In the Mesoamerican civilizations that preceded the Spanish Conquest, intellectuals usually derived from the priestly caste rather than from the ranks of warriors and statesmen.
But there was one exception: a man with the tongue-twisting name of Nezahualcoyotl. (Approximate pronunciation: neza-howl-coyotl.) Luis Valdez, professor of Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley, describes Nezahualcoyotl as “a philosopher king, and one of the greatest poets America has ever produced.” He was a man who appears almost a precursor of Frederick the Great — a ruler-philosopher who found time to mingle intellectual pursuits with war and statecraft.
Unlike other high-profile figures from the century preceding the Conquest, Nezahualcoyotl was not an Aztec. His people were the Alcohuans, part of the third migratory wave of northern tribes into the Valley of Mexico. The first invaders were the Toltecs, whose civilization was centered in the city of Tula. They flourished between the 7th and 11th centuries A.D.. and then mysteriously disappeared. The Toltecs were succeeded by a people called the Chichimecas, believed to have arrived about a century after the Toltecs’ disappearance. Their civilization was far inferior to that of the Toltecs and the 18th century Mexican historian Mariano Veyta describes them as “burrowing in caves or, at best, in cabins of straw.”
The late 12th century saw another migration to Central Mexico. The newcomers, more civilized than the Chichimecas, comprised several tribes of which the most powerful were the Aztecs and Alcohuans. The latter settled at the eastern end of Lake Texcoco and from then on became known as Texcocans, completely shedding their original name.
Though Nezahualcoyotl was born heir to a throne, his youth was not marked by princely luxury. The Texcocans were then fighting for their very existence against an invading tribe called the Tepanecos. In 1418, when the young prince was fifteen, the enemy succeeded in subjugating his people. While concealed in the branches of a tree, the youth saw Tepaneco soldiers butcher his father. He fled the grisly scene but was captured and thrown into a dungeon.
Had it not been for the loyalty of an old retainer, Nezahualcoyotl might have shared his father’s fate. The former slipped into prison and impersonated the prince while Nezahualcoyotl, dressed in his benefactor’s clothes, escaped to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. For this act of self-sacrifice, the faithful servant paid with his life.
Nezahualcoyotl was warmly received in Tenochtitldn and devoted the next eight years to study and intellectual self-advancement. Along with academic pursuits, Nezahualcoyotl received instruction in duties befitting his princely station. He had never forgotten the brutal circumstances that triggered his exile and was determined to regain his throne.
But he needed a pretext to enter the land of his birth, now part of an expanded Texcocan-Tepanec state. The original Tepanec usurper had died and was replaced by his son Maxtla. Pretending to be reconciled to Tepanec rule, Nezahualcoyotl went to their capital city of Atzcapotzalco and made obeisance to Maxtla, presenting him with as wreath of flowers. But Maxtla, a rude and suspicious man, spurned the offering. Nezahualcoyotl, sensing he was in danger, slipped out of the palace and returned to his native city of Texcoco.
During their brief encounter Maxtla had noticed what a favorable impression the handsome young prince was making. Fearing him as a potential rival, Maxtla cursed himself for not having done away with Nezahualcoyotl when he had him in his power. Feigning a change of heart, he sent Nezahualcoyotl a friendly invitation to join him for an evening’s entertainment. Then he ordered assassins to kill the prince on arrival.
But Nezahualcoyotl refused to walk into the trap. So strong was the prince’s hold on his followers that one of them, who greatly resembled Nezahualcoyotl, agreed to risk certain death by going in his place.
When the ruse was discovered, the infuriated Maxtla put a price on Nezahualcoyotl’s head, promising extensive property and the hand of a noble lady to any man who might capture or slay his rival. Nezahualcoyotl means “hungry fox” and this is exactly how he lived for the next few years. Hiding in the high sierra, living in hovels and caves, he nonetheless retained an important ace up his sleeve: the marvelous devotion of his people. Disdaining Maxtla’s reward, none turned him in though many recognized him in his peasant disguise.
At length Maxtla got his comeuppance. Tiring of his tyranny, a number of nobles went over to Nezahualcoyotl. A coalition was formed and Maxtla’s forces were driven out of the Texcocan domains. Then his enemies marched on Atzapotzalco. Finding Maxtla hiding in the palace baths, they unceremoniously dragged him out and offered him as a human sacrifice to the gods.
Having finally attained the throne that was his birthright, Nezahualcoyotl began to display evidence of his remarkable abilities. His first act was to devise a code of laws considered so exemplary that it was adopted by his main allies, the Aztecs and the Tlacopanes. The laws, based on a division of powers, created a number of councils including war, finance, justice and the so-called “council of music.”
I say “so-called” because the designation is misleading. This body devoted itself not only to music but also to science, art, literature, poetry and history. It carried out such functions as evaluating the academic qualifications of professors, verifying the accuracy of published works and judging compositions on patriotic and moral themes.
Given this high cultural level, it is not surprising that Texcoco became known as “the Athens of the Western World” — to quote the historian Boturini. Of all the creative intellects nurtured by this “Athens,” the greatest belonged to the king himself. His verse reflects an Epicurean philosophy and William H. Prescott, author of the encyclopedic History of Mexico, makes an interesting comparison between one of the king’s verses and two later ones from Western authors:
Danza y festeja a Dios poderoso
gocemos de esta gloria
Porque la vida humana es transitoria
Compare this sentiment to Herrick’s
” gather ye rosebuds while ye may ”
or Racine’s: Rions, chantons, dit cette troupe impie…
Qui sait si nous serons demain?
Nezahualcoyotl died at 70, full of honors and survived by various wives, a horde of concubines and 110 children. One of his legitimate offspring, an eight-year-old boy named Nezahualpilli, succeeded to the throne. The king died happy, believing that he had set up a dynasty and state strong enough to endure for centuries. His deathbed reverie would have been far less serene had he foreseen the arrival, in 47 years, of white-skinned invaders from across the seas who would snuff out the civilization of which he was such a brilliant representative.