The Story of Mexico/Chapter 9

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We now come to the tribe best known among those who lived on the great plateau of Anahuac, the Aztecs, also called Mexicans. The latter name has come so generally to include the inhabitants of the whole country, that a distinction must be made.

This people was one of those which formed the great family of the Nahuas; its emigration from the mysterious regions of the northeast towards Anahuac, like that of the other tribes which recognize the same traditions, rests on the same authority. Their origin is no clearer than that of the rest. It seems certain that previous to migrating they dwelt in a land far to the northeast of Lake Chapala. This region, hallowed in their traditions with all the memories and all the attractions of a far-off, long lost home, they called Aztlan, and from this name were they called Aztecs.

Why they abandoned this delightful home is entirely unknown, except to conjecture and the probabilities of human life; the date is equally uncertain, but to it has been assigned the middle of the seventh century, and even the year 648 of our era is given.

The Aztecs having left their old habitations wandered vaguely off towards the southwest, guided by the inspirations or indications of their priests. They paused whole years in different places, building in each houses and temples, of which traces are still found to mark their path. They left behind them, indeed, settlements which still exist. But the great body of these emigrants had not yet found a permanent resting-place. They continued to move on, with intervals of pause, from generation to generation, always impelled by the restlessness which caused their first fathers, and the priests, their guides, to leave Aztlan. It was six hundred years after the date commonly given for their exodus that the Aztecs came to their final resting-place in 1243. The tribe was already called Mexicas as well as Aztec, because the priests received an order from one of their gods, Mexitli, that they should receive a name like his. From Mexi or Mexicas was derived the word Mexican. This name has attached itself, not only to the town they founded, but to the broad valley in which it lies, and to the whole country stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific; yet when they came there the ancient tribe of the Toltecs already possessed the land, and farther south the Mayas had attained a high degree of civilization. They themselves were but a handful of men, despised by surrounding races for the customs of their religion, even then regarded as barbarous and horrible by the older inhabitants. They gained and maintained a foothold in the place they had chosen against many enemies and countless difficulties, triumphed over all these, and established themselves TSOM D117 Organ cactus.pngorgan cactus.

so firmly as to imprint a name upon the whole region.

It is no wonder that the broad, lofty valley where they found themselves made so strong an impression upon them that they at once decided to adopt it; though the exact spot they selected for their capital has been often condemned by posterity.

They saw a vast oval of more than forty leagues' circumference, surrounded, like an amphitheatre, with a girdle of mountains. On the east rose the two proud volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, covered with perpetual snow, their sides clothed with forests. When the Aztecs came, one vast lake occupied the basin of the broad plateau, too wide to be called a valley, as well as too elevated, for the lowest part is more than six thousand feet above the level of the sea.

They saw a rocky height rising above the wet soil near the lake, out of which were doubtless even then growing huge cypress-trees, ahuehuetl, making a dense and pleasant shade; a large spring of water flowed constantly from the rock. Here they stopped and named the place Chapultepec, which means the Hill of the Grasshopper. In the picture-writings of the Aztecs it is depicted as a small hill with a huge grasshopper standing all over it.

Here the Mexicans, or Aztecs, remained for a few years, but their place was contested by the neighboring tribes, who also all of them saw the merits of the site, and valued as much as the new-comers the spring of sparkling water. The Mexicans made themselves odious by their religious practices, and a combined array of Chichimecs and other tribes dispossessed them of the Grasshopper Hill. They betook themselves to a group of low islands in the lake, and there led a miserable existence for many years, covered with rags, living on such fishes and insects as they could lay hold of from the lake, and dwelling in wretched huts made out of reeds and rushes. They were nothing more than the slaves of the Tepanecs and Culhuas, surrounding tribes, and it is extraordinary that from such a life they roused themselves to any thing better. In the course of a battle between two of their tyrant tribes, they, the miserable slaves, the despised eaters of insects, gave such proof of unconquerable valor on the side of their masters, that these were terrified and gave them their liberty. This was nearly one hundred years after they had been driven from Chapultepec. They now shook off the yoke of their oppressors, gathered themselves together, and leaving the wretched island where they had languished so long, set forth once more in search of a permanent dwelling-place.

The story has often been told of the way in which they fixed upon its position. The priests declared that their great god, Huitzilopochtli, had decreed for the situation of their abiding city, a nopal growing from a rock, upon which should be sitting an eagle with a snake in his beak. The nopal is one kind of cactus. When they suddenly came upon this very combination of objects, the priests declared it to be the preordained spot, and there they settled themselves after all the long wanderings of their race, far from the shadowy Aztlan. The situation is low, and too near the lake, which in those early days extended much farther than at present. It has now been made to subside, leaving much territory formerly under water spread out as barren marsh-land. Several lakes, divided by low lands have taken the place of the broad inland sea overlooked by the Mexican capital.

Here the Mexicans built their capital city, which in time grew to be the centre of a great confederacy. They called it Tenochtitlan, which means Place of the Stone and the Nopal. Its name was also Mexico early in its history, from the old god Huitzilopochtli, who was also called Mexitli.

Tenochtitlan covered about one fourth of the ground now occupied by the city of Mexico. Its founders divided it into four quarters or divisions, to which were given the names of Cuepopan, Atzacualco, Moyotla, and Zoquipan. In the centre rose the great teocalli dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli. The cathedral of the present city of Mexico stands on the site of this ancient temple, but not a trace of the Aztec town is now visible. The names of the quarters above given remain in those of the suburbs of the modern town.

Little by little smaller islands were united to the larger ones by means of stone-and earth-works. From a life of misery, by industry and energy the Mexicans advanced their condition. They devoted themselves to fishing and hunting, and exchanged the product of these labors with the neighboring people for wood, stone and such things as they wanted.

Up to this time they had obeyed their priests, or certain chiefs who controlled them. The last of these was Tenoch.

The rulers who followed have been called kings, their government a monarchy, their homes palaces, their places of worship, temples. The Conquistadores described the civilization they found upon Anahuac with such wealth of words, that the Halls of the TSOM D121 Idol in terra-cotta.pngIDOL IN TERRA-COTTA.

Montezumas have been ever since the type of all that is rich and magnificent. Their realm was an empire, their sway was absolute, their lives were one of luxury and ease.

Later investigations take away from the early Aztec dynasty all its splendors, one by one, until the poor Mexican kings have scarcely a shred of regal dignity left them. Even their warfare is reduced to the pitiful raids of one savage tribe against another, their title of Emperor, no longer hereditary, although, it is admitted, kept in one family, is reduced to that of chief; their capital city is a pueblo, their palaces as low buildings of adobe, their teocallis are mounds.

For the sake of preserving the succession hitherto accepted, and to avoid confusion in the mind of the reader, we will continue the narration of the kings of Mexico, as if they still retained that title, shorn as it is of its rays.

Tenoch died in 1363, thirty-eight years after the foundation of the city. As his name forms part of the word Tenochtitlan, some authorities give, as explanation, that the city was named after the chief, rather than for reason of the nopal, the eagle, and the snake. But the valuable legend remains, and is preserved on the national banner of the Mexicans to-day.

Mexitzin succeeded Tenoch in command, who, as by this time the people had greatly grown in importance, counselled them to follow the example of the nations round about them, and choose a ruler to rule over them, after the manner of their neighbors, the Tepanecs, and those of Texcuco, across the lake. The proposal was favorably accepted, and Acamapichtli was made king—the first monarch of the Mexican dynasty, in Tenochtitlan, in 1376, fifty years after the foundation of the city. He was Mexican upon his father's side, Chichimec, through his mother's family. He was, according to the account of his chroniclers, one of the most prudent and illustrious personages of his time. He married a daughter of a most noble Aculhuan, and as all the monarchs of the valley practised polygamy, allowed himself two other wives. Of one of these wives the son Huitzilihuitl was the immediate successor to the throne, and his half-brother, son of another wife, reigned next, named Chimalpopoca. A third son, born of a slave to the king, lived to reign in his stead after the death of the half-brothers. But the father of these sons lived himself to reign for twenty years, if reigning it can be called, to keep in hand a handful of poor Indians just escaping from barbarism and degeneration of the lowest sort. Their one city was but fifty years old. They had no capital, no resources beyond the toil of their hands in fishing and hunting. They were regarded as interlopers by the petty kingdoms which surrounded them, and their lives were made miserable by the tyranny of any one of their neighbors who felt himself strong enough to exact tribute. Yet some great vital force was in them to hold them together and bring them increase.

Their belief in their old god, Huitzilopochtli, was strong as ever; probably their fortunes rose and fell with the intelligence or the lack of it in the priests who transmitted to the people the will of this deity. Through them it was decreed that the tribute demanded by the Tepanecs should be paid. These neighbors were pacified, and the Mexicans could go on unmolested in their work of improving their city, which they did by building temples and houses, and cutting canals through their island that the water of the lake might circulate freely. In the next reign, Huitzilihuitl, son of the first king, not only followed but improved upon the example of his father in marrying a daughter of some rival monarch. He sent ambassadors to various courts asking the hand of each princess in marriage. The result was good. By marrying a daughter of the king of the Tepanecs he relieved his people of the heavy tribute they had been forced to pay. His other wife, Cuauhnahuac, brought with her the knowledge of cotton for making wearing apparel, for the district she came from produced it in abundance, and her people understood the use of it. It is due to her, therefore, that the Mexicans became well clothed. Specimens of the wearing of their early times are preserved in the National Museum at Mexico. Her son was the famous Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, better known to us as Montezuma I. This king, who married the Princess of Cloth, greatly advanced his nation. He compiled laws, regulated religious ceremonies, systematized the army, with his brother at its head, thus establishing a custom which was always afterwards followed, that a brother of the monarch should be general-in-chief. In his day canoas, hollowed from trunks of trees, were put into general use for war as well as for traffic. The system thus introduced made his army a valuable accession to his neighbors when they went to battle. By the service they rendered to the Aculhuans in such a case, the Mexicans gained a high reputation as dangerous warriors. They were still tributary to the Tepanecs of Atzcapotzalco, then in the hands of the tyrant Maxtla, whom careful readers will TSOM D125 Canal outside the City of Mexico.pngCANAL OUTSIDE THE CITY OF MEXICO.

remember. This usurper, jealous of the growing power of his vassal, and afraid of its results, caused the death of the little son and daughter of the Mexican monarch. "The king, Huitzilihuitl," says the authority, "dissimulated this cruel offence, considering that this was no time to expose his people to open war with the Tepanecs, thus giving proof of a patriotism equal to personal sacrifice."

This was however not the end of the matter for after the death of his father, Chimalpopoca, who reigned in his stead became implicated in a conspiracy against Maxtla. It was discovered, and the punishment that the young king had to endure was to assume certain garments of the style worn by women sent him by Maxtla, as signs of effeminacy and cowardice, while Maxtla carried off and took to himself one of his wives. Chimalpopoca, waited to avenge these insults, and life being insupportable to him, resolved to sacrifice himself to the great god of his fathers, Huitzilopochtli; but Maxtla anticipated his intention, and seizing him, shut him up in a wooden case, such as was used for common criminals. The Mexican king, however, succeeded in his intent, by hanging himself from a bar of his disgraceful prison.

This chief had reigned but ten years; during this time he had an aqueduct constructed to bring clear water from Chapultepec to the city, and built a fine calzada, or paved road, to make direct communication between Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan.

This was the period of the usurpation of Tezozomoc, king of Atzcapotzalco, who wrested the throne of the Chichimecs from Ixtlilxochitl, and killed this brave but unfortunate prince. Maxtla, the tyrant, was the son and heir of Tezozomoc, and as we have seen he poured his wrath upon Nezahualcoyotl, the legitimate heir to the throne of the Chichimecs, the monarchy of Texcuco or Aculhuacan.


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