The Aztecs started as a group of American Indians speaking Nahuatl (Nah-wah-tl), a language of the Siouan (See-oh-ooahn) family. They were descendants of theAsian people who arrived on the North American continent after crossing the Bering Strait during Earth’s last Ice Age and migrating south, following the mammoth herds. They came originally from the Northwest, from the arid cactus lands, but may have been in Mexico for several centuries before they became a powerful tribe. A similar language, Nahua, was also spoken by the Toltecs (Tohl-teks), who controlled most of Mexico between 750 AD and 1000 AD.
The Aztecs never called themselves Aztecs, but rather Mexica (Meh-shee-kah)the folk of Mexi, a priest-chief from ancient, legendary times. Legends tell that the Mexica came from Chicomoztoc (Tchi-koh-moss-tock), the Seven Caves, from the northern lands called Aztlan (Ahst-lahn), the Place of Whiteness. It is from the name of Aztlan that the word Aztec is derived. The Mexica tribe, after a long migration from Chicomoztoc, arrived at the valley of Anahuac in 1168. After moving around that area for over 150 years, they finally founded their city of Tenochtitlan (Teh-nosh-tit-lahn), Cactus Rock, on a place signaled by an eagle atop a cactus, and depicted so dramatically on a 15-foot-long strip of fig-bark paper called the Codex Boturini.(Figures 1-5) So, from here on, Mexica will refer to the ruling tribe in Tenochtitlan, and Aztec will be the generic term used for the period and population under their rule.
The Aztec custom of cremating rather than burying their dead has left archeologists with few of the items of clothing, furniture, and personal goods that usually accompanied individuals of other cultures to the life beyond the grave. Yet, scholars have been able to piece together a detailed account of life in the Valley of Mexico many centuries ago. Long before the Aztecs built their great city-state, Central Mexico had been a civilized region. As early as 900 BC there had been a civilization of importance, the Olmec, along the Gulf of Mexico, a development which appeared quite suddenly among tribes of primitive farmers whose villages depended on maize cultivation. When this early Olmec civilization declined, it was succeeded in southwestern Mexico by a culture developed by the Zapotecs, who continued from 500 BC until 1480 AD, when they were absorbed into the Aztec Empire.
A new civilization arose around the city of Teotihuacan (Tee-oh-tee-wáh-kahn), the Place where the Gods were Made, on the highland plateau of Central Mexico. Here great pyramid temples were built for the Sun and Moon, and the city became home to a quarter of a million people. The paintings and sculpture from Teotihuacan show that much of later Aztec religion was already in existence by the first century AD. Teotihuacan had a great many contacts with surrounding Mexican tribes, and its art style is found throughout the whole area of the later Aztec Empire.
After the fall of Teotihuacan in the 7th century AD, there was a period of confusion, which ended with the development of a mercantile empire based at Tula (Tooh-lah), the Place of Reeds, 20 miles north of what is now Mexico City. The Toltecs (Tohl-teks), who ruled from Tula, gradually controlled all civilized parts of Mexico. A civil war broke out soon after 970 AD. The fighting was excessively fierce and a terrible pestilence hit the population, so by the end of the war, the Toltec Empire was finished. Legend says that a number of Toltecs escaped to Yucatan, far to the south, and legend says that only 20 noble Toltec families survived on the Mexican plateau.
According to the legend, these Toltecs were important because they were descended from the god Quetzalcoatl (Keht-tsal-koh-ahtl), the Precious Twin, who was the planet Venus as Morning Star. But the name can also be read as Feathered Serpent, which refers to Quetzalcoatl as the wind god whose breath rippled the leaves and grasses as if they were the green plumes of the earth serpent. Quetzalcoatl was blessed by the Creator, and his descendant alone among the Mexican nobility had the right to rule the country.
The Eagle and the Serpent
After 1000 AD the Mexican city-states were constantly at war with one another. Some reached a high level of sophistication but others were poverty-stricken and their people still wore skins and hunted with bows and arrows. Among the latter were the ancestors of the Aztecs. It was in 1168 that the leaders of this small city-state came to a ruined temple where they heard a message from a their patron god Huitzilopochtli (Weet-zeel-oh-póhsh-tlee), Blue Humming Bird of the South, as the bright sun god was at the zenith of his path in the sky. Huitzilopochtli was the god of war, force, power, action, accomplishment and nobility.
Their god sent the Aztecs on a pilgrimage which lasted nearly a century. They were promised by Huitzilopochtli that one day they would find an island in a lake with a rock on which there would be a cactus. On the cactus they would see their god in the form of a shining golden eagle holding a serpent in his talons (Figure 5). This would be the place where they were to settle and build a city from which they would rule all Mexico. Thus they created a myth that glorified their years of wandering in the desert.
After many tribulations, the Mexica were defeated and ensnared by the king of Colhuacan (Kohl-wah-kahn). The tough Aztec tribesmen were soon sent to help in a war against the surrounding tribes. They killed all the enemies they saw because they would not bring back prisoners to be sacrificed to the gods of their oppressive ruler in Colhuacan. Instead they cut off one ear from each victim, and put them in packs on their backs. When the king upbraided them as cowards who could not capture any prisoners for his gods, they silently poured a torrent of human ears over his feet.
The king was shocked and afraid. He dismissed the Aztecs and told them they could settle freely on an islet in the Lake of Mexico. So they went to the rocky islet among the swamps where their leader found a stream beside a rock, and on the rock was the cactus and the shining eagle of Huitzilopochtli. Their long pilgrimage was over. The year was 1325. There, the Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec empire.
Tenochtitlan, the Cactus Rock
It was not until 1375 that an Aztec war chief assumed the title of Tlatoani (Tlah-toh-ah-ni), the Speaker, and so asserted his independence as the interpreter of the will of the Aztec people. In 1440 the fifth chief of the Aztecs came to rule Tenochtitlan. The Mexica now dominated the whole of the Valley of Mexico, and had allied themselves with the neighboring cities of Texcoco (Tesh-koh-koh) and Tlacopan (Tlah-koh-pahn). Their chiefs had sought out princesses of pure Toltec descent as their brides, so that they could inherit the divine right to rule, which belonged to the descendants of Quetzalcoatl. The new ruler of the Aztecs was given the title of Huetlatoani (Ooeh-tlah-toh-ah-ni) or Great Speaker for the several tribes over whom he had dominion. His name was Moctecuzoma Ilhuicamina (Mock-teh-Koo-zoh-mah Eel-weeh-kah-mee-nah) , Noble Strong Arm, He Who Aims at the Sky. During his reign the Aztec armies continued their conquests and were the first to reach the shores of the Mexican Gulf.
In 1484 the Great Speaker Tizoc (Tee-zohk), He who offers his own Blood to the Gods, laid the foundations for the rebuilding of the ancient temple to Huitzilopochtli. He took prisoners and sacrificed some to the god. The annals say that this was the first sacrifice of human captives on a large scale. In fact it had long been felt to be necessary to kill a few captives, rarely more than 20 at even the greatest ceremonies. Tizoc died before the temple was completed. When the great building was completed, it was to be dedicated by his successor, the Great Speaker Ahuitzotl (Ah-weet-zoh-tl), Water Opossum, a magical creature believed to be the cause of death by drowning.
Ahuitzotl was a patron of the arts, and a great lover of music. He had more wives than any other Mexican ruler, and rejoiced in flowers, beautiful birds and animals. Yet his name became a synonym of horror and cruelty. When the great temple was dedicated, he took 20,000 captives and had them all sacrificed in four days by eight teams of priests. The year was 1487, only five years before Columbus sailed into the West Indies. Ahuitzotl died in 1502 when the Spanish had just settled in Cuba. His successor was Moctecuzoma Xocoyotzin (Mock-the-koo-zoh-ma Shoh-koh-yoh-tzin), Prince Strong Arm, the Noble Lord.
By this time almost all of civilized Mexico was under Aztec domination. Toltec traders went far afield, bringing turquoise from New Mexico, gold from Panama and precious feathers from Guatemala. Even the independent priest-kings of the Zapotecs had surrendered. But when Moctecuzoma (Montezuma) died in 1519, his city was occupied by the Spanish troops of Hernando Cortes. The god had fulfilled his promise of glory and had now deserted the Aztecs; and it was left only for the brave young Cuauhtemoc (Kwow-teh-mok), Prince Falling Eagle, to lead a hopeless resistance against the white men.