The Aztec civilization, with its center at Tenochtitlan, flourished
in central Mexico during the Postclassic period. They were a conquering
civilization with an ever-expanding empire and a central ruler. Their
society revolved around war, agriculture, art and their polytheistic
Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was in the Valley of Mexico on swamp
land in Lake Texcoco and is now Mexico City. It was founded in 1325 or
1345. According to Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli, their tribal god, led
them to a place where an eagle was perched on a cactus with a serpent in
its mouth. This, as had been told them by Huitzilopochtli, was to be
their promised land. At the center of Tenochtitlan, the Great Temple was
surrounded by palaces, warrior schools, shrines and a ball court. The
temple-pyramid was dedicated to Tlaloc,
god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the Aztecs. A chac
mool at the entrance to the shrine to Tlaloc held a container in
which the hearts and blood of victims sacrificed to the gods of rain and
agriculturewere placed(see the above links for examples of aztec art). Each ruler would add to the Great Temple to make
it more impressive, honor the gods and commemorate his reign.
Religion was central to the Aztec life. They built enormous pyramid
temples and religious centers to honor their many gods and goddesses.
They worshipped goddesses of fertility because they considered
childbearing important. Many gods were agricultural because of the
agricultural emphasis in the society; three goddesses were associated
with maize alone. Xipe Totec was the god of springtime and vegetation.
The most ancient and revered gods were the creators of the universe and
associated with time and the calendar. Quetzalcoatl, which means
feathered serpent, was the god of nature, air and earth. Mictlantecuhtli
was the god of the dead. He lived in the Mictlan, where he was joined by
those who died a natural death after they passed through nine stages of
the afterlife. Those who died in battle and women who died during
childbirth joined the sun god in the sky, who it is said decapitated his sister (lunar
goddess). The Aztecs mummified some of
their dead, and the wealthy were buried in elaborate tombs with many
As with all ancient civilizations, Aztec life focused on the
production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around
the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, vegetables, flowers,
medicinal herbs, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes, amaranth, and other
plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and
digging sticks. They performed elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices in order to ensure rain.
Aztec farmer developed an ingenious method of creating additional
fertile land in their swampy environment. Their most productive crops
were grown on chinampas, plots of built land in swampy lakes by
layering water vegetation and mud to make a matting. Willow trees were
then planted around the edge to make them more secure. Rich earth from
bottom of the lake was used as fertilizer. They were rectangular in
shape with narrow canals between them through which canoes could be
paddled to allow the farmers to tend the crops.
The Aztecs hunted peccary, a pig-like animal, and deer with bows,
arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian. They captured
rabbits and dogs with nets and even hunted and ate the white meat of the
armadillo. Along the coast, they fished for shellfish, larger fish, and
sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.
Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on
the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt.
were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes
that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay
disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as
they were in pre-Columbian times. Chilies and tomatoes, used for
making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar
and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was
Many items were traded within the Aztec empire, and conquered people
had to pay yearly tribute to the ruler. Tunics and shields were valuable
and were often paid as tribute. Cacao beans and feathers were also paid
as tribute. Attire denoted rank in Aztec society, and only nobles were
allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of
animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Warriors were highly honored in the
society, and a jaguar helmet was a warrior's insignia and his
protection. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky to
the Aztecs. The market at Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's sister city,
was large, with a wide variety of items, and well-supervised and
regulated. Barter was the primary means of exchange, though copper axes
were sometimes used as money.
War was important and constant among the Aztecs because human
sacrifices were believed to keep the sun moving. Weapons were made from
naturally occurring substances; spears, knives and clubs were made from
flint, wood and obsidian. Warriors were supposed to be noble and serve
the gods, and rulers were expected to glorify themselves on the
battlefield. The most prestigious warrior orders were those of the eagle
and the jaguar. Members of these orders wore appropriate costumes made
from either eagle feathers or jaguar pelts.
The Aztec had a hieroglyphic writing system to keep records, a
counting system based on the number twenty and two calendars,
one based on the sun and the sacred calendar, which was used to predict
the future. In each calendar, every day had a sign.
The solar calendar was 363 days long, with eighteen twenty-day months
and five extra unlucky days. The calendar of omens was composed of 260
days and was divided into twenty thirteen-day months. Each day was good,
bad or neutral. An Aztec "century" was fifty-two solar years long, at
the end of which was a celebration in which the passing of the old
century was marked by symbolically "binding the years."
A third calendar related to the planet Venus. Five years in the
rotation of Venus was equivalent to eight solar years. Time was kept on
Venus using the sacred calendar for omens. A period of 104 years, two
solar "centuries," was the amount of time necessary for the sign of the
solar year to correspond with that of the year on Venus. This period of
time was called an "old age."
sun stone, which was found in the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, has
a diameter measuring 13.2 feet and it weighs 24 tons. The face of the
sun or the lord of the earth is at the center. The calendar signified
that the universe had passed through four creations and was currently in
the fifth, which would be destroyed by earthquakes.
Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles,
trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes,
ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were
employed widely. A horizontal drum, the huehuetl or
tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum,
the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks.
Aztec art reflected their environment, religion and everyday life.
Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds,
hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and
dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and
decoration. Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was
elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were
used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every
Aztec household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had
patterns carved into them or were painted. The Aztecs often painted the
inside of bowls and usually painted in two colors; they also cut figures
into the sides of clay
vessels. Religious pottery, art and statuary was highly symbolic,
while secular ceramic work was quite realistic and expressive. A
back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the
weaver's back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is
still used widely today to create beautiful
Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1993).
Soisson, Pierre and Janine. David Macrae, trans. Life of the
Aztecs in Ancient Mexico (Editions Minerva ? Liber,
to View our Selection of Aztec Items
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