The Story of Mexico/Chapter 10

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After the death in prison of their king Chimalpopoca, the Mexicans did not hesitate to elect as his successor, Itzcoatl, the third son of their first sovereign, brother to their last, and general-in-chief of their armies, in which capacity he had shown himself of great force and valor.

When Maxtla heard of this he was full of wrath, having vainly imagined that the murder of the late king's children would have put an end to that line forever. He immediately began to make preparations to destroy utterly the Mexicans, still nominally his vassals.

Itzcoatl at once sent messengers to Nezahualcoyotl, the rightful heir of the Texcucans, proposing an alliance for the overthrow of the tyrant. Nezahualcoyotl, as we have seen, had already recovered a part of his inheritance, and feeling himself strong enough for the effort, he accepted the proposals of the Mexican sovereign.

Maxtla, to anticipate this step, sent open commands to his vassals, the Mexicans, that they should hold themselves in readiness to join his whole army in an attack upon Texcuco, since, as he announced, he was determined now to possess himself of the whole of the ancient kingdom of the Chichimecs.

The chronicles say that the Mexicans were greatly terrified, so intense was the terror inspired by Maxtla and his cruel warriors. The people burst into tears and lamentations at being forced into so unwelcome a war.

Itzcoatl, with the greatest skill, calmed their agitation, and summoned them to another combat, which should decide the fate of the still youthful monarchy of the Mexicans.

A great battle was fought against the Tepanecs with Maxtla at their head. Opposite him were arranged the united forces of the Mexicans, the Chichimecs, and their allies, of the neighboring little state of Tlatelolco, as well as a great body of auxiliary troops, which ranged themselves on the side of justice and against the terrible tyrant. The allied army sallied forth to the encounter, but was driven back, and the city of Tenochtitlan was about to fall into the hands of Maxtla, when the three chiefs, Nezahualcoyotl, Itzcoatl and Motecuhzoma, followed by their bravest warriors, plunged into the thickest of the fray, and by the fury of their attack caused the Tepanecs to flee with all haste.

The battle was continued the next day, victory declaring itself for the allies, who pursued the Tepanecs even into their own capital Atzcapotzalco, where they set fire to the houses, sacking them first, and killing the inhabitants. The king Maxtla himself fell under the stroke of Nezahualcoyotl, who thus avenged the murder of his father. The taking of the capital city was the end of the kingdom of the Tepanecs. This took place in 1428.

By the downfall of this monarchy, Nezahualcoyotl was reinstated upon the throne of his ancestors, at Texcuco, henceforth called the kingdom of Acolhuacan; a small new kingdom arose, upon the ruins of the old, called that of the Tepanecs of Tlacopan; these two formed with the Mexicans a triple alliance which lasted for more than a century.

This alliance is called that of the "Valley Confederates," who by their united strength could crush the surrounding isolated tribes with perfect success.

Itzcoatl died in 1440, much lamented by his people. His obsequies were performed with great solemnity. He was justly celebrated for his great gifts, and the services he rendered his country. An old author says of him that he was "a man so excellent that there is no language sufficient for his praises."

On the death of this ruler, the Mexicans again came together to choose a king, and unanimously selected Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, brother of the late king, and son of the first one. His election was received with enthusiasm, because he was a great general, who had filled the minds of the people with his brilliant deeds in emancipating them from the tyrant control of the Tepanecs.

Under this king the fortunes of the Mexicans reached their height. He was a great warrior, and by force of arms he subdued many surrounding tribes, and extended the power of his kingdom. He was an intense fanatic in religion, and a true despot, and carried his convictions to an extreme which, while it extended his power, alienated the other peoples of Anahuac, so that in the dark days of the future, they were ready rather to be against the Mexicans than for them.

His first act, having resolved to erect a great temple to the god Huitzilopochtli, in gratitude for the success of the recent conflicts, was to send messages to all the country round about, summoning the neighbors to come and lend their aid in bringing the great work to an end. All obeyed with alacrity, except the Chalcas, a little tribe upon the lake, who entirely refused to contribute aid. The king instantly made war upon these people, and after bloody contests took possession of Amecameca, their capital, an ancient town at the very base of the volcanoes. Other towns fell into the hands of the Mexicans. Meanwhile, the influence of the Texcucan court, aided by the natural development that comes with success, had much advanced the Aztec from the pitiful state of squalor in which his race made their entrance into the Valley of Anahuac only a century before. Without believing the exaggerated accounts of the Spaniards describing the splendors they found in Mexico, we may at least allow the Aztecs a degree of intelligence and cultivation on a level with the civilization of their time.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, the Mexicans suffered from an infliction which has since many a time caused trouble to their capital. Abundant rains so swelled the lake that the city was inundated, many buildings destroyed, and inhabitants drowned. The king of Texcuco advised the building of a great dike, so thick and strong as to keep out the water. The next year the chronicles relate that a heavy snow fell for six days and nights, destroying all vegetation, and a great number of human beings and animals. The loss of crops for these years caused such a famine, that in spite of the great liberality of the king and his grandees, many people emigrated to the south.

These disasters furnish but a poor excuse for the human sacrifice with which the Aztecs sought to appease the wrath of their god. The Mexican king used to sally forth at fixed intervals to battle with the sole object of seizing prisoners for sacrifice, without laying any claim to lands or kingdoms. He extended these raids as far as the valley of Tlaxcalla, and the neighboring city of Cholula, carrying off victims, but leaving the government of these provinces as he found them. This explains the cause of the continued independence of these provinces, in spite of their constant warfare with Mexico, and also shows what reason these people had for hating a neighbor who made himself so disagreeable. Motecuhzoma made the power of his arm felt even to the shores of the Gulf, and enlarged his territory in all directions. He framed a code for repressing crime, made laws regulating the dress and ornaments of his subjects, invented any number of new religious rites and sacrifices hitherto unheard of, built many temples, and strove to establish the principles of his religion throughout Anahuac. Thus the poor and miserable little tribe of a century before, at the death of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina had greatly gained in strength and extent.

Three sovereigns followed Motecuhzoma, in due course, and in practice of the same methods of government. They extended their depredations all over the country, sometimes meeting with resistance, as in the case of Michoacan, in 1479, when the Mexicans were utterly routed by the Tarascos in a bloody battle which lasted two days. The king at that time was Axayacatl, who died soon after his disastrous defeat. He left two sons destined to play a part in the last scene of the history of Mexican monarchy—Motecuhzoma the Second and Cuitlahuac.

The immediate successor of Axayacatl was his brother, Tizoc, who, as was the custom, left the position of general-in-chief to become king. He was a brave warrior, stern and uncompromising in character, zealous in gathering victims to sacrifice to his gods.

In the museum of Mexico is a monument which preserves the name and deeds of this great warrior king. It is a large carved stone, which was found in the course of excavation for a sewer, almost a hundred years ago in the principal plaza of the city of Mexico. It is called the Cuauhxicalli of Tizoc, which means the Drinking-cup of the Eagle. On its upper face is carved an image of the sun. On the carved sides are fifteen groups, each group of two persons, the conquering warrior grasping by the hair a prisoner. The warrior is in each the same figure repeated. The fifteen prisoners represent fifteen conquered tribes. The conqueror is Tizoc, seventh king of Mexico, who occupied the throne from 1481 to 1486. There is a theory that these carvings have a further allegorical meaning. The evening star and the moon are represented as two warriors engaged in a struggle, in which the former makes the attack, and the latter defends himself. Tizoc is intended by the morning star, and the moon represents the conquered nations. The evening star wears the sacred mask; the part of his face left uncovered, as well as his hands and feet, are smeared with a black ointment peculiar to priests and gods. His body is covered with a tiger skin, which is always an attribute with the natives of the morning star, which draws captive after it all the other stars, so that the sky spotted with light seemed to them typified by the spotted skin of the tiger. The warrior has in one hand a sword of obsidian, and in the other a shield bearing the symbols of the planet. The face and garments of the vanquished warrior are white like the rays of the moon. His feet are bound, but in one hand he holds high his sword of obsidian, while the other grasps the standard and mirror of the moon.

The use to which the stone was applied by Tizoc was less purely fanciful. In his time, among the Aztecs, there existed an order of nobles whose title was the eagles. The sun was their patron saint. During certain ceremonies they sacrificed to the sun a human victim, upon this stone, the drinking-cup of the Eagles. This victim was chosen from the prisoners taken in war. He was brought forward, at the sound of music, surrounded by illustrious noblemen. His legs were painted with red and white TSOM D135 Stone of Tizoc.pngSTONE OF TIZOC.

stripes, and half his face was painted red; a white plume was stuck in his hair. In one hand he carried a walking-stick, gay with ribbons and plumes; in the other, a shield covered with cotton. His thighs were bound round with little bundles containing gifts. He was led to the bottom of the grand staircase of the temple and thus addressed:

"Sir, what we desire is that thou goest before our god, the sun, to salute him for us. Tell him that his sons and chief gentlemen here supplicate him to remember them, hoping he will accept the small recuerdo we send him. Give him the walking-stick, the shield, and the other things in the little bundle."

The victim then went slowly up the steps, receiving fresh instructions as to what he should say to the sun. At the top was the drinking-cup, and towards this he advanced. In a loud voice, addressing at once the real sun and its image carved upon the stone, he delivered the message just given him. Then came four attendants, who seized him by hands and feet, and having taken away the cane, the shield, and little bundles, they ascended with him the four steps of the stone, where the high-priest cut his throat, commanding him thus to go with his message to the real sun in the other life. The blood flowed down the basin in the stone through a canal to the side where the image of the sun was carved, so that this was quenched with blood. Meantime, the sacrificador opened the breast of the victim and plucked out the heart, holding it aloft until it became cold, thereby offering it to the sun. Thus went on his way the luckless messenger. Tizoc began the construction of a great temple in honor of Huitzilopochtli, a superb edifice, according to the chronicles, the most lofty in the city, covering all the site of the present cathedral, and moreover extending over much of the ground now occupied by the Plaza Mayor. Tizoc was poisoned, at the instigation of some neighboring kings, by women who brought him a fatal drink. He died suddenly, after a brief reign of four years.

Ahuitzotl, his brother and successor, hastened to bring the great teocalli to completion, and its dedication was the occasion of a great feast and celebration. Kings and caciques of the allied people came, bringing rich offerings to the Mexican monarch, who displayed the greatest magnificence in receiving his guests. The chief feature of the occasion was the great slaughter of four days of victims made prisoners of war on purpose for the sacrifice to the god to whom the temple was reared.

Ahuitzotl was troubled with inundations of the lake, and by the advice of Nezahualpilli the Wise, he caused huge dikes to be constructed, which averted the danger. The monarch himself was overtaken by water bursting into one of the lower chambers of his palace. As he rushed suddenly out of the room to avoid the flood, he received a blow on the head by striking a beam, which caused his death a few years after.

This monarch was passionately devoted to war, and by his conquests he extended widely the dominions of the crown. He was violent, vengeful, and cruel, the terror of the people he conquered, jealous to preserve untouched his authority, pitiless in exacting tribute and collecting taxes; in a word, a despot, holding absolute control over the lives and actions of his subjects. In compensation for these unattractive characteristics his historians give him credit for greatly embellishing his capital city. He was fond of music, liberal to the needy, and generous to such soldiers as distinguished themselves in his wars.

At the death of Ahuitzotl the kingdom ruled of his ancestors had reached the height of its extent, splendor, and power. On the north, its frontier extended to the 21st degree of latitude. On the east, with the exception of the kingdom of Texcuco, and the independent tribes of Cholula, Tlaxcalla, and Huexotzinco, it reached the Gulf of Mexico, including all the shore, from the semi-independent Cuextecas to the border of the Coatzacoalco River. On the southeast the kingdom extended to Xoconochco, towards the south its boundry touched Mexcalla, and on the west its barrier was the haughty kingdom of Michoacan, against which the armies of the Mexicans fought always in vain.

Such a point of power had reached the Aztec tribe in the course of one hundred years. From their small beginning as a handful of hunted creatures, hiding in the rushes of a swamp, they had grown to be an all-powerful nation, carrying a triumphant warfare throughout the land, and enlarging their boundaries with every triumph. The shocking features of their sanguinary religion make them odious to our minds. It is difficult to accommodate it to the gentle TSOM D139 Sculpture representing human sacrifice.pngSCULPTURE REPRESENTING HUMAN SACRIFICE.

traits of the Aztec character, which shows them to be of domestic tastes, affectionate and mild in temper. Such a stain upon the nation is only to be explained, not excused, by the power of religious fanaticism. Other religions in other parts of the world, were exercising a control as arbitrary, with results the same in quality though not in degree. In 1480, in Spain, the Holy Inquisition was established against apostates, that is, persons converted from any other religion to that of the Roman Catholic Church, who, after baptism, reverted to Judaism or the faith of Islam. The tribunal of Seville, alone, between 1480 and 1520, consigned four thousand victims to the flames.

Louis XI. of France wore little images of saints and angels in his cap, while he did not hesitate to shut up his enemies for life in a wooden cage. As his death drew near in 1483, he shuddered at the thought of the victims, more than five thousand, whom he had caused to be put-to death, for his own ends, without the plea of religious ardor.

Richard III., in England, during a short reign of two years from 1483 to 1485, not only murdered his young nephews, but put to death his brother, the Duke of Clarence, Lord Hastings, Jane Shore, and his own friend and ally the Duke of Buckingham.

It is of course idle to compare the civilization of the two continents at that period; widely separated as they were, and each ignorant of the very existence of the other. European society emerged from the barbarism of the dark ages was, according to its interpretation of them, based upon the teachings of the faith of Christ. No such advantages, as yet, had reached the plateau of Anahuac. The most elevating influence shed over its people was from the traditional Quetzalcoatl, whose teachings of mild and gentle manners left a deep and prevading impression. Otherwise, the struggle for life, rude contact with the lower instincts of the less developed with the better informed, gave an always downward tendency to the institutions of their society.

It is all very obscure, now more than ever, because new information is disturbing the accepted theory of Aztec culture given by writers of Mexican history up to nearly the present time. For a true knowledge of early life in Mexico, we must wait till explorers and archaeologists have fully established their discoveries by facts. Such an exposition, which is pretty sure to come, will be of great importance to those interested in the future, as well as the past, of the native races of Mexico.

Meanwhile, in a book like this, which is permitted to gather up legend as well as fact, in order to present the attractive, even romantic, side of its subject, it would be a pity to wholly set aside the accounts of the Aztecs, as they have hitherto been given in current history, as worthless and superseded. This would be to leave a gap at the very beginning of authentic story, to take away the lowest step of the ladder we wish to climb. If the "Last of the Montezumas" is to be reduced to a chieftain of a sedentary tribe, we, in this story of Mexico, may regard him as one once invested with the glories of an empire. Our chief object in examining the early periods written of in the preceding chapters, is to gather clear impressions of the character of the people we are reading about. For this end it is of vast importance to know whether the native races now forming a large part of the population of Mexico, are descended from a cultivated line of kings, or whether they merely inherit the manners and customs of illiterate tribes. The reader must for himself create from the stories drawn from Spanish accounts, and evidences given by picture-writings, and the description of monuments and ruins, his own idea of the Aztec character, giving due weight to the substance of the legends about Mexican greatness, while he brushes off with modern ruthlessness the cobwebs which obscure the truth of the story, however brightly they may sparkle, and adorn the tale. TSOM D142 Page decoration.png