Aztecs and the Mexica
Category: Indigenous people
This section roughly covers the civilisations of Mexico prior to its conquest by Spain. It thus includes the Aztecs, as well as the Olmec culture which flourished on the Gulf Coast from around 1500 BCE and the culture of Teotihuacan and the Toltec. The Maya and Zapotec civilizations developed complex centres at Calakmul and Monte Albán respectively, but I have treated the Mayan civilisation separately, partly because the Mayan civilisation spread into present day Guatemala and Honduras, but also because there is enough known to merit a separate section for them.
There is considerable homogeneity in the beliefs and in the culture up to Spanish conquest to mean – spiritually at least – it is possible to treat the Mexica people as a whole. But there is a problem. Written records are relatively scarce, principally because the Spaniards undertook a systematic destruction of the entire culture, which included many of the books to do with religion or magic. Bishop Zumarraga, for example, had huge numbers of books seized and burnt. Thus what can be reconstructed has to come from what was saved from the genocide that took place.
After 1521, the date of the conquest, all authority collapsed, all concepts, the whole frame of society and all religion and all that remained was the peasant farmer paying his tolls to a new master.
Up until 1521, the Mexica people developed one of the most advanced civilisations in the world, building cities on a par with Venice and pyramids on a par with those in Giza. In Central Mexico, for example, the height of the classic period saw the ascendancy of Teotihuacan. At its peak, Teotihuacan contained some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas, and had a population of more than 150,000 people. During the early post-classic period, Central Mexico was dominated by the Toltec culture, Oaxaca by the Mixtec and the lowland Maya area had important centers at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán. Towards the end of the post-Classic period the Aztecs of Central Mexico built an empire covering most of Central Mexico.
The Daily Life of the Aztecs – Jacques Soustelle
At the end of the reign of Motecuhzoma II, the empire consisted of thirty-eight tributary provinces and to these must be added the little states, of uncertain status, that stood along the road of the caravans and the armies between Oaxaca and the southern limits of Xoconochco. It reached both oceans; the Pacific at Cihuatlan and the Atlantic for the whole length of the coast of the Gulf from Tochpan to Tochtepec. In the west its neighbours were the civilised Tarascas of Michoacin; in the north the hunting nomads, the Chichimeca; and in the north-east the Huaxtecs, a separated branch of the Maya family. In the south-east the independent but allied province of Xicalanco formed a kind of buffer-state between the Mexicans of the centre and the Mayas of Yucatan.
This last civilisation had an elaborate system of democracy, even though its head was a king, based on councils and elected representatives. It settled disputes through an equally elaborate system of justice and negotiation. Laws were very clearly stated, punishments [which included hanging], were stated for each 'crime'.
It may be observed that the gravity of the sentence always increased in proportion with the rank of the culprit; the punishment for a plebeian who was drunk in public was a severe admonition and the shame of having his head shaven; for a noble, it was death. It was also death for a noble who had robbed his father, whereas a maceualli guilty of the same crime got off with penal slavery. Duty, responsibility and danger increased with power and wealth [Soustelle].
Despite the impression now given by western writers, the Aztecs preferred to settle disputes by political negotiation, the courts and speeches, not by War. Their system of War involved lengthy pre-war diplomacy missions. And if war became necessary, they took prisoners. They share more with the Greeks of Plato's time than they do with shamanic societies.
The Aztecs soldier class wielded enormous power and prestige and had the authority to 'execute' whomever they thought fit to keep the empire intact. But this was not a religious act, it was a political act. But it is interesting to speculate just how many real executions there were. The overall impression I got from the descriptions is that the prisoners were 'converted', it was a religious 'execution', a symbolic one, designed to make sure they went back in tune with the empire. The fact that the empire had grown so quickly and with relatively little resistance points far more to religious conversion than it does wholesale slaughter of opponents [which as we should be aware with the example of Nazi Germany, does not work].
Their health system was extraordinarily advanced with hospitals and a recorded pharmacopoeia. So advanced was it that the conquistadores sent details to Philip II of Spain who in turn sent his doctor - Francisco Hernandez - to Mexico and he spent seven years attempting to record all the herbal medicines. I have provided more detail in an observation, as they also based their approach on healing - cause based as opposed to symptom based medicine.
They loved poetry and verse, they had rule books of manners and etiquette, they showed generosity to those not so well off in active and not passive ways with food and support. Their books were both symbolic and literal [as most books related to spiritual societies are]. They had numerous festivals, with dancing, music, feasting and flowers which lasted all night and often for several days.
Friar Bernardino de Sahagun – Historia general de las Cosas de Nueve Espana
During the seven first days of the month called the great feast of the lords, the emperor had the whole population served with food and drink in order to show his good-will towards the humble people. Every evening at sunset, the songs and dances began, in the light of torches and braziers and sometimes Motecuhzoma [sic] came out to dance. For long hours on end the warriors and the women, holding hands, came and went between the rows of braziers and torch holders, the dancing and rhythmic chanting did not stop until well on into the night
So we know from this that they used music, rhythm and chanting as one way to get in touch with the spiritual.
They had a goddess - Xoquiquetzal - of flowers, youth and love. And despite the prudish, repressed reporting of their conquerors, it is clear they had a lot of sex!
Friar Bernardino de Sahagun – Historia general de las Cosas de Nueve Espana
all the youths went to sing and dance in a house called cuicalco [the house of singing] and the boys danced with other men until after midnight and those that had mistresses went off to sleep with them.
The Daily Life of the Aztecs – Jacques Soustelle
In 1507, nobody, from the arid steppes of the north to the burning jungles of the isthmus, from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the shore of the Pacific, could have believed that this enormous empire, its culture, its art, its gods, were to go down a few years later in a historic cataclysm that makes even the fall of Constantinople seem comparatively mild. In Mexico nobody knew that a white-skinned race from another world already had a footing in the islands of the western sea, and had had it since 1492. Twenty-seven years were to elapse between the first voyage of Columbus and the landing of Hernan Cortes upon the continent - a quarter of a century’s respite during which the two worlds lived side by side in mutual ignorance, with no more than an arm of the sea between them
The Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire began in February 1519 when Hernán Cortés arrived at the port in Veracruz with about 500 conquistadores, and later moved on to the Aztec capital in his search for gold and other riches. The ruler of the Aztec empire upon the arrival of the Spaniards was Moctezuma II, who greeted them with civility and showed them the city and who was later killed. Not only did the Spaniards destroy the city, they brought smallpox with them; Moctezuma’s brother Cuitláhuac was among the first to die from the smallpox epidemic. Smallpox ravaged Mesoamerica in the 1520s, killing more than 15 million out of a population of less than 30 million. “Severely weakened, the Aztec empire was easily defeated by Cortés and his forces on his second return. Smallpox was a devastating and selective disease—it generally killed Aztecs but not Spaniards, who were much more immune to it.”
The Aztecs were defeated because their rules of engagement did not include the wholesale slaughter of its opponent. As the Spaniards slaughtered more and more of their people, the Aztecs were unable to comprehend what was happening, nor could they conceive of any level of destruction as brutal. Not a single ancient monument survived the systematic destruction of their city during the siege of 1521, which is why it is so difficult to piece together what really was there.
There is a telling paragraph in Soustelle's book which should make us think a little harder about the literal interpretation placed on the practises of the Aztecs.
The Aztecs were unmoved by the scenes in their blood soaked temples, but they were horror struck by the tortures that the Spaniards brought with them from the land of the Inquisition.
But no Spaniard ever saw what went on in their 'blood soaked temples', so maybe they were not so blood soaked - in the literal sense - as has been reported.
Sacrifice and rebirth
According to Wikipedia “The Aztecs were noted for practicing human sacrifice on a large scale”. But I am not at all sure they were. From what I can see the Spanish Catholic Church certainly wanted that impression to be given, but all the pictures I have seen convince me they practised a Mystery religion and the ‘sacrifice’ that had to be made was rebirth, which in a small number of cases was followed through to annihilation.
Let us look at the description given by a Catholic monk, not, one would have thought, likely to be lavish in his praise of the priests of a rival religion:
Friar Bernardino de Sahagun – Historia general de las Cosas de Nueve Espana
Among these priests, the best were chosen to become the supreme pontiffs, who were called quequetzalcoa, which means successor of Quetzalcoatl… No heed was paid to birth in the choice, but only to morals and observance of religion, knowledge of doctrine and purity of life. Those were chosen who were humble, righteous and peaceable, earnest and reasonable, not given to levity, but sober, severe and scrupulous in morals, full of love and charity, compassion and friendship for all, god fearing and devout.
Now does this square with a religion that is in theory practising literal sacrifice? We need also to be aware that the religion was based on the Sun and the Moon. The very name Mexica is said to derive from the word Metztli – Moon – so the people of the Moon. The principle god was Uitzil Opotchtli – a left handed spear thrower who was a sun god – so a sort of Apollo. There were two paths followed in the religion – the path of the Moon, a sort of general everyday existence in which one was reincarnated and the path of the Sun, allocated to initiates who seemed suited to following this path.
Quetzalcoatl, the god referred to in the quote was a plumed serpent that was part of the religion inherited from far earlier times. All of this should be familiar if you have read any of the descriptions of the Mystery religions. The ‘plumed serpent’ is kundalini energy, and the path to the Sun is the path of no reincarnation.
“the prototype of the sacrificial victim who is to be reborn for a carefree immortality as a bird” [Jacques Soustelle - the daily Life of the Aztecs]
So this religion was based on rebirth and kundalini experiences as a means of making ‘gods’ of initiates. There was even a god Xipe Totec - "the flayed one", who was its personification. Like the snake shedding its skin to be ‘born again’, he wore a flayed skin in pictograms. An elaborate western invented mythology has been attached to this personification, but most of his accoutrements show him to be a rebirth deity very clearly. The pointed stick [pierced with swords], arrows [the same], the pointed cap [cap with tassel], the lightning bolt which in some pictures looks like a barber’s pole. He wears an apron and is shown with a ritual nosebleed.
Even the principle temple in Tenochtitlan itself had two sanctuaries side by side – one blue and the other red – the red route and the blue route. All the indications point to a Mystery religion – not at all dissimilar to that in Yoga, Shinto, the Kabbalah, the Greek Mysteries, the Egyptian Mysteries and so on.
It may also be helpful to know that all Mystery religions believed that the ego or Personality resided in the heart and thus in order to suffer ego death and become a god, one had to figuratively 'tear out your heart' - not literally, figuratively - ego death.
I have provided an observation for Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire as, like Amsterdam and Venice it was built on the principles of sacred geography. The architecture of the city incorporated a vast number of symbolic features, built on an island and surrounded by water, it was connected by an isthmus to the mainland. It was also extraordinarily beautiful. Even Hernan Cortes ‘the most coldly calculating of all’ was “free in his praise of the beauty of the buildings; he particularly noticed the abundance of gardens with medicinal herbs and rarest flowers, the aqueduct with its fresh water, the canals, bridges, the great sheets of water with ducks, swans, egrets and water fowl in abundance, and wide straight clean streets”. Before the epidemic of smallpox ravaged its population, it was estimated to have a population of over ½ million people.
'Motecuhzoma' said Cortes, 'has a palace in the town of such a kind and so marvellous, that it seems to me almost impossible to describe its beauty and magnificence. I will say no more than that there is nothing like it in Spain.'
All the temples were pyramids. There were a number dedicated to different Intelligences, but each had the customary 5 levels – Earth, Water, Air, Fire and then the top Aether level with the sanctuaries. The levels were colour coded according to the rainbow. The Aztecs used the symbolism of blood and the steps going up the levels was red ochre – the colour of blood. In effect one was ascending symbolically a path of spiritual energy.
Initiates were taken up the steps clothed in cloaks made of ‘white feathers and down’ – baby birds. The steps were, in some pyramids, flanked by two undulating serpents, which acted as balustrades, so we have stairs/ladder and serpents, leading to a sanctuary resembling a crown - the caduceus. The crown was variously decorated with shells and butterflies.
There were three clear roles for those children who showed the necessary aptitude, and schools to provide these children with the necessary education.
- Hero - The first role was the 'hero', called by historians the soldier, but in all respects matching the definition of the hero figure. The heroes all had a quest, and furthermore on all the pictographs one can see they had the symbolic badges of the hero. The life of the hero was not dissimilar to that of the Knights of the Round table or a Jedi knight.
- Priest - or more correctly a hierophant. Initiates went to a school called the calmecac, and were taught by priests, who interestingly enough, practised fasting and had long hair. The priests shaved the front and the sides of their head, but let the hair on the top alone - so a sort of crown, like that used in Shinto or in the Sikh religion [and note that this is no coincidence - the meaning is universal]. They also wore a triangular apron. Aprons were also worn by the Initiates.
Soustelle - two different concepts of life are set one against the other: on the one hand there is the priestly ideal of self-denial, the study of the stars and the signs, contemplative knowledge and chastity; on the other, the ideal of the warriors, with the emphasis deliberately set upon action, battle, the collective life and the fleeting pleasures of youth.
- High priestess - The temple had the equivalent of vestal virgins, girls who were also taught in special schools to take the role of the High priestess in the final Mystery ceremony. They wore their hair raised on their heads in a form of pigtails, but the pigtails were formed into a loop 'like little horns' or like the Egyptian goddess Hathor - again this is no coincidence, I am hoping you are beginning to see the pattern.
The Daily Life of the Aztecs – Jacques Soustelle
Some twenty of forty days after her birth, a girl might be brought to the temple by her mother; the woman would give the priest a censer and some copal (incense), and this would establish a reciprocal agreement. But it was only when she was a grown girl (ichpochtli) that the novice would go into religion, with the title of priestess - or literally 'woman-priest', ciuatlamacazqui. As long as she kept this title she was bound to celibacy: but it was quite possible for her to marry 'if she were asked in marriage, if the words were properly said, if the fathers, the mothers and the notables agreed.' An unusually solemn marriage service took place, and then she left the temple for her home. But it appears that many preferred to give themselves up entirely to religion. One finds a great many priestesses ministering on various occasions in the traditional accounts. The feast of the great goddess Toci (our grandmother) was directed by a woman.
Later in his account Soustelle says they carried ears of maize wrapped in rich cloth on their backs [kundalini energy] and staffs like the thyrsus. Their faces were painted either yellow or white [like the geisha] and their arms and legs were adorned with feathers - like birds. They could have almost come directly from the Eleusinian Mysteries.
The gods of the Aztecs and Mexica were numerous and 'personifications', in essence they were Intelligences. The priests seemed ready to accept new Intelligences from other absorbed cultures, when it was clear that the functions they represented had been missed. It is unclear from the sources I referred to whether they were organised into a hierarchy or not.
"the Aztecs were most eclectic in matters of religion, and they surrounded their national god with the greatest possible number of other gods, from every part of the empire" [Soustelle].
What Soustelle calls the 'national god' was the Ultimate Intelligence.
The Mexica thought of the world [the universe] as a sort of Maltese cross, - an enormous pyramid shown from the top - so essentially a mountain - surrounded by an Egg. Like Mount Meru.
The orient was shown at the top. This symbolism is based on navigation around the Egg. Your position in the universe [including all its vibrational levels] can be found using the vibrational level and some co-ordinates - up, down, east, west, north, south. From the point of view of the soul in ascension, the direction taken is ‘Up’ - up the celestial pole, but the actual direction taken is towards the Orient – meaning the direction in which one orients oneself in order to attempt the Spiritual Path.
The Mexica did not use a clock, as such the concept of 24 hours and the Four seasons and the hours would have not meant anything, but they had twenty signs for days divided into four sets of five, each ruled by one of the cardinal points, as such although the division was slightly different the symbolism was intended to be identical. Interestingly, the concepts and meaning of 'Dawn' and 'Sunset' were identical to the Greek system.
This culture has been cruelly misrepresented. It has been misrepresented for political reasons and it has been misrepresented from ignorance. As far as I could judge from the descriptions, none of the chroniclers had any sense of the Mysteries or of spiritual symbolism and experiences. It was like asking someone with no sense of taste to be a restaurant critic.
The Aztecs and the cultures of Mexico before them, on whose beliefs and wisdom they based their own beliefs, show us that if you base your architecture and society on spiritual values you create a truly beautiful environment, like the Shinto culture once had before it too was destroyed.
How tragic that it was lost, how tragic. And all because of greed and the appalling aggression of a few men.
I, the singer, I make a poem
That shines like an emerald
A brilliant, precious and splendid emerald.
I suit myself to the inflexions
Of the tuneful voice of the tzinitzcan , . .
Like the ring of little bells,
Little golden bells . . .
I sing my song
A scented song like a shining jewel,
A shining turquoise and a blazing emerald,
My flowering hymn to the spring
- Daily Life of the Aztecs - Jacques Soustelle - this book was written by an academic politician and provides a summary of other texts. It is a good leaping off point for other sources, but is probably only accurate when Jacques describes war, politics, mundane daily life and organisational bureaucracy. It is fairly clear Jacques knew nothing of the Mystery religions, shamanism, hermeticism, drug taking, or any belief system which would fit him to understand the complexity of Aztec spiritual beliefs.
- Letters of Hernan Cortes to Charles V of Spain - an invaluable record of his impressions. Cortes testimony is described by Soustelle as 'elaborate', but it is also quite graphic.
- Bernal Diaz del Castillo - Bernal was a first wave invader and left his impressions, which he dictated in old age, before he died. Neither Diaz or Cortes attempted to see and understand objectively, their 'eyes were fixed on fortifications, weapons, wealth and gold'. They also never learnt the native language, and they 'mangle shockingly whenever they attempt to quote a word'. They were also both disgusted with the Mexica religion, which they regarded as 'devil worship'. As such neither are good witnesses for anything spiritual.
- Father Bernadino de Sahagun - who reached Mexico in 1529, learnt Nahuatl and wrote in that language under the dictation of the Indian nobles, with Indian scribes for the illustrations, A General History of the Affairs of New Spain. He devoted the whole of his life to this work and called the people 'his children the Indians'. He died in Mexico in 1590. Again, he knew nothing of the Mystery religions, but his accounts are far more sympathetic at least.
- Bartolomé de las Casas, O.P. (1484 -1566), was a Dominican friar. He became the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed "Protector of the Indians". His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies and focus particularly on the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples. Arriving as one of the first European settlers in the Americas, he participated in, and was eventually compelled to oppose, the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists.
There are also some manuscripts written by what few Indians remained after the smallpox epidemics, book burning and slaughter, which are an attempt to translate various pictographic manuscripts into the Mexican language using the European letters of the alphabet. Some were in Spanish. Examples here include
- Annals of Cuauhtitlan
- The historical books of Chimalpahin, Quauhtlehuanitzin, Tezozomoc and Ixtlilxochitl
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Adrian Morgan - Mixtecs and puffballs
- Aztec Codex Magliabecchiano - Aztec rebirth
- Aztecs and hummingbirds
- Bernardino de Sahagún – the Florentine Codex (1545–1590)
- Codex Azcatitlan - Aztecs and Mexica - Adepts
- Codex Azcatitlan - Aztecs and Mexica - Dismemberment
- Codex Azcatitlan - Aztecs and Mexica - Trance states and weighing
- Henry Munn - from The Mushrooms of Language
- Hernan Cortes - Aztecs and Mexica - The view from Tlatelolco
- Ixtlilxochitl - Aztecs and Mexica - The good king Nezaualcoyotl
- Ixtlilxochitl - Aztecs and Mexica - Tloque Nahuaque
- Misc. sources - Aztecs and Mexica - Ehecatl
- Misc. sources - Aztecs and Mexica - Xipe Totec
- Nahuatl legends - Aztlan
- Sahagun - Aztecs and Mexica - Of sorcerors and death prayers
- Sahagun - Aztecs and Mexica - The Poem of Atamalqualitzli
- Sahagun - Aztecs and Mexica - The visions of the little black fungus
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - Determining destiny
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - Diagnosing disease
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - Healing with plants
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - Mothers and Fathers
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - Rebirth misunderstood
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The building of the aqueduct
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The Earth and the Sun
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The end of the world
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The local gods
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The Making of a High Priestess
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The Steam bath
- Soustelle - Aztecs and Mexica - The three routes on death
- Teotihuacan - Tepantitla mural
- Tezozomuc - Aztecs and Mexica - The prophecy of the dog and the turkey
- W.Y. Evans-Wentz - Chalchatongo and Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead