dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Mighty Aztecs (Part Two)

In my last post, I concentrated on the more grisly aspects the Aztecs... their religion and the rituals of human sacrifice... something that always caught the attention of my high school students back when I was a teacher.  However, it would be wrong to dismiss the Aztecs as a tribe of bloodthirsty savages.  They had a remarkable civilization.  (Besides, one should also remember the things that were being done in Europe in that era in the name of religion... or things that are done in the name of religion in our own era.)

According to Aztec mythology, the tribe came from the north, from a place called Aztlán (hence the name Aztecs... the tribe actually called themselves the Mexicas).  They migrated to the south, and somewhere around the year 1325 they settled in the Valley of Mexico... the valley where Mexico City is located today.  Their patron god Huitzilopochtli had supposedly told them that they should settle when they saw an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus (some versions add that the eagle was devouring a serpent).  According to the story, they saw the promised sign on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, and so that it where they made their home.  It's more likely that they were forced to settle on that swampy island since the valley was already densely settled with other tribes.

  An Aztec carving with the image of the legendary eagle on a cactus

The town they built on that island was called Tenochtitlan.  The Aztecs, through war and through alliances, gradually gained control of the entire valley and beyond.  Eventually they dominated most of central Mexico, and their empire was the greatest of any pre-Hispanic civilization of Mesoamerica.  As their power grew, so did the size and grandeur of Tenochtitlan.  When the Spanish arrived they said that it was the most beautiful city that they had ever seen.

 A mural in the Anthropology Museum depicts Tenochititlan at its height, built on an island in the middle of the valley, with snow covered volcanoes in the distance.

 A model in the museum recreates the holy precinct in the center of Tenochtitlan.  It was dominated by the Templo Mayor (Main Temple)... a pyramid topped with twin shrines to their gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc.

This diorama in the museum depicts the great marketplace in the district of Tlatelolco.  The Spanish wrote that they had never seen such a well organized market or one offering such a huge variety of products for sale.

The Aztecs learned from the civilized tribes which already lived in the region, and became skilled craftsmen and artists.  Here is a sampling of some of their work from the museum...

 A jaguar carved from stone

A drum-like musical instrument exquisitely carved from wood

 A realistic carving of a rattlesnake

 Although the subject is grisly... a human heart, the most precious offering that can be made to the gods... there is no denying that this carving in green stone is beautifully executed.

These statues depict ordinary inhabitants of the Aztec empire.  There is a cavity in their chest.  They believed that the images would gain a life of their own by placing a carved stone heart in the cavity.

These statues of warriors show the artistic influence of the earlier Toltec civilization.

A glyph representing the name of one of the Aztec emperors

The Aztec civilization was conquered and destroyed by the Spanish, but their culture still influences the Mexico of today.  Many words of Aztec origin remain a part of their language.  Their cuisine has pre-Hispanic influences.  Their open-markets, the "tianguis" harken back to the Aztec markets.  Their attitude toward death, and even their Catholic faith are tinged with Aztec beliefs.  The blood of the mighty Aztecs still courses through their veins. 

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