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Gods Give Power to the Aztecs

The Aztecs came to an area that today is Mexico City. It was high in elevation, surrounded by mountains, with a lake and swampland – an area that was to become known as the Valley of Mexico. The last branch of Aztecs to arrive there was the Mexica, who arrived around the year 1250.

The Aztecs were an impoverished, uprooted people who had been living by hunting and gathering. They were without writing, with an oral history. According to their legend they were from somewhere in the north called Aztlan and had been led to the Valley of Mexico by a magician-priest.

In the Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs found all land adequate for farming occupied, and they settled onto an infertile hilly region named for grasshoppers – today the glorious Chapultapec region of Mexico City. Their neighbors despised them for what they saw as their barbaric ways and drove them from Chapultapec to an area where they were forced to live off snakes and lizards. Then they were driven away again, to a swampy region within the valley.

This hardship proved a blessing for them. The swamps provided them with wild plants and fish, frogs and ducks to eat. And similar to so-called barbarians who had come upon civilization in Mesopotamia, the Aztecs were resourceful and learned quickly. The contempt that others had for them appeared misplaced. The Aztecs built terraces on hills that were previously not farmable. Copying the agriculture that was traditional in the Valley of Mexico they constructed dikes.

Aztec success was built upon new opportunities in agriculture. They built chinampas, floating gardens on a swamp. Mud from canals was put on mats. Trees were planted at the corners, and the roots of the trees anchored the chinampa in place. On the chinampas the Aztecs grew corn, avocados, beans, chili peppers, squash and tomatoes.

They saw themselves as having done well. They built for themselves a community called Tenochtitlan, surrounded by lush green cultivated fields and water, which they traversed with canoes. With their new prosperity, the Mexica rapidly increased in number, and their success impressed their neighbors. The Aztecs entered regional politics and allied themselves with neighbors who had been expanding against others. The Mexica had not forgotten their warrior tradition. They were skilled soldiers and became skilled diplomats. They allied themselves with the dominant power in the region, the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, a little to the northwest of Tenochtitlan. As members of this alliance they were participants in the first significant empire in south-central Mexico since Teotihuacan.

In 1428, the Aztecs fought and defeated their former ally, the Tepanecs. Between 1428 and 1450, with its two remaining allies the Aztecs conquered most of the Valley of Mexico and beyond, including Xochicalco, sixty kilometers (37 miles) to the south of Tenochtitlan.

Nature intervened – more bad weather. From 1450 to 1454 famine dominated the Valley of Mexico, which stimulated an effort at greater food production, and the Mexica expanded their power to the rich food-producing areas along the Atlantic Coast and to the Pacific Coast.

The Mexica method of expansion was not much different from that of other conquerors. Representatives of the Mexica would approach the ruler of a town and announce that the town should pay tribute to the Mexica and their allies. If the ruler accepted, he maintained local power under the Mexica. If he refused, war was declared. And where the Mexica fought they would demand food. Local people, seeing the Mexica and their allies arrayed just outside of their village, were often eager to provide food and whatever else would please the army. But if displeased by the response of the village, the army would plunder and kill.

Aztec Nobles, Middle Class, and Slaves

The Mexica had become divided by class. A few of them were nobles, the same logic of power and wealth that had appeared elsewhere in the world. The nobles controlled much land and the labor of commoners and slaves. (Several kinds of money were in use. Cacao beans were used as money for small purchases, and standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli were also used as money.) There was ranking within the nobility, but, regardless of rank, the nobles were unified in defense of their status against threats from commoners. Nobles married those from other noble families. They used marriage to link themselves into a kinship network and reinforced the network by exchanging luxury goods.

Nobles were concerned with appearing serious, serene rather than haughty and as having good manners – a sign, they thought, of good breeding. They viewed the common Aztec as unnecessarily loud, as too demonstrative and as insufficient in self-restraint and dignity. They believed that one should eat calmly lest one be mocked. They associated a lack of restraint with idiocy. And they believed in sincerity. They claimed that their lord god, Tezcatlipoca, saw what was in the heart so that with only feigned humility one could not maintain the respect of the gods.

Aztec kings were aligned with the nobles. Like other kings they had myths. They claimed that they were chosen by the gods to rule, that their primary function was to serve the gods and after that to protect their subjects. Aztec kings attempted to rise above the humble past of wandering and impoverished hunting and gathering. They claimed they were descended from Toltec kings – a claim that bolstered dynastic legitimacy. They revered Toltec objects. They described Toltec kings as having been semi-divine, as super-human in their accomplishments and as having invented most of Mesoamerican culture, including writing, the calendar, the arts and other crafts.

Among common Aztecs upward mobility was possible through the priesthood or through warfare. Warriors were ranked by the number of enemies they had captured, and exceptionally successful warriors were given some of the responsibilities and privileges of nobles. There were merchants benefiting from a thriving local market and long distance trade. And at the bottom of Aztec society were those unable to support themselves who had sold themselves into slavery to a noble. Some were put into slavery as punishment for a crime. But slavery among the Aztecs was not inherited. The children of slaves were free.

Praising and Doing the Work of the Gods

The Aztecs credited their success in agriculture to their gods. They saw themselves as the chosen people of the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and they saw themselves being sustained their sun god, Tonatiuh. They sought to avoid punishment by pleasing by their gods. They had stories about the creation of the universe, beginning with a first god that was both male and female, who gave birth to four god-sons, and two of these sons created the earth, mortals, and other gods. The Aztecs had gods of rain, moisture and agricultural fertility. Each god had one or more temples where its idol was housed. And each god had full-time priests to attend to its interests – priests who were mostly male, who attended sacred fires that burned in large braziers, priests who played music at ceremonies, burned incense and left food for their god.

Fundamental to Aztec religion was the belief that the gods had created the sun by throwing themselves into a huge fire, that the gods had spilled their own blood to create humankind and that humans were obliged to pay back their blood debt to the gods. Aztec priests scarred and mutilated their bodies in their constant bloodletting. Some priests appeared especially devout with their long, unwashed hair matted with dried blood. War was favored as a way of obtaining blood and men for sacrifices. Most people who were sacrificed to the gods were those captured in warfare. And warfare was encouraged to obtain such persons.

Archaeological evidence indicates that children were frequent and special targets for sacrifices. They were sacrificed to the rain god in hope of rainfall the following year, and the priests were joyful to see the tears of the children as they were being led away to their deaths, the priests believing the children's tears to be a sign of coming rain.

Sacrifices were public spectacles that took place at the top of a pyramid in a town plaza. The person to be sacrificed was taken up steps to an apex of a temple. Priests assisted in the sacrifice, performed by a special priest with an official flint knife. The victim's heart was torn from his or her body. Then the victim was sent rolling down the temple steps. At the bottom of the steps the victim's head was separated from his body and mounted on a skull rack next to the temple. The blood of the victim was soaked up with bark and the bark put on a fire, the smoke believed to carry the blood to the gods.

Perhaps only on a very special occasion was a sacrifice followed by a ceremonial meal. For such meals, a portion of the sacrificed person's body was eaten, to honor the victim's memory and perhaps to ingest one or more of his admirable qualities.

There is no evidence that the Aztecs had developed the kind of early philosophical thought that in Europe had given rise to the beginnings of science or a differentiation between the material and the spiritual.

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