The term Aztec, is a startlingly imprecise term to describe the culture that dominated the Valley of Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries. Properly speaking, all the Nahua - speaking peoples in the Valley of Mexico were Aztecs, while the culture that dominated the area was a tribe of the Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka") called the Tenochca ("te-noch-ka").
At the time of the European Conquest, they called themselves "Tenochca" or "Toltec", which was the name assumed by the bearers of the Classic Mesoamerican culture.
The earliest known information about the Mexica is that they migrated from the north into the Valley of Mexico as early as the 12th century AD, well after the close of the Classic Period in Mesoamerica. They were a subject people and were forced to live on the worst lands in the valley. They adopted the cultural patterns called the Mixteca-Pueblo that orignated in the culture of Teotihuacan, so the urban culture they built in the 15th and 16th centuries is essentially a continuation of Teotihuacan culture.
The people of Mesoamerica distinguished between two types of people: the Toltec (which means 'Craftsman'), who continued Classic urban culture, and the Chichimee, or 'Wild People', who settled Mesoamerica from the north. The Mexica were then, orignally Chichimec when they migrated into Mexico but eventually became the Toltecs proper.
Tenochca history is among the best preserved in all of Mesoamerica. They date the beginning to 1168 and their origns to an island on a lake north of the Valley of Mexico.
Their god Huitzilopochtli took them on a journey to the south and they arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1248. According to their history, the Tenochca were orignally peaceful, but their Chichimec ways, espec-ially their practice of human sacrifice, revolted other people who banded together and crushed their tribe. In 1300, the Tenochcas became vassals of the town of Culhuacan; some escaped to settle on an island in a lake. The city they founded was Tenochtitlan, or "Place of the Tenochcas.
Relations between the Tenochcas and Culhuacan became bitter after the Tenochcas sacrificed a daughter of the king of Culhuacan; so enraged were the Culhuacans that they drove all the Tenochcas from the mainland to the island.
There, the Tenochcas who had lived in Culhuacan taught urban culture and architecture to the people on the island and the Tenochcas began to build a city. The city of Tenochtitlan is founded sometime between 1300 and 1375 AD.
The Tenochcas slowley became more powerful and militarily more skilled, so much so that they became allies of choice in the constant conflicts between the various peoples of the area. The Tenochcas finally won their freedom under Itzacoatl (1428 to 1440), and they began to build their city, Tenochtitlan.
Under Itzacoatl, they built temples, roads, a causeway linking the city to the mainland and they established their government and religious hierarchy. Itzacoatl and the chief who followed him, Mocteuzma I (1440 to 1469) undertook wars of conquest throughout the Valley of Mexico and the southern regions of Vera Cruz, Guerrero, and Puebla. As a result, Tenochtitlan grew dramatically. Not only did the city increase in size, precipitating the need for an aqueduct system to bring water from the mainland, it grew culturally as well as the Tenochcas assimilated the gods of the region into their own religion.
A succession of kings followed Moctezma I untill the accession of Moctezma II in 1502; despite a half century of successful growth and conquest, Tenochca culture and society began to suffer disasters under Mocteuzma II.
First, tribute peoples began to revolt all over the conquered territores and it is highly likely that Tenochca influence would eventually have declined by the middle of the 16th century. Most importantly, the reign of Moctezma II was interrupted by the invasion of the Spaniards under Cortez in 1519 to 1522.
The Spaniards kidnapped Mocteuzma and eventually killed him in 1524.
When the city of Tenochtitlan fell, the remainder of Mexico fell very rapidly. The Spaniards managed this conquest for several reasons. First, Aztec conquest was not concerned with the politics of territorial influence, the conquests only had to deal with the payment of tribute. There was then, a large group of subject peoples with no loyalty to Tenochtitlan and a lot of hostility, and Cortez conquered Tenochtitlan largely by using these enemies. Second, the Aztecs had nothing like formal military strategy; wars were largely fought as large-scale individual combats. Finally, cortez and his men were desperate. They had entered Mexico against orders and knew that unless they conquered Mexico, they would be severly punished when they returned to Spain.
The religion of the Aztecs was incredibly complicated, partly due to the fact that they had inherrited most of it from conquered peoples. Their religion was dominated by three gods:
Huitzilopochtli (hummingbird wizard), the native and chief god of the Tenochca, he was their war and sun god.
Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), chief god of the Aztecs in general.
Quetzalcoatl (Sovereign Plumed Serpent), widely worshiped throughout Mesoamerica and the god of civilization, the priesthood and learning.
Below these three gods were an infinity of other gods, of which the most important were:
Tlaloc: the Rain God
Chalchihuitlicue: the God of Growth
Xipe: the "Flayed One" a god associated with spring
To access information on all of the more important gods, please refer to the page:
"Aztec Gods & Dieties"
The overwhelming aspect of Aztec religious life in the imaginations of non-Aztecs was the predominance of human sacrifice. This had been practiced all throughout the world of Mesoamerican life but the Tenochca practiced it at a scale never seen before or since.
There's not a great deal known about all the details, but there's a good idea of its general character and justification. Throughout the Mesoamerican areas, the theology involved the concept that the gods gave things to the humans only if they were nourished by the humans. Among the Maya for instance, the priests would nourish the gods by drawing their "Own" blood by piercing their tongues, ears, extremities or genitals. Other sacrifices involved prayer, offerings of food, sports and even dramas and plays. The Aztecs practiced all of these sacrifices, including blood-letting. But the Aztec theologians also developed the notion that the gods are best nourished bt the living hearts of sacrificed captives..... the braver the captive, the more nourishing the sacrifice. This theology led to widespread wars of conquest in search of sacrifical victims both captured in war and paid as tribute by a conqured people.
Some sacrifices were very minimal, involving the sacrifice of a slave to a minor god, and some were very spectacular, involving hundreds or even many thousand captives.
Aztec history claims, the their god Ahuitzol (1468 to 1502), who preceded king Moctezma II, sacrificed 20,000 people after a war in Oaxaca. No matter what the size of the sacrifice it was always performed the same way. The victim was held down by four priests on an altar at the top of a pyramid or raised temple while one of the priests made an incision just below the rib cage and pulled out the living heart. The heart was then burned and the corpse was pushed down the steep steps. The most brutal of human sacrifices were those dedicated to the god Huehueteotl. Sacrifical victims were drugged and then thrown into a fire at the top of the ceremonial platform. Before they were killed by fire, they were gragged out by hooks and their living hearts were pulled out and thrown back into the fire.
Mayan writing can barely be read, but we do know hoe to read Aztec writing. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs developed a true system of writing. Aztec writing isn't phonetic, but rather a loose system of rebus writing.
Still, if the testimony of the Spanish is reliable, this writing system was seen as an aid to oral traditions rather than as a replacement. Aztec writing was used for many purposes, diaries, chronicles, calendrical counts, and history. This is why we know more about Aztec history before 1500. in far greater detail, than any other American peoples.
Many theories have been presented for the development of a widespread literate tradition among the Aztecs while the same didn't occur for the Mayas. Perhaps the most convincing is the fact that Aztec society was far more complex than any other preceding culture. The persistent need for accurate record-keeping which is introduced with social complexity led to the development of the most literate society on the American continents.
In 1519, Hernan Cortez sailed from Cuba, landed in Mexico and made his way to the Aztec capital. Miguel Leon Portilla, a Mexican anthropologist, gathered accounts by the Aztecs, some of which were written shortly after the conquest.....
When Motecuhzuma (Montezuma) had given neck-laces to each one, Cortez asked him:
"Are you Motecuhzoma? Are you the King? Is it true that you are the king Motecuhzoma?"
And the king said: "Yes, I am Motecuhzoma." Then he stood up to welcome Cortez; he came foreward, bowed his head low and addressed him in these words:
"Our Lord, you are weary. The journey has tired you, but you now have arrived on earth. You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy."
"The Kings who have gone before, your representatives have guarded it and preserved it for your coming. The Kings Itzcoatl, Motecuhzoma the Elder, Axayacatl, Tizoc and Ahuitzol ruled for you in the city of Mexico. The people were protected by their swords and sheltered by their shields."
"No, it is not a dream. I am not walking in my sleep. I am not seeing you in my dreams, I have seen you at last! I have met you face to face! I was in agony for five days, for ten days, with my eyes fixed on the Region of Mystery. And now you have come out of the clouds and mists to sit on your throne once more!"
When Motecuhzoma had finished, La Malinche translated his address into Spanish so that the Captain could understand it. Cortez replied in his strange and savage tongue, speaking first to La Malinche:
"Tell Motecuhzoma that we are friends. There is nothing to fear. We have wanted to see him for a long time, and now we have seen his face and heard his words. Tell him that we love him well and that our hearts are contented."
Then he said to Motecuhzoma:
"We have come to your house in Mexico as friends. There is nothing to fear."
La Malinche translated this speech and the Spaniard grasped Motecuhzoma's hands and patted him on his back to show their affection for him...
The civil policy of the Aztecs is so closely blended with their religion that, without under-standing the latter, it is impossible to form correcit ideas of their government or their social institutions. In thinking of the religious system of the Aztecs, its as if it had emanated from a comparatively refined people open to gentle influences, while the rest breathes a spirit of unmitigated ferocity.
It naturally suggests the idea of two distinct sources and authorises the belief that the Aztecs had inherited from their predecessors a milder faith, on which was afterwards en-grafted their own mythology. The latter soon became dominant and gave its dark coloring to the creeds of the conquered nations, which like the Mexicans and ancient Romans, seemed willingly to have incorporated into their own... until the same funereal superstition settled over the fartest borders of Anahuac.
The Aztecs recognised the existence of a supreme Creator and Lord of the universe. They addressed him in their prayers as "The God by whom we live, Omnipresent, that knoweth all thought and giveth all gifts," "without whom man is as nothing," "invisible, incorp-oreal, one God of perfect perfection & purity," "under whose wings we find repose and a sure defence."
These sublime attributes infer no inadequate conception of the true God. But the idea of a unity-of-a-being, with whom volition is action, who has no need of inferior ministers to execute his purpose was too simple, or too vast for their understanding; and they sought relief in the plurality of deities, who presided over the elements, the changes of the seasons, and the various occupations of man.
Of these, there were thirteen principal deities, and more than two hundred inferior ones; to each whom some special day, or appropriate festival was consecrated. At the head of all this stood the terrible Huizilopohtli (see Gods and Deities), the Mexizan Mars.
Although it is doing injustice to the heroic-war-god of antiquity to identify him with this monster. This was the patron diety of the nation. His fantastic image was loaded with costly ornaments. His temples were the most stately and august of the public edifices, and his altars reeked with the blood of human sacrifices in every city of the empire.
Disastrous indeed must have been the influence of such a superstition on the character of the people.
A far more interesting personage in their mythology was Quetzalcoatl, God of the Air.
A divinity who, during his residence on earth instructed the natives in the use of metals, in agriculture and in the arts of government. He was one of those benefactors of their species who has been deified by the gratitude of proster-ity. Under him, the earth teamed with fruits and flowers without the pains of culture.
They imagined three separate states of existence in the future life. The wicked, comprehending the great part of man-kind, were to expiate their sins in a place of everlasting darkness. Another class, with no other merit than that of having died of certain diseases, were to enjoy a negative existence of indolent contentment. The highest place was res-erved, as with most war-like nations, for the heroes who fell in battle, or in sacrifice. They passed at once, into the presence of the Sun, whom they accom-panied with songs and choral dances in his bright progress through the heavens and, after some years, their spirits went to animate the clouds and singing birds of beautiful plumage, and to revel amidst the rich blossoms of the garden of paradise.
Such was the heaven of the Aztecs; more refined in its character than that of the more pol-ished pagan. In the destiny they assigned to the wicked, we discern similar traces of refinement; since the absence of all physical torture forms a striking contrast to the schemes of suffering so ingeniously devised by the fancies of the most enlightened nations. In all of this, so contary to the natural suggestions of the ferocious Aztec, we see the evid-ence of a higher civilization inherited from their predecessors in the land.
Five Thousand Priests, were in some way or another, attached to the principal temple in the capital. The various ranks and functions of this multitudinous body were discriminated against with great exactness. Those best instructed in music took the management of the choirs.
Others arranged the festivals to the calander, some over-saw the education of the youth, and still others had charge of the hieroglyphical paintings and oral traditions. The dismal rites of sacrifice reserved for the chief dignitaries of the order.
At the head of the whole establishment were two high preists elected from the order by the king and principal nobles without reference to birth, but soley for their qualifications. They were equal in dignity and inferior only to the sovereign, who rarely acted without their advice in matters of public concern. The priests were each devoted to the service of some particular deity and had quarters provided within the spacious precincts of their temple; at least while engaged in immediate atten-dance there, for they were allowed to marry and have families of their own. In this monastic residence, they lived in all the stern severity of conventual discipline.
Three times during the day and once a night, they were called to prayers. They were frequent in their vigils and mortified the flesh by fasting and cruel pennance,a drawing of blood from their bodies by flagellation, or by piercing themselves with the thorns of the aloe.
The great cities were divided into districts, placed under the charge of a parochial clergy, who regulated every act of religion within their precincts. It is remarkable that they administered the rites of confession and absolution. The secrets of the confessional were held inviolable and penances were imposed of much the same kind as those enjoyed in the Roman Catholic Church.
There were two remarkable peculiarities in the Aztec ceremony. The first was that as the repetition of an offence, once atoned for, was deemed inexpiable, confession was made but once in a man's life, and was usually deferred to a late period of it. Another peculiarity was that priestly absolutition was received in place of the legal punishment of offences, and authorised an acquittal in case of arrest. Long after the conquest the simple natives, when they came under the arm of the law, sought to escape by producing the certificate of their confession.
Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not excepting the most polished nations of antiquity, but never by any on a scale to be compared with those of the Aztecs. The amoumt of victims immolated on its altars would stagger the faith of the least scrupulous believer.
Scarcely anyone pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifices throughout the empire at less than twenty thousand a year, and some carry that number as high as fifty thousand a year.
On great occasions as the coronation of a king, or the consecration of a temple, the number is still more appalling. At the dedication of the great temple of Huitzilopochtli, in 1486, the prisoners, who for some years had been reserved for this purpose, were drawn from all quarters to the capital. They were arranged in files forming a procession nearly two miles long. The ceremony consumed several days and seventy thousand captives are said to have perished at the shrine of this terrible deity.
But who can believe that so many people would have suffered themselves to be lead unresistingly like sheep to the slaughter? Or how could their remains, too great for consumption in the ordinary way, be disposed of without breeding a pestilence in the capital? Yet the event was of recent date and is attested to by the best informed historians.
One fact may be considered certain. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the sacrificed in buildings appropriated to this purpose. The companions of Cortez counted one hundred and thirity-six thousand skulls in just one of these places.
Without attempting a precise calculation, it is safe to conclude that thousands were yearly offered-up in the different cities of Anahuac on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities. The great object of war with the Aztecs was as much to gather victims for their sacrifices as to extend their empire. It was then that, an enemy was never slain in battle if it could be helped if there was a chance of taking him alive. To this the Spaniards repeatedly owed their pres-ervation. When Montezuma was asked. "Why he had suffered the republic of Tlascala to maintain her independence on his borders," he replied, "That she might furnish him with more victims for his gods!"
As the supply of victims began to fail, the preists, the Dominicans of the New World, bellowed aloud for more and urged on their superstitious sovereign by the denunciations of the celestial wrath. Like the militant churchmen of Christendom in the Middle Ages, they mingled themselves in the ranks and were conspicuous in the thickest of the fight by their hideous aspects and frantic gestures.
Strange that in every country, the most fiendish passions of the human heart have been those kindled in the name of Religion!
The influence of these practices on the Aztec character was as disastrous as might have been expected. Familiarity with the bloody rites of sacrifice steeled the heart against human sympathy and begat a thirst for carnage, like that excited in the Romans by the exhibitions of the Circus. The prepetual recurrence of ceremonies in which the people took part, associated religion with their most intimate concerns and spread the gloom of superstition over the domestic people, until the character of the nation wore a grave and even melancholy aspect which belongs to their descendants to the present day.
The influence of the priesthood of course, became unbounded. The sovereign thought himself honoured be being permited to assist in the services of the temple. Far from limiting the authority of the priests to the spiritual matters, he often gave his opinion to theirs where they least competent to give it. It was their oppisition that prevented the final capitulation which would have saved the capital. The whole nation, from the peasent to the prince, bowed their heads to the worst kind of tyranny, that of a blind faith.
Human Sacrifice, however cruel, has nothing in it degrading to its victim, it may be rather sad to ennoble him, by devoting him to the gods. Though so terrible with the Aztecs, it was sometimes voluntarily embraced by them as the most glorious death and one that opened a sure passege into paradise. The Spanish Inquisition on the other hand, branded its victims with infamy in this world and consigned them to everlasting perdition in the next.
One detestable feature of the Aztec superstition sunk it far below that of the Christian. This was its Cannibalism. Though in truth, the Mexicans were not cannibals in the coarsest acceptation of the term. They did not feed on human flesh merely to gratify a brutish appetite, but in obedience to their religion. Their repasts were made of the victims whose blood had been poured out on the altar of sacrifice. This is a distinction worthy of notice, still... cannibalism under any form or whatever sanction, can have but a fatal influence on the nation addicted to it.
It suggests ideas so loathsome, so degrading to man to his spiritual and immortal nature, that it is impossible for the people who practice it, to make any great progress in moral or intel-lectual culture.
The Mexicans furnish no exception to this remark. The civilization which they possessed descended from the Toltecs, a race who never stained their altars with the blood of man. All that deserved the name of science in Mexico came from this source; and the crumbling ruins of edifices attributed to them. Still evedent in various parts of New Spain, show a decided superiority in their architecture over that of the later races of Anahuac.
It is true the Mexicans made great proficiency in many of the social and mechanic arts, in that material culture was the natural growth of increasing opulence which ministers to the gratification of the senses. In purely intellectual progress, they were behind the Tezucans, whose wise sovereigns came into the rites of their neighbors with reluctance, and practised them on a much more moderate scale.
Prophecies can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused... they tend to be self-fulfilling. The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire is a perfect example of this problem. Toltec legends tell of Quetzelcoatl, a white skinned bearded priest-king who came from the East to establish an enlightened kingdom among the Indians. Eventually he departed by boat to the West. Quetzelcoatl promised to return, and as the appointed day of this second coming approached, heavenly omens indicated that the Aztec culture was about to come to an abrupt and violent end.
Nezhaulcoyotl, a king of Texcoco whose reign bridged the 15th and 16th centuries, also was a great astrologer. He had an observatory built on the roof of his palace and invited other astrologers in his kingdom to come to his court. There, he disputed with them and taught his wisdom. When Moctezuma II was elected king of Mexico, Nezhaulcoyotl praised the nation for having chosen a ruler "whose deep knowledge of heavenly things insured to his subjects his comprehension of those of an earthly nature."
Nezhaulcoyotl gave Moctezuma II detailed warnings of a new astrological age that was beginning in the Aztec calendar. One of the omens was a famine which developed in 1507. Then an earthquake occured after the "Lighting of the New Age" ceremony inaugurated by Moctezuma II. These were sure signs of impending disaster.
Each year thereafter until Hernando Cortes invaded Mexico in 1518, a new omen appeared. A comet with three heads and sparks shooting from its tail was seen flying east-ward. In another year, another comet, described as "A Pyramidal Light, which scattered sparks on all sides, rose at midnight from the eastern horizon till the apex reached the zenith and faded at dawn." This phenomenon appeared for 40 nights and was interpreted to mean "Wars, Famine, Pestilence, and Mortality Among the Lords."
In 1508, Moctezuma II visited Tlillancalmecatl ("Place of Heavenly Learning") where he was given a rare bird. In its shiny chest, he saw stars in reflection and "Fire Sticks" (guns). The image changed to show the advance of warriors riding on horses which, since he had never seen them before, he described as deer.
Also in 1508, Moctezuma's sister Paranazin collapsed into a cataleptic trance that was mistaken for death. She recovered while the funeral pro-cession was taking her to the royal crypt. She said that during her trance she received a vision of great ships from a distant land arriving with men bearing arms, carrying banners, and wearing "metal casque" (helmets). The foreigners were to become masters of the Aztecs.
For several days in 1519, a comet hung over the capital city Tenochtitlan. It was described as "a rip in the sky which bleeds celestial influences dropwise onto the Aztec world." After that, a thunderbolt struck and burned down the temple of the deity of Huitilopchitli.
The last omen came one night, again to Tenochtitlan. A woman's voice was heard "coming from everywhere and nowhere... crying 'My Children, My Children are Lost!"
From these and other signs, the Aztecs understood their doom as orignating with celestial powers. Was it then mere coincidence, or did the Hands of the Fates steer Cortes' ships to land on April 22, 1519, the very day that the Aztec calendar calculated for Quetzelcoatl's return at the end of the 13th Heaven and the beginning of the Nine Hells? It was as though the directing forces of the world had staged the drama to be acted out by historical characters.
Anticipating the event of Quetzelcoatl's return, Moctezuma II had posted watchers on the coast to draw images of the aliens and deliver them to him. The emperor was amazed that the light-skinned, bearded figures matched the traditional descriptions of Quetzelcoatl. This case of mistaken identity caused the Aztecs to put up little resistance to the Spaniards, who soon conquered them.
To prevent mutiny among his troops, Cortes burned the ships after they landed. The cavalry-mounted Spanish forces then quickly defeated several local tribes who resisted their invasion. When their chiefs sued for peace, Cortes gave them his helmet and com-manded them to take it to the emperor and return it filled with gold.
The helmet itself was an object of wonder to the Aztecs: it was almost identical to that worn by the great deity Huiziopochtli. Marveling at the similarty, the emperor returned the helmet filled with gold and accompanied by a warning to come no closer. But the Spaniard's greed for gold and dominion drew them inexorably toward Tenochtitlan.
As he lay dying, Moctezuma II had a wondrous vision. He told it to Tula, his favorite daughter. Later, she told it to the Tezcucan noble Iztlilzochitl, who recorded it:
"To the world I have said farewell. I see its vanities go away from me one by one. Last in the train and most loved, most glittering is power, and in its hands I see my heart. A shadow creeps over me, darkening all without, but brightening all within, and in the brightness, lo, I see my people and their future!"
"The long, long cycles, two, four, eight, pass away, and I see the tribes newly risen, like the trodden grass, an in their midst a Priesthood and a Cross. An age of battle more, and lo! There remains the Cross, but not the priests; in their stead is Freedom and God."
"I know the children of the Aztecs, crushed now, will live, and more after ages of wrong suffered by them, they will rise up, and take their place - a place of splendor - amongst the deathless nations of the earth. What I was given to see was revelation. Cherish these word's O Tula; repeat them often, make them a cry of the people, a sacred tradition; let them go down with the generations, one of which will, at last, understand the meaning of the words FREEDOM and GOD, now dark to my understanding; and then, not till then, will be the new birth and new career."