The Aztec culture was one of the most successful civilizations in the world that thrived in present day central Mexico more than 700 years ago during 1300 to 1521. The Aztecs (who referred to themselves as the Mexica or Tenochca), were a small, nomadic, Nahuatl-speaking aggregation of tribal peoples living on the edges of Mesoamerica. They included different ethnic groups, though mostly those who spoke the Nahuatl language. The Aztecs developed the city/capital of Tenochtitlan as well as one of the most unique and complicated civilizations known to the ancient world.
The Aztecs were talented writers, builders, artists and craftsmen who developed different types of government, religion, culture, technology, economy, geography as well as a calendar and new mathematical techniques. They became the supreme force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial structure that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th century. Their name is derived from Aztlan, the homeland of the north.
The Aztecs also call themselves Mexica and there language came from the Nahuatl branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. Aztec civilization was destroyed by 1519 when the invasion of Spanish conquerors under Hernando Cortés arrived in Mexico. Though the Aztec civilization has long been conquered, there are still over one million speakers of Nahuatl in rural areas of central Mexico.
Religion was very important in Aztec life. Aztec religion was polytheistic, therefore consisted of a large number of gods and goddesses, each of whom ruled one or more human activities or aspects of nature.
These gods and goddesses were seen more as forces or spirits, each possessing a number of distinctive attributes of clothing and regalia. The most prominent deities included Tezcatlipoca, a powerful creator god who was the patron of kings; Quetzalcoatl, the god of learning and patron of priests; Tlaloc, an ancient central Mexican rain god; and Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica people.[Smith:06:06] The Aztecs believed that different worlds existed before ours and that each of them were destroyed by disasters in which mankind had been wiped out. The Aztec rationale for human sacrifice came from cosmic view that surrounded the demands of their god Huitzilopochtli, the sun and god of war, as well as a myth of solar struggle.
They believed that the sun and earth had been destroyed in a cataclysm and recreated four times and that they lived in the age of the fifth sun. Each of these ‘suns’ is shown on monuments such as the Aztec calendar or the stone of the suns by the date in which shows the nature of the disaster which ended it. To avoid the end of the world for as long as possible, the Aztecs believed that serving Huitzilopochtli would help prevent the end of the fifth sun. It was by religion that the city and the tribe were one, and by religion that variety was unified. [Soustelle:93:94] The ancient Mexicans believed in two ancient beings who were at the origin of all others, even of the gods: they were Ometecuhtli, ‘the Lord of the Duality’, and Omecihuatl, ‘the Lady of the Duality’; and they lived at the summit of the world, in the thirteenth heaven.
Their unending fruitfulness produced all the gods, and from it all mankind is born. The gods were the creators of the earth: the most important act in this creation was the birth of the sun; and this sun was born from sacrifice and blood. This was the beginning of the cosmic drama in which humanity took on the role of the gods. Furthermore, the Aztecs accepted the view of a natural cycle: the sun, along with the rain, nourished the plant life that sustained human life; therefore humans should give sustenance to the sun and rain gods. To keep the sun moving in its course, it was necessary to feed it every day with its food, ‘the precious water’, human blood.
Sacrifice was a sacred duty towards the sun and a necessity for the welfare of men: without it the very life of the world would stop. The most common form of sacrifice involved cutting open the chests of victims on altars atop tall temple-pyramids. [Smith:06:06] In practice, the ritual offering of the sun god involved the removal of of a palpitating human heart for presentation to Huitzilopochtli. Most victims were enemy soldiers captured in battle. Without such expressions of reverence, Aztecs feared that the sun might not rise to make its way across the sky.
Sacrifice was to the Aztecs a solemn, and necessary, religious ceremony for the purpose of providing the nourishment and renewal that enabled the gods to maintain balance in the cosmos. These rituals followed strictly prescribed procedures in a complex ceremonial system. The most familiar sacrificial ceremony took place atop a high temple, where the victim was spread-eagled over a stone, his back arched. While his limbs were held by four assistants, the priest went under the rib cage with an obsidian knife to remove the heart. Every time that a priest on top of a pyramid held up the bleeding heart of a man and then placed it in the cuauhxicalli the disaster that threatened to fall upon the world was postponed once more.
Human sacrifice was an alchemy by which life was made out of death, and the gods themselves had given the examples on the first day of creation. But this was not the only form of sacrifice. Women were dedicated to the goddesses of the earth, and while they danced, pretending to be unaware of their fate, their heads were struck off; children were drowned as an offering to the rain-god Tlaloc; the fire-god’s victims, anaesthetised by yauhtli (hashish), were thrown into the blaze; and those who personified the god Xipe Totec were fastened to a kind of frame, shot with arrows and then flayed – the priests dressed themselves in the skin. [Soustelle:98:94] The Aztecs perceived themselves as living in an insecure world, in a conflict between order and chaos, at the mercy of the elements and at the edge of doom. They thought natural disasters were caused by their gods’ displeasure.
Since individuals were at the mercy of the gods, their best safeguard was to take no chances and adhere to carefully prescribed rules and rituals. As for man, his very first duty was to provide nourishment intonan intota tlaltecuhtli tonatiuh, ‘for our mother and our father, the earth and the sun’; and to avoid this was to betray the gods and the same time all of mankind, for what was true of the sun was also true of the earth, the rain, growth, and all the forces of nature. Nothing was born, nothing would endure, except by the blood sacrifice. There was a version of afterlife, but it was not the same for all. Mothers who died in childbirth went to a special heaven.
Warriors who fell in battle or were sacrificed by the enemy went to a paradise with perfumed clouds, to accompany the sun in its daily passage; or they could find a new life as a hummingbird, destined to spend eternity among fragrant blossoms, but most went to Mictlan, which required the soul to take a difficult journey through nine downward levels. Intense spirituality pervaded Tenochtitlan, and religious observances occurred daily from birth to death. They had many holy days during which celebrations, both solemn and joyful, took place. Some festivities included singing and dancing, along with children parading in garland of flowers. Ritual activities included feasting, fasting, bloodletting, and human sacrifice-all part of Aztec beliefs that conjoined life and death in a continuous cycle. It is difficult for modern observers to understand how the elaborate ritual complex reconciled the patterns of daily life with the violence of bloodshed implicated in Aztec beliefs.
While Aztecs were nomadic people and relatively few in number, their social structure was simple; the majority were peasants or warriors, and the handful of priests and war leaders enjoyed comparatively few perquisites. The ruling class, the top level of the social stratification, was itself divided into several categories according to function, importance and standing. Noblewomen enjoyed varying degrees of status and respect, related to their importance in forging political alliances and strengthening royal legitimacy. Although they were increasingly denied leadership roles as the empire expanded, Aztec women of all classes should be viewed through the lens of a complementary gender system in which male and female roles were appreciated as different but essential to the functioning of society, and wherein women had property and other legal rights. In addition to royal families, others of noble status (pipiltin) could include high priests, prominent military officers, and influential government leaders such as judges and tax collectors.
Sons of nobles enjoyed an advantageous position to achieve their fathers’ rank, but nobility (outside of the royal family) was not an inherited right. Considered variation in wealth and prestige among the nobility could be observed in the range of luxuries they enjoyed, for example, in clothing, jewelry, housing, foodstuffs, and servants. Able-bodied males were expected to bear arms. As Inga Clendinnen made clear: “To be born a male in Tenochtitlan was to be designated a warrior. Distinction in battle was one way in which a commoner might rise to high status.
In order to achieve the cherished rank of warrior, a youth had to take a prisoner. If he succeeded in capturing or killing four of the enemy, he was entitled to share in the booty. Perhaps more importantly, he was allowed to dress in the distinctive adornments of the military elite. Conceivably, he could become a member of the prestigious military orders-the Eagle Knights or Jaguar Knights-and thus enjoy the luxuries of noble status. Along with ruling nobility, priests, scholars, artists, and scribes enjoyed high status as part of an educated elite that nurtured literacy traditions with altepetl.
Priests were expected to lead exemplary lives, and they spent long hours in prayer, fasting, and penance. [Deeds:58:18] Each priest had a specialty, such as music, painting, teaching, dancing, or assisting at sacrificial rites. Some priests were also warriors. Priests were the guardians of mortality, and some of their admonitions are not unlike scriptural injunctions, such as a man who looks too curiously on a woman commits adultery with his eyes.
The great majority of the people (about 90 percent) formed the class of commoners (macehualtin). These farmers, laborers, minor craftsmen, servants, vendors, and petty functionaries of an altepetl were organized into ward districts or rural villages called calpollis (barrios to the Spaniards). Each calpolli had lands apportioned to family heads who could use fields but did not own them. The people elected a veteran warrior who served as military commander of the district and was responsible for their welfare and good order.
At the bottom of the socioeconomic scale were the slaves. Aztec slavery differed from the slave system most familiar to us, inasmuch as slaves had certain rights and bondage was not passed from parent to child. Some, in fact, served as slaves only for a specified term, either in payment of debt or as punishment for a crime. In bad times people sometimes sold themselves or their children to avoid starvation. Little stigma was attached to some conditions of slavery.
Aztec society’s concern with education was singular for it’s time. After a period or regimented homeschooling, instruction was compulsory for children in order to make them productive and worthy members of society. Two main types of schools existed. Children of nobility usually attended the calmecac, run by the scholarly priests, in preparation for the priesthood or some high office in the state. Young boys studied religion, astronomy, philosophy, history, poetry, rhetoric, oratory, singing, and dancing, among other disciplines.
Most children attended one of the commoners’ telpochcalli. Fifteen-year-old boys learned the rudiments of warfare. Girls were instructed in the responsibilities of the household and motherhood. Although Aztec society increasingly rewarded military skill, women maintained valued complementary roles, not only domestic but also in agriculture, trade, and religion. The highest political and religious offices were restricted to men, but most deities had androgynous characteristics, in recognition of the vital female contribution to fertility and the sustenance of the universe.
Women played key roles in the performance of routines that upheld society as well as in transmission of values, teaching moderation and frugality. They exercised religious power as healers and midwives. Women could own property, and males and females inherited equally from their fathers and mothers. In the home, parents imposed strict discipline. The birth of a child occasioned celebration and florid speeches.
Babies received gifts according to gender: for females, there were weaving tools, cooking utensils, and brooms, while males were given bows and arrows and farming implements. When children were young some indiscretions were tolerated, but by the age of eight they were considered to be responsible and infractions brought harsh punishment. Although parents were ordinarily tender and loving, wayward children were castigated by whippings, scratching with thorns, or being forced to inhale the smoke of a fire into which chile peppers had been placed. Girls worked in the household until they were sixteen to eighteen, when they married; boys took mates in their early twenties. Marriage was sacred and monogamy was the rule, at least for commoners.
A morally rigorous aspect of Aztec society derives from how they conceptualized the sacred. Because alcohol and drugs provided paths for opening an individual up to the supernatural, ritual control of intoxicants such as pulque was deemed necessary to avoid dangerous displays of sacred power. Drunkenness could be a capital offense, although older people were allowed to become inebriated. Sexual activity and physical prowess also provided other vehicles of the sacred and, like alcohol and drugs, entailed strictly prescribed behaviors.
Aztec society demanded moral conformity, and violators of the code, as well as criminal offenders, were dealt with firmly. For minor offenses punishment was correspondingly light, as in the case of petty theft, which called for restitution of the property. Several offences, including murder, perjury, rape, abortion, incest, fraudulent business practices, grand larceny, and treason, could bring the death penalty. The Aztec legal system was complex, with multiple levels and arenas of jurisdiction that served different constituencies. Judges in the great marketplaces prepare the multitude maintained fairness in business transactions and settled disputes.
Selected for their integrity and virtue, judges had great authority and could arrest even the highest dignitaries, for before the law all were equal. Expected to be absolutely impartial, if a judge accepted a bribe or favoured a noble over a plebian, he could be executed. Aztec medical practices were generally equal to or as good as those in Europe and in some aspects, they were superior. Aztec medical doctors knew how to set broken bones and dislocations as well as treating dental cavities. They even knew how to performed brain operations.
Like their European counterparts, Aztec healers attributed diseases to both supernatural and natural causes. Also like Europeans, they practiced bleeding as a treatment, but their most common, and often effective, cures were plants, and pastes. Because Aztec society was largely agricultural in character, the daily routine of most people directly involved the growing of food. The diet remained much as it had been for centuries, with a base of corn, beans, chile, and squash. It also included, a wide variety, of other vegetables and melons, cactus fruit, and amaranth, in addition to many fruits imported from tropical regions.
Commoners ate some meat, but the nobles, who liked to hunt for sport, consumed more and of a great variety, for example, venison, peccary, pheasant, and turkey. A special treat was the small hairless dog fattened for the table. Cacao from the tropics was made into a chocolate drink, and traders brought avocados and many other exotic delicacies. Fish was a favorite when available.