Aztec is a term used to refer to certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who achieved political and military dominance over large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the Late post-Classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.
Sometimes it also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan's two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance which has also become known as the "Aztec Empire". In other contexts it may refer to all the various city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history as well as many important cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who like them, also spoke the Nahuatl language. In this meaning it is possible to talk about an Aztec civilization including all the particular cultural patterns common for the Nahuatl speaking peoples of the late postclassic period in Mesoamerica.
From the 12th century Valley of Mexico was the nucleus of Aztec civilization: here the capital of the Aztec Triple Alliance, the city of Tenochtitlan, was built upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco. The Triple Alliance formed its tributary empire expanding its political hegemony far beyond the Valley of Mexico, conquering other city states throughout Mesoamerica.
At its pinnacle Aztec culture had rich and complex mythological and religious traditions, as well as reaching remarkable architectural and artistic accomplishments. A particularly striking element of Aztec culture to many was the practice of human sacrifice.
In 1521, in what is probably the most widely known episode in the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Hernán Cortés, along with a large number of Nahuatl speaking indigenous allies, conquered Tenochtitlan and defeated the Aztec Triple Alliance under the leadership of Hueyi Tlatoani Moctezuma II; In the series of events often referred to as "The Fall of the Aztec Empire". Subsequently the Spanish founded the new settlement of Mexico City on the site of the ruined Aztec capital.
Aztec culture and history is primarily known:
According to the mythico-historical Aubin codex, seven Nahua tribes lived in Aztlán under the rule of a powerful elite. The seven tribes fled Aztlán, to seek new lands. The Mexicas were the last group to leave. The Aubin Codex relates that after leaving Aztlán, their god Huitzilopochtli ordered his people to never identify themselves as Azteca, the name of their former masters. Instead they should henceforth call themselves Mexìcâ.
The word "Aztec" was not originally an endonym for any ethnic group, but achieved wide use as an exonym first in the English language and later in Spanish from the 19th century on. Some modern day scholars use the word "Aztec" to refer to the Nahuatl speaking peoples of Mexico before the Spanish conquest in 1519 and the word "Nahua" to refer to the same peoples after the conquest. Because no people ever referred to itself as "Aztecs", and because the peoples to whom the word is popularly used to refer never saw themselves as a unified ethnic group, many scholars now prefer to refer to particular ethnic groups individually e.g. the "Mexica", "Acolhua" or "Tepaneca" rather than subsuming them under a single term such as "Aztec".
The Spanish conquistadores referred to them as "Mexicas" or "Culua-Mexicas". In Mexico, archaeologists and museums use the term Mexicas. The wider population in and outside Mexico generally speaks of Aztecs. In this article, the term "Mexica" is used to refer to the Mexica people up until the time of the formation of the Triple Alliance. After this, the term "Aztecs" is used to refer to the three peoples who made up the Triple Alliance, or in the wider context to all the Nahuatl speaking peoples as bearers of "Aztec culture".
According to a Mexica legend, it was Huitzilopochtli, the war deity and patron of the Mexica who gave them their name. The most probable interpretation is that the name comes from Mexitl or Mexi a secret name for the deity.
Nahuatl (nahuatl/nawatlahtolli) Classical Nahuatl (also known as Aztec, and simply Nahuatl) is a term used to describe the variants of the Nahuatl language. The majority of the speakers live in Central Mexico in the states of Estado de Mexico El Distrito Federal, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Morelos, Guerrero, Veracruz, Michoacán and Hidalgo. Other variants of the language "Nahuatl" were spoken by many of the central Mexican city-states under the domination of the Aztec Empire. Nahuatl was originally written with a pictographic script which was not a full writing system but instead served as a mnemonic to remind readers of texts they had learned orally.
Based on these codices as well as other histories, it appears that the Mexicas arrived at Chapultepec in or around the year 1248.
At the time of their arrival, the Valley of Mexico had many city-states, the most powerful of which were Culhuacan to the south and Azcapotzalco to the west. The Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco soon expelled the Mexicas from Chapultepec. In 1299, Culhuacan ruler Cocoxtli gave them permission to settle in the empty barrens of Tizapan, where they were eventually assimilated into Culhuacan culture.
In 1323, the Mexicas were shown a vision of an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus, clutching a snake in its talons. This vision indicated that this was the location where they were to build their home. In any event, the Mexicas eventually arrived on a small swampy island in Lake Texcoco where they founded the town of Tenochtitlan in 1325. In 1376, the Mexicas elected their first Huey Tlatoani, Acamapichtli, who was living in Texcoco at the time.
For the next 50 years, until 1427, the Mexica were a tributary of Azcapotzalco, which had become a regional power, perhaps the most powerful since the Toltecs, centuries earlier. Maxtla, son of Tezozomoc, assassinated Chimalpopoca, the Mexica ruler. In an effort to defeat Maxtla, Chimalpopoca's successor, Itzcoatl, allied with the exiled ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl. This coalition became the foundation of the Aztec Triple Alliance.
The Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan would, in the next 100 years, come to dominate the Valley of Mexico and extend its power to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific shore. Over this period, Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance.
Two of the primary architects of the Aztec empire were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma I, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as Hueyi Tlatoani in 1440. Although he was also offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, Tlacaelel preferred to operate as the power behind the throne. Tlacaelel reformed the Aztec state and religion. According to some sources, he ordered the burning of most of the extant Aztec books claiming that they contained lies. He thereupon rewrote the history of the Aztec people, thus creating a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. This rewriting led directly to the curriculum taught to scholars and promoted the belief that the Aztecs were always a powerful and mythic nation; forgetting forever a possible true history of modest origins. One component of this reform was the institution of ritual war (the flower wars) as a way to have trained warriors, and created the necessity of constant sacrifices to keep the Sun moving.
The Spaniards and their Tlaxcallan allies became increasingly dangerous and unwelcome guests in the capital city. In June, 1520, hostilities broke out, culminating in the massacre in the Main Temple and the death of Montezuma. The Spaniards fled the town on July 1, an episode later characterized as La Noche Triste (the Sad Night). They and their native allies returned in the spring of 1521 to lay siege to Tenochtitlan, a battle that ended that August 13 with the destruction of the city. During this period the now crumbling empire went through a rapid line of ruler succession. After the death of Moctezuma II, the empire fell into the hands of severely weakened emperors, such as Cuitláhuac, before eventually being ruled by puppet rulers, such as Andrés de Tapia Motelchiuh, installed by the Spanish.
Despite the decline of the Aztec empire, most of the Mesoamerican cultures were intact after the fall of Tenochtitlan. Indeed, the freedom from Aztec domination may have been considered a positive development by most of the other cultures. The upper classes of the Aztec empire were considered noblemen by the Spaniards and generally treated as such initially. All this changed rapidly and the native population were soon forbidden to study by law, and had the status of minors.
The Tlaxcalans remained loyal to their Spanish friends and were allowed to come on other conquests with Cortés and his men.
In 1520-1521, an outbreak of smallpox swept through the population of Tenochtitlan and was decisive in the fall of the city. It is estimated that between 10% and 50% of the population fell victim to this epidemic.
Subsequently, the Valley of Mexico was hit with two more epidemics, smallpox (1545-1548) and typhus (1576-1581). The Spaniards, to consolidate the diminishing population, merged the survivors from small towns in the Valley of Mexico into bigger ones. This broke the power of the upper classes, but did not dissolve the coherence of the indigenous society in greater Mexico.
The population before the time of the conquest is unknown and hotly contested, but disease is known to have ravaged the region; thus, the indigenous population of the Valley of Mexico is estimated to have declined by more than 80% in the course of about 60 years.
Although the Aztec form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states, known as altepetl in Nahuatl. These were small polities ruled by a king (tlatoani) from a legitimate dynasty. The Early Aztec period was a time of growth and competition among altepetl. Even after the empire was formed (1428) and began its program of expansion through conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at the local level. The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's hegemonic form of control.
Archaeological excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show that incorporation into the empire had both costs and benefits for provincial peoples. On the positive side, the empire promoted commerce and trade, and exotic goods from obsidian to bronze managed to reach the houses of both commoners and nobles. Trade partners included the enemy Tarascan, a source of bronze tools and jewelry. On the negative side, imperial tribute imposed a burden on commoner households, who had to increase their work to pay their share of tribute. Nobles, on the other hand, often made out well under imperial rule because of the indirect nature of imperial organization. The empire had to rely on local kings and nobles and offered them privileges for their help in maintaining order and keeping the tribute flowing.
In the commercial sector of the economy several types of money were in regular use. Small purchases were made with cacao beans, which had to be imported from lowland areas. In Aztec marketplaces, a small rabbit was worth 30 beans, a turkey egg cost 3 beans, and a tamale 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. 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. Cortés reported that the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's sister city, was visited by 60,000 people daily. Some sellers in the markets were petty vendors; farmers might sell some of their produce, 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 lengthy expeditions to all parts of Mesoamerica, and they served as the judges and supervisors of the Tlatelolco market. Although the economy of Aztec Mexico was commercialized (in its use of money, markets, and merchants), it was not "a capitalist economy because land and labor were not commodities for sale.
After the conquest those roads were no longer subject to maintenance and were lost in time.
The Mexica made reference to at least two manifestations of the supernatural: tēōtl and tēixiptla. Tēōtl, which the Spaniards and European scholars routinely mistranslated as "god" or "demon", referred rather to an impersonal force that permeated the world. Tēixiptla, by contrast, denoted the physical representations ("idols", statues and figurines) of the tēōtl as well as the human cultic activity surrounding this physical representation. The Mexica "gods" themselves had no existence as distinct entities apart from these tēixiptla representations of tēōtl (Boone 1989).
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.
According to myth, Huitzilopochtli directed the wanderers to found a city on the site where they would see an eagle devouring a snake perched on a fruit-bearing nopal cactus. (It was said that Huitzilopochtli killed his nephew, Cópil, and threw his heart on the lake. Huitzilopochtli honoured Cópil by causing a cactus to grow over Cópil's heart.) Legend has it that this is the site on which the Mexicas built their capital city of Tenochtitlan. This legendary vision is pictured on the Coat of arms of Mexico.
According to their own history, when the Mexicas arrived in the Anahuac valley (Valley of Mexico) around Lake Texcoco, the groups living there considered them uncivilized. The Mexicas borrowed much of their culture from the ancient Toltec whom they seem to have at least partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan. To the Mexicas, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayōtl" was a synonym for culture. Mexica legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.
For most people today, and for the European Catholics who first met the Aztecs, human sacrifice was the most striking feature of Aztec civilization. While human sacrifice was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztecs, if their own accounts are to be believed, brought this practice to an unprecedented level. For example, for the reconsecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan in 1487, the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days, reportedly by Ahuitzotl, the Great Speaker himself.
However, most experts consider these numbers to be overstated. For example, the sheer logistics associated with sacrificing 84,000 victims would be overwhelming, 2,000 being a more likely figure. A similar consensus has developed on reports of cannibalism among the Aztecs.
In the writings of Bernardino de Sahagún, Aztec "anonymous informants" defended the practice of human sacrifice by asserting that it was not very different from the European way of waging warfare: Europeans killed the warriors in battle, Aztecs killed the warriors after the battle.
Accounts by the Tlaxcaltecas, the primary enemy of the Aztecs at the time of the Spanish Conquest, show that at least some of them considered it an honor to be sacrificed. In one legend, the warrior Tlahuicole was freed by the Aztecs but eventually returned of his own volition to die in ritual sacrifice. Tlaxcala also practiced the human sacrifice of captured Aztec warriors.
The highest class were the pīpiltin or nobility. Originally this status was not hereditary, although the sons of pillis had access to better resources and education, so it was easier for them to become pillis. Later the class system took on hereditary aspects.
The second class were the mācehualtin, originally peasants. Eduardo Noguera estimates that in later stages only 20% of the population was dedicated to agriculture and food production. The other 80% of society were warriors, artisans and traders. Eventually, most of the mācehuallis were dedicated to arts and crafts. Their works were an important source of income for the city.
Slaves or tlacotin also constituted an important class. Aztecs could become slaves because of debts, as a criminal punishment or as war captives. A slave could have possessions and even own other slaves. However, upon becoming a slave, all of the slave's animals and excess money would go to his purchaser. Slaves could buy their liberty, and slaves could be set free if they had children with or were married to their masters. Typically, upon the death of the master, slaves who had performed outstanding services were freed. The rest of the slaves were passed on as part of an inheritance.
Traveling merchants called pochtecah were a small, but important class as they not only facilitated commerce, but also communicated vital information across the empire and beyond its borders. They were often employed as spies.
Wild game was also a part of the Aztec diet. Aztec elites are also known to have consumed human flesh in certain ceremonial contexts but it is dubious that it ever formed an important part of their diet.
Aztecs also used maguey extensively; from it they obtained food, sweetening additives (aguamiel–"honey water"), fibers for ropes and clothing, and drink (pulque, a fermented beverage with an alcoholic content roughly equivalent to beer, used mainly in ceremonial contexts).
Cacao beans were used as money and also to make xocolatl, a frothy and bitter beverage, lacking the sweetness of modern chocolate drinks. The Aztecs also kept beehives and harvested honey.
The Aztecs also enjoyed board games, like patolli and totoloque. Bernal Diaz records that Cortés and Moctezuma II played totoloque together.
At 15, all boys and girls went to school. The Mexica, one of the Aztec groups, were one of the first people in the world to have mandatory education for nearly all children, regardless of gender, rank, or station. There were two types of schools: the telpochcalli, for practical and military studies, and the calmecac, for advanced learning in writing, astronomy, statesmanship, theology, and other areas. The two institutions seem to be common to the Nahua people, leading some experts to suggest that they are older than the Aztec culture.
Aztec teachers (tlatimine) propounded a spartan regime of education with the purpose of forming a stoical people.
Girls were educated in the crafts of home and child raising. They were not taught to read or write. All women were taught to be involved in religion; there are paintings of women presiding over religious ceremonies, but there are no references to female priests.
Song and poetry were highly regarded; there were presentations and poetry contests at most of the Aztec festivals. There were also dramatic presentations that included players, musicians and acrobats.
Poetry was the only occupation worthy of an Aztec warrior in times of peace. A remarkable amount of this poetry survives, having been collected during the era of the conquest. In some cases poetry is attributed to individual authors, such as Nezahualcoyotl, tlatoani of Texcoco, and Cuacuauhtzin, Lord of Tepechpan, but whether these attributions reflect actual authorship is a matter of opinion. Miguel León-Portilla, a well-respected Aztec scholar of Mexico, has stated that it is in this poetry where we can find the real thought of the Aztecs, independent of "official" Aztec ideology.
It is also important to note that the Spanish classified many aspects of the Aztec/Nahuatl culture according to the lexicon and organizational categories with which they would distinguish in Europe. In the same way that the second letter of Cortez made a mention of "mesquitas", or in English, "mosques", when trying to convey his impression of Aztec architecture, early colonists and missionaries divided the principal bodies of nahuatl literature as "poetry" and "prose". "Poetry" was in xochitl in cuicatl a dual term meaning "the flower and the song" and was divided into different genres. Yaocuicatl was devoted to war and the god(s) of war, Teocuicatl to the gods and creation myths and to adoration of said figures, xochicuicatl to flowers (a symbol of poetry itself and indicative of the highly metaphorical nature of a poetry that often utilized duality to convey multiple layers of meaning). "Prose" was tlahtolli, also with its different categories and divisions (Garganigo et. al).
The most important collection of these poems is Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, collected (Tezcoco 1582), probably by Juan Bautista de Pomar. Bautista de Pomar was the great-grandson of Netzahualcoyotl. He spoke Nahuatl, but was raised a Christian and wrote in Latin characters. (See also: "Is It You?", a short poem attributed to Netzahualcoyotl, and "Lament on the Fall of Tenochtitlan", a short poem contained within the "Anales de Tlatelolco" manuscript.)
The Aztec people also enjoyed a type of dramatic presentation, a kind of theatre. Some plays were comical with music and acrobats, others were staged dramas of their gods. After the conquest, the first Christian churches had open chapels reserved for these kinds of representations. Plays in Nahuatl, written by converted Indians, were an important instrument for the conversion to Christianity, and are still found today in the form of traditional pastorelas, which are played during Christmas to show the Adoration of Baby Jesus, and other Biblical passages.
The capital city of the Aztec empire was Tenochtitlan, now 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 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.
Around the island, chinampa beds were used to grow foodstuffs as well as, over time, to increase the size of the island. Chinampas, misnamed "floating gardens", were long raised plant beds set upon the shallow lake bottom. They were a very efficient agricultural system and could provide up to seven crops 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.
Anthropologist Eduardo Noguera estimates the population at 200,000 based in the house count and merging the population of Tlatelolco (once an independent city, but later became a suburb of Tenochtitlan). If one includes the surrounding islets and shores surrounding Lake Texcoco, estimates range from 300,000 to 700,000 inhabitants.
The situation was analogous in many ways to the Phoenician culture which imported and duplicated art from other cultures that they encountered. For this reason, archeologists often have trouble identifying which artifacts are genuinely Phoenician and which are imported or copied from other cultures.
Archaeologists usually do not have a problem differentiating between Mixtec and Aztec artifacts. However, the Mixtec made some products for "export" and that makes classification more problematic. In addition, the production of craft was an important part of the Mexica economy, and they also made pieces for "export".
The Nahuatl language is today spoken by 1.5 million people, mostly in mountainous areas in the states of central Mexico. Local dialects of Spanish, Mexican Spanish generally, and the Spanish language worldwide have all been influenced, in varying degrees, by Nahuatl. Some Nahuatl words (most notably chocolate and tomato) have been borrowed through Spanish into other languages around the world.
Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, making it one of the oldest living cities of America. Many of its districts and natural landmarks retain their original Nahuatl names. Many other cities and towns in Mexico and Central America have also retained their Nahuatl names (whether or not they were originally Mexica or even Nahuatl-speaking towns). A number of town names are hybrids of Nahuatl and Spanish.
Mexican cuisine continues to be based on and flavored by agricultural products contributed by the Mexicas/Aztecs and Mesoamerica, most of which retain some form of their original Nahuatl names. The cuisine has also become a popular part of the cuisine of the United States and other countries around the world, typically altered to suit various national tastes.
The modern Mexican flag bears the emblem of the Mexica migration legend.
Mexico's premier religious icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe has certain similarities to the Mexica earth mother goddess Tonantzin.
For the 1986 FIFA World Cup Adidas designed the official match ball to show in its "triades" Aztec architectural and mural designs
Miguel León-Portilla also idealizes the Aztec culture, especially in his early writings.
Others, such as Antonio Velazco, have transformed the writings by Sejourné and León-Portilla into a religious movement. Antonio Velasco Piña has written three books, Tlacaelel, El Azteca entre los Aztecas, La mujer dormida debe dar a luz, and Regina. When mixed with the currents of Neopaganism, these books resulted in a new religious movement called "Mexicanista". This movement called for a return to the spirituality of the Aztecs. It is argued that, with this return, Mexico will become the next center of power. This religious movement mixes Mesoamerican cults with Hindu esoterism. The Mexicanista movement reached the peak of its popularity in the 1990s.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo accompanied Cortes, but he wrote decades after the fact, he never learned the native languages, and he did not take notes. His account is colorful, but his work is considered erratic and exaggerated.
Although Francisco López de Gómara was Cortes' chaplain, friend, and confidant, he never visited the New World so his account is based on hearsay.
Perhaps the most important source about the Aztec are the manuscripts of Bernardino de Sahagún, who worked with the surviving Aztec wise men. He taught Aztec tlacuilos to write the original Nahuatl accounts using the Latin alphabet. Because of fear of the Spanish authorities, he maintained the anonymity of his informants, and wrote a heavily censored version in Spanish. Unfortunately the Nahuatl original was not fully translated until the 20th century, thus realising the extent of the censorship of the Spanish version. The original Nahuatl manuscript is known as the Florentine Codex.