Tizoc Stone

Tizoc Stone

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Family Edit

Tizoc was a son of the princessAtotoztli II and her cousin, prince Tezozomoc. He was a grandson of Emperors Moctezuma I and Itzcoatl. He was a descendant of the King Cuauhtototzin.

He was successor of his brother Axayacatl and was succeeded by his other brother, Ahuitzotl his sister was the Queen Chalchiuhnenetzin, married to Moquihuix, tlatoani of Tlatelōlco. He was an uncle of Emperors Cuauhtémoc, Moctezuma II and Cuitláhuac and grandfather of Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin.

Reign Edit

Most sources agree that Tizoc took power in 1481 (the Aztec year "2 House"), succeeding his older brother. Although Tizoc's reign was relatively short, he began the rebuilding of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan (a task completed by his younger brother in 1487), and also put down a rebellion of the Matlatzincan peoples of the Toluca Valley.

Death Edit

Tizoc died in 1486, though it is still somewhat unclear how. Some sources suggest that he was poisoned, others that he fell to illness.

Tizoc Stone - History

This trachyte (volcanic) stone was found in the Zocalo center in Mexico City, in 1792, it weighs approximately 26 tons. This enormous sculpture was thought to be a sacrificial stone. In reality it was a commemorative monument to the achievements of the heroic battles fought by the Aztec ruler Tizoc, Seven Lord of Tenochtitlan, in the years of 1481 to 1486. On its roof surface is the Image of the Sun to whom the Aztec Emperor dedicated his conquests to. However it is believed that this stone could have been used for human sacrifices because of the groove hewn on its surface.

On the side surface of this cylinder are three bands, the upper one represents the sky and the constellations and the lower represents, the earth with arrow flint stones, a primitive way to make fire. The wider band on the center of the stone represents the Emperor Tizoc disguised as the deity Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec God of War shown seizing enemy chiefs by their hair. The hero's victories are represented in fifteen different scenes, each of different tribes conquered in war and condemned to human sacrifice, whose name in the hieroglyphs are indicated by a small legabove and behind their headdress.


The monolith was carved by the Mexica at the end of the Mesoamerican Postclassic Period. Although the exact date of its creation is unknown, the name glyph of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II in the central disc dates the monument to his reign between 1502 and 1520 AD. [6] There are no clear indications about the authorship or purpose of the monolith, although there are certain references to the construction of a huge block of stone by the Mexicas in their last stage of splendor. According to Diego Durán, the emperor Axayácatl "was also busy in carving the famous and large stone, very carved where the figures of the months and years, days 21 and weeks were sculpted". [7] Juan de Torquemada described in his Monarquía indiana how Moctezuma Xocoyotzin ordered to bring a large rock from Tenanitla, today San Ángel, to Tenochtitlan, but on the way it fell on the bridge of the Xoloco neighborhood. [8]

The parent rock from which it was extracted comes from the Xitle volcano, and could have been obtained from San Ángel or Xochimilco. [9] The geologist Ezequiel Ordóñez in 1893 determined such an origin and ruled it as olivine basalt. It was probably dragged by thousands of people from a maximum of 22 kilometers to the center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. [9]

After the conquest, it was transferred to the exterior of the Templo Mayor, to the west of the then Palacio Virreinal and the Acequia Real, where it remained uncovered, with the relief upwards for many years. [8] According to Durán, Alonso de Montúfar, Archbishop of Mexico from 1551 to 1572, ordered the burial of the Sun Stone so that "the memory of the ancient sacrifice that was made there would be lost". [8]

Towards the end of the 18th century, the viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes initiated a series of urban reforms in the capital of New Spain. One of them was the construction of new streets and the improvement of parts of the city, through the introduction of drains and sidewalks. In the case of the then so-called Plaza Mayor, sewers were built, the floor was leveled and areas were remodeled. It was José Damián Ortiz de Castro, the architect overseeing public works, who reported the finding of the sun stone on 17 December 1790. The monolith was found half a yard (about 40 centimeters) under the ground surface and 60 meters to the west of the second door of the viceregal palace, [8] and removed from the earth with a "real rigging with double pulley". [8] Antonio de León y Gama came to the discovery site to observe and determine the origin and meaning of the monument found. [8] According to Alfredo Chavero, [10] it was Antonio who gave it the name of Aztec Calendar, believing it to be an object of public consultation. León y Gama said the following:

. On the occasion of the new paving, the floor of the Plaza being lowered, on December 17 of the same year, 1790, it was discovered only half a yard deep, and at a distance of 80 to the West from the same second door of the Royal Palace, and 37 north of the Portal of Flowers, the second Stone, by the back surface of it.

León y Gama himself interceded before the canon of the cathedral, José Uribe, in order that the monolith found would not be buried again due to its perceived pagan origin (for which it had been buried almost two centuries before). [11] León y Gama argued that in countries like Italy there was much that was invested in rescuing and publicly showcasing monuments of the past. [11] It is noteworthy that, for the spirit of the time, efforts were made to exhibit the monolith in a public place and also to promote its study. [11] León y Gama defended in his writings the artistic character of the stone, in competition with arguments of authors like Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who gave lesser value to those born in the American continent, including their artistic talent. [11]

The monolith was placed on one side of the west tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral on 2 July 1791. There it was observed by, among others, Alexander von Humboldt, who made several studies on its iconography. [8] Mexican sources alleged that during the Mexican–American War, soldiers of the United States Army who occupied the plaza used it for target shooting, though there is no evidence of such damage to the sculpture. [8] Victorious General Winfield Scott contemplated taking it back to Washington D.C. as a war trophy, if the Mexicans did not make peace. [12]

In August 1855, the stone was transferred to the Monolith Gallery of the Archaeological Museum on Moneda Street, on the initiative of Jesús Sánchez, director of the same. [8] Through documents from the time, it is known of the popular animosity that caused the "confinement" of a public reference of the city. [8]

In 1964 the stone was transferred to the National Museum of Anthropology and History, where the stone presides over the Mexica Hall of the museum and is inscribed in various Mexican coins.

Before the discovery of the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, deity of the earth, with measurements being 4 by 3.57 meters high, it was thought that the sun stone was the largest Mexica monolith in dimensions.

Plaza Mayor of Mexico City by Pedro Guridi (c.1850) shows the sun disk attached to the side of the cathedral tower, it was placed there in 1790 when it was discovered and remained on the tower until 1885

The Swiss artist Johann Salomon Hegi painted the famous Paseo de las Cadenas in 1851, the sun stone is distinguishable below and to the right of the ash tree foliage

Image of the stone in the Metropolitan Cathedral

The Stone of the Sun as it was exhibited in the National Museum, photograph taken in 1915

Photograph from 1910 of the sun stone with (then president) Porfirio Díaz

Photograph from 1917 of the Piedra del Sol with (then president) Venustiano Carranza

The sculpted motifs that cover the surface of the stone refer to central components of the Mexica cosmogony. The state-sponsored monument linked aspects of Aztec ideology such as the importance of violence and warfare, the cosmic cycles, and the nature of the relationship between gods and man. The Aztec elite used this relationship with the cosmos and the bloodshed often associated with it to maintain control over the population, and the sun stone was a tool in which the ideology was visually manifested. [13]

Central disk Edit

In the center of the monolith is often believed to be the face of the solar deity, Tonatiuh, [14] which appears inside the glyph for "movement" (Nahuatl: Ōllin), the name of the current era. Some scholars have argued that the identity of the central face is of the earth monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or of a hybrid deity known as "Yohualtecuhtli" who is referred to as the "Lord of the Night". This debate on the identity of the central figure is based on representations of the deities in other works as well as the role of the sun stone in sacrificial context, which involved the actions of deities and humans to preserve the cycles of time. [15] The central figure is shown holding a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (Tecpatl).

Four previous suns or eras Edit

The four squares that surround the central deity represent the four previous suns or eras, which preceded the present era, "Four Movement" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōllin). The Aztecs changed the order of the suns and introduced a fifth sun named "Four Movement" after they seized power over the central highlands. [16] Each era ended with the destruction of the world and humanity, which were then recreated in the next era.

  • The top right square represents "Four Jaguar" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōcēlotl), the day on which the first era ended, after having lasted 676 years, due to the appearance of monsters that devoured all of humanity.
  • The top left square shows "Four Wind" (Nahuatl: Nahui Ehēcatl), the date on which, after 364 years, hurricane winds destroyed the earth, and humans were turned into monkeys.
  • The bottom left square shows "Four Rain" (Nahuatl: Nahui Quiyahuitl). This era lasted 312 years, before being destroyed by a rain of fire, which transformed humanity into turkeys.
  • The bottom right square represents "Four Water" (Nahuatl: Nahui Atl), an era that lasted 676 years and ended when the world was flooded and all the humans were turned into fish.

The duration of the ages is expressed in years, although they must be observed through the prism of Aztec time. In fact the common thread of figures 676, 364 and 312 is that they are multiples of 52, and 52 years is the duration of one Aztec "century", and that is how they can express a certain amount of Aztec centuries. Thus, 676 years are 13 Aztec centuries 364 years are 7, and 312 years are 6 Aztec centuries.

Placed among these four squares are three additional dates, "One Flint" (Tecpatl), "One Rain" (Atl), and "Seven Monkey" (Ozomahtli), and a Xiuhuitzolli, or ruler's turquoise diadem, glyph. It has been suggested that these dates may have had both historical and cosmic significance, and that the diadem may form part of the name of the Mexica ruler, Moctezuma II. [17]

First ring Edit

The first concentric zone or ring contains the signs corresponding to the 20 days of the 18 months and five nemontemi of the Aztec solar calendar (Nahuatl: xiuhpohualli). The monument is not a functioning calendar, but instead uses the calendrical glyphs to reference the cyclical concepts of time and its relationship to the cosmic conflicts within the Aztec ideology. [18] Beginning at the symbol just left of the large point in the previous zone, these symbols are read counterclockwise. The order is as follows:

1. cipactli – crocodile, 2. ehécatl – wind, 3. calli – house, 4. cuetzpallin – lizard, 5. cóatl – serpent, 6. miquiztli – skull/death, 7. mázatl – deer, 8. tochtli – rabbit, 9. atl – water, 10. itzcuintli – dog, 11. ozomatli – monkey, 12. malinalli – herb, 13. ácatl – cane, 14. océlotl – jaguar, 15. cuauhtli – eagle, 16. cozcacuauhtli – vulture, 17. ollín – movement, 18. técpatl – flint, 19. quiahuitl – rain, 20. xóchitl – flower [19]

Second ring Edit

The second concentric zone or ring contains several square sections, with each section containing five points. Directly above these square sections are small arches are said to be feather ornaments. Directly above these are spurs or peaked arches that appear in groups of four. [19] There are also eight angles that divide the stone into eight parts, which likely represent the sun's rays placed in the direction of the cardinal points.

Third and outermost ring Edit

Two fire serpents, Xiuhcoatl, take up almost this entire zone. They are characterized by the flames emerging from their bodies, the square shaped segments that make up their bodies, the points that form their tails, and their unusual heads and mouths. At the very bottom of the surface of the stone, are human heads emerging from the mouths of these serpents. Scholars have tried to identify these profiles of human heads as deities, but have not come to a consensus. [19] One possible interpretation of the two serpents is that they represent two rival deities who were involved in the creation story of the fifth and current "sun", Queztalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. The tongues of the serpents are touching, referencing the continuity of time and the continuous power struggle between the deities over the earthly and terrestrial worlds. [20]

In the upper part of this zone, a square carved between the tails of the serpents represents the date Matlactli Omey-Ácatl ("13-reed"). This is said to correspond to 1479, the year in which the Fifth Sun emerged in Teotihuacan during the reign of Axayácatl, and at the same time, indicating the year in which this monolithic sun stone was carved. [19]

Edge of stone Edit

The edge of the stone measures approximately 8 inches and contains a band of a series of dots as well as what have been said to be flint knives. This area has been interpreted as representing a starry night sky. [19]

From the moment the Sun Stone was discovered in 1790, many scholars have worked at making sense of the stone's complexity. This provides a long history of over 200 years of archaeologists, scholars, and historians adding to the interpretation of the stone. [21] Modern research continues to shed light or cast doubt on existing interpretations as discoveries such as further evidence of the stone's pigmentation. [22] As Eduardo Matos Moctezuma stated in 2004: [19]

In addition to its tremendous aesthetic value, the Sun Stone abounds in symbolism and elements that continue to inspire researchers to search deeper for the meaning of this singular monument.

The earliest interpretations of the stone relate to what early scholars believed was its use for astrology, chronology, or as a sundial. In 1792, two years after the stone's unearthing, Mexican scholar Antonio de León y Gama wrote one of the first treatises on Mexican archaeology on the Aztec calendar and Coatlicue. [23] He correctly identified that some of the glyphs on the stone are the glyphs for the days of the month. [21] Alexander von Humboldt also wanted to pass on his interpretation in 1803, after reading Leon y Gama's work. He disagreed about the material of the stone but generally agreed with Leon y Gama's interpretation. Both of these men incorrectly believed the stone to have been vertically positioned, but it was not until 1875 that Alfredo Chavero correctly wrote that the proper position for the stone was horizontal. Roberto Sieck Flandes in 1939 published a monumental study entitled How Was the Stone Known as the Aztec Calendar Painted? which gave evidence that the stone was indeed pigmented with bright blue, red, green, and yellow colors, just as many other Aztec sculptures have been found to have been as well. This work was later to be expanded by Felipe Solís and other scholars who would re-examine the idea of coloring and create updated digitized images for a better understanding of what the stone might have looked like. [19] It was generally established that the four symbols included in the Ollin glyph represent the four past suns that the Mexica believed the earth had passed through. [24]

Another aspect of the stone is its religious significance. One theory is that the face at the center of the stone represents Tonatiuh, the Aztec deity of the sun. It is for this reason that the stone became known as the "Sun Stone." Richard Townsend proposed a different theory, claiming that the figure at the center of the stone represents Tlaltecuhtli, the Mexica earth deity who features in Mexica creation myths. [21] Modern archaeologists, such as those at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, believe it is more likely to have been used primarily as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices, than as an astrological or astronomical reference. [4]

Yet another characteristic of the stone is its possible geographic significance. The four points may relate to the four corners of the earth or the cardinal points. The inner circles may express space as well as time. [25]

Lastly, there is the political aspect of the stone. It may have been intended to show Tenochtitlan as the center of the world and therefore, as the center of authority. [26] Townsend argues for this idea, claiming that the small glyphs of additional dates amongst the four previous suns—1 Flint (Tecpatl), 1 Rain (Atl), and 7 Monkey (Ozomahtli)—represent matters of historical importance to the Mexica state. He posits, for example, that 7 Monkey represents the significant day for the cult of a community within Tenochtitlan. His claim is further supported by the presence of Mexica ruler Moctezuma II's name on the work. These elements ground the Stone's iconography in history rather than myth and the legitimacy of the state in the cosmos. [27]

Connections to Aztec ideology Edit

The methods of Aztec rule were influenced by the story of their Mexica ancestry, who were migrants to the Mexican territory. The lived history was marked by violence and the conquering of native groups, and their mythic history was used to legitimize their conquests and the establishment of the capital Tenochtitlan. As the Aztecs grew in power, the state needed to find ways to maintain order and control over the conquered peoples, and they used religion and violence to accomplish the task. [28]

The state religion included a vast canon of deities that were involved in the constant cycles of death and rebirth. When the gods made the sun and the earth, they sacrificed themselves in order for the cycles of the sun to continue, and therefore for life to continue. Because the gods sacrificed themselves for humanity, humans had an understanding that they should sacrifice themselves to the gods in return. The Sun Stone's discovery near the Templo Mayor in the capital connects it to sacred rituals such as the New Fire ceremony, which was conducted to ensure the earth's survival for another 52-year cycle, and human heart sacrifice played an important role in preserving these cosmic cycles. [28] Human sacrifice was not only used in religious context additionally, sacrifice was used as a military tactic to frighten Aztec enemies and remind those already under their control what might happen if they opposed the Empire. The state was then exploiting the sacredness of the practice to serve its own ideological intentions. The Sun Stone served as a visual reminder of the Empire's strength as a monumental object in the heart of the city and as a ritualistic object used in relation to the cosmic cycles and terrestrial power struggles. [29]

The sun stone image is displayed on the obverse the Mexican 20 Peso gold coin, which has a gold content of 15 grams (0.4823 troy ounces) and was minted from 1917 to 1921 and restruck with the date 1959 from the mid 1940s to the late 1970s. Different parts of the sun stone are represented on the current Mexican coins, each denomination has a different section.

Currently the image is present in the 10 Peso coin as part of the New Peso coin family started in 1992 having .925 silver centers and aluminum bronze rings changing in 1996 where new coins were introduced with base metal replacing the silver center.

The sun stone image also has been adopted by modern Mexican and Mexican American/Chicano culture figures, and is used in folk art and as a symbol of cultural identity. [30]

In 1996 the Mexican national football team employed a depiction of the sun stone image on to its home, away and third match kits. With each individual shirt being assigned the green (home), white (away) and red (third) colors of the Mexican flag respectively. The kit was featured until the 1998 World Cup in which the Mexican side impressed the world with satisfying results.

Impact of Spanish Colonization Edit

After the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish in 1521 and the subsequent colonization of the territory, the prominence of the Mesoamerican empire was placed under harsh scrutiny by the Spanish. The rationale behind the bloodshed and sacrifice conducted by the Aztec was supported by religious and militant purposes, but the Spanish were horrified by what they saw, and the published accounts twisted the perception of the Aztecs into bloodthirsty, barbaric, and inferior people. [31] The words and actions of the Spanish, such as the destruction, removal, or burial of Aztec objects like the Sun Stone supported this message of inferiority, which still has an impact today. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was covered by the construction of Mexico City, and the monument was lost for centuries until it was unearthed in 1790. [20] The reemergence of the Sun Stone sparked a renewed interest in Aztec culture, but since the Western culture now had hundreds of years of influence over the Mexican landscape, the public display of the monument next to the city's main cathedral sparked controversy. Although the object was being publicly honored, placing it in the shadow of a Catholic institution for nearly a century sent a message to some people that the Spanish would continue to dominate over the remnants of Aztec culture. [32]

Another debate sparked by the influence of the Western perspective over non-Western cultures surrounds the study and presentation of cultural objects as art objects. Carolyn Dean, a scholar of pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial culture discusses the concept of “art by appropriation,” which displays and discusses cultural objects within the Western understanding of art. Claiming something as art often elevates the object in the viewer's mind, but then the object is only valued for its aesthetic purposes, and its historical and cultural importance is depleted. [33] The Sun Stone was not made as an art object it was a tool of the Aztec Empire used in ritual practices and as a political tool. By referring to it as a "sculpture" [33] and by displaying it vertically on the wall instead of placed horizontally how it was originally used, [20] the monument is defined within the Western perspective and therefore loses its cultural significance. The current display and discussion surrounding the Sun Stone is part of a greater debate on how to decolonize non-Western material culture.

There are several other known monuments and sculptures that bear similar inscriptions. Most of them were found underneath the center of Mexico City, while others are of unknown origin. Many fall under a category known as temalacatl, large stones built for ritual combat and sacrifice. Matos Moctezuma has proposed that the Aztec Sun Stone might also be one of these. [34]

Temalacatls Edit

The Stone of Tizoc's upward-facing side contains a calendrical depiction similar to that of the subject of this page. Many of the formal elements are the same, although the five glyphs at the corners and center are not present. The tips of the compass here extend to the edge of the sculpture. The Stone of Tizoc is currently located in the National Anthropology Museum in the same gallery as the Aztec Sun Stone.

The Stone of Motecuhzoma I is a massive object approximately 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet high with the 8 pointed compass iconography. The center depicts the sun deity Tonatiuh with the tongue sticking out. [35]

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has another,. [36] This one is much smaller, but still bears the calendar iconography and is listed in their catalog as "Calendar Stone". The side surface is split into two bands, the lower of which represents Venus with knives for eyes the upper band has two rows of citlallo star icons. [35]

A similar object is on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, on loan from the Peabody Museum of Natural History. [37] [38] The sculpture, officially known as Aztec Calendar Stone in the museum catalog but called Altar of the Five Cosmogonic Eras, [35] bears similar hieroglyphic inscriptions around the central compass motif but is distinct in that it is a rectangular prism instead of cylindrical shape, allowing the artists to add the symbols of the four previous suns at the corners. [35] It bears some similarities to the Coronation Stone of Moctezuma II, listed in the next section.

Calendar iconography in other objects Edit

The Coronation Stone of Moctezuma II (also known as the Stone of the Five Suns) is a sculpture measuring 55.9 x 66 x 22.9 cm (22 x 26 x 9 in [39] ), currently in the possession of the Art Institute of Chicago. It bears similar hieroglyphic inscriptions to the Aztec Sun Stone, with 4-Movement at the center surrounded by 4-Jaguar, 4-Wind, 4-Rain, and 4-Water, all of which represent one of the five suns, or "cosmic eras". The year sign 11-Reed in the lower middle places the creation of this sculpture in 1503, the year of Motecuhzoma II's coronation, while 1-Crocodile, the day in the upper middle, may indicate the day of the ceremony. [39] The date glyph 1-Rabbit on the back of the sculpture (not visible in the image to the right) orients Motecuhzoma II in the cosmic cycle because that date represents "the beginning of things in the distant mythological past." [39]

The Throne of Montezuma uses the same cardinal point iconography [40] as part of a larger whole. The monument is on display at the National Museum of Anthropology alongside the Aztec Sun Stone and the Stone of Tizoc. The monument was discovered in 1831 underneath the National Palace [41] in Mexico City and is approximately 1 meter square at the base and 1.23 meters tall. [40] It is carved in a temple shape, and the year at the top, 2-House, refers to the traditional founding of Tenochtitlan in 1325 CE. [40]

The compass motif with Ollin can be found in stone altars built for the New Fire ceremony. [35] Another object, the Ceremonial Seat of Fire which belongs to the Eusebio Davalos Hurtado Museum of Mexica Sculpture, [35] is visually similar but omits the central Ollin image in favor of the Sun.

The British Museum possesses a cuauhxicalli which may depict the tension between two opposites, the power of the sun (represented by the solar face) and the power of the moon (represented with lunar iconography on the rear of the object). This would be a parallel to the Templo Mayor with its depictions of Huitzilopochtli (as one of the two deities of the temple) and the large monument to Coyolxauhqui. [35]

Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, The Central Mexican Plateau-Aztec Art

Reconstruction of the ceremonial center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (top) and the Templo Mayor (bottom). This city-state was located on an island in Lake Texcoco (Valley of Mexico). Tenochtitlan was founded on June 20, 1325, and soon became the capital of the Aztec Empire during the XV century, until it was captured by Spanish Conquistadores in 1521. At its peak, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Today the ruins of Tenochtitlan are located in Mexico City’s downtown.

Tribe of humble and dark nomadic origins, the Aztec people included some ethnic groups of central Mexico who particularly spoke the Nahuatl language and who ruled large extensions of Mesoamerica between the XIV and the XV centuries. The word “Aztec” is used to refer to several ethnic groups that claim heritage from their mythic place of origin called Aztlan. In the Nahuatl language, “aztecatl” means “person from Aztlan”. These “people from Aztlan” included the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (nowadays the location of Mexico City) from an island in Lake Texcoco, and its two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas (also from Texcoco) and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is known as the “Aztec Empire”. The modern use of the word “Aztec” was coined in 1810 by Alexander von Humboldt to refer to all the people related to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance.

Remains of the Templo Mayor (“Main Temple”) of Tenochtitlan, today downtown Mexico city. The Templo Mayor was one of the main temples of Tenochtitlan, its architectural style is representative of the late Postclassic period of Mesoamerica. The temple was dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli (god of war) and Tlaloc (god of rain and agriculture) each of which had a shrine at the top of the pyramid with separate staircases. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 and was replaced by a cathedral. Top left: remains of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City’s Zocalo (the city’s main square). Top right: the Altar of the toads of the Templo Mayor, the toads were symbols of water. Bottom: a snake in the platform of the Templo Mayor ruins.

The Aztecs settled definitively in 1325 in some islets of what it was the lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. With unlimited tenacity, they transformed these marshy islets into one of the most extraordinary cities of pre-Columbian America: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, a unique lacustrine city with ingenious “chinampas*” or floating islands, different networks of canals and roads, dykes and aqueducts, an unparalleled market (the ancient Tlatelolco’s market), and an imposing ceremonial center, whose main pyramid had a double temple (Templo Mayor, which occupied what is today the Historic Center of Mexico City) built following the style of those of the Chichimeca peoples: one dedicated to Tláloc and one to Huitzilopochtli.

The largest Aztec market of Tenochtitlan was located in the neighboring town of Tlatelolco, here is depicted in a reconstruction at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the background is the Templo Mayor.

Then, around 1428 by means of an alliance with two riverside towns (the Acolhuas and the Tepanecs mentioned before) known as the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Aztecs began to display their exceptional warrior abilities and their desire to triumph at all costs for they considered themselves as the “people of the Sun”, the people chosen by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war. Confident in their glorious destiny, in less than a century they dominated a considerable territory channeling all the wealth of the nearby country towards its beautiful capital. And endowed with an unusual capacity to assimilate foreign cultures, they adapted diverse expressions and artistic techniques into a fantastic artistic synthesis while at the same time they erased cultural boundaries so that, at the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlán had almost completely eclipsed the memory of other splendid past Mesoamerican cultures.

Top left: An Aztec Warrior’s teponaztli* or slit drum carved in wood, ca. 1500 AD. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). Top right: Aztec mask of Quetzalcoatl in turquoise mosaic, early XVI century (British Museum, London). Bottom left: Labret* (a type of plug inserted through a piercing below the lower lip) of a Serpent with articulated tongue, an Aztec gold ornament from the XIII to early XVI century (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Bottom right: the polished obsidian vessel delicately carved in the shape of a monkey from the Late Post-Classic (1325-1521 AD.) (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico). Featherwork Aztec shield or Chimalli*, ca. 1520 AD, considered the masterpiece of pre-Columbian feather art (Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria). The shield has a framework made of reed splints, wood and leather, covered with agave paper to which the mosaic, in feathers and sheet of gold, is glued. Feathers are attached to the edge of the shield with several tassels of feathers hanging from the lower edge. The feathers came from the Lovely Cotinga, Resplendent Quetzal, Roseate Spoonbill, Scarlet Macaw and the White-fronted Parrot. The shield has a diameter of 70 cm and displays an image of an animal with canine features (possibly the feathered coyote or Huehuecóyotl, among the Aztecs the coyote was one of the animals associated with war).

The art that was found in Mexico-Tenochtitlán on the eve of the Spanish conquest reflects the high degree of refinement that the Aztecs had achieved in the curse of a few generations: delicate wood or bone carvings, fine inlaids using turquoise, shell and other materials, elaborate jewels in gold and silver, iridescent mosaics of feathers with harmoniously combined colors (a typically indigenous technique that only survived for a brief time after the conquest…). And if many of these objects were elaborated by towns ruled by the Aztec Empire, an art specifically dominated and mastered by the Aztecs was the sculpture in stone both for its plastic strength and spirit.

Not satisfied with repeating the traditional themes of the traditional artistic repertoire then existing in the Mexican plateau, the Aztec artists undertook the task of “re-discovering” the world around them and thus created sculptural forms appropriate to their peculiar vision of the universe as mystical-warriors. In addition, their pride and manly temper led them instinctively to choose the hardest stones to work with.

Examples of Aztec sculpture. Left: Sculpture of a Seated Man, ca. 1500 AD.-Postclassic period (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Right: Larger than life ceramic statue of an Eagle Warrior (Cuāuhtli) found in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico city). Examples of Aztec sculpture. Left: ceramic statue of Xipe Totec, the flayed-skin god, ca. 900 to 1200 AD. (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art). Right: Statue of the god Xochipilli seated upon a temple-like base, the whole statue is covered with carvings representing sacred and psychoactive organisms including mushrooms (Psilocybe aztecorum), tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), Ololiúqui (Turbina corymbosa), sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia), possibly cacahuaxochitl (Quararibea funebris), and one unidentified flower (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Some of the creations of the Aztec statuary stand out for their vigor and the economy of their forms. Such is the case of numerous male statues, whether they be a simple plebeian, the masterful head of the “Eagle Warrior” (called “cuāuhtli*“), a priest of the skinned god Xipe Tótec – covered with the skin of a sacrificial – or some deity as Xochipilli (the “prince of flowers”), god of joy, music and dance. But one of the favorite subjects of the Aztec sculptors was the portrayal of animals (toads, snakes, monkeys, felines…). And for the first time in the history of Mesoamerican art, mythological animals like the “feathered coyote” (“Huehuecóyotl“), the “Xiuhcoatl” or the “fire serpent”, or the millenary “ feathered serpent ” seem to come to life.

Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli, or Aztec jaguar shaped cuauhxicalli, in stone (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). Examples of Aztec stone sculptures. Left: Aztec Stone Coyote God Huehuecóyotl (feathered coyote), a large volcanic stone statue ca. 1250-1520 AD. Center: Aztec sculpture of Xiuhcoatl (or fire serpent) from Texcoco (British Museum, London). Right: Representation of Xiuhcoatl (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). Different Aztec representations of a coiled Feathered Serpent (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico city).

It is undoubtedly that was in the “official” monumental sculpture where Aztec artists reached their greatest artistic expressions. Aware of their role as “people of the Sun” they transformed a commemorative monument as was the “stone of Tizoc” (which tells the story of a king’s victories) in an event that transcended the historical events per se by involving gods and planets in the story telling. And they made of the “stone of the Sun” (or Aztec calendar stone) not only a colossal and superb stone relief but a true compendium of their deep cosmological beliefs. Finally, the great representation of Coatlicue shows us the goddess of the earth, the mother earth, as the deity who gives us sustenance but that later can also devour us, a fecundating and destructive element at the same time. Coatlicue concentrated an infinity of symbols and gathered them under a monstrous appearance. However, there’s no cruelty in her nor goodness: it’s only the manifestation of a crude reality.

Left: Colossal statue of Coatlicue carved in andesite, the statue is 2.7 mt tall (8.9 ft) (National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City). The statue was discovered in the main plaza of Mexico City on 13 August 1790, the Sun Stone was found nearby on 17 December. Right: the Stone of Tizoc in basalt, ca. 1480’s (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico). The stone is a large, round artifact thought to have been a Cuauhxicalli. The stone was rediscovered on 17 December 1791 while construction work was being done in downtown Mexico City. The monolith measures 0.88 meters deep by 2.67 meters wide it depicts Tezcatlipoca, a major Aztec god, holding the patron gods of other places by their hair. The stars are represented at the top rim while triangular points at the bottom edge represent the earth. On the top side of the stone, there is a sun dial with eight triangular rays representing the cardinal directions. The warriors carved in the stone hold the hair of their enemies’ gods representing submission and defeat. The Sun Stone (sometimes erroneously called Aztec calendar stone), from the late Post-Classic period, is possibly the most famous work of the Aztec sculpture. The stone is 3,6 mt (11.75 ft) in diameter and ca. 1 mt (3.22 ft) thick, with a weight of near 24 tons. The sculpted figures on the stone’s surface represent the central components of the Mexica cosmogony. In the center of the disk is the face of the solar god, Tonatiuh. He holds a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (or Tecpatl*). The four squares surrounding the central figure represent the four previous suns or eras each era finalized with the destruction of the world and humanity, which in turn were recreated in the next era. The top right square represents 4 Jaguar, the day on which the first era ended, after having lasted 676 years, due to the appearance of monsters that devoured all of humanity. The top left square shows 4 Wind, the date on which, after 364 years, hurricane winds destroyed the earth, and humans were turned into monkeys. The bottom left square shows 4 Rain, this era lasted 312 years, before being destroyed by a rain of fire, which transformed humanity into turkeys. The bottom right square represents 4 Water, an era that lasted 676 years and ended when the world was flooded and all the humans were turned into fish.

The Double-headed serpent mosaic, ca. XV-XVI centuries, one of the treasures of the British Museum (London). This artifact was possibly worn or displayed during religious ceremonies. The mosaic is made of pieces of turquoise, crab shell and conch shell, while the body of the sculpture was carved in wood and was hollowed out to make the sculpture lighter.

Chīmalli: (from the Nahuatl, meaning “shield”). The traditional defensive armament of the indigenous tribes of Mexico. These shields varied in design and purpose.

Chinampas: A type of Mesoamerican agriculture which used small, rectangular areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico. Chinampas were created by the freshwater shoreline of the Northern portion of the central lake system of Mexico by the Nahua peoples, commonly called the Aztecs. Chinampas thus were artificial islands that were created by building up extensions of soil into bodies of water.

Cuāuhtli: (from the Nahuatl). Also known as Eagle warriors or Eagle knights. They were a special class of infantry soldier in the Aztec army, one of the two leading military orders in Aztec society. These military orders, along with the jaguar warriors (or ocēlōtl), were made up of the bravest soldiers of noble birth and those who had taken the greatest number of prisoners in battle. Of all of the Aztec warriors, they were the most feared. The eagles were soldiers of the Sun, for the eagle was the symbol of the Sun.

Labret: A form of body piercing involving any type of adornment that is attached to the lip (labrum in Latin).

Tecpatl: In the Aztec culture, Tecpatl was a flint or obsidian knife with a lanceolate figure and double-edged blade, with elongated ends. It can be represented with the top half red, reminiscent of the color of blood, in representations of human sacrifice and the rest white, indicating the color of the flint blade. The Tecpatl knife was traditionally used for human sacrifice by the Aztecs, but it also was the short-range weapon of the jaguar warriors.

Teponaztli: A type of slit drum used in central Mexico by the Aztecs and related cultures. Teponaztli were made of hollow hardwood logs. Like most slit drums, teponaztlis have two slits on their topside, cut into the shape of an “H”. The resultant strips are then struck with rubber-head wood mallets, or with deer antlers. Since the tongues are of different lengths, or carved into different thicknesses, the teponaztli produces 2 different pitches. Teponaztli were usually decorated with relief carvings of various deities or with abstract designs, and were even carved into the shapes of creatures or humans.

Stone of Tizoc

The Stone of Tizoc, Tizoc Stone or Sacrificial Stone is a large, round, carved Aztec stone. Because of a shallow, round depression carved in the center of the top surface, it may have been a cuauhxicalli or possibly a temalacatl. [1] Richard Townsend maintains, however, that the depression was made in the 16th century for unknown purposes. [2]

The stone was rediscovered on 17 December 1791 when the Zócalo, the heart of downtown Mexico City, was being repaved. Workmen had been cutting cobblestone, and were about to cut up the carved monolith. A churchman named Gamboa happened to be passing by and saved the stone from the same result. The stone was then moved to the nearby Cathedral, and propped up vertically on one of the building's towers, where it stayed until 1824, when it was moved to the University. The stone is currently in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. [3]

The monolith is made of basalt and measures 93 cm tall with a diameter of 2.65 meters and a circumference of 8.31 meters. [4]

The Stone of Tizoc.

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The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture

The Aztec Empire was the last of the great Mesoamerican cultures. Between A.D. 1345 and 1521, the Aztecs forged an empire over much of the central Mexican highlands.

At its height, the Aztecs ruled over 80,000 square miles throughout central Mexico, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean, and south to what is now Guatemala. Millions of people in 38 provinces paid tribute to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, prior to the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

Click here to see more posts in this category. Scroll down to see articles about the government, religion, military, and agricultural system of the Aztec Empire.

Aztec Empire Overview

The Aztecs didn’t start out as a powerful people. The Nahuatl speaking peoples began as poor hunter-gatherers in northern Mexico, in a place known to them as Aztlan. Sometime around A.D. 1111, they left Aztlan, told by their war god Huitzilopochtli that they would have to find a new home. The god would send them a sign when they reached their new homeland.

Scholars believe the Aztecs wandered for generations, heading ever southward. Backward and poor, other more settled people didn’t want the Aztecs to settle near them and drove them on. Finally, around A.D. 1325, they saw the god’s sign—the eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent on an island in Lake Texcoco, or so the legend has it. The city established by the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, grew to become the capital of their empire.

Fortunately, the site was a strong, strategic area with good sources of food and clean water. The Aztecs began to build the canals and dikes necessary for their form of agriculture and to control water levels. They build causeways linking the island to the shore. Because of the island location, commerce with other cities around the lakes was easily be carried out via canoes and boats.

Through marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states, the Aztecs began to build their political base. They became fierce warriors and skillful diplomats. Throughout the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Aztecs began to grow in political power. In 1428, the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl formed alliances with the nearby cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco, creating the Triple Alliance that ruled until the coming of the Spanish in 1519.

The last half of the 15th century saw the Aztec Triple Alliance dominating the surrounding areas, reaping a rich bounty in tribute. Eventually, the Aztecs controlled much of central and southern Mexico. Thirty-eight provinces sent tribute regularly in the form of rich textiles, warrior costumes, cacao beans, maize, cotton, honey, salt and slaves for human sacrifice. Gems, gold and jewelry came to Tenochtitlan as tribute for the emperor. Wars for tribute and captives became a way of life as the empire grew in power and strength. While the Aztecs successfully conquered many, some city states resisted. Tlaxcalla, Cholula and Huexotzinco all refused Aztec dominance and were never fully conquered.

The Aztec Empire was powerful, wealthy and rich in culture, architecture and the arts. The Spanish entered the scene in 1519 when Hernan Cortes landed an exploratory vessel on the coast. Cortes was first welcomed by Montezuma II, but Cortes soon took the emperor and his advisors hostage. Though the Aztecs managed to throw the conquistadors out of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish regrouped and made alliances with the Aztec’s greatest enemy, the Tlaxcalans. They returned in 1521 and conquered Tenochtitlan, razing the city to the ground and destroying the Aztec empire in the process.

Governance of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire had a hierarchical government with power and responsibility running from the top down. The empire’s rule was indirect over its provinces. That is, as long as the province or territory paid the tribute it owed the empire in full and on time, the empire left the local leaders alone.

The foundation of the empire’s hierarchical structure was the family. A group of interrelated families then formed a calpulli, a sort of neighborhood or guild. The calpullis organized local schools and shrines and took care of the group as a whole. Each calpulli elected a headman to oversee the calpulli’s responsibilities. Most Aztec cities contained many calpulli.

The headman of each calpulli was a member of the city council. The city councils had a good deal of power they made sure the city ran smoothly. Each council had an executive council of four members. These four members were nobles and usually a member of a military society.

One of the four executive council members would be elected the leader of the city, the tlatcani, who oversaw not only the city but the surrounding countryside as well. These city councils and leaders formed the provincial network of the empire.

At the center of the empire were the main Aztec altepetls, or city states, of Texcoco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlan. Of the three, Tenochtitlan gradually muscled its way to dominate over the others.

The pinnacle of power centered in the Huey Tlatoani, the Reverend Speaker or emperor. The emperor had absolute power and was worshipped as a god. By the emperor’s side was his Snake Woman or Cihuacoatl, who functioned as a grand vizier or prime minister. Although Snake Woman was the title of this position, it was always held by a man, usually the emperor’s brother or cousin. While the Huey Tlatoani dealt with issues of diplomacy, tribute, war and expansion of the empire, the Snake Woman’s responsibility was Tenochtitlan itself.

Directly under the emperor were his advisors, the Council of Four. These advisors were generals from the military societies. If something were to happen to the emperor, one of these four men would be the next Huey Tlatoani. The council advised the emperor in his decisions.

The empire required a host of other government offices, which were filled by a city’s noble families. Each city had a court system with Special Courts, Appellate Courts and a Supreme Court. The city’s merchant class, the pochteca, had their own court to consider matters of trade.

Managing the constant incoming tribute goods from far-flung provinces required another power structure, both central and provincial. Government officials also oversaw the markets, from the central markets of the cities to the smaller markets of town and country.

All of the priesthood and government officials reported to the emperor and his Council of Four. All supported the emperor. Although the Aztec Empire’s grip on its provinces was light, the tribute flowed into the central coffers.

Weapons of the Aztec Empire

As Aztec warriors showed their courage and craftiness in battle and skill at capturing enemy soldiers for sacrifice, they gained in military rank. The Aztec emperors honored the higher ranks with weapons and distinctive garb that reflected their status in the military.

Aztecs warriors carried projectile weapons such as bow and arrows to attack the enemy from afar. They also carried weapons for the melee when armies came together. The lowest ranks of warriors carried a club and shield. Higher ranks were awarded finer weapons. Each rank in the army wore special clothing that denoted the honors they had won.

Projectile Weapons of Aztec Warriors


The atlatl was a spear thrower, which produced greater force from a greater distance. Only the highest ranks were allowed these weapons as they were in the front lines of the battle. Each warrior carrying the atlatl also carried many tlacochtli, 5.9 foot long spears tipped with obsidian.

War Bow and Arrows

The tlahhuitolli was a five foot long war bow strung with animal sinew. Warriors carried their arrows, barbed with obsidian, flint or chert and fletched with turkey feathers in a micomitl or quiver. Quivers could hold about 20 arrows.


Aztec warriors and hunters carried slings made of maguey cactus fiber. The warriors collected rocks as they marched. They also made clay balls spiked with obsidian and full of obsidian flakes. Even well armored enemies could be wounded by these.


Blowguns and poisoned darts were more often used in hunting, but Aztec warriors trained in ambush would bring along their tlacalhuazcuahuitl and darts tipped with poisonous tree frog secretions.

Melee Weapons


Aztec warriors carried different types of clubs. The macuahuitl club was edged with obsidian blades. While the obsidian shattered easily, it was razor sharp. A macuahuitl could easily decapitate a man. A macuauitzoctli was a long club made of hardwood with a knob on each side. A huitzauhqui was a baseball bat type club, although some of these were studded with obsidian or flint. A cuahuitl was a club shaped like a baton, made of oak. A cuauololli was basically a mace, a club topped with a rock or copper sphere.

Tepoztopilli were spears with obsidian points.

Itztopilli were axes shaped like a tomahawk with a head of either copper or stone. One edge was sharpened, the other blunt.

Tecaptl were daggers with handles seven to nine inches long. They had a double sided blade made of flint. Aztec warriors drew their tecaptl for hand-to-hand combat.


Aztec warriors carried round shield made of wood that was either plain or decorated with their military insignia called a chimalli. The higher rank warriors had special chimalli with a mosaic of feathers denoting their society or rank.

Basic Aztec armor was quilted cotton of two to three thicknesses. The cotton was soaked in salt brine then hung to dry. The salt crystallized in the material, which gave it the ability to resist obsidian blades and spears. An extra layer of armor, a tunic, was worn by noble Aztec warriors. Warrior societies also wore a helmet made of hardwood, carved to represent their society or different animals like birds or coyotes.

Tlahuiztli were special suits awarded to various ranks of the military. Each rank wore different colored and decorated tlahuiztli to make them easily distinguished on the battlefield. Each rank also wore pamitl or military emblems.

Warriors of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec warrior was highly honored in society if he was successful. Success depended on bravery in battle, tactical skill, heroic deeds and most of all, in capturing enemy warriors. Since every boy and man received military training, all were called for battle when war was in the offing. Both commoners and nobles who captured enemy warriors moved up in military rank or became members of military orders. Many nobles joined the army professionally and functioned as the command core of the army.

While the Aztec economy depended on trade, tribute and agriculture, the real business of the empire was war. Through war, the Aztec Empire gained tribute from conquered enemies. People captured during war became slaves or sacrifices in the Aztec’s religious ceremonies. Expanding the empire through further conquests strengthened the empire and brought more riches in tribute. For this reason, the emperor rewarded successful warriors of both classes with honors, the right to wear certain garments in distinctive colors, nobility for the commoners and higher status for nobles and land. Every Aztec warrior could, if he captured enemy warriors, advance far in society.

Aztec Warrior Societies

Rank in the military required bravery and skill on the battlefield and capture of enemy soldiers. With each rank, came special clothing and weapons from the emperor, which conveyed high honor. Warrior clothing, costumes and weaponry was instantly recognizable in Aztec society.

  • Tlamani: One captive warriors. Received an undecorated obsidian-edged club and shield, two distinctive capes and a bright red loincloth.
  • Cuextecatl: Two captive warriors. This rank enabled the warrior to wear the distinguishing black and red suit called a tlahuiztli, sandals and a conical hat.
  • Papalotl: Three captive warriors. Papalotl (butterfly) were awarded with a butterfly banner to wear on his back, conferring special honor.
  • Cuauhocelotl: Four or more captive warriors. These Aztec warriors reached the high rank of Eagle and Jaguar knights.

Eagle and Jaguar Knights

Eagle and Jaguar warriors were the two main military societies, the highest rank open to commoners. In battle they carried atlatls, bows, spears and daggers. They received special battle costumes, representing eagles and jaguars with feathers and jaguar pelts. They became full-time warriors and commanders in the army. Great physical strength, battlefield bravery and captured enemy soldiers were necessary to obtain this rank.

Commoners who reached the vaunted Eagle or Jaguar rank were awarded the rank of noble along with certain privileges: they were given land, could drink alcohol (pulque), wear expensive jewelry denied to commoners, were asked to dine at the palace and could keep concubines. They also wore their hair tied with a red cord with green and blue feathers. Eagle and jaguar knights traveled with the pochteca, protecting them, and guarded their city. While these two ranks were equal, the Eagle knights worshipped Huitzilopochtli, the war god and the Jaguars worshipped Tezcatlipocha.

Otomies and the Shorn Ones

The two highest military societies were the Otomies and the Shorn Ones. Otomies took their name from fierce tribe of fighters. The Shorn Ones was the most prestigious rank. They shaved their heads except for a long braid of hair on the left side and wore yellow tlahuiztli. These two ranks were the shock troops of the empire, the special forces of the Aztec army, and were open only to the nobility. These warriors were greatly feared and went first into battle.

Religion of the Aztec Empire

While many other Aztec art works were destroyed, either by the Spanish or by the degradations of time, Aztec stone carvings remain to give us a glimpse into the worldview of this supreme Mesoamerican culture. These masterpieces were discovered in Mexico City in the buried ruins of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its grand pyramid, Templo Mayor.

Statue of Coatlicue

Coatlicue was the Aztec’s earth mother goddess, although a fearsome one. Goddess of the earth, childbirth, fertility and agriculture, she represented the feminine power of both creation and destruction. A massive stone statue of Coatlicue was discovered in Mexico City in 1790. Almost 12 feet tall and 5 feet broad, the statue shows the goddess as much a goddess of death as of birth. With two facing serpents as her head, claws on her hands and feet, a skirt of serpents and a necklace of skulls, hands and hearts, she reveals the Aztec’s terrifying view of their gods.

The myth of Coatlicue tells of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun. The myth of Coatlicue tells of a priestess sweeping the sacred temple on Mount Coatepec when she was impregnated by a ball of feathers. Her son Huitzilopochtli is born full grown when Coatlicue is attacked by her daughter, the moon goddess. The newborn warrior kills his sister and cuts her into pieces, symbolizing the victory of the sun over the moon. The statue was so horrifying that each time it was dug up, it was reburied. The statue now resides at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Stone of Tizoc

The Stone of Tizoc is a carved disk showing the victory of the emperor Tizoc over the Matlatzinca tribe. The emperor had it carved to celebrate his victory and reveal the martial power of the Aztecs. The large, circular disk has an eight-pointed sun carved on the top, which was used for sacrificial battles. A warrior captured in battle was tied to the stone, and armed with a feather lined club. Aztec warriors, armed with obsidian lined clubs, fought the tied warrior and naturally defeated him. The side of the eight-foot diameter disk depicts Tizoc’s victory. The Matlatzincas are shown as despised barbarians, while Tizoc and his warriors are represented as noble Toltec warriors. The Stone of Tizoc artfully mixes sun worship, mythology and Aztec power. Today this masterful carved stone is at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Sun Stone

Another massive stone disk, the carvings on the Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone, show the four consecutive worlds of the Aztecs, each one created by the gods only to end in destruction. This basalt stone, 12 feet in diameter and three feet thick, was discovered near the cathedral in Mexico City in the 18th century. At the center is the sun god Tonatiuh. Around Tonatiuh are the four other suns which met destruction as the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca fought for control. After the destruction of a sun and the epoch it represents, the gods had to recreate the world and humans until finally the fifth sun held. At either side of the center, jaguar heads and paws hold hearts, representing earth. Fire serpents are at the bottom of the stone, as their bodies snake around the edge. The Sun Stone carving is probably the most recognized artwork of the Aztec world.

Aztec Art

The Aztecs created a rich variety of art works from massive stone sculptures to miniature, exquisitely carved gemstone insects. They made stylized hand crafted pottery, fine gold and silver jewelry and breathtaking feather work garments. The Aztecs were as intimately involved with art as they were with their religion and the two were tightly interwoven. Our knowledge of the Aztec culture mostly comes from their pictogram codices and their art.

Ancient Scripts section on Aztecs to see good, colorful example of the day glyphs.

All Mesoamerican cultures used body paint, especially warriors going into battle. Different ranks of warriors wore specific colors and used those same colors in painting their bodies. The most prestigious warrior society, the Shorn Ones, shaved their heads and painted half their head blue and half yellow. Other warriors striped their faces with black and other colors. Aztecs also decorated their bodies permanently in the form of piercing and tattoos, although there is not as much evidence for Aztec tattooing as for the cultures around them.

The Aztecs centered their lives on their religion. For that reason, many statues and carvings exist of the Aztec gods, as hideous as they may be to modern eyes. Symbols of the sun, the eagle, the feathered serpent and cactus were used in the Aztec writing system, in dates and time and in titles and names. The magnificent Sun or Calendar Stone contains both the 365 day solar calendar and the sacred 260-day tonalpohualli, all of which are represented by the rich symbolism of the Aztec culture.

Most Aztec symbols had layers of meaning. A butterfly symbol, for instance, represented transformation while frogs symbolized joy. When symbols were combined as in Aztec pictograms, entire stories could be told through the multiple layers of an Aztec symbol’s meaning. The day signs and coefficients corresponded to one of the Aztec gods, which means the 260-day calendar could be used for divination. An order of the Aztec priesthood were diviners. When a child was born, they were called to find a name for the baby based on the day of the birth and the god corresponding to that day. From these symbols, it was believed these priests could tell the baby’s fortune and fate.

Today, because of the growing interest in body art, more people are learning about Aztec symbols and designs.

Aztec Pictograms

Codex painter was an honored and necessary profession in the Aztec world. They were highly trained in the calmecacs, the advanced schools of the noble class. Some calmecacs invited commoner children to train as scribes if they were highly talented, but most scribes were nobles. After the Spanish conquest, codex painters worked with the priests recording the details of Aztec life. These codices are the richest source of information we have about the Aztecs.

The Aztec Empire, as with many empires, required a great deal of paperwork: keeping track of taxes and tribute paid, recording the events of the year both great and small, genealogies of the ruling class, divinations and prophecies, temple business, lawsuits and court proceedings and property lists with maps, ownership, borders, rivers and fields noted. Merchants needed scribes to keep accounts of all their trades and profits. All of this official work required the scribes of the Aztecs—the codex painters.

The Aztecs didn’t have a writing system as we know it, instead they used pictograms, little pictures that convey meaning to the reader. Pictography combines pictograms and ideograms—graphic symbols or pictures that represent an idea, much like cuneiform or hieroglyphic or Japanese or Chinese characters.

To understand pictography, one must either understand the cultural conventions or the graphic symbol must resemble a physical object. For instance, the idea of death in Aztec pictography was conveyed by a drawing of a corpse wrapped in a bundle for burial night was conveyed by a black sky and a closed eye, and the idea of walking by a footprint trail.

The codices were made of Aztec paper, deer skin or maguey cloth. Strips of these materials up to 13 yards by 7 inches high were cut, and the ends pasted onto thin pieces of wood as the cover. The strip was folded like a concertina or a map. Writing in the form of pictograms covered both sides of the strip.

Only 15 pre-Columbian Mesoamerican codices survive today—none of them Aztec, but from other cultures of about the same time. However, hundreds of colonial-era codices survive—those that carry the art of the tlacuilo (codex painters) but with Nahuatl and Spanish written commentary or description.

The Aztec number system was vigesimal or based on twenty. Numbers up to twenty were represented by dots. A flag represented twenty, which could be repeated as often as needed. One hundred, for instance, was five flags. Four hundred was depicted by the symbol of a feather or fir tree. The next number was eight thousand, shown as a bag of copal incense. With these simple symbols, the Aztecs counted all their tribute and trade. For example, one tribute page might show 15 dots and a feather, followed by a pictogram of a shield, which meant that the province sent 415 shields to the emperor.

Religion in the Aztec Empire

To understand the Aztecs, it is necessary to understand, as best we can, their religious beliefs and how those beliefs manifested in their culture. To that end, we will look at their religion in general, the gods, sacred calendar and temples here. Other articles will cover religious ceremonies and rituals and the practice of human sacrifice.

Religion Ruled All of Life

Aztecs were a devoutly religious people, to the extent that no Aztec made a decision about any aspect of his or her life without considering its religious significance. The timing of any event large or small required consulting the religious calendar. No child was named before a special priest, a diviner, could consider what name might best fit the child’s tonali or fate. Religion permeated every aspect of Aztec life, no matter what one’s station, from the highest born emperor to the lowliest slave. The Aztecs worshipped hundreds of deities and honored them all in a variety of rituals and ceremonies, some featuring human sacrifice. In the Aztec creation myths, all the gods had sacrificed themselves repeatedly to bring the world and humans into being. Thus, human sacrifice and blood offerings were necessary to pay the gods their due and to keep the natural world in balance.

The Gods

The main Aztec gods can be classified in this way:

  • Primordial Creators and Celestial Gods
  • Ometecuhtli (Two Lord) and Omecihuatl (Two Lady)—the divine male/female creative force permeating everything on earth
  • Xiuhtecuhtli (Turquoise Lord)
  • Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror—Fate and Destiny)
  • Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent—Creator, Wind and Storm)
  • Gods of Agriculture, Fertility and Sacred Elements
  • Tlaloc (Rain)
  • Centeotl (Maize, Corn)
  • Xipe Totec (Our Flayed Lord—vegetation god)
  • Huehueteotl (Old, Old Deity–fire)
  • Chalchiutlicue (She of the Jade Skirt—deity of rivers, lakes, springs and the sea)
  • Mayahuel (Maguey cactus goddess)
  • Gods of Sacrifice and War
  • Huitzilopochtli (War and Warrior god)
  • Tonatiuh (Sun god)
  • Tlaltecuhtli (Earth god)

The Sacred Calendar

The Aztecs used two systems for counting time. The Xiuhpohualli was the natural solar 365-day calendar used to count the years it followed the agricultural seasons. The year was separated into 18 months of 20 days each. The 5 extra days at the end of the year were set aside as a period of mourning and waiting. The second system was the ritual calendar, a 260-day cycle used for divination. Every 52 years the two calendars would align, giving occasion for the great New Fire Ceremony before a new cycle started.

Aztec Temples

The Aztecs built temples at the top of sacred mountains as well as in the center of their cities. The temple we know most about is the Templo Mayor in the heart of what was Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. At the top of this 197 foot tall pyramid stood two shrines, one to Tlaloc, the god of rain and one to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Templo Mayor was in the center of a great plaza, one of 75 or 80 buildings which constituted the religious center of the city. Sacrificial victims walked up the numerous steps to the top of the pyramid. After their hearts were extracted and given to the gods, their bodies were thrown down into the plaza.

Human Sacrifice

Human sacrifices Aztecs were a part of their religious ceremony that they believed properly appeased their gods to spare them from suffering. The numbers of people sacrificed by the Aztecs is a mystery today and will probably remain a mystery, unless more archeological evidence is uncovered. Whether only a few thousand of victims were sacrificed each year, or 250,000 as some scholars say, few human remains such as bones have been found at Templo Mayor or other Aztec temples. A couple of dozen skeletons and a few thousand loose bones and skulls do not add up to 250,000 or 20,000 or whatever number is cited.

Evidence of human sacrifice comes from both the Aztecs themselves, their art and codices containing their writings, and from the Spanish conquerors. However, it is safe to say that the Spanish could easily have exaggerated the numbers killed to make the Aztecs seem more savage and brutal than they actually were.

In 1487, the great Templo Mayor was dedicated in the main Aztec city of Tenochtitlan with a four-day celebration. How many were sacrificed during that time is a subject of scholarly speculation: some put the figure as low as 10,000 or 20,000, several others put it as high as 80,400 people sacrificed during those four days. Scholars think the Aztec priests used four sacrificial altars for the dedication ceremonies. However, if that’s the case and 80,400 people were killed, then the priests would have had to sacrifice 14 people every minute, which is a physical impossibility.

Spanish missionaries sent to convert the Aztecs to Christianity learned the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs. These priests and friars spoke to old Aztecs to learn their history. These Aztecs put the number of sacrificial victims at the time of the temple’s dedication at 4,000, a much lower total than 80,400.

With scant archeological evidence, it is hard to know how many Aztecs died under the sacrificial knife. Many reputable scholars today put the number between 20,000 and 250,000 per year for the whole Aztec Empire. All Aztecs cities contained temples dedicated to their gods and all of them saw human sacrifices. Whatever the total was, we know from both the Aztecs and the Spanish that many human beings lost their lives to human sacrifice. We will probably never know exactly how many.

The first thing to understand about the Mesoamerican cultures and the Aztecs’ use of human sacrifice is that they were not horrified by it. Instead, it was a natural part of life to them, necessary to keep the world balanced and going forward. Blood and sacrifice helped the sun to rise and move across the sky. Without it, their world would end.

That’s not to say that all Aztecs and other Mesoamericans went to the sacrifice willingly. No doubt many did not want to be sacrificed or to die. Others, however, agreed to give of themselves for the greater good. When we picture victims being led to sacrifice, we see them as weeping, moaning and fighting to get free. For the most part, that simply didn’t happen.

To die as a sacrifice was the most honorable death the Aztecs knew. When an Aztec warrior died in battle or an Aztec woman in childbirth, those were also good, honorable deaths. People who died as a sacrifice, as a warrior or in childbirth went to a paradise to be with the gods after death. In contrast, a person who died of disease went to the lowest level of the underworld, Mictlan.

Many scholars have devised theories to explain this “darkness” of the Aztecs, their love of human sacrifice. Some posited that Aztecs were savages and amoral, less than human. Others have said the Aztec leaders used human sacrifice to terrorize their population and the nearby cultures. Some stated that an essential protein was missing from the Aztec diet and they needed the “meat” from human sacrifices to feed themselves, using cannibalism to do so. None of these theories, however, have held up.

From its earliest inception, Mesoamerican cultures featured human sacrifice so it was plainly not “invented” by Aztec rulers to terrorize the people, nor was it a betrayal by the priesthood of Aztec spirituality. Studies of the Aztec’s mainly vegetarian diet flavored with occasional turkey or dog revealed all necessary ingredients to sustain life. The Aztecs had laws against murder and injury, just as we do, so it wasn’t that they were depraved savages.

Rather, it was a central part of their religion and spirituality, to give up their blood and lives in devotion and dedication to the gods who had sacrificed themselves to create the world and keep it going. Most religions contain an element of sacrifice—giving up meat in Lent, for example—and giving your life for a friend is a great act of love. The Aztecs accepted this as a necessary part of life. By dying as a sacrifice, they honored the gods. Still, we can’t help but think that many didn’t wish to die, but accepted it as inevitable.

After the Spanish Conquest, many Spanish priests and friars learned enough of the Aztec’s language to talk with Aztec survivors of the battles and diseases. From them, the Spanish learned that many of the sacrificial victims were friends of the Royal House, or high-ranking nobility and priests. Every class of Aztec occasionally were sacrificed, and all ages as well. Children were sacrificed to the god of rain. Often enough, however, it was nobles and captured warriors whose hearts fed the gods. Remember, however, that being sacrificed was most prestigious way to die. While this shocks us today, we must nevertheless give the Aztecs their due—they found human sacrifice not only acceptable, but necessary and honorable.

Trade in the Aztec Empire

The Aztec economy was based on three things: agricultural goods, tribute, and trade. Aztec trade was crucially important to the empire there could be no empire without it as many goods used by the Aztecs were not produced locally. Prized white cotton could not grow at the altitude of the Valley of Mexico and had to be imported from conquered semi-tropical regions further south, as were cacao beans, from which chocolate is made.

Two types of trading were important to the Aztecs: the local, regional markets where the goods that sustain daily life were traded and long-distance luxury trades. Each were vital to the empire, but served different purposes in the larger scheme of Aztec trade.

Aztec Trade and Regional Markets

Every Aztec city and village had its own market located near the city center. Tlatelolco, sister city to Tenochtitlan, had the grandest market, drawing 60,000 people to it daily. As with most regional markets, all kinds of utilitarian goods were sold, such as cloth, garden produce, food animals, obsidian knives and tools, medicines, wood, leather, furs and animal skins, precious metals, gems and pottery. If an Aztec housewife needed some tomatoes, bone needles and a headache remedy, she’d go to the market for them. While there, she could buy something to eat and drink if she had a cacao bean or two to trade. Many Aztec people went to the market not only to shop, but to socialize, another important aspect of the teeming regional markets. There Aztecs from every walk of life could meet and swap news and gossip.

The regional markets were overseen by government trade officials who made sure the goods and the prices asked for them were fair. Four levels of regional markets existed: the grand, daily Tlatelolco market, the markets at Xochimilco and Texcoco, the every-five-day markets at many other Aztec cities and the small village markets. Officials collected tribute and taxes for the emperor from each of these interlocking markets. Some of the regional markets also contained specialized goods, fine ceramics for example, or turkeys for food or feathers from tropical birds

Pochteca, Far Distance Traders

Pochteca were professional merchants, traveling long distances to obtain the luxury goods desired by the nobility: feathers from tropical birds, rare gems or jewelry and pottery created by other Mesoamerican cultures. The pochteca obtained anything rare and special, as well as the white cotton and cacao beans, earning them a special place in the Aztec society. They had their own capulli, laws and section of the city, even their own god, who watched over traders.

They often had dual or even triple roles in the empire, besides being simple traders. They often communicated crucial information from one area of the empire to another. And some served as spies for the emperor, often going disguised as something other than trader. This last group, the naualoztomeca, traded in rare, easily carried goods such as gems, rare feathers or secrets. Some pochteca were the importers, others dealt in wholesale goods and others still were retailers.

Aztec Agriculture: Floating Farms Fed the People

Agriculture, along with trade and tribute, formed the basis of the Aztec Empire. As such, growing enough food to feed the urban populations of the Aztec cities was of major importance. Many inhabitants of all of the Aztec cities were involved in planting, cultivating and harvesting the empire’s food.

Three crops formed the staples of the Aztec diet: maize, or corn, beans and squash. Each of these three plants assists the others when they are grown together. For example, corn takes nitrogen from the soil, which beans then replace. Bean plants need firm support on which to grow corn stalks provide that support. Luxurious squash leaves shade the soil, which keeps moisture in and keeps weeds out. These three plants are called the Three Sisters and planted together, provide a rich harvest of all three.

Besides maize, beans and squash, the Aztecs farmed a host of other vegetables: tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, limes, onions, amaranth, peanuts, sweet potatoes and jimacas. While most cacti grew wild, the Aztecs also cultivated those they found most useful, including the remarkable maguey cactus, also known as the Mexican aloe, which provided the Aztecs with paper, thatching for roofs, cloth, rope, needles, food from the roots of the plant, and a popular alcoholic beverage fermented from its sap.

To grow all this food, the Aztecs used two main farming methods: the chinampas and terracing. Chinampas were essentially man-made islands, raised bed gardens on the surface of Lake Texcoco’s shallow waters. The Aztecs centered their empire in the Valley of Mexico, with its central basin leading up into the mountains surrounding the valley. To use the hilly land for farming, the Aztecs terraced the hills by cutting into them. They then built a restraining wall to form a step in the hillside so that the land on the step can be used for crops.

The chinampas farms were man-made plots of land built up from the sedimentation from the bottom of the lake. The Aztecs created large reed mats, which they floated in the shallows, the edges of which were built of woven twigs and branches attached to posts anchored in the lakebed. On the mats, they put soil from the lake bottom, rotting vegetation and dirt from nearby areas. Aztec farmers built up the soil until it was above the surface of the lake. They planted fast-growing willow trees at the corners of the plots to attach the chinampa to the bottom of the lake by the trees’ roots. At the height of the Aztec Empire, thousands of these fertile and productive chinampas surrounded Tenochtitlan and other Aztec cities.

Terraced, irrigated fields added another layer of farmland for the hungry Aztecs. To bring water to these fields, Aztecs farmers dug irrigation canals in the soil. The terraces also grew the Aztecs major crops, providing an extra layer of protection for its vital agricultural production, on which the empire depended.

Around the chinampas, the Aztecs could also catch fish, frogs, turtles and waterfowl such as ducks and geese. Lake Texcoco also produced one other favorite Aztec crop—algae from the lake, which we know today as spirulina.

Education in the Aztec Empire

Aztec education was quite sophisticated compared to contemporary empires in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The Aztec Empire is one of the few older civilizations that featured mandatory education at home and in schools. Every child was educated, no matter his or her social status, whether noble, commoner or slave. Two different schools taught the young—one for the noble class and one for commoners, although bright, talented commoners might be chosen for advanced learning at the noble school. Children’s Aztec education, however, started at home with their parents. From age four or five, boys learned and worked with their fathers at a trade or craft, farming, hunting and fishing. Girls learned from their mothers all the tasks they would need in running a household.

All children were taught a large collection of sayings called the huehuetlatolli, which incorporated Aztec ideas and teachings. The Aztec culture expected well-behaved people so children were taught to be humble, obedient and hardworking. The huehuetlatolli included many sayings on all aspects of life, from welcoming newborn infants to the family to what to say at the death of a relative. Every few years, the children were called to the temple and tested on how much they had learned of this inherited cultural knowledge.

For the first 14 years of life, boys and girls were taught at home by their parents. After that, the boys attended either the noble school, called a calmecac, or the commoners’ school, the telpochcalli. Girls went to a separate school, where they learned household skills, religious rituals, singing and dancing or craftwork. Some talented girls were chosen to be midwives and received the full training of a healer. Other athletically talented girls might be sent to the house of dancing and singing for special training.

Much of Aztec society was divided into calpullis, a group of interrelated families, somewhat like a neighborhood or clan. Each calpulli had its own schools, both calmecac and telpochcalli. Boys and girls attended the schools run by their calpulli.

Aztec Education: Calmecac

Calmecacs were schools for the sons of nobles, where they learned to be leaders, priests, scholars or teachers, healers or codex painters. They learned literacy, history, religious rituals, calendrics, geometry, songs and the military arts. These advanced studies in astronomy, theology and statesmen ship prepared the nobles’ sons for work in the government and temples.

Aztec Education: Telpochcalli

Telpochcalli taught boys history and religion, agricultural skills, military fighting techniques and a craft or trade, preparing them for a life as a farmer, metal worker, feather worker, potter or soldier. Athletically talented boys might then be sent on to the army for further military training. The other students would, after graduation, be sent back to their families to begin their working life.

Housing in the Aztec Empire

Aztec homes ranged from one-room huts to large, spacious palaces. As in their clothing and diet, the size and style of Aztec homes depended on the family’s social status. Wealthy nobles lived in many roomed elaborate houses, usually built around an inner courtyard. Poorer Aztecs and commoners usually lived in one-room homes, built of adobe brick and thatched roofs. Nobles could lavishly decorate their homes as commoners were not allowed to do. Many Aztecs whitewashed their homes with lime so the houses would reflect light and stay cool.


Many, or perhaps most Macehualtin or commoners were engaged in agriculture, taking care of the Tenochtitlan’s chinampas, or garden beds raised on the shallow shores of Lake Texcoco outside the city. They built simple, one room houses, usually with a few other smaller buildings and a garden in the lot. The family lived, slept, worked, ate and prayed in the big room, which had a small family shrine built in one wall. Most Aztec homes also had a separate building for a steam bath, as the Aztecs were very clean people. The kitchen area might also be in a smaller room built onto the house.

Most simple Aztec homes were built of adobe bricks, which are made using mud, sand, water and straw, then dried in the sun. There were no windows generally, and one open door. Wood for door jambs and support beams could be found outside the cities. Furniture was also simple: comfortable reed mats for sleeping, wood or leather chests for storing clothes and low tables were in most homes, as well as clay pots and bowls, stone metates for grinding corn, a griddle, water jugs and buckets.

Most work took place outside the home during the day. Men went off to tend the fields, taking the older boys with them. Women ground corn, cooked, spun yarn, wove cloth and watched the younger children, teaching their daughters what they would need to know when they married. Commoners’ homes were often built outside the city, nearer to the fields and chinampas where the men worked.

Often, an interrelated group of families lived together in a unit called a calpulli. They would build their houses in a square with a common, central courtyard. The calpulli, which included both nobles and commoners, provided mutual aid for its members, functioning as a sort of clan. The nobles owned the arable land, which the commoners worked. The nobles provided the occupations, often craftwork, and the commoners paid tribute to the nobles.


Nobles or pipiltin as they were known, lived in larger, finer homes often built of stone, although some were also built of adobe. Noble homes were often built around a central courtyard, where flower and vegetable gardens and a fountain would be found. These homes were often made of carved stone, and contained finer furniture than a commoner would have.

Noble homes could have a peaked roof, or the roof could be flat and even terraced with a garden. As nobles were often involved in making laws and government, they tended to live nearer the city centers, around the central plaza and marketplace. At the top of society, the emperor lived in a luxurious palace, complete with botanical gardens and a zoo.

Watch the video: The Stone of Tizoc (May 2022).