A Day in the Life of an Aztec Midwife

A Day in the Life of an Aztec Midwife

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Join the Aztec midwife Xoquauhtli as she tends to her patients and honors the warrior goddess Teteoinnan at a festival ushering in the season of warfare.

The midwife Xoquauhtli has a difficult choice to make. She owes a debt to her patron Teteoinnan, the female warrior goddess at the center of the Aztec seasonal festival, who must be kept happy or she will bring bad luck. Xoquauhtli should participate in the festival today, but one of her patients could go into labor any minute. Kay Read outlines a day in the life of an Aztec midwife.

Lesson by Kay Read, directed by AIM Creative Studios.

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Women in Aztec civilization

Women in Aztec civilization shared some equal opportunities. Aztec civilization saw the rise of a military culture that was closed off to women and made their role complementary to men. The status of Aztec women in society was altered in the 15th century, when Spanish conquest forced European norms onto the indigenous culture. However, many pre-Columbian norms survived and their legacy still remains.

Aztec Daily Life

The Aztec daily life was quite simple. In fact, Aztec family life was very similar to many modern day cultures. For example, the husband was primarily responsible for supporting the family and the wife&rsquos role was to provide the family with clothing and food. As such, the Aztec daily life for many of the men was to farm or engage in craftwork. The female Aztec life, on the other hand, mainly consisted of weaving and cooking.

Most Aztec households included the husband and wife and their unmarried children. In addition, many of the husband&rsquos relatives lived with in the home. The Aztec daily life was filled with work. Every member of the household, including children, helped in the household. Many also created goods that could be used by the empire in trade for goods that were highly valued in the Aztec culture, such as Jaguar skins.

Education was important to the Aztec people. Fathers were responsible for educating the boys in the family until they reached the age of 10. After this age, the boys were educated in a school connected with a temple. These schools taught religion and provided military training. Girls sometimes attended these schools, as well. Otherwise, they stayed at home and learned household skills important to daily life from their mothers.

Aztec Daily Life Work & Trades

Aztecs specialised in a number of trades. The regular occupations included farming, hunting and fishing. However, other specialised trades existed which formed the bedrock of the Aztec culture. These included highly trained soldiers who served as warriors in the Empire’s battles, traders and merchants, doctors who could heal a whole range of health issues and specialised in the making of medicine, engineers and builders who helped create temples and other architecture of the Tenochtitlan city.

The secret life of a midwife: I feel like I work in a factory, not on a maternity ward

M y decision to become a midwife came from a deep-seated desire to care for others and a natural curiosity about pregnancy and birth. The idea of being the one to welcome new life into the world seemed idyllic and heartwarming.

Thirteen months after qualifying, I find myself in a position dreaded by most midwives. Notorious for its heavy workload and lack of staffing, the postnatal ward is my greatest challenge yet. It is mentally, emotionally and physically draining.

In the first few days of a new baby’s life, mothers will be encouraged to stay on the ward, to get them back on their feet and ready to go home, as well as providing a last opportunity to recognise any medical or social needs. It is an extremely special time for families and as a midwife it’s a great privilege to be a part of this. However, the role is not quite as it should be.

My day starts with a handover from the weary night staff. This involves getting a full run-down of each patient, what kind of birth they had, their medical history and what needs to be done for them that day. We split the workload between us, and as a young and relatively enthusiastic member of the team, I often get tasked with the most work.

Our ward is split into bays, with four beds in each. We are assigned two bays per midwife, totalling a maximum of eight women and eight babies. That’s 16 bodies under my care 16 bodies to be responsible for if something goes wrong. As the day goes on there’s lots to be done: monitoring first dirty nappies, supporting four-hourly feeds (by breast or bottle), vaccinations, checking blood test results and neonatal reviews, preparing paperwork, administering medication, organising discharge meetings – the list goes on.

Each of these things often relies on someone else, be it a stressed neonatal doctor who is on call and covering the whole hospital, an obstetrician trying to stabilise a sick patient, or a busy pharmacist processing medication. Each patient is a different number on each of these waiting lists, and I have to keep track of them all. Simultaneously, you can be guaranteed that each bed that you “empty” has the name of another patient already assigned to it, waiting to arrive from the labour ward.

Often I feel like I work in a factory, not on a maternity ward. The sheer volume of mothers and babies we see means the only way to cater for them all is to keep them moving through the process as quickly as possible. If the labour ward gets full of postnatal patients, the antenatal ward gets full of women in labour and the whole place gets backed up. So, as the last link in the chain the pressure is on you to work fast and clear the beds.

I often don’t take a break so that I don’t fall behind, and the harder you work, the more work you are given. Sadly, this comes at the expense of patients. I can get to the end of a 12-hour day, and realise that I’ve only actually seen and spoken to some mothers once. I’ve been so busy, with my head buried in the daily toil of the ward, that I haven’t had a chance to get to know them and really be there for them. This is not what I signed up for. I wanted to help, to make the experience of birth a memorable one.

As well as pressure from colleagues, you have the added pressure from families, who want to go home as soon as possible and all feel they should be at the top of the priority list. Some get very angry that I’ve kept them waiting. I think this is the worst thing about my job. I hate feeling like I’m letting them down, that I don’t care about their needs or have forgotten about them. I try not to succumb to this pressure because if you rush, you run the risk of missing something important.

Each day my aim is to make sure that every single mother and baby that leaves the hospital has everything they need to feel safe and well supported. It may not seem like it at the time but this single day of waiting will be a mere drop in the ocean of the rest of their life with their child. Weeks from now it will no longer matter.

But if I forget something it could have long-term consequences. Not long ago someone didn’t give a mother an important antibody injection she was sent home and refused to come back in to have it. Subsequently we had to send a midwife to her home to do it, leaving me and another midwife carrying the added weight of her workload. Had we not done this, her future pregnancies would have been at risk.

More often than not I feel lost in the system and struggling under the weight of a crumbling NHS. We keep begging for more staff but no one listens. The staff we do have are slowly abandoning ship. What I would do for another pair of hands so I could spend a bit more time helping a mother breastfeed for the first time or teach a new dad how to change a nappy. Most families are understanding and can see I’m doing my best.

I try to remain cheerful but have cried on many occasions because I can never please everyone. The time that I can spare I love to spend talking to the women and stealing the odd cuddle from a baby. The best part of my job is when you care for a woman who is clearly very anxious and scared, quite often after a traumatic birth, and after spending some time talking to her and supporting her, you manage to coax a smile.

The other day I was lucky enough to have an hour helping a woman express breast milk by hand for her premature baby. Afterwards she looked up at me and said: “I like you, I LOVE you! Thank you, this has made me so happy.” When someone says something like that you can’t help but beam with pride, to know that amid all the chaos you really have made a difference.

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Likened to precious jade stones and Quetzal feathers, the Aztecs valued their children incredibly. But although sons and daughters were held in high esteem, they had to earn the respect of their neighbours and society. How did their parents help them do this? Part 1 of 2 (Written by Julia Flood/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Nezahualpilli, Codex Ixtlilxochitl, fol. 108 (L) Aztec woman, Codex Tudela, fol. 02 (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec civilization was built on the hard work of its tribal ancestors who migrated to Tenochtitlan from Northern Mexico on a pilgrimage that took them hundreds of years. They went through countless hardships including hunger and war, to found a great empire that spread across Mexico and into Central America. Ever industrious, the Aztecs were careful to make their children understand the meaning of hard work and penance to the gods. By carrying out special rituals at birth and paying attention to the calendar, a mother and father could try to protect their child from danger. By teaching them skills at home and educating them at school, it was hoped they would learn diligence and enterprise. Good advice was showered on children so that they could hone their skills, become statesmen, priests or even take a stab at being a warrior!

Pic 2: Mother, child and soothsayer, Florentine Codex, Chapter VI (Click on image to enlarge)

Responsible from the day of birth
It was no easy thing to bring up an Aztec child. parents had to protect their souls from the forces of the universe! Responsible for their fate at the hands of the gods, parents had to make sure their child had a good horoscope. Born on a &lsquobad&rsquo day of the calendar, a girl or boy could be destined for destruction. It was the mother and father&rsquos responsibility to make sure the right people were employed to turn a bad lot into a great one. But, who could they trust to do this?

Pic 3: Florentine Codex, Book IV, Chapter XXXV (Click on image to enlarge)

The Soothsayer
When they were born, babies were seen by a priest or soothsayer, called a Tonalpouhqui. This priest was charged by the parents with an important mission: fixing the baby&rsquos naming ceremony on a day that would bring it good luck.
The Aztec lunar calendar was used, among many things, for divination and predicting a child&rsquos character traits, much like horoscopes are used now. Parents could find themselves in hot water if a child was born on an inauspicious day!
The image to the left (pic 3) is from the Florentine Codex. A Tonalpouhqui is advising the mother on the right day to name her baby. The presence of &lsquoscrolls&rsquo leaving his open mouth means that his words are important.

Pic 4: Some examples of the lunar cycle&rsquos terrible birthdays. (Click on image to enlarge)

Happy birthday to you. or not!
On the right (pic 4) is a picture of the Aztec Calendar Stone. One of its circles displays the 20 day signs used in Aztec calendars. The lunar calendar featured each day sign 13 times before completing its full cycle of 260 days. The day signs were combined into 20 periods, which we refer to as weeks or &lsquotrecenas&rsquo. Have a look at some examples of the lunar cycle&rsquos terrible birthdays!
&bull 9 Alligator (Chiconahui Cipactli)
Born under this sign, a man would sow discord, be rebellious and lie easily. He would tell everyone&rsquos secrets and live a life of poverty.
&bull 2 Rabbit (Ome Tochtli)
Someone predisposed to enjoying too much alcohol would be born under this sign! He would drink pulque , which is like a beer made from the Maguey plant.
&bull 1 Rain (Ce Quiahuitl)
This was a terrible sign in which Cihuateteo (the spirits of women who had died in labour) would descend to earth. No children were safe from these creatures. If caught by them, they would be struck down by terrible illnesses. New-borns were particularly vulnerable to their influence.
&bull 1 Jaguar (Ce Océlotl)
Any male child, of noble or common birth born under this sign was likely to become a captive of war. He might also have debts and need to sell himself into slavery. A woman might be adulterous and suffer death as a consequence.

Pic 5: Aztec midwife performing bathing ceremony, Codex Mendoza, fol. 57r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Midwife
Also a spiritual intermediary with priest-like powers, the midwife was asked into the home to deliver an expected baby. Once the soothsayer set a naming date, the midwife carried out a cleansing ceremony in which she rid the baby of impurities, thought to be passed on by its parents, by washing the mouth, head and chest. All the while, she commended the child to the gods, especially Chalchiuhtlicue (goddess of still waters), and Quetzalcoatl (feathered serpent).
Like her mother, a girl&rsquos life would be spent working at home, so her umbilical cord and a small spindle were buried under the house&rsquos metlatl, a corn grinding stone where women would make daily tortillas. A son, destined to try his luck as a warrior, had his cord buried beside a small shield and arrows on one of the battlefields where the Aztecs fought their enemies. The image on the left (pic 5) is from the Codex Mendoza, and shows the midwife performing the bathing ceremony with a newly born child. Above the bath is a boy&rsquos shield, and below, a girl&rsquos spindle. The mother (left) and midwife are using speech scrolls, which denotes their wisdom.

Pic 6: The Aztec &lsquostretching&rsquo ceremony, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

We&rsquove seen how parents needed the help of others in welcoming their babies into the world. However, their jobs as protectors would not end until their children married. Here are some examples of how mothers and fathers ensured the survival of their offspring.

Growing Up
The Aztecs worried about their babies&rsquo physical capacity to grow. Luckily, both lunar and solar calendars (260 and 365 days respectively) had festivals during which a parent could ensure that their child continued to flourish. Every four years, during the month of Izcalli (&lsquoThe Growing&rsquo), children were passed over a ceremonial flame and had their ears pierced. They then underwent the ceremony of Quinquechanaya (&lsquoThey Stretch Them By The Neck&rsquo), in which they were lifted by the head and their limbs stretched. On the lunar date of 4 Movement (Nahui Ollin), children&rsquos fingers, toes, legs, noses, necks and ears were also pulled in order to stimulate growth. (Find out more about Quinquechenaya and Nahui Ollin by following the link below.)

Pic 7: An old man featured in the Codex Mendoza, fol.71r (Click on image to enlarge)

It&rsquos all in the eyes.
It was also thought amongst the Aztecs and Maya Tzotzils that a person&rsquos shadow acquired power over time. Therefore, young children were particularly vulnerable to the power of older people. Parents had to make sure that their children&rsquos delicate constitutions would not be harmed by the direct gaze of an aged person!

A Parent&rsquos Advice
Historians of Aztec culture are able to identify two crucial texts that talk about parents&rsquo involvement in their children&rsquos education. These are the Florentine Codex and the Codex Mendoza, written in the sixteenth century. Both resources are different, as the Florentine Codex talks about how high-born Aztec children (pipiltin) were brought up, and the Codex Mendoza guides us through the childhoods of commoners (macehualtin). This following section allows us to see what parents of both classes taught their children.

Pic 8: Codex Mendoza, fol.58r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Pain and suffering: a parent&rsquos vision of life.
When speaking to their children, parents took pains to impress upon them the great hardships and dangers of the world. The world held no true pleasure and knew no rest. Instead, it produced work, conflict, and tiredness. For this reason, both macehualtin and pipltin alike had to work hard to contribute to their family&rsquos good reputation and income. The image right (pic 8) from the Codex Mendoza shows Aztec parents telling their children how to carry out their chores. As we can see from the image, the boys (left) are carrying loads, whilst the daughter watches her mother use a spindle. Here, they are only five years old! You can tell this from the five turquoise circles above them.

Pic 9: Codex Mendoza, fol.60r (details) (Click on image to enlarge)

The next image (Codex Mendoza, fol.60r) demonstrates just how seriously household activities and labour were to the family. Blue speech scrolls come out of the parents&rsquo mouths as they tick off their children for not working properly by holding them over the acrid smoke produced by burned chillies (pic 9, top). We can see how the parents&rsquo strictness pays off because by the time they are 14 the children are able to carry out complex chores on their own, like weaving and fishing (see pic 9, bottom).

Pic 10: Women preparing food. Florentine Codex, Book IV, fol.69v (Click on image to enlarge)

Although they also had to contribute to the upkeep of family lands and domestic chores, pipiltin, nobles, were expected to learn special arts during their youths. For boys, feather working was one of various crafts considered to be appropriate, whilst girls were able to pursue excellence in the weaving of fine cloth and cooking. A special type of food preparation was produced by noblewomen alone. It was called &lsquodelicate food&rsquo and was fit only for the mouths of the privileged. Noblewomen also learnt the skill of making the bitter chocolate drink, Xocoatl. The excerpt below, shows a father telling his son about the qualities noblemen must have:-

Pic 11: Father advising his son, Florentine Codex, Book VI, Chapter 20 (Click on image to enlarge)

And who art though? Thou art of noble lineage thou art one&rsquos hair, thou art one&rsquos fingernail thou art a ruler&rsquos son, thou art a palace nobleman, thou art a precious one, thou art a nobleman thou art to go raising this, holding this before thy gaze. Note that the humbling, the bowing, the inkling, the weeping, the tears, the sighing, the meekness &ndash these same are nobility, the estimable, the valued: these are honour. Note that no brazen one, no vain one, no dissolute or, as it is said, shameless one hath become ruler. And no inconsiderate one, no impetuous one, no hasty one, no one untrustworthy with secrets, no rash one hath become ruler, hath been in the rulership.
Book VI of the Florentine Codex.

Pic 12: An Aztec mother makes her daughter sweep the house as a punishment during the night. Codex Mendoza, folio 60r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Prayer and worship
Sons and daughters in all Aztec households, low and high, prayed regularly. Small religious rituals were often undertaken at midnight or the early hours of the morning where youths adorned, offered incense and small sacrifices to the household altars. By doing this, youngsters knew that they would be favoured by the gods and probably receive good fortune.

Other sacred activities involved fixing petates or grass mats, cleaning the house and keeping the body in good shape. The Aztecs regularly cleansed themselves both physically and spiritually by washing. Women had the added task of washing their mouths out.

A broom can go a long way!
Do you dread having to sweep the house regularly? It may not be as mundane a task as you think!
Noble Aztec parents instructed their children in the purifying, religious act of sweeping from a very early age. Sweeping was thought to cleanse sacred spaces and bring people closer to the gods. By completing this ritual act early in the morning, youths showed their piety and humility. Sweeping held an important place in Aztec national history, too. The mother of their patron god Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue, was impregnated with her son while ritually sweeping in her home, the mythical mountain of Coatépec.

Pic 13: Calmecac scene, from the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec parents sent their children to school
Whilst the Codex Mendoza indicates that children entered school at age 15, other sources such as the Florentine Codex allude to children aged only four being admitted to school. This disparity in information may be down to the different types of schools open to nobles and commoners.
These institutions were called Calmecacs, religious temple-schools for noble children, and Telpochcaltin (sing. Telpochcalli) local schools for normal youths. Whatever the age of schooling, once old enough to commence spiritual and religious activities, youths experienced a ritual which allowed them to enter formal education and be of service to the wider community. During this ritual, boys had a lip plug (tétetl) inserted, and girls had small cuts made by an obsidian blade on their hips and chests (Austin, p.234). Above (pic 13), we can see a seated father (left) handing over his children to a priest of the Calmecac (upper right), and a warrior who runs the Cuicacalli (Song House - part of the Telpochcalli).

Now we know how much care Aztec parents invested in their children, part 2 of this series will investigate the Aztec approach to education and the philosophy behind public education.

&bull Acosta, José de. Natural and Moral History of the Indies . USA: Duke University Press, 2002.
&bull León Portilla, Miguel. De Teotihuacan a los Aztecas . Mexico, D.F.: UNAM, 1983.
&bull López Austin, Alfredo. Cuerpo humano e ideología : Mexico D.F.: UNAM, 2004.
&bull Sahagún, Fray Bernadino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España . Prologue by Angel María Garibay, 6th edición. Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Porrúa, 1985.
&bull Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs . 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.
&bull Soustelle, Jacques, The daily life of the Aztecs on the eve of the Spanish conquest . London: Phoenix Press, 2002.
&bull Codex Ixtlilxochitl, Codex Mendoza, Codex Tudela, Florentine Codex.

Main picture: Florentine Codex, Book VI, scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 06th 2013

A Day in the Life of an Aztec Midwife - History

The lives of Aztec children are fascinating in many respects. To understand how children fit into Aztec culture, and how they were honoured, we should go right back to the beginning. even before the children were born.


Since warfare was glorified by the Aztecs, it was even used to symbolize childbirth. The baby was a "captive" in the womb, struggling to enter the world. Women who died in childbirth were glorified similarly to warriors who died in the battlefield and honored for their courageous efforts.

A hymn for a new child sung to the goddess of childbirth, found in the Codex Florentino, said:

Down there, where Ayopechcatl lives, the jewel is born, a child has come into the world.
It is down there, in her own place, that the children are born.
Come, come here, new-born child, come here.
Come, come here, jewel-child, come here.

A soothsayer then came to the home of the newly born child to study the astrological significance of the child's birth, down to the exact day and minute of the child's entrance into the world. A birth was followed by rituals and lots of celebrating.

Aztec children and their Parents

All of the evidence is that Aztec parents loved their children deeply. We know of one recorded instance of a father saying to his boy, "Nopiltze, nocuzque, noquetzale", which translates into "Sweet son, my jewel, my precious feather".

However, in matters of discipline, both parents ruled over their Aztec children with a firm hand. Until a child was eight, it seems that the preferred disciplinary action was just a verbal scolding. Aztec children were raised with care by their parents, who made certain that their children knew their responsibilities and had command over the society's needed life skills.

Each child was warned against gambling, gossiping, thieving, and drunkenness.

When older children were bad, they could have a painful punishment. It's known that one of these punishments could take the form of parents holding a child over a chili pepper fire where they forced them to inhale chili pepper smoke, which burned their eyes, sinuses, mouths, and lips.

Chores and school

All older children were expected to help with chores around the house and in the garden in addition to attending school.

The Macehualtin--the class of merchants, peasants, and artisans--children went to a local school known as the telpochcalli where they were taught basic, elemental occupational skills, basics of warfare, civics, and elemental history and religion. Boys and girls attended different schools.

Some Macehualtin children who were gifted and talented got sent to a calmecac. The calmecac was also where children of noble birth, the Pilli, went to school and it was run by priests who taught government and the all-important religious concepts. At the calmecac students also learned Aztec history, astronomy, letters, and poetry.

Boys went to the calmecac when they reached age 15. If they did not attend this school, then they went to the cuicacalli, which was a junior military academy. All of the boys were trained in war and there was heated rivalry between different academies that often led to fights. While there were several professions open to non-working-class men, including priest, bureaucrat, and doctor, the life of a warrior won the most glory.

Aztec girls received more home schooling than boys. They began learning to weave at age four and to cook at age 12. Female education was more or less preparation for marriage, but noble girls spent a year when they were 12 or 13 attending the priestesses in the temple some would go on to become professional priestesses.

Women had little direct influence in public affairs and politics, but in private affairs, it was a different story altogether. Although men were the official heads of households, women often ran businesses out of the house, and they had to be especially good at the administration of household finances if they were noble, since the men would often be away as warriors, running affairs of state, or making house calls as doctors.

Games and song

Aztec children played with marbles, stones, and the bow and arrow. When they became teenagers, they might play Ullamaliztli--the legendary Aztec ball game--and the board game Patolli. Learn more about games for Aztec children

Aztec children also learned the deep importance of music, which permeated the entire culture. Children would practice musical instruments both at home and in school, and between the ages of 12 and 15 they would learn many important Aztec national songs.


The teenage years were also marriage years for females, although the males they married were usually in their 20s.

In many respects, the lives of Aztec children mirrored our own children's today. But you might notice some differences, for better or for worse, in national pride, parental disciple, and a sense of individual responsibility.

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The word "Aztec" in modern usage would not have been used by the people themselves. It has variously been used to refer to the Triple Alliance empire, the Nahuatl-speaking people of central Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest, or specifically the Mexica ethnicity of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples. [6] The name comes from a Nahuatl word meaning "people from Aztlan," reflecting the mythical place of origin for Nahua peoples. [7] For the purpose of this article, "Aztec" refers only to those cities that constituted or were subject to the Triple Alliance. For the broader use of the term, see the article on Aztec civilization.

Before the Aztec Empire

Nahua peoples descended from Chichimec peoples who migrated to central Mexico from the north in the early 13th century. [8] The migration story of the Mexica is similar to those of other polities in central Mexico, with supernatural sites, individuals, and events, joining earthly and divine history as they sought political legitimacy. [9] According to the pictographic codices in which the Aztecs recorded their history, the place of origin was called Aztlán. Early migrants settled the Basin of Mexico and surrounding lands by establishing a series of independent city-states. These early Nahua city-states or altepetl, were ruled by dynastic heads called tlahtohqueh (singular, tlatoāni). Most of the existing settlements had been established by other indigenous peoples before the Mexica migration. [10]

These early city-states fought various small-scale wars with each other, but due to shifting alliances, no individual city gained dominance. [11] The Mexica were the last of the Nahua migrants to arrive in Central Mexico. They entered the Basin of Mexico around the year 1250, and by then most of the good agricultural land had already been claimed. [12] The Mexica persuaded the king of Culhuacan, a small city-state but important historically as a refuge of the Toltecs, to allow them to settle in a relatively infertile patch of land called Chapultepec (Chapoltepēc, "in the hill of grasshoppers"). The Mexica served as mercenaries for Culhuacan. [13]

After the Mexica served Culhuacan in battle, the ruler appointed one of his daughters to rule over the Mexica. According to mythological native accounts, the Mexica instead sacrificed her by flaying her skin, on the command of their god Xipe Totec. [14] When the ruler of Culhuacan learned of this, he attacked and used his army to drive the Mexica from Tizaapan by force. The Mexica moved to an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where an eagle nested on a nopal cactus. The Mexica interpreted this as a sign from their gods and founded their new city, Tenochtitlan, on this island in the year ōme calli, or "Two House" (1325 AD). [3]

Aztec warfare

The Mexica rose to prominence as fierce warriors and were able to establish themselves as a military power. The importance of warriors and the integral nature of warfare in Mexica political and religious life helped propel them to emerge as the dominant military power prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1519.

The new Mexica city-state allied with the city of Azcapotzalco and paid tribute to its ruler, Tezozomoc. [15] With Mexica assistance, Azcopotzalco began to expand into a small tributary empire. Until this point, the Mexica ruler was not recognized as a legitimate king. Mexica leaders successfully petitioned one of the kings of Culhuacan to provide a daughter to marry into the Mexica line. Their son, Acamapichtli, was enthroned as the first tlatoani of Tenochtitlan in the year 1372. [16]

While the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco expanded their rule with help from the Mexica, the Acolhua city of Texcoco grew in power in the eastern portion of the lake basin. Eventually, war erupted between the two states, and the Mexica played a vital role in the conquest of Texcoco. By then, Tenochtitlan had grown into a major city and was rewarded for its loyalty to the Tepanecs by receiving Texcoco as a tributary province. [17]

Mexica warfare, from its tactics to arms, was marked by a focus on capturing enemies rather than killing them. Capturing enemies was important for religious ritual and provided a means by which soldiers could distinguish themselves during campaigns. [18]

Tepanec War

In 1426, the Tepanec king Tezozomoc died, [19] [20] [21] and the resulting succession crisis precipitated a civil war between potential successors. [17] The Mexica supported Tezozomoc's preferred heir, Tayahauh, who was initially enthroned as king. But his son, Maxtla, soon usurped the throne and turned against factions that opposed him, including the Mexica ruler Chimalpopoca. The latter died shortly thereafter, possibly assassinated by Maxtla. [12]

The new Mexica ruler Itzcoatl continued to defy Maxtla he blockaded Tenochtitlan and demanded increased tribute payments. [22] Maxtla similarly turned against the Acolhua, and the king of Texcoco, Nezahualcoyotl, fled into exile. Nezahualcoyotl recruited military help from the king of Huexotzinco, and the Mexica gained the support of a dissident Tepanec city, Tlacopan. In 1427, Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, Tlacopan, and Huexotzinco went to war against Azcapotzalco, emerging victorious in 1428. [22]

After the war, Huexotzinco withdrew, and in 1430, [1] the three remaining cities formed a treaty known today as the Triple Alliance. [22] The Tepanec lands were carved up among the three cities, whose leaders agreed to cooperate in future wars of conquest. Land acquired from these conquests was to be held by the three cities together. Tribute was to be divided so that two-fifths each went to Tenochtitlan and Texcoco, and one-fifth went to Tlacopan. Each of the three kings of the alliance in turn assumed the title "huetlatoani" ("Elder Speaker", often translated as "Emperor"). In this role, each temporarily held a de jure position above the rulers of other city-states ("tlatoani"). [23]

In the next 100 years, the Triple Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan came to dominate the Valley of Mexico and extend its power to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Tenochtitlan gradually became the dominant power in the alliance. Two of the primary architects of this alliance were the half-brothers Tlacaelel and Moctezuma, nephews of Itzcoatl. Moctezuma eventually succeeded Itzcoatl as the Mexica huetlatoani in 1440. Tlacaelel occupied the newly created title of "Cihuacoatl", equivalent to something between "Prime Minister" and "Viceroy". [22] [24]

Imperial reforms

Shortly after the formation of the Triple Alliance, Itzcoatl and Tlacopan instigated sweeping reforms on the Aztec state and religion. It has been alleged that Tlacaelel ordered the burning of some or most of the extant Aztec books, claiming that they contained lies and that it was "not wise that all the people should know the paintings". [25] Even if he did order such book-burnings, it was probably limited primarily to documents containing political propaganda from previous regimes he thereafter rewrote the history of the Aztecs, naturally placing the Mexica in a more central role. [ citation needed ]

After Moctezuma I succeeded Itzcoatl as the Mexica emperor, more reforms were instigated to maintain control over conquered cities. [26] Uncooperative kings were replaced with puppet rulers loyal to the Mexica. A new imperial tribute system established Mexica tribute collectors that taxed the population directly, bypassing the authority of local dynasties. Nezahualcoyotl also instituted a policy in the Acolhua lands of granting subject kings tributary holdings in lands far from their capitals. [27] This was done to create an incentive for cooperation with the empire if a city's king rebelled, he lost the tribute he received from foreign land. Some rebellious kings were replaced by calpixqueh, or appointed governors rather than dynastic rulers. [27]

Moctezuma issued new laws that further separated nobles from commoners and instituted the death penalty for adultery and other offenses. [28] By royal decree, a religiously supervised school was built in every neighborhood. [28] Commoner neighborhoods had a school called a "telpochcalli" where they received basic religious instruction and military training. [29] A second, more prestigious type of school called a "calmecac" served to teach the nobility, as well as commoners of high standing seeking to become priests or artisans. Moctezuma also created a new title called "quauhpilli" that could be conferred on commoners. [26] This title was a form of non-hereditary lesser nobility awarded for outstanding military or civil service (similar to the English knight). In some rare cases, commoners that received this title married into royal families and became kings. [27]

One component of this reform was the creation of an institution of regulated warfare called the Flower Wars. Mesoamerican warfare overall is characterized by a strong preference for capturing live prisoners as opposed to slaughtering the enemy on the battlefield, which was considered sloppy and gratuitous. The Flower Wars are a potent manifestation of this approach to warfare. These highly ritualized wars ensured a steady, healthy supply of experienced Aztec warriors as well as a steady, healthy supply of captured enemy warriors for sacrifice to the gods. Flower wars were pre-arranged by officials on both sides and conducted specifically for the purpose of each polity collecting prisoners for sacrifice. [18] [30] According to native historical accounts, these wars were instigated by Tlacaelel as a means of appeasing the gods in response to a massive drought that gripped the Basin of Mexico from 1450 to 1454. [31] The flower wars were mostly waged between the Aztec Empire and the neighboring cities of their arch-enemy Tlaxcala.

Early years of expansion

After the defeat of the Tepanecs, Itzcoatl and Nezahualcoyotl rapidly consolidated power in the Basin of Mexico and began to expand beyond its borders. The first targets for imperial expansion were Coyoacan in the Basin of Mexico and Cuauhnahuac and Huaxtepec in the modern Mexican state of Morelos. [33] These conquests provided the new empire with a large influx of tribute, especially agricultural goods.

On the death of Itzcoatl, Moctezuma I was enthroned as the new Mexica emperor. The expansion of the empire was briefly halted by a major four-year drought that hit the Basin of Mexico in 1450, and several cities in Morelos had to be re-conquered after the drought subsided. [34] Moctezuma and Nezahualcoyotl continued to expand the empire east towards the Gulf of Mexico and south into Oaxaca. In 1468, Moctezuma I died and was succeeded by his son, Axayacatl. Most of Axayacatl's thirteen-year-reign was spent consolidating the territory acquired under his predecessor. Motecuzoma and Nezahualcoyotl had expanded rapidly and many provinces rebelled. [12]

At the same time as the Aztec Empire was expanding and consolidating power, the Purépecha Empire in West Mexico was similarly expanding. In 1455, the Purépecha under their king Tzitzipandaquare had invaded the Toluca Valley, claiming lands previously conquered by Motecuzoma and Itzcoatl. [35] In 1472, Axayacatl re-conquered the region and successfully defended it from Purépecha attempts to take it back. In 1479, Axayacatl launched a major invasion of the Purépecha Empire with 32,000 Aztec soldiers. [35] The Purépecha met them just across the border with 50,000 soldiers and scored a resounding victory, killing or capturing over 90% of the Aztec army. Axayacatl himself was wounded in the battle, retreated to Tenochtitlan, and never engaged the Purépecha in battle again. [36]

In 1472, Nezahualcoyotl died and his son Nezahualpilli was enthroned as the new huetlatoani of Texcoco. [37] This was followed by the death of Axayacatl in 1481. [36] Axayacatl was replaced by his brother Tizoc. Tizoc's reign was notoriously brief. He proved to be ineffectual and did not significantly expand the empire. Apparently due to his incompetence, Tizoc was likely assassinated by his own nobles five years into his rule. [36]

Later years of expansion

Tizoc was succeeded by his brother Ahuitzotl in 1486. Like his predecessors, the first part of Ahuitzotl's reign was spent suppressing rebellions that were commonplace due to the indirect nature of Aztec rule. [36] Ahuitzotl then began a new wave of conquests including the Oaxaca Valley and the Soconusco Coast. Due to increased border skirmishes with the Purépechas, Ahuitzotl conquered the border city of Otzoma and turned the city into a military outpost. [38] The population of Otzoma was either killed or dispersed in the process. [35] The Purépecha subsequently established fortresses nearby to protect against Aztec expansion. [35] Ahuitzotl responded by expanding further west to the Pacific Coast of Guerrero.

By the reign of Ahuitzotl, the Mexica were the largest and most powerful faction in the Aztec Triple Alliance. [39] Building on the prestige the Mexica had acquired over the course of the conquests, Ahuitzotl began to use the title "huehuetlatoani" ("Eldest Speaker") to distinguish himself from the rulers of Texcoco and Tlacopan. [36] Even though the alliance still technically ran the empire, the Mexica Emperor now assumed nominal if not actual seniority.

Ahuitzotl was succeeded by his nephew Moctezuzoma II in 1502. Moctezuma II spent most of his reign consolidating power in lands conquered by his predecessors. [38] In 1515, Aztec armies commanded by the Tlaxcalan general Tlahuicole invaded the Purépecha Empire once again. [40] The Aztec army failed to take any territory and was mostly restricted to raiding. The Purépechas defeated them and the army withdrew.

Moctezuma II instituted more imperial reforms. [38] After the death of Nezahualcoyotl, the Mexica Emperors had become the de facto rulers of the alliance. Moctezuma II used his reign to attempt to consolidate power more closely with the Mexica Emperor. [41] He removed many of Ahuitzotl's advisors and had several of them executed. [38] He also abolished the "quauhpilli" class, destroying the chance for commoners to advance to the nobility. His reform efforts were cut short by the Spanish Conquest in 1519.

Spanish conquest

Spanish expedition leader Hernán Cortés landed in Yucatán in 1519 with approximately 630 men (most armed with only a sword and shield). Cortés had actually been removed as the expedition's commander by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez, but had stolen the boats and left without permission. [42] At the island of Cozumel, Cortés encountered a shipwrecked Spaniard named Gerónimo de Aguilar who joined the expedition and translated between Spanish and Mayan. The expedition then sailed west to Campeche, where after a brief battle with the local army, Cortés was able to negotiate peace through his interpreter, Aguilar. The King of Campeche gave Cortés a second translator, a bilingual Nahua-Maya slave woman named La Malinche (she was known also as Malinalli [maliˈnalːi], Malintzin [maˈlintsin] or Doña Marina [ˈdoɲa maˈɾina] ). Aguilar translated from Spanish to Mayan and La Malinche translated from Mayan to Nahuatl. Once Malinche learned Spanish, she became Cortés's translator for both language and culture, and was a key figure in interactions with Nahua rulers. An important article, "Rethinking Malinche" by Frances Karttunen examines her role in the conquest and beyond. [43]

Cortés then sailed from Campeche to Cempoala, a tributary province of the Aztec Triple Alliance. Nearby, he founded the town of Veracruz where he met with ambassadors from the reigning Mexica emperor, Motecuzoma II. When the ambassadors returned to Tenochtitlan, Cortés went to Cempoala to meet with the local Totonac leaders. After the Totonac ruler told Cortés of his various grievances against the Mexica, Cortés convinced the Totonacs to imprison an imperial tribute collector. [44] Cortés subsequently released the tribute collector after persuading him that the move was entirely the Totonac's idea and that he had no knowledge of it. Having effectively declared war on the Aztecs, the Totonacs provided Cortés with 20 companies of soldiers for his march to Tlaxcala. [45] At this time several of Cortés's soldiers attempted to mutiny. When Cortés discovered the plot, he had his ships scuttled and sank them in the harbor to remove any possibility of escaping to Cuba. [46]

The Spanish-led Totonac army crossed into Tlaxcala to seek the latter's alliance against the Aztecs. However, the Tlaxcalan general Xicotencatl the Younger believed them to be hostile, and attacked. After fighting several close battles, Cortés eventually convinced the leaders of Tlaxcala to order their general to stand down. Cortés then secured an alliance with the people of Tlaxcala, and traveled from there to the Basin of Mexico with a smaller company of 5,000-6,000 Tlaxcalans and 400 Totonacs, in addition to the Spanish soldiers. [46] During his stay in the city of Cholula, Cortés claims he received word of a planned ambush against the Spanish. [46] In a pre-emptive response, Cortés directed his troops attack and kill a large number of unarmed Cholulans gathered in the main square of the city.

Following the massacre at Cholula, Hernan Cortés and the other Spaniards entered Tenochtitlan, where they were greeted as guests and given quarters in the palace of former emperor Axayacatl. [47] After staying in the city for six weeks, two Spaniards from the group left behind in Veracruz were killed in an altercation with an Aztec lord named Quetzalpopoca. Cortés claims that he used this incident as an excuse to take Motecuzoma prisoner under threat of force. [46] For several months, Motecuzoma continued to run the kingdom as a prisoner of Hernan Cortés. Then, in 1520, a second, larger Spanish expedition arrived under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez sent by Diego Velásquez with the goal of arresting Cortés for treason. Before confronting Narváez, Cortés secretly persuaded Narváez's lieutenants to betray him and join Cortés. [46]

While Cortés was away from Tenochtitlan dealing with Narváez, his second in command Pedro de Alvarado massacred a group of Aztec nobility in response to a ritual of human sacrifice honoring Huitzilopochtli. [46] The Aztecs retaliated by attacking the palace where the Spanish were quartered. Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan and fought his way to the palace. He then took Motecuzoma up to the roof of the palace to ask his subjects to stand down. However, by this point the ruling council of Tenochtitlan had voted to depose Motecuzoma and had elected his brother Cuitlahuac as the new emperor. [47] One of the Aztec soldiers struck Motecuzoma in the head with a sling stone, and he died several days later – although the exact details of his death, particularly who was responsible, are unclear. [47]

The Spaniards and their allies, realizing they were vulnerable to the hostile Mexica in Tenochtitlan following Moctezuma's death, attempted to retreat without detection in what is known as the "Sad Night" or La Noche Triste. Spaniards and their Indian allies were discovered clandestinely retreating, and then were forced to fight their way out of the city, with heavy loss of life. Some Spaniards lost their lives by drowning, loaded down with gold. [48] They retreated to Tlacopan (now Tacuba) and made their way to Tlaxcala, where they recovered and prepared for the second, successful assault on Tenochtitlan. After this incident, a smallpox outbreak hit Tenochtitlan. As the indigenous of the New World had no previous exposure to smallpox, this outbreak alone killed more than 50% of the region's population, including the emperor, Cuitláhuac. [49] While the new emperor Cuauhtémoc dealt with the smallpox outbreak, Cortés raised an army of Tlaxcalans, Texcocans, Totonacs, and others discontent with Aztec rule. With a combined army of up to 100,000 warriors, [46] the overwhelming majority of which were indigenous rather than Spanish, Cortés marched back into the Basin of Mexico. Through numerous subsequent battles and skirmishes, he captured the various indigenous city-states or altepetl around the lake shore and surrounding mountains, including the other capitals of the Triple Alliance, Tlacopan and Texcoco. Texcoco in fact had already become firm allies of the Spaniards and the city-state, and subsequently petitioned the Spanish crown for recognition of their services in the conquest, just as Tlaxcala had done. [50]

Using boats constructed in Texcoco from parts salvaged from the scuttled ships, Cortés blockaded and laid siege to Tenochtitlan for a period of several months. [46] Eventually, the Spanish-led army assaulted the city both by boat and using the elevated causeways connecting it to the mainland. Although the attackers took heavy casualties, the Aztecs were ultimately defeated. The city of Tenochtitlan was thoroughly destroyed in the process. Cuauhtémoc was captured as he attempted to flee the city. Cortés kept him prisoner and tortured him for a period of several years before finally executing him in 1525. [51]

The Aztec Empire was an example of an empire that ruled by indirect means. Like most European empires, it was ethnically very diverse, but unlike most European empires, it was more a system of tributes than a single unitary form of government. In the theoretical framework of imperial systems posited by American historian Alexander J. Motyl the Aztec empire was an informal type of empire in that the Alliance did not claim supreme authority over its tributary provinces it merely expected tributes to be paid. [52] The empire was also territorially discontinuous, i.e. not all of its dominated territories were connected by land. For example, the southern peripheral zones of Xoconochco were not in immediate contact with the central part of the empire. The hegemonic nature of the Aztec empire can be seen in the fact that generally local rulers were restored to their positions once their city-state was conquered and the Aztecs did not interfere in local affairs as long as the tribute payments were made. [53]

Although the form of government is often referred to as an empire, in fact most areas within the empire were organized as city-states (individually known as altepetl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs). These were small polities ruled by a king or tlatoani (literally "speaker", plural tlatoque) from an aristocratic dynasty. The Early Aztec period was a time of growth and competition among altepeme. Even after the empire was formed in 1428 and began its program of expansion through conquest, the altepetl remained the dominant form of organization at the local level. The efficient role of the altepetl as a regional political unit was largely responsible for the success of the empire's hegemonic form of control. [54]

It should be remembered that the term "Aztec empire" is a modern one, not one used by the Aztec themselves. The Aztec realm was at its core composed of three Nahuatl-speaking city states in the densely populated Valley of Mexico. Over time, asymmetries of power elevated one of those city states, Tenochtitlan, above the other two. The "Triple Alliance" came to establish hegemony over much of central Mesoamerica, including areas of great linguistic and cultural diversity. Administration of the empire was performed through largely traditional, indirect means. However, over time something of a nascent bureaucracy may have been beginning to form insofar as the state organization became increasingly centralized.

Central administration

Before the reign of Nezahualcoyotl (1429–1472), the Aztec empire operated as a confederation along traditional Mesoamerican lines. Independent altepetl were led by tlatoani (lit., "speakers"), who supervised village headmen, who in turn supervised groups of households. A typical Mesoamerican confederation placed a Huey Tlatoani (lit., "great speaker") at the head of several tlatoani. Following Nezahualcoyotl, the Aztec empire followed a somewhat divergent path, with some tlatoani of recently conquered or otherwise subordinated altepetl becoming replaced with calpixque stewards charged with collecting tribute on behalf of the Huetlatoani rather than simply replacing an old tlatoque with new ones from the same set of local nobility. [55]

Yet the Huey tlatoani was not the sole executive. It was the responsibility of the Huey tlatoani to deal with the external issues of empire the management of tribute, war, diplomacy, and expansion were all under the purview of the Huey tlatoani. It was the role of the Cihuacoatl to govern a given city itself. The Cihuacoatl was always a close relative of the Huey tlatoani Tlacaelel, for example, was the brother of Moctezuma I. Both the title "Cihuacoatl", which means "female snake" (it is the name of a Nahua deity), and the role of the position, somewhat analogous to a European Viceroy or Prime Minister, reflect the dualistic nature of Nahua cosmology. Neither the position of Cihuacoatl nor the position of Huetlatoani were priestly, yet both did have important ritual tasks. Those of the former were associated with the "female" wet season, those of the latter with the "male" dry season. While the position of Cihuacoatl is best attested in Tenochtitlan, it is known that the position also existed the nearby altepetl of Azcapotzalco, Culhuacan, and Tenochtitlan's ally Texcoco. Despite the apparent lesser status of the position, a Cihuacoatl could prove both influential and powerful, as in the case of Tlacaelel. [56] [57]

Early in the history of the empire, Tenochtitlan developed a four-member military and advisory Council which assisted the Huey tlatoani in his decision-making: the tlacochcalcatl the tlaccatecatl the ezhuahuacatl [58] and the tlillancalqui. This design not only provided advise for the ruler, it also served to contain ambition on the part of the nobility, as henceforth Huey Tlatoani could only be selected from the Council. Moreover, the actions of any one member of the Council could easily be blocked by the other three, providing a simple system of checks on the ambition higher officials. These four Council members were also generals, members of various military societies. The ranks of the members were not equal, with the tlacochcalcatl and tlaccatecatl having a higher status than the others. These two Councillors were members of the two most prestigious military societies, the cuauhchique ("shorn ones") and the otontin ("Otomies"). [59] [60]

Provincial administration

Traditionally, provinces and altepetl were governed by hereditary tlatoani. As the empire grew, the system evolved further and some tlatoani were replaced by other officials. The other officials had similar authority to tlatoani. As has already been mentioned, directly appointed stewards (singular calpixqui, plural calpixque) were sometimes imposed on altepetl instead of the selection of provincial nobility to the same position of tlatoani. At the height of empire, the organization of the state into tributary and strategic provinces saw an elaboration of this system. The 38 tributary provinces fell under the supervision of high stewards, or huecalpixque, whose authority extended over the lower-ranking calpixque. These calpixque and huecalpixque were essentially managers of the provincial tribute system which was overseen and coordinated in the paramount capital of Tenochtitlan not by the huetlatoani, but rather by a separate position altogether: the petlacalcatl. On the occasion that a recently conquered altepetl was seen as particularly restive, a military governor, or cuauhtlatoani, was placed at the head of provincial supervision. [61] During the reign of Moctezuma I, the calpixque system was elaborated, with two calpixque assigned per tributary province. One was stationed in the province itself, perhaps for supervising the collection of tribute, and the other in Tenochtitlan, perhaps for supervising storage of tribute. Tribute was drawn from commoners, the macehualtin, and distributed to the nobility, be they 'kings' (tlatoque), lesser rulers (teteuctin), or provincial nobility (pipiltin). [62]

Tribute collection was supervised by the above officials and relied upon the coercive power of the Aztec military, but also upon the cooperation of the pipiltin (the local nobility who were themselves exempt from and recipient to tribute) and the hereditary class of merchants known as pochteca. These pochteca had various gradations of ranks which granted them certain trading rights and so were not necessarily pipiltin themselves, yet they played an important role in both the growth and administration of the Aztec tributary system nonetheless. The power, political and economic, of the pochteca was strongly tied to the political and military power of the Aztec nobility and state. In addition to serving as diplomats (teucnenenque, or "travelers of the lord") and spies in the prelude to conquest, higher-ranking pochteca also served as judges in market plazas and were to certain degree autonomous corporate groups, having administrative duties within their own estate. [63] [64]

Schematic of hierarchy

  • Huetlatoani, the paramount or external ruler
  • Cihuacoatl, the lesser or internal ruler
  • Council of Four, an advisory body of generals and source of future Huetlatoani
    • Tlacochcalcatl
    • Tlacateccatl
    • Ezhuahuacatl[58]
    • Tlillancalqui
    • Military societies
      • Cuachicqueh, or Shorn Ones
      • Cuāuhtli, or Eagle Knights
      • Ocēlōmeh, or Jaguar Warriors
      • Otōntin, or Otomies
      • Petlacalcatl, central head of tribute
      • Huecalpixque, provincial overseers of tribute
      • Calpixque, pairs of tribute administrators
      • Supreme Court
      • Special Courts
      • Appellate Courts
      • Pochteca Courts
        • Pochteca agents
        • Tlatoani, a subordinate ruler of a province, otherwise ruled by a:
        • Cuauhtlatoani, a military governor
        • Heads of Calpōlli wards
          • Heads of households within calpōlli wards who served as corvée labor

          Provincial structure

          Originally, the Aztec empire was a loose alliance between three cities: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and the most junior partner, Tlacopan. As such, they were known as the 'Triple Alliance.' This political form was very common in Mesoamerica, where alliances of city-states were ever fluctuating. However, over time, it was Tenochtitlan which assumed paramount authority in the alliance, and although each partner city shared spoils of war and rights to regular tribute from the provinces and were governed by their own Huetlatoani, it was Tenochtitlan which became the largest, most powerful, and most influential of the three cities. It was the de facto and acknowledged center of empire. [65]

          Though they were not described by the Aztec this way, there were essentially two types of provinces: Tributary and Strategic. Strategic provinces were essentially subordinate client states which provided tribute or aid to the Aztec state under "mutual consent". Tributary provinces, on the other hand, provided regular tribute to the empire obligations on the part of Tributary provinces were mandatory rather than consensual. [66] [67]

          • Atotonilco de Pedraza
          • Atotonilco del Grande
          • Axocopan
          • Cihuatlan
          • Cuahuacan
          • Cuauhnāhuac, modern Cuernavaca
          • Huaxtépec
          • Oxitipan
          • Quiauhteopan
          • Tepecoacuilco
          • Tlachco
          • Tlacozauhtitlan
          • Tlapan
          • Tochpan
          • Tochtepec
          • Tzicoac
          • Xilotepec
          • Xocotilan
          • Yoaltepec
          • Acatlan
          • Ahautlan
          • Ayotlan
          • Chiauhtlan
          • Cuauhchinanco
          • Huexotla
          • Ixtepexi
          • Miahuatlan
          • Tecomaixtlahuacan
          • Tecpantepec
          • Temazcaltepec
          • Teozacoalco
          • Teozapotlán
          • Tetela de Río
          • Tetela
          • Cēmpoalātl, or Zempoala
          • Zompaynco

          Rulers, be they local teteuctin or tlatoani, or central Huetlatoani, were seen as representatives of the gods and therefore ruled by divine right. Tlatocayotl, or the principle of rulership, established that this divine right was inherited by descent. Political order was therefore also a cosmic order, and to kill a tlatoani was to transgress that order. For that reason, whenever a tlatoani was killed or otherwise removed from their station, a relative and member of the same bloodline was typically placed in their stead. The establishment of the office of Huetlatoani understood through the creation of another level of rulership, hueitlatocayotl, standing in superior contrast to the lesser tlatocayotl principle. [68]

          Expansion of the empire was guided by a militaristic interpretation of Nahua religion, specifically a devout veneration of the sun god, Huitzilopochtli. Militaristic state rituals were performed throughout the year according to a ceremonial calendar of events, rites, and mock battles. [69] The time period they lived in was understood as the Ollintonatiuh, or Sun of Movement, which was believed to be the final age after which humanity would be destroyed. It was under Tlacaelel that Huitzilopochtli assumed his elevated role in the state pantheon and who argued that it was through blood sacrifice that the Sun would be maintained and thereby stave off the end of the world. It was under this new, militaristic interpretation of Huitzilopochtli that Aztec soldiers were encouraged to fight wars and capture enemy soldiers for sacrifice. Though blood sacrifice was common in Mesoamerica, the scale of human sacrifice under the Aztecs was likely unprecedented in the region. [70]

          The most developed code of law was developed in the city-state of Texcoco under its ruler Nezahualcoyotl. It was a formal written code, not merely a collection of customary practices. The sources for knowing about the legal code are colonial-era writings by Franciscan Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, Franciscan Fray Juan de Torquemada, and Texcocan historians Juan Bautista Pomar, and Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxochitl. The law code in Texcoco under Nezahualcoyotl was legalistic, that is cases were tried by particular types of evidence and the social status of the litigants was disregarded, and consisted of 80 written laws. These laws called for severe, publicly administered punishments, creating a legal framework of social control. [71]

          Much less is known about the legal system in Tenochtitlan, which might be less legalistic or sophisticated as those of Texcoco for this period. [72] It was established under the reign of Moctezuma I. These laws served to establish and govern relations between the state, classes, and individuals. Punishment was to be meted out solely by state authorities. Nahua mores were enshrined in these laws, criminalizing public acts of homosexuality, drunkenness, and nudity, not to mention more universal proscriptions against theft, murder, and property damage. As stated before, pochteca could serve as judges, often exercising judicial oversight of their own members. Likewise, military courts dealt with both cases within the military and without during wartime. There was an appeal process, with appellate courts standing between local, typically market-place courts, on the provincial level and a supreme court and two special higher appellate courts at Tenochtitlan. One of those two special courts dealt with cases arising within Tenochtitlan, the other with cases originating from outside the capital. The ultimate judicial authority laid in hands of the Huey tlatoani, who had the right to appoint lesser judges. [73]

          The Aztecs and the Day of the Dead, Part 2

          Just how much of the Mexican Day of the Dead tradition goes back to the Aztecs, and beyond? A single page can never do justice to this question. To begin to answer it, we need to explore a little of what death meant to the Aztecs. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

          Did they fear death? No. They knew it was inevitable: in the words of the ruler-poet Netzahualcóyotl -
          Even jade will shatter,
          Even gold will crush,
          Even quetzal plumes will tear.
          One does not live forever on this earth:
          Only for an instant do we endure.
          There was a certain fascination with death (so clearly still visible today in the Day of the Dead) - after all, it was a relief from the harshness and suffering of this life.

          Pic 2: Death bundle with gifts, Codex Magliabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)

          Did they believe in an afterlife? Definitely! Life and death were inseparable parts of the same great cosmic cycle of energy. You simply cannot have one without the other. Life gives way to death and vice versa: in death your body and spirit nourish the Earth and provide roots for new life (such as a flower) to be born (Pic1). Life and death were simply two sides of the same reality (Pic 3): life will follow death as surely as sunrise will follow sunset and the moon will wax and wane.

          Pic 3: Duality - in the form of life and death - has been a common feature of Mexican masks for centuries (Click on image to enlarge)

          The simple fact that grave goods (Pic 4) have been found throughout the region proves that the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica have believed in life after death for thousands of years. At the same time, the Aztecs were troubled by the sheer uncertainty of what was to follow death:
          Are flowers carried to the kingdom of death?
          Is it true that we go. is it true that we go!
          Where do we go? Where do we go?
          Are we dead there or do we still live?
          Do we exist there again?

          Pic 4: Grave goods found inside a stone casket, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

          Did they believe in Hell? No. Though there was a strong link between your behaviour in this life, the way you met your death, and what/where your final destiny would be in the next &lsquoworld&rsquo, Aztec religion was NOT one based on salvation/damnation.

          Pic 5: &lsquoAlligator&rsquo (the Earth), no. 1 in the cycle of 20 calendar signs (Click on image to enlarge)

          Did they believe in Heaven? Yes - 13 of them! The Aztecs saw the Earth as a giant flat circular disk (sometimes imagined to be an enormous alligator, whose scales were mountains), surrounded by water as far as the distant horizon, where it joined the sky. Their world was at the centre of the 4 great cardinal regions of the universe (N,S,E,W), plus the crucial 5th. central direction/dimension of up and down.

          Pic 6: One of the double-page sections of the sacred calendar, Codex Cospi (Click on image to enlarge)

          Each world direction had linked to it not just a god but a sacred colour, tree, bird. even human beings and days of the sacred 260-day calendar round: this most ancient calendar was divided into 4 equal parts of 65 days each. If you open one of the sacred screenfold ritual books at the calendar section and count the day-signs, each double page spread shows exactly 5 rows of 13 days 5 x 13 = 65 x 4 = 260 (Pic 6: click, count and see!)

          Pic 7: The 9 underworlds and 13 heavens (illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, adapted from the Codex Vaticanus A) (Click on image to enlarge)

          Above the earth rose 13 levels of &lsquoheavens&rsquo and below the earth were 9 levels of &lsquounderworld&rsquo (Pic 7). After death, &lsquoordinary souls&rsquo - who had died an ordinary death - had to make a hard, 4-year journey down through these levels to reach their final resting place, Mictlan. This really was. the end of the road! We get the impression that Mictlan may well have been a fairly grimbo place, ruled by a suitably grim-looking god, &lsquoLord of Mictlan&rsquo - Mictlantecuhtli (Pic 8). Among the offerings buried with you by your family (Pic 2) were valuable gifts to be handed to him as he welcomed you to Mictlan!

          Pic 8: Students meet Mictlantecuhtli, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

          So who went up to the Heavens?! Essentially this depended on how you died and - consequently - on which god came to earth, &lsquotook possession&rsquo of your body, and snatched &lsquoyou&rsquo away. The Aztec people had been moulded largely out of two ancient ways of life: as Jacques Soustelle described them &lsquothe first element hunters and warriors, worshippers of a sun-god, and the second settled peasants whose deity was the god of the rain&rsquo. This is so clearly reflected in the twin temples atop the main temple of Tenochtitlan, dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (right) and to Tlaloc (left) (Pic 9).

          Pic 9: Miguel Covarrubias&rsquos reconstruction of the Great Temple of the Aztecs (Click on image to enlarge)

          A warrior who died in battle, or as a sacrificial victim, became a privileged &lsquocompanion of the eagle [Tonatiuh - the sun]&rsquo, accompanying Tonatiuh every morning on his journey to the midday zenith. After 4 years he was reincarnated as a humming-bird or butterfly. The warrior&rsquos heaven was shared by women who died in childbirth and by merchants killed while on trading expeditions.

          Pic 10: Aztec Sun - illustration by Phillip Mursell (Click on image to enlarge)

          Those who died by drowning, or were struck by lightning, or from an illness believed to be related to the gods of water (such as dropsy or gout) went to Tlalócan, Tlaloc&rsquos paradise, a place of abundant food, peace, growth, eternal spring, and where suffering was unknown. Finally, babies who died in infancy went to a fourth heaven, near Tlalócan, where a tree dripped milk from its branches, and where the infants waited to be given a second &lsquochance&rsquo of life, after the present world had been destroyed.

          Pic 11: Tlaloc, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

          So the two greatest paradises (for humans to go to) seem to have been strongly associated with SUN and RAIN deities.

          Pic 12: Life and death go hand in hand: it&rsquos Death that cuts the umbilical cord, so Life can begin. (Codex Laud, original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

          Every individual in the afterlife had a duty to carry on doing his or her part in the cosmic process (you weren&rsquot going to a rest camp!) - to help bring rain, cure diseases, honour the Sun, make flowers bloom - all of which would help in the long run to keep the human race alive. The idea of reincarnation was close to Aztec beliefs: every living creature had an indestructible divine-like &lsquoheart&rsquo - on its journey to the next world it ended up more or less as a divine seed, ready to be re-planted/re-used (by the gods) in the creation of another being.

          Pic 13: Colour illustration by Phillip Mursell (Click on image to enlarge)

          Was this your &lsquosoul&rsquo? Yes, but only one of them! The Aztecs believed our bodies have 3 &lsquospirit centres&rsquo, each linked to a different level of the universe (Pic 13). Your heart (&lsquoyollotl&rsquo) is the home of the TEYOLIA (the essence of human life) - this was the only spirit that travelled to the afterlife, and was associated with the world above the earth. Your brain (&lsquocuatextli&rsquo) is the home of the TONALLI (the force of love and heat) - this stayed on earth to be kept by your family as ashes in a box with a tuft of your hair, and was associated with the highest heavens of the cosmos. Your liver (&lsquoelli&rsquo), being full of blood, is the home of the IHIYOTL (courage, the soul, the engine of passions but also the force of cold) - this was dispersed after death in winds, spirits and illnesses, and was associated with the underworld.

          Pic 14: Mixtec goblet with skull relief, painted top and bottom with stars (half-open &lsquoeyes of the night&rsquo) (Click on image to enlarge)

          Did the Aztecs have their own &lsquoDay of the Dead&rsquo? Yes - in fact, they had several Feasts of the Dead, two of which (in our month of August, the 9th. and 10th. festival &lsquomonths&rsquo of the Aztec farming year) bore the names &lsquoFeast of the Little Dead Ones&rsquo and &lsquoFeast of the Adult Dead&rsquo. A Spanish friar (Diego Durán) witnessed these festivities, a few decades after the Conquest, at the time of Allhallows/Saints/Souls in the Catholic calendar (ie when it is now) and wrote of his suspicions that &lsquo. the feast has been passed to the Feast of Allhallows in order to cover up the ancient ceremony&rsquo. It was a time of preparing great flower garlands and of offerings of &lsquochocolate, candles, fowl, fruit, great quantities of seed, and food&rsquo on both days.

          Pic 15: A skull-faced goddess with attendant, and a chain of cempaxóchitl and other flowers, Codex Borbonicus, p.28 (Click on image to enlarge)

          The 10th. Aztec &lsquomonth&rsquo, known as &lsquoXocotlhuetzi&rsquo, included the pole-climbing ceremony (follow the link below) and involved plenty of music and dancing - two elements which, alongside the flowers (the yellow cempaxóchitl - Pic 15), food, incense and paper ornaments are common to both ancient and modern Day of the Dead festivals. Offerings of food and drink, laid on tombs, carried on for 4 years after a person&rsquos death, to give sustenance to the soul travelling (generally) to Mictlan.

          Pic 16: Death, no. 6 in the cycle of 20 calendar signs (Click on image to enlarge)

          At the end of the day, even though the Aztecs saw themselves as a &lsquochosen&rsquo people, their arts reflect a deep sense of melancholy, sadness, anguish, doubt, even pessimism - at least about their life here on Earth:-
          We only came to sleep,
          We only came to dream,
          It is not true, no, it is not true
          That we came to live on the earth.
          We are changed into the grass of springtime
          Our hearts will grow green again
          And they will open their petals,
          But our body is like a rose tree:
          It puts forth flowers and then withers.

          &rsquoMisterios de la vida y de la muerte&rsquo by Alfredo López Austin in &lsquoArqueología Mexicana: La Muerte en el México Prehispánico&rsquo, VII, 40 (Nov-Dec 1999)
          &rsquoThe Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico&rsquo by Chloe Sayer and Liz Carmichael (British Museum Press, 1991)
          &rsquoThe Aztecs: People of the Sun&rsquo by Alfonso Caso (University of Oklahoma Press, 1958)
          &rsquoDaily Life of the Aztecs&rsquo by Jacques Soustelle (Stanford University Press, 1961)
          &rsquoAztec Thought and Culture&rsquo by Miguel León-Portilla (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963)
          &rsquoEveryday Life of the Aztecs&rsquo by Warwick Bray (Dorset Press, 1968).

          This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 17th 2005

          1. There Were Two Main Types Of Slavery In The Ancient Aztec Empire

          Many people when talking about the Ancient Aztecs get confused as to what it actually meant to be a slave, and some have gotten a mistaken impression as to how cruelly slaves were really treated. The reason for this is that there were really two main classes of slaves, and they were treated very, very differently. The first class of slaves were men who were captured in battle. These men were usually quickly sacrificed to the gods, or were prepared for a future sacrifice to the gods. Some people have pointed to noblemen having their slaves buried with them for the afterlife, but it is more than likely that it was this type of slave that was being slaughtered to follow the nobleman — owners of the other type of slaves did not have life and death power over their slaves, and slaves would have been very unlikely to agree to such a thing unless it was one of the highest advisers to the Emperor himself — in which it would not be as evil or abusive as some would imagine if it was voluntary to some extent.

          The other type of slavery was in some ways more common, and was much more like what we know of today as indentured servitude. The slaves had to live on their masters land, do chattel like work or farm work and had to do a certain amount of labor on a regular basis. However, they still had a lot of rights, they could still buy their way out or back in again, and could own property and advance their social standing. To be this second type of slave was often not that bad a thing at all, and if you were smart and made it a temporary situation, you could perhaps one day advance to be quite a rich citizen — provided you are disciplined enough as an individual and save carefully. The Aztecs truly wanted to reward those who were frugal and saved for a later day, perhaps believing that the people who planned for the future would be the best future leaders for their society.

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