Civilizations in America

Mexica / Aztecs


   The term, Aztec, is a startlingly imprecise term to describe the culture that dominated the Valley of Mexico in the fifteenth and sixteenth 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 either "Tenochca" or "Toltec," which was the name assumed by the bearers of the Classic Mesoamerican culture. The earliest we know about the Mexica is that they migrated from the north into the Valley of Mexico as early as the twelfth century AD, well after the close of the Classic Period in Mesoamerica. They were a subject and abject people, forced to live on the worst lands in the valley. They adopted the cultural patterns (called Mixteca-Pueblo) that originated in the culture of Teotihuacán, so the urban culture they built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is essentially a continuation of Teotihuacán culture.

   As stated in the section on the Toltecs, the peoples of Mesoamerica distinguished between two types of people: the Toltec (which means "craftsman"), who continued Classic urban culture, and the Chichimec, or wild people, who settled Mesoamerica from the north. The Mexica were, then, originally Chichimec when they migrated into Mexico, but eventually became Toltecs proper.

   The history of the Tenochca is among the best preserved of the Mesoamericans. They date the beginning of their history to 1168 and their origins to an island in the middle of a lake north of the Valley of Mexico. Their god, Huitzilopochtli, commanded them on a journey to the south and they arrived in the Valley of Mexico in 1248. According to their history, the Tenochca were originally peaceful, but their Chichimec ways, especially their practice of human sacrifice, revolted other peoples 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 the middle of the lake. The town they founded was Tenochtitlan, or "place of the Tenochcas."

Tenochtitlan Ruins, Mexico City
   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 peoples on the island and the Tenochcas began to build a city. The city of Tenochtitlan is founded, then, sometime between 1300 and 1375.

   The Tenochcas slowly 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 (1428-1440), and they began to build their city, Tenochtitlan, with great fervor. 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 (1440-1469) 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 religion.

   A succession of kings followed Mocteuzma I until the accession of Mocteuzma 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 territories and it is highly likely that Tenochca influence would eventually have declined by the middle of the sixteenth century. Most importantly, the reign of Mocteuzma II was interrupted by the invasion of the Spaniards under Cortez in 1519-1522. 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 political or territorial influence; the conqests only had to do with the payment of tribute. There was, then, a large group of subject peoples with no loyalty to Tenochtitlan and alot of hostility. Cortez conquered Tenochtitlan largely by using these enmities. 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, that they would be severely punished when they returned.

Economy and Society

   The economy of Tenochtitlan was built off of one overwhelming fact: the urban population on the island required high levels of economic support from surrounding areas. In its earliest history, Tenochtitlan was self-supporting; the village was small and agriculture was managed through the chinampa method of architecture, practiced widely throughout Mesoamerica. In the chinampa , flat reeds were placed in the shallow areas of the lake, covered with soil, and then cultivated. In this way, the Aztecs reclaimed much of the lake for agriculture. A large part of the city's population were farmers; at its height (100,000-300,000), at least half the population would leave the city in the morning to go farm and return in the evening.

   The city itself consisted of a large number of priests and craftspeople; the bulk of the economy rested on extensive trade of both necessary and luxury items. Tenochtitlan was a true urban center. It had a permanent population, it had a large and bustling market (the Spanish estimated that at least 60,000 people crowded the market), and it had the beginnings of economic class. For the kinship groups of the city were divided up into calpulli , many of which practiced a specific craft or trade, such as rope-making or pot-making. While there is a great deal of controversy over the precise nature of the capulli , it seems to be a transition point between kinship organization (the calpulli were kinship groups) and economic class (the calpulli specialized in particular crafts). In addition, the calpulli seemed to be arranged in ranks: there was the highest calpulli , another five calpulli that had schools for nobility, and then all the rest.

   The Aztecs did have two clearly differentiated social classes. At the bottom were the macehualles, or "commoners," and at the top the pilli, or nobility. These were not clearly differentiated by birth, for one could rise into the pilli by virtue of great skill and bravery in war.

   All male children went to school. At the age of 15, each male child went to telpuchcalli ("house of youth"), where he learned the history and religion of the Aztecs, the art of war and fighting, the trade or craft specific to his calpulli , and the religious and civic duties of everyday citizenship. The children of nobility also attended another school, a school of nobility or calmecac , if he was a member of one of the top six calpulli . There the child learned the religious duties of priests and its secret knowledge; for the distinction between government and religious duties was practically non-existent. This public education was only limited to boys.

   In Aztec society, women were regarded as the subordinate of men. Above everything else, they were required to behave with chastity and high moral standards. For the most part, all government and religious functions were closed off to women. In fact, one of the most important religious offices, the Snake Woman, was always filled by men. There were some temples and gods that had priestesses, who had their own schools, but their exact position in the hierarchy is unknown.

   Aztec laws were simple and harsh. Almost every crime, from adultery to stealing, was punished by death and other offenses usually involved severe corporal punishment or mutilation (the penalty for slander, for instance, was the loss of one's lips). This was not a totalitarian state, however; there was a strong sense of community among the Aztecs and these laws, harsh as they seem, were supported by the community rather than an autocratic judiciary.

   Slavery was common among the Aztecs; it was not, however, racial or permanent. One became a slave by being captured in war, by committing certain crimes, such as theft, by voluntarily entering into slavery, or by being sold by one's parents. If one was captured in war, slavery was a pleasant option, for the purpose of Aztec warfare was primarily the capture of live human sacrifices. If, however, one had a useful trade, the Tenochca would forego the sacrifice and employ the captive in that trade.

   There was little distinction between the religious and the secular hierarchy, although historians and anthropologists argue that the Aztecs developed farther than any other Mesoamerican group a secular aspect of society. At the very top of the hierarchy was the tlacatecuhtli , or "chief of men." He dominated all the religious ceremonies and served as a military leader. Below the tlacatecuhtli were a series of religious offices and some secular functions, such as military generals.


   The religion of the Aztecs was incredibly complicated, partly due to the fact that they inherited much of it from conquered peoples. Their religion was dominated by three gods: Huitzilopochtli ("hummingbird wizard," the native and chief god of the Tenochca, Huitzilopochtli was the war and sun god), Tezcatlipoca ("Smoking Mirror," chief god of the Aztecs in general), and Quetzalcoatl ("Sovereign Plumed Serpent," widely worshipped throughout Mesoamerica and the god of civilization, the priesthood, and learning). Below these three gods were four creating gods who were remote and aloof from the human world. Below these were an infinity of other gods, of which the most important were Tlaloc, the Rain God, Chalchihuitlicue, the god of growth, and Xipe, the "Flayed One," a god associated with spring.

The Wall of Skulls, Tenochtitlan

   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 Mesoamerican world, but the Tenochca practiced it at a scale never seen before or since. We don't know a great deal about the details, but we have a fairly good idea of its general character and justification. Throughout Mesoamerica, the theology involved the concept that the gods gave things to human beings only if they were nourished by human beings. 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. The Aztecs practiced all of these sacrifices, including blood-letting. But the Aztec theologians also developed the notion that the gods are best nourished by 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 sacrificial victims both captured in war and paid as tribute by a conquered people.

Great Temple Stairs, Mexico City
   We can successfully reconstruct Aztec human sacrifice with a high level of accuracy. Some sacrifices were very minimal, involving the sacrifice of a slave to a minor god, and some were very spectacular, involving hundreds or thousands of captives. Aztec history claims that Ahuitzotl (1468-1502), who preceded Mocteuzma II as king, sacrificed 20,000 people after a campaign in Oaxaca ("O-a-sha-ka"). 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 the officiant made an incision below the rib cage and pulled out the living heart. The heart was then burned and the corpse was pushed down the steep steps; a very brave or noble victim was carried down the steps. The most brutal of human sacrifices were those dedicated to the god Huehueteotl. Sacrificial victims were drugged and then thrown into a fire at the top of the ceremonial platform. Before they were killed by the fire, they were dragged out with hooks and their living hearts were pulled out and thrown back into the fire.

   While human sacrifice was the most dramatic element of Aztec sacrifice, the most common form of sacrifice was voluntary blood-letting which occurred at every religious function. Such blood-letting was tied to rank: the higher one was in social or priestly rank, the more blood one had to sacrifice.

   There was an urgency to all this sacrifice. The Aztec believed that the world was controlled by divine forces that were in constant conflict and opposition to one another. The universe was poised between conflicting forces of creation and destruction; human beings could, in part, influence this balance through the practice of sacrifice.

   In addition to sacrifice, the Aztec religion, like the Mayan religion, was dominated by calculations of time. The Aztecs had several calendars; each day was controlled by two gods, each of which had a benificient and a malevolent aspect. In a complex series of astronomical calculations, one could precisely determine how to behave and what to do in order to achieve the best results.

   It is not unfair to say that Aztec culture was overwhelmingly eschatological in a way that can only be rivalled by early Christianity. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, believed that the universe had been created five times and destroyed four times; each of these five eras was called a Sun. The first age was called Four Ocelot (for it began on the date called Four Ocelot). Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) dominated the universe and eventually became the sun disk. The world was destroyed by jaguars. The second age was Four Wind, dominated by Quetzalcoatl (Sovereign Plumed Serpent); men were turned to monkeys and the world was destroyed by hurricanes and tempests. The third age was Four Rain, dominated by Tlaloc (the rain god); the world was destroyed by a rain of fire. The fourth era was Four Water and was dominated by Chalchihuitlicue (Woman with the Turquoise Skirt); the world was destroyed by a flood. The fifth era, the one we live in now, is Four Earthquake, and is dominated by Tonatiuh, the Sun-God. This age will end in earthquakes.

   The Aztecs had two calendars: the ritual year and the solar year. The ritual year lasted for 260 days and the solar year lasted for 365 days. Every fifty-two years these two calendars would resynchronize; the Aztecs, then, lived in 52-year cycles. In Aztec religion, the destruction of every era always occurred on the last day of each 52 year cycle (although each era lasted for several of these cycles). Every 52 years, then, the Aztecs believed that the world was about to end and the close of the 52 year cycle was the most important religious event in Aztec life for this period was the most dangerous period in human life. This was the time when the gods could decide to destroy humanity. Every cycle ended with the New Fire Ceremony. For five days before the end of the cycle, all religious altar fires were extinguished and people all over the Aztec world destroyed furniture and possessions and went into mourning for the world. On the last day, the priests went to the Hill of the Star, a crater in the Valley of Mexico, and waited for the constellation of the Pleiades to appear. If it appeared, that meant that the world would continue for fifty-two more years. The priests would light a fire in an animal carcass, and all the fires of the Valley of Mexico would be lit from this single fire. The day after saw sacrifices, blood-letting, feasting, and renovation of possessions and houses.


   We can barely read Mayan writing, but we do know how 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: calculation, calendrical counts, chronicles, diaries, and even history. This is why we know far more about Aztec history before 1500—and in far greater chronological 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.

Richard Hooker

Chacmool, Tenochtitlan

World Cultures

�1996, Richard Hooker

For information contact: Richard Hines
Updated 6-6-1999