The destruction of a culture is through the fear and ignorance of others. And the rest of the world is left to morn the loss of knowledge.
The Aztec culture, because of the briefness that it existed in the annals of history and the destruction of the society by the Spanish, makes it one of the most legendary and mysteriously tragic in all of Mesoamerica. By all accounts, Aztec society was a complex and weaving system of hierarchies and social divisions. Citizens were ruled by the fear of fierce and vengeful gods and the civilization as a whole was dependant as much on warfare as they were on agriculture. In historical context, the Aztecs were seen as violent barbarians, constantly warring with neighboring tribes and relying on human sacrifice to appease the universe and serve as a tool meant to intimidate and control. In reality the simple descriptions and brutal image may have been nothing more than a gross exaggeration by the European conquest to garner support for their pillaging and deflect the inhumane methods of the Aztec’s eradication.
While the Spaniards marched into Mexico, fueled by a lust for gold, they carefully took the time to document the lives of the Aztecs. Surely for measure of their own posterity, but also because that was the method for passing along their own history at the time. Found buried among mountains of art and artifactial findings, the Spanish went to great lengths in detailing some of the Aztecs oral and ritualistic histories. But these stories may have conversely served as fuel for the Aztec’s destruction at the hands of the Conquistadors. One story recounted very early in a landing party’s expedition, may have struck such fear in the Spaniards, that it encouraged such malicious aggression towards the Aztecs. Below is a translation of the legend of the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi, documented by Friar Alonso de Grijalva, who accompanied Hernán Cortés on the Spanish expedition of Mexico in 1519. The story was told to the party by Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest held prisoner by a local Mayan tribe after surviving a shipwreck years earlier.
The Legend of the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi is one of the oldest in the Aztec lore. Told of a mysterious man known only as Cuetlachtli, which translates among the people to “Wolf”. Cuetlachtli appeared one day in the northeast city of El Tajín. He stood in the city center and declared himself the new king, and that any and all who opposed his self-appointage may step forward and challenge him for the right to lead the people. El Tajín’s own King Milintica, the third son of Mixcoatl and leader of the cult of Quetzalcoatl, came forth. King Milintica called upon the “feathered serpent” to smite the stranger, but Cuetlachtli transformed into a wolf and man, killing King Milinitca and claiming the throne. So began the rule of Cuetlachtli, the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi. He was said to have come from the north, from Aztlán, the ancestral home of the Nahua. He was many centuries old, said to have been born atop a great mound. His ancestors were hunters, walking as man, becoming wolves as the sun set. The powers he possessed were unlike all seen before. No sorcerer, his equal and no warrior his superior. His followers were given his blood to make them walking wolves. It was an honor bestowed on those who could prove their worth. The reign of Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi lasted many years. Gaining enemies from villages near and far, as his army feared no fight. The tribe would savagely enter neighboring cities as wolves and slaughter citizens where they slept. They wanted not power, but what they sought was blood, consuming it till their bellies full.
Years later as the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi had a stronghold over the north, members of his own Otomi (warrior class) rebelled, in an attempt to remove him from power. With the help of a shaman, the Otomi became the forms of Jaguars and Coyotes. Cuetlachtli and his most trusted followers turned into wolves and an enormous battle the result. Under the cover of night, the warring parties fell by the hundreds until there were none. Cuetlachtli was not among the casualties, as he instead vanished, returning north, past the land of white, never to be seen again. Although it has been many years since the great battle, the citizens of El Tajín and other surrounding cities await his return. Prophecy states when the mountains run red with blood, Cuetlachtli will come back. Those in danger will hear the wolf’s cry when the brightest moon hangs in the sky.
This powerful and descriptive tale was most likely aimed to scare any travelers who set foot on Central-American soil. Told to the Conquistadores prior to their impending advances across Mexico, may have done more than conjure fear in the Christian hordes. The simple fact that the Nahuatl translation of the words Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi literally mean “Our ruler resembles a wolf”, may have given further motive to the god- fearing warriors to slay people they saw as pagan heathens that worshipped animals over the Almighty. By 1521, Cortés had conquered the Aztecs and the once powerful civilization was ravaged by death and disease. The Spaniards version of Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi is the only written account of the story that exists, so its credence has been argued by historians as religious mythology of a simple society. But upon closer examination of the legend, more mystery about its origin and purpose seem to be revealed. Of course the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi could have been an early cautionary tale to simply tell the Spanish to – STAY OUT! But, there are many clues and postscripts to the story that reach well beyond a blazing campfire tale from 1519.
One side of the argument places the story as a misinterpretation by religion on a culture that is less literal with manifestations of “good” and “evil”. Aztec, Mayan, Olmec, Tepanec and Toltec societies all featured mythologies of mortal men transforming into animals. The wolf has never been a strong symbol in any Mesoamerican culture, so why it appears in this story makes it difficult to comprehend. More conveniently, the werewolf legend is steeped so deeply in European folklore that it is possible the tale may have been modified after translation to fall in line more with Eastern tradition. Lending one to question how much more of what we know of the Aztecs is by design of Spanish influence.
A more interesting observation on this story is the correlation between Cuetlachtli, his origin and subsequent retreat to lands “North”. Archeologists have long believed that Aztlán, which is mentioned in the story by name, may have actually been located in what is now present-day America. The reference in the story to his birthplace being associated with a “mound” brings to mind many archeological sites in the United States, including Bynum Mound in Mississippi, Etowah Mounds in Georgia and Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, all which predate the end of the Aztec empire. While not so common in Aztec mythology, the “wolf” was a recurring motif in Native American lore, figuring strongly in the cultures witchcraft and creation myth. Any of which could have easily traveled as far south as Mesoamerica.
Another note of curiosity, while Cuetlachtli is the derivative form of the word “wolf” in the Nahuatl language, no delineation of it shows up anywhere in the over 300 distinct native American languages that existed in North America. Oddly enough in a correspondence dated 1879, to Colonel Robert Quick of the 13th Cavalry of the United States Army. Col. Quick was given an order to capture or kill a nomadic Navajo renegade named… Cuetlachtli. The entire 13th Cavalry disappeared after crossing the Medicine Bow Mountains while searching for the renegade. While the addendum to this story takes it from coincidental to uncanny – it is the points in-between that should be investigated further. There is much more to the Tlatoani Mocuitlachnehnequi, than meets the eye. Without a definitive Codex to translate Aztec society, the mysteries of this lost culture will subsist.