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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 26 Mar 2017/13 Vulture
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Were the Aztecs as barbaric as described by the Spanish?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Tamar Clarke Brown: Were the Aztecs as barbaric as described by the Spanish? (Answered by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Cihuateteo figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Cihuateteo figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Who said the Aztecs were barbaric?
Many of the 16th century sources that describe ancient Aztec customs do not come from impartial observers. Their authors, in fact, were especially interested in Aztec culture from a religious perspective, namely because they were Catholic evangelisers. Authors such as friars Sahagún (who is claimed to have been Mexico’s first anthropologist), Torquemada, and Motolinía, amongst many others, dedicated themselves to writing gargantuan works on everything from Aztec religious rituals to their astronomy and fine arts.
The writings express how misguided and barbaric they thought their Mexican charges to be in their worship of multiple gods, and eating of human body parts.
Nowadays, anthropologists and historians are able to study Aztec behaviour in a manner that is unaffected by their personal beliefs. They aim to understand Aztec behaviour without labelling it barbaric.

Barbaric? Image of an Aztec woman, Codex Tudela, folio 5
Barbaric? Image of an Aztec woman, Codex Tudela, folio 5 (Click on image to enlarge)

Flesh Eaters
Think of what the Aztecs are most famous for: sacrificing humans and eating parts of sacrificed bodies. How can we explain these actions?
Aztec religious mythology was about the creation and destruction of the world. If the gods, who created humankind, did not receive regular presents of human blood, life as these people knew it could easily be taken away.
People ate the bodies of sacrificial victims. Captives who faced the sacrificial knife acted either as live images of gods or offerings to them. Their deaths signified the continuation of the life cycle, be it agricultural, lunar, or seasonal. We could view the bodies the Aztecs ate as ‘little pieces of life’, symbols of good fortune to come. Often, only people of high standing were privileged enough to consume human flesh.

Aztec jaguar warrior, Codex Tudela, folio 12
Aztec jaguar warrior, Codex Tudela, folio 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

If this still seems barbaric to you, try looking at this comparison...
According to the Bible, the Romans (to whom we owe many ‘civilised’ inventions and much of our cultural heritage), sacrificed Jesus by nailing him onto a cross and leaving him to die. Before his death, during the last supper, Jesus had insisted that his disciples consider the wine and bread they had dined on to be his blood and flesh. His sacrifice to them, the deadening of his body on the crucifix, was a gift of life to humankind.
The idea of what ‘barbarism’ is really lies in the eye of the beholder. Although Spanish priests thought many Aztec practices to be base and even evil, they preached in the name of an empire (the Holy Roman Empire) that regularly tortured people for the Inquisition!

Close-up of a section of the colossal stone statue of Coatlicue (earth monster goddess), National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Close-up of a section of the colossal stone statue of Coatlicue (earth monster goddess), National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

SOME ‘BARBARIC’ AZTEC CUSTOMS, what the Spanish Conquistadors thought at the time, and what we think now...

Aztec human sacrifice, Codex Tudela, folio 53
Aztec human sacrifice, Codex Tudela, folio 53 (Click on image to enlarge)

1. SACRIFICE AND SELF-SACRIFICE
THE AZTECS AND THEIR NEIGHBOURING TRIBES PERFORMED MANY TYPES OF SACRIFICE. CAPTIVES MIGHT HAVE THEIR HEARTS RIPPED FROM THEIR BODIES, BE BURNT ALIVE, FLAYED, OR CUT INTO PIECES. AZTEC CITIZIENS AND PRIESTS OFTEN PERFORMED ACTS OF SELF-SACRIFICE WHEREBY THEY PERFORATED THEIR TONGUES, EARLOBES, LEGS AND ARMS WITH CACTUS THORNS. AN ESPECIALLY PAINFUL EXAMPLE OF SELF-SACRIFICE INVOLVED PIERCING THE TONGUE AND PASSING LONG PIECES OF STRAW THROUGH THE WOUND.

Stone ocelot ‘cuauhxicalli’ (sacrifice vessel), National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Stone ocelot ‘cuauhxicalli’ (sacrifice vessel), National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

1. What the Spanish thought:-
The Spanish were horrified by the idea that the Aztecs believed in deities that frequently expected blood and hearts from their worshippers, especially when these were obtained in such a brutal way.

Aztecs sacrificing to the gods: Codex Tudela, folio 76
Aztecs sacrificing to the gods: Codex Tudela, folio 76 (Click on image to enlarge)

1. What we think!
As we explained previously, the Aztecs didn’t consider sacrifice to be pleasurable. It simply had to happen in order for the earth to keep on turning.
Whilst they weren’t accustomed to religious wars, the Spanish tortured and maimed those they considered heretics. Aztecs and other tribes people were burned at the stake, thrown into pits of spikes and attacked by ferocious mastifs (large dogs) brought from Spain. Both Aztecs and Spaniards committed carnage in the name of a god!

Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook
Aztec battleline - illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

2. WARFARE
THE AZTECS WERE KNOWN FOR THEIR FEROCIOUS APPROACH TO WAR. THEIR FACES AND BODIES PAINTED, WARRIORS HAD THE MISSION OF KILLING OPPONENTS OR TAKING THEM HOME TO BE SACRIFICED.

Model of Aztec jaguar warrior by G. S. Stuart
Model of Aztec jaguar warrior by G. S. Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

2. What the Spanish thought:-
The Aztecs had formidable warrior costumes. They would dress as jaguars, wild cats, coyotes, eagles, monsters, even death. Often reported as brutal and merciless, in the heat of battle these soldiers may have been considered by the Spanish to be devoid of rational thought and hell bent on killing.

Spanish Conquistadors: part of a screen-mural by Roberto Cueva del Río
Spanish Conquistadors: part of a screen-mural by Roberto Cueva del Río (Click on image to enlarge)

2. What we think!
Just as the Spanish were overwhelmed by the fearsome Aztec warriors, they too created a huge impact. The horses, cannons and iron weaponry brought over on their huge ships from Cuba commanded respect and fear. The Spaniards’ use of animals and technology made them no less barbaric than the Aztecs, just dramatically different.

Aztec cannibalism: Codex Tudela, folio 64
Aztec cannibalism: Codex Tudela, folio 64 (Click on image to enlarge)

3. CANNIBALISM
THE AZTECS RITUALLY CONSUMED THE FLESH OF HUMAN SACRIFICE VICTIMS.

3. What the Spanish thought:-
Of course, a fundamental part of European moral philosophy stated that cannibalism was deplorable. Guilty of this act, the Aztecs were dehumanised in the eyes of some Spaniards and were considered by them to be more akin to animals than thoughtful, conscious beings.

3. What we think!
The eating of human flesh by the Aztecs was an act of great religious solemnity and compassion. It reinforced their belief in the gods’ roles as regents (lords) over the earth and encouraged their attachment to the land and agricultural cycle. Similarly, Holy Communion provokes Catholics to contemplate the sacrifice given by Christ for the betterment of humanity.

Aztec élite dancing at a festival, Tovar Manuscript, plate XVIII
Aztec élite dancing at a festival, Tovar Manuscript, plate XVIII (Click on image to enlarge)

4. MUSIC
THE AZTECS WERE PERCUSSION CRAZY. THEY PLAYED MANY TYPES OF DRUMS, AS WELL AS WHISTLES AND FLUTES. THEY USUALLY DANCED IN RHYTHM WITH THE MUSIC THEY PRODUCED.

4. What the Spanish thought:-
Can you conjure up the cliché image of ‘savages’ dancing in rhythm around a fire? The Aztecs enjoyed dancing rituals accompanied by drums and flutes. These may have contributed to the image of the ‘barbarian Indian’. The Spanish, who understood nothing of Aztec spirituality, thought their entranced actions to be those of the devil.

4. What we think!
It wasn’t until the 20th century - even in Mexico - that the power and richness of Aztec music came to be publicly recognised. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution Carlos Chávez (a famous Mexican composer) led this re-awakening of interest by claiming in 1928 that pre-Columbian music ‘expressed what is profoundest and deepest in the Mexican soul’.

Painting of Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Painting of Tenochtitlan by Miguel Covarrubias, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

5. TECHNOLOGY
MANY PEOPLE STILL CONSIDER THE AZTECS AND OTHER MESOAMERICANS AS LESS DEVELOPED IN TERMS OF TECHNOLOGY. BY THE TIME THE SPANISH ARRIVED, THEY HAD NOT DEVELOPED IRON NOR THE WHEEL.

5. What the Spanish thought:-
’The Spaniards gave beasts of burden to relieve the natives of drudgery... meat to eat which they lacked before. The Spaniards showed them the use of iron and oil lamps to improve their ways of living.... They taught them Latin and other subjects which are worth a lot more than all the silver taken from them... it was to their benefit to be conquered and, even more, to become Christians’ - Francisco López de Gómara, chaplain and secretary to Hernán Cortés.

5. What we think!
Large animals were not indigenous to Ancient Mexico. Tapirs and deer were among the largest types. For this reason, animal drawn carts were not invented and the wheel was not used technologically (though children’s toys were made with wheels). Though the Aztecs did lack European knowledge of metallurgy, they were keen merchants and patrons of the arts. Their capital city was probably the biggest, cleanest and most beautiful in the world...

PICTURE SOURCES:-
• Photos of cihuateteo, Coatlicue and ocelot cuauhxicalli sculptures by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Scans from the Codex Tudela from our facsimile edition published (2002) by Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deportes, Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional and Testimonio Compañía Editorial S.A., Madrid (Colección Thesaurus Americae 4) (Original in the Museo de América, Madrid)
• Aztec battleline illustration courtesy of Osprey Publishing
• Sculpture of Aztec jaguar warrior by G. S. Stuart, courtesy Gallery of Historical Figures (photographs by Peter D’Aprix)
• Photos of Roberto Cueva del Río screen mural by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Aztec dancers, Tovar Manuscript, Pl. XVIII (original in the John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island, USA); scanned from the ADEVA, Graz, Austria 1972 edition, p. 273. Reproduction permission granted courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University
• Photo of Miguel Covarrubias painting of Tenochtitlan by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore

Read some thought-provoking quotes about the Aztecs...

Gallery of Historical Figures

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: No-one’s trying to ‘justify’ anything. Why get so heated? Learn to relax, chill out, open a can of beans... You’ll be disappointed to discover that the archaeological record doesn’t REMOTELY corroborate the number of sacrifices that the Spanish accused the Aztecs of performing. Check out this from two of Mexico’s most authoritative and leading archaeologists (see ‘What evidence is there of human sacrifice?’ in this same section):-

’The evidence demonstrates that the numbers in the historical sources may be wildly exaggerated. There is quite a long way from the skeletal remains of the 126 individuals found so far in all the construction stages of the Templo Mayor and its thirteen adjoining buildings to the 80,400 victims mentioned in a couple of documents for one single event:the dedication of an expansion of the Templo Mayor in 1487.’

We challenge you to come up with figures that back up what you say above...
Mexicolore replies: Why not come up with something little known? Under the (fourth) emperor Itzcoatl, most historical records in pictorial codices were burnt, so that a ‘new’ history could be written, to sanction state-sponsored religion - bad news in anyone’s book.
Mexicolore replies: The simple answer is that they believed in paying their gods back for having sacrificed themselves to kick-start the current world.
Why do you insist on using the most provocative, loaded and dramatic language possible to describe these practices, all of which are only understandable if the context is spelt out? Needless to say, you haven’t remotely done justice to the Xipe Totec rites.
Mexicolore replies: Very fair points - thanks for taking a welcome balanced view!
Mexicolore replies: This sort of slightly sensationalist article needs reading with caution. Yes, ‘human sacrifice’ went on, and yes, different methods were used. But the majority of victims WERE captured warriors killed instantly with an obsidian knife. Gladiatorial and other types of - yes, cruel - sacrifice were reserved for special ceremonies that have to be understood differently. Yes, children were sacrificed - if they were unlucky enough to be born on the last 5 ‘useless’ days of the solar year - but not under ‘torture’, they were drowned in the lake. (Yes of course they cried! But not from inflicted pain, simply because they were kids, about to die!! And yes this was a good omen - for rain). What this article doesn’t do is put these things into any real perspective. And crucially, as the writer admits, archaeologists today are finding ‘evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts in substance, IF NOT NUMBER’ (emphasis added). The contentious issue of numbers involved is of huge importance, and as Leonardo López Luján - who is on our panel of experts - confirms, the numbers of human skulls found buried at the main temple of the Aztecs runs to a hundred or so - NOTHING remotely like the numbers claimed by the Spanish. Finally, victims were not killed by being ‘tossed from the tops of temples’. They were sacrificed first, and then their bodies were thrown down the temple steps as a form of ritual re-enactment of the killing of Coyolxauhqui by Huitzilopochtli in Aztec myth.
Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!
Mexicolore replies: Oh come on, Mike, surely you can do better than that...? To compare the practice of human sacrifice among the Aztecs to modern-day ISIS beheading of random individuals who don’t even share belief in the same set of gods seems just plain silly.
Mexicolore replies: This is a funny contribution! Heavily ironic that you mention European expertise in health and hygiene - AT THE TIME THE SPANISH INVADED the Aztecs had a far more advanced primary health care system that the Spanish greatly admired! And what on earth is the point of mentioning things like electricity and cars that were invented centuries later?! This debate is about ‘Aztecs v Spanish’ in 1519...
Mexicolore replies: Charming! What’s got your goat, Gerd? Did you get out of bed on the wrong side this morning?! The Nazis engaged in genocide. No ancient Mesoamerican peoples ever did. Try and do some basic research in future before coming out with offensive remarks like these...
Mexicolore replies: If you’re right, Sue, I feel sorry for the hundreds of millions of poor souls that have never had the chance to be ‘born again’ and ‘have a personal relationship with Christ’. Seems a trifle unfair on them...
Mexicolore replies: Whilst your gut feelings are understandable, Rick, we’ve had to ‘edit’ some of your comments because of the nature of this website, aimed at learners of all ages...
Mexicolore replies: Cheers, Julia - glad to be of help.