Yearly Archives: 2017

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!

Axayacatl – the sixth ruler of Tenochtitlan

29 April 2017 Comments (0)

His name was Axayacatl, which meant Water Face – a(tl)=water, xayacatl=face – but also depicts certain water incest that was abound in Lake Texcoco and still a part of the native cuisine in Mexico today (or rather its eggs are).

The sixth tlatoani of Tenochtitlan was very young when he came to rule the powerful city-state and all its numerous provinces and dependencies, inheriting his grandfather Motecuzoma Ilhuicamina, the fifth Mexica ruler. Motecuzoma I ruled for over three decades and left a formidable legacy, including many legitimate children; yet for some reason, his nineteen years old grandson was chosen, although even among his own brothers Axayacatl was not the eldest. His father was Itzcoatl’s legitimate son, and his mother was the daughter of Motecuzoma I.

On his glyph he appears as customary, seated on the reed mat, petatl, wearing a noble headband, xiuhuitzolli, with the traditional speech scroll coming out of his mouth, signifying his status of tlatoani, the Revered Speaker, the supreme ruler. His name is attached to his glyph, depicting a face with water dripping along it.

According to most primary sources, he was very young and it is unclear why he was the one to inherit. Some say that he was Tlacaelel’s personal choice. By this time, Tlacaelel was an old man in his seventies, but his influence in Tenochtitlan still seemed to be unparalleled, his word almost the law. The rulers of Texcoco and Tlacopan, Tenochtitlan’s partners in the Triple Alliance, seemed to have a say in the matter as well, advised by the council of four highest advisers and warlords, and probably another lesser council that included the heads of Tenochtitlan’s districts.

So in the year of Three House or 1469, Axayacatl come to occupy the highest position in the rapidly growing and expending Mexica altepetl, the leading partner of the powerful Triple Alliance. Fortunate to inherit a strong, consolidated by three decades of steady rule and expansion empire, Axayacatl did venture into an immediate campaign of small proportions in the west, but his first real challenge presented itself close to three years later, when Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister-city, decided to make trouble.

Situated on the nearby island, or maybe even the same island Tenochtitlan occupied according to different primary sources, Tlatelolco enjoyed relative independence, not forced to pay tribute to its powerful neighbor, having a ruler of its own and even a few conquests to account, participating in Tenochtitlan campaigns as a partner and not a subjected nation. Moquihuixtli, the Tlatelolcan last tlatoani, was older than Axayacatl and according to Codex Mendoza had a respectable warring record behind him, having participated in Tenochtitlan’s wars under its previous emperor Motecuzoma Ilhuicamina. Still his city could not rival the power of Tenochtitlan and yet in the early 1473 Tlatelolco began making trouble, or so claimed Diego Duran, Domingo Chimalpahin, and Codex Mendoza to begin with.

Possible reasons for sudden displays of defiance might have been Tenochtitlan’s change of rulers. After three decades of a knowledgeable and seasoned tlatoani as Motecuzoma I, Axayacatl’s youth and lack of experience in leading warriors must have been glaring. Also Tenochtitlan’s main ally in the powerful Triple Alliance, Texcoco, a very important Acolhua altepetl, experienced similar changes, when its famous ruler of many decades, Nezahualcoyotl, died in 1470 as well, leaving a young son to occupy the Acolhua throne. Sources like Codex Mendoza state that Tlacaelel, Tenochtitlan’s Head Adviser of many decades and the alleged architect of the growing empire, certainly a man of over seventy years old, died at the beginning of Axayacatl’s rule as well (others, such as Duran and Chimalpahin, claim that Tlacaelel lived for at least another decade).

In any case, all those upheavals in the Triple Alliance’s leadership might have given Tenochtitlan’s immediate neighbors ideas, as in 1473 Tlatelolco began defy, and then actually challenge Tenochtitlan openly, and with much zeal. To this Axayacatl responded with surprising patience, not hurrying to plunge into a nearly civil war, as Tlatelolcans were Tenochtitlan’s kin, another Mexica-Aztec city among other Nahuatl-speaking nations of the mainland – Acolhua, Tepanecs, Chalcoans and the other’s non-Mexica. Such inner squabbling between two islands of Mexica-Aztecs must have looked bad to the mainland nations. And yet, while trying to negotiate, Axayacatl, pretending to be unaware of the Tlatelolcan war preparations, didn’t keep idle, sending spies into the neighboring city, according to Duran. Thanks to this strategy, the surprise night attack by the Tlatelolcans did not catch Tenochtitlan unprepared, turning rapidly into the disaster for its instigators. The following execution of the envoy that came to Tlatelolco bringing the necessary declaration of war – something the neighboring island neglected to do while attempting their night attack – did not mend the matters. The battle that followed was decisive and from 1473 Tlatelolcan independence ceased. Incorporated in the growing Tenochtitlan’s domain, it was forced to pay a heavy tribute, and then gradually became the part of the Mexica capital, with two islands united by artificial means, making Tenochtitlan twice as big, and more important than ever.

Having dealt with his first serious challenge successfully, the young emperor, now held in a great respect, turned his eye to the southwest and the fertile Toluca/Tollocan Valley and important towns and cities dotting it. A series of campaigns that lasted several years brought those areas under Triple Alliance’s power, with Axayacatl proving himself an aggressive, charismatic, farsighted leader and strategist, a fierce warrior and a thoughtful commander. Fighting on the front lines, either among charging warriors or springing from ambushes of his planning, fond of splitting his forces while luring his enemies into traps of his choosing, Axayacatl was wounded in one of the battles.

According to different sources, it might have happened either in the battle for Toluca altepelt itself, or in a later campaign against Xiquipilco further to the northwest. Leading his handpicked warriors in an intricately executed ambush, the young emperor fell into a similar sort of a ruse, surprised by the camouflaged enemy force that momentarily cut him off his own followers. According to many primary sources, Axayacatl fought fiercely, even when his thigh was sliced to the bone, holding on until reinforcements arrived. The leader who had wounded him, an Otomi warrior named Tlilcuezpalin of Xiquipilco, was honored by the young emperor, released according to some sources or forced to fight in ‘gladiatorial’ combat with more captives of this war according to others. Some claim that the young emperor was limping ever since.

With the southwest and the highlands surrounding their fertile valleys subdued, Axayacatl embarked on an even more ambitious undertaking. To the west of Toluca Valley spread a power that Tenochtitlan could not but take into account, the strong Purepecha/Tarascan Empire. Some claim that Axayacatl’s persistence in subduing Toluca Valley came as a desire to create a buffer zone between the Triple Alliance’s domains and this unknown but ominously strong power of the Western Mexico. The conquered city of Toluca was turned into a garrison city in a fashion that was not typical to Tenochtitlan’s policies that usually left the conquered cities and provinces alone, to govern themselves as long as they paid the required tribute and made no trouble. But not this time. Toluca was supplied with a governor and a respectable warriors’ force to be stationed around permanently.

The mentioned above Purepecha/Tarascan empire is less known to us due to certain lack of pre-colonial and post-colonial records alike. They didn’t seem to be set on expansion, but they certainly guarded their borders and were able to call upon a considerable number of warriors in case of a need. Something, the Triple Alliance had tested shortly after Axayacatl’s Toluca Valley campaigns.

With reinforcements from both Tenochtitlan’s allies, Texcoco and Tlacopan, Axayacatl led a considerable force of reportedly twenty four thousand warriors to the west of Toluca Valley and into what is known today as Michoacan region. Apparently to a sound defeat of which proportions Tenochtitlan didn’t know and wouldn’t experience again until the Spaniards arrived. The battle, according to several primary sources, was fierce, lasting close to two days, resulting in such resounding defeat, Axacayatl was forced to order retreat on the onset of the second night, leading several hundred warriors instead of over twenty thousand that originally followed him into the battle.

Curiously, the Tarascans did not follow up on their resounding victory by invading the same Toluca Valley or maybe even heading for the Triple Alliance’s actual capitals as those might have feared. Having made their point, the mysterious people of Michoacan stayed inside their Western Mexico borders, seemingly content with the balance of powers, not striving to try and push the Triple Alliance off the regional map. No more campaigns against Western Mexico were fought by Tenochtitlan. The Triple Alliance learned and accepted.

Later on, Axayacatl was reported to recover from this blow to his empire’s martial might and probably his personal pride as well. The remaining three years of his reign were spent in campaigns at the Huasteca regions, to the northeast of Tenochtitlan this time. He had died reportedly of an illness, at the age of 31, a relatively young man and probably a remarkable person.

Codex Mendoza reports him to be “restless, proud and greatly feared by his subjects”. Duran, on the other hand, claims that he was a shy, impressionable young man, under heavy influence of the elderly Tlacaelel (who in other sources is reported to be dead for quite a few years prior to the mentioned wars and campaigns.) Despite his main focus on warfare and conquests, Axacayatl was reported to “maintain the laws established by his predecessor” and keep his capital in order, with no economical troubles or disasters to plague the great city.

He had many wives and among his most famous offspring were Motecuzoma II and Cuitlahuac, two rulers that has the misfortune of dealing with the conquistadors upon their arrival about half a century later.

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

“I’m not involved in it as heavily as you think I am, you nosy boy,” the woman was saying, a touch of pouting, almost flirtatious complaint to her voice. “The Tenantzinco delegation is of no interest to me. I have nothing to gain or lose from its safe stay here in Tenochtitlan, or from our Emperor’s eagerness to go out and conquer more southern towns and lands. This foolish ruler of Tenantzinco thinks he’ll gain Tenochtitlan’s support and thus will subdue his troublesome neighbors with no sweat or investment, but it will not be this way. You know it and I know it. And your brother up there in his beloved highlands knows it too.” A soft chuckle interrupted. “I can see why this delegation’s current wellbeing worries you. Your brother wants Tenochtitlan busy and up to its neck in various wars and campaigns out there in the south, away from his side of Smoking Mountain, away from Huexotzinco and even this troublesome Tlaxcallan so-called confederation. Don’t they call themselves this way these days?”

Another soft chuckle enlivened the night. Then a brief silence prevailed. Of the Texcocan man’s voice there was no trace as yet. Miztli held his breath, momentarily worried. Whom was this woman talking to? And was the Texcocan all right, not harmed or rendered powerless in any other way?

“You are too well informed for your professed disinterest in any of it.” When the man spoke, his words rang strongly, to Miztli’s immediate spell of relief, holding none of the previously displayed, slightly challenging, somewhat typical male superiority that characterized the Texcocan’s attitude toward their current hostess and benefactress until now. “And you do know about the attempt to silence that Tenantzinco delegation, or at least to prevent their attempt to make Tenochtitlan involved? Those stones have everything to do with it.” The last phrase came out rock-hard, ringing icily in the quietness of this back of the garden.

“You are in no position to demand answers from me,” retorted the woman with none of her previously flirtatious tone as well. “Whatever you were trying to achieve, you failed. Those stones, the payment, or Tlatelolcans, or the visiting foreigners with their silly requests; they will all go on doing whatever they were supposed to do while you will be stuck here or elsewhere, recovering from nasty wounds, with the boy you are dragging along for some reason helpless without you and your guidance. You will not recover in time to do something in this particular play. And you are not in the position to demand answers from me. My life is of no interest to you. You are not your brother!”

Another bout of silence prevailed, through which Miztli felt the girl nodding sagely, as though satisfied with her mistress putting the pushy stranger in his place. As though anyone could best YaoTecuani. He fought the urge to run out and back into the fire-lit room, just in case. The man was wounded, and that woman was nasty, dangerous, evidently highly unscrupulous and not to be trusted.

Then the Texcocan’s laughter interrupted the night, soft and sharp and again unbearably superior.

“Don’t discard me that quickly, Xochitl. You may be surprised with what I can do even in such an unfavorable condition. Or what that boy can do, for that matter. You would do better keeping us both on your side, woman. Your history with my brother has nothing to do with it.”

He paused again, evidently to gulp something. That brew the woman was making for him? But what was their history? Why were they fencing like enemies and old friends at the same time? And who was this man’s powerful brother even the nasty Tenochtitlan healer was afraid of? Must be the same highlander leader Necalli’s father kept mentioning with much affection and respect.

“You are as insolent as you always were, boy,” said the woman, her sigh loud, holding an open grudge. “You never knew your place, and your brother kept encouraging you instead of curbing your insolent strike, like they did back in Texcoco. One wonders why you still live in that snotty altepetl, or anywhere around our ‘lowlands.’ Unless all you care about is spying for your brother or working to keep the might of Tenochtitlan from reaching toward his domain. They will, one day, you know? And not so long from now.” A pause prevailed again, accompanied with a nasty glare, of that Miztli was sure. “After they are through with the south, maybe, eh? A few more spans of seasons and our warriors will be besieging the passes of Smoking Mountain and the other one, crossing to war on Huexotzinco and then Tlaxcala, taking them all.”

“Shut up,” was Texcocan’s tired response. “It’s hard enough to keep your medicine in without vomiting it all over your prettily swept floor. Your nastiness doesn’t help my self control.” Another pause, more comfortable than the previous ones. “It won’t happen and you know it. Not as long as my brother is in charge of the matters up there, being listened to and obeyed even by the Tlaxcala hotheads.”

Surprisingly, the woman’s laughter shook the darkness, its affability spilling. “With him up there and in charge and you sneaking all over our altepetls, making sure they are keeping busy and elsewhere.”

School with no Summer Break

31 March 2017 Comments (0)

If you happened to be a teenager in one of the Central Mexico’s prominent altepetls/city-states such as Tenochtitlan, the famous island-capital of the Mexica Aztecs, or their partners of the mainland, Texcoco or Tlacopan, you would be excused from counting on enjoying your life free of schooling.

Unlike most of their contemporary world beyond the oceans, Central Mexico had very strict ideas concerning state education for every youth in each city, if not in smaller towns and villages. Not only various schools, or what we would probably consider today as ‘highschool’, were available and ready to make the youths between the ages 14 and 18 work hard, expanding their knowledge and in the way the state had seen fit, but one’s attendance at such institutions of education was mandatory, not a voluntary decision of a youth or a parent to make.

Tenochtitlan, being one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of the 15th century – one of the largest urban centers for their times worldwide as well – had two types of schools. Divided into twelve large calpulli-districts, the city was reported to provide a school per-district, for local teens to attend upon reaching their 15th year of life. Until then it was the parents’ responsibility to teach the child basic manners and crafts, but from the youth’s mid-teens the state was taking over.

The numerous district schools were called telpochcalli – a house/calli of youth/telpochtli – and, like stated above, they catered for youths between ages of 15 and 18, teaching crafts and martial skills along with instructions in basic manners expected from a future good citizen and certain aspects of ceremonial life. No sources claim that those more ‘common’ youths were taught reading and writing, or mathematics and science, but some references suggests that they might have been educated at basic reading of calendar and do basic math in order to run their future workshops and other small businesses.

The telpochcalli pupils were required to sleep in school, after attending midnight ceremonies, but they were free to visit their homes during afternoons unless punished to stay and work due to various transgressions. As a rule, they were required to contribute to public works by occasionally participating in those on a voluntary basis.

Generally, their lives seemed to be rewarding, offering opportunities to those who were ready to invest in their studies or displayed higher abilities and gifts. Outstandingly talented youths could have hoped to be recommended for transfer to calmecac, the noble school, the only one in the entire city, a very exclusive establishment.

Located in the heart of Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial center, surrounding the city’s most magnificent temples, royal palace, ball court, Great Pyramid and so on, the exclusive calmecac catered to nobility and royal children, preparing the next generation of ruling class – governors, judges, leading warriors, priests, tribute collectors and scribes, artists of higher order, scientists and so on. Gifted commoners sent from various telpochcalli were examined and if found fit admitted into this special institution, then made to work hard acquiring higher education.

The children of the nobility were reported to be admitted to calmecac earlier than their commoner telpochcalli peers. Between the ages of 12 to 14 minor nobility offsprings would be sent to pursue their formal education, with the royal family children starting their school lives as early as seven or eight years old.

Like telpochcalli students, calmecac pupils were sleeping in school, allowed to visit their families through certain afternoon hours, required to return for evening or midnight rites. Here the study was more vigorous and demanding: mathematics, history, astronomy, extensive reading and comprehending of written material, religious and otherwise, calendars, history books, maps, traders’ accounts.

It wasn’t easy to read or write in original Nahuatl that was composed of glyphs rather than letters or characters. It demanded special training which calmecac students were enjoying, or suffering depending on the point of view, on a daily basis. Most students of telpochcalli schools did not train to read beyond basics, even though traders certainly used plenty of reading and writing materials, and so did tribute collectors and probably other commoners.

Yet, the nobility was expected to read properly whatever their occupation was. So it is excusable to assume that the noble children with no special talents might have had it tougher than their fellow telpochcalli contemporaries. On the other hand, the calmecac students were not reported to participate in manual labor of public works, even though, like other school youth, they made their daily trips to the mainland in order to bring firewood and other required necessities.

Also even the calmecac highborn youths were expected to clean their classes and sleeping halls, and even cook for themselves, or so some sources state. According to various codices, Tenochtitlan schools made sure no install measure of humbleness in all students and future full time citizens of the great city.

So Tenochtitlan youth were required to attend public schools, every source agree on that, even if they don’t agree on details. But what about the girls?

Some sources state that most girls learned from their mothers, being their sole responsibility; like boys were the responsibility of their fathers until the age of the mandatory schooling. Yet, there are sources who hint that Tenochtitlan girls were provided with the opportunity to attend their local district schools as well, for at least a period of one year. A priestess of the local temple that would be usually adjacent to the district schools as well as to the exclusive calmecac – this one had several temples surrounding it – would teach the girls skills needed in their future marital lives. Creating cotton and maguey cloths was first and foremost job expected of every woman, commoner and lady alike, their skills at their looms praised and required. More intricate crafts of delicate embroidery might have been taught in both schools, or maybe in noble calmecac alone. Cooking and sewing might have been a prerogative of the commoner telpochcalli female students.

Again unlike their telpochcalli peers, the calmecac girls might also have been taught reading and writing, and basics of mathematics. Expected to run households of their rich husbands they had to deal with complex economics of management plentitude of slaves and supplies. A girl that did well in the ceremonial studies might have counted on staying in school in order to become a priestess, responsible for certain deities and their ceremonies – a highly respectable position that would not require a life commitment. Priestesses often got married, leaving their offices to their younger fellow women to take, their status assured for their entire lives as a respectable woman, a minor nobility maybe, liable for a good marriage, even with noblemen.

An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three

Embarrassed, Chantli turned back toward the wooden platter. “Are there any other commoners in calmecac?”

“Of course. There are always a few of them in this school.” Squinting, the girl turned to study the newcomers, who in the meanwhile began progressing in their direction, clearly heading for one of the curtained niches, about to make an offering. “Gifted commoners, you know. Enough of those flooding the calmecac halls, at all times. My brother says they should open a school for all this gifted scum, because it’s—” Abruptly, the girl turned back, her eyes brushing past Chantli, gauging. “Well, I didn’t mean it that way. That is, he didn’t mean it, I think. It’s just that there are plenty of students in this school and, you know, not enough room, you see?”

Chantli hid her resentment as best as she could. “I haven’t seen much of the school yet.”

“Oh, you won’t see much of it anyway. We are not allowed outside our hall. Too many boys out there, you know.” Her companion’s wink held a clear measure of relief and for some reason, it touched her. That girl, while silly and terribly snobbish, didn’t wish to offend her and wave her humble origins before her face.

“My cousin was examined by calmecac authorities,” she related, arranging the cups with thorns while noticing one of the visiting men disappearing behind the curtain of the niche, his bearing forceful, warrior-like, his cloak flowing self-assuredly down his shoulders, sporting rich patterns and unfamiliar insignia.

“Was he accepted? Is he gifted, your cousin?”

She put her attention back to the tools of offering. “My cousin, yes, he is very gifted. He can read at a glance, without taking time to think before interpreting what is written. And he is always correct, always!”

“Oh, then he’ll be put to study the priestly duties, or maybe the trade of the imperial scribes.” The girl was glancing toward the niche that concealed the newcomer as well. “Not like that new boy whom the Emperor himself put in our calmecac.” Her gaze returned to Chantli, flickering with excitement. “Imagine that! A real commoner. Not like you, pillis from traders’ families, but truly a commoner. They say he is put to train with weaponry and such, but not in any other classes. I saw him a few dawns ago, bringing fir branches to the main temple. He does look like a commoner, so very broad in his limbs and face. Good looking too. But really, you can see that he is a commoner. Acoatl says he can’t even read or write or do any ceremonial stuff. Only to fight, they say. But the Emperor put him in our calmecac, so they can’t kick him out. Imagine!”

“Who is Acoatl?” asked Chantli, not truly curious but wishing to conceal her thoughts. It was clear that the chatty thing was talking about Miztli, who indeed, even with his pretty school cloak and his newly gained spells of confidence, did carry himself like the villager he was, someone out of the fields, fit to carry heavy loads, lacking that forceful elegance of a warrior that Necalli displayed in abundance. A pity the snotty nobles could see it as well, and much too easily. Poor Miztli!

“Oh, Acoatl is a cousin of mine. A nice boy and the best ball player in the entire school. So handsome too. You should look at him. I’ll show him to you tomorrow when they train out there. There is this place where one can peek into the courtyard when they are training.” The girl giggled. “He can barely read either. So he can’t really complain about the illiterate commoner, can he?” A conspiratorial wink. “But his bloodline is impeccable. His father is related to the royal family through his aunt, who has been given to the fifth emperor as his second wife. Not so very shabby, to be a second wife of the emperor, eh? Not a poor concubine or some minor unimportant wife.”

Absently, Chantli nodded, stretching her back in relief. It had been a long day. “We can go back now, I suppose.”

“About time!” The girl beamed. “Come, let us hurry. If they aren’t waiting for me with their litter out there, we may linger at the temple until the boys come out. Then I’ll show you my cousin. Or maybe we’ll run into our good looking YoloNecalli, eh?” The long-lashed eye winked again. “You talked to him yesterday. We saw you, Cuicatl and I. Beneath the temple’s stairs.”

Part XV: The Conquest of Tlatelolco

28 February 2017 Comments (0)

After the unsuccessful night attack on Tenochtitlan described in the Tenochtitlan’s Conquests Part XIV Tlatelolco found itself in a dire dilemma: to try and fight in an open battle that they had not much chances of winning, or to crawl before their powerful but now enraged neighbors and try to make amends?

Moquihuixtli seemed to be undecided, wavering between pretty speeches full of warlike rhetoric and threats, and any lack of actual deeds, any attempt to prepare his city for the immediate invasion. Both altepetls were reported to be on guard, patrolling their streets and other mutual borders. As I mentioned before, in the preceding article, some of the ancient accounts claimed that Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco shared the same island, while others reported those altepetls to be separated by a small amount of water that had been filled later on, after the Tlatelolco had been conquered by Tenochtitlan. Either way, any possible routes to both cities were guarded at this point, while their rulers tried to decide what to do.

Diego Duran says that even after the treacherous night attack, Axayacatl did not wish to war on the neighboring sister-city, a true kin to Tenochtitlan dwellers, the same Mexica-Aztecs that Tenochtitlan folk were. It would be wrong, claimed the young ruler; and it would also look bad to the various powerful neighbors of the mainland, to see both Mexica-Aztec cities squabbling over quite pitiful dispute, warring on each other – “… shame would descend upon both when other people heard of the rancor and enmity that existed between these two groups of kinsmen…”

Thus, a delegation from Tenochtitlan set forward in order to address Moquihuixtli and try to reason with him – “…a nobleman named Cueyatzin was commissioned to take message to Tlatelolco…”, said Duran in his “The History of the Indies of New Spain.”

Whether it was a nominal gesture to make Tenochtitlan look good and not overly aggressive in the eyes of its powerful partners, the members of the Triple Alliance, or not, the words of reconciliation were spurned in an indignant manner, and so this same Cueyatzin was sent to Tlatelolco again, this time carrying appropriate weaponry and tizatl, the bright clay ointment with which the Nahua people of the entire region anointed their dead for burial. This was the customary declaration of war that Tlatelolco seemed to neglect issuing while executing their first night attack. A shameful negligence. Yet their reaction to the customary gesture managed to surpass even this.

Duran goes into great detail describing the events in the Tlatelolcan Palace. Presented with the customary insignia accompanied by the most appropriate address, Moquihuixtli was said to rise and push the messenger away with his own hands. “… Tell your master that these ointments are for him!” And while he spoke “… Teconal appeared, sword in his head, and with one blow cut off Cueyatzin’s head…” The head was reported then to be carried to Tenochtitlan, causing, as expected, a huge uproar. Duran says that Axayacatl and his advisers and warriors marched on Tlatelolco at once.

The following battle developed first on the outskirts of the city, on either the causeway or another sort of boundary, then spilled toward the marketplace, where Moquihuixtli and Teconal led the defenders, according to Duran. Even a hastily organized “squadron” of women and little boys, clad indecently and throwing at the attackers everything they had, is mentioned, again in great detail.

In contrast to this account, Chimalpahin does not mention marketplace fighting at all, but goes straight for the dramatic warring upon the Great Pyramid and its staircase. On this, both historians agree – the last stage of the drama took place on the top of the great pyramid, as was customary. Chimalpahin claims that Moquihuixtli tried to bribe Axayacatl into letting him go with “… an entire jar of green stones…”; however, when the Tlacopan ruler Chimalpopoca joined the indignant Tenochtitlan emperor in his charge up the wide staircase, demanding that Moquihuixtli should come down and fight, the defeated Tlatelolcan ruler threw himself off the pyramid’s side and died in a spectacular fashion. Duran says that Axayacatl was the one to slay both Moquihuixtli and Teconal, then “… cast them down the steps of the temple…”

And so Tlatelolco fell, to become Tenochtitlan’s tributary and then, gradually, to be absorbed into the giant city that the Great Capital of the Mexica Aztecs kept growing into. The tribute it was made to pay was heavy and strict, not only in items of food and wear but also in manpower to participate in Tenochtitlan’s building projects upon uncompromising requests. On this, every ancient source agrees.

An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three

“What is the news?” he demanded from the group of boys who seemed to be out for some time, crowding the spacious yard, breathless with excitement.

“They brought the head here! Just like that. Carried it on the litter!”

He cursed the insistent teacher some more. “Who? Did you see it?”

“No! Old Yaotzin kept us in.” One of the boys swore quietly but colorfully. “But Ihuitl was out there, and he saw it all. All of it! Even the head!”

“How?”

“They were sent out to work in the round temple,” burst out another boy. “So when the commotion began, they sneaked out, said that they had to return to school.”

“Clever bastards.”

They all snickered.

Necalli felt his envy rising to dangerous levels. “Whose heads did they see? How many?”

“Only one, Ihuitl said. It was in the litter the warriors carried, open curtains and all. And they were covered with blood too. The warriors, that is.”

“Where is Ihuitl?”

“Sneaked back out. Said they wanted him back in the round temple.”

“He made it up. I know he did.”

“No way! The priests would know.”

“Who cares if he could get out there?”

“No, it was Etl who got out. Ihuitl is in here, see?”

They were crowding the open grounds next to the fence, the commotion coming from behind it deafening, gushing like the Great Lake on stormy nights of the rain moons. Another group centered around the taller boy Necalli knew well from quite a few mutual adventures. Neither closest of friends nor rivals, they had happened to wander away on various afternoons if thrown together in the same class or a temple duty. As he began making his way toward the additional crowding, his current companions trailing after him as well, his eyes picked out Acoatl’s broad frame among those listening to Ihuitl’s stories. Damn it. On an eventful day like this and with everything he wanted to know, he didn’t need his filthy enemy’s banter and needling.

“It was the head of the royal guards’ leader himself, I’m telling you!” Ihuitl was claiming, waving his hands in agitation, anxious to convince. “I saw it with my own eyes!”

“It can’t be. They wouldn’t send the leader of the royal guards on such a mission,” protested one of the listeners. “It’s beneath someone of such high status.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And I saw it with own eyes,” cried out their only witness, momentarily out of the limelight and evidently not liking that. “Etl saw it too. We were very close at some point. When they had to squeeze through beside the ball court.”

“They can send the leader of the royal guards on such a mission,” contributed Necalli. “It’s not a small village they are declaring war on.”

“So what?” As expected, Acoatl, who had been surprisingly quiet until now, came to life all at once, his face looking the worst, all blue with bruises, one eye almost closed, swollen badly

The sight pleased Necalli, but made him wonder too. What happened to that one? Acoatl never looked so beaten before. Only his occasional victims did. “Tlatelolco is not the capital of the world. They are nothing but a stinking town stuck in our backyard.”

“They are the same people as us and deserve a worthy declaration of war.” He didn’t feel like defending the annoying neighboring island, but Acoatl always did it to him, made him wish to argue and claim the opposite.

“And see what they did with it!” someone ventured, yet before they could dive into a heated argument, one of the boys appeared from behind the outer building.

“They sent the priestly apprentices out there into the temples and most of the priests left as well.”

They looked at each other, aware of the possibilities.

“If we sneak out, they’ll know,” someone muttered.

“Unless we go to the temples too, ask if they need any help.” Out of habit, Necalli glanced around, looking for worthwhile company to take along. “Who is to know what answer we got?”

They murmured in consent, still undecided, most of them. Resolutely, he began working his way toward the opening in the fence. There was no one whom he might wish to take along. Both the workshop boy and Axolin were not even around, let alone available and ready. Damn them both into the lower level of the Underworld, traitorous pieces of rotten meat. Especially Miztli, scampering away as he did, stupid villager with no basic loyalty.

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