Bloody, Cruel Aztecs Didn't Last Long
The mythology of the Aztec civilisation is filled with ancient and wild stories of creation, zoomorphism and brutality. The Aztecs dominated central Mexico in the 1400s and early 1500s and according to legend, they came to Mexico from an ancient land called Aztland. Although Aztec mythology is not as extensive as its Greek or Roman counterparts - mainly because lots of Aztec history was lost after the Spanish Conquest and because the Aztec Empire survived less than 100 years (1430-1521) – it is a mythology full of splendid Gods and human sacrifices performed in honor of these Gods.
The Aztecs valued highly the skills of warriors above all others, and this emphasis allowed them an advantage against rival tribes in the region. This meant the Aztecs could collect tribute from their rivals which led to them becoming the largest military empire in central Mexico. They built immense buildings of grandeur design and flourished in the arts. Where the Aztecs differed from other Mesoamerican civilizations was their penchant for human sacrifice. Although human sacrifice to the Gods was common amongst the tribes in Mexico at that time, the Aztec culture took it to a higher level. Thousands of sacrifices in a single day was not uncommon. The Aztecs dictated that human blood be fed to the sun God - Huitzilopochtli – for the sun to rise each day. Sacrifices were conducted at the top of pyramids in front of spectators. Hearts were cut from living victims and blood would flow down the steps at all hours of the day and night.
Aztec Gods were numerous and were worshipped daily. Everyday items as well as colors, animals’ numbers and dates of the calendar had special meanings because each was associated with a deity – a rattlesnake, for example, was thought to represent the Aztec creator God, Quetzalcoatl. Although due to the abundance in tribes and civilisations around the Mexico and Southern American area, many Aztec beliefs were absorbed from earlier civilisations who had already developed a body of myths and legends, notably the Olmecs and the Toltecs. The Maya of southern Mexico also shared many religious and mythological traits and traditions with the Aztecs.
The Creator God - Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl was one of several Aztec creator Gods. Aztec legend states that Quetzalcoatl contributed to the creation of mankind. The God of wind, air and learning, Quetzalcoatl was a feathered, flying serpent and a boundary maker between the Earth and the sky. A feathered serpent deity like Quetzalcoatl was worshipped by many different groups throughout Mesoamerican history and it is widely acknowledged that the Aztecs were not the only people who worshipped him.
Being the wind God, the relationship between Quetzalcoatl and nature was captured in a text written in the Nahuatl language:
“he was the wind, the guide and road sweeper of the rain gods, of the masters of the water, of those who brought rain. And when the wind rose, when the dust rumbled, and it crack and there was a great din, became it became dark and the wind blew in many directions, and it thundered.”
Accounts of Quetzalcoatl differ. Spanish sources held that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II initially believed the landing of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes to be Quetzalcoatl’s return. In other words, these sources, mainly the Florentine Codex, indicate that the Aztecs believed Cortes to be their returning creator God.
Other sources dispute the Spanish sources, however, since the connection between Cortes and Quetzalcoatl has not been found in any document that was created outside of post-conquest Spanish influence.
The God of Human Sacrifice - Huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli was the god of war, sun and human sacrifice – a hugely important God to the Aztecs given their fondness for warfare and sacrifices to the gods. Huitzilopochtli was credited with the victories which the Aztecs had on the battlefield. Sacrifices were made to him in order to protect the Aztecs from infinite night. Together with his brother Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli brought order to the world on the instructions of his mother and father Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl.
Huitzilopochtli can be represented by a hummingbird. In every depiction found of the God, Huitzilopochtli always has a blue-green hummingbird helmet.
The Templo Mayor was the most important and powerful structure in Aztec society and was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli as well as Tlaloc – the Aztec God of Rain. As the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli represented war and sacrifice whilst Tlaloc represented fertility and growth.
The Great Capital City of the Aztec Empire - Tenochtitlan
The capital city of the Aztec Empire was Tenochtitlan (now the center of Mexico City). Tenochtitlan was built on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who was a soldier in the conquest of the Aztecs under Cortes described Tenochtitlan as something he was not even able to describe:
“I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.”
Tenochtitlan was connected by bridges that could be pulled away to defend the city and was interlaced with canals. All sections of the ancient city could be visited either on foot or via canoe. The city contained marketplaces, public buildings, homes, temples and palaces. The center of the city contained the temples and palaces. Some of the temples included the Templo Mayor, which was dedicated to the deity Huitzilopochtli and the Rain God Tlaloc, the temple of Quetzalcoatl; the tlachtli and the Sun Temple which was associated with warriors. The platforms for sacrifices were also found in the centre of the city.
After the demise of the Aztec Empire by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors, the Spanish capital of Mexico City was founded on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Templo Mayor was dismantled, and the central district of Mexico City was built on top of it. Numerous traces of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan can be found whilst in 1987, archaeologists discovered a complete skeleton of a young woman below street level in Mexico City. The burial dates to the 1480s.
Montezuma II – The Aztecs Most Talked about Ruler
Not to be confused with Montezuma I, Montezuma II was the ninth and perhaps most well-known Tlatoani aka the ruler of Tenochtitlan. Montezuma II reigned from 1502-20 , the same time frame that the first contact between Mesoamerica and Europeans took place. Although the Aztec Empire reached its greatest size during his reign, Montezuma II was also responsible for widening the divide between the pipiltin (nobles) and the macehualtin (commoners).
Montezuma II lived in his own palace which also housed two zoos, one for birds of prey and a second for reptiles and animals. Three hundred people were dedicated to the care for these animals. The palace was also home to several aquariums.
The first Europeans landed on the east coast of Montezuma’s empire in 1917 – the expedition of Juan de Grijalva. Montezuma ordered that he be kept informed of any new sightings of foreigners going forward. When Hernan Cortes arrived in 1519, Montezuma immediately sent out emissaries to meet the Spaniard. Cortes describes his first encounter with Montezuma:
“(Montezuma) came to greet us and with him some two hundred lords, all barefoot and dressed in a different costume, but also very rich in their way and more so than the others.
“Mutezuma [sic] came down the middle of this street with two chiefs, one on his right hand and the other on his left. And they were all dressed alike except that Mutezuma wore sandals whereas the others went barefoot; and they held his arm on either side.”
Although it is widely recognised that Montezuma died during one of several battles with the Spanish, the details of his death are unknown. Some sources, notably Spanish ones, state that Montezuma was killed by rocks which were thrown at him by his own people whilst other sources by the indigenous assert that Montezuma was killed by the Spanish.
Following his death, Montezuma’s daughter became known as Isabel Montezuma. She was given a large estate by Cortes and gave the him a son – Lenor Cortes Montezuma.
Montezuma’s name lives on to this day: Popular real-time strategy game Age of Empires 2 featured a campaign called The Montezuma campaign whilst Montezuma is also the name of a popular Amazon slots game. Several operas have been named after the Aztec leader including operas by Antonio Vivaldi and Carl Heinrich Graun. A statue of Montezuma II was erected on the façade of the Royal Palace of Madrid, the statue stands amongst the kings of the ancient kingdoms that formed Spain.
Many indigenous peoples in Mexico are still thought to worship deities named after Montezuma. One myth still states that someday Montezuma will return to vindicate his people.
Gone but never forgotten
Overall, it must be stated that the Aztecs were a cruel and bloody civilisation. The demand for victims of sacrifice meant that the Aztec leaders tolerated loose control over their tribute cities,and the frequent revolts would offer opportunities for capturing new victims of sacrifice. Even during times of peace, “Garland Wars” were arranged as contests of courage and warrior skill. Achaeologists have also recently discovered that the Aztecs practiced ritual cannibalism.
All in all, this cruelty contributed to their downfall, as the Aztecs found little help from non-Aztecs in Mexico when a small Spanish army led by Hernan Cortes arrived on Mexican shores. The Spanish found it easy to enlist allies to help defeat the Aztecs.