, enlivened with several glowing dots, more than one pair, as though ready to back the warning.

A plea for help from the Toluca Valley

31 May 2017 Comments (0)

To the south and west of Lake Texcoco spread fertile areas of easily cultivated valleys bordered by highlands of various elevations. Plenty of cities and towns dotted those, some subdued by Tenochtitlan prior to the second part of the 15th century and Axayacatl‘s rule, some “unattended” as yet.

The southern parts of this region were reported to join the growing empire when those areas were annexed by the joined forces of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco under their famous rulers and the founders of the Triple Alliance – Itzcoatl, the fourth emperor of Tenochtitlan and Nezahualcoyotl the emperor of Texcoco. Back then, in the early 15th century, this same fertile south was reported to be divided in two areas of tribute collection: Oaxtepec in the south, and Cuauhnahuac in the southwest, a large, very important city that rebelled several times and was finally re-conquered by Tenochtitlan fifth emperor, Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina or Moctezuma I.

By the time of Axayacatl’s rule and the later parts of the 15th century, the people of these regions talked Nahuatl, absorbed into the growing empire quite thoroughly, but their native tongues – Matlatzinca, Mazahua, and several Chichimes dialects – were still dominant and well known.

The southwest beyond Cuauhnahuac was barely touched by Tenochtitlan at this time. However, after the fall of Tlatelolco, the young Aztec emperor had to set his sight on the unexplored west and the fertile Toluca Valley with its dominant cities and their political rivalry, especially between the strong and influential Tollocan and less important but no less ambitious Tenantzinco, who promptly came to Tenochtitlan asking for help against their troublesome neighbors.

And yet, Axayacatl didn’t hurry.

While Tlatelolco was being incorporated and then absorbed in the growing Tenochtitlan’s Empire, with an appointed governor and certain reconstructions such as the latter-day famous marketplace hosting tens of thousands of people described by the invading conquistadors in great detail half a century later, the young Tenochtitlan emperor became reportedly busy with various renovating projects of his own altepetl. A new story was commissioned to be added to the Great Pyramid and the famous Sun Stone was fashioned, the monument that managed to survive the Spanish conquest and is displayed in Mexico City today.

These days, the Sun Stone’s symbolic significance important to various modern movements of national pride; it also keeps the modern-day historians and anthropologists busy with arguments as to the actual purpose of this imposingly huge monolith. No one knows what the Sun Stone represented for Axayacatl, but as he was busy supervising the engineers working on it, according to Duran, a plea for help came from the south.

In the fertile Toluca Valley to the south-west of the Lake Texcoco, local cities in power were in disagreement. Tenantzinco, who must have been paying tribute to Tenochtitlan or at least recognizing the Aztec Capital’s power in this or that way, came asking for help against their neighbors to the northwest, independent cities of Tollocan (Toluca of today) and Calixtlahuacan (before the Aztec conquest known as Matlatzinco). Tenochtitlan’s reach did not extend to those south and northwestern areas as yet, but to the north of the Toluca Valley and behind the above-mentioned cities, spread the unknown, people and cities that we came to recognize today as Purehpecha/Tarascan Empire.

Not as powerful or at least not as bent on expansion as the growing Triple Alliance was, this regional power of the Western Mexico was nevertheless strong and well organized, enough to challenge Axayacatl’s advance and then to actually stop it in the following years.

However, back in the beginning of 1474, this western empire was not widely known or of a great concern to Tenochtitlan. The Toluca Valley, on the other hand, was. So when Tezozomoctli, the ruler of Tenantzinco, came asking for help, Axayacatl did not hesitate.

According to Codex Mendoza, there must have been a rivalry in this same Toluca Valley and in their ruling Matlatzinca society, between more powerful and influential Calixtlhuaca-Tollocan dynasty led by Cachimaltzin (or Chimaltecuhtli, according to Diego Duran) and the lesser center of power of this same referred above Tenantzinco ruled by Tezozomoctli. The need to establish a firm buffer zone between Mexica Valley and the little known Purehpecha/Tarascans is also pointed out by several 16th century historians (Alvarado Tezozomoc among them) as additional motive for Axayacatl to embark on this new series of conquests.

In any case, according to Duran, Axayacatl received the delegation of Tenantzinco favorably, accepted their shields and swords as customary, then presented the petitioners with even more lavishly decorated weaponry to cement the agreement. His building projects occupied most of his time, but even this situation he used to his advantage when, upon discovering some allegedly missing building materials, he didn’t hesitate to send the request for those to none other than the same troublesome rulers of the Toluca Valley, altepetls of Tollocan and Matlatzinco.

As expected, neither city-state reacted favorably to such an audacious demand, their barely polite refusal presenting Axayacatl with another excuse to get involved in the southwestern affairs. The Tenantzinco delegation went home satisfied and in a hopeful mood. While Tenochtitlan got busy preparing for yet another war enterprise.

An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book #4.

“Stay here with me and don’t dream.” Ahuitzotl’s commanding voice broke into his reverie, bringing him back to the sunlit Plaza and the noblest of people swarming all around, listening to the Emperor’s measured voice, paying respects. “Just remember all those names you used, like Cuauhnahuac and such. Don’t forget any of these. And don’t get all scared like you always do. My brother isn’t scary, and I’ll talk to him most of the time instead of you, so don’t worry. You just answer his questions and remember what you told me about Cuauhnahuac and that other tongue those others are speaking, in that village of yours where our nobles’ villas are. Just tell him what you told me.”

Miztli tried not to roll his eyes, cursing himself for turning talkative back in the schoolyard, where this same Ahuitzotl and two other boys made him show them his skill with a sling that the enterprising royal offspring produced like a magician, with just enough style and flair. A real warriors’ sling, all crisp leather and sturdy maguey, with a few clay balls to match. Reminded of his hopelessly lost possession back in Tlaquitoc’s workshop, Miztli made a face but could not fight the temptation. The schoolyard was so blissfully abandoned, and those fellow students of his so eager and not hostile or malicious, all expectancy, even the royal force of nature.

Careful not to break their limited ammunition, he chose softer targets, certain bushes, and branches of trees. But the clay balls were cracked all the same in the end, because the others wanted him to help them practice, again and again, hitting everything of course but the targets themselves.

In the end, Ahuitzotl declared that he, Miztli, would now train them daily, or at least every time they managed to have the schoolyard all for themselves, and then, somehow, he had found himself telling them about his village and how they would make slings whenever they would grow bored, just weaving simple plants and fibers, because if interwoven correctly, everything could make a good enough sling to take down a rabbit or a bird.

And then, as expected, Ahuitzotl was demanding to make such makeshift weaponry for them all, the temporarily absent Necalli included, and then more questions made him talk about Oaxtepec and Cuauhnahuac and even some further settlements out there in the west and the south, all of the places he had heard Father mentioning, usually in connection to their relationship with their own region of mining and copper-making businesses, places where people didn’t even talk Nahuatl but that other tongue called Matlatzinca by the Nahua speakers.

When queried, he reluctantly admitted that yes, he could speak or understand that other tongue, of course he did. Everyone could speak Matlatzinca, even the traders and tribute collectors. And then before he knew it, Ahuitzotl was on his feet, all agog with excitement, telling them of the petition for help his brother the Emperor received only a few dawns ago from this or that ruler of those same areas and that they must – must! – let his brother know.

Know what? he had asked, taken aback, cursing his loose tongue once again.

It didn’t matter, declared the forceful pilli. This information that he just told them, about alliances of the south, might be important, as was his command of this southern tongue. Axayacatl might wish to learn of this fact. And so here they were, pushing their way into the Emperor’s vicinity just as the Tenochtitlan ruler was busy with important matters and people, hoping not to be punished for their temerity. Well, at least that was what he, Miztli, hoped for. Ahuitzotl was surely not preoccupied with such petty concerns. He had his news to relate, his opportunity to gain more attention, to situate himself in the center of the events again, something he clearly did not enjoy since Tlatelolco fell. A fierce beast!

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