General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 13 Dec 2017/2 Flint
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Did the Aztecs try to convert conquered peoples?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Cheryl Claassen: In Aztec conquest was “conversion” a goal? How was Aztec conquest manifested in religious changes in a conquered city? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The classic Aztec glyph for conquest, ubiquitous in the Codex Mendoza
Pic 1: The classic Aztec glyph for conquest, ubiquitous in the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Oddly, information on this is sparse in the literature. We know the Mexica basically ran what Warwick Bray calls (Everyday Life of the Aztecs, p. 192) a protection racket, and held their empire together by force. Conquered peoples were left alone IF they paid their tribute taxes in full and IF they accepted the worship of the Mexica tribal deity Huitzilopochtli. Their main aim was to intimidate a city-state into submission, only resorting to full-scale destruction as a last resort. Central to this strategy was the capture and burning of the ‘enemy’ town’s main temple - a symbolic act (see pic 1) to show Aztec victory. However, as Manuel Aguilar-Moreno explains ‘burning the temples also meant that the local gods had been defeated, although their images were not necessarily destroyed. The Aztec often removed them, along with the local priests, to Tenochtitlan, where the gods were housed in the coateocalli temple in the Sacred Precinct.’ (Handbook..., p. 125). These stone and wooden statues were believed to contain cosmo-magical powers. This policy had a devastating impact on the conquered populace, since their gods had been ‘invested with the power over agricultural fertility’ (John Pohl, Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies, p. 15),

Pic 2: Some two dozen conquered towns depicted in the Codex Mendoza, fol. 11
Pic 2: Some two dozen conquered towns depicted in the Codex Mendoza, fol. 11 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Mexica, then, made a show of appropriating, and respecting, both local gods - many of which in any case they already worshipped in one form or another - and local kings, the source of authority for the payment of tribute to the Aztecs. This of course impacted heavily on local political structures, as John Pohl explains: ‘The more traditional Mesoamerican societies were often governed by a king who was decreed a god by virtue of the fact that he represented a direct line of descent from the community’s mythical founding ancestor, someone who had performed a supernatural act to achieve his status. The king was subsequently the focus of what is called an “historical religion”. It kept him paramount by emphasising a rank which was unattainable by lesser nobility by right of birth. The display of lineage history through idols or the preservation of sacred bundles containing holy relics (see pic 3) was consequently of fundamental importance to the maintenance of both holy and royal status. Their worship documented and verified the “correct” line of descent which kept the king divine.

Pic 3: A sacred bundle carried by a Mexica deity-bearer contains a smoking mirror; the four small balls surrounding the mirror are balls of eagle down, symbols of sacrifice. Codex Azcatitlan, fol 7b
Pic 3: A sacred bundle carried by a Mexica deity-bearer contains a smoking mirror; the four small balls surrounding the mirror are balls of eagle down, symbols of sacrifice. Codex Azcatitlan, fol 7b  (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Since kings were engaged in multiple marriage alliances in order to expand territorial control, they produced numerous royal offspring whose descendants struggled among themselves to move from junior lines back into senior status positions. This was accomplished by arguing and manipulating the aristocratic history imbedded in their religion. when the destruction or disappearance of holy regalia [pic 3] prevented a leader from publicly displaying his legitimacy it opened his position to dispute in succeeding generations. Established status could be undermined, leading to a re-evaluation of social order as junior members of the nobility exploited the opportunity to make new claims in status. This was an ideal situation which the Aztecs encouraged to their advantage. They could make defeated kings dependent upon them to maintain social order, and ultimately bind the royal line to their own through intermarriage.’

Sources/references:-
• Warwick Bray Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Dorset Press, 1968
• John M D Pohl Aztec, Mixtec and Zapotec Armies, Osprey Publishing, 1991
• Manuel Aguilar-Moreno Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Facts on File, 2006.

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Image from the Codex Azcatitlan - considered public domain.

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