The Aztecs were an American Indian people who ruled a mighty empire in Mexico from the 1400’s to the 1500’s. The Aztecs had one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas and built cities as large as any in Europe at that time. They also practiced a remarkable religion that affected every part of their lives and featured human sacrifice. The Aztecs built towering temples, created huge sculptures, and held impressive ceremonies all for the purpose of worshipping their gods. The Spaniards destroyed their magnificent empire in the year 1521, but the Aztecs left a lasting mark on Mexican life and culture .
The majority of the Aztecs lived in what is now called the Valley of Mexico. Located at an elevation of over 7,000 feet, the large valley has housed many great cities. From the massive pyramids of Tenochtitlan, to the inhabitants of the vast hub of modern Mexico City, the great valley has been the heartland of many empires . The mighty Aztecs were the last indigenous group of people to enter the Valley of Mexico. Like many other pre-Columbian cultures, the Aztecs developed their own political system, religion, social structure, agricultural techniques, lifestyle and worldview . The Aztecs were truly unique.
The early Aztecs were semi-nomadic hunters and farmers. According to legend, in about 1000 AD the Aztecs left their mythic, island homeland of Aztlan in the desert frontiers of northern Mexico to begin their 100-year migration south to the Valley of Mexico. Led by their powerful patron god, Huiziloposhtli, they continued their migration southward, stopping along the way to plant crops, to build temples for their gods, and to offer human sacrifices in their honor . From groups they encountered as they traveled, the Aztecs adopted new customs and traditions. The Aztecs were becoming a very religious people.
When the Aztecs reached the Valley of Mexico in about 1193, this fertile inland basin was already heavily populated and little land was left for them to colonize. The Aztecs appeared rude and uncivilized to the members of the older city-states that clustered around the basin .
For about another 100 years they continued to look for a permanent home. As they continued their search they served as mercenary soldiers and servants for their powerful neighbors. They continued to absorb the traditions, manners, and customs of the more advanced and established communities that surrounded them. As the Aztecs grew in number, they established superior military and civil organizations.
According to the famous legend, the Aztecs finally settled at a spot where an eagle sat upon a cactus eating a snake. This was a sign foretold by their patron god. The sign, found by the priests, finally appeared on a small island in Lake Texcoco. By 1325, on the island, the Aztecs built a temple to Huitziposhtli and began to construct the city of Tenochtitlan, the “Place of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit.” Over the next 200 years, the city slowly became one of the largest and most powerful cities of the world, and was the giant heart of the Aztecs Empire .
The Aztecs society was structured in a hierarchy with nobles at the top. Social status was determined primarily at birth. All members of the nobility could trace their lineage to the first Aztecs ruler Acamapichtli . The only way one could rise up to another class in the system was to perform an outstanding military achievement.
Aztec society had four main classes: nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. The nobles usually held high military offices and government positions. However, nobles were also teachers, priests, and bureaucratic officials. The nobles controlled most of the wealth in Aztec society. Obviously, their lifestyles were different and more luxurious than those of the commoners and slaves . Most nobles also had their own private land or received extra government land for use during their term in public office. Commoners made up the majority of the Aztec population, and many of them made a living by farming their government owned plots. The commoners were the backbone of Aztec society, forming the large labor and military forces that maintained and controlled most of the empire. The serfs worked the land held by the nobles and remained on the land when a new noble acquired it . Slaves were considered property, but their children were born free. Most of the slaves were prisoners of war, criminals or people who could not pay their debts. The Aztecs also bought slaves from other groups. Social structure was an important thing in the lives of every Aztec .
Religion was extremely important in Aztec life. The people devoted much of their time to religious practice and even waged war largely to obtain prisoners to sacrifice to their various gods. Much of the Aztec religion was based on traditions already established in ancient Meso-America. Older gods from ancient cultures were the basis for the gods they worshipped, but new gods were always being added to the list.
The Aztecs performed ceremonies in the gods’ honor that included gifts of incense, flowers, birds, and animals. These offerings were usually given to happy gods, mainly Quetzalcoatl . Unfortunately, human sacrifice was also included in the list of offerings, whose hearts and blood were considered the supreme gift. Huiziloposhtli, the god of the sun and war, was the god that demanded the most sacrifices. Human and animal sacrifices were a major part of Aztec religion. For warriors, the ultimate honor was to be slain in battle or to volunteer for sacrifice in a major ritual . Prisoners were often used for less important rituals. In the important ritual of human sacrifice, the priests would take the victim to the heights of the pyramids where they would stretch the victim over a convex stone . One of the Aztec priests would then slice open the victims chest with a sharp knife and evict his heart as a tribute to the gods. The Aztecs believed that the gods needed human hearts and blood to remain strong, one of the reasons sacrifices were so important. After the heart had been removed from the victim, the priests would boil the body and members of the village would consume it as an act of ritualistic cannibalism. They may have thought that the dead person’s strength and bravery passed to anyone who ate the flesh .
Men were usually the victims of such sacrifices but women and children were also sacrificed. Women were sacrificed at a fall festival honoring the mother goddess of growing ripe corn . They were decapitated and their bodies were consumed. Children were sacrificed to mainly two gods: the god of rain, Tlaloc, and the god of fire, Xiuhtecuhutli. Children sacrificed to Tlaloc were usually strangled or drowned, and children sacrificed to Xiuhtecuhutli were usually tossed into fire, roasted on hot coals, or boiled to death. While each victim died in a different way all victims had their hearts removed .
The Aztecs held many other religious ceremonies in which nobles and commoners alike participated. Throughout the year people were called upon to participate in colorful performances that pleased the gods. The performances were held outside on the steps of the pyramids and in the great plazas. These ceremonies included musicians who played various musical instruments and dancers who would parade around the pyramids and through the city streets . Most of the other religious activities took place inside walled ceremonial temples on top of the giant pyramids. Priests would climb the huge stairways to the temples and give gifts to the gods . There were also ceremonial centers in which the priests would reside and people would come to pray and give offerings to the gods. The centers also included gardens, living quarters for the priests, and racks to hold the skulls of sacrificial victims. Many centers also had a playing court for a popular game called lachtli, which is somewhat like basketball . The players (usually nobles) tried to hit a rubber ball through a ring with their hips and knees. They could not use their hands or feet in the game.
One of the most exciting rituals of Aztec religion was the honoring of the god Tezcatlipoca, the patron god of Aztec rulers. Tezcatlipoca was honored at a yearly ceremony in which a handsome young male was chosen from a group of warriors to impersonate the god. The young impersonator lived in luxury for one year. He learned many things during this period. He learned to play the flute, to hold a smoking tube, to carry flowers and to speak graciously. Throughout the year he moved freely about the city. All the people he met bowed before him and greeted him as the god himself. During the year the young warrior was taken before Montezuma, who gave him precious gifts of gold and turquoise, fine clothes and many other luxuries . Twenty days prior to the ceremony, the impersonator was stripped of his beautiful clothes and dressed as a warrior once again. He was given four wives that would pleasure him until the day of his death. On the day of the great ceremony the youth was taken to a small temple south of the city where he was promptly sacrificed . That very day, another young man was chosen to impersonate Tezcatlipoca and the cycle started over once again. This is truly one of the more fascinating stories of Aztec religion.
The typical Aztec household consisted of a husband and a wife, their unmarried children and a number of the husbands relatives. All members of the family helped with the household work . The husbands responsibility was to support the family usually by farming or craftwork. The wifes duties included weaving clothing and cooking the familys food. Family activities often took place in the patio: meals were cooked, children played, and neighbors stopped in to chat and exchange local news.
Boys were educated by their fathers until the age of about 10. They then went to a school run by their neighborhood. These schools provided general education and military training. There were also temple schools that prepared boys to become priests or other leaders. Some girls attended the temple schools, but the majority learned all their skills at the home. The Aztecs married at an early age, about 16.
The family was, more or less, important in Aztec life.
Agriculture formed the basis of the Aztec economy. Many farmers lived outside the great city on small plots of land, or chinampas. Chinampas were one of the most intensive systems of agriculture ever developed. It was not easy providing food for the thriving capital. As the empire expanded and the population increased, more food was needed. Corn, beans and squash were the principal crops in Tenochtitlan. Corn, the crop in the most demand was crown in many varieties, sizes, and colors. A strange and mystical relationship existed between the Aztecs and corn. Several gods were associated with corn, and corn was demanded as a sacrifice by many of the gods. Corn was honored in all its various forms, as seeds, small plants and as mature plants. Aztec farmers also grew fruits of many kinds as well as tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, and herbs. Chilies were very popular and were the basic seasoning for almost all foods.
Many flowers also were grown on the chinampas. The Aztecs loved flowers, that they used in religious rituals, decorations, and in temples. They were also made into bouquets to be carried around and enjoyed for their beauty as well as their aroma. Aztec farmers live with their families in mud-walled thatch-roofed huts on their plots of land. These houses only consisted of one room with a dirt floor covered with reeds for sleeping. The family rose with the sun to begin work and the day ended when darkness fell. The main meal, eaten in the middle of the day, consisted of tortillas and beans, seasoned with salt and chilies.
Meat was in very short supply so the Aztecs rarely ate it. Farmers did, however, raise turkeys, ducks and small dogs that were reserved for only the very wealthy. Usually the only meat the farmers ever ate was collected in the lake. Things such as fish, turtles, frogs, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, grubs, and salamanders that were gathered on the lake were eaten only during special occasions. The lake also provided an interesting source of protein. Green lake scum that tasted like cheese was dried into small bricks. This high-protein food was often carried by warriors into battle.
Times were not easy for the farmers. Farmers worked very hard and gained very little. Farmers could, however be guaranteed a place to live and work for their lifetime in a well organized, structured society.
Aztec cooking would be considered rich and spicy by our standards. Most dishes had sauces flavored with chili peppers and little else. Hunting provided most of the meat in the typical Aztec meal. The chief game animals were deer, rabbits and game birds. The typical midday meal consisted of a meat item, some potatoes or beans, tortillas, tomatoes, and an alcoholic beverage called octli. For dessert, honey and tortillas were popular, along with a rich chocolate drink.
Children were a much desired, gift from the gods. They were brought into the work by a midwife who cut the umbilical cord. The midwife bathed the new baby and welcomed him or her with words or affection and warnings about the nature of the world. Once the baby was welcomed into the family by relatives and neighbors, an astrologer selected a day for the naming ceremony. After the child was given a name, small boys ran through the neighborhood streets, announcing the babys name at every door. A banquet followed the announcements, during which guests were given flowers, and pipes or tobacco to smoke. Friends, neighbors and relatives would feast and celebrate all night during the ceremony. Among noble and wealthy families, the celebration was on a larger scale, rich with food and gifts. Celebrations of the poor were more modest.
Throughout childhood, girls and boys were taught their responsibilities by their mothers and fathers. From an early age, mothers taught daughters how to spin thread on a spindle, how to weave cloth on a loom, how to grind corn on a stone and help prepare the familys meal. All women in Aztec society were expected to be accomplished weavers and cooks. From an early age, fathers taught their sons to carry water and firewood, to collect and bring home whatever people dropped at the local market, and how to fish with a net from a canoe.
All children were expected to conform to the rules of Aztec society and to work and contribute to the needs of the household. The disobedient child was SEVERELY punished. A disobedient child was punished by being held over the smoke of a fire in which red chili peppers were burning. This was extremely painful to the eyes and burns could become severe. Parents and grandparents were always giving advice on proper conduct.
Warfare was very important to Aztec society because it was considered a religious duty. Aztecs fought not only to enlarge their powerful empire, but to gain prisoners to sacrifice to the gods as well. The highest goal for a young man was to become a successful warrior. All able men were trained to be warriors, but only members of the nobility made up the prestigious Eagle and Jaguar Warriors. Men who took many captives in battle were rewarded. They gained land, high social rank and important government offices.
Aztec methods of combat were designed to capture the enemy rather than kill him. The chief weapon was a wooden club with sharp pieces of obsidian. This weapon was effective for disabling an opponent without killing him. The Aztecs also used bows and arrows and spears. For protection, warriors carried wooden shields and wore padded cotton armor.
Montezuma was the ruler of the Aztec Empire when Hernan Cortes of Spain landed on Mexico. Emperor Montezuma was born about 1480 and is perhaps the cause of his great empires collapse in 1521. Unlike previous Aztec rulers, who were great warriors and thinkers, Montezuma II was weak and incompetent.
When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, Montezuma was unsure if these strange newcomers were men or powerful gods. Because of this, instead of fighting the Spaniards he tried to get rid of them by trickery, magic, and offering gifts. When this failed, Montezuma allowed Cortes to enter Tenochtitlan without a battle and received him in his court. This turned out to be a grave error. Montezuma was taken prisoner without resistance, but the brutal conduct of the invaders angered the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs were revolted at this treatment by the Spaniards. They managed to drive out the foreigners out of the city for a while, but when the Spanish did take over the city once again the inhabitants revolted. Cortes called on Montezuma to stop the revolt, but the Aztec ruler was stoned while addressing his subjects. After the stoning, there was a large battle. The furious Aztecs ousted the Spaniards from their city once and for all; or so they thought. Three days later Montezuma died of massive head injuries.
The Aztecs thought their enemies had departed for good and would never return. The city returned to its normal daily and ceremonial routine. Unfortunately, things were not very normal for long. A plague of smallpox spread rapidly through the city. The inhabitants of the Americas had no immunity to this new disease brought on by the Spanish. The disease killed thousand of people, including the new Aztec ruler.
On April 18, 1521, much to the Aztecs surprise, the Spanish marched back to Tenochtitlan with large forces of Indian allies and 900 soldiers. The soldiers constructed large boats to hold men and canons. On May 31, 1521, Cortes began his final siege of the great city. The boats sailed off the mainland and arrived at the island where horsemen and cavalry could be brought into the city. With this final task accomplished, the soldiers poured into the city. The siege of the capital lasted 75 days, causing great suffering to the people of Tenochtitlan.
The final battle for Tenochtitlan was fought in the great marketplace. Nobles, warriors, and women alike made their last dying effort to capture the city. Unfortunately, this was too little, too late. Of the 300,000 Aztec defenders, only about 60,000 survived.
The city was in a shambles. The great streets were lined with the bodies of the dead. Entire areas of the city were demolished, leaving only piles of rock behind. Within two years the city was totally leveled, homes were destroyed, temples burned, almost nothing was left standing. The Aztec capital had fallen.
Very soon after this tragedy Spanish adventurers, priests, and soldiers rushed to the new land to look for fame and fortune, and to convert souls. A few came to make their homes, others came to convert the Indians to Catholicism. Most, however, came to just gather up the wealth of this new land. The great reign of the Aztecs had come to a close.
Aztec artifacts were almost completely wiped out with entrance of the Spaniards. Many things the Aztecs created are gone and little Aztec architecture remains. The Spaniards considered it their duty as Christians to wipe out the temples and all other traces of Aztec Religion. Unfortunately, this means we do not know as much about the Aztecs as we could. However, archaeologists have found the site of the Great Temple in downtown Mexico City where Tenochtitlan was once located. Archaeologists have uncovered all four sides of the building and recovered about 6,000 objects, including jewelry, pottery, statues, wall carving, and remains of human and animal sacrifices. They have also restored some other Aztec buildings.
After the Spanish arrival, Aztec culture came to an abrupt end. Art, literature, customs, religious figures, and almost every trace of the Aztecs were destroyed. However, some Aztec heritage still survives in the midst of modern day Mexico. They are the largest aboriginal group in Mexico and retain their ancient Aztec language. Their religion is also a combination of Roman Catholicism and Aztec tribal religion.
Thousands of people in Mexico have Aztec ancestors, and many of them speak a modern form of the language of ancient Tenochtitlan, Nahuatl. Many Mexican place names come from Nahuatl. Foods that come from the Aztec include chili, chocolate, and tacos. They have become popular in many countries. Descendants of the Aztec live many places including the United States. The Aztec civilization may be gone, but it will never be forgotten.