An Introduction to the Aztec People

When people think of the pre-Conquest history of Mexico, the predominant images that come to mind are those of the Aztec Empire. Stone carvings, ritual human sacrifice, the magnificent city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), and the stories associated with their downfall at the hands of Hernando Cortez in 1521 represent the Aztecs to most people. While there’s truth in those images, there is also a large amount of untold history behind them.

The origins of the Aztec nation – and indeed, the very nature of who should be called “Aztec” – are somewhat mysterious. Most people think of the Aztec as the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico in central Mexico, while others use the term to refer to all speakers of Nahuatl. The Aztec themselves speak of their origins as being in a semi-mythical place called Aztlan, meaning “the place of origin;” most anthropologists identify this as being a plain about 120 miles northwest of Mexico City, although a minority think the Aztecs actually originated in the Four Corners region of the Southwest US, and some believe that Aztlan is a mythological place. Whatever their origin, the Aztecs’ southward migration to the central Valley of Mexico was settled around 1323.

According to Aztec legend, the people settled on their new home when they received a vision of, and subsequently found, an eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its talons. This gave them the sign that they had reached the place they should be. This image is found on the national flag of Mexico to this day.

The place where the Aztecs settled was a marshy wasteland which the soon turned into one of the most magnificent cities of pre-Conquest America: Tenochtitlan, which at its height had over 200,000 inhabitants. It was built on the filled in marshes and featured stone pyramids, sumptuous palaces, and broad avenues. Many of the main streets of modern Mexico City follow the routes of these old avenues. The remains of Tenochtitlan are buried under the modern city, and artifacts and structures are routinely unearthed during construction to this day.

Aztec society was highly structured, with an upper class, priests, warriors, artisans, merchants, farmers, and peasants. The Aztecs also kept slaves, many of whom were captured in the frequent wars the Aztecs waged with their neighbors.

Many people think of human sacrifice when they think of the Aztecs. It is true that they practiced human sacrifice, and that the victims were often those captured in the wars. Aztec accounts speak of amazing numbers of sacrifices; one story tells of 84,000 killed in a single day! However, many contemporary historians believe that such large numbers were more boast than fact.

Much of Aztec religion and symbolism were borrowed from the Toltecs who occupied the area before they arrived. Aztec religion (including the practice of human sacrifice) was centered in an elaborate mythology that gave a high position to Huitzilopochtli, the Sun God who was also the God of War, and who gave them the vision that led them to Tenochtitlan. Aztecs believed in both a powerful force that permeated the world and the separate existence of their various gods and demons.

In 1519, Hernando Cortez arrived from Spain and, with his army and the help of two smallpox epidemics, was able to lay siege to the city and defeat the mighty Aztec Empire. By 1521, the Spanish had killed the emperor Moctezuma (sometimes spelled “Montezuma”), ravaged the treasures of the empire, and leveled Tenochtitlan to the ground, building Mexico City on the ruins.


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