The Triple Alliance

How the terms Mexico and Aztec may have entered history.

Who were the Aztecs? Were they an actual people like the Totonacs, the Zapoteca or the Mexica; or did the word Aztec define something else entirely?

The first published use of the term “Aztec” was when Father Francisco Javier Clavijero Echegaray included it in his book La Historia Antigua de México (1780). A few decades later, German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt borrowed it when writing up his trip to Mexico. The term entered the English lexicon when William Prescott’s book The History of the Conquest of Mexico was published in 1843.

It is generally believed that there were no people called the Aztec but that the group commonly called by this name was the result of the strategic and political alliance of three factions (although this is disputed).

The Mexica was a wandering tribe that entered what is now known as the Valley of Mexico sometime in the 1300’s (as the Gregorian calendar flies). They had left their birthplace, the mythical homeland of Aztlan, under the direction of their god Huitzilopochtli and were to seek a new home which would be indicated by specific omens.

The omen they sought was an eagle devouring a snake whilst perched upon a nopal cactus. They stumbled across this very occurrence in the swampy lacustrine area of the highland mountain basin/plateau of what is now known as the Valley of Mexico.

Raúl Ibarra, from Santa Cruz Acalpixca, bearer of an oral tradition that his family has preserved for generations keeps the knowledge of the tenonotzalli (1) stones of Cerro Cuailama (2). Raul speaks of the successive waves of migration into the Valley of Mexico. Cuailama was founded around 1265 AD by the Xochimilcas , the first of the Nahuatlaca (3) tribes that migrated from the mythical Aztlán to the Basin of Mexico. After them came the Chalcas, Tepanecas , Acolhuas, Tlahuicas, Tlaxcalans and finally the Mexica.

  1. The stones that protect knowledge. Petroglyphs carved into stone that speak of calendrical cycles and astronomical events that were important for this area.
  2. Cuailama hill
  3. Nahuatl speaking peoples

The Mexica were a belligerent and bellicose (1) group and were not readily accepted by the many peoples who already populated the area. According to legend they were relegated to an area of swampy snake infested land which in the long run proved to be their neighbours downfall. The land was fertile and the snakes were delicious.

  1. demonstrating aggression and willingness to fight.

The formerly nomadic Mexica were a warrior people. They hired themselves out as mercenaries and through their skills in the arts of war, and marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states, the Aztecs began to build a political base.

In the 1400’s Itzcoatl (Obsidian Serpent) of the Mexica began a campaign that would form the basis of what we now know as the Aztec Empire.

The Mexica and their allies used the expression “In Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān” to describe the Aztec empire. In essence, “In Ēxcan Tlahtōlōyan” means “the three places where decisions are made” or “the locus of decision-making is in three places.”(1)

  1. The first word is a locative, derived from “ēyi” (three) and “-cān” (place). It translates best to “in three places.” Then “tlahtōlōyan” comes from “tlahtōlo” (to be judged, decreed, said) and “-yan” (place where X happens). The word designates a place where decisions are made.

The Nahua Mexica of Tenochtitlan allied with the Acolhua of (Tetzcohco) Texcoco and the Tepanecas of Tlacōpan to overthrow Tepanec rule and establish what is commonly known now as the Aztec Empire. The participation of Tlacōpan was a strategic necessity as they were Tepanecas and their participation legitimised the overthrow of the territory of Ātzcapozalco (Azcapotzalco) on the shores of Lake Texcoco which was the seat of Tepanec rule.

In 1428 (as time was counted in the Christian calendar) Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, Izcoatl of Tenochtitlan and Totoquihuaztli of Tlacopan took advantage of the death of the Tepanec ruler Tezozomoc. Tezozomocs death created a power vacuum and this allowed their vassal states (1) to rebel and throw off the yoke of Tepanec rule. The former Tepanec lands were divided among the three leaders and the city of Azcapotzalco was destroyed and turned into a slave market (2).

  1. A vassal state is any state that is subordinate to another. The vassal in these cases is the ruler, rather than the state itself. Being a vassal most commonly implies providing military assistance to the dominant state when requested to do so; it sometimes implies paying tribute, but a state which does so is better described as a tributary state
  2. Enciclopedia de Los Municipios y Delegaciones de México Distrito Federal. (in Spanish). Mexico: INAFED. 2010. Archived from the original on November 10, 2014.
Glyphs for the three city-states that made up the Triple Alliance.The central glyph “Mexico” is actually that of “Tenōchtitlan”

The Aztec Empire was at its peak when Columbus first set foot in the Americas in 1492.

(See Post Origins of the words Aztec and Mexico)

(See Post Huitzilopochtli, Tenochtitlan and the Opuntia Cactus)

(See Post La culpa es de los Tlaxcaltecas (The Tlaxcaltecas are to blame)

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