Background For the Teacher
The Aztec Indians
When the Spanish led by Hernan Cortés landed in Mexico with about 550 men, many cannons, horses, and fierce dogs, on Good Friday of 1519, they had no idea of the complex and awesome civilization created by that people that they would find. For not so many years before Cortes’ first encounter with the Aztec people, and other rival Indian neighbors, Columbus had opened the gates to the New World. During Columbus’s voyages of exploration in the 1490’s, he found many modest populaces like those from the island of Hispaniola. There in Hispaniola, he found Indians living in a beautiful world a primitive nirvana that was complete with social customs, established social structures, and belief systems.
It’s no wonder that Cortés and his men were so astonished when they finally arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which is under modern day Mexico in buried ruins. There Cortés met with the ruler Moctezuma II. Cortés’ soldier Bernal Diaz described what he saw as he marched through a section of Tenochtitlan in these terms:
When we saw those cities and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded . . . . These great towns and pyramids and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream. (Clendinnen, p.l7)
Truly the Empire of the Aztecs was as magnificent as the Spaniards first described. The “civilized” European capitals they were familiar with were smaller, less developed, and very dirty.
Unfortunately for the Aztecs and the modern world, the coming of the Spaniards brought about the almost total annihilation of the Aztec Indian population through warfare, genocide, and European diseases to which the Aztecs had no immunity. Likewise, the Spaniards destroyed almost all of the Aztec works of art and Bodices (records which visually depicted and explained Aztec life and beliefs). Their grand architecture was also demolished and replaced by “Christian Architecture”. The whole of Aztec civilization built on hundreds of years of Indian ingenuity, religious beliefs, and wisdom almost disappeared.
Undoubtedly, history reveals that the destruction of the Aztec empire was brought about by the Spanish greed for gold. More shocking is the fact that most Spaniards at the time justified their abusive treatment and destruction of the Aztec civilization as necessary to convert the Indians to their “Christian” religion.
Luckily, one can get a fairly accurate picture of Aztec life before the coming of the Spanish as a result of archaeologists who have uncovered ancient Aztec ruins and artifacts. Historians have likewise pieced together personal accounts and records left behind by men such as Friar Bernardino de Sahagun. In addition, today there exists about one and a half million descendants of the Aztec Indians which are referred to as Nahua people. They live in Mexico and speak the Aztec language Nahuatl. Determined to keep alive what ever common heritage they have, Nahuas have added a new dimension to knowledge of their ancestors, by sharing with Historians their oral traditions, providing a modern day window into the past.
The Aztecs were nomadic Indians from the northern valley of Mexico who spoke the language Nahautl and believed in many Gods. . Although they tried to settle down into one of the city-states of the time, they were consistently driven out by other more cultured Indians. For many years, the Aztecs wandered about looking for a place to settle through the guidance of their patron God Huitzilopochtli. Through a medium, Huitzilopochtli told the Aztecs to look for a sign—an eagle standing on a cactus with a snake in it’s mouth. There, where they found the sign, they were to build their city-state.
In 1325, the Aztecs saw the sign in the Valley of Mexico and built their city-state on an island they called Tenochtitlan on lake Texcoco. “It covered an area of 2500 acres... and was geometrically laid out with a great criss-cross of canals” (McGregor Eddie, p.69) Three large causeways led to the center of the magnificent city. Immediately one could see a great pyramid with twin temples on top that were built in honor of the Aztec sun and war god, Huitzilopochtli, and to the rain god, Tlaloc. Many steps led up to the temples. King Moctezuma II’s huge two story palace with room for 3000 servants could also be seen. In the center of the city existed an enormous marketplace offering a wide and extensive choice of almost anything. The market was so large that when the Spaniards saw it, they were in awe. Food, pottery clothes, artwork, slaves, tiger skins, and much more were for sale.
The bulk of the city was located off the western shore of Texcoco. Homes were built on man-made islands called chinampas in the lake. Most of the homes were one story high, except for those owned by the affluent that were two story. The homes had flat roofs and were built around courtyards with their windows facing the courtyard. Sacred pyramids dotted the landscape much like our current places of worship dot any city or town. Every town also had it’s own market.
After some 200 years, the Aztec civilization flourished and expanded after having joined a triple alliance with it’s neighbors Tlacopan, and Acolhuaca. The Aztecs established an agrarian society with complex political, religious, and social networks. Over time, the Aztecs became the most powerful members in the triple alliance. The population of Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been about 250,000. In addition, the Aztec’s realm of influence extended to include 15 million people from “the deserts of the north to Oaxaca in—the south” (McGregor Eddie, p.74) Trade routes as far south as Guatemala, and as far east as the Gulf Coast were also established. So powerful were the Aztecs, that peoples from all other city-states feared, respected, and paid tribute to Tenochtitlan in the form of—food, works of art, human sacrifices, and slaves. Fast and efficient delivery of tributes, trading relations, and communication were made possible by the use of canoes and foot power to and from the Aztec’s island location.
Way of Life
The Aztecs were small people. Women averaged about four feet eight inches, and men averaged about Five feet three inches. Their skin was a bronze like brown; their hair and eyes were black. Men and women wore their hair long.
Aztec society is said to have been more morally strict than the Puritan settlers of New England. Drunkenness or adultery were often punishable by death. (Smith, p.153) Aztec society along with being morally rigid, was also very structured. An elite body made up of the king and a figure called the Snake Woman (Who was really a man) ruled the state. There was also a council of advisors who advised the King and the Snake Woman. One could rise to the ranks of the nobles if one was a soldier who proved himself to be brave at war. Below the advisory council were the lesser officials. Below them in status were the craftsmen, followed by the merchants, the ordinary people, the peasants, and finally the slaves. Interestingly, one could sell oneself or one’s offspring into permanent or temporary slavery as punishment for committing a crime or to pay a debt.
Aztec society structure dictated a whole range of behaviors. So extreme were the social rules that they even applied to the way one could dress. People had to observe different dress codes that would readily identify them as belonging to a certain class of citizen. Punishment for trespassing outside one’s class dress could also be punishable by death. Only the upper crust could wear lavish jewelry and regal outfits, the common man was relegated to wearing very plain clothing. Class distinctions also applied to the type of home one could own. Being a farmer meant that one could only live in a one story house. A noble could live in a two story house. The type of schooling one was given was also subject to one’s family status.
Many historians have called the Aztecs religious fanatics. This is because the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice at a grand scale. They were known for having sacrificed thousands of soldiers in one day! They truly believed that their sun god needed the blood of human beings in order to guarantee it’s existence, and the existence of all humanity. The Aztecs believed that the world had previously been destroyed four times. By making regular human sacrifices at preset times on their calendar, the Aztecs believed that they were preventing the fifth destruction of the world. Human sacrifices were routinely made available when the Aztecs went to war. Warriors did not kill their enemy on the battlefield, they brought them back to their priests. The priests ritually sacrificed the captives by cutting open their chest and pulling out their beating hearts. Later they threw the hearts into a fire lit receptacle. Various historical documents also depict the Aztecs as practicing cannibalism with the bodies of their sacrificed victims, but that point is still in dispute by various historians. The Aztecs also believed in countless deities who in many instances had to do with nature and survival. They worshipped rain Gods, sun Gods, the God of corn, the God of war etc... Generally speaking, the Aztecs viewed their Gods as entities that needed to be appeased. On the subject of a supreme being, one Aztec poet wrote:
He mocks us.
As he wishes, so he wills.
He places us in the palm of his hand,
He rolls us about;
Like pebbles we roll, we spin . . . .
We make him laugh,
He mocks us. (from McDonnell, 1980)
War for the Aztecs was a way of life. War was an act that kept neighbors subjugated, and supplied a way to act out their religious beliefs. When a male child was born, it was taken for granted that he would become engaged in some aspect of battle. Boys were trained for the military at a young age. The Aztecs had the reputation of being fierce soldiers, and the surrounding towns were very fearful of them. Being at war was a constant reality. When there was no reason to be at war, the Aztecs partook of what became known as “xochiyaoyotl” or Flowery war. Flowery wars were artificial battles that took captive innocent warriors from surrounding cities for human sacrifice to the Aztec gods. The Aztecs had the reputation of being fierce soldiers. Boys were trained for the military at a young age.
Aztec Food and Cooking
How much and what kinds of food were available for eating also had much to do with one’s place in the hierarchy of society. Everyone ate with their hands, but it was good manners to wash one’s hands and face before and after a meal.
The peasants lived mainly on maize and beans. Maize tortillas were grilled and dipped in tomato and hot pepper stew. Once in a while, peasants would get lucky and catch a duck or a crow for dinner. Large farm animals such as cows, which existed in much of the New World were unknown to the Aztecs. Instead, they domesticated the rabbit, turkey, and a hairless dog which today is extinct. The peasant would fatten up these small animals and eat them for special occasions. Last but not least on the peasant menu was the serving of tadpoles, algae, cactus worms, and fish from the lake. The nobles on the other hand ate a wider food selection. They ate turtle and crabs that were imported from the coast. It is said that King Montezuma had about one hundred different dishes to pick from on any given day. His menu sometimes included wild pig and pheasant. (MacDonald, p. 18)
Maize above all other crops was the staple food for all Aztecs. Aztec women made maize tortillas every day. First they ground the maize into flour. Then they mixed water into the flour and made the dough into flat pancakes which they cooked on a flat dry stone over an open fire. (MacDonald, p. 18) The Aztecs knew the importance that maize had to their existence, they felt respect for the maize plant “ a special tenderness reserved for the handling of maize. Women breathed softly on the maize kernels before they were dropped into the cooking pot . . . giving them courage for the fire” (Clendinnen, p.53)
Maize still continues to play a major role in the Mexican diet today. Interestingly, it was the early Indian settlers of central Mexico who are believed to be the first cultivators of maize. Archaeological evidence proves that in central Mexico “a type of corn was domesticated as early as 3000 to 4000 B.C.” (Smith, p.23)
One explanation for the discovery of domesticated maize is that during a period in Mexico when wild game was becoming scarce, the Mexican Indians accidentally encountered the largest wild maize plants. They ate the edible portions of the plant and discarded the rest of the plant. What they discarded is believed to have been mutant seeds which later proved to be domesticated corn. (Smith, p. 24) Accidental or not, if not for the astute observations of the Indians of central Mexico, the New World might never have maize in its diet.
The contribution of maize by the New World to the Old World can not be understated. Today maize is used in ways. It is used in making flour, oil, starch, corn syrup, to name a few. More importantly, maize has the advantage of being a very versatile crop. Maize can be grown in soils that “receive too much or too little moisture for wheat or rice” (Weatherford, p.73)
Even though maize is a versatile crop, historically, maize was not a food of choice for the European. Yet, corn played a major role in increasing the nutritional standards and population of Europe by indirectly providing nutrition to the European. Instead of growing maize for human consumption, it was fed to a wide range of domesticated farm animals “The new animal food not only increased the supply of meat and lard, but also increased the supply of ... all the animal products that constitute 50 important a part of European diet” (Weatherford,p.73)
The effects of the introduction of maize to the New World can readily be seen one hundred years later. During the eighteenth century, “Corn and other American crops were being widely cultivated in southern Europe, the population of Italy grew from eleven million to eighteen million, and the population of Spain doubled” (Farb and Armelagos from Weatherford, p.73) Maize was fed to a wide range of domesticated farm animals. “The new animal food not only increased the supply of meat and lard, but also increased the supply of eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and all the animal products that constitute so important a part of European diet” (Weatherford, p.73)
Another contribution the Aztec Indians made to the world was their role in helping to introduce the use and cultivation of the cacao bean. Cacao appears to have originated either in the Amazon or Orinoco basin about 4,000 years ago. Cocoa beans grow inside large pods which attach themselves to cocoa trees. The pods are cut down from the tree and sliced open to reveal a “central placenta and coated mucilage”. ( Young, p.671) The process of extracting the beans is no easy job. The beans within the pods are very slippery and must be extracted with one’s hands and teeth. The beans are then left in the sun to dry. Then the beans are toasted in a very delicate manner. Finally the beans are ground up and ready for use. This preparation process took the Indians hundreds of years to learn. To “cultivate the plant but also to develop the appropriate technology for making the fruit into a very different type of product. By and large the Europeans borrowed this technology.” and are still using it to produce the chocolate that we buy in our neighborhood stores. (Weather ford, p.92)
The use of cacao was a well kept secret until Europeans like Christopher Columbus encountered the cacao bean on his fourth journey, but foolishly, he chose to ignore them. Twenty years later, Cortes saw the Aztec King Montezuma drinking many cups of “xocoatl- a liquid so prestigious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after one use.” (Young, p.666)
Cacao for the Aztecs served a dual purpose. The first purpose was that of currency. In the days of the Aztec empire, one could virtually buy anything with cacao beans “about one hundred cacao beans could buy a slave”. Another use for cacao beans was for making the special drink xocoatl mentioned before. Cacao bean drinks appear to have been drunk during feasts and celebrations with sometimes bizarre after effects “at some banquets no wine was served, but only a chocolate drink ... In the chronicles of Diego Duran it is written that the people became highly excited and filled with joy; that they became more drunk than with liquor.” (Smith,p.154)
After tasting the Aztec cocoa drink, “Cortes sipped the bitter, spicy beverage, and when he returned to Spain in 1528, he took some of the wondrous beans back to his King.” The Spaniards took a liking to the Aztec drink, but modified it by adding cane sugar to the bitter drink. (Young, p.666) Cortes being a Entrepreneur type took cacao beans with him when he left the Aztecs, “seeding money plantations on Trinidad, Haiti, and West Africa”. Because of Cortes “entrepreneur spirit”, Spain enjoyed a monopoly on chocolate for about l00 years.
Since those days, cocoa bean production occurs in many parts of the world. Cocoa grows mainly in Brazil and West Africa, but to a small degree in Mexico and Southeast Asia.(refer to slide set for cocoa lesson). Today, chocolate production is a multi-million dollar industry. (Young, p.667-668)
Paradoxically, the Aztec’s demonstrated a penchant for ritual human sacrifice, while also showing that they were quite capable of being very kind, artistic, and poetic. It was customary for soldiers to carry bouquets of flowers. Writing poetry about nature like the one poem below was not uncommon.
The gold and black butterfly
Is sipping the nectar.
The flower bursts into bloom:
Ah, my friends, it is my heart.
I send down a shower of white
frangipani flowers. (McDonnell, 1980)
The Aztecs were masterful artisans. They created both powerful and monumental art as well as small and delicate works of art. The type of art they produced, and the themes behind their renderings were influenced by their philosophy of life and religious beliefs.
The Aztecs viewed death as a more integral part of life than the European. A regularly occurring theme in Aztec art is death. If one is in agreement that art is a reflection of life, the regular occurrence of war and human sacrifice as a way of life for the Aztecs naturally manifested itself in their art. Examples of skulls adorned with jewels have been found by archaeologists. (Refer to slide set for further examples)
Religion as mentioned previously, had Aztec society in a stronghold. Nothing attests to this fact as well as their artwork. The majority of artifacts found by archaeologists depict the many gods the Aztecs worshipped. Stories about the different gods of the Aztecs read very much like Greek mythology. The statues made to honor the gods portray them as mythical beings who were part human and part animal or reptile. Honoring the Aztec gods required sacrifices, therefore, most of their images look very frightening.
In addition to religious influences in Aztec art, there also existed the influence of Toltec Indian art, whose work they emulated. In fact the word “Tolteca” for the Aztecs came to mean “craftworker.” (Beck, p.34) The Toltecs built their capital at Tula in the year 980 A.D. At the time, the Toltecs were led by their benevolent priest-ruler Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl who established Tula with the intention of creating a peaceful and creative haven. Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl taught that “a single creative God force... created the earth, sun, and sky, man in his smaller way should create what he could” (Smith, p.l22)
The Toltec artisans took the words of their ruler to heart and became known as “Artisans who could work in every form. No task was too difficult for them.” (Smith, p.l22) Toltec pottery were superbly crafted and gained them recognition. Pottery took on the form of many kinds of animals, reptiles, gods, and people of various sizes. As soon as metal was introduced to them, the Toltec’s artistic mastery gained them fame in that area too. The Toltecs also built pyramids, temples, and monumental statues to their god Quetzalcoatl at Tula. (Smith, p.122)
The Aztecs produced work from a wide variety of materials. Their skill in painstakingly manipulating various materials was outstanding. Obsidian, turquoise, gold, emeralds, Quetzal feathers, and sometimes human remains were used. Art took the form of masks, statues, mosaics, shields, headdresses, sculpture of every size, and jewelry. Expert sculptors carved reliefs from huge stones. The color green had special significance for the Aztecs. Much to the surprise of the gold-digging Spanish conquistadors, nobles found the Quetzal feathers to be the most valuable material of all.
In various delicate sculptures, one can see the artisan’s labored attempt at making an animal, reptile, or plant figure as realistically as possible. One Aztec sculptor is said to have given this advice “What is carved should be like the original, and have life... take great care to penetrate what the animal you wish to imitate is like, and how its character and appearance can best be shown” (from Clendinnen, p. 226) Relatings such as these, prove to me that the Aztecs were profound thinkers, rather than savages as the Spaniards would have had us think.
Aztec written communication was also an art in itself. The Aztecs painted pictures on bark from the Amate tree that conveyed messages with the help of glyphs. These images were called codices. With the use of Bodices, the Aztecs were able to record important events. An uninformed person might quickly dismiss the artwork of the codices as simple and primitive. Yet, the Aztecs purposely used the techniques of presenting figures in an abstract way “a chosen rejection of realism... heads are huge, torso and limbs short.” In a very sophisticated way, they purposely juxtaposed different images to cause the viewer to contemplate what it was that the artist was trying to communicate. The Bodices “could generate discourse, not merely record received information” (Clendinnen, pgs.230-231) Once again, we see that the Aztec Indians were very capable, intelligent people.
The Aztec rulers had occasion to use work made by the Artisan class. Once a year rulers would gather together valiant soldiers and bestow upon them gifts of adorned shields and other crafts. Aztec shields were decorated with featherwork. The process of making a shield was no simple task, which further demonstrates Aztec expertise. The procedure began with the drawing a draft of the selected design on paper. Then, the drawing was transformed into a stencil. Finally, a selection of cut up feathers of appropriate color were glued onto the base of the shield. (Lothrop, p.66)
Aztec society was founded on a well developed oral tradition. The transmission of knowledge and information was mainly done through word of mouth. Therefore, there are no examples of notated music to tell us how Aztec music sounded. Even so, recorded eyewitness reports from the past tell us that “Early Spanish settlers were moved by the snatches of Aztec music they heard” (Blackwood, p.98)
The playing of music was a serious matter. Music for the most part served religious purposes which were an integral part of Aztec society. Musicians were professional elites who underwent rigorous training to learn “a very extensive repertory of music, based on a detailed and elaborate religious calendar”. Being a Musician meant holding a privileged place in society, but it was not without its drawbacks. Musicians were under constant scrutiny during religious performances. Playing a musical piece incorrectly during a religious ceremony was enough to warrant their execution. (Blackwood, p.98)
Music also played a part during celebrations and feasts. Celebrations were religious and sometimes marked the initiation of an important life event such as marriage. Aztecs sang, danced, and played musical instruments during celebrations. The Aztecs marked the coming of a new month with a celebration of song and dance together with that of feast and sacrifice.
A glimpse can be had of what an Aztec celebration was like from the recorded recollections of surviving Aztec elders after the Spanish conquest by Fray Bernardino de Sahagun wrote:
Those who furnished the music for dancing were stationed within the house called Calpulco so that the dancers and the musicians could not see each other... All the people of the palace even the warriors, old and young, danced in other parts of the courtyard, holding each other by the hand, and winding in and out wriggling in snake fashion . . . among these warriors one could also see maidens dancing, very well painted, and their arms and legs adorned with red feathers. (from Smith, p.49)
Another glimpse of Aztec celebration can be had by looking at various Aztec codices. It appears that celebrations were quite elaborate. People dressed in animal skins and colorful attire. They danced in circular formation and played maracas. Musicians can be seen playing drum-like instruments. Interestingly, some images are those of foot jugglers performing together with musicians. (Smith, p.49)
The Aztecs are not known for having produced an extensive line of musical instruments. String instruments were absent from Aztec bands. This musical addition was introduced by the Spaniards. What they did make, I feel, attests to their human ingenuity. They used wind instruments such as flutes and whistles which they made out of pottery, and “tubular or shell-type trumpets”. (Blackwood, p.98)
Percussion instruments such as drums and rattles were also used. These instruments were made out of plant and animal products. Rattles were often made from pottery in the shape of humans, or made in a circular shape and then elaborately decorated. They made a drum called a Huehuetl. The Huehuetl is one of the first true drums that was used in Mexico. It was made by hollowing out a log and stretching animal skin across one end. The other end of the drum was cut out so the musician had the liberty of relaxing or stretching the skin of the drum with his arms or legs, thereby adjusting the pitch. A drum called a Teponaztli was also played. This drum was also made from a hollowed out tree trunk, but instead of being stood on one end, the drum lay flat. On the top of the drum were two tongues. The tongues were then struck by a rubber-tipped mallet that made them produce two different vibrating sounds. (Smith, p.49)