The Aztecs believed in a pantheon, or “world with many gods”(Tuerenhout 179) It is important to note that the Aztecs idea of a “god” is a little different than what you or I might have in mind. The Aztecs had a belief that the entire universe and the world they lived in was, as Davíd Carrasco put it, “literally filled with the potency of divine beings” and that,”These gods were expressions of the sacred powers that permeated the world” (Carrasco 48) The Aztec named this concept of supernatural forces, or deities, teotl. (Tuerenhout 179) Each deity had jurisdiction over specific parts of the universe and just about everything that existed had a deity associated with it. So when the Spanish translated the Aztec concept of teotl as “god”, what they were actually referring to was “a broader spectrum of sacred powers and forces that animated the world.” (Carrasco 48)
The Aztec had deities for things ranging from sexual desire to war to alcoholic beverages. They really covered it all ! Here are a few interesting ones:
(Townsend 110, Tuerenhout 180, Carrasco 50)
– extremely important deity
– translates to “two god”
– created all other deities
– dual entity was both male and female
– also one on the main gods of creation
– known as the “Smoking Mirror”
– patron god of kings
– very feared, in charge of fate, both good and bad
– known as “our lord with the flayed skin” referring to the practice of priests wearing sacrificial victims skin.
– deity of sacrifice, agriculture, fertility, and seed
– pictured at the top of this page
– female deity
– goddess of the lake and running water
– male counterpart known as Tlaloc, god of rain
– represented with greenstone effigies
Why Human Sacrifice ?
In a world that is entirely made up of supernatural heavenly cosmic forces, the Aztecs viewed all life as sacred. (strange to think because they killed people like it was going out of style) One of the most sacred entities in the Aztec world was the human body. It was believed to be filled with the energy and life given to us by the gods… aka blood. (Carrasco 53) Aztecs believed that many if not all of the gods survived off of this energy force. Human sacrifice and bloodletting allowed the Aztec to constantly keep the gods properly nourished. One specific god who required an extensive amount of bloodshed was Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh is what we have come to know today as the sun. The solar power and warmth from the sun was viewed as a primary source of life and therefore extremely important to keep happy and well nourished. As the patron god of warriors Tonatiuh made it the duty of all warriors to capture sacrificial victims and spill their blood in his honor. These sacrifices were responsible for making sure the sun would continue to rise each day. (Townsend 109) As mentioned earlier, Aztec deities made up the entire world. So according to Aztecs, if not properly nourished through human sacrifice, the continuation of the entire universe would be in jeopardy. Aztecs were not cruel people. It is fully possible that many Aztecs grimaced or struggled to watch the violent sacrifices go on, but they accepted the necessity of them because the alternate option, the end of the world, was a whole lot worse.
The Aztec had two major priorities…
1.) Satisfy the gods – due to the cataclysmic consequences of failing to do so, satisfying the insatiable thirst of the gods was priority numero uno.
2.) Turn new territory into tribute paying regions – The Aztec economy, based out of the main city, Tenochtitlan, was compromised almost entirely out of two segments… farming and taxation. Taxation in the form of tribute paid by conquered regions was an enormous portion of the economy and was heavily responsible for the wealth and prosperity that the Aztecs enjoyed. (Moctezuma 86-87)
You might have noticed that both of these major priorities are achieved through one means…Warfare
Warfare was the Aztec’s best tool for achieving their goals. Lets take a look at some of the different reasons Aztecs went to war and what they hoped to gain…
Justice- The Aztecs were often the instigators of war without any provocation from the opposing side. However, the Aztecs were also quick to declare war if they felt they had been wronged in any way shape or form. Aztec nobility used long distance traders known as pochteca in order to get luxury items that were produced in far, hard to reach regions. The pochteca were used somewhat like personal agents of the elite and sometimes worked as spies. Such a dangerous job meant that they were handsomely compensated. (Townsend 186) The capture and killing of one of these agents in a foreign city, or of any Aztec, was more than enough of a reason for war.(Tuerenhout 160) If the Aztec felt that they had been slighted or wronged in any way they demanded war.
Tribute- Aztec were not so much concerned with taking over the land of conquered people and making it there own. What they were interested in instead was the exploitation of that area’s workforce. (Moctezuma 87) The picture to the right is an example of tribute paid to Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztec empire, by various communities. Aztec demands for tribute were quite excessive and not always received well. Previous tribute paying cities that decided to rebel were promptly reminded of the strength and power of the Aztec military. Because a huge portion of the Aztec economy was reliant off this system of taxation it was important for the Aztec to wage many wars and conquer new lands.
Flower Wars- As discussed previously, the Aztec feared that the world would cease to function if the gods were not properly nourished with the hearts and blood of men. Believing that they were the chosen people of the sun, the Aztecs took it on as their responsibility to give the gods a steady supply of blood. (Anawalt Costume and Control 39) In order to do so, the Aztec engaged in specific wars for the sole purpose of capturing warriors for sacrifice. These wars are known as flower or flowery wars. Interestingly enough, flower wars were arranged ahead of time and took place on a predetermined date and location. These wars had a much more spiritual aspect to them than those which aimed to acquire new territory or annihilate anyone who posed a threat to Aztec dominance. Because flower war’s main objective was to capture sacrificial victims, it did not really matter who the opponent was. For this reason the unfortunate communities that lived along natural trade and communication routes of the Aztec, such as those along the Valley of Mexico, were the unfortunate victims of most of these wars. (Tuerenhout 172)
Coronation Wars- Aztec tribute requirements were quite excessive and as you can imagine very unpopular. These taxes made Aztec rule extremely resented. Because of this, mixed with the fact that the Aztec did not tightly govern conquered lands, when there was a shift in power in Tenochtitlán, previously conquered communities saw it as an opportunity to liberate themselves from their subjugation. In order to protect their revenue stream and set the proper precedent, Aztec rulers had to carry out violent campaigns immediately after being crowned. This was also to prove his leadership ability and re-affirm his place as commander of the Aztec armies.
As you see, war was the engine that powered the Aztec civilization. It makes sense that the Aztecs had such a warrior based culture. It was important for the Aztecs to be in a constant state of war because that is how they assured the continuance of the world, and maintained a stable economy.
Pictures: (top to bottom)
1.) Codex Borgia, Courtesy of Siglo Veintiuno Editores, Mexico (Carrasco 201)
2.) Codex Borgia, Courtesy of B.T Batsford, Ltd. (Carrasco 51)
3.) Codex Borbonicus, Courtesy of Siglo Veintiuno Editores, Mexico (Carrasco 52)
4.) Códice Durán, Arrendadora Internacional, (Carrasco 141)
5.) Codex Mendoza, Courtesy of Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Reiff Anawalt, (Carrasco 143)