dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Mighty Aztecs

I rarely go to Mexico City without paying a visit to one of the great museums of the world, the National Museum of Anthropology.  For the last couple of years, rather than attempting to go through the entire museum, I have been concentrating on just one hall of the museum on each visit.  Regular readers may recall posts that I have written on the displays of the civilizations of Teotihuacan, the Mayas, and Oaxaca, as well as the ethnographic displays on the upper floor.

This visit I spent a couple of hours in the centerpiece of the museum, the Mexica (or Aztec) Hall.  

The Aztec Empire was at its height when the Spanish conquerors arrived in Mexico in 1519.  Their capital of Tenochtitlán stood where Mexico City stands today.  Even though the Spaniards destroyed Tenochtitlán, the remains of the Aztec capital remain just below the surface of the modern city.  The construction of the subway yielded a treasure trove of artifacts, and excavation projects to work on the city's utilities have resulted in spectacular archaeological discoveries.  It is no wonder that the Mexica Hall is the largest and most impressive in the museum.  

The most famous object in the hall is the enormous Stone of the Sun.  This carving weighs twenty four tons and measures nearly twelve feet in diameter.

The stone is often mistakenly referred to as the Aztec Calendar Stone.  It received that name because there is a circle of carvings of the glyphs for the twenty days of their calendar.  In the center of the stone is the face of the sun god.  His tongue, in the form of a sacrificial knife, is hanging out because he is thirsty for human blood.  To either side of his face, his hands hold human hearts.  Arranged around the face are four symbols for the four suns which the Aztecs believed existed prior to the current one.

Archaeologists believe that the Sun Stone was used as an altar for gladiatorial combats.  The Spanish buried the stone for fear that it would attract pagan worship from the locals.  In 1790, while repairs were being done on the Cathedral, the stone was rediscovered For many years it was displayed on the wall of the Cathedral.

The Aztecs had a complex pantheon of deities... and often the same god would have various identities.  There are carvings of many of their gods in the museum.

This enormous and rather frightening figure is of Coatlique, the mother goddess.  Her head is composed of two serpents.  She wears a skirt of serpents and a necklace of human hearts, hands and a skull. 

According their mythology, she was the mother of the moon and the stars.  She was then impregnated by ball of feathers.  The moon and stars believed that their mother had dishonored them, and were about to kill her.  At that moment Huitzilopochtli, the patron of the Aztecs, and the god of the sun and of war, emerged from her womb, fully grown and armed.  He cut his sister, the moon, into pieces (thus explaining the phases of the moon). 

Here is Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess.  Every night she and her brothers, the stars, do battle against the sun.


Among the many other Aztec gods were the goddess of maize... 


Xochipilli was the god of art, flowers, music and dance (as well as being the patron of male prostitution!).  Because of hallucinogenic plants carved on the base of the statue, it is believed that Xochipilli is portrayed here as being in a state of psychedelic ecstasy. 

Women who died in childbirth became "Cihuateteo"... deified women.

Human sacrifice was an important element of the Aztec religion.  It was deemed necessary to nourish the gods.

Victims, who were often prisoners of war from enemy tribes, were led to the top of a temple, and held down spread-eagled across a sacrificial stone, such as this one.

The priest would then use a sacrificial knife, such as the one pictured below, to cut out the victim's heart. 

The heart might be placed on the sacrificial plate of a "chac mool".  The "chac mool" is something which the Aztecs borrowed from the earlier civilization of Toltecs.  It is a reclining figure holding a plate or bowl over its belly.  The "chac mool" was a messenger of the gods, and would deliver the essence of the sacrifice to the deity

This large statue of a jaguar contains a hollowed out vessel where sacrificial hearts might also be placed.

Another form of human sacrifice was the ritual of "Tlauauaniliztli", a gladiatorial sacrifice.  An enemy warrior would be tied by his ankle to a circular platform called a "temalacatl"  Armed with a sword of feathers, he would try to defend himself against a series of Aztec soldiers.

This large stone, known as the Stone of Tizoc (named after one of the Aztec emperors) was probably just such a platform,  

Looking at the top of the stone, you can see the channel carved into the rock to drain the blood spilled during combat.

The side of the stone is intricately carved with battle scenes.

Auto-sacrifice was also practiced by the devout.  These tools were used for bloodletting.

In my next post I will discuss some lest grisly aspects of the Aztec civilization.


  1. The Aztec religion seems like an extreme form of social control -- behave or you'll be tied to a rock and your heart will be cut out. Ugh!!!

    As god-awful as the Spaniards were in that era -- Spanish Inquisition -- one wonders if it still wasn't better than what was going on in the Americas.

    Gristly, but fascinating.


    Kim G
    DF, México
    Where we're glad that some of the old ways haven't prevailed.

    1. All religion is, to an extent, a form of social control. But the Aztec human sacrifices were not a punishment for sinners. A large share of the victims were prisoners of war, or from subjugated tribes. In other cases it was actually considered an honor to be chosen for sacrifice.

  2. Amazingly I have yet to visit the museum and a great deal of Mexico City for that matter. It's so easy to get comfortable here in Yucatan.

    1. The museum in itself is worth the trip to Mexico City. Just don't try to see it all in one visit.