The Aztec: Life Under the Fifth Sun in Old Mexico

Aztec/Mexica Lesson Plans

 Read:  Do:
From Humble Origins
Create a Chinampa
The Great City of Mexico-Tenochtitlan
Plan a Week in Historic Mexico City
Trade, Tribute, and Economy
Create an Illustrated Nahuatl Glossary
Religion and Sacrifice
Retell a Mexica Legend in Comic Form
huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli, god of war, sun, human sacrifice, patron of the city of Tenochtitlan, and national god of the Mexica (Aztec).

Imagine that you live in a world where the gods’ appetite for sacrifice – for bloody human sacrifice – is perpetual and steady, that the very question of whether or not the sun will rise again tomorrow hangs upon the quantity and quality of blood that you have offered.

But life is so good that this is but a small price to pay… 

After all, the gods have blessed your society with imponderable wealth and prosperity. To start with, everyone has more than enough to eat. The rains come on schedule, and weather is so fine that maize, beans, squash, and amaranth can be harvested multiple times a year. Through military prowess, your people have come to dominate their neighbors in a loose tributary empire that extends to edges of the known the world, bounded in fact by the eastern and western seas, and by the northern deserts and the southern forests. In addition to all of the tributary wealth – sumptuous quetzal feathers, jaguar skins and cocoa beans from those southern forests, shells from the distant seas, cotton cloth, and wrought gold the likes of which the world has never seen – there comes to the capital a steady stream of slaves and prisoners for public sacrifice to the hungry gods who have bestowed this great bounty upon their faithful people.

All of this is a delicate balance maintained by the holy emperor, the priests, the calendar, the festivals, and the rigid social order that tells you your place in life… The gods have blessed your people with so much, and in the absence of your gratitude, demonstrated through the regular and copious offering of the “sacred water” – the warm, coursing blood, spilled from the veins of prisoners and priests – the gods may yet think twice. The gods are great, but like men they have feelings, and they may be offended. They may revoke their generosity in a well-justified fit of divine destruction and disaster.

This is the world of the Mexica, and it was as real to them as your world – of school, tests, friends, parents, and teachers – is real to you.

Tlaloc, supreme god of the rains, he was also by extension a god of fertility and of water. He was widely worshipped as a beneficent giver of life and sustenance, but he was also feared for his ability to send hail, thunder, and lightning, and for being the lord of the powerful element of water.
Tlaloc, supreme god of the rains, he was also by extension a god of fertility and of water. He was widely worshiped as a beneficent giver of life and sustenance, but he was also feared for his ability to send hail, thunder, and lightning, and for being the lord of the powerful element of water.

The Mexica (Meh-She-Ka) are more popularly known as the Aztec. Their empire was one of the great powers and most impressive cultural centers of the pre-Colombian world, ruling an extensive territory centered on present day Mexico City. The modern nation of Mexico, which gained its independence from Spain in the early 1800s took its name from the Mexica as a reflection of its connection to that earlier culture. Around the same time, the name Aztec became popular among European historians in order to do just the opposite – to make a distinction between this ancient culture and the modern nation. Since the Aztec knew themselves as the Mexica, this article will mostly use the terms Mexica and Mexico to refer to the people and the empire.

FROM HUMBLE ORIGINS

  1. Summarize the legend of founding of Tenochtitlan.  Why is this ancient story incorporated in the flag of the modern nation of Mexico?
  2. What myths and legends are told about the founding of your nation?  Why do people tell such stories about their nations?

The true origin of the Mexicas is uncertain. According to their legends, the place of origin of the Mexica tribe was a place called Aztlán. It is generally thought that Aztlán was somewhere to the north of the Valley of Mexico; some experts have placed it as far north as the Southwestern United States.

Based on codices, as well as other histories, the Mexicas appear to have arrived at Chapultepec on the shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico around the year 1248. At that time, the Valley of Mexico had many city-states, the most powerful of which were Culhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west.

Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Mexica people, founded in 1325. The state religion of the Mexica awaited the fulfillment of a prophecy: that the wandering tribes would find the destined site for a great city whose location would be signaled by an eagle eating a snake while perched atop a cactus.  Hernando Álvaro Tezozómoc, the grandson of the last emperor recounted his people’s mythical origin in verse:

And [the next morning], once more, they went in among the rushes, in among the reeds, to the edge of the spring. And when they came out into the reeds, There at the edge of the spring was the tenochtli [a cactus fruit], And they saw an eagle on the tenochtli, perched on it, standing on it. It was eating something, it was feeding, It was pecking at what it was eating. And when the eagle saw the Mexica, he bowed his head low. Its nest, its pallet, was of every kind of precious feather— Of lovely cotinga feathers, roseate spoonbill feathers, quetzal feathers. And they also saw strewn about the heads of sundry birds, The heads of precious birds strung together, And some birds’ feet and bones. And the god called out to them, he said to them, “Oh Mexica, it shall be there!” (But the Mexica did not see who spoke.) It was for this reason that they it Tenochtitlan. And the Mexica wept, they said, “Oh happy, oh blessed are we! We have beheld the city that shall be ours! Let us go now, let us rest….”

(Translation from Charles C. Mann’s 1491)

Seal of modern Mexico.
The foundational myth at the center of the modern Mexican flag.

The Mexica saw this vision on what was then a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco, a vision that is now immortalized in Mexico’s coat of arms and on the Mexican flag. Not deterred by the unfavorable terrain, they set about building their city, using the chinampa system (misnamed as “floating gardens”) for agriculture and to dry and expand the island.

A thriving culture developed, and the Mexica civilization came to dominate other tribes around Mexico. The small natural island was perpetually enlarged as Tenochtitlan grew to become the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica. Commercial routes were developed that brought goods from places as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and perhaps even the Inca Empire.

map of the Aztec Empire in 1519 CE-57962176
The furthest extent of Mexica control and tributary states, 1519.
aztecemporers
Notice the short time between the first emperor and the last – the empire achieved its meteoric rise in barely 150 years, at which time the Spanish arrived.

Take a gander at the 2000 year old pyramids of Teotihuacan, which were already ancient and abandoned when the Mexica arrived as a poor, nomadic tribe in the region of the Valley of Mexico…  Their conclusion?  The only ones who could have made something so incredible must have been gods – that in fact, this is where the gods created the world. Accordingly, the Mexica then set about modelling their religious system in large part on what they could discern from these ruins…

IMG_7884-PANOIMG_7831Read more about the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan on Openendedsocialstudies.org.

THE GREAT CITY OF MEXICO-TENOCHTITLAN

  1. How did the Mexica overcome the challenges of building a city on a small, swampy island in the middle of a brackish lake?
  2. The Mexica built one of the largest cities in the world during its time.  Why are Paris, Venice, London, and Constantinople arguably more famous? 
Cortés_ 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan
Hernan Cortés’ 1524 Map of Tenochtitlan. This map, published with Cortés’s letters, provided Europeans with the first image of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan.

The capital city of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day Mexico City. Built on a series of islets in Lake Texcoco, the city plan was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campans. The city was interlaced with canals which were useful for transportation.

Tenochtitlan was built according to a fixed plan and centered on the ritual precinct, where the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan rose 50 m (164.04 ft) above the city. Houses were made of wood and loam, roofs were made of reed, although pyramids, temples and palaces were generally made of stone.

Templo Mayor
An artist’s interpretation of the Templo Mayor – Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan – and the surrounding ritual district at its most impressive in the 1510s.  Note the canal in the foreground.

With an estimated population between 200,000 and 300,000, many scholars believe Tenochtitlan to have been among the largest cities in the world at that time. Compared to Europe, only Paris, Venice and Constantinople might have rivaled it. It was five times the size of the London of Henry VIII.

Around the island, chinampa beds were used to grow maize, squash, and beans – the Three Sisters of Mesoamerican agriculture – as well as, over time, to increase the size of the island. Chinampas are long raised plant beds set upon the shallow lake bottom. They were a very efficient agricultural system and could provide up to seven harvests a year. On the basis of current chinampa yields, it has been estimated that 1 hectare of chinampa would feed 20 individuals and 9,000 hectares of chinampas could feed 180,000.

Causeways connected the city to the shores of Lake Texcoco.
Causeways connected the city to the shores of Lake Texcoco.

The city was connected to the mainland by causeways leading to the north, south, and west. The causeways were interrupted by bridges that allowed canoes and other traffic to pass freely. The bridges could be pulled away, if necessary, to defend the city. The city was interlaced with a series of canals, so that all sections of the city could be visited either on foot or via canoe.

Two double aqueducts, each more than 4 km (2.5 mi) long and made of terracotta, provided the city with fresh water from the springs at Chapultepec. 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; Tlatoani (“king”, literally “one who speaks”) Montezuma was said to take four baths a day.

TRADE, TRIBUTE, AND ECONOMY

  1. What goods and materials did the Mexica value?  
  2. Other than providing wealth, in what other ways might the pochteca be useful to the tlatoani?
  3. Compare and contrast: How did the Mexica economy differ from that of your nation? 
  4. Would you rather pay taxes with money or by giving your labor?

The Mexica economy can be divided into a political sector, under the control of nobles and kings, and a commercial sector that operated independently of the political sector.

The political sector of the economy centered on the control of land and labor by kings and nobles. Nobles owned all land, and commoners got access to farmland and other fields through a variety of arrangements, from rental through sharecropping to serf-like labor and slavery. These payments from commoners to nobles supported both the lavish lifestyles of the high nobility and the finances of city-states. Many luxury goods were produced for consumption by nobles. The producers of featherwork, sculptures, jewelry, and other luxury items were full-time commoner specialists who worked for noble patrons.

In the commercial sector of the economy several types of money were in regular use. Small purchases were made by barter or with cacao beans, which had to be imported from lowland areas. In Mexica marketplaces, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamal cost a single bean. For larger purchases, standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli were used. There were different grades of quachtli, ranging in value from 65 to 300 cacao beans. One source stated that 20 quachtli could support a commoner for one year in Tenochtitlan. A man could also sell his own daughter as a sexual slave or future religious sacrifice, generally for around 500 to 700 beans. A small gold statue approximately 0.62 kg (1.37 lb) cost 250 beans, though the Mexica sold everything by size or number rather than weight, as the measurement of weight was unknown to them.

Money was used primarily in the many periodic markets that were held in each town. A typical town would have a weekly market (every 5 days), while larger cities held markets every day. Some sellers in the markets were petty vendors; women might sell tamales, potters sold their vessels, and so on. Other vendors were professional merchants who traveled from market to market seeking profits. The pochteca were specialized merchants organized into exclusive guilds. They made long expeditions to all parts of Mesoamerica, and they served as the judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market. Although the economy of Mexico was commercialized (in its use of money, markets, and merchants) land and labor were not commodities for sale.

Feathers were prized by the Mexica, arguably even more so than gold.  One reason for this was their symbolic and religious use. Much of this symbolism arose with the spread of the worship of the god Quetzalcoatl, depicted as a serpent covered in quetzal feathers.  Additionally, Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica, was associated with the hummingbird. His origin is from ball of fine feathers that fell on his mother, Coatlicue, and impregnated her. He was born fully armed with an eagle feather shield, fine plumage in his head and on his left sandal.

Moctezuma's headdress
Moctezuma’s headdress is a featherwork crown which tradition holds belonged to Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor at the time of the Spanish Conquest. However, its provenance is uncertain, and even its identity as a headdress has been questioned. It is made of quetzal and other feathers with sewn-on gold detailing.

Feathers were considered to have magical properties as symbols of fertility, abundance, riches and power and those who used them were associated with divine powers.  Feathers were used to make many types of objects from arrows, fly whisks, fans, complicated headdresses and fine clothing. 

Feathers from local and faraway sources were used, especially at the height of the Mexica Empire. The feathers were obtained from wild birds as well as from domesticated turkeys and ducks, with the finest feathers coming from Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras. These feathers were obtained through trade and tribute. Feathers functioned as a kind of currency along with cocoa beans, and were a popular trade item because of their value and ease of transport over long distances and a close relationship developed between traders and feather workers. Certain areas were required to pay tribute in raw feathers and other in finished feather goods, but no area was required to provide both. Cuetzalan paid tribute to Moctezuma in the form of quetzal feathers. This demand was so great that it led to the local extinction of quetzals in that region, leaving only the name of a local tree, quetzalcuahuitl, where the birds used to hide to eat.

image_gallery
Quetzal in the wild.

The most important of feathers in central Mexico were the long green feathers of the resplendent quetzal which were reserved for deities and the emperor. One reason for their rarity was that quetzals could not be domesticated as they died in captivity. Instead wild birds were caught, plucked and released. Other tropical birds were used as well. Bernardino de Sahagún made a list of the species used for fine feathers, many of which are now either threatened or locally extinct.

In Mexica society, the class that created feather objects was called the amanteca, named after the Amantla neighborhood in Tenochtitlan where they lived and worked. The amanteca had their own god, Coyotlinahual. Daughters of amanteca generally became embroiderers and feather dyers, with the boys dedicated to the making of feather objects. The amanteca were a privileged class of craftsmen. They did not pay tribute nor were required to perform public service. They had a fair amount of autonomy in how they ran their businesses. Feather work was so highly prized that even sons of nobility learned something of it during their education.

729_01_2
Mexica shield adorned with feathers.

This incredible featherwork, a highly refined art form among the Mexica, was barely appreciated by the Spanish.  When conquistador Hernán Cortés demanded their wealth, the Mexica brought him countless examples like this, alongside gold and jewels, most of which he promptly dismissed as mere curiosities.

RELIGION AND SACRIFICE

  1. Why was sacrifice so important to the Mexica?
  2. What forms of sacrifice exist in your culture?  How are these similar or different to the Mexica practice?
  3. Sacrifice and cannibalism can seem cruel, and are often the hardest parts of Mexica society for outsiders to understand.  What parts of your own culture might seem cruel to an outsider, and how would you explain them to someone who might ask?

gods

The Aztec world was an extremely spiritual one and consisted of three main parts: the earth world on which humans lived (including Tamoanchan, the mythical origin of human beings), an underworld which belonged to the dead (called Mictlan (“place of death”)), and the upper plane in the sky called Tlalocan. The earth and the underworld were both open for humans to enter, whereas the upper plane in the sky was impenetrable to humans. Existence was envisioned as straddling the two worlds in a cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Thus as the sun was believed to dwell in the underworld at night to rise reborn in the morning and maize kernels were interred to later sprout anew, so the human and divine existence was also envisioned as being cyclical.

After death the soul of the Aztec went to one of three places: the sun, Mictlan, or Tlalocan. Souls of fallen warriors and women that died in childbirth would transform into hummingbirds that followed the sun on its journey through the sky. Souls of people who died from less glorious causes would go to Mictlan. Those who drowned would go to Tlalocan.

Stone of the Five Eras
The Sun Stone, or Stone of the Five Eras, is perhaps the most famous work of Aztec sculpture. The stone is 11.75 ft in diameter and 3.22 ft thick, and it weighs about 24 tons. In the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity, Tonatiuh, which appears inside the glyph for “movement,” the name of the current era. The central figure is shown holding a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (Tecpatl). The four squares that surround the central deity represent the four previous suns or eras, which preceded the present era – the Fifth Sun.

In Aztec cosmology, as in Mesoamerica in general, geographical features such as caves and mountains held symbolic value as places of crossing between the upper and nether worlds. The cardinal directions were symbolically connected to the religious layout of the world as well; each direction was associated with specific colors and Gods.

Sacrificial offering to Huitzilopochtli.
Sacrificial offering to Huitzilopochtli.

To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation, and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order to allow life to continue. This worldview is best described in the myth of the five suns recorded in the Codex Chimalpopoca, which recounts how Quetzalcoatl stole the bones of the previous generation in the underworld, and how later the gods created four successive worlds or “suns” for their subjects to live in, all of which were destroyed. Then by an act of self-sacrifice one of the gods, Nanahuatzin (“the pimpled one”) caused a fifth and final sun to rise where the first humans, made out of maize dough, could live thanks to his sacrifice. Humans were responsible for the sun’s continued revival. Blood sacrifice in various forms were conducted. Both humans and animals were sacrificed, depending on the god to be placated and the ceremony being conducted, and priests of some gods were sometimes required to provide their own blood through self-mutilation.

Sacrifice and death was necessary for the continued existence of the world. Likewise each part of life had one or more deities associated with it and these had to be paid their dues in order to achieve success. Gods were paid with sacrificial offerings of food, flowers, effigies, and quail.  The larger the effort required of the god, the greater the sacrifice had to be. Blood fed the gods and kept the sun from falling.

For some of the most important rites, a priest would offer his own blood, by cutting his ears, arms, tongue, thighs, chest, or genitals, or offer a human life. The people who were sacrificed came from many segments of society – they might be a war captive, slave, or a member of Aztec society; a man or woman, adult or child, noble or commoner.

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IMG_8311
Life-sized ceramic sculpture representing an Eagle Warrior, recovered from the site of the Templo Mayor. Note the stucco on the torso simulating the real feathers that covered the authentic suits. The Eagle Warriors and the Jaguar Warriors were the two most important units within the Mexica army. A warrior could only join if he captured impressive numbers of enemy soldiers in battle for later use in sacrifice at the temple.

Veneration of Huitzilopochtli, the personification of the sun and of war, was central to the religious, social, and political practices of the Mexicas. Huitzilopochtli attained this central position after the founding of Tenochtitlan and the formation of the Mexica city-state society in the 14th century. Prior to this, Huitzilopochtli was associated primarily with hunting, presumably one of the important subsistence activities of the itinerant bands that would eventually become the Mexica.

Many leading deities of the Mexica pantheon were worshiped by previous Mesoamerican civilizations, such as Tlaloc and Quetzalcoatl, who were venerated by different names in most cultures throughout the history of Mesoamerica.  For the Mexica, especially important deities were the rain god Tlaloc, the god Huitzilopochtli—patron of the Mexica tribe—as well as Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, wind god, culture hero, the god of civilization and order. Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were both worshiped side-by-side at the top of the Templo Mayor, the largest pyramid in the Aztec capital Mexico-Tenochtitlan, while a third monument in the plaza before the Templo Mayor was devoted to the wind god Ehecatl, known to be an aspect of Quetzalcoatl.

Sacrificial Stone, rediscovered on 17 December 1791. It is thought to have been a quauhxicalli, in which the hearts of victims of sacrifice were placed.
Sacrificial Stone, rediscovered on 17 December 1791. It is thought to have been a quauhxicalli, in which the hearts of victims of sacrifice were placed.

When the Mexica sacrificed people to Huitzilopochtli, the victim would be placed on a sacrificial stone at the summit of the Templo Mayor. Then the priest would cut through the abdomen with an obsidian or flint blade. The heart would be torn out still beating and held towards the sky in honor to the Huitzilopochtli; the body would be carried away, down the steep steps of the temple, and either cremated or given to the warrior responsible for the capture of the victim. He would cut the body in pieces and send them to important people as an offering, or use the pieces for ritual cannibalism. The warrior would thus ascend one step in the hierarchy of the Mexica social classes, a system that rewarded successful warriors.

Mythological events would be ritually recreated and living persons would impersonate specific deities involved; once in their roles, these specially chosen ritual actors were treated with all the reverence due a divine person, living in splendor and luxury even up to a whole year before the ceremony in which, typically, they were finally sacrificed to the very deity they had represented.

The sacrifice of animals was a common practice for which the Aztecs bred dogs, eagles, jaguars and deer. Objects also were sacrificed by being broken and offered to the gods. The cult of Quetzalcoatl required the sacrifice of butterflies and hummingbirds.

Much like the role of sacrifice elsewhere in the world, it thus seems that these rites functioned as a type of atonement for Mexica believers. Their sacrificial hymns describe the victim as “sent (to death) to plead for us”, or “consecrated to annul all sin.” In one such poem, a warrior-victim announces that “I embrace mankind… I give myself to the community.”  Mexica society viewed even the slightest tlatlacolli (‘sin’ or ‘insult’) as an extremely malevolent supernatural force. For instance, if an adulterer were to enter a house, it was believed that all turkey chicks would perish from tlazomiquiztli (“filth-death”). To avoid such calamities befalling their community, those who had erred punished themselves by extreme measures such as slitting their tongues for vices of speech or their ears for vices of listening, and “for a slight [sin they] hanged themselves, or threw themselves down precipices, or put an end to themselves by abstinence.”

Most great civilizations have an organizing myth – a story they tell themselves which explains their way of life.  In the modern United States, Americans tell themselves that their country exists as a selfless champion of democracy.  For the Mexica, if their civilization did not conquer and sacrifice in the name of Huitzilopochtli, the world itself would come shuddering to an end.  

Thus, the story of Huitzilopochtli became one of the driving beliefs of Mexica civilization – only through conquest and sacrifice could existence as they knew it continue.  This powerful imperative gave rise to one of the great Native American civilizations, the mighty Aztec Empire, who used it to rationalize their society’s dramatic rise and dominance over their neighbors in Central Mexico.  


ACTIVITIES

  1. Using mud, sticks, and appropriate plant life, research, design and build a small scale chinampa near the school, in a small tank, or in your backyard.  Take lots of photos, not just of the finished product but of the process.  Consider the following questions: How easy or difficult was this process?  What did you learn, and what would you try differently next time?  Research and support your answer: what benefits and drawbacks does this technique have over other, more common forms of cultivation?  Would it be practical to revive this form of agriculture on a large scale? 
  2. Research and plan a realistic one week travel itinerary in and around modern day Mexico City that focuses specifically on its Mexica, pre-Mexica, and colonial histories.  Explain the historical or cultural relevance of your choices.  Present the final itinerary with photos and estimated costs for the whole trip.  
  3. Create an illustrated glossary of English loan words from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica.  Consider the following questions: Why have these particular words come over into English and not others?  Examine the history of this language in general – where did the written form of this language come from?  Is Nahuatl still spoken, and if so, by whom?
  4. Create a short comic book illustrating a story of one of the Mexican gods such as Quetzalcoatl or Huitzilopochtli.  Much of what we know about life in Tenochtitlan comes from the so-called Aztec Codices.  These are heavily or entirely illustrated works – in a sense, similar to modern comic books – dating from before and just after contact with the Spanish in the 16th century.  Study the lush, colorful art in these codices and try to imitate this style in your retelling.  Consider the following questions: How does this fit in with what I’ve already learned about Mexica culture and belief?  How does this story compare with the myths and legends of other world cultures?

FURTHER READING

Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico by Hugh Thomas.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.

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