Tenoch: Aztec Founding Father

Tenoch depicted in the Codex Aubin.

Tenoch is the person, whether real or mythological, for whom the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan is named. But who Tenoch was, is a bit of a mystery.

He appears frequently in many of the codices, or ancient documents, preserved from before and after the Conquest. Tenoch is recognizable by his name glyph, a rock with a cactus growing on it and he appears in Mendoza, Aubin and Azcatitlan codices. Tenoch is mentioned in several post-conquest written historic documents. He shares his name glyph with the city of Tenochtitlan.

Tenoch depicted in the Codex Azcatitlan, his name-glyph below him.

Tenoch is central to the latter half of the journey from Aztlan, when they arrived in Culhuacan, Chapultepec and finally Tenochtitlan. There are snippets of his story in various documents where we see a leader, a trusted elder, a founder and committed citizen. In other places we simply see the man as a symbol of the founding of Tenochtitlan, as in the Codex Mendoza where he appears seated near the famous cactus and eagle of the founding legend. There are also actions ascribed to him. The writings of Duran state that once they had settled in Tenochtitlan, the new Tlatoani Acamapichtli’s wife could not produce an heir. So Tenoch, and the other founding elders of the Mexica gave daughters to the new king to establish a royal line.

Copil and Tenoch

At least two codices link Tenoch to the Copil legend, where the heart of an Aztec enemy, Copil, was tossed into the lake. From Copil’s heart sprouted the cactus where the eagle of legend roosted and eventually, Tenochtitlan was founded upon. The Anales de Tlatololco say he took Copil’s head and buried at a place called Tlatzinco. The Codex Ramirez states “Tliunche” heard from the god Huitzilopochtli about where to found the city.

Was Tenoch a leader?

Several documents expressly state that he led the Mexica tribe on the last part of their 200-year journey from Aztlan. The Codex Aubin says he became ruler on the journey. Chimalpahin states that he led 19 elder nobles to Tenochtitlan, where he continued his 43-year leadership.

Was he real or not?

Tenoch exists in a world of myth, intermingling with gods and legends. The Aztec origin story, and the journey from Aztlan, starts in the shadows of a distant mythology and walks right into reality where very real people like Moctezuma and Hernan Cortes clearly existed. If I had to guess I’d say Tenoch existed and was probably one of the main male figures in what was a small nomadic tribe. But like so many other mythological figures who exist on the boundary of history, we’ll never know.

Some notes on Tenoch:

Dates are hard to come by with Tenoch, but he appears to have been born before 1300. The founding of Tenochtitlan is often cited as 1325, so if he were a respected elder at the time, we’re looking at mid to late 1200s. One source says he was born in 1299, while Chimalpahin says he was leading elders in 1273. The dates are all over, but the important thing is that Tenoch was there at the end of the journey from Aztlan, which lasted several generations. And he was there at the founding of Tenochtitlan, marking the final stop for the Mexica people.

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