No one is really sure where the people who defined themselves as Aztec originated from. The most prominent theory is that they migrated from North America.

Finding the fertile land they arrived at already claimed by an assortment of warring tribes, the leader of this wandering band asked to occupy a relatively barren patch of land, a request that was granted.

What happened next is a story of violence and brutality, in equal parts driven by spiritual beliefs and a hegemonic hunger that could never be assuaged.

Let’s take a look at what made the Aztec so mighty, how they lived and, in the end, how their might did them in, leaving behind a legacy that continues to be explored.

Pre-Aztec Mesoamerica

The Aztec banked on looking and being fierce
The Aztec were a fierce people but there was another side to them... Image by Joaquín Enríquez from Pixabay

Early in the 13th Century, colonies descended from North America and settled in small tribes throughout what we know today as Mexico. They fought to establish dominance but no tribe was wholly successful in dominating the region or any other group.

The Mexicas, a people who also spoke the Nahuatl language, arrived fairly late.

Seeing the most fertile portions of land had already been settled, they convinced the Culhuacan king to allow them a seemingly worthless patch of land to cultivate. In return, they promised their service as mercenaries to the king.

This arrangement worked fairly well. While a few men did the king’s bidding, the rest of the population set about breaking and moving rocks to build their city.

At the king’s behest, the Mexica fought a particularly bloody battle with a neighbouring realm. Thus preoccupied, they failed to notice the king’s monitoring of their progress – both in building their city and in working the land.

After the battle had been won, the king sent his daughter to rule over the Mexica, an act that those people saw as a betrayal. They flayed the young woman to death, presumably because their god Xipe Totec had commanded them to.

Actually, there are conflicting versions of this account. Some say she was sent by the king and other specify that the Mexica people asked the king for his daughter with the specific purpose of spilling royal blood.

Either way, this daughter’s sacrifice infuriated the king. He ordered his troops to drive the Mexica from the land.

Their headlong flight was abruptly stopped by the sight of an eagle atop a cactus, devouring a snake. They interpreted this appearance as a sign from their gods that they should make that land their home.

It didn’t hurt that the land in question was an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. From a military standpoint, it meant that the location would be difficult to attack and easy to defend.

The Mexica set about building their greatest city, Tenochtitlan.

Founding the Aztec Society

Having till then been nomadic, the people who came to be known as Aztec had a lot to learn about civilization and government but, because they had always been quick learners, the methods for establishing a society came easily.

First, while still living within the shadow of an established kingdom, they learned through observation how a monarchy should be run.

Also, while there, they married Culhuacan women who had experience in building and maintaining homesteads. These women were doubly advantageous as they could teach the next generation how to function in society.

Once they felt reasonably established – they had built homes and had a growing population, they selected their first king, again following traditions they learned from the Culhuacan.

That all sounds a bit idyllic but make no mistake: there was no peaceful coexistence between neighbouring realms.

Constant fighting among them – for riches and political dominance whetted the Aztec appetite for blood and demonstrated their ability to draw it.

After several such skirmishes, neighbouring states Texcoco and Tlacopan joined forces with Tenochtitlan to form a triple alliance; a military rule that dominated the Valley of Mexico.

Now with allies firmly established, civilisation could thrive!

The Aztec calendar was a nod to their brilliance
The Aztec calendar was widely used throughout Mesoamerica Image by Dieter Martin from Pixabay

Education in Aztec Society

The machinations of this society were complex and required a great deal of knowledge – not just in maths to calculate taxes but also to draft laws and keep records. To that end, every child, male and female, received a formal education.

There were two school divisions; one for children of noblemen and one for the rest of society, but those divisions were not set in stone. For instance, if the child of a commoner displayed a particularly high aptitude in a given subject, s/he would be sent to the ‘noble’ school.

Young children would be educated in the home; females by their mothers and males by their fathers.

This training followed traditional gender roles: boys would hunt, fish and fight; girls would weave, grind maize and learn to cook and care for the home.

Once firmly grounded in ‘gender work’, they would attend school for academic acquisition, generally around age 15. There, they would learn maths, writing, history and national songs.

Their early years in formal education saw all children, noble and common, in the same classroom. In later years, they would be split up along class and gender lines.

Makes you wonder: if everyone receives the same education, how could there be social classes?

The Aztec Social Structure

At the height of the Aztec civilization, in the early 16th Century, their capital city was home to more than 200,000 inhabitants: Tenochtitlan was the largest city of all the pre-Columbian civilizations.

Aztec society was organised into three tiers: slavery, peasantry and nobility.

In the early days of Aztec society, one did not inherit a social position; it had to be earned by demonstrating prowess in the battlefield or by making some extraordinary contribution to society.

In a sense, this system was a cheat because nobles had the means to afford ‘earning’ their position but commoners generally did not.

One way for a son of a modest family to gain nobility was to prove himself a cunning and ruthless fighter.

Oddly enough, being accepted as a warrior was conditional; you could only be considered military if you captured five prisoners or more.

Prisoners were used in religious sacrifice rituals so it was more valuable to capture them than to kill them in battle.

Any conditional soldier who fails to capture a prisoner within his first three engagements would be relegated to the peasant class, forever shamed. For this reason, military initiates would often band together to capture an enemy, guaranteeing them a chance to eventually graduate to nobility.

Being an Aztec slave was also rather remarkable.

If you had been convicted of a misdeed, you may be deemed a slave. However, you could keep your property – your owner would become its caretaker during the time of your ‘sentence’, and you could even own slaves yourself.

Slavery was generally the penalty for unsociable behaviour such as gambling or being deemed ‘incorrigible’. Willful children often entered into slavery that way.

Slaves could regain their freedom after their owners’ death if they had discharged their duties exceptionally well, by marrying or having a child with their owner or by buying their freedom.

If none of those conditions applied, slaves would be passed down to the next generation.

Children of the poor could be sold into slavery, but only for a set time. Individuals could also sell themselves into slavery but maintain their freedom for a while before going into service.

Any runaway slave who arrived at the royal palace without being caught would immediately be granted their freedom.

Learn more about slavery in ancient Egypt...

Women in Aztec Society

Unlike other societies that flourished before the Spanish conquest, the Aztec elevated their women to a position on par with men.

Noblewomen could work as secretaries or government officials – bookkeepers and administrators.

‘Common’ women would not have such lofty positions open to them but they could be merchants, seamstresses or food vendors. They also had the option of becoming prostitutes – a profession not at all looked down on.

Women functioned as midwives and medicine dispensers, diagnosing and treating the sick.

If a mother wanted her newborn girl-child to become a priestess, they would take the infant to the temple to establish the terms of her tenure. After the child turned five years old, she would live in the temple, learning the rituals and keeping it clean.

That must have been a tremendous job, considering the number of sacrifices each temple conducted!

One finds depictions of Quetzalcoatl in Mayan and Aztec lore
The feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, is a prominent god in the Mesoamerican pantheon Image by Rodrigo de la torre from Pixabay

Aztec Gods

At no time would the gods ever be ignored but, as with many Mesoamerican cultures, deities fell in and out of favour, depending on the current circumstances.

For example, the gods of rain and agriculture would be invoked in times of drought and harvest but, were a conquest on the horizon, the gods of war would receive enjoy extra sacrifices.

Unlike other civilisations in Pre-Columbian Central America, the Aztecs had three distinct groups of gods: some for celestial happenings, others for war and sacrifice and the third group concerned themselves with fertility – of the land and the people.

In all, the Aztecs worshipped more than 200 gods. Their most prominent ones were:

  • Huitzilopochtli, the father of the Aztecs. It was he who showed them where to establish their city.
  • Tlaloc, god of rain: borrowed from the Mayans, he is one of the most ancient deities
  • Tezcatlipoca, god of night: generally associated with dark, evil and death
  • Quetzalcoatl: brother of the night god, he represents learning and light, creation and goodness

Also discover how aboriginal Australians honoured their gods.

The Significance of Human Sacrifice

By today’s standards, any god who demands a steady supply of fresh blood would be seen as terrifying and barbaric but, to the Aztecs, human sacrifice was seen as a way to appease the gods and curry favour with them.

While the Aztec were quite prolific in their sacrificial offerings, the rite did not initiate with them but with the Incan empire.

Nevertheless, sacrificial rites took on a new significance for the Aztecs; it is estimated that more than 10,000 people ‘met the gods’ each year.

The Aztec had gods aplenty and they each must be regularly fed. That was only one reason for sacrificing.

Others include offerings for beneficial outcomes in trade or military engagement, and, strangely enough, for political reasons.

The Aztec were relatively small in number. If they demonstrated their ruthlessness in such a public manner, surrounding tribes would be too scared to attack them. Besides, at the height of the empire, the Aztecs were collecting tributes from all of the neighbouring cities.

Rather than offer one of their own for sacrifice, it was not uncommon for one village to kidnap a few people from the neighbouring village and hand them over to the Aztecs for sacrifice.

In all, this clever ploy kept surrounding cities from banding together and attacking the Aztecs all while providing them with a sufficient number of sacrifices to keep their gods appeased.

Oddly, that makes sense. What is a bit harder to understand and condone is child sacrifices.

Scholars believe that, for the most part, those being sacrificed were drugged beforehand so that they would be easier to control. It is possible that being drugged made the ensuing agony a little more bearable.

On the other hand, children were made to cry before being sacrificed because it was thought that their tears would moisten the earth, compelling their rain god to pour down his bounty.

If the child would not cry on his/her own, the priests might rip out a few fingernails. Once the tears started flowing, it was ‘on with the show!’.

How were children treated in ancient Greece?

The Aztecs expanded their territory by claiming Teotihuacan
The Aztecs discovered the abandoned ruins of Teotihuacan and claimed the territory Image by jjnanni from Pixabay

The Fall of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec empire lasted just under 100 years: from 1428 to 1521. In that time, they established a remarkable civilisation that may have endured for centuries more had it not been for Hernan Cortes.

They built magnificent structures to worship their gods, palaces and fine homes for nobility to live in, and fertile fields to grow crops.

One of their most remarkable agrarian accomplishments, chinampas, produced enough grain and plants to feed the entire population.

These floating gardens measured about 300 feet in length and 30 in width. They were crafted by weaving sticks together to form a raft. On that raft was piled mud and silt until it sunk about three feet.

Anchoring those rafts to trees, they were then able to plant enough to sustain the entire population.

The Aztec calendar became the standard of Mesoamerican civilizations.

This solar calendar was based on a 365-day cycle and a ritual cycle of 260 days. The Aztec religion depended on their calendars for rites and sacrifice events.

Much of Aztec culture and poetry was recorded in a series of books or codices.

Did the ancient Mesopotamians also maintain a codex library?

Each one tells a story of some aspect of the life of the Aztec people – religious, military, agricultural... some are historical accounts of events during and after the arrival of the Spaniards.

The death knell sounded for the Aztec empire not on the shores of Lake Texcoco but on the Yucatan peninsula: it was there that Spanish forces arrived from Cuba, on a reconnaissance mission.

After returning there, Spanish governor Velasquez ordered a much larger delegation to sail. Their orders were to claim the land for the crown and reap whatever riches could be had.

Not only did Cortes bring a fighting force, he and his men brought diseases the Aztec had no immunity to.

Much of the population succumbed to smallpox and influenza and a substantial number were massacred by the Spaniards. Still, the Aztecs did not give up.

A nephew of Montezuma, the recently-murdered emperor, claimed the throne and drove the invaders out. Undaunted, Cortes joined forces with another of the Aztec rivals, stormed the city for the third time and defeated the Aztecs for once and for all.

Upon his victory, he and his troops rased Tenochtitlan. Out of its ruins, he built Mexico City, which became the European centre of the New World.

Still, Mexico has not forgotten her Aztec heritage; the scene of the eagle atop a cactus devouring a snake - the vision that compelled the Aztecs to settle in that region is emblazoned on their flag for all to see.

Aztecs were poets, artists, intellectuals and amazing engineers. They were also brilliant military strategists, ruthless fighters and hostage to a band of bloodthirsty gods.

It seems a shame that they are more remembered for their negative aspects than their marvelous ones.

Now join the discussion: how do other ancient civilizations compare with the Aztec?

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