The Mesoamerican deity Huitzilopochtli was the patron god of the Mexican people and is the primary God of War (and the Sun) in the Aztec pantheon. The legend goes that after he was betrayed by a nephew he killed him and removed his heart. This heart was left on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco and, like many creation legends involving plants, from the rocks upon which Copil’s heart lay sprang the nopal cactus. This cactus would later play a role in the creation of Mexico as the wandering Mexica people had a prophecy that stated they would find the site of their new home when they came upon a cactus in which sat an eagle devouring a snake, an image that you will find this very day on the Mexican coat of arms and in the centre of the Mexican flag.
A less mythological telling of the story says that the tribes of Malinalco, Toluca and Texcaltepec had allowed the wandering Mexica to camp on lands controlled by them. The Mexica discovered a plan by these groups to attack them so Cuauhtlequetzqui (a Mexica priest) made a pre-emptive strike on his equal Copil, a priest from Malinalco, and killed him and removed his heart. He tasked one of his assistants Tenochtli to bury the heart among the reeds in a rocky salt marsh. The cactus that sprang from this buried heart became the heart of Tenochtitlan. (Light, p79)
The city of Tenochtitlan was an unrivalled wonder of the world when Cortés arrived. The beauty of the city was so great that more than one conquistador wondered out loud whether or not they were walking through a dream. The city itself was larger than Seville and being built as it was in a lake was often compared to Venice (although without the filth and stench). Being an agricultural society the Aztec capital was surrounded by gardens. Every home had a small garden and any who could afford it would create pleasure gardens filled with herbs, flowers and trees. Moctezuma’s royal pleasure gardens awed the conquistadors with their size and beauty. Cortés, like a violent, petulant child, smashed everything he lusted after without any thoughts other than self-aggrandising social status and wealth. And although he later lamented the loss of the beauty of Tenochtitlan he took no responsibility for the crimes he committed or the cultural genocide he was responsible for.
Although the picture above does not do justice to the grandeur of Tenochtitlan in the centre left of the photo you can see the grand dyke designed by Nezahualcoyotl the warrior-sage poet-king. This dyke was designed to keep the fresh water of Lake Texcoco from being polluted by the surrounding salt water lakes. The dyke was nearly 15 kilometres in length and was only one of the many architectural marvels to be found in Mesoamerica.
A tenet at the centre of Aztec religion was the responsibility of the people to ensure that the sun continued to move across the sky. One of the ways this was done was to “feed” the gods and human blood was considered extremely important. The heart (which is the essence of life itself) held the highest value and was the most valuable gift which humans could give back to the gods.
The nopal cactus (Opuntia species) is a valuable food source in Mexico and some varieties grow a blood red fruit that has a superficial resemblance to the human heart. The Spanish demonised the red fruits of this cactus (called “tunas” in Mexico) as this fruit was sometimes used to represent the human heart in various rituals and some sacrificial ceremonies. The Spanish also preferred to represent evil with the image of the serpent, further denigrating another aspect of Mexican religious beliefs.
In Nahuatl terminology the heart extracted from a sacrifice was known as quauhnochtli “eagle-cactus-fruit” (Deffebach p141).
An interesting aside to this is the possibility that the Aztec people took so easily to the Christian religion was because at the core of Christianity is the sacrifice of God’s son Jesus and the spilling of his blood by the piercing of his side by a legionnaires spear. This act of sacrifice and bloodletting was readily understood within the culture of the Aztecan peoples. There is also the “cannibalistic” act of the catholic practice of transubstantiation in which bread and wine are converted into the body and blood of Christ which is then consumed by the priest and his flock.
Outside of its religious use the nopal is a very valuable plant for its nutritional and medicinal qualities. It is a very hardy desert plant that has found a home in some fairly inhospitable places such as the deserts of Africa and Australia. The plant was introduced into Australia by the British who were keen on breeding the cochineal insect that lives on the cactus and were used to produce a deep red dye used for their military uniforms. The plant quickly became established and soon became a declared weed that was destroying prime farming land. This was only turned around by the introduction of the cactoblastis moth (Cactoblastis cactorum) in the 1920’s. The moth lays its eggs on the plant and the larvae quickly destroy the cactus by eating it from the inside out. This case of biological pest control is considered to be one of great success (unlike the introduction of the cane toad in a misguided attempt to control the cane beetle).