Origins of the words Aztec and Mexico

These two words which are integral to the heart of México are inextricably intertwined. It has been posited that the root for the word México was metl, the Náhuatl root of the word maguey or metztli (the moon) and xictli (centre or navel). Others, being friars of the Franciscan or Dominican variety, thought that the Mexican peoples were of Hebrew descent (being one of the lost tribes of Israel) and the word México was derived from the word messiah.  They liked to back this up with the legend of Quetzalcoatl who was believed to be a bearded white man who could of course only be Jesus himself. Some intellectuals think that this meaning may cross over with the Náhuatl word mexitli which refers to something being “anointed to Huitzilopochtli” (Tena-Colunga 1987). This is interesting as the literal translation of the Hebrew word mashiach (messiah) is “anointed”. Another version of the word Mexitli refers to Mexitli a great leader and war priest who led the people out of Aztlan.

My favourite definition is the one that involves the Náhuatl word Mexixquilitl, which is a variety of quelite (said to be possibly) related to the nasturtium (1) and those who ate this wild plant were known as the “water cress eaters” (Tena-Colunga). I find this interesting as the wandering tribe that founded what we now know as the Aztec empire were considered a group of wild barbarians who ate snakes and frogs from the swamps (and possibly the water cress growing in the same area?). I have to admit that it is the plant nerd in me that this resonates with.

  1. The nasturtium is of the Tropaeolum species. Mexixquilitl (as shown from a picture in the Badianus Manuscript) has been identified with Lepidium virginicum which is called cress in parts of South and Central America.
Mexixquilitl (on right)

As I have previously mentioned there were no people known as the Aztec but that this word referred to an alliance of three tribes. There is however another school of thought that speaks exactly the opposite (Magaña 2011). The Aztec people, named after their birthplace Aztlán (1), already existed and that an omen, triggered by a hummingbird landing on a tree which then split, signaled that one particular group should separate from a group of seven tribes that coexisted together. This group were to let go of the name Aztec and call themselves the Mexicah. The story then joins the commonly known version (2) and the empire consequently created by the wandering Mexicah tribe was called the Aztec empire because it contained many peoples from the other tribes that originally hailed from Aztlán.

Regardless of the origins of either word there is no doubt than when either is mentioned it invokes the spirits of only one place.

  1. The place of the heron
  2. The one where the wandering tribe settled where they found the eagle devouring the snake while perched upon the nopal
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