Even with their war-like ways, the amazing Aztec culture and empire only lasted roughly two hundred years. The name Aztec comes from the world Aztlan, which means ‘white land’, and probably stems from their like place of origin in northern Mexico. The Aztec culture and way of life began in 1325, with the establishment of the capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan. Through conquests and allies, by 1519 when the Spanish invaded, the Aztecs had reached a population of roughly 6 million people, and Tenochtitlan was almost the size of London.
Their Gods, Stories and Myths
The Aztecs believed that the current sun was actually the ‘fifth sun’. The four suns that had come previously, and all the people who had lived underneath then, had died long ago. The first sun people were all eaten by ocelots, a cat-like creature. The second sun was of air, and the people who lived then were all turned into monkeys. Under the third sun, the sun of fire, everyone died except the birds died, who managed to fly away. The forth sun was the sun of water and everyone except the fish died in a flood. The Aztec believed that under the fifth sun, all elements of the previous creations became integrated, but it too, could all end.
The Aztecs had many gods, most that centred around agriculture and rain, and they were revered and prayed to by the Aztecs during times of natural disasters, such as bad crops, droughts or floods. Some of the main Aztec gods include:
Tezcatlipoca: he was the head of all gods, and was associated with war, death, darkness, royalty and sorcerers. He had an alter ego that took the form of s jaguar.
Huitzilopochtli: he was the Aztec god of sun and war, and was responsible for assisting the Aztecs in choosing the site for their capital city, Tenochtitlan.
Ehecatl: he was the wind god. Temples built in his honour were cylindrical, so there was less resistance from the wind, no matter what direction it came from.
Tlaloc: he was an ancient rain god.
Chalchiuhtlicue: she was Tlaloc’s wife, and had the power to create hurricanes and drown people.
Xipe Totec: he was the god of springtime, seeds and planting. Human sacrifices in his honour would include the priest skinning the human sacrifice, then wearing the flayed skin, making a direct connection to human sacrifice and the fertility of the land.
The Aztec Empire
The Aztec way of life centred around war. Their armies would be sent off all over the countryside, conquering local villages and forcing them to contribute goods and people for their sacrifice. To be a successful Aztec, you had to be successful warrior. The Aztecs also had a very efficient farming and irrigation system, which included praying and making sacrifices to the agricultural and weather gods.
The Aztec religion incorporated elements of Mayan and Toltec religions; in particular the Aztecs also used the same calendar and 52 year cycle as the Mayans. Every 52 years the Aztec people would have a huge festival to mark the end of one cycle and the beginning of the new one. During this time, there were many weird and unique traditions and rituals that took place on the night of festival that included:
- Throwing statues of their gods into water.
- Putting out all the fires across the land.
- Sweeping their houses clean.
- They would set a prisoner’s chest on fire, and if the flames weren’t high enough, it was a seen as a prediction for the end of the world.
- Men would lock women and children up and make them wear masks.
- Children would be made to stay awake all night in case they were turned into mice.
When the sun rose the next day, everyone would celebrate by pricking their ears to obtain blood for a sacred fire, put on their new, best clothes, redecorate and paint their houses, and offer sacrifices to the gods. At noon, there would be more prisoners sacrificed.
Sacrifice, especially human sacrifice, played a crucial and integral part of Aztec culture. The Aztecs believed that to make their gods happy, they required human blood and lives, and it was their duty to provide for their gods. The Aztecs considered themselves to be the chosen people of Huitzilopochtli, the war god, and it was up to them to sacrifice human blood to him so he would keep the sun moving in the sky. Huitzilopochtli’s need for human blood was insatiable, with one year the Aztec priests sacrificed more than 20,000 people to him.
The sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs were extreme. The Aztecs sacrificed humans by first placing them of a sacrificial stone, and then while the victim was still alive, they would cut out their hearts with a flint or obsidian knives (obsidian is an extremely sharp volcanic glass). They would then hold the beating hear to the sky as an offering to the Sun God, while the body would either be burned or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim. He would either then cut the body in pieces and send them to important people as an offering or gift, or use the pieces for ritual cannibalism. Aztec priests would also offer their own blood in sacrifice to Huitzilopochtli. They were known to pull barbed cords through holes in their tongues.
The End of the Aztecs
The Aztec Empire Falls
The Aztecs were still in the process of building their empire when the Spanish arrived in 1519. At that time, the Aztec emperor was Montezuma. Apparently he had a very defeatist view of life because his astrologers had predicted an unclear future for him, making him paranoid about someone or something trying to take over his empire. However during his time, Montezuma was a successful king, leading many victorious conquests and expanding the Aztec culture and empire. He was also very devoted to Huitzilopochtli, capturing prisoners and sacrificing their blood to the god.
The Spanish, being led by a man named Hernan Cortes, quickly captured Montezuma, and he died shortly after. His successors were no match for the Spanish, and in 1521, they captured the capital city Tenochtitlan, effectively ending the Aztec empire.
If you have found this information on Aztec culture interesting, why not learn about Incan culture?