One day Coatlicue was working and performing religious rituals, in a ravine near Coatepec when she noticed a mysterious ball of feathers on the ground.
She was fascinated by this odd, supernatural gift which seemed to have fallen from the heavens. Coatlicue felt a sudden an urge to keep the ball of feathers, so she picked it up and tucked it under her clothes. The feathers were held in place close to her body.
What Coatlicue did not realize was that the ball of feathers was magical and had impregnated her. Within months, her grown children noticed that their mother’s belly was growing larger and larger.
They insisted on knowing who the father was. When Coatlicue could not give them an answer, they became furious. They felt that their mother had dishonored their family, and should be punished by death.
Coatlicue was terrified, but she could feel the baby inside communicating with her. The baby was soothing her, telling her everything would be all right. When the time came to give birth, Coatlicue climbed to the top of Coatepec. Still enraged, her children followed her to the mountain summit with the intention of killing their mother.
However, just as they reached the top of Coatepec, the baby was born. He was named Huitzilopochtli. It was clear that he was no ordinary baby. Huitzilopochtli came into the world fully formed and clothed in armor, and holding a series of deadly weapons. He was ready to fight any enemy of his mother.
His most dangerous weapon was a knife-like tool called a xiuhcoatl (shi-wuh-KO-atl), which means “fire serpent.” Quickly, with the xiuhcoatl, he sliced off the oldest daughter’s head and cut her body to pieces. Her remains fell down the mountainside to its base.
Huitzilopochtli then went on the attack against the Centzon Huitznahua. Even though these four hundred sons of his mother were his half-brothers, Huitzilopochtli recognized them as dangers.
He killed several right away, then chased the others around the summit of Coatepec before killing several more. A few of his half-brothers escaped and survived, but Huitzilopochtli and Coatlicue were safe and healthy.
The Aztec people accepted Huitzilopochtli as their warrior god. In turn, he told them that he would lead them to a promised land, a place where they would live and prosper.
He said, “Here I shall bring together the diverse peoples, and not in vain, for I shall conquer them, that I may see the house of jade, the house of gold, the house of quetzal feathers; the house of emeralds, the house of coral, the house of amethysts; the sundry feathers—the lovely cotinga feathers, the roseate spoonbill feathers, the trogon feathers—all the precious feathers; and the cacao of variegated colors, and the cotton of variegated colors! I shall see all this, for in truth it is my work, it was for this that I was sent here.”
One day, Huitzilopochtli was sleeping near his sister, Malinalxochitl. As she slept, Huitzilopochtli awoke and left to start his journey to lead the Aztec people to their new promised land.
Malinalxochitl woke up and noticed her brother had left her. Her heart was filled with anger towards her brother. She led her followers to a mountain named Texcatepetl (TEKS-caat-eh-pet’l), where she gave birth to a son she called Copil (KOH-peel).
Meanwhile, Huitzilopochtli led the Aztec people to Coatepec, the mountain where he was born. The people believed this to be their promised land and settled there happily.
But Huitzilopochtli decided it was not the right place. To force the people to give up their new homes at Coatepec, he punched a hole in a nearby dam which had been holding back a river.
Once the hole was made, a torrent of water rushed over the land, killing the plants and animals that had been providing the Aztecs with food. So Huitzilopochtli led the people on another journey, this time to a place named Techcatitlan (tetch-kah-TEE-t’lan).
At Techcatitlan, Huitzilopochtli met his nephew, Copil, who had grown up to be even more evil than his mother. The uncle and nephew battled until Huitzilopochtli chased Copil to a place called Tepetzinco (teh-peh-T’ZIN-koo).
Here, Huitzilopochtli captured and killed Copil, cutting off his head and tearing out his heart. Huitzilopochtli gave his nephew’s heart to a servant and ordered him to throw it away in a forest of reeds.
Then, Huitzilopochtli went about his own business. For the next forty years, Huitzilopochtli and the Aztecs wandered through the wilderness looking for their special home. There were times when they thought they had found their promised land, but Huitzilopochtli was always looking out for his people. If they were in the wrong place, he made sure they moved on.
For example, one time they arrived and settled in a strange kingdom. Huitzilopochtli knew this was not their promised land. Under his power, the Aztecs killed the daughter of the king.
They skinned the princess and had one of their priests wear her skin while they performed a ceremony. As soon as the king saw this brutal ritual, he forced the Aztecs to leave his land, just as Huitzilopochtli had planned. They continued on their long trek to find the special place they would call home.
At long last, their journey took the Aztecs to the shallow waters of Lake Texcoco. The people, carrying arrows and shields, crossed the lake and, as soon as they reached an island in the middle, one of the Aztec priests saw Huitzilopochtli in a vision.
In this vision, the great god told the priest to watch for an eagle that would be sitting on a cactus called tenochtli (teh-NOTCH-t’li), or “stone cactus,” while holding a snake in its beak. The cactus, Huitzilopochtli told the priest, had grown from the discarded heart of his wicked sister, Copil. The eagle was a physical embodiment of Huitzilopochtli.
The priest and his followers proceeded onward, in search of the vision. Then, next to some marsh grasses near a spring they caught sight of an eagle eating a serpent. It was sitting atop a cactus.
The story continues:
And when the eagle saw the Mexicans, he bowed his head low . . . Its nest, its pallet, was of every kind of precious feather—of lovely coting feathers, roseate spoonbill feathers, quetzal feathers . . . And the god called out to them, he said to them, ‘O Mexicans, it shall be there!’
It was on that spot that the Aztecs founded what would become Tenochtitlan, their splendid home.