|A piece of Aztec art|
Throughout Mesoamerican history there has been a history of city states. The last time we looked at Mesoamerican history we focused particularly on the Maya and their height of power. Today we shall look at the most famous Mesoamerican civilization: the Aztecs. However, we do run into a bit of an issue here. The people referred to as Aztecs never actually called themselves Aztecs. The term 'Aztec' was first used in the nineteenth-century by Alexander von Humboldt to describe the largely Nahuatl speaking peoples of something called the Triple Alliance, (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan). If 'Aztec' is used anywhere in this post it will be in reference to the peoples who lived in the Triple Alliance. Before we look at the Triple Alliance, however, we must first look at the culture of Mesoamerica as 'Aztec' culture bears a huge resemblance to other Mesoamerican cultures.
Introduction to Mesoamerican Cultures
|The Temple of Kukulkan|
The above photo is of El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, which was a Mayan pyramid. Many other cultures in Mesoamerica, including the Triple Alliance, built pyramids. Winged serpents, human sacrifice, emphasis on the sun in religious worship and a unique approach to time, (among other things), are all present in the various cultures to have existed in pre-Spanish Mesoamerica. This can be easily explained as the many city states and empires either briefly coexisted or ousted the previous state creating cultural similarities throughout the centuries. Comparing this to other areas of the world we can see this in Europe since the time of the Greek states and Rome, and in China with the continued Chinese cultural pieces like the Mandate of Heaven. Although each culture had their own way of doing things it was similar to each other and is descended from the Olmecs who arose around 1500 BCE. These cultures co-opted ideas from one another. As we mentioned all these civilizations used human sacrifice; why this originated we do not know, (in early time and simultaneously with human sacrifice food was also offered for sacrifice), and historians have put forward several explanations why (population control? aiding political expansion? elite power maintenance?). However, cultures had different ways to do this. Initially the Maya in their sacrifices would cut their ruler or would decapitate someone but after interacting with the Triple Alliance they would start cutting out hearts. We will into more detail about 'Aztec' culture later but before we move on to the Triple Alliance's origins I briefly want to talk about Mesoamerican concept of time.
European, Islamic and most Asian calendars are based off of one linear object, mainly the sun, so experience time, as described by Kay Read and Jason Gonzalez, as 'beads on a rope'. Mesoamerican cultures including the Maya, Mexica, Toltecs etc. based their calendars off of many celestial objects which each had their own movements and paths. Read and Gonzalez describe this as them experiencing time as the rope instead of the beads. Fibers on the rope spin together overlapping at times and then not. The present moment contains many past and future moments so will pick of powers of specific years, deities and times from the past and future. By manipulating the bindings through ritual one could control the path of the future or even the past, (we shall talk about this soon). The Maya have legends of the Hero Twins which perfectly show this: they existed at the dawn of time and helped create the first beings but they were also newborn long after creation. Now with that explained we shall talk about the origin of the Triple Alliance.
|The eagle from the origin story, now part of Mexico's flag|
It's quite difficult to ascertain the origins of the Triple Alliance for several reasons. The first is that when the Spanish took over they proceeded to do a cultural genocide of Mesoamerica so many sources are now lost to us, and they later rewrote sources to make them sound not far from barbaric. The second reason is that many rulers rewrote history, Itzcoatl being a famous one to do this. As mentioned earlier the concept of time meant that in the present it was possible for someone to rewrite the past. Many rulers rewrote the past to suit the current situation, Itzoatl was king of Tenochtitlan who helped found the Triple Alliance and later there was a massive rewrite to help cope and understand the Spanish conquest. We have managed to piece together some idea of their origins through remaining sources and archaeological evidence. The people who founded, and made up, the 'Aztec Empire' come from the Uto-Aztecan language group which comprised of thirty languages of which Nahuatl was, (and still is), the largest. It is currently believed that a nomadic group of the Nahua people named the Chichimeca under the leadership of chief Xolotl settled in the Valley of Mexico in 1224. Here they founded Tenayuca. There other groups followed and were ruled by petty kings called tlahtoqueh. Eventually in 1250 the Mexica arrived in the Valley. One tradition states that they started for Mexico in 1111 bring led by their tribal deity Huitzilopochtli whose idol was carried by four priests called teomanaque. Official history states that they came from a place called 'Aztlan' and called themselves the 'Azteca' and on the march to the Valley Huitzilopchtli gave them the name 'Mexica'. On their journey Huitzilopchtli was supposedly born at the mythical Coatepec (Snake Mountain) where he became a sun god showing the Mesoamerican idea of time.
By the time that the Mexica had arrived in the Valley most of the fertile land had been taken by the established city states. As a result many had to act as mercenaries, quite fitting as Huitzilopchtli was a war god as well as a sun god, and were eventually made 'serfs' by the city of Colhuacan. In an attempt to 'civilize' them the Colhuacan king gave his daughter to the chief as a bride in 1323 but she was sacrificed, (and possibly flayed), in the hope that she would become a war goddess. Colhuacan then expelled them from the lands. A prophecy from Huitzilopchtli stated that the Mexica will have a sacred spot which would be marked by an eagle perching on a nopal cactus which they supposedly saw on Lake Texcoco where in 1325 they started building Tenochtitlan. Later by 1344 or 1345 the tribe split with one tribe founding Tenochtitlan and another going north to found Tlatelolco.
|Rear of the Teocalli Stone which depicts the eagle|
Around 1367 the Mexica came into an alliance with the Tepanac kingdom of Atzcapotzalco who was ruled by Tezozomoc. For Tepanac protection the Mexica would send levies and fight for Tezozomoc. Here we begin to see a later trend in societies with a landed elite. The military commanders, tlatoani, and nobles, pipiltin, gained land through conquest and were rewarded land for fighting. The tlatoani were elected by a council of clan, calpulli, elders. Also it is important to note that the ruler of Tenochtitlan was elected by a council and not inherited father and son. However the son was always elected. One tlatoani of Tenochtitlan even married Tezozomoc's granddaughters. How did the 'Aztec' rise to power then? During a campaign to conquer Texcoco in 1426 Tezozomoc died and his son Maxtla took power after murdering a rival. Maxtla had the Tenochtitlan tlatoani assassinated and Itzcoatl was elected with the support of another tlatoani Motecuhzoma Ihuilcamina. As Tenochtitlan had grown in power they decided to oust Tepananc Atzcapotzalco rule. Tenochtitlan and Texcoco formed an alliance and joined with a dissident Tepananc city of Tlacopan. They managed to conquer Atzcapotzalco in 1428 forming the Triple Alliance, or as it is commonly called the Aztec Empire.
|Artist portrayal of Tenochtitlan|
When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments... on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream?... I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.
This is what Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about Tenochtitlan in The Conquest of New Spain. At almost 14 square kilometers in size with a population over 200,000 Tenochtitlan dwarfed most cities in Europe at the same time. One of the most famous aspect of Triple Alliance cities was the chinampa district in most cities which Castillo refers to as 'cities and villages built in the water'. Chinampas were, (and are), 'floating gardens' as observers have described. In reality they are securely built up the shallow lakebed in fertile layers anchored by slender willows. The chinampas were organised in rectangles which were separated by small canals. They were so successful that they could generate seven harvests a year! Maize, beans, flowers, chili peppers, tomatoes, amaranth and squash were all grown on these chinampas. Quite remarkably many were made by reclaiming swamp land so it can help supply the cities. The cities were like the other Mesoamerican cities and the cities on the Incas in Peru in the fact that they were centers of trade. Each calpulli, about twenty in Tenochtitlan, had its own marketplace which Hernan Cortés estimated to be larger than Salamanca. Although this was an exaggeration the marketplace was certainly large with over 20,000 people a day trading there. Tlateloco had a similarly large marketplace having 25,000 there daily which rose to 40-50,000 on every fifth day when there was a special market. Markets were supplied via canoes. Bernal Diaz described some of the things seen at the market at Tlateloco:
Let us go and speak of those who sold beans and sage and other vegetables and herbs in another part, and to those who sold fowls, cocks with wattles, rabbits, hares, deer, mallards, young dogs and other things...the women who sold cooked food, dough and tripe in their own part of the market; then every sort of pottery made in a thousand different forms from great water jars to little jugs...I could wish that I had finished telling of all the things which are sold there, but they are so numerous and of such different quality and the great market place with its surrounding arcades was so crowded with people, that one would not have been able to see and inquire about it all in two days.
The cities of the Triple Alliance were centered around public buildings, palaces and religious buildings. These normally included a Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Sun, and a Temple to Quetzalcoatl. A tlachtli ball court was often found. Tlachtli was the 'Aztec' ball game which was mix of soccer and basketball and would sometimes see the sacrifice of four war captives. In the center of the city was the royal palace safe from external attack.
Social Structure and Society
Like every state in history there was a rigid social structure. At the head of the three cities was the Huehuetlatoani who acted as a king of each city and one of these were chosen to be Huey tlatoani (Great Speaker) for the confederation. The Huey tlatoani was more concerned with external affairs of the confederation with a Chihuacoatl ruling the city itself. As Tenochtitlan was the most powerful of the three cities normally they became the Huey tlatoani. The Chihuacoatl was normally a close relative of the Huey tlatoani and would be the equivalent of a European prime minister or Islamic vizier. This position was essential as the tlatoani had to deal with constant external affairs. Unlike other empires the Triple Alliance had a tribute system which they exacted tribute from or warred against to get prisoners for sacrifice. Priests, tlamacazqui, were extremely important in society. A recurrent theme in Mesoamerican religions is world renewal and the tlamacazqui was expected to perform rituals in the city ensure the maintenance and renewal of human society. He, (it was always a he), was also expected to go an annual pilgrimage to a shrine on Mt Tlalco to perform the dry-season rites calling for rain and renewal. Castillo did not describe them positively but in his description we can see Orientalist discourse present:
They wore black cloaks like cassocks and long gowns reaching to their feet. Some had hoods like those worn by canons, and others had smaller hoods...Their hair was covered with blood, and so matted together that it could not be separated, and their ears were cut to pieces by way of penance. They stank like sulphur and they had another bad smell like carrion. They were the sons of chiefs and abstained from women. They fasted on certain days and what I saw them eat was the pith of seeds. The nails on their fingers were very long, and we heard it said that these priests were very pious and led good lives.
Children in Triple Alliance society were raised to respect elders and deities in a similar way to Chinese Confucianism. Childbirth was seen as being a major occasion with midwives shouting war cries and a ritual would take place. Male umbilical cords would be taken by a warrior to a battlefield to be buried as a female cord would be buried by the hearth (representing their places in society). The Codex Mendoza, (a history of Mexico and all its culture made by the Spanish for Charles V), showed the strict raising of children as well as harsh punishments for the worst rulebreakers (including be held over a fire of roasting chili peppers). Surprisingly for a 'pre-modern' society education was open for all classes and sexes. Commoners had the telpochcalli which taught moral/religious training, history, ritual dancing and singing, and public singing. Boys were taught military training while girls were taught to participate in religious cults for later life. Richer classes had the calmecac although smarter commoners could enter it. Although patriarchal Elizabeth Brumfiel has shown that male/female relations was largely gender complimentary. Men and women were seen as equally related in their respective families, could equally own or inherit property/assets, and held equal positions in the markets, schools and temples. Women in temples were linked to female deity cults. We shall now turn to religion.
|A depiction of Quetzalcoatl|
For time constraints we won't go into detail about 'Aztec' religion. One of the most important and well-known is Quetzalcoatl who is often portrayed as a feathered serpent. Throughout Mesoamerican cultures we see various feathered serpents including Kukulkan in Mayan religion. One story is that the there have been five ages, (the one which the Triple Alliance existed in was the Fifth Age), and Quetzalcoatl formed the Fifth Age. He sacrificed all the gods and then blew on the sun to make it move. Some stories even has him being a comic, trickster god although after the Conquest this side of him appears far less. As mentioned earlier the Mexica greatly honored Huitzilopochtli who was a sun and war god. In Tenochtitlan he shared the Temple Mayor in the center of the city with the rain god Tlaloc. According to Castillo as Huitzilopochtli wore a hummingbird helmet the Aztecs saw the conquistadors helmets resembling Huitzilopochtli's so assumed the Spanish were people like them. One aspect of Aztec religion seen most prominently in the media was sacrifice. Sacrifice was done at certain times of the year at very precise moments, (all Mesoamerican cultures were extremely accurate with their astronomy), and sacrifice was seen as giving gifts to the gods for food. Most of the sacrifices were food like amaranth cakes and the first corn tortillas were eaten at dawn as a sacrifice to the sun. Human sacrifice was also prevalent. Numbers of those sacrificed were embellished by conquistadors to justify their conquest. Only important figures such as warriors taken from tribute states were sacrificed in the temples as they were seen as the best to honor the gods.
|A depiction of the Fall of Tenochtitlan|
The Triple Alliance fell in some of the bloodiest periods of European conquest of the Americas. In 1517 Hernandez de Cordoba arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula sailing from Cuba. There they fought several Maya formations. In 1519 Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors arrived searching for the famed gold of the Triple Alliance. Meanwhile, Motecuhzoma II of Tenochtitlan heard stories of new strange sailing ships and outlandish people on the coast. Cortés had brought with him 500 soldiers and 100 sailors who lacked gold, land or inheritance but did have the crusading spirit of a newly unified Spain. Since the sixteenth-century it has been said that Motecuhzoma believed that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl who had been prophesied to return in the year 1-reed (1519). However, Nigel Davies has highlighted that the original legend had been transformed into a prophesy and Susan Gillespie has argued that this story of Cortés being Quetzalcoatl was invented after the Conquest to make sense of the quick Spanish victory. It is likely that Motecuhzoma treated them as royal emissaries and their gifts were thus gifts for ambassadors and not for gods, (one such was a golden disc 'as large as a cartwheel' valued at 20,000 ducats). Inspired by the wealth in Mexico Cortés burnt his ships and decided to conquer the Triple Alliance. Using tributes which had borne the brunt of the Triple Alliance the Spanish to deprive the Aztecs of their forces and used them to fight their overlords. Cortés arrived back at Tenochtitlan where Motecuhzoma greeted them again and the Spanish, (and their local allies), eventually took him captive where he was killed. Fearing reprisal by the Mexica they fled but left behind the most destructive weapon of all: smallpox. We shall discuss the Great Dying in a future post but here 50% of Tenochtitlan's population died thanks to the horrific disease including the emperor himself. Meanwhile the Spanish made an alliance with the Texcocans, Tlaxcalans and other cities wanting to break free from Triple Alliance rule. Together they laid siege to Tenochtitlan and it fell in 1521. With the fall of Tenochtitlan years of subjugation for the indigenous peoples of Mexico began.
The Triple Alliance remains a key point in history. It was a unique civilization which showed a continuation of Mesoamerican culture while also representing something new. It represents how pervasive colonial thought is in our culture. We refer to them as a name invented by someone who lived centuries after they fell, today their religion is portrayed as being bathed in blood and human hearts based on the description from Spanish conquerors, and still a story that they were naive believing that Cortés was a god. Their fall shows the destructiveness of colonialism. Finally they also helped shape what Mexico wanted to be. Mexico itself is named after the Mexica people who ruled Tenochtitlan and currently Mexico City is built on Tenochtitlan. Mexico's flag even portrays the eagle eating a snake on the cactus which the Mexica supposedly saw. Although the colonialists tried to erase the memory of the Aztec Empire they remained to shape how Mexico tried to see itself.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Aztecs, third edition, by Richard F. Townsend
-Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, sixth edition, by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz
-1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, second edition, by Charles C. Mann
-Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology by Kay Almere Read and Jason Gonzalez