|Ask the Experts|
|Tec a Good Look ...|
|Can you help?|
|Flora and Fauna|
|Places to Visit|
|What evidence is there of human sacrifice?|
|Did the Aztecs have a term for religion?|
|How did the Aztecs get their stones for building?|
|Did the Aztecs use metal spears?|
|What does this Nahuatl saying mean?|
|How did the Aztecs use stars?|
|What happened to the nobility after the Conquest?|
|What did the Aztecs call the Spanish invaders?|
|How did Aztec culture influence their housing?|
|Why did Alvarado massacre the Aztecs?|
|What were the surgery practices among the Aztecs?|
|What did royal women wear?|
|Were all gods male and female?|
|The feast for Xilonen|
|Could you get divorced?|
|What would Cuauhtémoc have looked like?|
|Is Tlaltecuhtli on this ring?|
|How was the Aztec army provisioned and how did they treat wounds?|
|The Aztecs and dwarfs|
|Can you identify this object from the Florentine Codex?|
|Was Xochiquetzal a female Aztec warrior?|
|Is this the urn with Ahuitzotl’s ashes?|
|Dogs as guides for souls of the dead to Mictlan|
|Did the Aztecs have war chants?|
|The clothing of Aztec priests and royals|
|What’s going on in this image from the Florentine Codex?|
|Which feast was dedicated to Chalchiuhtlicue?|
|Royal court musicians|
|How did they make colourful costumes?|
|Did the Aztecs use a ‘Mixtec Sabre’?|
|What was the symbolism of the four directions?|
|Were women stargazers?|
|Turquoise mosaic disc|
|How far north and south did the Mesoamerican civilizations trade?|
|What happened to the rest of the sacrificed person’s body?|
|Who exactly were the Chichimec people?|
|Is there a name for the Aztec speech glyph?|
|Did the Aztecs paint their canoes?|
|What was the Aztec symbol for turquoise?|
|How do we know Tenochtitlan had a zoo?|
|Did the Spanish completely obliterate Aztec song and dance from the historical record?|
|The tongue hanging out in Aztec art|
|The 13 heavens and 9 underworlds|
|What exactly was a ‘calpulli’?|
|What did Aztec children wear?|
|Can you suggest good books on Aztec music?|
|Where are the codices today?|
|Where were deerskin strap masks worn?|
|Did the Aztecs use ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’?|
|How much gold did the Spanish take from the Aztecs?|
|Can you translate this poem?|
|The origin of ‘pulque’|
|The eagle and the snake...|
|Many partners or one?|
|Were war banners sacred or utilitarian?|
|Did war shield symbols represent cities?|
|The Aztec symbol for war|
|‘A typical battle’|
|An image of Tonantzin?|
|The monkey’s earring|
|Who was Prime Minister at the Conquest?|
|The ‘crying boy’ whistling jug|
|The wind god’s fan|
|What was the symbol for gold?|
|Mysterious rectangular motif|
|What did the Aztecs wear?|
|What was Cuauhtémoc’s emblem?|
|What’s the ruler’s dress called?|
|The name Moctezuma today|
|Who are these 2 gods?|
|What were Aztec shields made of?|
|How should I start teaching a topic on the Aztecs?|
|How did the Aztecs make molcajetes?|
|Can you tell us anything about the Aztec God of Good Health?|
|Why wear headdresses?|
|How big was the Aztec Calendar (Stone)?|
|An image of Citlalicue?|
|We’re trying to find pictures of what the Aztecs ate|
|Tezcatlipoca or Tezcatilpoca?|
|Sacred birds, flowers and Day Lords|
|Aztec symbol for protector|
|Traditional Náhuatl greetings|
|Child-friendly sources on the Conquest|
|Were the Aztecs as barbaric as described by the Spanish?|
|What does (my) name Cuitlahuac mean?|
|The Myth of Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl|
|Nahua Women and the Spanish Conquest|
|What happened straight after Moctezuma’s death?|
|Did Aztec men wear earrings?|
|The Aztec Army|
|What about Tlatelolco?|
|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 (Click on image to enlarge)|
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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (Click on image to enlarge)|
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 (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 (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 (Click on image to enlarge)|
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 (Click on image to enlarge)|
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 (Click on image to enlarge)|
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...
• 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
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