Aztec: Nezahualcoyotl and Texcoco

Nezahualcoyotl, meaning “Coyote in fast” or “Coyote who Fasts” was a philosopher, warrior, architect, poet and ruler of the city-state of Texcoco in pre-Columbian era Mexico. This account of his life and his achievements, with the city of Texcoco forming one leg of the triple alliance that was the Aztec empire, is a truly remarkable description of an Athens in the Americas.

The account that follows is itself a summary of the witness of provided by the native historian Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl. Born between 1568 and 1580, Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl was a direct descendant of Ixtlilxochitl I and Ixtlilxochitl II, who had been tlatoque (rulers) of Texcoco. He was also the great-great-grandson of Cuitláhuac (Cuitláhuac was the eleventh son of the ruler Axayacatl and a younger brother of Moctezuma II, the previous ruler of Tenochtitlan.), the penultimate Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlan and victor of la Noche Triste. On the death of his eldest brother in 1602, he was declared by a royal decree heir to the titles and possessions of his family.
— Orly


Quinatzin, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, established the capital of the kingdom of the Chichimecs in Texcoco. It was during his reign that the Aztecs, or Mexicans, whom we now hear of for the first time, established themselves in Tenochtitlan, which was on the site of what is now the city of Mexico, though their arrival made but little stir in the neighborhood. The Chichimecs were troubled by quarrels with the new kingdom of Atzcapotzalco, but for a century they maintained their good standing, always advancing in civilization and the arts of peace, and it was not until 1409 that one of their kings, Ixtlilxochitl, found these rising neighbors too strong for him. The Tepanecs and the Aztecs united, and swore together a conspiracy to overwhelm him. He was assassinated, and his throne was usurped by Tezozomoc, the king of Atzcapotzalco.

When the city of Texcuco was seized, the young prince Nezahualcoyotl, the heir to the crown, was but fifteen years old. He fled before the turbulent crowd of Tepanecs as they rushed into the palace gardens, and hid himself in the branches of a tree which most luckily happened to come in his way. From his hiding-place among its thick leaves he saw his father, Ixtlilxochitl, left alone for the moment, turn and face his furious enemies. They seized and killed him on the spot, and the frightened boy saw the bleeding body carried off, a victim, as he well knew, for future sacrifice. Filled with horror and burning with thoughts of vengeance, he fled from the spot, seeking safety for the moment, with the firm resolve of turning later upon the assassins of his father and the usurpers of his inheritance.

As the country was full of the triumphant army, in a few days the young prince fell into the hands of his pursuers, who knew too much to leave him at large. He was seized and imprisoned temporarily, until some decision should be taken as to his fate. The prison was a strong place guarded by the same governor who had held it in the previous reign, for the new government had not yet had time to change such offices. This old man knew the prince well, and was devoted to his line. He helped him to escape and took his place in the dungeon cell. It was long enough before the change was discovered for the prince to be far out of reach of pursuit. The good old governor lost his head, but Nezahualcoyotl found shelter in the neighboring province of Tlaxcalla, whose rulers were for the moment friendly to his family.

This is the place which later offered to Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano protection and aid in his enterprise of conquest. 

Climbing by rail the ascent from Vera Cruz, the modern traveller, after reaching the barren plateau of the cold region, and crossing a dreary, dismal country, strikes an insensibly downward grade, which gradually leads him to the central basin of Mexico. The Malinche presides over the landscape, an isolated peak, which all the year conceals beds of snow in the crevices of its summit, though unseen below, rising more than thirteen thousand feet above the level of the sea. Less majestic than the two great volcanoes, it yet has wonderful beauty of outline, and from its solitary position gains importance.

This mountain was long the object of worship for the tribes who lived around its base, among them the Tlaxcallans, whose home lies to the northwest of it, in a deep valley surrounded by barren ridges. Their so-called social organization and mode of government, which have given their country the name of a kind of Mexican Switzerland, is now thought to have differed little from those of their neighbors. Their chiefs were elected from an hereditary house of rulers, and two of them formed the nominal head of the tribe, while the true power lay in a council. Their territory consisted of narrow valleys spreading into fertile fields, where they maintained long their independence, subject to the attacks of neighboring tribes. Tlaxcalla means "the land of bread." Its rich products naturally were tempting to the neighboring tribes, whose limits included land not so good for cultivation. Their next neighbors were the Cholulans, who dwelt under the great pyramid. The Tlaxcallans had the reputation of triumphing over their foes in battle, for they were both bold and strong.

It was with the friendly Tlaxcallans that the wandering prince lived, unmolested in the companionship of a brave man who followed the fortunes of his young master. He had been the family preceptor ever since the birth of the prince. This tutor was wise as well as learned; although he was strongly prejudiced in favor of the legitimate family and against the usurpation of the fierce Tepanec, he counselled restraint and patience, and caused his pupil to lead a quiet life without attracting attention, while he was giving him lessons in the art of governing and training in all the qualities good for a monarch to possess.

Meanwhile, the son of the usurper grew up untrained and indulged in the royal palace, humored but feared by all who surrounded him. Maxtla was born of a race of no gentle attributes; he cared little for study, and knew no discipline. He knew the rightful prince, and hated him on account of his better claim to the throne, while he despised his reserve and modesty, which he set down to weakness, knowing nothing of the qualities of self-restraint and reserved force. When Tezozomoc died, he bequeathed his empire to his son Maxtla. On the accession of the new sovereign, all the great families hastened to do him homage, and among them came Nezahualcoyotl, then twenty-three years old, with a present of flowers, which he laid at the feet of the young king. Maxtla sprang up and spurned the flowers with his foot, and then turned his back upon the true prince, who had self-control enough to withdraw quietly, admonished by signs from all the royal attendants, with whom he was a favorite. He lost no time in leaving the royal palace, and hastened back to the deserted one at Texcuco.

But Maxtla could not fail to see that the sympathies even of his own followers were with his rival, whose manners, indeed, were those to win, while his own repelled the affection of courtiers and inferiors. He resolved to do away with him, and formed a plan which failed through the vigilance of the wily old tutor. When the prince was invited to an evening entertainment by Maxtla, the tutor was sure that more was meant than a friendly attention. He could not permit his pupil to go, but accepted the invitation for him, and sent in his stead a young man he had at hand who singularly resembled Nezahualcoyotl. This youth, perhaps, was pleased to attend a royal feast, dressed in the rich robes which the son of a king, even if lacking a throne, might wear; but there must have been a moment, just as he felt the deadly iztli weapon at his throat, when he perceived the game was not worth the candle; for the guest was assassinated as he came to the table, before the substitution could be perceived; and thus the true prince escaped. His descendant, who tells us the story, does not let us know whether Nezahualcoyotl was a party to the deception. We will leave the blame on the shoulders of the wily old tutor, in order to preserve the honor of our hero unsullied.



When Maxtla found that his rival was not dead, like a prince in a fairy tale, he gave up secret plots, and boldly sent a band of armed soldiers to the old palace at Texcoco, to seize the young man whose popularity he feared. The tutor, always on the watch, arranged everything as usual, and when the emissaries of Maxtla arrived, they found the prince playing ball in the court of the palace. He received them courteously, as if he thought they came on a friendly visit, and invited them to come in, while he stepped into a room which opened on the court, as if to give orders for refreshments for them. They seemed to be seeing him all the time, but, by the directions of the old tutor, a censer which stood in the passage was so fed and stirred by the servants that it threw up clouds of incense between the guests and their host, between which Nezahualcoyotl disappeared into a secret passage which communicated with a great pipe made of pottery, formerly used to carry water into the palace. He stayed there till after dark, when he could escape without being seen, and found safety in a cottage belonging to an old subject loyal to his father's name. A price was set upon his head, and a reward offered to him who should take him dead or alive, in the shape of a marriage with some lady of birth and broad possessions. This bride never came to her wedding, for the prince was not found. Too many faithful vassals watched over him, in spite of the temptation of such a brilliant match; they hid him under heaps of magueys, and furnished him with every means of escape. They turned their heads away when they saw him pass, lest they should be forced to betray the knowledge; they put food for him in places where he might steal forth and find it. They hid him once in a large thing like a drum, around which they were dancing as if to amuse themselves. In fact, no one would give him up; the whole population connived to protect him and hide him from his half-hearted pursuers, forced to the task by their sovereign. It was a poor sort of life he led, and his own sufferings were increased by his tender heart for the difficulties these caused his loyal protectors.

Most of the chiefs of the regions round about were, from policy, allied to the usurper, but the dethroned prince had friends, and the party on his side grew large as the tyranny of Maxtla and his oppressions caused defections among his followers. When the time came for a general rising, Nezahualcoyotl found himself at the head of a courageous band which gained in size and strength, until it seemed safe to attack the regular forces of Maxtla. In the battle which took place the tyrant was routed, and the true prince triumphant. As soon as this was known all the chiefs flocked to do him homage, and he entered his capital in triumph, crossing to the sound of military music the spot where he had passed an evening under a drum, and entering by the royal gates the palace he had left through a water-pipe. Horses were not known in Anahuac until after the advent of the Conquistadores. The young victor was borne in a sort of palanquin by four of the chief nobles of the kingdom.

Thus did Nezahualcoyotl return to the throne of his fathers. The Mexicans, who had helped his former enemies to overthrow the rule of his father, now joined forces with him, abandoning without hesitation Maxtla, whose oppression and exaction made him an uncomfortable ally. A league of the other neighboring tribes, combining with the Mexicans, under the lead of the true prince of Texcoco, utterly routed the forces of Maxtla, and this tyrant who himself assassinated the father was slain by the hand of the son.

Maxtla was killed in 1428. The usurpation of the throne of the Chichimecs by Tezozomoc first, and afterwards by Maxtla, his son, had lasted ten years. By this event the kingdom of Atzcapotzalco came to an end, having lasted not more than two hundred and sixty years.

The kingdom which Nezahualcoyotl regained from the usurpers, whose kings traced their lineage back to the Chichimec Xolotl (Eye of great Vigilance), now became the kingdom of Texcoco Aculhuacan, by which it was known when [Hernan] Cortés, with his conquering legions, appeared on the plains of Anahuac.



Now followed the Golden Age of Texcoco. The Fox, no longer hungry nor hunted, proved himself a very Lion, a King of Beasts; he ruled his kingdom with wisdom, as he had fought with bravery, and endured adversity with patience.

... the most peculiar was the Council of Music, devoted to the interests of all arts and science. Its members were selected from the best instructed persons of the kingdom, without much reference to their ranks. They had the supervision of all works of art, all writings, pictorial or hieroglyphic, and had an eye on all professors to keep them up to their work. This Council of Music had sessions when it listened to poems and historical compositions recited by their authors, who received prizes according to the merit of their work.
— Orly

On coming to the throne, he proclaimed a general amnesty, pardoned the rebels, and even gave some of them posts of honor. He repaired the ruin wrought by the usurper, and revived what was worth revival in the old form of government. He made a code of laws well suited to the demands of his time, which was written in blood. It was accepted by the two other powers with whom he now entered into alliances, Mexico and Tlacopan. His adjustment of the different departments of government was remarkable for the time, or indeed for any time, providing councils for every emergency; of these the most peculiar was the Council of Music, devoted to the interests of all arts and science. Its members were selected from the best instructed persons of the kingdom, without much reference to their ranks. They had the supervision of all works of art, all writings, pictorial or hieroglyphic, and had an eye on all professors to keep them up to their work. This Council of Music had sessions when it listened to poems and historical compositions recited by their authors, who received prizes according to the merit of their work.

The literary men of Texcoco became celebrated throughout the country, and its archives were preserved with the greatest care in the palace. These records, which would have told us all we want to know of the early story of the people of Anahuac, were, for the most part, inscribed upon a fine fabric, made of the leaves of the American aloe, the maguey which also gave them their favorite beverage. The sheets made from it were something like the Egyptian papyrus, and furnished a smooth surface like parchment, upon which the picture-writings were laid in the most brilliant tints. These manuscripts were done up in rolls sometimes, but were often folded like a screen, and enclosed in wooden covers, not very unlike our books. Quantities of such manuscripts were stored up in the country, not only by the Texcucans, but by all the inhabitants of the different kingdoms. Probably no race has made better provision for handing down its traditions and history than these people who wandered from the mysterious North. All this is lost to us by the infatuation of the Spanish Conquistadores, as we shall see later on.

As if barbarians, ignorant of types and bindings, should descend upon the British Museum or Bibliotèque Nationale, and, perceiving therein countless parallelograms of calf containing wicked little dots upon countless white leaves, should order them to be destroyed, as foolishness or blasphemy. So the first priests of the Christian religion arriving in New Spain destroyed these playthings of the idolaters, which they conceived to be probably precious, but at all events useless.

Only chance specimens of these wonderful picture-writings escaped the general destruction, and from which is gleaned whatever is surmised of the earliest life of the tribes of Anahuac.

Texcoco led all the other nations in its literary culture, or rather pictorial skill, since letters were unknown. The Texcucan idiom was the purest of all the many dialects from the Nahuatl root. Among its poets, the king himself, Nezahualcoyotl, was distinguished. He not only belonged to the Council of Music, but appeared before it with other competitors. Perhaps some folded screen enclosing an ode by his hand lies hidden yet somewhere in Mexico, or even among the dusty archives of Old Spain. Some few have come to light, and one of them exists in Spanish, translated by a Mexican. It is hard to be sure of the import of the original through the change of expression inevitable in translating, but we may guess something of it.

"Rejoice," he says, "O Nezahualcoyotl, in the enjoyable, which now you grasp. With the flowers of this lovely garden crown thy illustrious brows, and draw pleasure from those things from which pleasure is to be drawn."

This garden of the no longer hungry Fox was a wonderful Place of Delights, and the remains of it may be seen to this day. About three miles from the capital rises the Laughing Hill of Tezcotzinco. Here are left the remains of terraced walls, and stairways wind around the hill from the bottom to the top. In shady nooks among the rocks seats are hollowed out of the stone, and ingenious contrivances can be traced on all sides for enhancing the natural advantages of the situation. The most curious of all the vestiges of Nezahualcoyotl's garden is a round reservoir for water at an elevation of eighty or one hundred feet. It is about five feet across and three feet deep. Channels led from it in all directions to water and refresh the terrace-gardens below.

The country all about is full of artificial embankments, reservoirs and aqueducts for leading water about, and developing the attractions of the place. A magnificent grove of lofty ahuehuetes, at some distance from the central part of the grounds, surrounds a large quadrangle, now dry, which was probably an artificial lake in the time of the great king, for whose pleasure these things were planned. He was rich enough to pay for all the costly works he commanded, by reason of successful wars and judicious management of domestic industry, and so was justified in indulging his taste for magnificence in architecture. The ruins of Tezcotzinco faintly attest the truth of the descriptions of this royal residence, which tell of hanging gardens approached by steps of porphyry, reservoirs sculptured with the achievements of the monarch, and adorned with marble statues. There stood a lion of solid stone more than twelve feet long, with wings and feathers carved upon them. He was placed to face the east, and in his mouth he held a stone face, which was the very likeness of the king himself. This was his favorite portrait, although many other representations of him had been made in gold, wood, or feather-work. On the summit of the hill was the carved representation of a coyotl, the hungry fox which gave to the monarch his name so tedious to us to pronounce.

The remains of Tezcotzinco are now shown as the Baths of Montezuma; but this is a purely modern application of the title of a chief more commonly known. The baths belonged to Nezahualcoyotl, and if by chance any Montezuma made use of them, it was only as a passing guest.

Nezahualcoyotl, this wise, good, æsthetic king, committed a deed which his descendant and historian regards as a great blot upon his fame. He remained unmarried for a long time, on account of an early disappointment in love, and was no longer young when he conceived a violent passion for a noble maiden whom he met at the house of one of his vassals. This vassal wished the fair lady for his own bride; he had in fact brought her up with that intent, but the king, regardless of the laws of honor, caused the old man to be killed by his own men in a battle with the Tlaxcallans, which he set on foot chiefly for this purpose. The young princess was then invited to the royal palace, where she received in due form and time an offer of marriage from the monarch. The wedding was celebrated with great pomp, not long after the funeral of the vassal.

This is the only anecdote that reflects discredit on the monarch, and there are many which tell to his advantage. It was his custom, as with the Eastern Khalif, to go about in disguise among his people to find out their wants in order to alleviate them.

One day as he was walking through a field with one of his friends he met a small boy picking up sticks here and there. "There are many more in the forest yonder," he said; "why do not you go there to get them?"

"The forest belongs to the king," said the boy, "and it would be worth my life to take his property."

The king advised him to disregard the law and go and take what wood he wanted, as nobody would find him out, but the boy was too honest or too cautious to follow the advice, and steadily went a gleaning as he could in the open field.

When the king returned to the palace he sent for the boy and his parents. The parents were praised for bringing up such a boy, the boy was praised and rewarded, and the king passed a law allowing unlimited picking up chips.

In short, Nezahualcoyotl was a model monarch. He pardoned all his enemies, was humane and clement; he formed a code of wise and just laws, and instituted tribunals for the prompt administration of justice; he established schools and academies for the diffusion of all sorts of knowledge, and generously encouraged science and art. As for his religious belief, he abjured the barbarous creed which prevailed at the time, and announced his conviction of the existence of one God, author of the universe. He erected a superb temple to this deity, and composed hymns in his praise.

Nezahualcoyotl died in 1472. It was nearly half a century since he had rescued his throne from the usurper. He had raised his kingdom from the anarchy in which he found it to a brilliant station, and saw it, at the close of his life, growing stronger and going farther in the path of advanced civilization. He had brought this about by his wise and judicious rule and might well contemplate with satisfaction the results of his wisdom and judgment.

His only legitimate son was about eight years old at the time of his father's death. His name was Nezahualpilli. He became as learned as his father, was liberal and charitable; even more severe in the administration of justice, going so far as to condemn to death two of his own sons who had infringed the law. In his time he was held to be the wisest monarch of the epoch, and amongst his subjects he had moreover the reputation of being a magician.

He reigned forty-four years, and died in 1516, leaving the kingdom to the oldest of his four legitimate sons.

The reign of Nezahualcoyotl is the most glorious period of the kingdom of Texcoco, and of all the kingdoms of Anahuac.

Its splendors have been confounded with those of the Aztec Court, and, as we see in the names now given to the ruins of the king's garden, even the name of the Montezumas is mixed up with the Texcocan annals. It is well, however, to keep the different dynasties distinct, in order to understand, when we come to the Conquest, the various parts these distinct peoples played in that exciting drama.

Texcoco maintained for some time its place and distinction, but never surpassed the height it reached in the fifteenth century. After that it began to diminish; family dissensions in the royal house, and external warfare, together with too much prosperity and the relaxation that comes with it, were preparing this nation for the tempest and change already gathering afar off.

This glowing account of the splendors of Texcoco is gathered from the writings of Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, who traced his descent, in direct line, from the royal house of Texcoco. He lived in the sixteenth century, occupying the position of interpreter to the Viceroy, being familiar with the Indian dialects, and of course with the Spanish language.

He was in other respects a man of cultivation and learning, had a library of his own, and pursued diligently the study of the picture-writings, hieroglyphics, and legends of his ancestors, with the object of throwing light on the obscure places of their story. He wrote, in Spanish, various books about the primitive races of Anahuac, among them the "Historia Chichimeca," which has been used as a source of authority since it was first written.

As a Christian, Ixtlilxochitl has given to the legends of the Quetzalcoatl and other mysteries of the early Mexican races, a color evidently borrowed from the light of Christian traditions, and the author has cast over his picture of the Golden Age a glow which is hardly justified by the cold light of modern research. His story is now regarded as unreliable in many particulars. Yet as a legend it retains its charm; and as history the graceful fabric need not be utterly destroyed while the monuments at Texcoco and the manuscripts of Nezahualcoyotl attest the existence of such a king and such a court. Until the diligent research of those explorers who are now busy in searching for the facts of early Mexican history, have fully established them, we may enjoy the tale of past magnificence upon the plateau of Anahuac.

The period of the Golden Age of Texcuco is ascribed to the fifteenth century; the date assigned to Nezahualcoyotl's accession being 1430. The Spanish invasion took place in 1516 A. D.

During that century the red rose of Lancaster was warring with the white rose of York; Joan of Arc, in France, grew up in her village home, to win back for the French king his lost provinces. Isabella and Ferdinand, by uniting the two houses of Castile and Aragon, made Spain the powerful kingdom, which was to discover the New World.

All these princes and potentates, busy with their own wars and marriages, lived their lives without thought of any form of high civilization across an untravelled ocean. Even Columbus, as he urged upon the queen his longing to cross that ocean to find out what was beyond it, did not suggest to her the vision of a cultivated court with a king who wrote poetry in an unknown tongue, and had carved lions upon his marble stairways.




Source:  Susan Hale, Mexico

Inca: Murder of the Inca Manco

New France: Letter from Mons. De La Varenne