Aztec: Mexico before the Spanish Invasion

Mexica (Aztec) society is known to us from the eyes of the conquerors. The snapshot that follows is an interesting juxtaposition of a society that had very complex civic structures, refined arts, and a social system that produced the height of urban civilization to the point were at the time of the conquest Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world.

The most remarkable problem connected with ancient Mexico is how to reconcile the general refinement and civilization with the sacrifices of human victims.

Source: The Story of Extinct Civilizations of the West, authored by Robert E. Anderson. There is not biographical data about the author.
— Orly

The Aztecs and the Tescucans were the chief races occupying the great table-land of Anahuac, including, as we have seen, the famous Mexican Valley. In the preceding chapter we have set forth some of the leading points in the extinct civilization of those races, and also that of the Mayas, who in several respects were perhaps superior to the Anahuac kingdoms.

Several features of the early Mexican civilization will come before us as we accompany the European conquerors, in their march over the table-land. Meantime, we glance first at the geography of this magnificent region, and secondly at the manners and institutions of the people, their industrial arts, etc., and their terrible religion. T

The Tropic of Cancer passes through the middle of Mexico, and therefore its southern half, which is the most important, is all under the burning sun of the "torrid zone." This heat, however, is greatly modified by the height of the surface above sea-level, since the country, taken as a whole, is simply an extensive table-land. The height of the plain in the two central states, Mexico and Puebla, is 8,000 feet, or about double the average height of the highest summits in the British Isles. On the west of the republic is a continuous chain of mountains, and on the east of the table-land run a series of mountainous groups parallel to the seacoast, with a summit in Vera Cruz of over 13,400 feet. To the south of the capital an irregular range running east and west contains these remarkable volcanoes—Colima, 14,400 feet; Jorulla, Popocatepetl, 17,800; Orizaba (extinct), 18,300, the highest summit in Mexico, and, with the exception of some of the mountains of Alaska, in North America. The great plateau-basin formed around the capital and its lakes is completely enclosed by mountains.

This high table-land has its own climate as compared with the broad tract lying along the Atlantic. Hence the latter is known as the hot region (caliente), and the former the cold region (fria). Between the two climates, as the traveler mounts from the sea-level to the great plateau, is the temperate region (templada), an intermediate belt of perpetual humidity, a welcome escape from the heat and deadly malaria of the hot region with its "bilious fevers." Sometimes as he passes along the bases of the volcanic mountains, casting his eye "down some steep slope or almost unfathomable ravine on the margin of the road, he sees their depths glowing with the rich blooms and enameled vegetation of the tropics." This contrast arises from the height he has now gained above the hot coast region.

The climate on the table-land is only cold in a relative sense, being mild to Europeans, with a mean temperature at the capital of 60°, seldom lowered to the freezing-point. The "temperate" slopes form the "Paradise of Mexico," from "the balmy climate, the magnificent scenery, and the wealth of semitropical vegetation."

The Aztec and Tescucan laws were kept in state records, and shown publicly in hieroglyphs. The great crimes against society were all punished with death, including the murder of a slave. Slaves could hold property, and all their sons were freedmen. The code in general showed real respect for the leading principles of morality.

In Mexico, as in ancient Egypt,

the soldier shared with the priest the highest consideration. The king must be an experienced warrior. The tutelary deity of the Aztecs was the god of war. A great object of military expeditions was to gather hecatombs of captives for his altars. The soldier who fell in battle was transported at once to the region of ineffable bliss in the bright[Pg 91] mansions of the sun.... Thus every war became a crusade; and the warrior was not only raised to a contempt of danger, but courted it —animated by a religious enthusiasm like that of the early Saracen or the Christian crusader.

The officers of the armies wore rich and conspicuous uniforms—a tight-fitting tunic of quilted cotton sufficient to turn the arrows of the native Indians; a cuirass (for superior officers) made of thin plates of gold or silver; an overcoat or cloak of variegated feather-work; helmets of wood or silver, bearing showy plumes, adorned with precious stones and gold ornaments. Their belts, collars, bracelets, and earrings were also of gold or silver.

Southey, in his poem, makes his Welsh prince, Madoc, thus boast:

Their mail, if mail it may be called, was woven
Of vegetable down, like finest flax,
Bleached to the whiteness of new-fallen snow,
... Others of higher office were arrayed
In feathery breastplates, of more gorgeous hue
Than the gay plumage of the mountain-cock,
Than the pheasants' glittering pride. But what were these
Or what the thin gold hauberk, when opposed
To arms like ours in battle?

Madoc, i, 7.

We learn of the ancient Mexicans, to their honor, that in the large towns hospitals were kept for the cure of the sick and wounded soldiers, and as a permanent refuge if disabled. Not only so, says a Spanish historian, but "the surgeons placed over them were so far better than those in Europe that they did not protract the cure to increase the pay."

Even the red man of the woods, as we learn from Fenimore Cooper and Catlin, believes reverently in the Great Spirit who upholds the universe; and similarly his more civilized brother of Mexico or Tezcuco spoke of a Supreme Creator, Lord of Heaven and Earth. In their prayers some of the phrases were:

The God by whom we live, omnipresent, knowing all thoughts, giving all gifts, without whom man is nothing, invisible, incorporeal, of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we find repose and a sure defense.

Prescott, however, remarks that notwithstanding such attributes "the idea of unity—of a being with whom volition is action, who has no need of inferior ministers to execute his purposes—was too simple, or too vast, for their understandings; and they sought relief, as usual, in a plurality of deities, who presided over the elements, the changes of the seasons, and the various occupations of man."

The Aztecs, in fact, believed in thirteen dii majores and over 200 dii minores. To each of these a special day was assigned in the calendar, with its appropriate festival. Chief of them all was that bloodthirsty monster Huitsilopochtli, the hideous god of war—tutelary deity of the nation. There was a huge temple to him in the capital, and on the great altar before his image there, and on all his altars throughout the empire, the reeking blood of thousands of human victims was being constantly poured out.

The terrible name of this Mexican Mars has greatly puzzled scholars of the language. According to one derivation, the name is a compound of two words, humming-bird and on the left, because his image has the feathers of that bird on the left foot. Prescott naturally thinks that "too amiable an etymology for so ruffian a deity." The other name of the war-god, Mexitl (i. e., "the hare of the aloes"), is much better known, because from it is derived the familiar name of the capital.


The god of the air, Quetzalcoatl, a beneficent deity, who taught Mexicans the use of metals, agriculture, and the arts of government. Prescott remarks that he was doubtless one of those benefactors of their species who have been deified by the gratitude of posterity.

There was a remarkable tradition of Quetzalcoatl, preserved among the Mexicans, that he had been a king, afterward a god, and had a temple dedicated to his worship at Cholula when on his way to the Mexican Gulf. Embarking there, he bade his people a long farewell, promising that he and his descendants would revisit them. The expectation of his return prepared the way for the success of the tall white-skinned invaders.

In the Aztec agriculture, the staple plant was of course the maize or Indian corn. Humboldt tells us that at the conquest it was grown throughout America, from the south of Chile to the River St. Lawrence; and it is still universal in the New World. Other important plants on the Aztec soil were the banana, which (according to one Spanish writer) was the forbidden fruit that tempted our poor mother Eve; the cacao, whose fruit supplies the valuable chocolate; the vanilla, used for flavoring; and most important of all, the maguey, or Mexican aloe, much valued because its leaves were manufactured into paper, and its juice by fermentation becomes the national intoxicant, "pulque." The maguey, or great Mexican aloe, grown all over the table-land, is called "the miracle of nature," producing not only the pulque, but supplying thatch for the cottages, thread and cords from its tough fiber, pins and needles from the thorns which grow on the leaves, an excellent food from its roots, and writing-paper from its leaves. One writer, after speaking of the "pulque" being made from the "maguey," adds, "with what remains of these leaves they manufacture excellent and very fine cloth, resembling holland or the finest linen."

The itztli, formerly mentioned as being used at the sacrifices by the officiating priest, was "obsidian," a dark transparent mineral, of the greatest hardness, and therefore useful for making knives and razors. The Mexican sword was serrated, those of the finest quality being of course edged with itztli. Sculptured figures abounded in every Aztec temple and town, but in design very inferior to the ancient specimens of Egypt and Babylonia, not to mention Greece. A remarkable collection of their sculptured images occurred in the place or great square of Mexico—the Aztec forum—and similar spots. Ever since the Spanish invasion the destruction of the native objects of art has been ceaseless and ruthless. "Two celebrated bas-reliefs of the last Montezuma and his father," says Prescott, "cut in the solid rock, in the beautiful groves of Chapoltepec, were deliberately destroyed, as late as the last century [i. e., the eighteenth], by order of the government." He further remarks:

This wantonness of destruction provokes the bitter animadversion of the Spanish writer Martyr, whose enlightened mind respected the vestiges of civilization wherever found. "The conquerors," says he, "seldom repaired the buildings that they defaced; they would rather sack twenty stately cities than erect one good edifice."

The pre-Columbian Mexicans inherited a practical knowledge of mechanics and engineering. The Calendar Stone, for example (spoken of in the preceding chapter), a mass of dark porphyry estimated at fifty tons weight, was carried for a distance of many leagues from the mountains beyond Lake Chalco, through a rough country crossed by rivers and canals. In the passage its weight broke down a bridge over a canal, and the heavy rock had to be raised from the water beneath. With such obstacles, without the draft assistance of horses or cattle, how was it possible to effect such a transport? Perhaps the mechanical skill of their builders and engineers had contrived some tramway or other machinery. An English traveler had a curious suggestion:

Latrobe accommodates the wonders of nature and art very well to each other, by suggesting that these great masses of stone were transported by means of the mastodon, whose remains are occasionally disinterred in the Mexican Valley.

The Mexicans wove many kinds of cotton cloth, sometimes using as a dye the rich crimson of the cochineal insect. They made a more expensive fabric by interweaving the cotton with the fine hair of rabbits, and other animals; sometimes embroidering with pretty designs of flowers and birds, etc. The special art of the Aztec weaver was in feather-work, which when brought to Europe produced the highest admiration:

With feathers they could produce all the effect of a beautiful mosaic. The gorgeous plumage of the tropical birds, especially of the parrot tribe, afforded every variety of color; and the fine down of the humming-bird, which reveled in swarms among the honeysuckle bowers of Mexico, supplied them with soft aerial tints that gave an exquisite finish to the picture. The feathers, pasted on a fine cotton web, were wrought into dresses for the wealthy, hangings for apartments, and ornaments for the temples.

When some of the Mexican feather-work was shown at Strasbourg: "Never," says one admirer, "did I behold anything so exquisite for brilliancy and nice gradation of color, and for beauty of design. No European artist could have made such a thing."

Instead of shops the Aztecs had in every town a market-place, where fairs were held every fifth day—i. e., once a week. Each commodity had a particular quarter, and the traffic was partly by barter, and partly by using the following articles as money: bits of tin shaped like an Egyptian cross   (T), bags of cacao holding a specified number of grains, and, for large values, quills of gold-dust.

The married women among the Aztecs were treated kindly and respectfully by their husbands. The feminine occupations were spinning and embroidery, etc., as among the ancient Greeks, while listening to ballads and love stories related by their maidens and musicians (Ramusio, iii, 305).

In banquets and other social entertainments the women had an equal share with the men. Sometimes the festivities were on a large scale, with costly preparations and numerous attendants. The Mexicans, ancient and modern, have always been passionately fond of flowers, and on great occasions not only were the halls and courts strewed and adorned in profusion with blossoms of every hue and sweet odor, but perfumes scented every room. The guests as they sat down found ewers of water before them and cotton napkins, since washing the hands both before and after eating was a national habit of almost religious obligation.  Modern Europeans believe that tobacco was introduced from America in the time of Queen Isabella and Queen Elizabeth, but ages before that period the Aztecs at their banquets had the "fragrant weed" offered to the company, "in pipes, mixed up with aromatic substances, or in the form of cigars, inserted in tubes of tortoise-shell or silver." The smoke after dinner was no doubt preliminary to the siesta or nap of "forty winks." It is not known if the Aztec ladies, like their descendants in modern Mexico, also appreciated the yetl, as the Mexicans called "tobacco." Our word came from the natives of Hayti, one of the islands discovered by Columbus.

The tables of the Aztecs abounded in good food—various dishes of meat, especially game, fowl, and fish. The turkey, for example, was introduced into Europe from Mexico, although stupidly supposed to have come from Asia. The French named it coq d'Inde, the "Indian cock," meaning American, but the ordinary hearer imagined d'Inde meant from Hindustan. The blunder arose from that misapplication of the word "Indian," first made by Columbus, as we formerly explained.

The Aztec cooks dressed their viands with various sauces and condiments, the more solid dishes being followed by fruits of many kinds, as well as sweetmeats and pastry. Chafing-dishes even were used. Besides the varieties of beautiful flowers which adorned the table there were sculptured Vases of silver and sometimes gold. At table

the favorite beverage was the chocolatl flavored with vanilla and different spices. The fermented juice of the maguey, with a mixture of sweets and acids, supplied also various agreeable drinks, of different degrees of strength.

When the young Mexicans of both sexes amused themselves with dances, the older people kept their seats in order to enjoy their pulque and gossip, or listen to the discourse of some guest of importance. The music which accompanied the dances was frequently soft and rather plaintive.

The early Mexicans included the Tezcucans as well as the Aztecs proper; and since their capitals were on the same lake and both races were closely akin, we may devote some space to these Alcohuans or eastern Aztecs. Their civilization was superior to that of the western Aztecs in some respects, and Nezahual-coyotl, their greatest prince, formed alliance with the western state, and then remodeled the various departments of his government. He had a council of war, another of finance, and a third of justice.

A remarkable institution, under King Nezahual-coyotl, was the "Council of Music," intended to promote the study of science and the practise of art.

Tezcuco, in fact, became the nursery not only of such sciences as could be compassed by the scholarship of the period, but of various useful and ornamental arts. "Its historians, orators, and poets were celebrated throughout the country.... Its idiom, more polished than the Mexican, continued long after the conquest to be that in which the best productions of the native races were composed. Tezcuco was the Athens of the Western World.... Among the most illustrious of her bards was their king himself." A Spanish writer adds that it was to the eastern Aztecs that noblemen sent their sons "to study poetry, moral philosophy, the heathen theology, astronomy, medicine, and history."

The most remarkable problem connected with ancient Mexico is how to reconcile the general refinement and civilization with the sacrifices of human victims. There was no town or city but had its temples in public places, with stairs visibly leading up to the sacrificial stone, ever standing ready before some hideous idol or other—as already described.

In all countries there have been public spectacles of bloodshed, not only as in the gladiators in the ancient circus—

butchered to make a Roman holiday,

or the tournays of the middle ages, but in the prize-ring fights and public executions by ax or guillotine, of the age that is just passing away. The thousands who perished for religious ideas by means of the Holy Roman Inquisition should not be overlooked by the Spanish writers who are so indignant that Montezuma and his priests sacrificed tens of thousands under the claims of a heathen religion. The very day on which we write these words, August 18th, is the anniversary of the last sentence for beheading passed by our House of Lords. By that sentence three Scottish "Jacobites" passed under the ax on Tower Hill, where their remains still rest in a chapel hard by. So lately as 1873, the Shah of Persia, when resident as a visitor in Buckingham Palace, was amazed to find that the laws of Great Britain prevented him from depriving five of his courtiers of their lives. They had just been found guilty of some paltry infringement of Persian etiquette. During the last generation or the previous one, both in England and Scotland, the country schoolmaster on a certain day had the schoolroom cleared so that the children and their friends should enjoy the treat of seeing all the game-cocks of the parish bleeding on the floor one after another, being either struck by a spur to the brain, or else wounded to a painful death. When James Boswell and others regularly attended the spectacles of Tyburn and sometimes cheered the wretched victim if he "died game," the philosopher will not wonder at the populace of some city of ancient Mexico crowding round the great temple and greedily watching the bloody sacrifice done with full sanction of the priesthood and the king.

The primitive religions were derived from sunworship, and as fire is the nearest representative of the sun, it seemed essential to burn the victim offered as a sacrifice. At Carthage, the great Phenician colony, children were cruelly sacrificed by fire to the god Melkarth of Tyre. "Melkarth" being simply Melech Kiriath (i. e., "King of the City"), and therefore identical with the "Moloch" or "Molech" of the Ammonites, Moabites, and Israelites. In the earliest prehistoric age the children of Ammon, Moab, and Israel were apparently so closely akin that they had practically the same religion and worshiped the same idols. The tribal god was originally the god of Syria or Canaan. In more than a dozen places of the Old Testament we find the Hebrews accused of burning their children or passing them through the fire to the sun-god, but the ancient Mexicans did not burn their victims, and in no case were the victims their own children. The victims were captives taken in war, or persons convicted of crime; and thus the Mexicans were in atrocity far surpassed by those races akin to the Hebrews who are much denounced by the sacred writers, e. g.:

Josiah ... defiled Topheth that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech (2 Kings xxiii, 10).

They have built also the high places to burn their sons with fire for burnt-offerings (Jer. xix, 5).

Yea, they shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan (Ps. cvi, 37).

That a father should offer his own child as a sacrifice to the sun-god or any other, would to the mild and gentle Aztec be too dreadful a conception. It is the enormous number who were immolated that shocks the European mind, but to the populace enjoying the spectacle the victims were enemies of the king or criminals deserving execution.

Perhaps it is a more difficult problem to explain how so civilized a community as the Aztec races undoubtedly were could look with complacency upon any one tasting a dish composed of some part of the captive he had taken in battle. It is not only repulsive as an idea, but seems impossible. Yet much depends on the point of view as well as the atmosphere. According to archeologists, all the primeval races of men could at a pinch feed on human flesh, but after many generations learned to do better without it. We may have simply outgrown the craving, till at last we call it unnatural, whereas those ancient Mexicans, with all their wealth of food, had refined upon it. Let us again refer to the Old Testament:

Thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters and these hast thou sacrificed to be devoured (Ezek. xvi, 20).

... have caused their sons to pass for them through the fire, to devour them (Ezek. xxiii, 37).

We may therefore infer that to the early races of Canaan (including Israel), as well as to the primeval Aztecs, it was a privilege and religious custom to eat part of any sacrifice that had been offered.

There can be little doubt, to any one who has studied the earliest human antiquities, that all races indulged in cannibalism, not only during that enormously remote age called Paleolithic, but in comparatively recent though still prehistoric times. "This is clearly proved by the number of human bones, chiefly of women and young persons, which have been found charred by fire and split open for extraction of the marrow." Such charred bones have frequently been preserved in caves, as at Chaleux in Belgium, where in some instances they occurred "in such numbers as to indicate that they had been the scene of cannibal feasts."

The survival of human sacrifice among the Aztecs, with its accompanying traces of cannibalism, was due to the savagery of a long previous condition of their Indian race; just as in the Greek drama, when that ancient people had attained a high level of culture and refinement, the sacrifice of a human life, sometimes a princess or other distinguished heroine, was not unfrequent. We remember Polyxena, the virgin daughter of Hecuba, whom her own people resolved to sacrifice on the tomb of Achilles; and her touching bravery, as she requests the Greeks not to bind her, being ashamed, she says, "having lived a princess to die a slave." A better known example is Iphigenia, so beloved by her father, King Agamemnon, and yet given up by him a victim for purposes of state and religion.

From the Greek drama, human sacrifices frequently passed to the Roman; nor does such a refined critic as Horace object to it, but only suggests that the bloodshed ought to be perpetrated behind the scenes. In Seneca's play, Medea (quoted in our Introduction), that rule was grossly violated, since the children have their[Pg 106] throats cut by their heroic mother in full view of the audience. In the same passage (Ars Poët., 185, 186) Horace forbids a banquet of human flesh being prepared before the eyes of the public, as had been done in a play written by Ennius, the Roman poet. The religious sacrifice of human victims by the "Druids" or priests of ancient Gaul and Britain seems exactly parallel to the wholesale executions on the Mexican teocallis, since the wretched victims whom our Celtic ancestors packed for burning into those huge wicker images, were captives taken in battle, like those stretched for slaughter upon the Mexican stone of sacrifice.

Human sacrifice was so common in civilized Rome that it was not till the first century B. C. that a law was passed expressly forbidding it—(Pliny, Hist. Nat., xxx, 3, 4).




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Aztec: The Giant Pyramid Builders