The Aztecs are undoubtedly one of the most unusual cultures that ever existed. For centuries people have been thinking with horrified fascination about these people that combined complicated social structure, educational system and impressive scientific and cultural development with human sacrifice on massive scale, cannibalism and constant wars of conquest. Here are some Aztec culture facts that can make an awesome essay.
Probably the first thing everybody thinks hearing about the Aztecs is human sacrifice – and for a good reason. All pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures practiced it to this or that extent, but the Aztecs took it to a completely new level.
According to Aztec mythology, gods sacrificed their lives to sustain the fading sun and save humankind, and this made humans indebted to them for all eternity. Moreover, the sacrifice of gods was not a single act, but more of a continuous process, which required constant reenactment. The power of gods kept the sun alive, and to give gods this power, they had to give them blood and hearts, which were considered to be fragments of the sun’s heat.
Aztecs divided time into 52-year cycles and fearfully ended the end of each – if the gods didn’t receive enough sacrifices throughout the cycle, the sun would go out and the world would end. The main reason for Flower Wars the Aztecs constantly waged on their neighbors was to provide enough captives to fill the sacrifice quota. Even Aztec war strategy and tactics were mainly devised to wound and capture rather than kill as many enemies as possible.
Human sacrifice was an extremely important part of everyday life in Aztec society – it was carried out during each of their many festivals and for special occasions and was accompanied by elaborate rituals and done by various methods according to which god it was intended for. The most popular method was the extraction of the heart, but victims were often burned, flayed, drowned, starved and decapitated. Afterwards priests would often wear their skins (they were considered holy relics and symbolized rebirth) and cannibalize their corpses. And there were a lot of them – during the opening ceremony of one particularly big temple, as reported in their codices, they slaughtered between 10,000 and 80,400 people in the course of four days, while normally settling for about 20,000 per year.
Despite their extremely warlike nature and penchant for torture and human sacrifice, the Aztecs were far from being uncultured, which probably made them a great deal more disturbing and frightening. At the zenith of its glory their capital, Tenochtitlan, housed between 200,000 and 300,000 people, by far eclipsing most European cities of the time, with possible exceptions of Constantinople and Venice.
The Aztecs were also probably the first nation in the world to ever establish the system of universal mandatory education – it took place before the age of 14 and was carried out by parents under supervision of authorities. Among other things, children had to learn the so-called “sayings of the old” – a collection of statements that embodied the Aztec ideals and conditioned them for future service. After 14 children attended more advanced schools, divided into two types: the ones dedicated to theoretical sciences like astronomy, writing, mathematics etc., and the ones dealing with military and practical education.
Aztec civilization was based on domination over the surrounding peoples and aggressive expansion, and the Aztecs themselves were a nation of warriors from the outset. Being initially a small and insignificant migratory tribe, the Aztecs managed to conquer almost the entire Mesoamerican region in a little more than a century, and warfare occupied one of the central positions in their lifestyle and social arrangement. Aztec empire had a relatively small standing army for its size – only the members of elite warrior societies which were extremely hard to get into, served as full-time military forces. However, military training was an integral part of basic education, and every male Aztec was prepared to the role of a soldier since childhood. Therefore, during military campaigns large numbers of warriors were drafted from commoners.
Warfare was also the only way for a man of low birth to improve his station in life – through showing bravery on the field of battle and, in particular, through capturing enemy warriors alive for the further use as sacrifices. After taking four prisoners, one was accepted into one of elite warrior societies, like Eagle and Jaguar warriors. Taking six prisoners and more led to the greatest possible honor – to be accepted into the most prestigious society, Cuachicqueh, or the Shorn Ones (called so because they shaved their heads except for one braid over the left ear), who served as elite shock troops and swore to kill any of their number who makes a step back during a battle.
Trade was an important component of Aztec everyday life: their merchants travelled all across Mesoamerica and beyond and were united into exclusive guilds, and every large settlement had regular market days on which all kinds of merchandise exchanged hands. Basic currency for all transactions was cacao beans which had to be exported from lowlands. They were used mostly for small purchases; for large transactions the Aztecs used standardized lengths of cotton cloth of varying quality and value (from 65 to 300 beans).
Aztec empire had a code of laws that regulated everyday life and meted out punishments. However, by our standards these regulations and punishments sometimes look rather bizarre. For example, death penalty (usually through strangulation) was common for serious crimes, which included murder, theft and public drunkenness (unless you were over 70 years old). The most usual punishment for less serious offences was to have your house demolished. These included, for example, petit larceny and wearing of clothes too lavish for your social status.
The Aztecs will undoubtedly continue to intrigue us for many years to come. Fortunately, the body of evidence telling us about them is rather large compared with other Mesoamerican cultures, which means that you will have a lot of material for your history essay!
- A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967).
- Berdan, Frances F., Richard E. Blanton, Elizabeth H. Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith and Emily Umberger (1996) Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
- Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. (1998) Huitzilopochtli’s Conquest: Aztec Ideology in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
- Durán, Fray Diego (1964) The Aztecs: The History of the Indians of New Spain. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Orion Press, New York.
- Kellogg, Susan (1995) Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500-1700. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (1963) Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind. Univ. Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
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When you think of the Aztec, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of the Spanish conquistadors or their beautiful capital at Tenochtitlan. What comes to mind for a lot of people is their practice of human sacrifice. In class, we learned a lot about the civilizations of the Maya and the Inca but not much about the Maya. Chapter 13 of the assigned readings talks about the Aztec and how they came to power and their collapse. One paragraph in the chapter, although morbid and disturbing, caught my attention. “The victim was stretched out over the sacrificial stone. In seconds, a priest with an obsidian knife broke open his chest and ripped out his still beating heart, dashing it against the sacrificial stone.” (pg. 340) These sentences refer to the ritual of human sacrificed practiced by the Aztec priests.
The Aztec believed that they owed everything to the gods who created themselves as well as the world around them. The would perform sacrifices in order for a good crop yield or good weather among other things. They believed that the best way to repay them was to offer up blood to them in regular rituals. Although many just assume this was human blood, they also sacrificed animals as well. Some offerings weren’t outright killings as well. They would have been cutting oneself and offering the blood shed to the gods. Archaeologists estimate that a few thousand people would have been sacrificed each year. Some were members of the Aztec community but they believe that most were prisoners of war. Instead of killing their enemies in battle, they would sometimes capture them and take them back to the capital to be offered up to the gods. In one ritual, the prisoners were forced to walk up the many stairs of the temple. Once they reached the top, the priest would cut open their stomach from throat to stomach. They would rip out their heart to offer it to the gods. The bodies were then pushed down the stairs. At the bottom, the body would be dismembered or carried off depending on the ritual.
Its hard to believe this sort of activity happened regularly, especially as a public event where people would gather in the square to watch. Human sacrifice was not only an Aztec event. It happened all over the world in several different cultures. It was a part of their religion and a way to please the gods so the Aztecs would avoid disaster. No amount of human sacrifice could have stopped their collapse at the hands of the Spaniards.
Chapter 13 of the textbook