Mexica migration legends
Aztlan, the legendary homeland of the Mexica. In the cases of some of the more ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, like Teotihuacan or the Toltecs, we don't know that they called themselves. We only know the names given to them by people who arrived centuries after their great cities were already in ruins. With the Mexica, we have the Spanish historical record telling us that this was the name used by their contemporaries, both friends and enemies, and by the Mexica people themselves. The people shown in the sculpture above have just reached the island in Lake Texcoco where they would found their capital. At this point they were simple, nomadic, hunter-gatherers. They had no experience in urban living, and their only possessions were those that they could easily carry as they migrated from place to place. The obvious wonder and joy they express is the result of a prophesy fulfilled.
until around 1100 AD, and they wandered through central Mexico for more than a hundred years seeking a place to settle. Along the way, one of their chiefs named Tenoch prophesied that when they found an island with an eagle sitting on a cactus eating a snake, they would know they had reached their destination. The lush shores of Central Mexico's Lake Texcoco looked enticing to these desert nomads. However, there were already large populations of sophisticated, urbanized people living in powerful city-states on the Lake's shores. These people treated the Mexica with contempt, as uncivilized interlopers. Eventually, the nomads sought refuge on an island not far off shore. It was on this island that, to their boundless joy, they spotted the eagle eating the snake. Home at last! In honor of their prophet, the Mexica named their new city Tenochtitlan.
The Toltec Connection
Temple of the Warriors where they once supported its roof. These figures represent the ideal of the noble warrior. Like the Romans, the Mexica were not so much innovators as imitators and assimilators. They adopted much of their culture almost wholesale from their Toltec predecessors. They then carried out the Toltec ideas to their logical, but often rather grim, conclusions. Of course, the Toltecs themselves incorporated much from their predecessors, the Teotihuacans. The Mexica were aware of Teotihuacan, and called its ancient ruins "The Place Where The Gods Were Born." However, that great empire had fallen 500 years before and was already lost in the mists of time. The Toltecs provided a more recent example to follow, although the temples and palaces at Tollan had already been in ruins for 200 years by the time the Mexica wandered through. The unsophisticated nomads were enormously impressed by Toltec statuary, wall carvings, monuments and other imagery. The nomads felt that if they could emulate these people, they would certainly improve their status in the world. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Mexica imitated the Toltecs with a vengeance. (Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)
Templo Mayor, the chief pyramid of the Mexica at Tenochtitlán, their capital. The Templo Mayor had twin temples on top, one for the rain god Tlaloc, and the other for Huitzilopochitli, the god of the sun and of war. Chacmools may have originated with the Toltecs and many have been found at Tollan. They could also have originated with the Maya, since many have also been found at Chichen Itza, a Maya city with a mysterious and as-yet unexplained relationship to the Toltecs. Chacmools are instantly recognizable. They always appear as a male figure reclining on his back, knees raised and head turned questioningly. The figures always hold a bowl or disk on their stomachs which may have been where human hearts and blood were deposited after a sacrifice. The posture of the chacmool is submissive, very similar to how war captives are often portrayed, and the usual fate of such captives was sacrifice. The figures are most often found in the vestibule of a temple or the palace of a ruler, placed in front of a dias or throne. They are closely related to Tlaloc, the god of rain that the Toltecs adopted from Teotihuacan, and that the Mexicas in turn got from the Toltecs. Regular, dependable cycles of rain were essential to these civilizations, based as they were upon agriculture. Tlaloc, an extremely irascible sort of god, would not be impressed by just any old sacrifice. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
similar structures in Chichen Itza. The newly-settled Mexica were treated contemptuously and pushed from hither to yon by their urbanized neighbors. They decided to adopt Toltec-style militarism as the way to improve their status. In doing so, they closely copied the Toltec model of organization, among other things creating their own eagle and jaguar warrior cults. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
Templo Mayor was inaugerated in 1487 AD by the great Emperor Ahuizotl, 1000 people were ritually killed each day over a 20-day period. The Mexica reported that a river of blood flowed down the great staircases of the Templo Mayor and into the plaza. The Nazis of the 20th Century would have been impressed. (Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)
The Role of Human Sacrifice
Emperor Tizoc conquering the warriors of various cities. He reigned in Tenochtitlán and was the seventh Mexica emperor. However, his reign was short (1481 AD-1486 AD) and most of the victories depicted appear to have been achieved by previous rulers. There were various forms of human sacrifice, and one of them was a gladiatorial contest. The warrior being sacrificed would be tethered to the stone disk with a rope. He would then be confronted by five Mexica warriors, all carrying deadly hand weapons lined with razor-sharp obsidian. The victim would be armed with the same weapon, but in place of obsidian would be feathers. On the shelf in the background are statues of Michtlantecuhtli, the god of death and lord of the underworld. Human sacrifice was conducted for both political and religious purposes. Its most obvious political value was to intimidate both external enemies and current allies, as well as to awe the underlying Mexica population. There may also have been a public entertainment value. Huge crowds once gathered to watch Roman crucifixions and gladiatorial contests. In other eras they came to watch people burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition, and hung from the gallows in the US up until the last half of the 20th Century. Demonstrations of power through the spectacle of public executions can a very effective political technique. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
the sacrifice process. Obsidian blades can be brought to a sharpness greater than modern surgical scalpels. The individual to be sacrificed would have been grasped by the arms and legs and held down while facing the sky. The priest would slice through the chest with the blade, reach in to pull out the still beating heart, and turn to display it to the waiting crowd before placing it in the bowl of a chacmool or that of a gladiatorial platform stone. The body would then be thrown down the long staircase of the Templo Mayor. Sometimes the skin of the victim was flayed (peeled off) and worn by the priests, symbolizing life emerging from death and corruption. At other times the body might be fed to the animals in the emperor's zoo, or even used in cannibalistic rituals. Resting against the oval blade is a spine used for self-piercing blood sacrifices. Also present are shell beads, jade ear rings, coral, and many smaller, non-lethal offerings.
(Photo from Templo Mayor Museum)
The Warrior Cults and Mexica warfare
Eagle Warriors (in Nahuatl: cuãuhtli) wore elaborate costumes over cotton armor. Their open-beaked headdress/helmets were made of painted wood and the entire outfit was decorated with feathers. Along with the Jaguar Warriors, the Eagles were the elite of the Mexica army. They were the best trained, fiercest, and most respected fighters of the empire. Another indication of the Eagle Warriors' special status is that, in the Mexica mythology, eagles were symbols for the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochitli. Most of the Eagle Warriors came from the nobility, but a commoner could gain membership through battle prowess and especially by capturing prisoners. In fact, a warrior gained much more status from a live prisoner than a dead enemy. Huitzilopochitli was always hungry for blood, famished as he was from the effort of keeping the universe from running off the rails. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
Jaguar Warriors were named after the largest, fiercest, and most cunning animal predator of the Mesoamerican world. Jaguars hunt at night, a fact giving them a special status among the ancients who believed the big cats were connected with the underworld and with Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky. The Jaguar Warrior above carries a round shield in his left hand and brandishes the basic Mexica hand weapon in his right, the deadly Macuahuitl. Both the Jaguars and Eagles were intensively trained in its use, much as medieval knights trained with the sword. The basic Macuahuitl was a flat, rectangular paddle about 1 m (3 ft) long with a handle on one end. There were also some longer versions, intended to be wielded with both hands. The edges of the paddle were fitted with razor-sharp obsidian blades. Spanish soldiers who faced warriors wielding a Macuahuitl claimed that they could decapitate a horse with one blow. Like the Eagles, the Jaguar Warriors gained their status by capturing enemies. To become a Jaguar, a soldier had to capture at least 12 opponents in two consecutive battles. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
Some of his weapons are shown above. On the left is a spear, generally about 2.13 m (7 ft) long and tipped with a flat wooden point edged with obsidian, much like a Macuahuitl. These could be thrown or used for stabbing. Next is the bow, about 1.5 m (5 ft) long and capable of firing an arrow as much as 137 m (450 ft). The Mexica also used two other long-range weapons: the sling (not shown) and the atlatl, seen in use by the soldier above. The sling had a range of 198 m (650 ft), even greater than a bow, and was a powerful weapon. It should be remembered that the Hebrew David was supposed to have slain the giant Goliath with just such a sling. The atlatl is a truly ancient weapon, invented long before the bow and arrow. Used properly, it can propel a short spear or dart with much greater force and range than if the weapon was thrown by hand. A Macuahuitl can be seen just under the elbow of the soldier. A soldier might also carry smaller weapons for close fighting such as the hand ax, seen above, or a dagger. For defense, the basic soldiers used relatively small, round shields. As previously noted, the elites protected themselves with cotton armor as well as shields. Notice, in particular, the shield with the yellow and black design next to the Macuahuitl.
Trade and Commerce within the Empire
indigenous dancers called Quetzalines whom I have seen perform in Puebla State. Some 60,000 Totonac-speaking people still live in Mexico's Gulf Coast area, and as far inland as Puebla. Their civilization once extended all the way down the Coast to the Maya areas bordering the Yucatan Peninsula. However, by the time of the Spanish arrival, the Mexica had extended their control over much of this area and many Totonac city-states paid regular tribute to the empire. The Mexica did not usually lay waste to cities they conquered, nor even station troops there when they moved on. They allowed the local people to administer and police themselves, but required regular delivery of tribute consisting of the community's best products, including people for sacrifice. This, of course, was not popular within the conquered areas and resulted in periodic revolts. However, the establishment of the empire did promote trade and commercial activity. (Photo from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)
Pochteca were Mexica traders and merchants who traveled throughout the empire and beyond. Given the lack of draft animals in Mesoamerica, everything had to be carried by the trader or by his servants. Goods therefore needed to be relatively light and compact. These might include conch shells which could be made into trumpets, jade jewelry, and copper axes as seen above. Other suitable items might include cacao beans, (sometimes used as currency as well as to make chocolate), obsidian blades, and beautifully woven cloth. The Pochteca were commoners, but achieved a higher status than any other non-nobles. They organized themselves into guilds and lived in their own neighborhoods. They even had their own god, Yacatecuhtli, who was the patron of trade. Because they traveled throughout the empire, and to other places not under Mexica control, they were also used as an intelligence network. The Pochteca were also trained as warriors, and needed to be, because they were sometimes attacked by people who viewed them--and rightly so--as an arm of the Mexica oppressors. These traders were important enough to the Mexica State that their traveling parties were sometimes protected by military escorts, if the threat was great enough. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
Tianguis is the Nahuatl word for street market, and many are still held all over Mexico, 500 years after Cortés first saw this one when he entered the Mexica capital. The Spanish were astounded by the variety, quantity, and quality of goods flowing into the seat of the empire from all points of the compass. The Mexica viewed Tenohtitlán as the center of their world, and the Pochteca saw the tianguis as the center of Tenochtitlán. The original tianguis was located in an area southwest of the Templo Mayor called Tlatelolco. In the background above, you can see Tenochtitlán spreading out into the distance, dotted with pyramids and temples. The tianguis above looks like many I have visited, except for the clothing of the participants. (Photo from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)
water transportation enabled a Pochteca to transport goods more quickly and economically among the various communities lining the shores of Lake Texcoco. As they approached the city for the first time, the Spanish reported seeing great fleets of such boats plying the areas around Tenochtitlán. (Photo from National Anthropological Museum)
medium of exchange. Other kinds of currency included small copper bells, jade beads, and feathers. (Detail from the Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace)