- The word "Aztec" is usually used as a historical term, although some contemporary Nahuatl speakers would consider themselves Aztecs. This article deals with the historical Aztec civilization, not with modern-day Nahuatl speakers.
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th century. It was a tribe with a rich mythology and cultural heritage.
In Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, "Aztec" means "someone who comes from Aztlán", a mythical place in northern Mexico. However, the Aztec referred to himself as Mexica (IPA [meˈʃihkah], SAMPA [me"Sihkah]) or Tenochca. The modern usage of the name Aztec as a collective term, applied to all the peoples linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state, the Triple Alliance, was suggested by Alexander von Humboldt.
"Mexica", the origin of the word Mexico, is a term of uncertain origin. Some say it was the old Nahuatl word for the sun. Others say it was derived from the name of their leader Mexitli. Yet others say it is just a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. Miguel León-Portilla suggests that it means "navel of the moon" from Nahuatl metztli (moon) and xictli (navel). Alternatively, it could mean navel of the maguey (Nahuatl metl).
Legends and traditions
Aztec culture is generally grouped with the cultural complex known as the "nahuas," because of the common language. According to legend, the various groups who were to become the Aztecs arrived from the north into the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco. The location of this valley and lake of destination is clear -- it is the heart of modern Mexico City -- but little can be known with certainty about the origin of the Aztecs.
In the legend, the ancestors of the Aztecs came from a place in the north called Aztlán, the last of seven nahuatlacas (Nahuatl-speaking tribes) to make the journey southward. The Aztecs were said to be guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, meaning "Left-handed Hummingbird". When they arrived at an island in the lake, they saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a nopal cactus, a vision that fulfilled a prophecy telling them that they should found their new home on that spot. The Aztecs built their city of Tenochtitlán on that site, building a great artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This legendary vision is pictured on the Mexican flag.
According to legend, when the Aztecs arrived in the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco, they were considered by the other nahuas as the least civilized of all, but the Aztecs decided to learn, and they took all they could from other peoples, especially from the ancient Toltecs (whom they seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization Teotihuacan). To the Aztecs, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayotl" was a synonym for "culture." Aztec legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythic city of "Tollan", which they also seem to have identified with the more ancient "Teotihuacan".
Because the Aztecs combined several traditions with their own earlier traditions, they had several creation myths; one of these describes four great ages preceding the present world, each of which ended in a catastrophe. Our age -- Nahui-Ollin, the fifth age, or fifth creation -- escaped destruction due to the sacrifice of a god (nanahuatl, "full of sores", the smallest and humblest of the gods) who was transformed into the Sun. This myth is associated with the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which was already destroyed when the Aztecs arrived. Another myth describes the earth as a creation of the twin gods, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process of creating the world and all representations of these gods show him without a foot and with a bone exposed. Quetzalcoatl is also called "White Tezcatlipoca."
(See also separate article: Aztec mythology)
Rise of Aztecs
An Aztec calendar stone
There were twelve rulers of Tenochtitlán:
Initially, the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries in wars between Toltecs. Eventually they gained enough glory to receive royal marriages. Mexica rulers Acamapichtili, Huitzilíhuitl and Chimalpopoca were, in 1372-1427, vassals of Tezozomoc, a lord of the Tepanec nahua.
When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca, whose uncle Itzcóatl allied with ex-ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, and besieged Maxtla's capital Azcapotzalco. Maxtla surrendered after 100 days and went into exile. Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan formed an alliance that came to dominate the Valley of Mexico, and then extended its power beyond. Tenochtitlán gradually became the dominant power in the alliance.
Itzcóatl's nephew Motecuhzoma I inherited the throne in 1449 and expanded the realm. His son Axayacatl (1469) surrounding kingdom of Tlatelolco. His sister was married to the Tlatoani of Tlatelolco, but, as a pretext for war, he declared that she was mistreated. He went on to conquer Matlazinca and the cities of Tollocan, Ocuillan, and Mallinalco. He was defeated by the tarascos in Tzintzuntzan (the first great defeat the Aztecs had ever suffered), but recovered and took control of the Huasteca region, conquering the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.
In 1481 Axayacatl's son Tízoc ruled briefly before he was replaced by his younger brother Ahuitzol who had reorganized the army. The empire was at its largest during his reign. His successor was Motecuhzoma II (better known as Moctezuma II), emperor when the Spaniards arrived in 1519.
The Aztec Empire is not completely analogous to the empires of European history. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more a system of tribute than a single system of government. Arnold Toynbee in War and Civilisation analogizes it to the Assyrian Empire in this respect.
The most important official of Tenochtitlán government is often called The Aztec Emperor. The general Nahuatl title for such a position, huey tlatoque, translates roughly as "Great Chief"; the Tlatoque were an upper class. The huey tlatoque of the Aztecs was also known as the tlatoani ("Speaker") or huey tlatoani ("Great Speaker"). This office gradually took on more power with the rise of Tenochtitlán, and by the time of Auitzotl "Emperor" is an appropriate analogy; like in the Holy Roman Empire, the title was not hereditary.
Most of the Aztec empire was forged by one man, Tlacaelel (Nahuatl for "manly heart"). Although he was offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, he preferred to stay behind the throne. Nephew of tlatoani Itzcóatl, and brother of Chimalpopoca and Motecuhzoma I Ilhuicamina, his title was "Cihuacoatl" (in honor of the goddess, roughly "counselor"), but as reported in the Ramirez Codex, "what Tlacaellel ordered, was as soon done". He gave the Aztec government a new structure, he ordered the burning of most Aztec books, (his explanation being that they were full of lies) and he rewrote their history. As well, Tlacaelel reformed Aztec religion, by putting the tribal god Huitzilopochtli at the same level as the old nahuas gods, Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. Tlacaelel thus created an historic conscience for the Aztecs. He also created the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving. Some writers believe upper classes were aware of this forgery, which would explain the later actions of Moctezuma when he met Hernán Cortés (a.k.a. Cortez). But eventually this institution helped to cause the fall of the Aztec empire. The people of Tlaxcalla were spared conquest, at the price of participating in the flower wars. When Cortez came to know this, he approached them and they became his allies. The Tlaxcaltec provided thousands of men to support the few hundred Spaniards. The Aztec strategy of war was based on the capture of prisoners by individual warriors, not on working as a group to kill the enemy in battle. By the time the Aztecs came to recognize what warfare meant in European terms, it was too late.
- For further details, see Tlatoani.
The Aztec Society
The society traditionally was divided into two social classes; the macehualli (people) or peasantry and the pilli or nobility. Nobility was not originally hereditary, although the sons of pillis had access to better resources and education, so it was easier for them to become pillis. Eventually, this class system took on the aspects of a hereditary system. The Aztec military had an equivalent to military service with a core of professional warriors. An Aztec became a pilli through his abilities in war. Only those that had taken prisoners could become full-time warriors, and eventually the honors and spoils of war would make them pillis. Once an Aztec warrior had captured 4 or 5 captives, he would be called Tequiua and could attain a rank of Eagle or Jaguar knight, sometimes translated as "captain", eventually he could reach the rank of Tlacateccatl or Tlachochcalli. To be elected as Tlatoani, one was required to have taken about 17 captives in war. When Aztec boys attained the age of majority, they stopped cutting their hair, until they took their first captive; sometimes two or three youths united to get their first captive; then they would be called iyac. If after certain time, usually three combats, they could not gain a captive, they became macehualli; it was shameful to be a warrior with long hair, indicating lack of captives; one would prefer to be a macehualli.
The abundance of tributes led to the emergence and rise of a third class that was not part of the traditional Aztec society: pochtecas or traders. Their activities were not only commercial: they also were an effective intelligence gathering force. They were scorned by the warriors, who nonetheless sent to them their spoils of war in exchange for blankets, feathers, slaves, and other presents.
In the later days of the empire, the concept of macehualli also had changed. Eduardo Noguera (Annals of Antropology, UNAM, Vol. xi, 1974, p. 56) estimates only 20% of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. Most of the macehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts. Tenochtitlán had an area of 8 square kilometers. There is no agreement on the estimated population of the city. Most authorities prefer a conservative 80,000 to 130,000 inhabitants, still bigger than most European cities of the time, surpassed only by Constantinople with about 200,000 inhabitants, Paris with about 185,000, and Venice with about 130,000.  (http://geography.about.com/library/weekly/aa011201d.htm). Eduardo Noguera estimated 50,000 houses and 300,000 inhabitants. Soustelle gives an estimate of 700,000 people, if the populations of Tlatelolco and the small satellite cities and islets around Tenochtitlán are included. Tlatelolco was originally an independent city, but it became a suburb of Tenochtitlán.
The city was divided into 4 zones or campan, each campan was divided on 20 districts (calpullis), and each calpulli was crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were 3 main streets that crossed the city and extended to firm land; Bernal reported it was wide enough for 10 horses. The calpullis were divided by channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night. It was in trying to cross these channels that the Spaniards lost most of the gold they had acquired from Moctezuma.
Each calpulli had some specialty in arts and craft. When each calpulli offered some celebration, they tried to outdo the other calpullis. Even today, in the south part of Mexico City, the communal organizations in charge of the festivities in the churches are called "calpullis".
Each calpulli had his own Tianquiztli (marketplace), but there was also a big marketplace in Tlatelolco. Cortez estimated it was twice the size of the city of Seville with about 60,000 people, trading daily, Sahagun give us a more conservative 20,000 daily and 40,000 in festive days. Aztecs had no coins, so most trade was made in goods, but cacao was so appreciated, it was used as an equivalent of coins. Gold had no intrinsic value: it was considered as a raw material for crafts. Gold jewellery had value, but raw gold had little. For the Aztecs, the destruction of objects to get a few pieces of gold was incomprehensible.
There were also specialized Tianquiztli in the small towns around Tenochtitlán. In Chollolan, there were jewels, fine stones, and feathers, in Texcoco there were clothes, in Aculma was the dog market. The Aztecs had three special breeds of dogs with no hair, of which only one survives. They were the tepezcuintli, the itzcuitepotzontli and the xoloizcuintli. These hairless dogs were mainly for eating and also were offerings for sacrifice. The Aztecs also had normal dogs for company.
In the center of the city were the public buildings, temples and schools. Inside a walled square, 300 meters to a side, was the ceremonial center, there were about 45 public buildings, the main temple, the temple of Quetzalcoatl, the ball game, the Tzompantli or rack of skulls, the temple of the sun, the platforms for the gladiatorial sacrifice, and some minor temples. Outside was the palace of Moctezuma, with 100 rooms, each one with its own bath, for the lords and ambassadors of the allies and conquered people. Near, also was the Cuicalli or house of the songs, and the Calmecac. The city had a great symmetry. All constructions had to be approved by the Calmimilocatl, a functionary in charge of the city planning. No one could invade the streets and channels.
The palace of Moctezuma also had two houses or Zoos, one for birds of prey and other for other birds, reptiles and mammals. About three hundred people were dedicated to the care of the animals. There was also a botanical garden and an aquarium. The aquarium had ten ponds of salt water and ten ponds of clear water, containing fishes and aquatic birds. Places like this also existed in Texcoco, Chapultepec, Huastepec (now called Oaxtepec) and Tezcutzingo.
Bernal was amazed to find latrines in private houses and a public latrine in the Tianquiztli and main streets. Small boats went through the city collecting garbage, and the excrement was collected to be sold as fertilizer. About 1,000 men were dedicated to cleaning the city's streets.
For public purposes, and to be able to set the pace of official business, six times a day; at sunrise, once again in the morning, at midday, again in the afternoon, after sunset, and at midnight; trumpets were played from the tops of the temples.
Although the lake was salty, dams built by the Aztecs kept the city surrounded by clear water from the rivers that fed the lake. Two double aqueducts provided the city with fresh water; this was intended mainly for cleaning and washing. For drinking, water from mountain springs was preferred. Most of the population liked to bathe twice a day; Moctezuma was reported to take four baths a day. As soap they used the root of a plant called copalxocotl (saponaria americana); to clean their clothes they used the root of metl. Also, the upper classes and pregnant women enjoyed the temazcalli, which was similar to a sauna bath and is still used in the south of Mexico; this was also popular in other Mesoamerican cultures.
Sahagun reports that the city also had beggars (only crippled people were allowed to beg), thieves and prostitutes. At night, in the dark alleys one could find scantily clad ladies with heavy makeup (they also painted their teeth), chewing tzicli (chicle, the original chewing gum) noisily to attract clients. There seem to have been another kind of women, ahuianis, who had sexual relations with the warriors. The Spaniards were surprised because they did not charge for their work, so perhaps they had other means of support.
Although one could drink pulque, a fermented beverage, with an alcoholic content equivalent to beer, getting drunk before the age of 60 was forbidden under death penalty.
Like in modern Mexico, the Aztecs had strong passions over a ball game, but this in their case it was tlachtli, the Aztec variant of the Ulama game, the ancient ball game of Mesoamerica. The game was played with a ball of solid rubber, about the size of a human head. The ball was called "olli", whence derives the Spanish word for rubber, "hule". The city had two special buildings for the ball games. The players hit the ball with their hips. The had to pass the ball through a stone ring. The fortunate player that could do this had the right to take the blankets of the public, so his victory was followed by general running of the public, with screams and laughter. People used to bet on the results of the game. Poor people could bet their food, pillis could bet their fortunes, Tecutlis (lords) could bet their concubines or even their cities, and those who had nothing could bet their freedom and risk becoming slaves.
Slaves or tlacotin (distinct from war captives) also constituted an important class. This slavery was very different from what Europeans of the same period were to establish in their colonies, although it had more in common with the slaves of classical antiquity. (Sahagun doubts the appropriateness even of the term "slavery" for this Aztec institution.) First, slavery was personal, not hereditary: a slave's children were free. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. A slave could buy his/her liberty. Any slave could be set free if he or she could show he/she was mistreated, or if he/she had children or married with his/her master.
Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance.
Another rather remarkable method for a slave to recover liberty was described by Manuel Orozco y Berra in La civilizacion Azteca (1860): if, at the Tianquiztli (marketplace), a slave could escape the vigilance of his or her master, run outside the walls of the market and step on a piece of human excrement, he could then present his case to the judges, who would free him. He or she would then be washed, provided with new clothes (so that he or she would not be wearing clothes belonging to the master), and declared free. Because, in stark contrast to the European colonies, a person could be declared a slave if he or she attempted to prevent the escape of a slave (unless that person were a relative of the master), others would not typically help the master in preventing the slave's escape.
Orozco y Berra also reports that a master could not sell a slave without the slave's consent, unless the slave had been classified as incorrigible by an authority. (Incorrigibility could be determined on the basis of repeated laziness, attempts to run away, or general bad conduct.) Incorrigible slaves were made to wear a wooden collar, affixed by rings at the back. The collar was not merely a symbol of bad conduct: it was designed to made it harder to run away through a crowd or through narrow spaces.
When buying a collared slave, one was informed of how many times that slave had been sold. A slave who was sold four times as incorrigible could be sold to be sacrificed; those slaves commanded a premium in price.
However, if a collared slave could manage to present him- or herself in the royal palace or in a temple, he or she would regain liberty.
An Aztec could became slave as a punishment. A murderer sentenced to death could instead, upon the request of the wife of his victim, be given to her as a slave. A father could sell his son into slavery if the son was declared incorrigible by an authority. Those who did not pay their debts could also be sold as slaves.
People could sell themselves as slaves. They could stay free long enough to enjoy the price of their liberty, about twenty blankets, usually enough for a year; after that time they went to their new master. Usually this was the destiny of the gamblers and of the old ahuini (courtesan/prostitute).
Motolinia reports that some captives, future victims of sacrifice, were treated as slaves with all the rights of an Aztec slave until the time of their sacrifice, but it is not clear how they were kept from running away.
Until the age of fourteen, the education of children was in the hands of their parents. There was a collection of sayings, called Huhuetlatolli ("The sayings of the old"), that represented the Aztec's ideals. It included speeches and sayings for every occasion, the words to salute the birth of children, and to say farewell at death. Fathers admonished their daughters to be very clean, but not to use makeup, because they would look like Ahuianis. Mothers admonished their daughters to support their husbands, even if they turn out to be humble peasants. Boys were admonished to be humble, obedient and hard workers.
Male children went to school at age 15. There were two types of educational institutions. The telpochcalli taught history, religion, military fighting arts, and a trade or craft (e.g. agriculture and handicrafts). The calmecac, attended mostly by the sons of pillis, was focused on turning out leaders (tlatoques), priests, scholars/teachers (tlatimini), and codex painters (tlacuilos). They studied rituals, the reading of the codex, the calendary, songs (poetry), and, as at the telpochcalli, military fighting arts.
Aztec teachers propounded a spartan regime of education -- cold baths in the morning, hard work, physical punishment, bleeding with maguey thorns and endurance tests -- with the purpose of forming a stoical people.
There is contradictory information about whether calmecac was reserved for the sons and daughters of the pillis; some accounts said they could chose where to study. It is possible that the common people preferred the tepochcalli, because a warrior could advance more readily by his military abilities; becoming a priest or a tlacuilo was not a way to rise rapidly from a low station.
Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child raising. They were not taught to read or write.
There were also two other opportunities for those who few who had talent. Some were chosen for the house of song and dance, and others were chosen for the ball game. Both occupations had high status.
The Aztecs created artificial islands or chinampas on Lake Texcoco, on which they cultivated crops. The Aztecs' staple foods included maize, beans and squash. It is interesting to note that much has been said about a lack of proteins in the Aztec diet, but there is little evidence to support it. First, it should be noted that a combination of maize and beans provides the full quota of essential amino acids, so there is no need for animal proteins; also, they cultivated amaranth for its seeds, which have a high protein content. More important is that they had a wider variety of foods: they harvested acocils, a small and abundant shrimp of Lake Texcoco, also spirulina algae, rich in flavonoids, and they ate insects, such as crickets (chapulines), maguey worms, ants, larvae, etc. Insects have a higher protein content than meat, and even now they are considered a delicacy in some parts of Mexico.
They also used maguey extensively; from it they obtain food, sugar (aguamiel), drink (pulque), and fibers for ropes and clothing. Use of cotton and jewelry was restricted to the elite. Cocoa grains were used as money. Subjugated cities paid annual tribute in form of luxury goods like feathers and adorned suits.
For the Europeans, human sacrifice was the most striking feature of Aztec civilization. Human sacrifice was widespread at this time in Mesoamerica and South America, but the Aztecs practiced it on an uncommon scale, sacrificing victims on each of their 18 festivities.
For the construction of the main temple, they reported that they sacrificed about 84,400 prisoners in four days. How a city of 80,000 people could take, accommodate and dispose of that many prisoners is not clear, especially since they reported that Ahuitzotl sacrificed them personally. This translates into about 17 sacrifices per minute, for 24 hours over 4 days. Some scholars believe that it is more probable that only 3,000 sacrifices took place and the death toll was drastically inflated by war propaganda.
Another figure used is from Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Spanish soldier who wrote his account of the conquest 50 years after the fact. In the description of the Tzompantli, a rack of skulls of the victims, of the main temple, he reports to have counted about 100,000 skulls. However, to accommodate that many skulls, the Tzompantli would have had a length of several kilometers, instead of the 30 meters reported. Modern reconstructions account for about 600 to 1,200 skulls. Similarly, Díaz claimed there were 60,000 skulls in the Tzompantli of Tlatelolco, which was as important as that of Tenochtitlán. According to William Arens in The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (1979, ISBN 0195027930), excavations by archeologists found 300 skulls.
Bernardino de Sahagún, Juan Bautista de Pomar and Motolinía report that the Aztecs had 18 festivities each year. Motolinia and Pomar clearly state that only in those festivities sacrifices were made. Each god required a different kind of victim, young women were drowned for Xilonen, sick male children were sacrificed to Tlaloc (Juan Carlos Román: 2004 Museo del templo mayor), nahuatl speaking prisoners to Huitzilopochtli, or a volunteer for Tezcatlipoca. Not all these sacrifices were made on the great temple, a few were made in "Cerro del Peñon" an islet of the Texcoco lake . This could put a figure as low as 300 to 600 victims a year, but Marvin Harris multiplies it by 20, assuming that the same sacrifices were made in every one of the sections or Calpullis of the city. There is little agreement on the actual figure.
Aztecs waged "flower wars" to capture prisoners for sacrifices they called nextlaualli, "debt payment to the gods" so that the sun could survive each cycle of 52 years.
It is not known if the Aztecs engaged in human sacrifice before they reached the Anahuac valley and acquired and absorbed other cultures. The first human sacrifice reported by them was dedicated to Xipe Totec a deity from the north of Mesoamerica. Aztec chronicles reported human sacrifice began as an institution in the year "five knieves" or 1484 under Tizoc, under Tlacaelel guidance, human sacrifice became important part of the Aztec culture, not only because of religious reasons, but also for political reasons.
As Laurette Sejourne comments, the human sacrifice would also put a strain in the Aztec culture. They admired the Toltec culture, and claimed to be followers of Quetzalcoatl, but the cult of Quetzalcoatl forbids human sacrifice, and as Sejourne points, there were hash penalties for those who dare to scream or faint during a ceremony.
It is interesting to note that there are no pre-Cortesian representations of human sacrifice, of Aztec origin, all known were depicted several years after the conquest. Although the destruction of Aztec codex could explain that. Also, of the two possible witnesses who wrote on human sacrifice, Cortez and Bernal, Cortez wrote on the subject: "it could be that I am mistaken on this relation, since a lot of this had not been seen, except by information of the natives" (Letter to Charlex V, 10 July 1519).
There is a great gap between what has been written on this subject, and what is really known.
While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether they also practiced cannibalism and, if so, to what extent. At one extreme, Materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris, who wrote about cannibalism in Our Kind and Cannibals and Kings has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to him, the Aztec economy couldn't support feeding them as slaves, so the columns of prisoners were "marching meat". At the other extreme, William Arens doubts whether there was ever any systematic cannibalism.
While most historians of Mesoamerica believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet.
There is little documentation of Aztec cannibalism. There are only four accounts of cannibalism from the date of the conquest, none of them particularly suggestive of widespread ritual cannibalism, and only one -- the Ramirez codex -- (equivocally) tying cannibalism to ritual sacrifice. The four specific accounts of cannibalism are:
- Cortez wrote in one of his letters that his soldiers had captured an Aztec who had a roasted baby ready for breakfast.
- Gomarra, reported that during the siege of Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards had asked the Aztec to surrender since they had no food. The Aztecs answered, asking the Spaniards to try to attack, so they could be taken as prisoners, and then served with "molli" sauce.
- In the books of Bernardino de Sahagún, there is an illustration of an Aztec being cooked by an unknown tribe. This was reported as one of the dangers that Aztec traders faced.
- The Ramirez codex, written by an Aztec after the conquest using European characters, reports that after the sacrifices the flesh from the hands of the victim were given as gift to the warrior who made the capture. According to the codex this was supposedly eaten, but was in fact discarded and replaced with turkey.
It is not clear how trustworthy the Ramirez codex is on this topic, but it is at least interesting that the one account by an Aztec of supposed cannibalism following ritual sacrifice claims that the apparent cannibalism was a sham. This is congruent with the Laurette Séjourné and Miguel León-Portilla's theory that the upper classes were aware that the religion created by Tlacalel was something of a forgery.
Despite this paucity of contemporary sources, accounts of the Aztec Empire as a "Cannibal Kingdom" (Marvin Harris's expression) have been commonplace, from Bernal Díaz to Marvin Harris, William H. Prescott, and Michael Harner. Harner has accused his colleagues -- especially those in Mexico -- of diminishing or hiding evidence of Aztec cannibalism. The question, of course, is whether such evidence exists to be hidden. Even Díaz (who participated as a soldier in the conquest of Mexico) does not claim to have been an eyewitness to cannibalism. It is possible that Aztec cannibalism was simply a libel by the victorious Spanish.
Dominican priest Diego Durán's Historia de las Indias de Nueva España y islas de tierra firme, while clearly a useful source of information (he had access to the survivors of Tenochtitlán), must be doubted on the subject of human sacrifice. Apparently combining a blood libel against the Aztecs with that against the Jews, he argued that the Aztecs were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and adduced human sacrifice and cannibalism as part of his evidence.  (http://www.jqjacobs.net/anthro/cannibalism.html)
Poetry was the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior in times of peace. A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some cases, we know names of individual authors, such as Netzahualcoyotl, Tolatonai of Texcoco and Cuacuatzin, Lord of Tepechpan. Miguel León-Portilla, the most renowned translator of Nahuatl, comments that is in this poetry where we can find the real thought of the Aztecs, independent of "official" Aztec ideology.
In the basement of the Great Temple there was the "house of the eagles", where an Aztec captains in peacetime could drink a foaming chocolate, smoke good cigars, and have poetry contests. The poetry was accompanied by percussion instruments (teponaztli). Recurring themes in this poetry are whether life is real or a dream, whether there is an afterlife, and whether we can approach the giver of life.
- Zan te te yenelli
- aca zan tlahuaco
- in ipal nemoani
- In cuix nelli ciox amo nelli?
- Quen in conitohua
- in ma oc on nentlamati
- in toyollo....
- zan no monenequi
- in ipal nemoani
- Ma oc on nentlamati
- in toyollo
- Is it you?, are you real?
- Some had talked nonsense
- oh, you, by whom everything lives,
- Is it real?, Is it not real?
- This is how they say it
- Do not have anguish
- in our hearths!
- I will make disdainful
- oh, you, by whom everything lives,
- Do not have anguish
- in our hearths!
- -- Netzahualcoyotl, lord of Texcoco
The most important collection of these poems is Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar. This volume was later translated into Spanish by Angel Maria Garibay K., teacher of León-Portilla. Bautista de Pomar was the great grandson of Netzahualcoyotl. He spoke Nahuatl, but was raised as Christian and wrote in Latin characters.
The Aztec people, also enjoyed a type of dramatization, although it could not be called theatre. Some were comical with music and acrobats, others were staged dramas of their gods. After the conquest, the first Christian churches had open chapels reserved for this kind of representations. Plays in Nahuatl, written by converted Indians, were an important instrument for the conversion to Christianity, and are still found today in the form of traditional pastorelas, which are played during Christmas to show the Adoration of Baby Jesus, and other Biblical passages.
For more on the conquest of Mexico by Spain, see also Hernán Cortés.
The Aztecs were conquered by Spain in 1521, when after long battle and a long siege where much of the population died from hunger and smallpox, Cuauhtémoc surrendered to Hernán Cortés (a.k.a. "Cortez"). Cortez, with his up to 500 Spaniards, did not fight alone but with as many as 150,000 - 200,000 allies from Tlaxcala, and eventually from Texcoco, who were resisting Aztec rule. He defeated Tenochtitlán's forces on August 13, 1521.
An anonymous Aztec poet wrote:
- How can we save our homes, my people
- The Aztecs are deserting the city
- The city is in flames and all
- is darkness and destruction
- Weep my people
- Know that with these disasters
- We have lost the Mexican nation
- The water has turned bitter
- Our food is bitter
- These are the acts of the Giver of Life.
- -- From the Informantes Anonimos de Tlatelolco, compiled in 1521.
But even in this moment, most of the other Mesoamerican cultures were intact. The Tlaxcaltec expected to get their part, Purepechas and Mixtecs probably were happy of the defeat of their longtime enemy and it was the same for other cultures.
It seem that the intention of Cortez was to maintain the structure of the Aztec empire, and at first it seemed the Aztec empire could survive. The upper classes at first were considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family), they learned Spanish, and several learned to write in European characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. Also, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, decided to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture.
A record survives of a dialogue between the last "Tlatiminine" or wise men, and the missionaries, where the Aztec try to defend their ways, this reflects the sadness of their defeat:
- Lords, respected lords: You have traveled much to get to this land.
- Here in front of you,
- we contemplate you, we ignorant people...
- And now, what are we going to tell you?
- What is what we must address to your hears?
- Are we something indeed?
- We are just vulgar people...
- By means of a translator we will answer,
- we will return the breath and the word
- about the lord of the near and far. (ometeotl /omecihualt)
- It's by his word, that we risk ourselves,
- that we put ourselves in danger...
- Maybe this is our loss,
- maybe is our destruction,
- where are going to be taken?
- Where should we go?
- We are vulgar people
- we are perishable, we are mortal.
- Let us die, let us perish,
- since our gods are dead.
- But there should be peace on your
- hearts and your body,
- we will break a little,
- we will show a little,
- the secret, the ark of the lord, our God
- You said
- that we did not know
- about the lord of the near and far,
- about of one who created earth and sky.
- you said
- That our gods are not true.
- This is a new word,
- this that you spoken.
- This is why we are disturbed,
- this is why we are annoyed.
- Because our ancestors,
- the ones that had been,
- the ones that had lived on this earth,
- they did not speak like that.
- They give us the ways of life,
- they take by true,
- they give cult,
- they honored the gods......
- they teach us the ways of the cult,
- all the ways to honored the gods.
- That way we put the mouth on earth,
- by them we bleed us,
- we accomplished our votes,
- we burn copal
- and offered sacrifice.
- We know to whom we owe life.
- To whom we owe birth,
- to whom we owe to be beget
- to whom we owe to grow,
- and how to invoke...
- Hear milords
- do not harm your people.
- Do not let disgrace to be carried,
- to let it perish...
- tranquil, and friendly,
- take this account, milords,
- of what is needed.
- Here are the one who rule us,
- the ones that take us,
- the one that have the world in charge.
- Is it not enough that we are defeated?
- that we are taken away?
- that we are taken from our rulers?
- If in this place we are to stand,
- we will be prisoners.
- So Do with us what you want,
- This is what we have spoken,
- what we answered,
- to your breath,
- to your word,
- oh lords!
But soon all changed. The second wave of missionaries and authorities showed an apparently profound hatred for every aspect of the Mesoamerican cultures and began a process to wipe them out. Eventually, the Indians were forbidden not only to learn of their cultures, but to learn to read and write in Spanish, and, under the law, they had the status of minors.
It has been reported that epidemics of smallpox and typhus killed up to 75% of population. The population at the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; seventy years after the conquest, the estimated population was 3 million. Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán.
Information about Aztecs survives in contemporary sources like Codex Mendoza collected in 1541 and in the works of Bernardino de Sahagún, who worked with the surviving Aztec wise men.
Nahuatl is still spoken by Mexican Indians.
- Aztecs / Nahuatl / Tenochtitlán (http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/troufs/anth3618/maaztec.html): Ancient Mesoamerica resources at University of Minnesota Duluth
- Aztec page in English at Universidad de Guadalajara (http://mexico.udg.mx/historia/precolombinas/ingles/Azteca/)
- Article in Spanish about Sacrifice to Tláloc (http://www.todito.com/paginas/noticias/149568.html)