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Aztec Avenue of the Dead stretches out before pyramids and shops of Mexico.

Did Spanish Spin Doctors Change the Name of Teotihuacan to Sabotage the City?

The famous archaeological site of Teotihuacan may have served a different purpose for the Aztecs to what Spanish chroniclers claimed. A possibly deliberate change of the city’s name suggests that it may have been an attempt to remove the high political importance of the city.

The Japan Times reports the Xolotol Codex shows the word "Teohuacan" written underneath a pictogram referring to a city as a combination of sun, temple, and ruler symbols. Teohuacan would be translated as “the city of the sun.”

A view of Teotihuacan, Mexico.

A view of Teotihuacan, Mexico. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

Veronica Ortega, an archaeologist at the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, explains that this contrasts with the title Teotihuacan, as the city name is given in later codices. Teotihuacan has been translated as “the city of the gods” or “the place where men become gods.”

A mural showing what has been identified as the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan.

A mural showing what has been identified as the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. ( CC BY 2.0 )

According to Ortega , the Spanish made the name change in their codices to remove the sun. She suggests they did so because the sun was a symbol of authority and the Spanish conquistadors were threatened by the idea of the city having been an important governmental site. The Spanish wanted other people to believe that another Aztec city they conquered in 1521 had been the main seat of power in Aztec society. As Ortega said , “They wanted people to see Teotihuacan as a place of worship, but not as a place where rulers were anointed, because they wanted to keep the political center in Tenochtitlan.”

A drawing by Diego Rivera of what part of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan may have looked like.

A drawing by Diego Rivera of what part of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan may have looked like. ( Public Domain )

Modern historians thus believe that Tenochtitlan was the leading city of the Aztec civilization. It has been said to have been the home of the city council, likened to the Roman Senate, and the leader/emperor/man was worshiped as a god. This person was called the Huey Tlatcani , Great Speaker, the ruler of the city council, priests, judges, governors, and all other government officials. The Huey Tlatcani was responsible to resolve legal issues, lead the military, oversee markets and temples, and receive tribute.

This ruler was expected to serve for life but could be removed from power. Four advisors and one senior advisor assisted the Huey Tlatcani in his rule. Those four individuals were elected by the nobility. The Aztec high ruler himself was a noble as well and had royal lineage. Usually the Huey Tlatcani was a brother or son of the previous ruler. To be eligible, he had to be over 30 years old, have been educated at an elite school, and be an experienced warrior and military leader.

Representation of an Aztec ruler.

Representation of an Aztec ruler. ( Government & Religion )

Returning to the issue of the changed written name of Teohuacan to Teotihuacan, it is worth noting that no one knows for certain what people living in the city from 100 BC to 750 AD, the golden age, called it. Teotihuacan and Teohuacan are words from the Aztec Nahuatl language.

Nonetheless, Ortega stresses that the name of the city was important because Aztec rulers saw the location as significant in legitimizing their authority. For example, Montezuma is said to have led official processions to the location once a month.

Top Image: Aztec Avenue of the Dead stretches out before pyramids and shops of Mexico. ( Public Domain )

By Alicia McDermott

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