Was Aztlán Atlantis?

There have been so many misguided attempts to connect the various Mesoamerican cultures with Atlantis, involving falsifications, mistranslations, misinterpretions, hoaxes, etc., that I must admit that I have become reluctant to broach the subject. However, in so doing I am making every attempt to be fair—whether the data be pro or con—in tackling the highly controversial Mesoamerican aspect of the Atlantis question.

In the doubtful category is an allegation made in regard to the originating land of the Aztec people of Mexico. Legends clearly point to an island to the northwest of Tenochtitlán which was known as "Aztlán". The close resemblance between the names Aztlán, Atlán, and Atlántis make an association between them a tempting prospect. (For example, take a look at page 164 of my book "Quest for Atlantis"; Leonard, 1979).

While it is true that Aztlán is an island, and the place of origin of the Aztec people, it turns out that the island is located in a lake, versus the ocean. Moreover, it is said to be northwest of Tenochtitlán—Atlantis would have been either to the east or northeast. However, it's also possible that the Aztecs named it after an original "Aztlán" in the Atlantic. These are only a few of the problems in any attempt to link Aztlán with Atlantis.

Codex Borturini depiction of a migration from Aztlan

In the Codex Borturini there is an account of a migration of the Aztecs from the island of Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico (Gemelli Careri, 1699). Other Aztec traditions give accounts of a Great Flood (Bierhorst, 1992) which destroyed the Sun called Nahui-atl ("4-Water") in which all mankind was destroyed and drowned: "The sky came nearer the water. In a single day all was lost, and the day Nahui-xochitl, '4 flower,' destroyed all our flesh." (Codex Chimalpopoca, translated by Brasseur de Bourbourg, 1857-1859)

Aztlán ("place of cranes") is said to be located somewhere to the northwest of the Aztec capital, and is described as an island-hill rising from a lake. It was there that the Aztecs had emerged from the earth-womb itself in the genesis time of creation. In these origin myths they emerged originally from the bowels of the earth through seven caves (Chicomostoc) to live in Aztlán before migrating on to Tulá (believed by some to be the legendary Tollán—capital of the Toltecs).

The historical (archeological) Tulá is located some 50 miles north of Mexico city in the state of Hidalgo. Historian Enrique Florescano has argued that the "original" Tollan was most probably the larger complex of Teotihuacán; also that, when talking about the mythical place Tulán-Zuiva (Tollan), the Mayan sources are really refering to Chichén Itzá. The actual truth of the matter is difficult to nail down with any certainty.

The American ethnologist, H. H. Bancroft, says that the earlier Toltecs also traced their migrations back to a starting point which they called Atlán or Aztlán. He further states that the Popol Vuh relates that after the migration from Aztlán three sons of the king of the Quichés, upon orders from their father, returned to the East where they had first come ashore to retrieve valuable ancestoral knowledge—the art of painting and a system of writing. (Bancroft, 1874)

With all due respect to the distinguished ethnologist and historian, Aztlán is not "to the east", but to the northwest—and the Popol Vuh never mentions Aztlán at all. In fact, to be completely accurate, Aztlán makes no appearance whatsoever in Mayan sources; and I'm not at all sure that it forms a part of Toltec legendary history. Thus, any supposed Aztlán-Atlán connection is rather tenuous at best.

To end on a positive note, it is to my sheer delight that Central America is not completely without interest in regard to Atlantis. Atlán may indeed have been the original name for Atlantis (sans the Greek ending). And it happens that there is an actual location which carried that very name in Central America, at least up to the time of the Spanish conquest—Panama is a long way from Greece, Plato, Mount Atlas and northern Spain where the "A-T-L" inscription was found (see my Linguistics page).

Pre-Columbian Atlán located on the Atlantic side (far right)
of the Isthmus of Panama north of the Chucunogue River

The Mayanist Brasseur de Bourbourg correctly observed that the words Atlas and Atlantichave no satisfactory etymology in any European language, but that in America it is an entirely different story. It is in the indigenous languages of the Americas that we so often encounter the radical phoneme atl. From this comes a series of words, such as atlan, meaning "on the border of, or amid, the water"—from which we can derive the adjective "Atlantic". We have also atlaça, "to emerge or dart from the water", which in the preterit makes atlaz—origin of the name "Atlas" perhaps. An Egyptian connection is also looking plausible.

According to the famous Abbé, atl, in the Nahuatl tongue, means "water" (generally pictured in the codices as a water-filled vessel; Musur, 1978); observing that a city namedAtlán ("Near-Water") once existed on the shores of the Gulf of Darien, "on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama at the time of the Conquest." (de Bourbourg, 1855-1868) A number of "Atlantis-like" place-names, retaining the atl vocule are known to exist throughout the American continents. Are we to believe this is without significance?


Bancroft, Hubert Howe, "Native Races of the Pacific States", Vol. iii, New York, 1874.
Bierhorst, John, "History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca," Arizona Press, Tucson, 1992.
de Bourbourg, Brasseur, Histoire . . . du Mexique et de l'Amérique Centrale avant Colomb, Paris, 1857-1859.
de Bourbourg, Brasseur, Popol Vuh, Le Livre Sacré et les Mythes de l'Antiquité Américaine, Paris, 1855-1868.
Gemelli, Careri Il Giro del Monde, vol. VI, (Roma, 1699). A better reproduction can be found in part V of Alteste und Alte Zeit (Hanover, 1854).
Leonard, R. Cedric, "Quest for Atlantis," Manor Books Inc., New York, 1979.
Musur, Curt, "Facts and Artifacts of Middle America," E. P. Dutton Publishers, New York, 1978.



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