The Aztecs are best known for their enormous pyramids, fierce warriors, and grisly human sacrifices. However, a closer look reveals a remarkably complex civilization that flourished until the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.
The Mesoamerican civilization was a confederation of city-states and ethnic groups centered around the Valley of Mexico and united by the Nahuatl language. Although commonly referred to as the ‘Aztecs’ (a term popularized by Europeans in the 19th century), they referred to themselves by other names—including the Mexica or Tenochca. They weren’t an especially long-lived civilization, either; the Aztec empire was founded in 1428, less than 100 years before it ended.
Much of what we know about the Aztecs derives from a series of colorful, hand-painted manuscripts made from stretched deerskin or fabric weaved from agave plants. The works, similar to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or modern-day comic books, featured a combination of writing and art to depict Aztec daily life, centered around its capital of Tenochtitlan in present-day Mexico City.
Advances in fields such as medicine, science, and astronomy can be found throughout the Aztec culture. And, yes, they also got into some weird, freaky stuff that led to copious amounts of blood and skulls. But to be fair, historians would be hard-pressed to find any religion without at least a few skeletons in its closet.
10. That old song and dance
Aztec warriors have a well-earned reputation as skilled fighters. Moreover, they would pummel their enemies while singing, dancing, and waving large banners—all of which gave new meaning to the term ‘war party.’
The use of musical instruments also held particular importance on the battlefield to help organize soldiers and send messages of enemy activity. The high-pitched sounds from pink-hued conch shells and the beating of drums helped to create a thunderous cacophony, made even louder with Aztec war cries.
According to one Spanish conquistador eyewitness: “While they are fighting they sing and dance, and from time to time utter the most frightful whoopings and whistlings in the world … and it is a certain fact that, to anyone who had never seen them fight before, their yells and manly appearance would be intimidating.”
Because the empire revolved around warfare both politically and economically, the warrior class enjoyed an exalted status in class and paved the only path towards upward mobility. Appearance featured prominently as well, providing some decorated soldiers with battle dress adorned with colorful feathers and animal hides.
9. Same day delivery. Fast!
The last Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, supposedly enjoyed a daily feast of 200 dishes, including fresh fish from the Atlantic coast located 250 miles away. To accommodate the Tlatoani (“one who speaks”), a team of relay runners served as couriers—a task underscoring the Aztec’s zeal to devotion—and their extraordinary talents for long distance running. Moreover, the route started and finished at an altitude of over 7,000 feet, making the feat much more impressive.
Aztec runners were also responsible for communicating important news. Placed at designated stations every 2.5 miles, the fast men ensured rapid delivery and response, especially on matters relating to military threats. When conquistador Hernan Cortes first arrived near Veracruz in the spring of 1519, authorities in the Aztec capital were alerted well ahead of the Spaniard’s march on Tenochtitlan.
Today, descendants of these runners can still be found in Mexico and the American Southwest, embracing the tradition of extreme endurance running and scaling new heights. It’s not surprising that Al Waquie, a Jemez Pueblo Indian from New Mexico, won the annual Empire State Building Run-Up six consecutive times.
8. Paddle power
At the peak of the Empire, Tenochtitlan flourished as one of the largest cities in the world, hosting over 200,000 inhabitants. And with its central location located on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, the Aztec capital required an elaborate system of canoes (acalli) to provide commercial and personal transportation.
The main urban hub operated within a sprawling network of bridges and causeways connected to the mainland; a series of canals created additional access to all sections of the city. Canoes were constructed from a single tree trunk, ranging from 14 to 50 feet in length. A skilled craftsman could produce a finished piece in about a week and typically featured a shallow draft and square bow.
According to the Mendoza Codex, larger vessels could support a load in excess of several tons, requiring both skill and muscle to power the tens of thousands of watercraft in use on a daily basis. Poles and paddles were also carved from wood—and the Aztecs believed the god Opochtli (derived from a rain deity) invented the elongated tool as a divine means to propel their boats.
7. Superfood for super people
Barrels of ink have been used by historians to write about the Aztecs’ sophistication in a wide range of fields. Advanced nutrition can also be added to the list. Nutrient-rich spirulina was used in spicy, chile-flavored sauces and served with staples such as a corn and tortillas, helping fuel the aforementioned Aztec prowess in fighting, killing, balling, paddling, running, etc.
Known to the locals as tecuitlatl, the blue-green algae was harvested from lakes in the Valley of Mexico. It would then be sun-dried and cut it into bricks, allowing the preserved foodstuff to remain edible throughout the year. The aquatic plant contains chlorophyll, high protein, and an essential amino acid (linolenic acid); it also yields an elevated content of vitamin B12, beta-carotene, and a variety of other vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin.
Spanish conquistadors, like petulant five-year-olds refusing to eat their veggies, derisively characterized the colorful food as “slime.” Following their conquest, efforts to control flooding led to most of the lake being drained, destroying the primary source of algae. Today, the area remains an entirely dry lake basin.
6. They disapproved of drink but venerated “drugs”
Because drunkenness was seen as destructive of social order and harmony, drinking was largely prohibited. The fifth cup of beverages like pulque (a type of maguey/agave beer) was said to be especially troublesome. Only those who could be trusted (the nobles and priests), or those who had some medicinal need for alcohol (the elderly), were permitted to drink it at all.
Psychedelic drugs (or plant medicines), on the other hand, were held in extremely high regard. Peyotl (peyote) was used for visions and prophecies, ololiuqui (morning glory) was used as an intoxicant in ceremonies, and teonanácatl (psilocybin mushrooms) were considered to be the flesh of the divine, reserved for the holiest of religious occasions. Many other plants, including pipiltzintzintli (possibly salvia), were also used by the Aztecs. A statue of the god Xochipilli, the Prince of Flowers, in a state of spiritual rapture on a base of such visionary plants attests to the value they held.
The missionaries, however, were appalled at the use of these plants. Seeing them as a tool of the Devil and the priests as essentially witches, they felt compelled to stamp out the practice—often violently.
5. Their lives were determined from birth
The Aztecs saw childbirth as a battle and the mother as a victorious warrior. The baby, meanwhile, was seen as her captive, a prisoner taken in war—which is apt considering they didn’t believe in free will.
The life chances of the average Aztec were determined not only by sex and class, but by a range of other factors entirely beyond their control—from spiritual forces resident in the body to a complex system of astro-numerology. As the anthropologist Jacques Soustelle put it, each newborn Aztec was “inserted automatically into … the grasp of the omnipotent machine.”
For example, everyone could expect a fate based on the qualities inherent in their birth date according to the Aztec day count calendar—the 260-day tonalpohualli. The tonalpohualli consisted of 20 13-day “months,” each presided over by individual day signs, including animals (e.g. Lizard, Monkey), natural phenomena (e.g. Wind, Movement, Death), and manmade items (e.g. House). It was a little like the modern Western zodiac, in other words—but considerably more specific, and often devastatingly grim.
Those born on ‘2 Rabbit’ (the second day of the “month” of Rabbit), for instance, were apparently fated to a life of uncontrollable drunkenness, wallowing in their own filth, and rejection from everyone they met. Naturally, they were also at much greater risk of injury and death, whether by accident or as capital punishment.
The only way to mitigate such an unfortunate fate appears to have been a lifetime of penitence and piety, including night-time worship, hard work, fasting, cleanliness, and order. But the odds were stacked against them.
4. Their worldview was more rational than the West’s
While European astronomers were getting burned at the stake for heresy, the Aztecs were developing a sophisticated cosmogony based on mathematics, astronomy, and ecology. Like many Eastern philosophical traditions (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism), theirs was an holistic worldview. Unlike the Catholic conquistadors, they didn’t see the world in terms of good and evil. They saw it more scientifically as a balance of order and chaos.
Although missionaries attempted to align their own concept of sin with the Aztec concept of filth (or degradation) tlatlacolli, it wasn’t directly comparable. For one thing, the Aztecs’ avoidance of tlatlacolli was a pragmatic, not a faith-based, concern. The consequences of bad action were observable in this life, not deferred to the afterlife as punishment in the hereafter. (Indeed, the nature of the Aztec afterlife was determined not by the way one lived, but chiefly by the way one died.) Such actions—and only actions, not thoughts as well (as in Catholicism)—were to be avoided because they threatened the social order.
Hence they included things like theft, drunkenness, and adultery—but not sensual pleasure in general. The refusal to participate fully in life was an alien concept to the Aztecs. They saw earthly life as its own reward, not as something profane or subordinate to the afterlife. Life and its pleasures were to be enjoyed, not denied. The key, prioritising the pragmatic ideal of order (as opposed to the more subjective and arbitrary Catholic ideal of virtue), was moderation—not repression.
Underpinning this difference was the Aztecs’ fundamentally unified worldview. Nothing was unholy; everything was imbued—indeed made of—the same sacred energy-in-motion, teotl. In agreement with the non-duality teachings of ancient India (as well as the physicists of today), the Aztecs considered the appearance of separate objects to be illusory. And they saw no fundamental distinction between heaven and earth, life and death, man and nature, and so on; these were simply balancing aspects of a unified whole, similar to the yin and yang of Taoism. For them, Creation wasn’t a one-off act on a linear timeline toward Judgement Day; it was an eternal process of emergence, harmony, and change, the weaving of a grand cosmic tapestry in which teotl was at once the weaver, the thread, and the process of weaving itself.
Ironically, the simple, civil, and good-spirited nature that such a worldview imparted to the Aztecs is exactly what marked them out—in Columbus’s eyes—as “good candidates for conversion to Catholicism.”
3. Everything was next to godliness
Another thing the Aztecs had in common with the Hindus was their belief in a pantheon of gods—not as standalone entities but as facets of an essential unity.
In addition to the major deities—including Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent who re-created humans), Huitzilopochtli (the great warrior god of the Sun), and Tlaloc (the god of rain and water)—the Aztecs recognized well over 1,000 others. Most were associated with farming and other important aspects of Aztec life, but some were extraordinary to say the least—whether because of their long and complicated names (e.g. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the Lord of the House of Dawn) or because of what they represented. As well as being the god of divine ecstasy and visionary plants, for instance, Xochipilli was the patron of homosexual male prostitutes. Then there was Tlazolteotl-Tlaelquani, a goddess who ate excrement and other waste as a symbol of recycling and renewal.
Xipe Totec, meanwhile, another of the major deities, was associated with the flaying of skin, again as a symbol of regeneration. The Aztecs worshipped this god during the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, namely by flaying the skin of their bravest captive, painting it yellow, and wrapping it around somebody else. This person would then be treated as if they were the embodiment of the god.
2. They sacrificed humans—but don’t hold it against them
There were 18 months in the Aztec solar calendar, and almost all of them called for sacrificial rites. From Atlcahualo (February-March) to Izcalli (January-February), men, women, and children were slaughtered in elaborate ceremonies—mostly focused on the removal of their hearts. According to the missionary Bernadino de Sahagún, many were flayed, burned alive, and hunted like animals as well.
Nowadays, in agreement with the conquistadors, most of us would find the practice abhorrent. However, as with any moral evaluation of the past (and especially of an alien culture), it’s important to consider the context. For one thing, the Aztecs had no fear of death, and they were under no illusion that life was more important. Furthermore, sacrificial victims were treated with respect—even reverence—and were said to be honored in the afterlife. It’s conceivable that many even welcomed such a fate. After all, even priests were known to sacrifice parts of their own bodies. Victims may also have been sedated with powerful deliriants like Datura innoxia, a plant common in Aztec medicine.
In any case, Spanish chroniclers—many of whom hadn’t even been to the New World—are known to have exaggerated the numbers. The friar Diego Durán, for instance, claimed that 80,400 people were sacrificed over four days at the Templo Mayor. But that would have meant 14 sacrifices per minute (more than the daily record of Auschwitz). Aside from anything else, the city of Tenochtitlan, with its population of 250,000, simply lacked the infrastructure for so much death. In fact, archeological evidence places the total number of sacrifices ever committed in the city at closer to 1,000.
So why do we characterize the Aztecs by this practice? It’s not like the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, ancient Egyptians, and many other cultures—including the heretic-burning culture from which the conquistadors came—didn’t practice it too.
1. Take me out… to the ballgame
The Aztec ballgame (ullamaliztli) played an important role in society both politically and spiritually. The physical contest also provided a thrilling spectator sport, showcasing several elements found in soccer and basketball. Additionally, large sums were waged on the games and intense rivalries between city-states often led to career-ending results (i.e. death) of the coaches and players. Over the years, scholars have debated which team was actually eliminated (as mentioned, sacrifice was considered a noble honor); nonetheless it was truly a sport to die for.
Teams competed on a rectangular court made of stone measuring 100 to 200 feet long known as the tlachtli or tlachco, featuring ornately carved stone rings. Players attempted to place a hard rubber ball (ulli) through a stone hoop—an extremely difficult feat that would signal the end of the game. However, points could also be scored involving markers on the walls surrounding the court and other skilled plays. Spectators viewed the action from an arena often adorned with skull racks of previous sacrifice victims—a macabre Hall of Fame players may have wanted to avoid entering.
The rough, fast-paced sport required the ball to remain in play using only the head, elbows, knees, and hips. Players wore deerskin guards for protection against injuries—as well as constantly hitting the ground to prevent the ball from landing. It’s also worth noting the game’s origins date back 3,500 years to the region’s mother culture, the Olmec (‘the people of rubber’), making it the oldest recorded ball game in the world.