This is adapted from my Spanish Conquest research paper. It describes Nezahualcoyotl, one of the most fascinating historical characters I’ve encountered, and also embraces the historiography of his life in modern times. I’ve changed the language, targeted it to general readers instead of to a specialist in Latin American history, added some fun facts, and deleted things that were included for purely class-related reasons. I’ve also removed the footnotes, but feel free to ask for a claim’s specific citation, and a general bibliography is below. Enjoy!
Nezahualcoyotl was the king of Texcoco in the Aztec Empire for most of the 15th century, before the Spanish ever arrived in Mexico. His name means “Hungry Coyote,” and sometimes you’ll see him credited that way. (And it’s pronounced “nets-ah-wall-COY-oht”). He’s remembered for his conquests, his semi-monotheistic religion and renunciation of human sacrifice, his poetry, and his engineering innovations. However, some scholars maintain that his legendary status was purposefully invented by priests and native converts after the Spanish conquest.
This, in short, was the story of Nezahualcoyotl’s life: He was born the prince of the city of Texcoco in 1402, during complex political times. Aztec cities were often at war with each other, and while there may have been a ritualistic component to it, contemporary sources take it extremely seriously. (Texcocans in particular are more properly called the Acolhua, but they’re part of the overall Aztec region and culture). Texcoco was conquered by another city when Nezahualcoyotl was young. He saw his father killed, but he escaped and went on the run, traveling around Mesoamerica for several years. He was popular with the people and had many influential friends, who eventually won him the right to live openly (if limitedly) in Tenochtitlan, and finally to move back to Texcoco since he hadn’t made any trouble. He then proceeded to reconquer Texcoco and rule it for 40 years.
He formed the Triple Alliance with two other major cities, Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) and Tlacopan, and continued his conquests into regions previously unknown to the Aztecs. This whole process created the massive, impressive empire the Spanish found — this was the first conquest of all those other towns, not part of an ongoing waxing and waning of an empire. At the same time, Nezahualcoyotl established himself as a patron of the arts, with Texcoco as a cultural center, and led his people through a golden age of peace and prosperity. He finally died of old age in 1472, leaving a vast empire for his son Nezahualpilli to rule.
Many native books and other writings were lost in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Survivors preserved stories of Nezahualcoyotl orally and eventually wrote them down after several generations, leading to controversies surrounding Nezahualcoyotl’s character. However, he did leave tangible legacies in his conquests and his architectural and engineering works. Not only did he expand the empire, he was remarkably savvy in his administration of the conquered cities. In some, he deposed the reigning monarch who had opposed him but installed the next rightful heir in the dynasty, removing opposition while maintaining continuity and a sense of propriety or obligation. He often gave these rulers positions in his court, honoring them while ensuring they’d be close to him and not able to mount rebellions. (Louis XIV did the same thing). In other cities, he replaced ruling monarchs with governing stewards who would be in charge of channeling tribute from various dispersed locations, again ensuring they wouldn’t be able to mobilize insurgents.
Even while he was carrying out these conquests and restructurings, Nezahualcoyotl was building his renown as an architect and engineer. He had actually started designing a royal family’s pleasure palace and the dike for Lake Texcoco while under house arrest in Tenochtitlan as a young man. This may have been one factor making him valuable to the establishment. As an adult and king, Nezahualcoyotl designed some of the most famous Aztec achievements. The Aztec kings brought him in to consult on the construction of the massive aqueducts running water to the center of Tenochtitlan, the great palaces, and the dike running across the lake that allowed them to control water levels when it flooded. In his own kingdom, he built temples and a splendid pleasure palace, Texcotzingo, that was cut into a cliff side. He created an extensive irrigation system to feed his hot tubs at Texcotzingo, as well as to water magnificent zoological and botanical gardens, and eventually to water the farms below.
Texcotzingo was so impressive that Montezuma I insisted on having another enormous garden built for himself at Huaxtepec to keep up appearances. (Horticulture was a passion of the Aztec upper classes. Sometimes they demanded tribute in the form of rare plants, and there were laws against lower classes cultivating certain plants. It’s believed Europe got the idea for botanical gardens and zoos from the Aztecs). Apparently there’s an entire plant indigenous to Mexico called Nezahualcoyotlia gracilis, but its preferred name is Cranichis gracilis. I couldn’t find much more historical information on it.
Nezahualcoyotl was known as a patron of the arts who attracted all kinds of cultural creativity to Texcoco, and who was an accomplished poet in his own right. Literary scholars have identified about thirty poems as his, and others are attributed to him. He was considered one of the great native poets by people after the conquest, but also in his own time, as evidenced by the many references in histories and in poems written by his contemporaries. There were other poet-kings, poetry was another lofty pursuit suitable for a king, but none of the others reached his level of literary respect. That’s evidence that he really was considered a great poet and wasn’t just being humored because he was king. Some poems attributed to him show clear signs of Europeanization, so ascribing them to Nezahualcoyotl is anachronistic, and scholars such as John Bierhorst take issue with naming any specific person as the actual author of an Aztec poem, believing any such identifications were spiritual only and not indicative of actual authorship. However, most scholars believe that even with some margin of error, they can attribute many poems to him with confidence.
In the Aztec world, poetry was a public art form. Poems were sung aloud, often with accompanying drum players, and a court official had the job of approving or disapproving the songs. At the same time, poets regularly expressed their own thoughts and emotions in their poetry and openly wrote about their own lives. Nezahualcoyotl wrote about the ever-present specter of death, as many Aztec poets did, but he also enjoyed writing about the meaning of poetry itself. This excerpt from an untitled poem is representative:
My flowers [art] will not come to an end,
my songs will not come to an end,
I, the singer, raise them up;
they are scattered, they are bestowed…
Even though flowers on earth
may wither and yellow,
they will be carried there,
to the interior of the house
of the bird with the golden feathers.
(Aztec poetry can be really beautiful. I’m not crazy about them compared to Miguel Leon-Portilla’s, but here are some of John Curl’s translation you can read online: http://red-coral.net/Hungry.html)
Nezahualcoyotl often invoked the god Tloque Nahuaque, “Lord of the Close Vicinity,” in his poetry (or as its recipient, like in the poem above). Tloque Nahuaque was apparently his favorite deity or his personal benefactor. He was associated with creation as one of the earliest and highest gods, and with being close to his worshippers at all times (hence “close vicinity,” or “Lord of the Near and By”). He was also known for not requiring human sacrifices. This aspect led to the less concrete aspects of Nezahualcoyotl’s reputation. Some commentators, as far back is the 1500s, portrayed Nezahualcoyotl as a religious skeptic who detested human sacrifice. Most of the extant documents on his rule were postcolonial in origin, and the native chroniclers had an interest in edifying their history to the Spanish. Catholic priests had already begun associating the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl with Saint Thomas, saying he had come to evangelize the natives in the past, and native writers followed that game plan to make Nezahualcoyotl a precursor to Christianity.
Nezahualcoyotl was explicitly linked to King David, and facts of his life were either massaged into that paradigm or possibly invented wholesale. The general themes lent themselves well to the comparison: He was a king who had been on the run as a young man, essentially tricked his way into a kingdom, was beloved by his people and an extreme believer in justice, was a poet, and had a weakness for women. In fact, one of the notable stories of his life almost exactly parallels the story of King David and Bathsheba. Late in Nezahualcoyotl’s life he still had no official wife to produce a designated heir, but he happened to see the wife of one his retired generals, fell madly in love with her, and had the general sent back to the front lines of battle to be killed. He married the wife, and their son (Nezahualpilli) was a wise and beloved ruler after Nezahualcoyotl’s death. Nezahualpilli was on the throne of Texcoco when the Spanish arrived.
Nezahualcoyotl was also compared to King David in the general sense that David was a righteous man who was a precursor to Jesus Christ. The Mesoamerican natives, and the friars interviewing them, claimed Nezahualcoyotl as a precursor to Spanish introduction of Catholicism. They emphasized his patronage of the arts and his supposed rejection of the bloody Aztec religions in favor of a peaceful monotheism. Most writers have drawn from these post-colonial sources uncritically. (Native peoples want heroes too). It was still well known that human sacrifices had taken place in Texcoco and that Nezahualcoyotl had been a major conqueror, but by the 20th century, translators as respected as Miguel Leon-Portilla were saying things like, “Naturally, because of his alliance with Mexico-Tenochtitlan, he had to take part in countless wars and also at times to compromise his own ideas with some of the practices of the Mexica.” There is no evidence of his alleged reluctance.
Professor of Latin American literature Jongsoo Lee is the main detractor from the Nezahualcoyotl fan club, but he goes too far in the other direction. He rightly argues that postcolonial biases should be identified and may present an inaccurate picture, especially where Nezahualcoyotl’s spiritual significance is concerned. However, his scholarship is shaky. His implicit thesis is that Nezahualcoyotl as we know him was entirely conceived by postcolonial and modern imaginations, and that Nezahualcoyotl himself might have been a nearly fictional character or that contemporaries used the ruler’s name as a convenient shorthand for everything that happened during that time period. He’s correct in pointing out that some of the most detailed chronicles of Nezahualcoyotl’s life were written a hundred years or more after his death, but overlooks the fact that Nezahualcoyotl’s son was on the throne when the Spanish arrived and the first native accounts came not long after. Nezahualcoyotl’s reign was not ancient history at that time, but very recent history with living and powerful offspring. After Lee roundly criticizes the veracity of the native records, he proceeds to use the very same records when they support his own points.
It’s certainly true that we do not have comprehensive records, and that many quasi-religious myths grew up around Nezahualcoyotl in the postcolonial period. However, it’s not reasonable to suppose that because some writers used his reputation to their own advantage that he was completely unlike his reputation. While his life may have been inaccurately glossed into a reflection of King David’s, he was still a hugely prominent figure in pre-Spanish politics. He was a conqueror, an architect, and a poet, leaving concrete evidence in each sphere. We may not know what his character was really like, but we know he was a luminous figure in Mesoamerican history, and he’s still important. He’s the only pre-Spanish figure to appear on Mexican money, and in my opinion his status as a native hero is well deserved. He’s fascinating on so many levels, and I’ll have my ear to the ground for new writings about him.
- Curl, John. “The Flower Songs of Nezahualcoyotl: Ancient Nahua (Aztec) Poetry”. Bilingual Review. 26 (2/3). 2001.
- Evans, Susan Toby. “The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and Nahua Poetics”. Ethnohistory. 56 (2). 2009.
- Evans, Susan Toby. Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. London: Thames & Hudson. 2004.
- Gillmor, Frances. Flute of the Smoking Mirror: A Portrait of Nezahualcoyotl, Poet-King of the Aztecs. [Tucson]: University of Arizona Press. 1968.
- Lee, Jongsoo. The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History, Religion, and Nahua Poetics. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2008.
- León Portilla, Miguel. Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1992.