Malinalxochitl and the Founding of Mexico

The third installment in my mini-series Mexican Monstresses — fearsome females of Mexican legend.

Codex Borgia page 55
Detail from the Codex Borgia (not Malinalxochitl, but it seemed to get the idea across).
Source: Wikipedia

Malinalxochitl (“black grass flower”) was the sister of the god Huitzilopochtli, the founder of Mexico. While her brother ruled their people from the heavens, appearing to his priests in dreams, Malinalxochitl guided them in person. She was beautiful and mild-mannered, but also a powerful witch. She could kill a man just by looking at him, secretly eating his heart while he was still alive. Or, just at a glance, she could eat the calf of a person’s leg without his feeling the pain. Or sometimes she would twist a man’s eyesight so that he would hallucinate an enormous beast or some other terrifying thing. She was the kind of witch known in later times as a heart biter (teyollohcuani — more on them in a future post in this series), a calf snatcher, and an eye twister.

At night, when people were asleep, she would pick up a man and carry him outside the camp and drop him in front of a poisonous snake. Scorpions, centipedes, and spiders were also used by her in her evil work, and being a witch, she could transform herself into whatever bird or animal she wished. With all her dangerous powers she insisted on being worshipped as a goddess, and no one dared treat her otherwise.

The people tolerated her behavior because she was Huitzilopochtli’s sister, but finally they couldn’t put up with it anymore, and prayed to Huitzilopochtli to help them. Huitzilopochtli appeared to the people in a dream and told them to sneak away in the night while she was asleep, without her. So they did — they abandoned her in the middle of the night, with a few of her followers. Malinalxochitl and her people eventually settled at a place called Malinalco, intermarrying with the locals. To this day, the people of Malinalco have a reputation as sorcerers.

The Mexican people traveled on, then settled on the hill of Chapultepec, on the shore of what became known as the Lake of Mexico (Lake Texcoco).

Lake of Mexico, 1722
Map of the Lake of Mexico, 1722.
From Winsor, Justin, Narrative and Critical History of America Vol 1 (New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1889)
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida

Malinalxochitl had a son named Copil. When Copil grew up, she taught him all her magic arts and told him what the Mexican people had done to her. Copil swore to get revenge. He went to all the tribes that surrounded Chapultepec and incited them against the Mexicans. The nations of Azcapotzalco, Tlacopan, Coyohuacan, Xochimilco, Chalco and Colhuacan formed an alliance and prepared to attack the Mexicans. But before they could, Huizliopochtli appeared in a dream to his priests Tenochtli and Cuauhtlequetzqui (“eagle standing erect”) to warn them. Tenochtli and Cuauhtlequetzqui seized Copil in the night, cut out his heart, and took Copil’s daughter Xicomoyahual to be Cuauhtlequetzqui’s wife.

Tenochtli presented the heart to Huizliopochtli, who told him to throw the heart into the lake. Tenochtli obeyed; when he threw the heart out into the water, it landed on a marshy island in the middle of the lake. From the heart sprouted nopal, or prickly pear cactus.

Sometime after, the Mexicans angered the king of Colhuacan (that’s a whole other story) and fled to the islands in the middle of the lake to escape the Colhuacan warriors. As they explored their refuge, Huizliopochtli appeared to Cuauhtlequetzqui in a dream, and told him to search until he found an eagle perched atop a prickly pear.

The Eagle the Snake and the Cactus in the Founding of Tenochtitlan WDL6749
The prickly pear cactus with the eagle that they found in the lake
From the Tovar Codex
Source: Wikpedia

The people did as the dream directed, and they found the eagle, eating its prey atop the prickly pear, which had sprouted from Copil’s heart. They called the plant tenoctli (after the priest Tenochtli — the eagle represents Cuauhtlequetzqui), and they called the place where they found the eagle Tenochtitlan, and there they built their city.

This is Mexico, this is Tenochtitlan, where the eagle screams, spreads his wings, and eats, where the fish flies, where the snake rustles.

This is Mexico, this is Tenochtitlan. And many things will be done.

This shall be our fame: as long as the world lasts, so long shall last the renown, the glory, of Mexico-Tenochtitlan….

Today, the image of the eagle devouring a rattlesnake atop the tenochtli is the coat of arms of Mexico, and the center of the Mexican flag.

Coat of Arms, Mexico
Coat of Arms of Mexico
Source: Wikipedia



Bierhorst, John. The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs, Quill, 1984.

Chimalpain. “The Prophecy of the High Priest Tenochtli,” in Leon-Portilla, Miguel and Earl Shorris, In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of Mesoamerican Literature, Pre-Columbian to the Present, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. [Story online here]

Different versions of this story assign the actions to different people (Tenochtli vs. Cuauhtlequetzqui vs others). The blockquote at the end of my retelling is a combination of quotes from both Bierhorst’s and Chimalpain’s versions.

Chimalpain (1579 – 1660) was a Nahua historian who wrote on the history of Mexico and their neighbors in both Nahuatl and Spanish.

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