Aztlán, The Mythical Homeland of the Aztec-Mexica

The Archaeological and Historical Evidence for the Aztec Homeland

Migration of Aztecs to Tenochtitlan, drawing from Boturini Codex manuscript, Mexico, 16th century
The migration of the Aztecs to Tenochtitlan, drawing from the Boturini Codex manuscript. Mexico, 16th century. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

Aztlán (spelled Aztlan or sometimes Aztalan) is the name of the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, the ancient Mesoamerican civilization also known as the Mexica. According to their origin myth, the Mexica left Aztlan at the behest of their god/ruler Huitzilopochtli, to find a new home in the Valley of Mexico. In the Nahua language, Aztlan means “the place of whiteness” or “the place of the heron”.

What Aztlan Was Like

According to the stories, Aztlan was a luxurious and delightful place located on a large lake, where everybody was immortal and lived happily among abundant resources.

There was a steep hill called Colhuacan in the middle of the lake, and in the hill were caves and caverns known collectively as Chicomoztoc, where the ancestors of the Aztec lived. The land was filled with vast quantities of ducks, heron and waterfowl; red and yellow birds sang incessantly; great and beautiful fish swam in the waters and shade trees lined the banks.

At Aztlan, the people fished from canoes and tended their floating gardens of maize, peppers, beans, amaranth and tomatoes. But when they left their homeland, everything turned against them, the weeds bit them, the rocks wounded them, the fields were filled with thistles and spines. They wandered in a land filled with vipers, poisonous lizards and dangerous wild animals before reaching their home to build their place of destiny, Tenochtitlan.

Aztlán: Myth or Historic Place?

The story of the Aztec migration from Aztlan is narrated in several of the remaining books left by the Aztecs, called codexes, in particular the codex Boturini o Tira de la Peregrinacion.

It was also reported as oral history by several Spanish chroniclers including Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Diego Duran and Bernardino de Sahagun.

Modern scholars have long debated whether Aztlán was a real place or simply a myth. The Mexica told the Spanish that their ancestors had reached the Valley of Mexico about 300 years before, after having left their homeland, traditionally located far north of Tenochtitlan.

In Aztlán, the myth goes, the Mexica ancestors dwelled in place with seven caves called Chicomoztoc (Chee-co-moz-toch). Each cave corresponded to one of the Nahuatl tribes which would later leave that place to reach, in successive waves, the Valley of Mexico. These tribes, listed with slight differences from source to source, were the Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Colhua, Tlahuica, Tlaxcala and the group who were to become the Mexica.

Oral and written accounts also mention that the Mexica and the other Nahuatl groups were preceded in their migration by another group, collectively known as Chichimecas, who migrated from north to Central Mexico some time earlier, and were considered by the Nahua people less civilized. 

The Migration

The migration tales are full of stories of the battles and interventions of the gods in the journey. Like all origin myths, the earliest events blend natural and supernatural, but the tales that occur as they neared the Basin of Mexico are less mystical. Stories included in the journey describe how the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and her 400 star brothers attempted to kill Huitzilopochtli (the sun) at the sacred mountain of Coatepec.

Archaeology and historical linguistics support the occurrence of multiple in-migrations to the basin of Mexico from northern Mexico and/or the southeastern United States between 1100 and 1300 AD.

That evidence includes the introduction of new ceramic types in central Mexico, and the fact that the Nahuatl language, the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, is not original to Central Mexico.

Moctezuma's Search

Aztlan was a source of fascination for the Aztecs themselves. The Spanish chroniclers and codexes report that the Mexica king Moctezuma Ilhuicamina (ruled 1502-1520) sent an expedition to search for the mythical homeland. Sixty elderly sorcerers and magicians were assembled by Moctezuma for the trip, and given gold, precious stones, mantles, feathers, cacao, vanilla and cotton from the royal storehouses to be used as gifts to the ancestors. The sorcerers left Tenochtitlan and within 10 days arrived at Coatepec, where they transformed themselves into birds and animals and journeyed to Aztlan, where they re-assumed their human form.

At Aztlan the sorcerers found a hill in the middle of a lake, where the inhabitants spoke Nahuatl. The sorcerers were taken to the hill where they met an old man who was the priest and guardian of the goddess Coatlicue. The old man took them to the sanctuary of Coatlicue, where they met an ancient woman who said she was the mother of Huitzilipochtli and had suffered greatly since he left. He had promised to return, she said, but never had. People in Aztlan could choose their age, said Coatlicue: they were immortal. The reason the people in Tenochtitlan died was because they consumed cacao and other luxury items. The old man refused the gold and precious goods, saying "these things have ruined you", and gave the sorcerers waterfowl and plants native to Aztlan and maguey fiber cloaks and breechcloths to take back with them. The sorcerers transformed themselves back into animals and returned to Tenochtitlan.

Modern Aztlan

In modern Chicano culture, Aztlán represents an important symbol of spiritual and national unity, and it has been often paralleled to the territories ceded to the United States by Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elzey W. 1991. A Hill on a Land Surrounded by Water: An Aztec Story of Origin and Destiny. History of Religions 31(2):105-149.

Navarrete F. 2000. The Path from Aztlan to Mexico: On Visual Narration in Mesoamerican Codices. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics (37):31-48.

Smith ME. 1984. The Aztlan Migrations of the Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History? Ethnohistory 31(3):153-186.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst