Download Aztec Civilization

yes no Was this document useful for you?
   Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the workof artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Document related concepts

Malinalco wikipedia , lookup

Bernardino de Sahagún wikipedia , lookup

Texcoco, State of Mexico wikipedia , lookup

Tlaxcala City wikipedia , lookup

Tepotzotlán wikipedia , lookup

Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire wikipedia , lookup

National Palace (Mexico) wikipedia , lookup

Templo Mayor wikipedia , lookup

Fall of Tenochtitlan wikipedia , lookup

Aztec warfare wikipedia , lookup

Aztec cuisine wikipedia , lookup

Human sacrifice in Aztec culture wikipedia , lookup

Aztec Empire wikipedia , lookup

Aztec religion wikipedia , lookup

Aztec society wikipedia , lookup

A History From Beginning to End
Copyright © 2016 by Hourly History Limited
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
How the Aztecs Are Portrayed and How Their History
Defining Moments and their Search to Expand and Save the
Their Philosophy: its Impact on Social Life and How it Served
the Kings
With so many demands on our time, often we forget how
precious it is until it's almost gone. Are we doomed by the
inherent nature of time and our concerns about catastrophes
that we inherited as humans? We may desperately attempt to
understand the concept of god, sacrifice, and adhering to a path
that might avoid impending doom. With so many reminders in
life that our experiences on this planet are temporary, often we
engage in wondering about what kind of mark we will leave
behind. At least our memories absorb our experience as we
reflect on our countdown, expectations, and circumstances,
However, what if you knew the world might end sooner
than you would like? What impression are we making on our
communities or in our personal or professional lives?
The Aztecs are considered the last of the ancient Mexican
civilizations. They lived large, unsubtle lives, grappling with the
subtleties of life even if much of their plan was written in the
stars, and they anguished over the temporariness of their world.
Today, we beat ourselves up in our modern societies as we
wonder, where did the time go? We might become spiritual.
Alternatively, we start making up for lost time and making the
kinds of sacrifices that we expect of others, but ourselves seem
challenged by. As our hourglass empties, despite what we go
through now or what we have gone through in the past, how do
we stand a chance of making sense of our place in the world?
This dilemma may seem unique to us, as uniquely modern as
digital communication. It might not surprise you that, in fact, it's
a universal inquiry that has informed many cultures around the
world, including the Aztec people. In the here and now, we
might pursue a willingness to take on tasks and challenges that
we might have procrastinated about when we consider our
bucket lists or worry that life is passing us by. We suddenly find
ourselves immersed in what life is really about instead of sitting
there overwhelmed with it. We can feel it, although in the
process we may wonder if our traditions, practices, and goals
define us.
In coming to terms with the why behind what we do with
our lives, we're tapping into a very long, extraordinary human
This story involves gazing into the abyss and reflecting on
the temporariness of things, our bodies, relationships, the
afterlife, and cultural ways. Moreover, that can be very scary
depending on how we look at it. Ancient cultures like the
Aztecs looked at temporariness, death interrelating with life and
their beliefs in something much bigger than their own individual
lives. They let this guide their daily lives and their decisions.
Some might criticize some of the ways that they handled their
fears associated with being human and the way they expressed
their devotion to their gods, especially how blood and sacrifice
filtered into their rituals. Consider how many religions and belief
systems import the power of blood into their traditions, their
reckonings and the nature of understanding either death or
impending doom. It's sometimes worth considering how
different their world was and how the past does not always
explain the present, even as we find certain links and shedding
of practices. We might appreciate stories about Japanese
samurai and Aztec warriors, but appreciate they are of the past.
Today, we might learn about a tradition that we find
questionable from the perspective of being humane and sign a
petition to attempt to sway the practitioners in finding a new
method of worship and sacrifice.
The processes of human growth are vast, and the potential
of seeing ancient cultures as somehow less human is there, but it
deprives us of seeing the whole picture. We need not condone
or censure it. Others may draw parallels to the fate of many
tribes, civilizations, empires, and secret societies. They may try
to find explanations for these people, which for no apparently
rational reason, followed their hearts. They were subject to the
power, cycles of suffering, agony, mercilessness, resorting to
violence for moral order, and a self-image that determined that
the world's very existence hinged on human deeds. That, we
might understand.
Right here and right now, we're applying ourselves to our
tasks and if only we can revel in all of our accomplishments. At
times, we wonder whose praise we seek in our pursuits.
Sometimes, we're doing it for our own sense of
accomplishments. Other times, it's to show off our god-given
talents and to prove our faith helps us achieve our goals. The
Aztec Empire, with their deeply-ingrained cultural practices,
were also dealing with the reality of their times and were not just
shaped by traditions and practices. Even though the records
show that they worshiped the sun and were in tune with their
universe, they were developing a civilization way before their
introduction to the Old World.
In developing an understanding of the Aztec culture, this
book sets out to point out some of the complexities of their
empire. It considers various perspectives on various attributes.
It will look at the philosophies that shaped their view of the
world. It will also explore their Nahuatl roots and popular
misconceptions, medical knowledge, the extent of their trade
networks, their rulers, and discussions about their origins and
collapse. It will fascinate you as we consider aspects of their
society that will help you build a cultural awareness of the Aztec
existence. In the meantime, be sure to keep in mind the nature
of their way of escaping the misery and temporariness in life,
and consider it as a student of cultural anthropology. While the
human story embraces different practices guided by our
emotional journeys and beliefs, there is a tendency to potentially
dismiss histories that may challenge our sensibilities or raise
deep questions. Every step of the way, we can witness their
concept of god and what guided their expansion and daily lives.
They had very real concerns about how the world might end
and their role in making sure that didn't happen if they had
anything to do with saving themselves from the possibility of
Chapter One
How the Aztecs Are Portrayed
and How Their History
If you're keeping up on the current portrayals of Mexicans and
by extension those who may be drawn to their Aztec roots in
the media, you may have recently seen a controversy brewing in
Texas. The controversy centers around an image on the cover
of a Texas textbook that teaches Mexican-American heritage.
The image depicts an "Aztec Dance Look" and features a barechested man with an elaborate headdress. The content has been
criticized as characterizing Mexican-Americans in a racist way
and conflating the history of Mexico with that of MexicanAmericans, since the cover image is in no way reflective of
today's Mexican-Americans.
It also negatively depicts the Chicano movement of the civil
rights era for its activism as separatist in nature, when they were
seeking their own empowerment within the American
community at large. Instead of celebrating the need for a group
to claim its roots and stand proudly wherever they may be,
stereotypes glaze over the real intentions of people who reclaim
their own pasts. In reality, and with cultural sensitivity, the
Chicano movement distinguishes itself from Mexican roots by
tapping into the very cultures that lived in the Mexican territories
and the southwestern US territories before Mexico existed.
Chicanos consider themselves Olmec, Mayan, Toltec, Aztec,
and various indigenous people.
Steeping oneself in the iconography of the Aztec and
authentic history isn't only for individuals tracking their family
lines on Shows like the very popular wrestling
show Lucha Underground on the El Ray Network pride
themselves in bringing on characters that are Aztec gods. Fans
love it. The show researched the seven Aztec tribes that lived in
the Chicomoztoc (the place of the Seven Caves) in Aztlan.
Aztlan is purportedly the original home of the Aztec (meaning:
people of Aztlan). This book will later discuss some of the
Aztec Genesis stories and of the Nahua people who emerged
from the seven caves. As legend would have it, at least in
presenting the seven tribes that this show refers to and
comprises in their seven medallions, these tribes were: Chalcas,
Alcolhuas, Tepanecs, Tlahuicas, Tlascaltecs, Xochimilcas, and
Aztecs. Some accounts list other tribes as part of the initial
seven, like Malinalcas and Huexotzincas. People who view the
show who have Latin roots feel like the show speaks to them
on a cultural level.
The Aztecs separated from the other Nahua tribes at these
caves. The names of each of the tribes mentioned are derived
mostly from the areas where they eventually settled after their
exodus. The Lucha Underground title belt is comprised of gold
from each of the seven tribes. The show taps into the possible
myth or legend of the Chicomoztoc that has historically been
explored in many studies of the early migration of the Aztec and
continues to enthrall anyone interested in Aztec history and their
cultural traditions. According to mythology, the caves were like
Mother Earth's womb. The seven different caves brought into
the world the leaders of the first people of these seven tribes.
As the metaphoric place of emergence of all people of central
Mexican descent, this place served as the ancestral homeland
even if it was blended into any factual attempts to fit together
any migrations to real places. Some investigators who question
that these caves were mythical have tried to identify it on
modern maps. Others question a single point of origin. Yet, it
has had a lasting effect in the cultural traditions.
It's understandable if we step back for a moment and
consider how many cultural and religious traditions do not base
their beliefs on empirical evidence but a need to honor the need
of our ancient ones to provide some answers about why the
world was the way it was. It reinforced a need for a sense of
place and to find some threads to a history that was destroyed
by conquerors. As we will discuss later, the Aztec's creation
myths shaped their daily lives. Moreover, while we may be in an
information age, we must remember this. The purpose of myth
has often been to a culture much less about proving the stories
true and more about explaining major events in a way that
preserved the cultural values and traditions of a people and
didn't relegate the question as unanswerable, but allowed the
listener to interpret the past. Many interpretations exist of the
cave with the seven tribes. As we will soon discuss, the
organization of time and the rhythms of life governed the lives of
the ancient Aztec. It is fascinating that a show like Lucha
Underground weaves in the folklore into their program in
today's world, feeding the cultural needs of its viewers and
helping them unlock the mysteries of the past.
As important as it is to retain some cultural tie to a past for
a people, it is also significant to consider primary sources,
artifacts, ancient texts, and archaeological evidence in
broadening our understanding of the ancient Aztecs. With a
history of conquistadors invading their lands, the Aztec history
has taken time, perseverance, and dedication. Building the
history has been magnified by the interest of the future
generations who didn't want to reduce them to a void or heap
that could only retrace its steps to the times determined to
coincide with their last gasps of self-identity. Interest in Aztec
history soared between 1700 and 1800.
Our understanding of the Aztec empire relies on
interpretations built on excavations, old manuscripts, statues,
uncovered grand temples, codices, pictographs, Spanish
chroniclers, pre-Conquest ritual calendars, maps, and records
that record tributes paid to kings and other royalty.
Archaeologists have found tools, human remains, jewelry, and
pottery. Ethnoastronomers elaborate on the evidence that has
been found, revealing the confluence of religion and everyday
life. There exist ethnographies from contemporary Nahuatlspeakers and other indigenous people from Mesoamerica that
also lend a valuable resource to our search for answers and to
preserve scholarship in understanding Aztec metaphysics,
philosophy, social order, their kings, practices, and their human
struggles in the world they lived in.
Some of the earliest excavations in the 1790s in Zocalo,
today's main square in Mexico City, led to the discovery of the
ancient Coatlicue statue and the Stone of the Sun. Coatlicue
means “She of the Serpent Skirt” in the Nahuatl language of the
Aztec, and this colossal statue was built sometime between
1487 and 1520. It is made of volcanic andesite and is eleven
feet six inches high. Their large stone sculptures are considered
one of the greatest artistic achievements. Hundreds of finely
carved monuments have been revealed to broaden the
interpretation of the Aztec as bloodthirsty warriors. The Aztec
artisans inherited a stone carving tradition dating back 2,000
years through the Olmecs, Toltecs, Maya and Teotihuacan
civilizations. According to "Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and
Central America: An Encyclopedia," the Aztecs considered the
acquisition of stone as an act of domination over the people
who lived in the quarry's territory. In Colonial descriptions of
the Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar Stone), the Aztecs
considered the stones to have magical properties, and that they
could be used in devastating predictions about the overthrow of
the empire.
The deity Coatlicue has both female and male qualities,
which is often the case in the Aztec cosmology. As the
decapitated Aztec goddess of the earth, she wore a skirt made
of snakes and a necklace of severed human hands and excised
human hearts. Her role as both creator and destroyer of life has
been emphasized in interpretations and also symbolizes the
ambivalence of nature, according to María Herrera-Sobek in
"Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural
Traditions, Volume 1." Coatlicue was celebrated twice a year in
the House of Darkness, her temple in Tenochtitlan, during the
spring ceremony of Tozozontli to celebrate the oncoming rain
season and harvest and during the autumn ceremony of
Quecholli to celebrate the hunt. These religious practices
involved human sacrifice and bloodletting, including flayed skin
as an offering to the earth goddess. Much has been written
about the religious mythology of Coatlicue, and you can find
some excellent starting points listed in the resources section of
the book.
The Aztec Stone of the Sun is a carved stone that depicts
each of the twenty days of the month associated with a god. It
resembles a sundial. The stone is 4 feet thick and 12 feet in
diameter and weighs 24 tons. At the center of the stone, they
carved a human-like face with an obsidian sacrificial knife (
teepatl) as a tongue, depicting the fifth sun, Tonatiuh. This stone
has helped archaeologists understand and substantiate the
prevailing thinking that Aztecs believed they were living at the
time of the Fifth Sun. There is much debate about the
significance of some of the dates that are described on the stone
and whether the declining period of the Fifth Sun led to a day of
destruction, or whether the stone celebrates the creation of the
Fifth Sun, the era of the Aztec empire.
This book will further shed light on the mysteries of the ages
(suns) as the Aztecs saw it. According to Manuel AguilarMoreno in "A Handbook to Life in the Aztec World," the stone
symbolizes the creation of the fifth sun. He suggests that it acts
as a celebration of the creation of a world where the forces of
creation and destruction play equal roles. Others, like Susan
Milbrath in "Heaven and Earth in Ancient Mexico: Astronomy
and Seasonal Cycles in the Codex Borgia," seem to suggest that
the day 4 Ollin is the name of the Fifth Sun of the current era,
and the predicted date of a cataclysmic earthquake that would
destroy the Aztecs. Milbrath continues to reveal that some
codices and studies have focused on 4 Ollin and its meaning;
one of them, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis 12V, says that if
the earth begins to tremble and the sun is eclipsed on this day,
then the world will end. The end of El Quinto Sol has been the
subject of debate.
The search for these antiquities was spawned by groups
that wanted to distinguish themselves from an imperial Spanish
background, like the Creoles and Mestizos. During these
politically charged times, they began to use evidence of Aztec
and indigenous heritage as symbols of opposition to being ruled
by Spaniards across the sea, according to David Carrasco in
"The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction."
During the early 1800s, they unearthed sculptures of the
goddess Coyolxauhqui. In 1913, they uncovered the Great
Temple in Mexico City. More excavations in the 1970s led to
unearthing treasures in Tenochtitlan, like the Coyolxauhqui
Stone at the base of the Great Temple. According to Nicholas
J. Saunders and Tony Allan in "The Aztec Empire," the site was
considered so important that the President of Mexico in 1978
issued an order authorizing its excavation. A museum was
opened at the Great Temple in 1987 containing significant
numbers of antiquities. The Coyolxauhqui Stone depicts the
daughter of Coatlicue dismembered on the ground for plotting
to kill her own mother. You can find the details of the
dismemberment by her unborn brother Huitzilopochtli (who only
appears grown to stop his sister and the other siblings) in
"Crossroads and Cultures, Combined Volume: A History of the
World's Peoples." According to the authors, sacrificed warriors
from all over the empire would have gotten a good look at that
circular stone before climbing the temple stairs to their own
As we will further explore, Aztec people couldn't escape
the attached significance and meaning of the stories of their
gods; not only the leaders of the empire but their religious
leaders and sculptures reinforced these same concepts of what
was considered not just myth but became the reality that
underpinned their code of living. As we will learn later, while the
status of an individual played a significant role in what was
expected of them in playing out the traditions, no one truly
escaped the perpetuated responsibilities to the Fifth Sun.
Embrace with us our search of the past to understand how
the Aztecs grappled with the ephemeral nature of life. Consider
how sacrifice played into their understanding of human
responsibility as they heeded the catastrophes that inevitably
ruled their world.
Chapter Two
Defining Moments and their
Search to Expand and Save the
Despite what a peripheral search of Aztec life may reap, the
Aztecs experienced many defining moments during their empire
besides the Spanish conquest, led by the famed Conquistador
Hernan Cortes in 1519-1521. Just like we might think a
headline in the newspaper can start a conversation, the same
thing holds true about the Aztecs, who were a worthy and noble
empire before they were forced to change the trajectory of their
history forever.
The Aztecs wanted to exert power and did so with
concepts to structures military, social and political that differed
from more familiar Western concepts that appear to us
throughout history. They grew a dynamic empire over the
course of nearly two hundred years from 1325-1521.
Early defining moments in their efforts to build an empire
that would rival all others in their surroundings include their
arrival in the Valley of Mexico circa 1300 to establish their
capital in Tenochtitlan, located just north of modern-day
Mexico City. The discovery of a sense of place at the command
of one of their gods Huitzilopochtli for the Aztecs was crucial to
the future of their empire. Although there are different accounts
and legends about the one hundred year migration that led them
away from the land of white herons, Aztlan, they eventually
settled in Tenochtitlan, led in the last stages by the priest
Tenoch. The capital itself was founded in 1325. Accounts vary
as to whether Aztlan is a real location. More about the legend
about how the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli delivered to the
Aztec leaders, in particular Tenoch's vision of Eagle and Cactus,
a message to leave Aztlan and fulfill the prophecy, will be
shared in the next chapter.
However, when they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the
Toltecs ruled. In 1171, they were overthrown in an uprising that
included the Aztecs. On their way to Tenochtitlan, they settled
first in Chapultepec, or "Grasshopper Hill." They moved to
Culhuacan in Tizaapan, where their tradition of human sacrifice
turned off the neighbors. Although they had begun trading in the
Culhuacan markets and offered themselves as warriors in the
service of the king, they did not remain in good favor. Although
some sources suggest that this is a semi-mythical turn of events
for the Aztecs, according to "Assaulting the Past: Violence and
Civilization in Historical Context," the Aztecs decided to mark
their settlement by sending emissaries to Achicometl, the ruler of
Culhuacan, to request his daughter as the bride to their god
Huitzilopochtli and bestow her as a living goddess. Upon
Achicometl's arrival, he and his dignitaries entered the temple
and to his horror saw one of the priests dressed in the skin of
his daughter. He vowed to annihilate the Aztecs; during the war,
the Aztecs were driven away.
Many Aztec kings trace their genealogy to the Toltecs.
Their empire developed between 900 CE to 1200 CE. The
Aztecs borrowed heavily from Teotihuacan, which was
originally considered to be constructed by the Toltecs.
However, eventually, further studies and more evidence
disproved this when it became clear that Teotihuacan was
significantly older than the Toltec main capital of Tula. While the
Toltecs acquired skills from the descendants of the Teotihuacan,
the Toltec rose to power after the collapse of Teotihuacan, after
they arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 900 CE, led by their
powerful king, Mixcoatl. The respect that the Toltec earned
from many tribes in the area meant that many of them claimed
Toltec ancestry. The Aztecs borrowed from them regarding
technology, military organization, and other ways. According to
Professor Miguel Leon-Portilla, the recipient of the National
Institute of Anthropology and History’s (INAH) greatest
distinction, the Eagle Warrior Award, the nomads who finally
made it to Tenochtitlan so admired the Toltecs that they chose
as their very first king a tlatoani, a nobleman of Toltec origin.
King Acamapichtli was from Culhuacan and fathered a great
number of children by various Aztec women. Their descendants
formed the nucleus of the noble social class or pipiltin. As you
will you come to appreciate in learning about the Aztec, they
had a highly stratified social system of classes that they
developed during their empire years. More will be discussed
about this king in the next chapter.
According to many experts, the term Aztec was acquired
from European chroniclers, but the term has stuck. Many who
focus on the Aztec use the more appropriate term Mexica,
pronounced "may-SHE-ka." The ancestral root language of the
Aztec, Apache, Toltec, Hopi, Shoshone and Navajo is Nahuatl.
One term that was also used by the Toltecs at the time was
Nahua-Chichimec. According to "The Aztec Calendar
Handbook," the Mexica rulers assumed many of their origin
stories, adapted them to their own historical realities, and
assumed their agricultural traditions. In adopting the Toltec form
of ruling with different ruling "houses," their system was not
really a true fit to the European notion of empire, but more like
a confederate system of allied lineage and calpulli clan
structures. This allowed for autonomous home rulers when they
conquered areas and a system of tribute collection that enforced
their dominance and gave them economic control over
conquered populations. Calpullis are considered the
fundamental unit in the social pecking order of Aztec society.
The figure Tenoch is written about and studied as both
legendary myth and leader of the Aztecs. During his rule, the
city of Tenochtitlan offered many ceremonial centers, markets,
and ball courts. Tenoch, or tenuch, means stone-cactus fruit,
and Tenochtitlan means "Among the Stone-Cactus Fruit."
Although some reference materials question whether Tenoch
was a real person, others claim he was the first "emperor" of
Tenochtitlan from 1325 to 1375. Although we might more
loosely interpret “empire” given that at the time of his rule the
city itself was being established and a large army was forming,
its missions were not yet borne out, and their organization was
limited in scope. During that time they built this empire between
the kingdoms of Azcapotzalco (Tepanecs) and Tetzcoco. Given
they were a new presence, they lacked power and became
food gatherers and agriculturalists to exchange goods. The ruler
of Azcapotzalco, King Tezozomoc, decided to tax the Mexica
heavily. In response, they reacted by expanding their kingdom.
As we will discuss the various kings that lorded over the
Aztec people later and their effect on the Aztec empire, it is
notable to consider how trade defined them, as did some of the
symbols of their great civilization. Trade was crucial to building
their empire, alongside their tribute systems, their political
accomplishments and their cultural icons and beliefs. It's easy to
imagine that geopolitics in the Aztec era of Mesoamerica was
highly complex given the number of kingdoms, customs, and
power struggles; they were not only defined by warfare and
diplomacy. Researchers from North Carolina State University,
the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del
Instituto Politécnico Nacional-Unidad Mérida, Purdue
University, and El Colegio de Michoacan found that despite
how the Aztec could have disrupted trade, they didn't always.
One case in point focuses on the Tlaxcallan.
While conflict and perpetual warfare did exist between the
Aztec and the Tlaxcala, it doesn't appear that the Aztec
attempted to sabotage all of the Tlaxcallan dealings that
concerned other kingdoms. Today, Tlaxcala offers one of the
most fascinating luminescent natural phenomena to visitors: each
year, a large population of fireflies arrive at mate, and thousands
of viewers visit to witness the nighttime illumination between
June and August (Aztecs saw the fireflies as tiny lights of truth in
the ignorance surrounding them according to the late Charles L.
Hogue, a cultural entomologist who wrote the first
comprehensive guide to insect life in the region, "Latin American
Insects and Entomology").
For a little background about Tlaxcala, the book "Native
Claims: Indigenous Law Against Empire, 1500-1920" offers
some historical perspective. Tlaxcala was halfway between the
Gulf of Mexico and the Valley of Mexico. It served as a trading
hub throughout most of the period between 900 and 1500 CE.
It was not a closed community, as goods moved from the
central valley to the coast and all the way to the Yucatan.
Regarding its relations with the Aztec, we can find many
sources, but one to start out with gives us a little insight. Patricia
Ybarra in "Performing Conquest: Five Centuries of Theater,
History and Identity in Tlaxcala, Mexico," explained that
Tlaxcala's identity was marked by its exclusion from the Triple
Alliance of 1426, an alliance which we will go into further detail
about in the next chapter.
Suffice it to say, the Aztecs united with the city-state of
Texcoco and Tlacopan. Tlacopan was a city-state that was
situated very close to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on the
shores of Lake Texcoco. As part of their Aztec imperial
strategy, the three united against the long tyranny of the
Tepanecs. The Tepanecs, whose capital was Azcapotzalco,
made vassals of the new inhabitants of the island in Lake
Texcoco that the Aztecs named Tenochtitlan. According to
"Global Connections: Volume 1, to 1500: Politics, Exchange,
and Social Life in World History," the rise of city-states in the
valley made local politics unstable; as Tenochtitlan grew, they
became respected allies rather than suspicious mercenaries. By
the 1510s, Tenochtitlan was considered a major power among
the half dozen in the valley. As soon as King Tezozomoc died,
the Aztecs, along with these two city-states, crushed the
Tepanecas, despite having gained tributes on conquered towns
the Aztecs had assisted the Tepanecas in claiming previously.
Tlaxcala, and two other independent states adjacent to the
Basin, Huejotzinco and Metztitlan, had sharp conflicts with the
Aztec. They participated in various wars of ritualistic
significance. However, according to "The Legacy of
Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American
Civilization," Tlaxcala stood in the way of the Aztec empire's
access to the resources of the rich coastal lowlands to the east.
The relationship among these states was extremely competitive.
By not becoming part of the alliance, they were forced to
fortify themselves with walls and became isolated purposefully
by the Aztecs. The Aztecs did block Tlaxcallan trade routes in
1502, preventing them from obtaining salt and cotton. In later
years, the Tlaxcallans allied with the Spanish in fighting against
the oppression suffered by their own people under the Aztec.
However, the recent finding by the mentioned study conducted
by North Carolina State University, along with several
universities, question our assumptions that the Aztecs, who
were openly hostile to the Tlaxcallans, would always intervene
in the trade the latter conducted. When the researchers found
that the Aztecs did not interfere with the Tlaxcallans when they
obtained their obsidian from El Paredon, just outside the
boundaries of the Aztec empire, they considered a few
scenarios, including that obsidian was so easy to acquire that it
would have been a waste of time for the Aztec. Despite the fact
that there was an economic rift and open conflict, the Aztecs
did not always overpower the Tlaxcala in trade-related matters.
Although piecing together that one relationship with the
Tlaxcala can be useful, it's also an opportunity to consider the
trade networks the Aztecs conducted and the value of trade in
this geopolitically complex Mesoamerican environment. It's
better than stereotyping the Aztecs with a profile that brings to
mind the Spanish Inquisition or bloody massacres. Although
merchants held a high status in the extensive trade that the
Aztecs conducted in the region, much has been written about
the animosity between Aztec males and these very merchants.
Still, the mountains were rich with gold, lumber, and water.
Merchants made salves from prickly pear cactus. Moreover,
the benefit of market systems was clearly recorded in
documents showing rulers' incomes from market taxes.
For starters, let's define a few terms. The Aztec market was
called the tianguis and was considered a pillar of the Aztec
economy. The hierarchy within the merchant class included
guilds. In fact, the Aztec were said to have at least 30 guilds,
according to "American Indian Contributions to the World,"
including all types of craftspeople. Merchants traded goods and
food. Macehualtin (common people) worked as artisans,
farmers, and laborers in Aztec society. Merchants traded the
goods produced by the macehualtin. The Pochteca were at
the top. Local and regional traders were called tlanecuilo or
tlanecuiloani. Tlatmemes, porters or burden carriers, carried
the goods that the merchants traded and wore them on their
backs in woven containers or tied to hide-covered frames on
their backs. A tumpline strap that crossed their forehead
allowed them to carry weights up to 50 pounds for 13-18 miles
a day. Every town within the Aztec empire had a market.
People paid with gold-dusted bird feather quills, cacao beans,
and woven cotton capes. If you're interested in learning more
about how the market systems changed over time and
corresponded to the locally-based political confederations and
wider market systems resulting from political centralization,
"Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An
Encyclopedia" looks at the changes in the distribution of
ceramics that is fascinating.
The Pocheca were the most elite merchants who went on
long-distance trade expeditions importing luxury items. This
special guild of wealthy commoners controlled long-distance
trade. Luxury items included shells, textiles, jaguar pelts, rock
crystals, obsidian, gold, and pottery. They would return with
chicle (the gum of the sapodilla tree), medicines, herbs, nuts,
cotton, rubber, and art. They lived in altepemeh, where they
concealed their wealth behind high walls. According to Kent
Flannery’s "The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric
Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire,"
they had their own armed guards since they traveled at night
through hostile territories. Their favorite destination was
Xicalango, which was located in the Mexican state of Tabasco.
According to Michael C. Howard in "Transnationalism in
Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border
Trade and Travel," once the Aztec traders reached the lowlands
of Tabasco, they came in contact with Maya traders who used
canoes extensively. Apparently, the Aztec did not, and would
rely on the Chontal Maya for water transport. They also
traveled to Tlatelolco open market, north of Tenochtitlan, where
50,000 people shopped daily. The market in Tenochtitlan
attracted 25,000 people. This class of merchants was
considered invaluable to the kings since they could act as spies
and agents of the kingdom, and the king could use their death or
any attacks on the pochteca as a pretext for war on
uncooperative states.
The Pochteca were powerful. They derived substantial
profits from regional exchanges and provided the upper-class
items that were highly prized from foreign destinations. Bruce
Trigger, in "Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative
Study," explains that representatives of the pochteca were
empowered to arrest, sentence and punish petty criminals,
dishonest traders, and any tax evaders that dared to operate in
the marketplaces. Members of their associations could be tried
and sentenced by another pochteca. They had the right to
execute their own members without royal approval as part of
their policing authority.
However much authority their privileged position granted
them, there was still a stigma associated with the merchants that
was based on suspicion given that they had close contacts with
merchants from hostile communities. Although they kept their
trade secrets and routes and were among an elite guild, they
were not considered nobles, and they were beneath the techutli
(lords). Tolteca (craftsmen) fell below the merchants. Slave
traders also had a high status. The pochteca's god was
Yacatecuhtli, the patron of commerce, known as the long-nosed
god and also the lord who guides. They conducted business
through barter. They could make loans of food and articles in
return for pledges of land and other possessions, according to
Christina Jacqueline Johns in "The Origins of Violence in
Mexican Society."
Although they were considered upwardly mobile and could
travel relatively freely to all parts of Mesoamerica, those of the
merchant class may have been rivalrous with one another; they
also received animosity from other Aztec males. For one thing,
according to Canadian archaeologist, anthropologist, and
ethnohistorian Bruce Trigger, the Aztecs believed that social
mobility or high status was only legitimate as a reward for
outstanding military service. Their long-distance trade was
considered ignoble. They could not hold public office, had to
dress modestly in public, as opposed to soldiers that could
proudly display their high status, and they could not marry a
noble. Additionally, if they wanted to become a slave trader or
the head of a pochteca calpolli, they had to sponsor a sacrifice
and secure the cooperation of a high-ranking warrior.
Before we talk about their notable defining figureheads, it's
very interesting to note that studies continue to take a deeper
look at how the Aztec conducted trade and how their strict
merchant classes and societal hierarchies affected which luxury
goods were enjoyed and by whom. Susan E. Alcock in
"Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History," thinks
that scholars have been misled into giving luxury goods too
much importance to exaggerated claims of Aztec nobles in the
works of often quoted Spanish chroniclers like Sahagun and
Duran. In her own excavations at provincial Aztec sites, she
found that even Aztec peasants in provincial villages had
obtained luxury items even though sumptuary rules did exist.
These laws prohibited commoners from wearing certain items
that were associated with nobility to reinforce social hierarchies.
While there are likely many symbols of the Aztec
civilization, one that is particularly influential is Nezahualcoyotl.
Another is the old symbol that you see on Mexico's flag today.
Let's start with the latter. Did you ever look closely at the
Mexican flag? In the middle of the flag, there is an old Aztec
symbol. When Mexico won freedom from Spain in 1821, the
symbol became their national emblem. Where did this symbol
come from? Since Mexico City used to be Tenochtitlan, which
was the capital of the Aztec empire and the first place Aztecs
began to establish themselves permanently, the story of the
symbol takes us back to that migration to Tenochtitlan.
As legend has it, the leaders of the Aztecs received
prophetic guidance in the land of the white herons, Aztlan.
Although many question their single point of origin, others
continue the unconcluded debate whether the legendary
Chicomoztoc is real or a mythical origin place of many of the
Nahuatl-speaking peoples. The Toltec version of the first wave
of Mexica arriving in central Mexico states that they came
around 540 BCE from what is now the Southwestern US.
According to "The Aztec Calendar Handbook," one expert
who published in the 1950s considered that the marshland of
reeds, or Aztlan and the legendary seven caves, is a site in what
is now called Kanab, Utah. Others think the group originated in
the old Tule lakes in the Central Valley of California. Still others
theorize it might be eastern Oakland. Others like David
Carrasco in his book "Cave, City, and Eagle's Nest: An
Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, Issue
2" have combined all the clues together and figured out that the
journey lasted thirteen days and have broken down the number
of days it would take to walk to Tenochtitlan.
Either way, it has survived through the ages and explains the
symbol on the Mexican flag. Here's the story of the eagle and
the cactus, at least one version of it, which seems to be the most
prevalent one. Many years ago, from a faraway land known as
Aztlan, the Aztec people, one of the seven Nahua tribes, left the
place of seven underground caves known as Chicomostoc. The
God of War and Sun, Huitzilopochtli, told the Aztec leaders that
they were to leave their homeland. They must become nomads
and head south. They would find their promised land, where
they could rule and prosper. The way that they knew that they
had found their promised land would be apparent, despite how
long the journey may be and how long they would wander: they
would receive a sign from their god. When they saw an eagle
with a snake in its mouth landing on a nopal cactus, they would
have discovered their destiny. The place became Tenochtitlan,
the "place of the prickly pear cactus." One of the priests had the
vision at the same spot where the heart of the sorcerer Copil
had landed before he was killed, where the cactus grew. Some
versions of the traditional story say that Copil was killed by the
Aztecs on the command of Huitzilopochtli, while others say
spies of Huitzilopochtli killed Copil.
It's worth noting the story of Copil and its significance to
Mexico and the history of the Aztecs. Mexico considers the
story of the nopal cactus significant, and it is a critical link to the
history of both the Aztec people and Mexico. Copil is the
nephew of the god Huitzilopochtli. Copil prospered in a land
just north of the island where the Aztec found the eagle and the
snake on the cactus. Copil had decided he wanted to kill the
god of War and the Sun, and, despite his mother's warning
about the danger he would bring to himself, he gathered a small
army on the shores of Lake Texcoco. When Huitzilopochtli
found out from his spies, he commanded them to kill Copil and
to bury his heart on an island in Lake Texcoco. The next day,
the nopal cactus sprung from the very place, and they watched
in awe as an eagle carrying a snake in its mouth swooped down
to land on the cactus.
According to Barbara Somervill in "Empire of the Aztecs,"
to the Aztecs, the Aztecs interpreted the eagle as the sun god
that led them on the prophetic journey and the cactus as
representing the human hearts offered to the sun. This would all
be done to sustain their daily journey and keep the era of the
Fifth Sun going. The Aztec built their temple to their god near
the cactus. The city they built was remarkable. It is compared
to Venice because of its canals. They engineered floating
gardens called chinampas. It was a system of swamp
reclamation. Aerial surveys reveal that the chinampa planning
shows overall uniformity in size and orientation. They were
constructed to be around 100 feet in length and 8 feet wide.
The fenced in area would be filled with mud and decaying
vegetation, and narrow canals for the passage of a canoe would
leave room between two plots. Many hydroponics guides
include the Aztec floating gardens as early examples of people
exercising the technique with skill and with high productivity.
The city was built aligned with the god's position in the sky, with
a temple honoring Huitzilopochtli. A priest was instructed to
divide the city into four quarters with the temple in the center.
They tracked the Sun god Tonatiuh from the east to the west.
Huitzilopochtli and Tonatiuh are closely related and overlap.
To understand Aztec mythology is a vast discovery process.
However, suffice it to say, Tonatiuh is a god who threw himself
into a fire and sacrificed himself to become the fifth sun that the
Aztec depended on. The Aztec people lived in the time of the
Fifth Sun, explaining the importance Tonatiuh played to them
and their rituals and worship. As Jesse Prinz wrote in "The
Emotional Construction of Morals," Aztec myths had a common
theme involving cycles of revenge and promoted a sense of
extreme vulnerability, where an ongoing battle of divine forces
ultimately can destroy the world.
Moving on to the other symbol of importance in the Aztec
culture, we'll briefly explore Nezahualcoyotl, who has been
portrayed as the symbol of the Aztec civilization. He was the
poet-king of Texcoco (a part of the Triple Alliance with
Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan, which was the accord that formed
the basis of the Aztec empire). He has been presented as a
poet, a philosopher, an emperor who created a fair legal
system, a great conqueror, a reluctant warrior, and as a king
who rejected human sacrifice.
He promoted the study of the more peaceful religion of
Quetzalcoatl at a time when the Aztec practice of sacrifice was
dominant. He is the only pre-Hispanic historical figure to appear
on Mexican currency and appears on the one-hundred-peso bill
along with an excerpt from his poem. Some like Jongsoo Lee,
in "The Allure of Nezahualcoyotl: Pre-Hispanic History,
Religion, and Nahua Poetics," argue that much of the current
images stem from colonial manipulation or an invention to
counter him as a universal symbol of peace that contrasted with
the viciousness in the Aztec timeline. Apparently,
Nezahualcoyotl (Hungry Coyote) was so influential because of
his poetry that poets from many generations have sung his
poems. World-renowned experts on the Aztec Miguel LeonPortilla, in his book "In the Language of Kings: An Anthology of
Mesoamerican Literature, Pre-Columbian to the Present" that
he co-wrote with Earl Shorris, describes a king that presided
over decades of great art, architecture, poetry and philosophy
in what may have been a kind of golden age in the Valley of
Mexico. He did not accept the state religion and began to ask
the same questions that dominated the thinking of the preSocratics.
Chapter Three
Their Philosophy: its Impact on
Social Life and How it Served
the Kings
To better understand the Aztec, a good place to start is to
consider what shaped their thinking. To the Aztec, their rulers
were not considered gods. Although the notion of sacredness
even appeared in the first principles of hunter-gatherer logic, the
Aztec empire coordinated important calendar festivals and
ceremonies to time and sacred places. According to Clive L. N.
Ruggles in "Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of
Cosmologies and Myth," evidence supports that Aztec
perceptions were reinforced both by the way that temples were
positioned in the landscape and by deliberate solar alignments
built into the temples.
One observation that has been made about the Aztec
people adds to our initial attempts at understanding the Aztecs.
There was no conflict between science and religion, and
scientific and religious worldviews mutually reinforced each
other. James Maffe, in "Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a
World in Motion," argued that the Aztecs' religiosity no more
precluded their philosophy than did the religiosity of St.
Augustine or Spinoza or Kant or Ockham, to name a few. They
did have a metaphysics. As Frances F. Berdan wrote in "Aztec
Archaeology and Ethnohistory," it is difficult to disentangle
religion, science and the arts in the Aztec world. We're not
going to attempt to do that here. We will point out the
interconnectedness of their take on the supernatural and natural,
the visible and meditated, the legends that oriented them and
how their kings reinforced their relevance by perpetuating the
interrelated web they wove within the cycles of life, both earthly
and otherwise.
We'll start with their Legend of the Four Suns and proceed
to how many souls each individual has. Then, we'll discuss how
history has suggested that not only did their views get shaped
over time depending on the ruler, but that there were
alternatives being considered in advanced higher learning
centers that were not mainstream and reveal that the
fundamental questions of truth and reality were asked and not
always dispersed by dictated responses.
There are various versions of the legend. The Legend of the
Four Suns revealed to the Aztecs that in order to maintain the
existence of the cosmos, religious rituals were central. This
legend told of four ages that had been dominated by four
different suns, corresponding to the four directions. Ometeotl,
the Supreme Creator, a god that was both male and female,
created the abstract forces of the four directions and the four
gods: Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe
Totec, who in turn created the world. The human race and the
world met with catastrophe and ended each time. The Aztecs
lived in the age of the Fifth Sun, the "Olin Tonatiuh" (Sun
Movement). Two gods, Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl, were
chosen to self-sacrifice, and Nanahuatzin jumped in and rose in
the east as Tonatiuh, the sun god. The other emerged as the
Theirs was an anthropomorphic world, and the sacrifice of
the two gods meant that there was a cosmic responsibility to
sacrifice to continue the new age. Scholars do not think that the
Aztecs tolerated challenges to the established social order.
Priests, shaman, and magicians gained immense status, as they
were able to use scientific knowledge, astrology, and religious
beliefs that they coveted to support their authoritative
predictions. Religious and sacrificial acts were performed on
specific occasions to coincide with the phases of the Moon or
the solstices, according to Roger Highfield and Peter Coveney
in "The Arrow of Time." In order to satisfy the gods, the Aztecs
believed they needed to sacrifice blood and present it and a
beating human heart to the sun, or else it would vanish. The
Aztecs also feared and expected the return of Quetzalcoatl, the
white bearded god who would rule the empire.
Plants were closely related to their large number of gods.
Medical professionals venerated the goddess Toci. Priests
venerated some of these like peyotl, picietl, huauhtli, and yauhtli
because they were considered to be supernatural. Some were
hallucinogens, like those that were the principal ingredients of
teotlaqualli, used as an unction offered to the gods and smeared
by Priests on themselves to dispel fear and reach appropriate
states of mind to serve Aztec gods in rituals. Picietl played an
unmistakable role in Aztec medicine and religion, especially the
mind-altering properties used by diviners to make divinations.
Tobacco was used as an antidote against poisonous animal
bites, but was also not recreational and used for magical,
religious, and medicinal applications.
Each individual had three souls. The tonnali was the soul of
will and intelligence found in the head. The ihiyotl was the soul
of passion, luminous gas, and aggression found in the liver. The
teyolia was the soul of fondness and vitality and was found in
the heart. They believed that at the time of death, these souls
traveled to different regions of the universe. If the death was
ordinary, then they would go to Mictlan. If a warrior died in
combat, a person was sacrificed to the sun, or a woman died in
childbirth, they would go to the sun. They would go to Tlalocan,
the rain god's paradise, if their death was water-related. Finally,
infants that died while still being nursed would go to
It is also worth mentioning their concept of teotl. Teotl was
a self-generating, regenerating sacred power and dynamic
eternal force under everything. Reality, the cosmos, and people
all consisted of teotl. Everything was unified by teotl, and
everything was sacred. Their creator deity is named Ome-teotl.
They imposed their concept of teotl ixiptla (god-image) into
everything. According to "The History of the Conquest of New
Spain," in the Aztec eyes, it was the god-image and not the
human image that was being killed and transformed into creative
energy when they performed their sacrifices. They clothed their
captives in Aztec fashion to signify the transformation of men
into the images of Aztec gods. A very thorough detailed account
by the Spanish conquistador Diaz del Castillo describes ritual
dances that accompanied these transformative sacrifices of
captives. David Carrasco in "City of Sacrifice: The Aztec
Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization," described how
at the height of one of these festivals the Tlacaxipeualiztli (Feast
of the Flaying of Men) in honor of Xipe Totec, in achieving their
goal of sacrificing and flaying captive warriors and slaves and
after they had been transformed into teotl-ixiptla, they were
forced to dance with their captors.
A brief review of their leaders can also provide an initial
glimpse into how Aztec philosophy intertwined with
governance. Some Aztec scholars, as referenced by James
Maffie in "Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion,"
believe that by the time of the Conquest, the ruling elite's greater
emphasis on war and military conquest, the increased
hierarchical stratification that occurred over time, and their more
masculinist policies were to blame for the violent metaphysical
view that dominated and framed the Aztecs as relentless
warriors dominated by their fear of a collapsing sun. Still,
although some in Western thinking may question how religious
dogma and myth fantasies could lead to such practices and in
the end consume a ruling elite (and some might say even the
non-elite), it's important to consider the system of rewards they
received for supporting their Aztec system. It often shaped their
lives under different rulers while holding on to their prescribed
Much of what they did throughout their timeline derived
from tradition and custom, which should explain a little more
about the way they thought about things on a daily basis. Aztecs
generally have been described as expecting little in return from
life, since life was characterized as hard and full of worry,
sorrow, and pain. Their society prided itself on curbing
selfishness, making sacrifices, and concern for their destiny.
They were urged to cultivate responsibility and selflessness, to
be serious and calm, and to be polite. They were always being
observed. Aztec men were very competitive and constantly
tried to enhance their positions in society. Prestige came from
warfare, ritual ball games, and gambling, and all men were
expected to be prepared for sacrifice, although there were
differences in how the nobility and the commoner could fulfill
their sacrifices if the time came. There was a hierarchy of
sacrifice, where the macehualtin sacrificed to the lords as the
elites sacrificed to the gods. Sacrifice was expected of the
macehualtin, since unlike the elites, they had very little else to
offer. According to Elizabeth Hill Boone in "The Aztec Templo
Mayor: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 8th and 9th
October 1983," the privileged could get away with blood letting
and was a viable alternative to dying, and that only great lords
and nobles could discharge their debts by sacrificing other
As you can imagine, power came from the nobility's wealth.
A simple bloodletting could show how much a noble person
was willing to sacrifice some of their blood for their empire.
During the time of King Acamapichtli, who became the first
king alongside his queen Lady Llancueitl from Culhuacan as an
alliance between kingdoms, the time from 1375 CE to 1395 CE
was important to the establishment of the empire. The Aztecs
were loyal subjects to the King Tezozomoc of Azcapotzalco,
but they felt they needed a king of the growing Tenochtitlan.
Acamapichtli (Handful of Reeds) becoming king angered
Tezozomoc since they did not request his approval. He required
increased tributes from the Aztecs. Acamapichtli is considered
to be the first tlatoani (he who speaks well, or king) of
Tenochtitlan. Although he was a Culhua, they needed a
legitimate nobleman. His strategy included marrying 20 of the
daughters of calpulli leaders (the unit below city-state in early
Aztec society) and he developed a basic legal code. According
to Barbara A. Somervill in "Empire of the Aztecs," the
importance of religious rites, including human sacrifice, grew
under his leadership; he thought all citizens should take part in
religious ceremonies. Under his leadership, a council of elders
formed and chose tlatoani based on battle skills and leadership
When he died, one of his sons, Huitzilihuitl, was chosen by
the council to lead. He married one of the daughters of the King
of Azcapotzalco in order to lower their tributes and gain more
freedoms. After the marriage to Princess Ayaucihuatl, some of
the desired reforms did occur. He ruled for 24 years. Here
began the rift between the powerful families from Azcapotzalco
that did not appreciate that the king accepted the marriage
alliance and did not sustain the original policies of higher
taxation and more autonomy. He lowered some of the taxes,
and when Huitzilihuitl died, King Tezozomoc continued to
promote peaceful relations with the next Aztec King,
Chimalpopoca, who followed the same policies of his father.
Unfortunately, the council under Tezozomoc turned on him for
relenting to the Aztecs for favors on lowered taxes and other
access requests. Apparently, his grandfather Tezozomoc, the
King of Azcapotzalco, died from anguish; Chimalpopca was
murdered in his sleep, as was his son.
As a result of the king's untimely death, the Aztecs entered
a state of panic. The council chose Itzcoatl, the illegitimate son
of the first king Acamapichtli and the brother of Huitzilihuitl, for
his strong warrior skills to protect the land and lead them into
battle if necessary. He became king in the mid to late 1420s and
ruled until 1440, immediately having to deal with the Tepanec
lords of Azcapotzalco. To avoid war, they sent Tlacaelel to try
to negotiate peace. However, the King of Azcapotzalco,
Maxtla, did not want peace. Tlacaelel and Itzcoatl, with the
support of the Aztec people, fought against the tyranny of the
Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco and allied with Tezcoco and
Tlacopoan to form a Triple Alliance and began a new period
marking a fight for liberation. They gained autonomy, and
Tlacaelel gained great influence over Itzcoatl.
Tlacaelel's influence, according to many historical accounts,
seems to have become the stimulus for instituting the mysticmilitarist tradition among the Mexica by convincing them that
they were people of the sun, establishing Huitzilopochtli as
principal deity, and enforcing human sacrifice. Some doubt
Miguel Leon-Portilla and others on this analysis since they
question how it could be the work of one man. Leon-Portilla
claimed that Tlacaelel increased the rate of human sacrifice in
accordance with the idea of preserving the life of the Sun with
human blood. He also explained that some of the wise men
(tlamatinime) were against Tlacaelel's reforms and preserved
the ancient religious cultural practices that celebrated their deity
Quetzalcoatl in " in xochitl, in cuicatl." This meant "flowerand-song" literally, but signified the arts. According to "From
Africa to Zen: An Invitation to World Philosophy," and several
other experts, this challenged and provided an alternative to the
idea that human sacrifice and warfare were necessary. True
knowledge of the divine could be attained through artistic
creations. Instead, Tlacaelel organized the Mexica army into
totemistic brotherhoods: jaguars and eagle warriors. According
to Charles A. Truxillo in "Periods of World History: A Latin
American Perspective," Tlacaelel also established the guerra de
flores, ceremonial combat, that emphasized capturing prisoners
for human sacrifice. When his brother Motecuhzoma I (14401469) became tlatoani, he manipulated the worship of
Huitzilopotchli to justify the sacrifices.
It's interesting to learn more about the tlamatinime, who
emerged with a philosophical discourse that was not satisfied by
the answers given by the mythic-militaristic tradition and origin
stories about the world, death, afterlife and the nature of reality
and reason for traditional practices. They believed that true
insight into the nature of things could be achieved only by
imitating the creative activity of the gods. What's fascinating, as
observed by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen Marie Higgins in
"From Africa to Zen," is that this occurred in a setting that was
intellectually isolated from the rest of the world. What makes
that even more worthy of further exploration is that many
Spanish chroniclers appeared to justify the conquering of the
Aztecs based on the introduction of their practices and faith as a
substitute for their barbaric ways. In reality, the tlamatinime
reflected in a systemic way at schools of higher learning called
calmecacs, which were open to all social classes and taught
correct living and practical wisdom (the school for warriors was
called telpochcalli). Some experts argue that these schools
were only open to the children of nobles and future priests.
Interesting enough, the authors of "Survivance, Sovereignty, and
Story" explain how the famous Nahua thinker that was
mentioned earlier, Nezahualcoyotl, learned the concept of in
ixtli in yollotl while part of the Calmecac. They describe the
Calmecac as a collective of people who gathered together to
learn and pass on inherited wisdom. The concept translated as
"a face a heart" and signified the process of becoming human.
It's worth exploring this concept more in depth to appreciate its
significance to the Aztec times.
While much has been written about the Aztec kings, a brief
highlight follows. King Itzcoatl, as leader of the Triple Alliance
that was forged with Nezahualcoyotl (Texcoco) and
Totoquilhuaztli (Tlocopan), laid the foundation of the Aztec
empire with victories over various regional powers that became
kingdoms of the Aztecs. Tlacaelel urged the burning of the
codices and had historians rewrite a mythological revision for
divine militaristic mission. Under Motecuhzoma I, these were
considered richer times than under previous leaders. War efforts
included simulated wars with the ruler of Tezcoco to intimidate
other regional powers and mark superiority. One battle with the
Chalcas turned into a sacred crusade as both sides claimed
captives for sacrifice. The king left a legacy of wealth, land, and
grandeur. King Axayactl, Tlacaelel's nephew, assumed the
throne in 1469, and under his leadership, the Aztecs conquered
the kingdom of Tlatelolco. He expanded the Aztec empire and
exerted power over more regions. He left the Aztecs in a period
of some instability, and when King Tizoc (1481-1486) came to
power, his war record reduced Aztec's credibility as a military
The importance of the appearance of power weighed
heavily on the Aztecs. Revolts started against the empire, and
after much face saving that didn't work, Tizoc was allegedly
poisoned by people he trusted and replaced by his more
aggressive brother Ahuitzotl. During his reign (1486-1502), he
wiped out rebels and repopulated the area with loyals. He
urbanized the capital, annexed a region of Guatemala, and
conquered parts of Guerrero, Puebla, and Veracruz. Finally, the
most written about Aztec king who fell to the Spanish during the
conquest, Motecuhzoma II, ruled from 1502-1520. By the time
of his rule, the conquered people upon whom the Aztecs
depended for tributes and slaves revolted. Some of it had to do
with King Ahuitzotl officiating over the sacrifice of 20,000
victims in a single ceremony, celebrated after a battle. The
Aztec aggressiveness caught up with them, and when push
came to shove, many of these regional groups sided with the
Spanish. As the colonies tried to gain independence, he tried to
maintain the empire's unity with horrifying penalties, rewarded
loyalties, and in some cases, like with Quetzaltepec and
Tototepec, he burned down the cities and killed every adult
Nezahualpilli, the son of Nezahualcoyotl and emperor of
Texcoco, is known to have helped warn the Aztec emperor
Motecuhzoma II (famously known as Montezuma) of a
powerful kingdom that would rise and destroy the Aztec empire
a few years before Spanish warships appeared on the horizon.
The accounts about Motecuhzoma's state of mind afterward
suggest that he was paranoid and that he relieved many of his
astrologers, sorcerers, shamans and wizards for not witnessing
the celestial event that led Nezahualpilli to warn Motecuhzoma
II of impending doom. While there are very interesting in-depth
accounts focusing on the Conquest period, a few turning points
are helpful in understanding why the council of elders in 1520
elected King Cuitlahuac to serve them, replacing Motecuhzoma.
The first siege on Tenochtitlan was preceded by a meeting
between Cortes and Motecuhzoma. While various accounts
explore whether or not Motecuhzoma thought that Cortes was
the legendary Toltec king Quetzalcoatl (who opposed slavery
and sacrifice) coming back as a god to reclaim his throne, what
remains consistent is that when Cortes arrived in 1519, their
initial meeting was peaceful - too peaceful possibly for the
elders, as it turned out. According to "Converging Worlds:
Communities and Cultures in Colonial America," accounts of
the meeting between them differ, but based on indigenous
narratives, it was clear there was tension and irritation between
them, unlike some of Cortes' or Spanish chronicler accounts
that suggest Motecuhzoma may have been caught by surprise or
Many accounts explain that before their meeting on
November 8, 1519, the Aztecs had met the Cortes ships with
lavish gifts in May and discouraged them from coming to
Tenochtitlan or meeting with Motecuhzoma II. Still, Cortes
insisted on doing that. He went on to pillage several towns and
founded a new Spanish settlement in Mexico to be named Villa
Rica de la Vera Cruz (Rich Town of the True Cross). Cortes
was elected the mayor. He met with several chiefs and leaders
and forged alliances to overthrow the Aztecs that summer. As
Aztec messengers tried to prevent the Spaniards from crossing
into Tenochtitlan, Cortes requested that some of the kingdoms
that pay tributes stop paying them to the Aztecs. In the fall, the
Spaniards fought in the Tlaxcala battles and conducted the
Cholula Massacre. At this point, Motecuhzoma sent a secret
message to Cortes inviting him to the capital while secretly
arranging obstacles to delay the Spanish advance. He avoided
an ambush and made it to Tenochtitlan to meet with the
reluctant Aztec king. Within a week, Cortes took the king
hostage and then, following Cortes' brutal attack at a
ceremonial feast in honor of Huitzilopochtli, Motecuhzoma
advised his people not to retaliate.
At that point, the elites rejected his counsel and decided he
was no longer part of the struggle. Although Cuitlahuac died
two months later from the smallpox that the Spaniards brought
with them, the trust deficit that Motecuhzoma created by
allowing the Spanish into Tenochtitlan would never disappear.
King Cuauhtemoc, son of Ahuitzotl, led troops against the
invaders and created strongholds. For those who are interested,
the accounts about the Noche Triste, considered a decisive
Aztec victory, and Cuauhtemoc's war council, as well as the
lead up to Spanish victory over the Aztec in 1521, provide a
thorough look at this turning point in history in attempts to
defend Tenochtitlan.
While there are so many fascinating topics to continue to
investigate on your voyage of the Aztec, one to stress that has
not been covered is the system of reward that influenced the
Aztecs in continuing to follow tradition and to trust in their
shaman, rulers, and system. Although we can look back at the
past at an empire such as the Aztecs and wonder how they
were so influenced to participate in their traditions, hierarchies,
and empire-supporting obligations, consider this about the
Aztecs: commoners could advance if they captured enemy
warriors in battle. During their training, if young soldiers failed,
even within a group to capture, they were not allowed to cut off
a youthful lock of hair, which would have been considered a
lifelong humiliation, according to Bruce G. Trigger in
"Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study." Titles
were bestowed on warriors who did capture a prisoner for
ritual sacrifice.
Given that they were desperately concerned about their
destiny, and sacrifice was explained as a way to commune with
the divine, it's not surprising that there is evidence that they
accepted their own sacrifice and cultivated a stoic attitude to
death. According to Tim Megarry in "Society in Prehistory: The
Origins of Human Culture," status was achieved in their society
through military prowess and capture of prisoners, and they had
a vested interest in maintaining the military-religious complex.
Finally, if that social pressure and motivation wasn't enough,
according to Justyna Olko in "Insignia of Rank in the Nahua
World: From the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century," Aztec
nobles and warriors strived for personal promotion, even if their
lives were at stake; the desire for high-ranking, costly insignia
and status items were a strong personal motivation. Commoners
drew energy and a renewed sense of purpose from devotion
and rituals, as it provided them an unquestionable relevance and
importance as a people despite the burden and heavy obligation
due to the inherent instability of the universe.
Their fear of the impending destruction of the fifth sun, their
motivation to escape the anguish of temporariness of our world,
and their desire to endure their responsibility was real.
According to Ross Hassig in "Aztec Warfare: Imperial
Expansion and Political Control," it wasn't just a mechanistic
fight for the gods, but instead commoners who fought in the
wars for good reasons and to gain prominence. These were
men and women with real goals and purposes - and real
The Aztecs appeared to have an underlying spirit beneath
everything they did, as if by holding onto the past through
myths, religion, and their passed down devotion to traditional
ways of communicating with the divine, they would never again
be subjugated as they were at the beginning of their journey
toward building their own empire. They learned along the way
what it took to secure and project power from those regional
powers that held them under the gun and made them feel
hopeless and disempowered. They developed their own
equivalent to a Geneva Convention that made sure that major
battles didn't interfere with growing seasons. They figured out
that headaches were caused by an excess of blood in the
arteries in the brain or on the surface of the head before
European doctors did. They built extraordinary botanical
gardens. Their sacrifice and their cosmic responsibility spoke of
their pride and pointed to their temples and a critical nature of
the manner of one's death in determining their spiritual destiny.
The afterlife held many promises. Honorable death preoccupied
many in their society, while others saw it as a tool of political
oppression and looked for other ways to tap into the divine,
who defied their interpretation of Nahuatl religion and its
political utility.
When we consider looking through that lens at the past, it
helps to consider the human qualities of the Aztec that helped
them develop their empire and maintain a better sense of how
limiting historical accounts are that only tell the story from the
Spanish invaders' perspectives, glorifying their past at the
expense of gaining a fuller picture. Piecing together their past,
we can continue to explore how much political and social
realities, and practical necessities, shaped their decisions. Yet,
we cannot consider that they fall conveniently into a derogatory
category that justified the Old World invaders or the destruction
of their historical records.
Thankfully, for those who know how important name and
identity are, they can reflect beyond getting a grasp of the nature
of a civilization and see it as a complex society that intrigues us.
Maybe how we look at time ourselves and in our place in it
keeps death at bay, separate from life. Some who look at time
to recreate the past to condemn that which changes around
them while they get closer to death never separate birth from
death. The Aztecs' continual awareness of death that permeated
their lives did not allow the past to die, but the very nature of
life's pursuits meant that if they allowed this world to extinguish
it was a fate worse than death.
Can I Ask A Favor?
If you enjoyed this book, found it useful or otherwise then I’d
really appreciate it if you would post a short review on Amazon.
I do read all the reviews personally so that I can continually
write what people are wanting.
If you’d like to leave a review then please visit the link below:
Click Here to Leave a Review
Thanks for your support!
Your Free eBooks!
As a way of saying thank you for reading our book, we're
offering you a free copy of the below e-Books.
Happy Reading!
>> Click Here <<
>> To Get Your FREE eBook <<