Ancient Aztec Civilization

When founding the city of Tenochtitlán, the Aztecs settled definitively until the arrival of the Spaniards. They had left Aztlán (a place we do not know) convinced by the god Huitzilopochtli to find a new place. After a long and hard road they reached the Valley of Mexico. They settled in Chapultec, but were expelled from there. They asked the lord of Colhuacan for a land to go to, and he gave them Tizapán, full of poisonous snakes; But it was no problem because they ate them roasted. After some time they asked the lord of the neighboring village (the Culhuas) to give them his daughter to marry her off to their god. The girl was offered in sacrifice and when her father knew, they had to flee to the lakes. This was already in the year 1323. On Lake Texcoco they saw a sign of the god: an eagle, on a cactus, devouring a snake; And founded there the city of Tenochtitlán, which means where the wild cactus is.

The Ancient Aztec Civilization

Ancient Aztec Civilization
Ancient Aztec Civilization

Generally, we call Aztec the inhabitants of the territories conquered by Hernán Cortés, applying, therefore, that term not only to the own Aztecs but also to the Mexicas.

Economy: Agriculture

The main crops are: corn, tobacco, chilies, fruit and maguey.

Culture: Language and writing
The Aztecs, and perhaps the Teotihuacans a thousand years before, spoke a language called Nahuatl. Writing mixed pictograms, ideograms and phonetic signs. Their writings reflect their own history, geography, economy, religion …

Some codices have reached our days. Of them, the most well-known ones like the Codex Bourbon came before the arrival of the Spaniards. It is a book-calendar with two parts, the first a book of destinies (tonalamalt) and the second the festivities of the months (xiuhpohualli).

Culture: Literature: Poetry

The Aztec poems could be recited or sung to the rhythm of drums and trumpets. Sometimes they included words that had no meaning and only served to set the pace. Often they were dedicated to the gods, but they also dealt with other topics such as friendship, war, love and life. Some kings were famous poets, as for example Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco (1402-1472).

Ancient Aztec writing
Ancient Aztec writing

Culture: Beliefs

According to the Aztec, the world was created and destroyed four times. Then it was created by the gods for the fifth time. They made the earth and separated her from the sky. Then the god Quetzalcoatl created the men and plants that feed them. The Aztecs counted this:

“They then they made fire, and having made it, they made half a sun, which, not being whole, did not shine much, but only a little. Then they made a man and a woman: the man was called Uxumuco and the woman Cipactonal. And they commanded them to til the earth; And for her to spin and weave. And that the macehuals would be born from them, and that they would not enjoy themselves, but would always work. And the gods gave her certain grains of corn, so that with them she would heal and use riddles and witchcraft, and so women do today. “


The Aztecs had numerous gods:

  • Coatlicue, the goddess of the earth.
  • Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.
  • “It frequently appears in poetry as Ipalnemoani (by whom we live), the supreme force.
  • “Every aspect of sexual life was associated with a different god. Thus, Xochipilli was the god of flowers, of love, of fertility and of illicit sexual relations; Like his wife, the goddess Xochiquétzal, who, besides, was protector of the prostitution (that as previously said, was licit).
  • “For her part, Tlazolteotl was the goddess of pleasure, voluptuousness, fecundity, and fertility. She protected the parturients, the midwives, the sorcerers related to the love world and the men of intense sexual activity
  • Every atmospheric phenomenon was also associated with a god: to Tlaloc the rains, to Quetzalcoatl Ehecatl the winds.

According to the Aztecs, one lives only once, and life is full of both suffering and joy, and the only way to survive after death is to attain fame, although the fame itself disappears when those who remember the deceased die.

Culture: Science: Astronomy

It was one of the most traditional sciences for the Aztecs. Thanks to their observations, the revolutions of the sun, of the moon, of Venus, and, perhaps, of Mars were determined with great precision; They grouped the stars into constellations (which do not coincide with ours); They knew the existence of comets; The frequency of eclipses of sun and moon; And were able to create a complex calendar.

This observation of the sky also allowed them to develop knowledge of meteorology and thus predict the frost or establish the characteristics of the prevailing winds.

Nevertheless, each atmospheric phenomenon was associated with a god: to Tlaloc the rains, to Quetzalcoatl Ehecatl the winds.

Culture: Science: Medicine

Medicine also had a great degree of development. With their knowledge of nature, they distinguished healing properties in various minerals and plants. Human religious sacrifices (which included the removal of the heart and the dismemberment of the body) favored a good knowledge of anatomy.

They knew how to heal fractures, snake bites. Possibly there were “dentists” in charge of fixing dental deformities.

Ancient aztecs
Ancient aztecs

Although the medicine was practiced by men and women, it seems that only women could take care of deliveries. Medicine was closely linked to magic, but the failure to attribute the scientifically correct cause to each disease did not mean that the appropriate remedy was not applied.

Culture: Art: Goldwork

Thanks to their knowledge of physics goldsmiths were able to use various techniques in their work (such as lost wax), to melt gold with silver, and so on. They made all kinds of figures and adornments bracelets, necklaces, pectorals, earrings, etc. Often the metal was combined with precious stones (turquoise, amethyst, jade, rock crystal) or with shells.

Culture: Art: Architecture

Stepped pyramids were built in Cholula, Xochicalco and Teotihuacán.

Culture: Art: Sculpture

The Aztecs were skilled sculptors. They buil sculptures of all the sizes, small and colossal, in them were reflected natural and religious subjects. They captured the essence of what they wanted to represent and then performed their works in detail.

In large sculptures, they used to depict gods and kings. The small ones were reserved for the representation of animals and common objects. Stone and wood were used and sometimes enriched with colored paint or inlaid with precious stones.

Culture: Art: Painting

Color is fundamental in painting. It is a flat color, without tints or shades and possibly with symbolic connotations. It appears to be linked to architecture and decorating buildings.

Culture: Art: Feathers

Adornments made with feathers were of great importance in Central America. The most prized feathers were those of the quetzal (green) those of the tlauquecholli (red) and those of the xiuhtototl (turquoise blue). With them they made tapestries and adorned blankets, ritual masks, shields or warrior costumes.

Aztec Law

The laws were very severe. As in other ancient cultures the punishments were different depending on the offense and the rank of the perpetrator. Generally the punishment was harder if the person who committed the crime was an important official or noble.

There was the death penalty for the crimes of murder, betrayal, abortion, incest, rape, robbery with fracture and adultery. In the latter case stoning was used although the woman was strangled previously. Warriors could escape the death penalty by accepting a permanent destination in the border area.

Ancient Aztec warriors
Ancient Aztec warriors

Drunkenness was considered a crime. It was only allowed, in some circumstances, for the elders and professional warriors. Punishment could be death or a shaving of the head (if it was the first time someone not important was committing this fault).

Aztec Society

The Aztec emperor possessed an unlimited power, which encompassed all things and all persons. Next to him, the warriors and priests formed the most powerful social group. The warriors were the emperor’s main support and allowed the creation of a very powerful but politically isolated empire.

There were hardly any social groups in between. Perhaps the enriched merchants of the capital, who managed to ascend by exchanging their wealth for prestige at the festivals. They organized and offering some of their slaves as victims of a ritual sacrifice (a rare occurrence for being very expensive).

Most of the population were artisans, farmers, public servants, etc., who were organized into kinship groups called calpulli.

There were also slaves who were used for agricultural work, transportation, trade, or domestic service. Some were used temporarily until they paid a debt or a sentence. Others were prisoners of war who could be sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli.

Daily life. Education

Education was compulsory. The girls were educated by their mothers at home to do housework. Only the nobles could go to learn at a kind of monastery where they lived until the moment of the marriage. For the boys there were two types of schools: the telpochcalli and the calmecac. In the first he studied at school but went to sleep at home;The second was an internship reserved for the nobles.

The teaching of religion was very important, but they also learned writing, reading, history and music.

Daily life. Sexuality

There were only two forms of permitted intercourse: those that took place within marriage; And those of unmarried warriors with priestesses dedicated to ritual prostitution. The latter were protected by the goddess Xochiquétzal, presented adornments and make up and gave the man hallucinogens and aphrodisiacs that stimulated his sexual appetite. They always kept this kind of relationship before the warriors went to battle. Adultery, however, was severely punished (see: laws).

Every aspect of the sex life was associated with a different god. Thus, Xochipilli was the god of flowers, of love, of fertility and of illicit sexual relations; Like his wife, the goddess Xochiquétzal, who, besides, was protector of the prostitution (that as previously said, was licit). For her part, Tlazolteotl was the goddess of pleasure, voluptuousness, fecundity, and fertility. She protected the parturients, the midwives, the sorcerers related to the love world and the men of intense sexual activity.

The Legacy of the Aztecs

What has remained of the Aztec culture is a combination of some customs of the past with the teachings of the friars of the sixteenth century. But there is no doubt that the essential characteristics of the race have persisted, because the Spanish conquistador practiced crossbreeding, he never isolated the Indians in reserves. This merit must be attributed, in large part, to the imposition of the Church and, in addition, to the warm blood of the Latins. With the simple fact of touring the Mexican capital, it is possible to find the traces of the Aztecs in the faces, the stoutness and the ways of moving of many men and women.

Thus the last hope collapsed

Little by little the Spaniards were gaining zones of the city, without that at the moment they stopped to confront some enemies that fought with the despair of some lionesses defending their layers. They had no weapons as powerful as their enemies, but the rocks in their parapets needed many cannon shots to be shot down. When this happened, they had reinforced the others. In addition, the war was being waged in the streets, where they had a certain advantage in controlling the highlands.

The advance of the Spaniards was very slow. The Aztecs maintained the hope that their gods could change the development of the war. And they believed that it had just happened the moment they received the support of the Xochimilcas.

Ancient Tenochtitlan
Ancient Tenochtitlan

These had remained neutral; Nevertheless, one night they managed to infiltrate with their silent boats between the Spanish galeras.They numbered several hundred. When they put themselves in the service of Cuauhtémoc, he was so enthusiastic that he gave them mountains of fine fabrics, blankets and several sacks of cocoa, which was considered a true treasure.
The next day the Spaniards were forced to retreat. In the midst of the euphoria that dominated them, at nightfall the Aztecs discovered that their new allies pretended that they should be granted slaves to women and children. Something so unworthy that it was not accepted, which triggered a fight between the two sides. All xochimilcas were exterminated.

The gods were not their allies! This idea led to Cuauhtemoc surrendering the city. In spite of which he tried to escape, in the company of his family; But the canoe they were in was intercepted by a Spanish galley. When the Aztec chief was taken before Cortes, the dignity of his figure impressed them all. It was not a relief for the fate that awaited him.

As he could not deliver any treasure, however much he was claimed, because part of it was buried in the canals, having been lost by the greedy strangers who had just robbed him, he became a prisoner. It is known that he was subjected to torture, until he died by hanging a few years later, apparently on orders from Cortes. In the present day, Mexico considers him one of its national heroes.

The ball game “Tlachtli”

The ball game, tlachtli, was played in a courtyard that had an “H” shape on the ground. On either side of the crossbar of the H, the walls extended and in the middle of each there was a stone or wooden ring inserted, unlike the horizontal position of the hoop in the game of basketball that we know today.

The players tried to pass through this ring a solid rubber ball, which they could only hit with their elbows, hips or legs. There must have been other methods of pointing out the points in addition to the above, for these, of course, were seldom achieved; So it is so that when this happened the players and their supporters had the right to strip the clothes of their rivals.

This sport was played everywhere, because places have been found where it was practiced from the Republic of Honduras to the southeast of Arizona; And this has a special interest because it was the first description of rubber, so important in the modern economy of the area, it was made when Oviedo wrote in the sixteenth century about the game and the ball that was used in his practices.


The Aztecs did not know about coins, yet they used as a similar medium cocoa bean, bird feather cannons filled with gold, or crescent-shaped knives that were plowed with thin sheets of hammered copper. As they did in a systematic way, this leads us to consider that they used those products for barter in the market. The judges who occupied the main building were in charge of establishing a kind of valuation of these products, so that the exchange was the most equitable.

As the Aztecs considered jade, as well as the stones that resembled it, they had a lot of value, they also used them as currency of exchange. However, they never saw gold as valuable, even though they used it for their adornments as they liked its sheen. The same could be said of silver. This surprised the Spaniards who, as we know, were in America to get it at all costs.

Moctezuma II
Moctezuma II

Cortés’ skillful strategy

Cortes refused to think again of Mexico City-Tenochtitlan, because he was in a vast territory to conquer. He did it by signing alliances, defeating the few rebels and making sure that he did not leave enemies behind. As it had a powerful army, where the Allied Indians multiplied by more than a hundred the number of Spaniards, most of their operations were a kind of tiring walk, with long or short stages of diplomacy, in which Marina intervened as the More effective ambassador for its condition of daughter of one of the most important Mexican heads.

Given that the Extremaduran hero did not cease to be informed of what was happening in that enormous country, when he met the resentment born in Texcoco, having chosen the Aztecs a warrior chief, which they considered a threat, he knew how to obtain a party. He had already defeated a part of these warriors in the battle of Otumba, in spite of which he could turn the whole town into his ally. And this provided him with a privileged situation, when establishing his camp in the vicinity of the lake of Mexico-Tenochtitlán.

The Spaniards had had many months to prepare their siege plan. Among the various techniques they were creating to adapt to the difficulties of the place, we must emphasize the construction of small galleys, which when dismantled were taken from the forests to the heights of the lake, where they could be assembled in a few days. Among the large number of carpenters, there were countless Indian friends. When these ships were launched, it was possible to verify the great destructive power of the cannons installed in the decks, as well as the great maneuverability of the boats, as they succeeded in destroying hundreds of faluas and other small Aztec boats, To surround the great causeways.

Expedition of Hernán Cortés from Cuba to Tenochtitlan.

But the inhabitants of the city fought with tenacity, to the point that the walls destroyed by the day were reinforced at night. They also took care of burning the bridges that had been installed by the Spaniards. This was repeated for several weeks.

Given that the siege system was not effective, Cortes ordered that his allies assault the city, to destroy as many houses as possible. With the new strategy managed to fill of cascades some of the channels, which allowed that the horses could be used. This had been the main difficulty; And in solving it, facilitated the creation of bridge heads, which the Aztecs were unable to destroy in their entirety.

No one could explain it at first; However, suddenly the Aztec world convulsed! It snowed in Mexico-Tenochtitlan when he had not done it for many years. Soon, Popocatepetl volcano erupted, which had remained almost a century off … But what shocked most was to know that a child was born with two heads!

New war expeditions were organized to obtain a large number of prisoners, since the gods were demanding that human sacrifices be celebrated. The people flocked to the temples; And Moctezuma could not take a step without being surrounded by hundreds of desperate demanding answers to so much presage of calamities. The council of priests had been assembled for months, without agreeing on the meaning of so many bad signs.

One afternoon the king of Texcoco arrived, whom he considered to be one of the great magicians of Mexico, to tell Montezuma that the “gods had just revealed to him that he would lose his kingdom irrevocably.”

It was precisely that year, 1519, that the march of those lands of Quetzalcoatl, the only one that had opposed human sacrifices, was commemorated. The legend told that it went up to a ship, with which it went away by the Great Lake (name that the Aztecs gave to the Atlantic ocean); However, before leaving he announced that he would return. As its birth occurred in the year Ce-Acatl (“1-Reed”), it was expected from 1363 in cycles of fifty two years, one of which coincided with 1519.

Moctezuma was so sorrowful, even though hundreds of human hearts were being plucked from temple altars, spent all day and part of the night surrounded by astrologers, augurs, necromancers and mediums, none of whom found The way to calm the gods.

Because the greatest danger, the unexplained, was coming from the shores. In 1502, a year before the coronation of Moctezuma, Christopher Columbus established contact with the Mayan people. He did it on his fourth trip. The news, or the version of it, according to the indigenous perspective, traveled through the jungles of Yucatán, crossed the plains of Mexico, crossed mountains, forests and rivers, until arriving at Tenochtitlan, where it could only be interpreted as a new


There was also a dramatic echo in the presence of other white men who had come from the Great Lake in a floating mountain as bright as the sun. And these must have been Martín Yáñez Pinzón and Juan Díaz de Solís, who had just skirted the beaches of Yucatan in An exploration trip. From then on, many were disembarked, until Hernan Cortes and his men, with an intentional purpose of conquest … From this moment on, it can be said that no monarch in the history of the Aztecs was going to be forced to fight such a terrible danger, of apocalyptic proportions, as superstitious Moctezuma!

The family of Moctezuma

Moctezuma could marry one woman and keep as many concubines as he wished. In this it was not different from any other Aztec, except that to be more powerful the number of his women was very numerous. We have already written that the chief wife was the only one who had rights, she acted as the “mistress,” while the concubines were beneath her, although some shared the bed of Moctezuma longer.

It is believed that he had had over one hundred and fifty sons, which was ridiculous compared with the number of fifteen hundred attributed to Netzahualpilli, the Texcoco monarch, who was allied to Mexico-Tenochtitlan. This is explained by von Hagen with the following reasoning: In a society where war took the lives of men faster than they could be created by simple monogamous birth, polygamy seemed more functional. Moreover, nothing favors a marriage and, consequently, social stability, such as indulgence in temporal polygamy.

In the political field, Moctezuma ruled perfectly. No one doubts that he strengthened his empire more effectively than any other, since it paid tribute to more than three hundred and seventy-one cities. Justice was properly structured. If there were any deficiencies, Moctezuma himself disguised himself as a subject to prove himself. If he discovered that the accusation was authentic, he ordered that the “unworthy of his trust” be dismissed and that all property would be taken away, but he would do so in a way that he would not harm his innocent relatives. He had reason to be very happy; And he dreamed that no kind of shadow would cloud the horizon of his greatness. Nevertheless…

The training of a Monarch

It was said that Moctezuma was a great teacher in the use of any type of weapons, especially the obsidian sword and the bow, as he could demonstrate in the frequent hunts in which he participated. But he did not flaunt it, perhaps because he had liked the silences more than the long conversations. This kind of reserve to express her thoughts became so well considered that even her teachers praised her, because when they listened to him they could not reproach him for any errors in the brief and precise expositions. That’s why they said of him: the young Moctazuma is wise because he let his thoughts rest enough, which allows them to turn into words are very concrete; In addition, is accustomed to use the correct sentences.

But he was not only a good speaker, though reserved, but easily learned ideographic writing. This allowed him to delve into the worlds of astronomy, astrology, the management of calendars, techniques of divination and tonalamatl (books used to reinforce memory). Since he understood that all this science was too important, he was careful to make it more hermetic, since the sacred should never be “vulgarized by putting it at the level of the ignorant.”

The chronicler Jose Acosta wrote that Moctezuma learned of religion until his smallest rituals, so he was always so scrupulous with the activities that were kept inside the temples. In this he demonstrated the personality of a serious and respectful of standards. Seeing him behave with such dignity and courage, since he was the first to go to a place where a catastrophe had occurred, the people ended up saying that Moctezuma’s name meant “El Valeroso”, which we can never consider exaggerated.

What is part of the legend is the anecdote that when Moctezuma was elected as ruler, the high dignitaries who sought him to communicate his appointment, were found to sweep the one hundred thirty-three steps of the temple. With this gesture he tried to show that he had never wanted the Empire, but as the four great advisers had wanted him, he could not refuse. Once he found himself before the home of the gods, he took care of extracting blood from his ears and legs, because that was what the ritual imposed.

The death of Moctezuma

Death of Moctezuma
Death of Moctezuma

On many occasions, The Spaniards attempted to find an escape route, which they could not do, since all the heights of the houses and the multiple channels were occupied by warriors, which never ceased to shoot arrows and countless projectiles.

When a tired Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan on June 24 with an army of about 1400 Spaniards and 2,000 Tlaxcalan warriors, he stumbled upon a silent city. Moctezuma had asked his people to suspend their attacks, and they had obeyed reluctantly, but he was already losing his authority.

Upon his return, Cortes freed the brother of Moctezuma, Cuitláhuac, from captivity to guarantee the reopening of the great market of Tlatelolco. In one day, the city rose in arms, and the Spaniards were in danger of being caught.

Cortes convinced Moctezuma to go to the roof of the palace of Axayácatl and to go to his town to stop their attacks, but as he tried to argue with his attackers, he was beaten and wounded by three stones from the rocks and the rain of directed arrows Either to him in person or to his Spanish guard (see category 115 and 118).

Carried down, he refused to cover his wounds, but it’s seriousness is not clear. Three days later, on June 30, as the Spaniards were planning a night retreat from the city, Bernal Díaz del Castillo and his companions realized, to their surprise, that he was dead. “Cortes and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us who had known him and had dealings with him who did not cry him as if he were our father, which is not surprising, since he was so good. ”

The exact cause of Moctezuma’s death, as most of the last year of his life, remains a mystery. In fact, he may well have died of his wounds, as Cortes and other Spaniards reported.

On the other hand, Fray Diego Durán, the author of “The History of the Indies of New Spain”, assures by his indigenous informants that, after the Spaniards had been expelled from the city, he was found dead with a chain around his feet and five stab wounds on his chest. “Next to him were many nobles and great lords who had been kept prisoner with him, all of whom had died before the Spaniards left the building.”

There is no doubt that at the time of his death Moctezuma had so clearly lost his authority that it was no longer of any use to Spaniards. Trying to take him, or the members of his entourage, with them would have simply added difficulties to their problems. The decision to get rid of him on the site was hard, but we will never know if, in the end, Moctezuma got the best of Cortés killing him before the Spaniards could kill him.

The night of Moctezuma’s death, which occurred between June 30 and July 1, has gone down in history as Sad Night, the night of pain.

Under the cover of darkness, Cortes and his men began their escape through the Tlacopan causeway, which, like the other causeways, had its bridges removed. Alerted by their retreat, the inhabitants began to attack them from their canoes. During the desperate struggle that followed, Cortes probably lost about six hundred of his men, along with a large number of his Tlaxcalan followers.

But he, and the remnant of his shattered army, were finally able to escape, and although under constant attack along the way, they found refuge in friendly territory.

Tlaxcala, despite the setback, remained faithful, and the alliance would be decisive for the final Spanish victory. There was a division of opinions in many of the tributary city-states, but the continued strengthening of the Spanish-Tlaxcalan alliance and the prospect of the end of the Mexica domination were strong incentives to provide support to the Spaniards at their weakest moment.

In the fragmented Mesoamerican world of a plurality of tribal communities, the presence of these intruders, with their horses and firearms, offered the opportunity to shake off the Mexica yoke that was too good to be wasted.

While Cortes regrouped his men in preparation for what would be a carefully planned attempt to retake Tenochtitlan, the Mexica, who had lost many of their nobles in the Alvarado massacre and subsequent fighting, elected Cuitlahuac to succeed his brother as leader.

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes

However, the smallpox epidemic was moving inexorably toward the capital, and by the end of November 1520 Cuitlahuac succumbed to the disease. His cousin, Cuauhtemoc, who had fame for his bravery, was chosen to succeed him. The ravages of smallpox, along with the death of one leader and the election of another, made it difficult for the Mexica to attack the Spaniards when they were in their weakest moment. Instead, they chose to arm a large army and wait for the enemy in the basin of Mexico.

Cortes, for his part, tried to dominate the local cities before launching his assault on Tenochtitlan. Above all, it was essential for him to have control of the lake of Tetzcoco, and ordered the construction of thirteen brigs, which were crucial to his final success.

May 31, 1521 was finally ready for departure on the site of Tenochtitlan, and, after two months of a desperate struggle, the combined forces of Spaniards and their Indian allies had clearly won the battle. On August 13, the city fell, and Cuauhtémoc was captured while trying to escape in a canoe.

Cortes and his allies had conquered an empire for Charles V, but the beautiful city of Tenochtitlan, which had so fascinated the Spaniards when they first saw it, was in ruins.

The absurd behavior of the Aztecs

Mexico-Tenochtitlán had been left to the control of Alvarado, who was only a good soldier, but not a diplomat. Moreover, he had never bothered to inquire about the customs of the Indians. For these reasons when he found that they had gathered, only considered the large number of them. And instead of trying to find out that they were celebrating a peaceful party in honor of the God Huitzilopochtli, he stormed the place with almost all his forces and left no one alive. The victims had to add up to more than a thousand.

This triggered a fierce reprisal on the part of the Aztecs, which got the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies back. They lost many of their men; however, they caused significant losses on their enemies, as well as hundreds of prisoners, most of them very frightened indigenous.

Since they did not form an organized army, nor did they have anyone who knew how to direct them, instead of persecuting those who backtracked, they made the mistake of stopping to cut off the heads of the corpses and, later, subjected to human sacrifices those they had captured. This was a waste of time, which allowed foreigners to rebuild and, luckily for them, find some places to fortify themselves. Meanwhile, the Aztecs were convinced that victory was theirs, simply because they were placing in their temples the first heads of the “white men”, whom they would already consider “vulnerable.”

Celebrating all these ceremonies, which were essential to win the favor of their gods, continued to be great mistakes. The most important was that they allowed Cortes to return to the head of a large army. During the first days the battle took a favorable tone to the newcomers, until the excessive number of Aztecs turned the results. Cortes had barely been able to barricade himself in the palace of Axayacatl, where he was surrounded by tens of thousands of Indians, who never stopped shouting and throwing stones at him.

The Hummingbird Mage

From the beginning of time, the Aztecs knew that their chief god was Huitzilopochtli, the Mage Colibrí, because he had guided them from the arid lands of the north to the marvelous city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Before they came to pray to many gods, but only when they chose him did they receive great favors. That is why the priests wanted the youngest and most victorious warrior, able to fight all kinds of battles without knowing the defeat, the one that most endeavored to facilitate the survival of the human race of the Aztecs, to represent the Sun.

It was said that the Mage Colibrí did not sleep, even though his great struggles were in the sky against the Moon and the stars, because he needed the light of all to reinforce his own, that at dawn he would send the earth to germinate the maize and increased the strength of the men. He offered so much goodness to his people that he deserved the greatest sacrifices. Other gods would have settled for corn pancakes or pitchers of pulque, never Huitzilopochtli, because he needed the most valuable of man, what kept him alive: the blood.

Aztec empire conquest
Aztec empire conquest

The religious songs

Among the verses sung the Aztecs themselves stood out the teocuicatl (religious or divine song), which was actually a hymn. The transcribers who helped Sahagún have left us testimonies of some of them, which allows us to appreciate the feeling of a whole people and, at the same time, the enormous load of esoteric elements and metaphors used. When reading one of them, it should be kept in mind that those who sang it did not remain still, for they were obliged to represent it with gestures, movements and even wearing masks.

The seven caves

The Aztecs had to have began their long march towards the year 1168. It would take more than a century to reach the valley of Mexico. One of its settlements has received the name of Chicomoztoco “The Seven Hills”, which has been used to explain the habit of living in the mountains. As they had not stopped advancing, they encountered different tribes, which forced them to fight. This began to forge in the leaders of this transhumant people the necessity to form as a warrior.

Once they crossed the region of Michoacán, they entered the highlands in the area of Tula. It should be noted that we are mentioning a hundred year process, then the progress was slow, with long stops in search of the most propitious regions. At this time they learned how to grow corn; and made it their staple food. They also began to be led by the priests, who were called “bearers of god.”

The conception of the world

The Aztecs considered that there had been several suns before. They had been the sun of the earth, followed by those of the wind, fire and water. All perished in a cataclysm. The fifth sun was created in Teotihuacan. The gods gathered to designate who would have the honor of embodying the new star. This was the Sun of movement. But, like the previous ones, his destiny was to disappear also in a cataclysm. It is this pessimistic view of the origin of the mystic-warrior vision of the Aztecs. Tlacaelel managed to persuade the sages that the death of the Sun could be prevented by feeding it precious water. This liquid was the blood of human beings that would have to be sacrificed to ensure the survival of the solar star. In order that precious water may never be lacking, Tlacaelel establishes the principle of “flower wars” between the cities of the Triple Alliance. The goal was to get enough prisoners for the sacrifices. For the Sun to live, war became indispensable. The Aztecs then justified their conquests for the supreme mission they were to fulfill.

Throughout the valley of Mexico, the new codes illustrated the power of Huitzilopochtli and the greatness of the Mexica people.

The Aztec Woman

The humblest Aztec women never exceeded the height of 1.45, which gave them a false appearance of frailty. In Aztec society women had to move within a macho and militarized environment. Their destiny was always marked by the fulfillment of moral precepts and daily obligations. Women were subtracted from all activities that related to power and prestige. They had to take care of their husbands and their children plus all the housework.

They were culturally disqualified, they had to be silent before the presence of men and obey submissively each one of their desires and orders.

On the other hand, they were a pillar for family unity, work and worship.

Low social class

The majority of the population was in this group. Outside of the great cities, their main occupation was the cultivation of the land, but in those the professional spectrum was diverse, grouping artisans, officials, public servants, etc. Wealth was a differentiating factor, but the biggest characteristic was the condition of the person to whom the tribute was due: a tlatoani, a nobleman, a macehualli, etc.

The landowners cultivated the land of the nobles and were attached to them. If the land changed hands, the new lord was also the lord of the new landowner. They transmitted their parcels by inheritance and were obliged to give the lord a part of the harvest and services such as the provision of the stately house of water and firewood. Among the landowners were merchants, artisans, etc., who paid the lord part of what they produced.

Originally, the lower social class was organized into kinship groups, called calpulli. The land was common possession, and plots were awarded to the components for cultivation. Whoever stopped doing it for two years lost them. When a man believed that the lot he had been given was not good, or if he felt strong enough to do more work, he could rent land from another calpulli or from a lord. In front of the calpulli was the calpullec, advised by the elders. Calpullec kept track of the parcels and oversaw so that the group would take care of the cultivation of the plots of the widows, those of the handicapped, and those destined for the benefit of the community.


The calpulli acted corporately to give tributes or services, including warriors, and had particular gods and temples. In each one there was a school or telpochcalli (“youth house”) in which compulsory instruction was given, allowing young people to join the community. From there they left to marry and become full members of their group, until at age 52 they were relieved of their tax obligations and received prerogatives such as being able to consume alcoholic beverages.

At the head of the telpochcalli there was a telpochtlato (“the one who speaks to the young people”) who instilled in his disciples the rigid and austere sense of Mexican life and instructed them in the arts of war. The children learned from their parents’ various trades, since most often they followed the family profession. The girls learned housework, cooking and weaving from their mothers.

Two different types of people have been called slaves in Aztec society, although none of these persons belonged properly to that class.

On the one hand were those who did some work for another, as payment for goods received in advance, or as a sentence for a crime, mainly theft. These people did not lose their social status or assets, were free to marry or have servants, and freed from the obligation incurred by paying the amount they had received. That is why their situation was more like a contract of sale of labor power. Who did not fulfill his commitments and was publicly admonished three times, could be transferred to another master. If this situation was repeated three times, it passed to the second group of “slaves” and could be sold for the sacrifice. To this second group belonged, above all, prisoners of war destined to quench the thirst for blood of the Mexican god, Huitzilopochtli.

There were contracts in which a family was committed to serve a particular gentleman, taking on the task of various members. If the server died at the master’s house, the contract was terminated. The services of these “slaves” were preferably used in agricultural work, transport, commerce and domestic service.

The high social class

Aztec society evolved in the course of building the empire, following the cities a more accelerated process. In general, the Mexica can be divided into two large groups: possessors and dispossessed. The differentiating factor is the possession of the land, theoretically reserved for the lords, warriors, and merchants. Other factors, such as wealth and prestige, were gaining importance, especially in Tenochtitlan, helping the emergence of intermediate classes that softened the differences. Thus, there were artisans who came to own lands and macehualtín (common people) exempt from the payment of taxes. Within each group were divisions that staggered the social pyramid.

Theoretically there was mobility in Aztec society, but the practice was complicated. An individual could make progress by emphasizing war, priesthood, or commerce. The war was considered the activity of excellence of the Aztec and in it endorsed the sons of noblemen the prestige they had inherited. The common people could elevate to the nobility by capturing enemies in combat, mainly warriors of Huexotzinco, Tlaxcala or Atlixco. The capture of four of them gave rank, but the sons of the nobles, with superior preparation for the combat and occupying the key positions in the field of battle, enjoyed greater possibilities.

The merchants worked their promotion by offering expensive parties in which they exchanged riches for prestige. The rise in the social scale allowed them to do business in more abundance. The highest rank was obtained by sacrificing purchased slaves. Anyone who could afford the ritual sacrifice of a slave raised his status, but the high costs greatly restricted the chances of achieving that honor.

At the top of the social pyramid was the tlatoani (“orator”). There was one in each main city, with military, civil, and religious power. A tlatoani could be subject to a more important one, as it happened before the conquest with the tlatoani of Tenochtitlán, called Huey tlatoani (“Great speaker”), who was the highest authority of the empire. He always received tribute and submission from his dominions. There were frequent family ties between the lords of different cities, especially after the active marriage policy deployed by Tenochtitlan. The title was inherited within a lineage, with slight variations from one locality to another: from parents to children, from brother to brother, etc. In Tenochtitlán there was a preference for a brother, but there was a council of electors who decided who was the most suitable. In the case of the submitted cities, the huey tlatoani had to sanction the election, which allowed him to exercise a strong political control.

Below the tlatoque (plural of tlatoani) were the tetecuhtin (singular: tecuhtli) or lords. This title was awarded as a reward for outstanding actions and was endowed with lands and servers. Many Tetecuhtin held administrative positions or were judges. Apart from these charges, they had as a mission to manage their domains and the people that resided in them, serving to his tlatoani when they demanded it. It was not a hereditary title, although in succession one would prefer a son of the deceased, if he had enough merit.

The sons of the tlatoque and tetecuhtin received the category of pipiltin (singular: pilli), that literally means “Sons.” They had land within their tecuhtli’s estates and acted as ambassadors, justice administrators and tribute collectors. While the number of tetecuhtin and tlatoque was limited by the number of available places, all who were born within a noble family could be a pilli.

The possession of land cultivated by landowners gave the nobles independence to engage in war and to hold public office. They had particular courts, exclusive schools and prerogatives such as being able to be polygamous or displaying certain status distinctions in wardrobe.

The newcomers to the nobility, or common people who achieved the ascent, had a meeting place separate from the rest of the nobles, called nobles – eagle – or nobles – tiger and were exempt from the payment of the tribute. They were always reminded of their humble origins, but their children were pipiltin from birth. They had other limitations, such as not being able to wear certain feathers and badges, reserved for nobles of cradle, in their war dresses, and not being able to have landowners.

Calpulli, the basis of Aztec social structure

The term calpulli means “great houses” and was used to designate units of Aztec society constituted by fictitious relatives, that is, people who believed they descended from the same ancestor, who was generally a mythological being. All lived in the same sector of the city, exercising, in common, the ownership of the lands that had been assigned to them. In Tenochtitlán there were 20 calpullis integrated by both native Mexicans and strangers who had merged with the Aztec nation. Its function resembles a clan; however, among its members there were differences of wealth, social position, and power. Hence they are called the conic clan, whose cusp was occupied by those who were most closely related to the founding ancestor; at the base was the great majority of its components.

Aztec history
Aztec history

The calpulli was, moreover, a religious and military unit. Its members worshiped the same god in temples erected within their lands, and they fought in the same detachments. For this purpose they received military instruction in the telpochcalli, or school of warriors, that each calpulli maintained.

Chief of them was the calpullec, designated for life, within the same family, by the other members of the calpulli. He acted as judge in minor litigation, represented the calpulli in the Aztec council, directed the education of children and, above all, divided the lands among families according to the number of components.

Evidence indicates that most of the 20 calpullis inhabited one of the sectors of Tenochtitlán: the sector of the peasants, which indicates that their importance was directly related to the functions exercised by their most outstanding members.

The Aztec Calendar

The Aztecs, like the Maya, had a vigesimal mathematical system. The numbers from 1 to 19 were written with a finger, colored dots, or circles; the number 20 was expressed by a flag; 400 for a feather and 8,000 for a sack.

They did not know the zero, which is the reason why they could not realize complex calculations like those effected by the Mayas.

They had a ritual calendar, the tonalpohualli, and a solar calendar, the xíhuitl. The first was composed of 260 days, divided into 20 units, or “months”, of 13 days. Each resulted from the combination of the 20 names of the days with the number 13. At the end of a series of days, they repeated themselves again; with the numbers, the same thing did not happen, since after 13 they started again with 1. It also indicated the beginning of another period, within the same calendar, consisting of 20 “weeks” of 13 days each.

The two periods of the calendar had their own gods representing the days and their corresponding location between the “months” and the “weeks”. They governed the activities of men. Specialized priests made, based on a reference book called tonalamatl, the horoscopes and solved consultations on particular facts.

The solar calendar of 365 days was divided into 18 months of 20 days and a period of 5 days considered nefarious. Then the Aztecs fasted and mourned for the catastrophe that could occur during that time. This calendar regulated the great ceremonies of the state religion.

The 19 months had names related to agriculture. The days were called the same as in the tonalhualli, preceded by numerals from 1 to 20. Only four days could start a new year: House, Rabbit, Reed, and Flint Knife.

Each year was identified by the number and name of the day it began. This was repeated after 52 years, the time it took to close a cycle, xiuhmolpilli. After him events doubled because the days were presided over by them. The fire was then extinguished on the ancient altar and celebrated the ceremony of the New Fire, the symbol of new life that had begun.

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