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Chicomoztoc: The Place of the Seven Caves

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Where did the Aztecs come from? If you asked them, one response you may have gotten was Chicomoztoc. In this lesson, we'll explore the legends around this place and see if it could have actually existed.

The Place of Seven Caves

A lot of archeological work has been put into establishing the origins of humans in the Americas. Did they migrate across a land bridge from Siberia, by boats from Polynesia, or in some other way? There are many possible ways to explain the origin of humans in the Americas, so how do we know which is right? Well, what if we just ask the people who lived here?

To the Mexica people, more commonly known as the Aztecs, their origins were clear. They came from the north. Mexica legends begin in one of two (and sometimes both) mythical locations, paradise homelands from which they were expelled. One of these places is Chicomoztoc, the place of the seven caves.

Chicomoztoc, as depicted in a Chichimeca codex
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Chicomoztoc in Mexica Mythology

In the stories of the Nahuatl-speaking people, Chicomoztoc was defined by its seven caves, each holding one of seven groups of the Nahua people. As Chicomoztoc played into the creation myths of a number of Nahua cultures, the names of the actual seven groups vary. However, the one group that is nearly always included on this list is the Mexica. That's partly because the Mexica versions of Nahua history and mythology have survived better than those of nearly any other group. That's also why we'll be dealing primarily with the Mexica interpretation of the myth in this lesson today.

In Nahua accounts, the seven caves are often described with words associated with mouths or wombs, and the caves depicted as a maw. This may reflect something from Nahua religion, where the entire material Universe grew from the mouth of a defeated monster. In most accounts, the people emerged out of the underworld from Chicomoztoc, and settled near an island on a lake. This island was paradise, and it was called Aztlán. The Nahua people lived there for a long time, until the tyrannous rulers of Atzlán forced them into exile. The Mexica were the last to leave Aztlán and then wandered in the desert for the longest time. They finally arrived in the Valley of Mexico around 1300 CE. Since the Mexica homeland was called Aztlán, the other societies of the Valley of Mexico called these newcomers Aztecs.

Map of the Mexica journey from Aztlan
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Other Versions of Chicomoztoc

That story is only one of many, and we have to remember that ancient myths could change over time and by author. So, there are other accounts of Chicomoztoc. In some, the Mexica emerged in Aztlán itself, and Chicomoztoc was a place where all seven Nahua groups converged after their exile. In this version, they lived here for years, but finally reemerged from the seven caves to go found their own new cities, which is when the Mexica ended up in the Valley of Mexico.

Chicomoztoc also appears in the creation myths of a number of cultures broadly called the Chichimeca, which was Nahuatl catchall term for the semi-nomadic people of northern Mexico. The Mexica tended to see these people as uncivilized and barbarous, partly because the Mexica were once nomadic wanderers themselves, before founding a settled civilization. While the Mexica eventually built their own city, not all accounts of Chicomoztoc ended this way. Some of the Chichimeca people eventually built cities, like the Mexica did, but others remained more nomadic. Chicomoztoc was still, however, a common thread in many of their stories.

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