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. Their magnificent empire was destroyed by the Spaniards 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 world view.
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 ery 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 he 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 iant heart of the Aztecs empire. To make a large capital city, many things had to be done to the land before they began building. The middle of a lake was not exactly the best place to build a city. There had to be some way for the Aztecs to increase their land area. Since Lake Texcoco was a shallow lake, it was more or less easy for the Aztecs to build up the land to make artificial islands.
The Aztecs called this process chinampas and it was basically just piling up mud from the lake bottom to make marshy islands. Causeways and bridges were built to connect the city to the mainland, aqueducts were onstructed, and canals were dug throughout the city for easy transportation of people and goods. Tenochtitlan was also located near the powerful city-states Texcoco and Tlateloco. Religious structures dominated the landscape, the most amazing of which was the giant stepped, limestone faced pyramids on which temples were erected.
The most amazing of which were the imposing pyramids of the Sun and the Moon along the Avenue of the Dead. At the heart of the city was a walled sacred precinct somewhat similar to the forbidden city of China. The precinct was dominated by the Temple Mayor, a massive pyramid opped with dual temples dedicated to the god of rain and the god of the sun. Temples dedicated to other gods along with schools for the nobility, living quarters for priests, and a ritual ballcourt was also located in the precinct. The precinct contained as many as 78 buildings and must have been immense.
Adjacent to the sacred precinct was the palace of Montezuma the palace had numerous rooms and apartments, large open courtyards, storage rooms, judicial chambers, servants’ quarters, beautiful gardens, an aviary and a zoo. The rest of Tenochtitlan stretched into the lake covering artificial islands connected by canals and ridges. The people of Tenochtitlan had a calendar and a system of numbers, and practiced a form of hieroglyphic writing. They also made astronomical observations which they applied to the orientation of their monuments and their system of divination.
Goods were brought to the city by tribute agreements with territories, and many goods were exported to be traded with other parts of the Aztecs Empire and Central America. As a result of its location and superior organization, the city flourished. By the time the Spanish led their conquest, the great market was attracting up to 60,000 people daily. In 1519, over 1 million people inhabited the Valley of Mexico. As many as 300,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan at this time. People from all corners of the Empire were drawn to this strange and beautiful city. Artists came to employ their skills in the service of the ruler.
Warriors won fame and fortune in battles of conquest. Traders with their caravans carried exotic treasures to the great marketplace. Foreign rulers paid state visits to the court of Montezuma. In the market, people traded for everyday things, not for luxury items. In the city center, citizens listened to priests, ent to the healers, dined on their favorite foods from the market, and visited with friends and relatives. It was truly a remarkable place. 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 ncient 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 layed 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 or a popular game called lachtli, that 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. The priests also played a large part of Aztecs religion. The priests led the people in the offering of blood sacrifice to the sun god, Huiziloposhtli, both from their own bodies and from the sacrificial victims. The priests also taught the dances, music and drama that were used in the ceremonies. Thousands of priests served Aztec religion in temples. All priests followed a highly structured daily routine.
These duties included many things such as, sweeping the temples, making offerings to the gods, burning incense, keeping the temple fires burning, fasting, and performing self-sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl. Patricia de Fuentes, a highly regarded Aztecs research scientist describes the priests- ‘The priests went about… blackened and wasted and haggard of face. They wore their hair hanging down very long… so that it covered them… At night they walked like a procession of phantoms to the hills where they had their temples and idols and houses of worship. The priests must have indeed been intriguing to see.