The Legend of Aztlan: Mythical Origin of Aztec Civilisation

Uncover Aztlan, the lost Aztec city where it was said gods guided destiny. Dive into the mythical origins and legacy of a fallen empire.

8 April 2024

The Aztec civilization, one of the most powerful and sophisticated pre-Columbian empires in Mesoamerica, continues to captivate the imagination of people around the globe. Central to understanding the cultural and historical identity of the Aztecs is Aztlan, the fabled Aztec homeland. Translated variously as “place of the White Heron,” “the Place of Whiteness” or “the Place of the Heron,” its status hovers somewhere between legend and historical fact.

Much as with Camelot or Atlantis, there are those who see it as no more than a tantalising myth. But for others, the search for the home of the Aztecs is very real. So, what do we know about Aztlan? Is it real? And, if so, where is it? Compasses at the ready as we seek answers.

The Legend of Aztlan

One of the Aztec codices (Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The origins of the Aztecs, or Mexica as they called themselves, were chronicled in painted manuscripts known as codices as well as oral accounts given by Aztecs to the Spanish.

These depict Aztlan, the cradle of the Aztec civilization, as an island on a lake, the latter possibly called Metztliapan meaning “lake of the moon.” In the centre of the island was purportedly a temple dedicated to fire and water, while across the lake was a mountain by the name of Colhuacan. Considered the ‘place of the ancestors’, within it was a temple to the Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli and seven caves, each corresponding to one of the indigenous Nahuatl tribes. One of these tribes would become the Aztecs.

Accounts of Aztlan are rare and somewhat conflicting. Sometimes it’s portrayed as a paradise of plenty. But there were also stories of a brutal elite that subjugated the Aztec people. Whatever the case, the story goes that one day, thought to be sometime around 1064 to 1065 AD, the god Huitzilopochtli sent a bird whose song told them to leave Aztlan. Which is exactly what they did.

Leaving Aztlan

1704 map of the Aztec migration from Aztlan (Credit: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Aztec people, collecting others from neighbouring places, thus embarked on a significant migration from Aztlan. Huitzilopochtli instructed them to find a new home marked by an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake. This symbol, found on a small island in Lake Texcoco, led to the founding of Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec Empire, now part of present day Mexico City. And, to this day, the image of an eagle perched on a cactus, devouring a snake is on the national flag.

As for the Aztec homeland, they left it behind, along with the knowledge of where it was. To this day, nobody knows where Aztlan was located. Some think it never really existed in the first place. So, what’s the truth?

Seeking the Lost Aztec City

Hernando Cortez (1485-1547) meets Montezuma, king of the Aztecs (Credit: Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

For centuries, there have been those who have searched for Aztlan. Even Aztec king Montezuma I commissioned an expedition to find it. Apparently, they succeeded, but were unable to provide an accurate location. There’s a plethora of theories as to the location – or lack thereof – of Aztlan, including:

Northern Origins

Evidence suggests that there was indeed a migration of the Mexica people as well as of other tribes. And that it came from the north. However, nobody is quite sure how far north it began. Some say it was in northern Mexico, while there are theories it might have originated from the southern US, possibly as far as Utah.

Mexcaltitán de Uribe

Since the 19th century, there has been speculation that the lost Aztec city was located on the island of Mexcaltitán de Uribe in the Mexican state of Nayarit. As in the legend, this tiny manmade isle, no bigger than that of Alcatraz, is set on a lake, specifically that of Laguna Grande de Mexcaltitan. The layout of the island is also similar to descriptions of Aztlan. Almost perfectly round, its streets are set out in a neat grid with a central focal point. However, with Mexcaltitán de Uribe’s location in western Mexico, this would contradict the northern theory.

An Impossible Quest?

Many believe that the legend of Aztlan is just that: a creation myth on the origins of the Aztecs. Even among those who believe it was a real place there is doubt that it could be found given the lack of available information and the contradictory nature of that which exists.

The Legacy of Aztlan: The Lost Aztec City

Aztec warriors defending the temple of Tenochtitlan, Mexico. (Credit: Print Collector / Contributor via Getty Images)

The allure of Aztlan has not waned with the passage of time; it remains a potent symbol of cultural identity and historical continuity, embraced as a fundamental part of the nation’s heritage. The quest for the Aztec homeland continues to inspire both scholarly research and popular imagination.

The legend of Aztlan, the mythical place of the origins of the Aztecs, is a testament to the power of stories in shaping the identity and destiny of a people. From the home of the Aztecs in the mists of mythology to the heart of modern cultural consciousness, Aztlan embodies the enduring quest for lost ancient origins.


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