Ten Essential Facts You Need to Know About the Aztecs

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Ten Essential Facts You Need to Know About the Aztecs!

Aztec Carving
Aztec Carving by Justin Ennis cc2.0

The Aztecs were an ethnic group who lived in a successful and thriving society from the 14th to the 16th century. They lived in what we now call central Mexico and their culture was the dominant one in the area. Their traditions and practices were steeped in mythology and religion, and they are possibly most well known for their use of human sacrifice. There is so much more to the Aztec culture though which we will explore in this article.


86-Second Super-Speedy Summary of ‘Ten Essential Aztec Facts’

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1. Nomads

Model of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan
Model of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. By Thelmadatter

Long before the Aztecs settled down and began building, they lived a nomadic life. This meant that they were continually moving and never settled in one place. One of the reasons for this was their aggression towards other tribes that led to constant battles.

These feuds were often caused because the Aztecs believed in gods who were hungry for human blood; they would take prisoners from other tribes so they could kill them in religious rituals.

An old Aztec legend foretold that they would only find their true home when they saw an eagle holding a snake as it sat on a cactus. One day, an Aztec priest claimed to have seen just that in the swampy area by Lake Texcoco which was part of the Mexican Valley. This was, therefore, where the Aztecs built their capital city. This city was called Tenochtitlan and today, Mexico City is built upon its ruins.




2. Social education

Calmecac_glyph_(Codex_Mendoza_61r)
The Calmecac (the house of the lineage) was a school for the sons of Aztec nobility in the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican history.

The Aztecs valued education very highly and as soon as their city was built, they set up an education system that was free for everyone. The Aztec leaders wanted their society to be successful and they knew that to achieve this they had to develop the minds of its people. Girls, boys, adults and even slaves went to school.

Boys and girls went to different schools and learned different subjects, girls learned about music, dance, cooking and how to make clothes. The boys learned RE like the girls but they also learned about farming and the art of warfare. This was important as the Aztecs were often at war. The boys also selected a trade to learn that they could do as a job when they were adults. Boys from royal and rich families went to a different school; it was these boys who were taught at a higher level and could become engineers or academics.

Aztec schools were not for young children though. Until their young teens, Aztec children stayed at home and were taught by their family. Once they reached school age, however, they had to go to school as it was required by law. Aztec schools were very strict and children had to behave and be polite.


3. Chocolate

Cacao-pod
Cocoa beans in a cocoa pod.

The Aztecs loved chocolate. The cocoa bean grew naturally in Mexico and the Aztecs recognised it as a powerful substance. It wasn’t the chocolate we would recognise today. It was served more as a drink than a food product and the taste itself would have been bitter and not sweet.

It was mostly drunk by the rich and noble and was often given as a form of medicine or drug; some reports state that it made whoever consumed it appear drunk. It was thought that if men drank the chocolate beverage, they would be more attractive to women.


4. The clothing Aztec people wore reflected their status

Aztec headdress
Aztec feather headdress attributed to Moctezuma II; currently resides in Vienna, Austria, while a replica is exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México. Image credit: Maunus cc3.0

Mexico is a hot country and the clothing the Aztecs wore had to be cool. Clothes were mostly loose fitting and rarely covered all of the body. Imported cotton was often used because it was cool. The clothes were made by the women, and young girls were taught the skills of weaving at school age. The Aztecs had access to many different dyes because they traded with other societies; the result was a beautiful array of colors.

Clothing was a symbol of social status. The poorer the people, the less they physically wore. The male slaves and very common people would wear only a loincloth which was a simple piece of material that just covered their crotch area. If a man was a little higher up the social ladder, he would have a pattern or fringe on the loin cloth as an indication of this. The poor women wore skirts and blouses. Just like the men, the higher the social class, the more decoration was added to the material.

The upper class would wear jewellery and those who were nobles and royalty would be allowed to wear feathers on their clothes and use the colour turquoise.


5. The Aztecs used cocoa beans instead of money

Tenochtitlan Market
Tenochtitlan Market by Señor Codo cc2.0

The Aztecs had a successful market trading system with the community making everything from jewellery to medicine, all of which could be sold, traded and swapped with other Aztec people and other communities. They had lots to offer trading partners as they had a successful farming industry growing corn, avocados, beans, squash, hemp, peppers and tobacco. The Aztec used trade as a form of money.

They used many different currencies but the cocoa bean was a very popular item which was used like we use money today. It was a difficult currency to work with because the beans themselves varied in quality and so one bean wasn’t worth a standard amount.

Another form of exchange was the quachtli which was a large cotton cloak. These also differed in quality, it is estimated that 65-300 beans were equal to one quachtli. A quachtli could buy you a canoe or 100 sheets of paper but you would need 100 of them to be able to afford a feather cloak.


6. Aztec games

Ullamaliztli
Drawing of Aztec ballplyers performing for Charles V in Madrid in 1528 drawn by Christoph Weiditz.

The Aztecs loved sport and games and were very competitive. All sections of the community played games, including children, adults, common people and the nobles. Many of their games had a religious reference and were either simply based on a story from religion or were actually part of a religious ceremony.

Ullamaliztli is a well-known Aztec ball game; it was such an important game to their culture that they built the court to play it in as soon as they settled in their capital city. The game derives its name from the word ulli, which means rubber, and described the type of ball that was used. The aim of the game was to get the ball through a hoop; players could use their hips, knees and arms. The ball was big and heavy so the players had to wear protective clothing including knee pads and helmets. This clothing also protected them from the stone wall of the court into which they would often get thrown.

Another game the Aztecs played was a board game called Patolli which was played mostly by the nobles. It was played using red beans which were adapted to have dimples in them to represent numbers, just like a modern dice. It was played on a board shaped like a cross. Players moved their pieces on and off the board after throwing the bean.


7. Religion

Religion played a major part in the everyday lives of the Aztec people. They believed in heaven and hell but the type of death that people suffered was as relevant to where they went as the life they lived. People who died while fighting would be guaranteed a place at the top level of heaven. If someone drowned they would be destined for the underworld.

They had many gods and when they took over another tribe, they would often adopt their gods as well. Here are four examples of Aztec gods:

– The Aztecs gods included the Sun, which was one of the most prominent. They valued the sun god so much they even called themselves people of the sun. To keep the sun rising each day, the Aztec performed rituals.

– Another important god was Huitzilopchti. He was the fearful god of Tenochtitlan and the temple in the center of the city was built in his honor. He was depicted with feathers and often held a sceptre created from a snake.

Huitzilopochtli_telleriano
Representation of the Aztec (Mexica) god Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

– Tlaloc was the god that represented water and rain. If the Aztecs received ample rain to help their crops grow, they felt that Tlaloc was happy with them, but if there was a storm, they saw this as a sign of his anger. He was depicted with fangs.

Tlaloc_Codex_Rios
Tlaloc, as shown in the late 16th century Codex Ríos.

– Quetzalcoatl was the god of wind and life. He was often depicted as a snake with feathered wings. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs believed that their leader Cortes was a living incarnation of their god.

Quetzalcoatl_telleriano
Quetzalcoatl in feathered serpent form as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

8. Aztec law

Huehuemoteuczoma_mendoza
A code of law seems to have been established under the reign of Moctezuma I. The Aztec ruler Moctezuma I, from the Codex Mendoza (16th century).

The Aztecs had a very strict and organised legal system. It was common for people to be put to death for their crimes. To face the death penalty, a person would have to commit murder, highway robbery, rape, destroy crops, sell stolen property or practice witchcraft.

For other crimes deemed less serious, people would be sentenced into slavery or have their home destroyed. Sometimes the offender’s family also faced punishment.

The Aztec prison had many different sections for people depending on the seriousness of their crimes. The conditions in the prisons were very poor and many prisoners died.

Once children reached the age of 10, they were considered accountable for their actions and, therefore, at risk of receiving adult punishments. Some punishments were harder on young people than on the old, for example, a young person who was drunk in public faced the death penalty, while older people could drink as much as they liked without fear of any punishment.


9. Human sacrifice

Human sacrifice Codex_Magliabechiano
Human sacrifice as shown in the Codex Magliabechiano

It would be impossible to write about the Aztecs without mentioning human sacrifice which they are most famous for today. The Aztecs’ appetite for human sacrifice was rooted in their strong religious beliefs. The only way to keep their gods happy was to offer them blood and as the gods controlled their lives, it was seen as essential to Aztec survival. It is difficult to know how many people were sacrificed this way, but it is estimated that it was at least 1,000 a year, and the number could even have been as high as 20,000.

Choosing who faced sacrifice varied a great deal; some volunteered as it was considered an honour to do so. Some were losers in games, some were criminals or slaves and others were taken from other tribes during battles.

The mode of killing depended on the god for whom they were being sacrificed. According to their beliefs, the god of water, Tlaloc, required the tears of children. Therefore, children were sacrificed for this god. They were made to cry beforehand to keep the god happy.

When the Aztecs made sacrifices to Huitzilopchti, they would take the warriors from other tribes in battle. They would have their heart torn out even as it was beating. It would be held towards the sun to symbolise the physical offering to Huitzilopchti. The Aztec who captured the prisoner would be rewarded by rising up the social class hierarchy system.




10. The Aztecs were destroyed by the Spanish

Jal-ixco
Cristóbal de Olid leads Spanish soldiers with Tlaxcalan allies in the conquest of Jalisco, 1522

The Aztecs were a dominant society and yet in 1519 their supremacy started to fall. This was the year that the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, led by Cortes. Their intention was to take gold, land and power from the natives. The Aztecs stood in their way and the result was a two-year war that the Spanish won in 1521.

There are many reasons that the Spanish were victorious, such as their experience of modern warfare, guns and horses, which intimidated the Aztecs and made them fearful. To make matters worse, the Aztec community became infected with diseases that the Spanish invaders had brought with them. Both the Aztec people and their army were badly affected and this had a detrimental effect on their strength on the battlefield. With many local enemies happy to assist the Spanish in destroying their aggressive neighbours who had taken so many of their people for human sacrifice, the Aztecs stood little chance of success. The Aztecs were destroyed but they are not forgotten.


TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AZTECS:


AZTECS! Video Playlist.

A detailed playlist of the videos is listed below.

The Playlist:

  1. Summary of the Aztecs – Aztec Essentials in 86 seconds by IP Factly
  2. 10 Aztec Sacrifice Facts – Aztec Human Sacrifice Essentials in 120 Seconds by IP Factly
  3. The Aztec Empire Summary – by Sandra Alvarez
  4. Aztec Empire & Culture Interesting Facts, Anthropology 1 by PsycheTruth
  5. Aztec Empire & Culture Interesting Facts, Anthropology 2 by PsycheTruth
  6. Aztec Civilization by LearningHelp
  7. Tenochtitlan (The Impossible City) by John Fitz

101 Facts… Aztecs!


Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztec
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/46981/Aztec
http://www.aztec-history.com/ancient-aztec-games.html
http://www.ducksters.com/history/aztec_empire/daily_life.php

To view the complete list of sources, please click here.

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