A distant sound is heard. It sounds like a deep drum being hit with a heavy instrument. You hear it again and strain your eyes in the direction of the sound. All around you is dense jungle. Snakes slither between your legs. You hear the sound once again. In front of you is a dense stand of ferns. You part them and look down into a wide open valley. The valley gets so wide and it is so green that it takes your breath away. But that is not what you are looking at.
You are staring at a huge city with glittering buildings shining in the spring sunlight. Smoke rises up from some of the many houses. You can see and hear children playing in the wide open fields in front of the shining buildings. Lamas and chickens are being bought and sold. You see bags of gold jewelry being bought and sold. Beyond the market place you can watch a religious ceremony. You hear the scream of a person being sacrificed to one of the gods.
Beyond the city there are roads made of stone and canals full of pedestrians and canos. Who are these people and what are they doing here you wonder? The above paragraph describes what an early explorer in Mexico might have seen between 1400 and 1500 AD. The Aztec nation is one of the largest and most advanced Indian nations to ever exist on earth. Just about every part of the Aztec life was advance to such a state that at that time of the world the people were living better than many European nations.
The Aztec nation is unique in its history, economy, environment, and way of life then any other nation at that time. Perhaps three to four thousand years ago, small bands of hunting-gathering peoples made their way across the land bridge that was the frozen Bering Strait, migrated southward through what is now Alaska, Canada, the United States, Central America, South America, and Mexico, settling along the way. One such hunting- gathering group settled in the Central Valley of what is now Mexico (Nicholson 1985).
There is a long history of civilizations in the Central Valley of Mexico; as early as several centuries before Christ agricultural tribes had already settled, and by the birth of Christ had established as their great religious center Teotihuacn. The history of the Central Valley after circa the tenth century A. D. is one of tribal conflict and superiority. About the time of the fall of this agricultural civilization, which flourished from approximately the second to the tenth centuries A. D. , a new tribe, who we know as the Toltecs, settled at Tula, Hidalgo.
They belonged to a larger group known as the Nahua, or Nahuatl- speaking, and seem to have entered the Central Valley from the north or northwest. The Toltec civilization gradually replaced the older, agricultural civilization, as Toltec influence was felt as far as the Yucatn Peninsula and other areas occupied by the Mayan peoples. Yet by the eleventh century A. D. , another tribe, the Chichimecs, had already begun to eclipse the Toltecs as the dominant group of the Central Valley. By approximately the thirteenth century, the Chichimecs had replaced the Toltecs (Wolf 1998).
About this time, another Nahua tribe known as the Aztecs began their migration, in c. 1168. They left their mythical mysterious homeland called Aztln, place of the herons, or Chicomoztoc, place of the seven caves, and migrated southwards through Michoacn (Len-Portilla 1992). The Aztecs, or “Crane People,” arrived in the Central Valley and obtained permission to settle at Chapultepec in c. 1248 (Caso 1958). The tradition of tribal conflict in the Central Valley was continued; however, it seems that the Aztecs, at first, were practically enslaved by the other Nahua tribes inhabiting the Central Valley.
The Aztec culture would not be subjugated, however, and continued in its struggle for power. By the fourteenth century the Aztecs had founded two settlements on islands in lakes: Tlaltetalco and Tenochtitln. The traditional founding date of Tenochtitln is 1325; the quest for the sacred site on which to found Tenochtitln is relayed to us by an Aztec myth, … [its] beginning is found in ancient times, when a humble tribe was banished– by the original Aztecs (Castillo 1908)– from a mysterious homeland it called Aztln(place of the herons) or Chicomoztoc(place of the seven caves).
During the long exile the Mexicas wandered among hostile strangers while anxiously searching for the divine sign, whose presence, prophesied by their god, would mark their arrival in the promised land. The tale continues with the discovery of the omen and the subsequent founding of Mexico-Tenochtitln on the sacred site. (Len-Portilla 1992) By the fifteenth century Tenochtitln had become the center of the Aztec world– the center of Aztec growth, conquest, and expansion. As early as the sixteenth century Tenochtitln dominated all other cities in the Central Valley and had reached the height of its power and magnificence (Caso 1958).
The center of the Aztec empire was located near the Lerma river which is near the southern part of the Mexican plateau. The plateau is the largest of Mexico’s land regions and it is the most varied region consisting of five sections. The Volcanic Axis is located across the southern part of the plateau. Many of the volcanoes are still active. This area receives a lot of rain and the soil is fertile. This area is the main area where corn and beans were grown for the Aztec empire. The Bajio lies north of the volcanic axis and has an average elevation of 7,000 feet. This region houses the Aztec capital of Tenochtitln.
Here there is very little rain and thus the region is very dry. The Mesa del Norte area makes up for more then half of the plateau and has an average elevation of 9,000 feet. Since it is so high crops are always in danger of freezing. The Sierra Madre Occidental is a long mountain range that forms the western ridge of the plateau. It remained a barrier for the Aztecs and their enemies. Some of this region still has not been explored by people. The Sierra Madre Oriental is the plateau’s eastern rim. The Aztecs had no use for this area but today there is a major coal and old industry in the area (Aschmann 1985).
The average January temperatures of the plateau is from 10 to 15 degrees Centigrade while in July the average temperature is around 20 to 25 degrees centigrade. Thus the weather is much like B. C. Average precipitation is from 30 – 50 cm at the Aztec capital to less than 30 in the highlands. The central part of life for any Aztec citizen, man or woman, was religion. For example, if a baby was to become a priest, immediately after birth it was painted in black and a beaded necklace placed about its neck, and certain rites were conducted.
The necklace was then removed and placed in a temple until the child came of age, when the child would then proceed in some type of ecclesiastical training. It was never doubted the child would become a priest; the Aztecs believed that the child’s soul was caught in the beads, and that the soul would draw the child to the temple inexorably without regard to the will of the child. Similarly, if a child was to become a great warrior, it was decided at birth and similar ceremonies were carried out.
Interestingly, these decisions about a child’s future were made by the parents soon after birth. Therefore, from the moment a child was brought into the world she was surrounded by religion. The religion of the Aztecs was a complex one, but is generally characterized as polytheistic, based on the worship of a multitude of personal gods. It is interesting that the Aztecs attempted to incorporate the gods of conquered people into their religion; this was accomplished by considering the conquered peoples’ gods simply as manifestations of the gods they already worshipped.
Similarly, often in the lower Aztec classes people would create whole gods out of what was generally considered only a manifestation of an attribute of a single god (Caso 6-9). There is a dual creative principle found throughout the Aztec culture, split not surprisingly between the masculine and the feminine. This dual creative principle was expressed in the form of two gods, Ometecuhtli, “two lord,” and Omechuatl, “two lady. ” Both resided in Omeyocan, meaning “the place two” (Caso 9). Aztec gods were created when Ometecuhtli and Omechuatl had four sons, to whom they entrusted the creation of the other gods, the world, and man.
The sons were named Red Tezcatlipoca, also called Xipe or Camaxtle; Black Tezcatlipoca, commonly called Tezcatlipoca; Quetzlcoatl, the god of wind and life; and Huitzilopochtli, the Blue Tezcatlipoca. It is surmised that in ancient times Quetzlcoatl was replaced by a White Tezcatlipoca (Moctezuma 1988). One of the fundamental concepts in the Aztec religion was the grouping of all beings according to the four compass directions and the central direction of up and down. Ometecuhtli (heaven) and Omechuatl (earth) represented the central direction of up and down; this symbolizes the heavens and the earth.
Their four sons were each associated with a different color and a different compass point. Black Tezcatlipoca was associated with the North, Blue Tezcatlipoca with the South, Red Tezcatlipoca with the East, and Quetzlcoatl with the West. Animals, trees, days, and also men and women were grouped in this manner. Men, according to the day on which they were born, belonged to one of the four regions of the world. Aztec mythology states that the world has been created several times, and eventually each creation is followed by a cataclysm that has destroyed mankind.
This was necessary, they believed, because rarely is anything perfected on the first essay. Thus, they could not have a perfect creation after the first try. There are two Aztec myths that clearly illustrate two main tenets of Aztec culture. The first myth centers on Quetzlcoatl. The myth says that if man was to live, he must reciprocate by offering his own blood in sacrifice. This is because man came about from Quetzcoatl making a sacrifice. Sacrifice was essential in Aztec religion, for if no man could exist except through the creative force of the gods, the gods in turn need man to sustain them with human sacrifice.
The second myth helps explain the warlike tendencies of the Aztecs. As explained by Caso, according to legend, Coatlicue, the old goddess of the earth, became a priestess in the temple living a life of chastity after having given birth to the moon and stars. One day when she was sweeping, Coatlicue came across a ball of down which she tucked into her waistband. When she finished sweeping, she looked for the ball of down but realized it was gone and that she was pregnant. When her children Coyolxauhqui, the moon, and Centzonhuitznhuac, the stars, discovered this they became angry and decided to kill their mother.
Coatlicue wept over her impending death, but the presence in her womb consoled her. When Coyolxauhqui and Centzonhuitznhuac came to slay her, Huitzilopochtli was born, and with the aid of the serpent of fire(sun’s rays) he cut off Coyolxauhqui’s head and sent Centzonhuitznhuac fleeing. Thus, when Huitzilopochtli was born he had to do combat with his brothers the stars and his sister the moon; armed with the serpent of fire he drove them away, his victory signifying a new a new day of life for men.
When Huitzilopochtli consummated his victory, he was carried across the sky on a litter by the spirits of warriors who have died either in combat or on the sacrificial stone. Later, in the early afternoon, Huitzilopochtli was picked up by the spirits of women who perished in childbirth. They then lead the sun to its setting. Each day this divine combat is begun anew, and thus Huitzilopochtli must be strong if he is to defeat all of this brothers with only his arrows of light. To accomplish this task, Huitzilopochtli must be strong, nourished by human blood.
Huitzilopochtli is a god, and disdains the coarse food of humans; he desires chalchhuatl, the precious liquid. Thus the Aztecs, the people of Huitzilopochtli, are charged with the duty of supplying him with food. Thus, for the Aztecs, war was an integral part of their diurnal routine. War became almost a from of worship of Huitzilopochtli. Their belief that Huitzilopochtli depended on them for chalchhuatl led the Aztecs to establish the Xochiyayotl, or “flowery war. ” The sole purpose of the Xochiyayotl was to take prisoners to sacrifice to the sun.