Anonymous: Codex Mendoza, page 2r - The founding of Tenochtitlan (1542)


(Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK)

The first page of the Codex Mendoza, a pictorial document, with Spanish annotations and commentary, which contains the history of the Aztec emperors and other important information of Aztec daily life. This page shows the founding of Tenochtitlan (= modern Mexico-city) , the capitol of the Aztec empire, and is a combination of mythical and historical information. 

The Eagle on the Cactus:
According to Aztec myths, the Aztecs originally came from a legendary place called Aztlán (probably northwestern Mexico or the southwest US). The god Huitzilopochtli (the Aztec god of war, human sacrifice and the sun) said to the Aztecs that they should migrate to the south and search for new land. The god would give them a sign when they had found the correct spot. The tribe migrated south and eventually settled in the the Valley of Mexico near Lake Texcoco. There the Aztecs saw the sign that Huitzilopochtli had foretold them: an eagle with a snake in its beak perched atop a cactus and build their capitol Tenochtitlan on that spot. This vision of the eagle on a cactus is depicted at the center of the page. Visible under the eagle on the cactus is a shield with 7 balls on it and a bundle of arrows: this symbol represents power of Tenochtitlan. The square and diagonal blue line around it represents Lake Texcoco. 

The Founders of Tenochtitlan;
Depicted around the eagle on the cactus are 10 seated men and two buildings. The two buildings are not exactly clear but are perhaps a temple of Huitzilopochtli and a skull rack which contains the heads of the Aztec's sacrificial victims. The 10 seated men are all named and are the city founders. The most important man is visible on the left of the eagle on the cactus and is sitting on a square yellow mat. This man is a priest called Tenoch and is the leader of the group (it is unclear of Tenoch is a mythical or historical person).

The conquest scenes:
Depicted beneath the blue square are 2 conquest scenes: an Aztec warrior has captured an enemy warrior while next to them a temple is burning. The text identifies both cities as Colhuacan and Tenayucan, powerful city-states in the valley of Mexico. The inclusion of the conquest on this page suggest that both cities were conquered during the reign of Tenoch but in reality both cities were taken much later after the reign of Tenoch. 

The calendar:
Visible next to the edges of this page is a blue border which is divided into small compartments with symbols and dots. Each compartment represents 1 year in the Aztec calendar and the entire border represents the total reign of Tenoch - 51 years. The very first calendar symbol in the top left corner is the founding date of Tenochticlan - the year 1325. in the lower right corner you can see a symbol near the calendar border of 'the new fire ceremony'. This ceremony was held every 52 years (a full cycle in the Aztec calendar) and marked the beginning of a new 52 year calendar cycle. Book from 1542.

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