Aztec Mythology and The City of Tenochtitlán

In its prime, Tenochtitlan was one of the biggest, richest, and most powerful cities in the world. From its founding in 1325 to its capture by the Spanish in 1521, Tenochtitlan served as the political, economic, and religious nerve center of the Aztec empire. Experts believe that around 200,000 people lived there. It also played an important role in the Aztec cultural identity and mindset, due to its presence in Aztec creation mythology.

The Aztecs believed that they emerged from the earth through seven caves. At that time, they settled in an area called Aztlán. This was the mythical origin place of the people, and its name means "the place of herons." After living in Aztlán, they migrated south looking for a sign indicating where they should resettle.

According to Aztec legend, the Sun God and patron deity of the Aztecs, Huitzilopochtli, led his people out of Aztlán to find a new place to settle and call home. His sister, Malinalxochitl, had come along, but Huitzilopochtli abandoned her along the journey. Angered by Huitzilopochtli's desertion, she later sent her son, Copil, on a mission to exact revenge. Ultimately, Huitzilopochtli killed Copil after a battle and cast his heart into Lake Texcoco. He then ordered the Aztecs to search for the lake containing Copil's heart and build their city atop it. Their sign would be an eagle perched on a cactus, eating a snake.

As Huitzilopochtli guided the Aztecs further south, they eventually came upon a lake with an island. On this island sat an eagle on a cactus, eating a snake. This sight fulfilled the prophecy for the Aztecs, and so they decided to erect a temple there. This structure eventually grew into the entire great city of Tenochtitlán. The image of the eagle and the snake is pictured to this day on the Mexican flag.

According to the known historical data, the Aztecs did migrate from the northernmost part of Mexico to the central plateau. However, the precise location of the area called Aztlán is still unknown. There is also debate as to whether it was a place of paradise or peril, as sources conflict on the subject.

The city of Tenochtitlán was built though the wealth that the Aztecs gained from conquering various civilizations. The name Tenochtitlán comes from the Nahuatl (indigenous language of the Aztecs) words for "rock" and "prickly pear" and means, "among the prickly pears [growing among] rocks."

Construction of the city began almost immediately. All of the structures and important areas were laid out on a grid. The city contained aqueducts, geniously networked streets and canals. In the center of the city lay the Sacred Precinct, and it was where religious ceremonies took place. The Sacred Precinct alone could hold about 8,000 people and it contained aviaries, gardens and zoos.

Aside from the stories about their god Huitzilopochtli and his assistance guiding them south, the Aztecs had many other myths and legends that were integral to their culture. In fact, they recognized over 100 deities and supernatural creatures. Because Tenochtitlán was such an epicenter of Aztec civilization, it is interesting to learn that the site and its founding was central in one of their earliest myths.

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