The Eagle, the Snake, and the Cactus in the Founding of Tenochtitlan


The Tovar Codex, attributed to the 16th-century Mexican Jesuit Juan de Tovar, contains detailed information about the rites and ceremonies of the Aztecs (also known as Mexica). The codex is illustrated with 51 full-page paintings in watercolor. Strongly influenced by pre-contact pictographic manuscripts, the paintings are of exceptional artistic quality. The manuscript is divided into three sections. The first section is a history of the travels of the Aztecs prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The second section, an illustrated history of the Aztecs, forms the main body of the manuscript. The third section contains the Tovar calendar. This illustration, from the second section, depicts the founding of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City). An eagle is shown devouring a bird while perched on a flowering cactus. The cactus grows from a rock in the middle of a lake. Footsteps of the Mexicans are shown approaching the base of the cactus. On the right is Tenoch (known from his glyph of a flowering cactus), who led the Aztecs to Tenochtitlan. On the left is Tochtzin, or Mexitzin (known from his glyph of a rabbit), who came from Calpan (known from the glyph of a house with a flag), Tenoch's co-ruler. The two rulers sit on basketwork thrones. At upper right is the symbol of Copil, son of Malinalxochitl, or five dots with crossed arrows, on a shield. The Aztecs, guided by the prophecies of Huitzilopochtli (the god of the sun and war), ended their migration from farther north by building Tenochtitlan, on an island in a lake where an eagle held a snake perched on a flowering nopal (prickly pear) cactus. The cactus grew, according to their mythology, from the heart of Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli's sister, which had been flung onto the island. His symbol of five dots represents the Aztec belief that the world was a flat surface divided into five directions (north, south, east, west, and the center, where their capital was located).

Last updated: June 18, 2015