The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th century. They were a civilization with a rich mythology and cultural heritage. Their capital was Tenochtitlan on the shore of Lake Texcoco – the site of modern-day Mexico City.
In Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs, "Aztec" means "someone who comes from Aztlán", a mythical place in northern Mexico. However, the Aztec referred to themselves as Mexica or Tenochca. The modern usage of the name Aztec as a collective term, applied to all the peoples linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state, the Triple Alliance, was suggested by Alexander von Humboldt.
"Mexica", the origin of the word Mexico, is a term of uncertain origin. Some say it was the old Nahuatl word for the sun. Others say it was derived from the name of their leader Mexitli. Yet others say it is just a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. Miguel León-Portilla suggests that it means "navel of the moon" from Nahuatl metztli (moon) and xictli (navel). Alternatively, it could mean navel of the maguey (Nahuatl metl).
Aztec culture is generally grouped with the cultural complex known as the nahuas, because of the common language they shared. According to legend, the various groups who were to become the Aztecs arrived from the north into the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco. The location of this valley and lake of destination is clear – it is the heart of modern Mexico City – but little can be known with certainty about the origin of the Aztecs.
In the legend, the ancestors of the Aztecs came from a place in the north called Aztlán, the last of seven nahuatlacas (Nahuatl-speaking tribes) to make the journey southward. The Aztecs were said to be guided by their god Huitzilopochtli, meaning "Left-handed Hummingbird". When they arrived at an island in the lake, they saw an eagle eating a snake while perched on a nopal cactus, a vision that fulfilled a prophecy telling them that they should found their new home on that spot. The Aztecs built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site, building a great artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This legendary vision is pictured on the Mexican flag.
According to legend, when the Aztecs arrived in the Anahuac valley around Lake Texcoco, they were considered by the other nahuas as the least civilized of all, but the Aztecs decided to learn, and they took all they could from other peoples, especially from the ancient Toltecs (whom they seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization of the Teotihuacanos). To the Aztecs, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayotl" was a synonym for culture. Aztec legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also seem to have identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.
Because the Aztecs combined several traditions with their own earlier traditions, they had several creation myths; one of these describes four great ages preceding the present world, each of which ended in a catastrophe. Our age – Nahui-Ollin, the fifth age, or fifth creation – escaped destruction due to the sacrifice of a god (Nanahuatl, "full of sores", the smallest and humblest of the gods) who was transformed into the Sun. This myth is associated with the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which was already abandoned and destroyed when the Aztecs arrived. Another myth describes the earth as a creation of the twin gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca lost his foot in the process of creating the world and all representations of these gods show him without a foot and with a bone exposed. Quetzalcoatl is also called "White Tezcatlipoca".
Initially, the Mexica hired themselves out as mercenaries in wars between Toltecs. Eventually they gained enough glory to receive royal marriages. Mexica rulers Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca were, in 1372–1427, vassals of Tezozomoc, a lord of the Tepanec nahua.
When Tezozomoc died, his son Maxtla assassinated Chimalpopoca, whose uncle Itzcoatl allied with the ex-ruler of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, and besieged Maxtla's capital Azcapotzalco. Maxtla surrendered after 100 days and went into exile. Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan formed a "Triple Alliance" that came to dominate the Valley of Mexico, and then extended its power beyond. Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance.
Itzcoatl's nephew Motecuhzoma I inherited the throne in 1449 and expanded the realm. His son Axayacatl (1469) surrounding kingdom of Tlatelolco. His sister was married to the tlatoani of Tlatelolco, but, as a pretext for war, he declared that she was mistreated. He went on to conquer Matlazinca and the cities of Tollocan, Ocuillan, and Mallinalco. He was defeated by the Tarascans in Tzintzuntzan (the first great defeat the Aztecs had ever suffered), but recovered and took control of the Huasteca region, conquering the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.
In 1481 Axayacatl's son Tizoc ruled briefly before he was replaced by his younger brother Ahuitzol who had reorganized the army. The empire was at its largest during his reign. His successor was Motecuhzoma II (better known as Moctezuma II), who was emperor when the Spaniards arrived in 1519.
The Aztec Empire is not completely analogous to the empires of European history. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more a system of tribute than a single system of government. Arnold Toynbee in War and Civilization analogizes it to the Assyrian Empire in this respect.
Aztec Stone Calender
Although cities under Aztec rule seem to have paid heavy tributes, excavations in the Aztec-ruled provinces show a steady increase in the welfare of common people after they were conquered. This probably was due to an increase of trade, thanks to better roads and communications, and the tributes were extracted from a broad base. Only the upper classes seem to have suffered economically, and only at first. There appears to have been trade even in things that could be produced locally: love of novelty may have been a factor.
The most important official of Tenochtitlan government is often called The Aztec Emperor. The Nahuatl title, Huey Tlatoani (plural huey tlatoque, translates roughly as "Great Speaker"; the tlatoque ("speakers") were an upper class). This office gradually took on more power with the rise of Tenochtitlan. By the time of Auitzotl "Emperor" is an appropriate analogy, although as in the Holy Roman Empire, the title was not hereditary.
Most of the Aztec empire was forged by one man, Tlacaelel (Nahuatl for "manly heart"), who lived from 1397 to 1487. Although he was offered the opportunity to be tlatoani, he preferred to stay behind the throne. Nephew of Tlatoani Itzcoatl, and brother of Chimalpopoca and Motecuhzoma I Ilhuicamina, his title was "Cihuacoatl" (in honor of the goddess, roughly "counselor"), but as reported in the Ramírez Codex, "what Tlacaellel ordered, was as soon done". He gave the Aztec government a new structure, he ordered the burning of most Aztec books (his explanation being that they were full of lies) and he rewrote their history. In addition, Tlacaelel reformed Aztec religion, by putting the tribal god Huitzilopochtli at the same level as the old Nahua gods Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl. Tlacaelel thus created a common awareness of history for the Aztecs. He also created 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. Some writers believe upper classes were aware of this forgery, which would explain the later actions of Moctezuma when he met Hernán Cortés (a.k.a. Cortez). But eventually this institution helped to cause the fall of the Aztec empire. The people of Tlaxcalla were spared conquest, at the price of participating in the flower wars. When Cortés came to know this, he approached them and they became his allies. The Tlaxcaltecas provided thousands of men to support the few hundred Spaniards. The Aztec strategy of war was based on the capture of prisoners by individual warriors, not on working as a group to kill the enemy in battle. By the time the Aztecs came to recognize what warfare meant in European terms, it was too late.
For the Europeans, human sacrifice was the most striking feature of Aztec civilization. Human sacrifice was widespread at this time in Mesoamerica and South America (during the Inca Empire), but the Aztecs practiced it on an uncommon scale, sacrificing victims on each of their 18 festivities.
In the usual method of sacrifice, the victim was painted completely with blue chalk (the color of sacrifice) and taken to the top of the great pyramid, then the victim was laid on a stone slab, his abdomen (an obsidian knife hardly could cut through a ribcage) was ripped with a ceremonial knife, and his heart was taken out and raised to the sun. The heart was put in a bowl held by a statue, and the body was thrown on the stairs, where it would be dragged away. This was suposed to be voluntary, so, if faith was not enough, probably they were also drugged. There is no agreement on how the bodies were disposed of: the viscera were used to feed the animals in the zoo, the head was cleaned and placed on display in the tzompantli, and the rest of the body was either cremated or cut into very small pieces and offered as a gift to important people.
There were others kind of sacrifice, some of them involved some kind of torture; the victim could be shoot with arrows, burned or drowned. Compared with European methods of execution, the Aztecs were not very imaginative.
While there is universal agreement that the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice, there is a lack of scholarly consensus as to whether they also practiced cannibalism and, if so, to what extent. At one extreme, Materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris, who wrote about cannibalism in Our Kind and Cannibals and Kings has suggested that the flesh of the victims was a part of an aristocratic diet as a reward, since the Aztec diet was lacking in proteins. According to him, the Aztec economy would have been unable to support feeding them as slaves, so the columns of prisoners were "marching meat". At the other extreme, William Arens doubts whether there was ever any systematic cannibalism.
While most historians of Mesoamerica believe that there was ritual cannibalism related to human sacrifices, they do not support Harris's thesis that human flesh was ever a significant portion of the Aztec diet.
The Aztecs were conquered by Spain in 1521, when after long battle and a long siege where much of the population died from hunger and smallpox, Cuauhtémoc surrendered to Hernán Cortés (a.k.a. "Cortez"). Cortés, with his up to 500 Spaniards, did not fight alone but with as many as 150,000 or 200,000 allies from Tlaxcala, and eventually from Texcoco, who were resisting Aztec rule. He defeated Tenochtitlan's forces on August 13, 1521.
It seemed that the Cortés's intention was to maintain the structure of the Aztec empire, and at first it seemed the Aztec empire could survive. The upper classes at first were considered as noblemen (to this day, the title of Duke of Moctezuma is held by a Spanish noble family), they learned Spanish, and several learned to write in European characters. Some of their surviving writings are crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. Also, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and some, like Bernardino de Sahagún, decided to learn as much as they could of the Aztec culture.
But soon all changed. The second wave of missionaries and authorities showed an apparently profound hatred for every aspect of the Mesoamerican cultures and began a process to wipe them out. Eventually, the Indians were forbidden not only to learn of their cultures, but to learn to read and write in Spanish, and, under the law, they had the status of minors.
It has been reported that epidemics of smallpox and typhus killed up to 75% of the population. The population at the time of the conquest is estimated at 15 million; seventy years after the conquest, the estimated population was 3 million. Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.
Information about Aztecs survives in contemporary sources like Codex Mendoza collected in 1541 and in the works of Bernardino de Sahagún, who worked with the surviving Aztec wise men.
Nahuatl is still spoken by Mexican Indians, mostly in mountainous areas in the states surrounding Mexico City.
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