Pre-Columbian Aztec

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Pre-Columbian Aztec

"We shall conquer all the people in the universe and I will make you lords and kings of every place in the world - Huitzilopochtli, patron god of the Aztecs

While many ancient civilizations remain a mystery, little can be left to conjecture when it comes to the details of the Aztec way of life. An extensive and detailed collection of written and pictorial records exist for us today called CODICES (CODEX if singular) were produced before Spanish contact by the native tribes themselves, and afterwards during the Colonial period. These codices were created by the Aztecs in pictorial form, as well as by other indigenous tribal sources, all of which had no written language. Colonial era codices exist in greater number with roughly 500 separate codices known, showing extensive pictograms as well as being written in Spanish, Latin and in the original Nahuatl language.

The origin of the Aztec (Azteca) Empire is legendary. Aztec codices record that they began their wandering journey in 1100 A.D. emerging from their former homeland called Aztlan or "place of the herons", an island in a lake where men went out to fish from boats. The exact location of this region is not known but other than it was northwest of present-day Mexico City, the former center of the Aztec empire, but how far, it is a mystery.

The Aztecas shared in the beliefs of the Chichimec Indians that their origins were born of springs of water or caves. The Chichimec legend says "seven caves where their ancestors dwelt for so long and which they abandoned in order to seek this land, some coming first and others later." The tribes believed to precede the Aztecas were the Tepanecs, the Chalcans, the Texcoco and the Xochimilco who settled around the lakes in the Valley of Mexico. The final tribe to emerge were believed to be the Aztecas "by divine command".

The Aztecas believed they were guided by a blood-thirsty deity they called Huitzilopochtli who communicated to them through four priest-chieftains called teomama. Their god called upon them for his insatiable thirst for human blood and sacrifice. As they migrated south, every indiginous Indian tribe they encountered along the way abhorred the Azteca, as they were known, as they were reviled and scorned for their violent and barbaric ways. During their migration, Huitzilopochtli gave a message to his people that their new identity would no longer be known as Azteca but as Mexica. In around 1325 A.D., as they were fleeing an altercation with the Culhuacans, they were driven to a marsh. Their god Huitzilopochtli consoled them that evening and said he would end their wandering and told them to look for a sign that he will give them that will signify their new homeland which will be "the place of the cactus and the eagle I now name Tenochtitlan". They next day they witnessed an eagle resting on a prickly pear cactus which they interpreted to be the sign they were hoping for.

This marsh, Lake Texcoco, would later become a vast canal-laced highly advanced, super city of stone pyramids and temples known as Tenochtitlan. With a population that grew to an estimated 200,000 people (three times the largest city of Spain at the time!) this became the center of the most powerful and militaristic empire of Mesoamerica - home of the Aztecs. Today, we classify their reign as occupying the Late Post Classic Period from 1250 - 1521 A.D.

The success and rise of the Aztec empire was largely attributed to their dominance through intimidation of their surrounding neighbors from whom they extracted resources from. The effect of their extreme militarism and brutality on their enemies brought a large region of peoples into submission. The highly advanced and complex Aztec social structure, as well as legal system, kept their growth intact and the society orderly. They formed an alliance with the Texcoco and Tlacopan tribes and in 1428 A.D., they defeated the Tepaneca. This triple alliance established a great empire that was predominantly ruled from Tenochtitlan. At its peak, this empire included a large, diverse group of people and spanned an area from the entire Central Mexico region south, into northern Guatemala.

Aztec society was highly stratified among social classes. A division between commoner and noble existed which was then further divided by power, wealth and responsibilities. The Aztec civilization was predominantly supported by agriculture (maize being the most important crop) but warfare and subsequent domination over surrounding tribes and villages provided many additional resources. The Aztecs were innovative in a variety of aspects of daily life from being one of the first societies in the world to require mandatory education for children to their invention of floating agricultural crop gardens called CHINAMPAS. It was an oddly paradoxical civilization - to be so orderly and advanced yet, to be so predisposed to gore and violence.

When one hears the word AZTEC, two thoughts come to mind. One is their macabre practices in human sacrifice. The other is their cruel annihilation at the hands European greed. Rarely are the facts about what was witnessed by Spanish explorers led by Hernan Cortes in 1519, ever mentioned much less explained. Fortunately, not much has to be left to speculation as to what really happened in everyday life of an Aztec because we have an extensively recorded society made first-hand by eye-witnesses from both the Spanish side as well as records of Aztec life and practices before Spanish contact from an Aztec perspective in the Florentine Codex. These written historical records describe the Aztecs as a highly ordered and advanced civilization yet, so perverted in violence and gore beyond what anyone from Europe had ever seen before or could have even imagined. Today, educators and historians seem to have forgotten to read what actually was seen by Cortes and his men. We are led to believe it was the conquistadors that committed the brutal sins of the Aztec massacre, driven by lust for gold and dominion. One cannot deny the purpose of Cortes' expedition from the outset was to discover new lands and resources, but what they saw upon their arrival was beyond what anyone today could comprehend and was for certain, the driving force behind the Spanish explorers' desire to vanquish Aztec evil from the Earth regardless of any wealth gained.
Modern educators have led us to believe that Cortes and his army plundered and massacred this strategically disadvantaged society out of greed and lust for their gold. An objective study of the simple facts of exactly what went on in a typical day in the life of an Aztec may cause you to rethink such propaganda. Written historical records of both the sides, Aztec and Spaniard, graphically illustrate the horrorific sights that went on day after day in Aztec life. Sights that would have likely caused any civilized individual react and act exactly as Cortes and his men did in response to the abyss of evil and violence that they witnessed.

The truth of what happened is stranger than fiction and too extensive as well as graphic, to fully address in this introduction. The Aztecs believed that all the gods were appeased with human blood and sacrifice and hundreds of thousands of men and women were ritualistically sacrificed in this belief. What is more troubling is the mass graves of very young children and infants that have been found to have been murdered. Victims hearts were cut out, dismembered, eaten and skinned with priests wearing their victims freshly flayed hides in gory feasts and festivals.

There are ample written records of every form of torture having been performed by the Aztecs on their captors. The methods in which Aztec inhabitants routinely mutilated, sacrificed and ate the remains of men and women are almost too gruesome to detail but it is important to understand what exactly took place in order to then understand why the Spaniards reacted in the way they did. To the Spaniards, the Aztecs were an abomination to humanity that had to be stopped, gold or no gold. Historical accounts are full of events such as the torture and gory sacrifice of innocent crying children (purchased from willing parents) ranging in age from three years to seven years old that must have been too much to bear for the European explorers to witness much less tolerate. The codices that documented the events of Spanish contact repeatedly describe the demand by the Spaniards for the Aztecs to end the human sacrifices that were committed before their eyes. The Aztecs routinely refused despite these pleas.

What the Spaniards saw in the Aztec society was beyond anything they could have ever seen in their former experiences - a true hell and evil that was even darker than what the Gospels had described. Because of this, the destruction of all traces of Aztec society by Cortes and his army was so complete and effective. Aztec artifacts are amongst the rarest of Mesoamerican Indian cultures because little survived their annihilation.

by John McNamara


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Pre-Columbian Aztec