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Elliott Lang 8A Mr. Woodgate
Aspects of Aztec Culture
The comment made by the Spanish that the Aztecs were “barbarous” and
“uncivilized” is far from
the truth. In fact they were an extremely sophisticated and advanced culture.
The Spanish were
extremely oblivious and biased and also did not examine the Aztecs well at
all. In this essay I will
be talking about the Society, Religion and Architecture to prove the
complexity of the Aztec
culture and the FACTS about their culture to prove this statement wrong.
The Aztec Society was extremely complex. Social differences were highly
accentuated among the
Aztecs. The very highest social status was occupied by a minority of families
known as the
“Pipiltin”. These people were members of the hereditary nobility and occupied
the top positions in
the government, the army and the priesthood. These people chose a supreme
leader known as
the “Tlatoani” from within their own group. In “Náhuatl” this name
means “he that speaks”. This leader was greatly revered and ruled until
his death. The most outstanding artisans, physicians and truly wise
teachers were also highly respected. The lower social orders were made
up by peasants, who like the European serfs, were attached to the lands
owned by the nobility and were obliged to cultivate them in exchange for
part of the harvest. The Aztecs were especially interested in education.
Demonstrating Aztec
Boys and girls were carefully educated from birth. During the first years
of life, fathers educated boys, while mothers took care of girls. In school,
boys were taught arts
and crafts, and the girls were taught to cook and other necessities. The
lowest social position was
occupied by a small number of slaves, who were condemned to this social
condition as prisoners
of war, as a result of debts or for having committed crimes. So as you can
see, the Aztec society
was very much like the European society. Cortez even wrote to Emperor Charles
V that “They live
almost as we do in Spain, with quite as much orderliness.” They had an
absolute hierarchy of
power that was linked to all facets of the society.
The Aztec religion was the main issue for the Spanish. They saw these
sacrificial ceremonies as
barbaric and uncivilized. The Aztec’s had numerous Gods who represented
natural phenomena
and human existence. They believed that the balance of the natural world, the
processes that
make life possible and the destiny of the people depended on the will of
their Gods. While some
deities were peaceful, others had terrifying characteristics. The existence
Aztec Sacrifice
of the Gods was maintained by offering up the most valuable human
possession, life. This then, was the origin of human sacrifice and the ritual
of bearing intense physical pain, which believers intentionally caused
themselves. They also practiced the infamous “heart taking” ceremony.
When the Aztecs sacrificed people to the sun god “Huitzilopochtli”, the
victim would be placed on a sacrificial stone. Then the priest would cut
through the abdomen with an obsidian or flint blade. The heart would be
torn out still beating and held towards the sky in honor to the Sun-God.
The body would be carried away and either cremated or given to the warrior
responsible for the
capture of the victim. He would either cut the body in pieces and send them
to important people
as an offering, or use the pieces for ritual cannibalism. The warrior would
thus ascend one step in
the hierarchy of the Aztec social classes, a system that rewarded successful
warriors. When Cortez
was shown this temple he said to Montezuma “I don’t understand how a prince
as great as you
and a man as intelligent as you can think these are Gods- These are bad
things known as devils.”
Montezuma replied: “We hold these things to be good- they bring us health,
harvest and rain. We
must sacrifice to them so please don’t mention this again.”
Elliott Lang 8A Mr. Woodgate
Even though these facts seem gruesome and barbaric, they are no different to
the way the
Christians used to sacrifice animals to God to please him. It is strange that
for the Christian faith
God gave them his blood to redeem mankind, whereas for the Aztecs, man must
give his blood to
redeem the Gods. They were just sacrificing them in a slightly more gruesome
way. The Aztecs had
a very complex religion that was abhorrent to the Spanish Conquistadors but
ritualistic and
sophisticated in its own right.
Aztec Architecture is another great way to prove the comments made by the
Spanish were far
from the truth. The Aztecs had extremely sophisticated buildings that were
examples of their
extreme intelligence. They built homes, palaces, sacrificial temples, shrines
and many more. In
actual fact, early historical accounts of the Spanish first
impressions of the Aztec architecture say that the architecture Aztec Temple
left them “open mouthed.”This shows that the statement that
they were backward was wrong because they are described
more as “amazing” and “breathtaking.”They had competitions
between their different towns to see who could build the most
brilliant temple to honor the Gods. Instead of doing what we
do today, which is knocking the old building down and building a new place on
top of it, they just
built on top of the old version. The most extreme example of this is a temple
that had 6
extensions! Their temples were like the Egyptian Pyramids except they had a
flat top with
compartments on which they performed their sacrifices.
Aztec Palace
Their Palaces were also great examples of the sophisticated Aztec culture.
The palace was a two-story house with a very large courtyard. The walls
were covered with extremely high quality artwork. The palaces were
usually occupied by the Emperor or “Monarch” but they were sometimes
offered to other people of extreme power.
The peasants’ and the nobles’ houses were very similar. The only difference
was the size and the
decoration. The whole house was divided into 2 parts. They were the main home
and a steam bath
room. It is strange that steam baths were thought to be very therapeutic, so
every house had one.
The main home was divided into 4 parts; these included the bed area, the
family shrine, the
kitchen area and also the designated eating area.
The Shrines were built in specific positions for specific purposes. They were
usually placed on the
edge of cliffs and were devoted to specific Gods or people. The Aztec
Aztec Shrine
sculptures which adorned their temples and other buildings were among
the most elaborate in all of America. Their purpose was to please the gods
and they attempted to do that in everything they did. Many of the
sculptures reflected their perception of their gods and how they interacted
in their lives. A Spanish artist “Albrecht Durer” stated: “In all my life, I
never seen anything that so delighted my heart.”The most famous
surviving Aztec sculpture is the large circular Calendar Stone, which
represents the Aztec universe. I am not sure how the Spaniards could look
at all these amazing buildings and make the comment that they were
“backward” and “uncivilized”.
Initially the early Spaniards may have thought the Aztecs were an extremely
barbaric and
uncivilized culture, and this was mainly due to the religious, human
sacrifice ceremonies. Yet,
Elliott Lang 8A Mr. Woodgate
when they saw and came to know more about the Aztec civilization they
realized they were an
extremely sophisticated culture. For example, an early Spanish settler said
that “it seemed like an
enchanted vision, it was so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this
first glimpse of
things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.” It could be said they had
a strangely similar
religion to the Spaniards, their Society had the same foundations as the
Spaniards and their
Architecture was extremely advanced. The capital Tenochtitlan was far larger
than any
contemporary European city but the Aztecs biggest mistake was to welcome the
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