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).

Aztec representation of the moon as found in the Codex Borgia

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.

Florentine Codex

The passage above from the Florentine Codex discusses the origin of the word Mexican.

Este nombre mexicatl, se decia antiguamente mecitli. Se compone de ME, que es METL (maguey), y de CITLI (liebre). y asi se habia decir MECICATL, y mudando la, ‘c’ en ‘x’ se corrompe, y se dice, MEXICATL. Y la causa de nombre, segun lo cuentan los viejos, es que cuando vinieron los mexicanos a estas partes: traian un caudillo, y senor, que se llamba Mecitli, al cual luego despues que nacio; le llamaron Citli, liebre, y porque en lugar de cuna, lo criaron en una penca grande de maguey, de ahi adelante, se llamo Mecitli, como quien dice <<hombre criado en aquella penca de maguey>>: y cuando ya era hombre, fue sacerdote de idolos, que hablada personalamente con el demonio, por lo que era muy temido, muy respetado, y obedecido por sus vasallos, los cuales tomando su nombre de su sacerdote, se llamaron Mexicas, o Mecicas, segun lo cuentan los antiguos. Estos tales son advenedizos, porque vinieron de las provincias chichimecas,…

Roughly translated (using Google Translate)

This Mexica name was formerly called mecitli. It is made up of ME, which is METL (maguey), and CITLI (hare). and thus MECICATL had to be said, and moving the, ‘c’ in ‘x’ is corrupted (spoiled/perverted), and it is said, MEXICATL. And the name’s cause, as the old men tell it, is that when the Mexicans came to these parts: they brought a caudillo (1), and senor, whose name was Mecitli, to whom later after he was born; They called him Citli, hare, and because instead of a cradle, they raised him (2) on a large maguey penca, from then on, he was called Mecitli, as someone who says << man raised on that maguey penca >>: and when he was already a man , He was a priest of idols, who spoke personally to the devil, so he was greatly feared, highly respected, and obeyed by his vassals, who, taking their name from their priest, were called Mexicas, or Mecicas, according to the ancient accounts. . These such are upstarts (foreigner/novice/rookie), because they came from the Chichimeca provinces, (3)…

  1. a type of personalist leader wielding military and political power. This could also be used to explain Tenoch, a feared and respected leader who (in one story) led his people to the promised land (of Tenochtitlan). This is also echoed in statement that the people took their name from that of the priest.
  2. being “raised” in this context means to be bought up, ie: he was raised by loving parents.
  3. I’m guessing he wasn’t interviewing an “Aztec” but one of their vassals when he got this particular comment. The Chichimeca were considered wild, nomadic barbarians.

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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