Poor Cuitláhuac…

We come to a very poor figure in later Aztec history. Poor, because of his situation as Aztec ruler. Poorer, because of what the modern distribution of information made of him. It’s about the person called Cuitláhuac. He was the brother of Moctezuma II. after whose death he inherited the title of Tlatoani and therefore the throne of Mexico. Those of you readers who know how Moctezuma II. died – he was killed by stones thrown by his own people, during a protest against the Spanish presence – are already aware that this was in the middle of a very tense situation between the Aztecs and the Spaniards. After 80 days of reign, he was killed by the European secret weapon – smallpox. His succesor was Cuauhtemoc, the last ruler of the Aztecs.

[EDIT: Reader Gabriel rightfully points out that there are other, contradictory accounts on Moctezuma’s death, such as indigenous accounts or later compiled ones. Readers looking for more information could have a look at their Wikipedia – which can already bring interesting results – or consult Diego Durán, Hernando Alvarado de Tezozomoc, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, Alva Ixtlilxochitl or the contemporary work of Tzvetan Todorov, 1982]

That’s a very straightforward story. Why should he be considered poor (apart from the smallpox and war)?

Because of his name – let me explain:

First of all, many people write “Cuitláhuac” wrong – they write “Cuitláhac” instead. Under this wrong name, the internet (especially the german one, it seems) has a legend about the meaning of his name. You know how it is with such things, even the German Wikipedia says so. Anyway, it’s said the name Cuitláhac means “Pile of Shit”. That’s what they say…

Wait... What did you just call me?!

Let us think for a second. You are the uncle of Moctezuma II., member of a rich family, get a son and name him “pile of shit”? Well, of course the Aztecs could have had a different relationship towards excrements – still it sounds weird enough to have a closer look at this… mess.

Legends and history books have it, that “Cuitláhuac” was not the real name of the Emperor. When the Spaniards were in Mexico, there has been a misunderstanding. Malinche – translator and more of Cortéz – seems to have called Cuitláhuac a name: well, of course “Cuitláhuac”. It’s not clear, if it was sarcasm or if she wanted to ridicule him. What is clear is, that the Spaniards obviously didn’t get it, as they started to call him Cuitláhuac. And since Cuitláhuac had some other things to deal with – like trying to drive out the 3300 Spaniards and Tlaxcalans during La Noche Triste – he couldn’t find a chance to tell them, that “pile of shit” is not his real name.

His real name was probably “Cuauhtlahuac”, which is slighty more awe-inspiring, than the alternative, as it means “Eagle over the Water” – majestic, really.

Muuuuuuch better...

And as I already indicated, “pile of shit” might still not be what Cuitláhuac really means. Let’s pick that word apart…

Cuitláhuac looks like two words. When two Nahuatl words get combined, they lose their ending. Let’s go with that approach. Then we get:
Cuitlatl – excrement
Huactli – bird

Oh my… it does have something to do with excrement. But what about the bird? Like that the word could mean something like… “shitbird/bird of shit”. Ok, that’s even worse. Poor Cuitláhuac…

There is another possibility. -huac could be a suffix. And indeed, the passive suffix in Nahuatl is -hua. “Being excremented”, so to say. Yet, we should keep in mind, that Malinche allegedly shouted that towards him, which makes it a name. Then we would read it as something like “He, who was covered with excrement/’enbrowned'”. And that’s exactly what the Linguistic Historian Frances Karttunen understood as well. According to his interpretation in his Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, this literal translation is not what Malinche meant. It is a metaphor! A metaphor for someone who is pretty busy, because he was assigned to do something. Cuitláhuac means therefore “he, who has been comissioned to care for something”.

That’s it – that is the meaning of Cuitláhuac, itself being sarcasm or ridicule from Malinche. One could say, that Malinche can’t do anything right, really. Several people really don’t like her, as her behaviour towards her own indigenous people is sometimes considered traitorous. But that is another topic for another blog post.

We did a good thing today. Cuitláhuac is still poor, because he has an assigment to care for. But that is much better than being called mean expressions. Now I hope, that the internet strikes again and distributes also this piece of information, which might look less funny and spectacular in the beginning – in the end, it’s closer to the truth and nevertheless very fascinating.

This entry was posted in Aztec, History, Misconception, Nahuatl and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Poor Cuitláhuac…

  1. John says:

    Genius article! Very humorous! Thanks!!

  2. Alfonso says:

    A very sensible interpretation.

  3. Gabriel says:

    Moctezuma II was not killed by his people. The Spaniards killed him and the mexicas were not throwning stones at him but at the Spanish. Please do some more research. Bernal Diaz’s book has a lot of lies.

    • judugrovee says:

      Thank you for your insightful comment.

      I fear however, you’ve got a wrong impression of my sentence. I never wanted to suggest that his death by stone was on purpose. Not even Diaz suggests that and if he would, we shouldn’t believe him uncritically – he’s far too dramatic and biased. In fact, one could even go one step further than you and doubt the stones alltogether (at least the sudden shower after the speech).

      I furthermore realise and have experienced first-hand that this is an important subject even for contemporary Mexican culture. And I am all for a fair and unbiased, one could say “fresh” look on Mexican (and therefore also Mexica) history.

      Therefore you are absolutely correct to point out that there are other versions of Moctezuma’s death and one doesn’t need much research for that. Stabbing, strangling, both by the Spaniards – a simple look at Wikipedia will suffice (Todorov might be a good read though for everyone who is interested). The reason for them not being mentioned here was that I had another article planned on the death of Moctezuma II and until then I wanted to use the “present day historian’s default”. I will quickly add a clarifying edit to the text, as there won’t be any such article in the future.

      Thanks again for your time and good feedback.

  4. Zoe Saadia says:

    Loved this article!!! Great analyzing of elusive Nahuatl names🙂
    Shared on FB

  5. Arte says:

    Very interesting and well-written article! I will be following this blog from now on!

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