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Aztec Civilization

Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
The Aztec Empire flourished between c. 1345 and 1521 CE and, at its greatest extent, covered most of northern Mesoamerica. Aztec warriors were able to dominate their neighbouring states and permit rulers such as Motecuhzoma II to impose Aztec ideals and religion across Mexico. Highly accomplished in agriculture and trade, the last of the great Mesoamerican civilizations was also noted for its art and architecture which ranks amongst the finest ever produced on the continent.
The Aztec state is actually the most well documented Mesoamerican civilization with sources including archaeology, native books (codices) and lengthy and detailed accounts from their Spanish conquerors - both by military men and Christian clergy. These latter sources may not always be reliable but the picture we have of the Aztecs, their institutions, religious practices, warfare and daily life is a rich one and it continues to be constantly expanded with details being added through the endeavours of 21st century CE archaeologists and scholars.

Historical Overview

Sometime around 1100 CE the city-states or altepetl which were spread over central Mexico began to compete with each other for local resources and regional dominance. Each state had its own ruler or tlatoani who led a council of nobles but these small urban centres surrounded by farmland soon sought to expand their wealth and influence so that by c. 1400 CE several small empires had formed in the Valley of Mexico. Dominant amongst these were Texcoco, capital of the Acholhua region, and Azcapotzalco, capital of the Tepenec. These two empires came face to face in 1428 CE with the Tepanec War. The Azcapotzalco forces were defeated by an alliance of Texcoco, Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Mexica) and several other smaller cities. Following victory a Triple Alliance was formed between Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and a rebel Tepanec city, Tlacopan. A campaign of territorial expansion began where the spoils of war - usually in the form of tributes from the conquered - were shared between these three great cities. Over time Tenochtitlan came to dominate the Alliance, its ruler became the supreme ruer - the huey tlatoque ('high king') - and the city established itself as the capital of the Aztec empire.
Masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations. Diego Durán
The empire continued to expand from 1430 CE and the Aztec military - bolstered by conscription of all adult males, men supplied from allied and conquered states, and such elite groups as the Eagle and Jaguar warriors - swept aside their rivals. Aztec warriors wore padded cotton armour, carried a wooden or reed shield covered in hide, and wielded weapons such as a super sharp obsidian sword-club (macuahuitl), a spear or dart thrower (atlatl), and bow and arrows. Elite warriors also wore spectacular feathered and animal skin costumes and headdresses to signify their rank. Battles were concentrated in or around major cities and when these fell the victors claimed the whole surrounding territory. Regular tributes were extracted and captives were taken back to Tenochtitlan for ritual sacrifice. In this way the Aztec empire came to cover most of northern Mexico, an area of some 135,000 square kilometres.
The empire was kept together through the appointment of officials from the Aztec heartland, inter-marriages, gift-giving, invitations to important ceremonies, the building of monuments and artworks which promoted Aztec imperial ideology, and most importantly of all, the ever-present threat of military intervention. Some states were integrated more than others whilst those on the extremities of the empire became useful buffer zones against more hostile neighbours, notably the Tarascan civilization.


The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on the western shore of Lake Texcoco flourished so that the city could boast at least 200,000 inhabitants by the early 16th century CE, making it the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. These inhabitants were divided into several social strata. At the top were local rulers (teteuhctin), then came nobles (pipiltin), commoners (macehualtin), serfs (mayeque), and finally slaves (tlacohtin). The strata seem to have been relatively fixed but there is some evidence of movement between them, especially in the lower classes.
Not only the political and religious capital, Tenochtitlán was also a huge trading centre with goods flowing in and out such as gold, greenstone, turquoise, cotton, cacao beans, tobacco, pottery, tools, weapons, foodstuffs (tortillas, chile sauces, maize, beans, and even insects, for example) and slaves. The Spanish invaders were hugely impressed by the city's splendour and magnificent architecture and artwork, especially the Templo Mayor pyramid and massive stone sculptures. Dominating the city was the huge Sacred Precinct with its temples and monumental ball court. Tenochtitlan's water management was also impressive with large canals criss-crossing the city which was itself surrounded by chinampas - raised and flooded fields - which greatly increased the agricultural capacity of the Aztecs. There were also anti-flood dykes, artificial reservoirs for fresh water, and wonderful flower gardens dotted around the city.
The whole city was designed to inspire awe in the people, especially visiting nobles who, entertained with lavish ceremonies, could see that the Mexica Aztecs truly were:
Masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations and that all were their vassals. The guests, seeing such wealth and opulence and such authority and power, were filled with terror. (Diego Durán, the Spanish friar, quoted in Nichols, 451)


Mythology and religion, as with most ancient cultures, were closely intertwined for the Aztecs. The very founding of Tenochtitlán was based on the belief that peoples from the mythical land of plenty Aztlán (literally 'Land of White Herons' and origin of the Aztec name) in the far northwest had first settled in the Valley of Mexico. They had been shown the way by their god Huitzilopochtli who had sent an eagle sitting on a cactus to indicate exactly where these migrants should build their new home. The god also gave these people their name, the Mexica, who along with other ethnic groups, who similarly spoke Nahuatl, collectively made up the peoples now generally known as the Aztecs.
The Aztec pantheon included a mix of older Mesoamerian gods and specifically Mexica deities. The two principal gods worshipped were Huitzilopochtli (the war and sun god) and Tlaloc (the rain god) and both had a temple on top of the Templo Mayor pyramid at the heart of Tenochtitlan. Other important gods were Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent god common to many Mesoamerican cultures), Tezcatlipoca (supreme god at Texcoco), Xipe Totec (god of Spring and agriculture), Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), Xochipilli (god of summertime and flowers), Ometeotl (the creator god), Mictlantecuhtli (god of the dead) and Coatlicue (the earth-mother goddess).
This sometimes bewildering array of gods presided over every aspect of the human condition. The timing of ceremonies in honour of these deities was dictated by a variety of calendars. There was the 260-day Aztec calendar which was divided into 20 weeks, each of 13 days which carried names such as Crocodile and Wind. There was also a Solar calendar consisting of 18 months, each of 20 days. The 584 day period covering the rise of Venus was also important and there was a 52 year cycle of the sun to be considered. The movement of planets and stars were carefully observed (albeit not as accurately, though, as the Maya had done) and they provided the motive for the specific timing of many religious rites and agricultural practices.
The sun, not surprisingly, had great significance for the Aztecs. They believed that the world went through a series of cosmic ages, each had its own sun but finally each world was destroyed and replaced by another until the fifth and final age was reached - the present day for the Aztecs. This cosmic progression was wonderfully represented in the famous Sun Stone but also crops up in many other places too.
The gods were honoured with festivals, banquets, music, dancing, decoration of statues, burning of incense, the ritual burial of precious goods, penances such as blood-letting, and animal sacrifices. Humans, both adults and less often children, were also frequently sacrificed to metaphorically 'feed' the gods and keep them happy lest they become angry and make life difficult for humans by sending storms, droughts etc. or even just to keep the sun appearing every day. Victims were usually taken from the losing side in wars. Indeed, the so-called 'Flowery Wars' were specifically undertaken to collect sacrificial victims. The most prestigious offerings were those warriors who had shown great bravery in battle. The sacrifice itself could take three main forms: the heart was removed, the victim was decapitated, or the victim was made to fight in a hopelessly one-sided contest against elite warriors. There were also impersonators who dressed in the regalia of a specific god and at the climax of the ceremony were themselves sacrificed.

Architecture & Art

The Aztecs were themselves appreciative of fine art and they collected pieces from across their empire to be brought back to Tenochtitlán and often ceremonially buried. Aztec art was nothing if not eclectic and ranged from miniature engraved precious objects to massive stone temples. Monumental sculptures were a particular favourite and could be fearsome monstrosities such as the colossal Coatlicue statue or be very life-like such as the famous sculpture of a seated Xochipilli.
Organised in guilds and attached to the main palaces, artisans could specialise in metalwork, wood carving or stone sculpture, with materials used such as amethyst, rock crystal, gold, silver, and exotic feathers. Perhaps some of the most striking art objects are those which employed turquoise mosaic such as the famous mask of Xuihtecuhtli. Common forms of pottery vessels include anthropomorphic vases in bright colours and of special note was the finely made and highly prized Cholula ware from Cholollan.
Aztec art depicted all manner of subjects but especially popular were animals, plants and gods, particularly those related to fertility and agriculture. Art could also be used as propaganda to spread the imperial dominance of Tenochtitlan. Examples such as the Sun Stone, Stone of Tizoc, and Throne of Motecuhzoma II all portray Aztec ideology and seek to closely correlate political rulers to cosmic events and even the gods themselves. Even architecture could achieve this aim, for example, the Templo Mayor pyramid sought to replicate the sacred snake mountain of Aztec mythology, Coatepec, and temples and statues bearing Aztec symbols were set up across the empire.


The Aztec empire, which controlled some 11,000,000 people, had always had to deal with minor rebellions - typically, when new rulers took power at Tenochtitlan - but these had always been swiftly crushed. The tide began to turn, though, when the Aztecs were heavily defeated by the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo in 1515 CE. With the arrival of the Spanish, some of these rebel states would again seize the opportunity to gain their independence. When the conquistadors finally did arrive from the Old World sailing their floating palaces and led by Hernán Cortés, their initial relations with the leader of the Aztecs, Motecuhzoma II, were friendly and valuable gifts were exchanged. Things turned sour, though, when a small group of Spanish soldiers were killed at Tenochtitlan while Cortés was away at Veracruz. The Aztec warriors, unhappy at Motecuhzoma's passivity, overthrew him and set Cuitlahuac as the new tlatoani. This incident was just what Cortés needed and he returned to the city to relieve the besieged remaining Spanish but was forced to withdraw on the 30th of June 1520 CE in what became known as the Noche Triste. Gathering local allies Cortés returned ten months later and in 1521 CE he laid siege to the city. Lacking food and ravaged by disease, the Aztecs, now led by Cuauhtemoc, finally collapsed on the fateful day of 13th of August 1521 CE. Tenochtitlan was sacked and its monuments destroyed. From the ashes rose the new capital of the colony of New Spain and the long line of Mesoamerican civilizations which had stretched right back to the Olmec came to a dramatic and brutal end.
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[ 2 ]

Aztec Art

Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
The Aztec Empire, centred at the capital of Tenochtitlan, dominated most of Mesoamerica in the 15th and 16th centuries CE. With military conquest and trade expansion the art of the Aztecs also spread, helping the Aztecs achieve a cultural and political hegemony over their subjects and creating for posterity a tangible record of the artistic imagination and great talent of the artists from this last great Mesoamerican civilization.


Common threads run through the history of Mesoamerican art. The Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Zapotec civilizations, amongst others, perpetuated an artistic tradition which displayed a love of monumental stone sculpture, imposing architecture, highly decorated pottery, geometric stamps for fabric and body art, and breathtaking metalwork which were all used to represent people, animals, plants, gods and features of religious ceremony, especially those rites and deities connected to fertility and agriculture.
Aztec artists were also influenced by their contemporaries from neighbouring states, especially artists from Oaxaca (a number of whom permanently resided at Tenochtitlan) and the Huastec region of the Gulf Coast where there was a strong tradition of three-dimensional sculpture. These diverse influences and the Aztecs' own eclectic tastes and admiration of ancient art made their art one of the most varied of all ancient cultures anywhere. Sculptures of gruesome gods with abstract imagery could come from the same workshop as naturalistic works which depicted the beauty and grace of the animal and human form.

Features of Aztec Art

Metalwork was a particular skill of the Aztecs. The great Renaissance artist Albrecht Drurer saw some of the artefacts brought back to Europe which caused him to say, '...I have never seen in all my days that which so rejoiced my heart, as these things. For I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marvelled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands'. Unfortunately, as with most other artefacts, these objects were melted down for currency, and so very few examples survive of the Aztecs' fine metalworking skills in gold and silver. Smaller items have been discovered, amongst them gold labrets (lip piercings), pendants, rings, earrings and necklaces in gold representing everything from eagles to tortoise shells to gods, which are testimony to the skills in lost-wax casting and filigree work of the finest artisans or tolteca.
The Aztecs also employed art as a tool to reinforce their military and cultural dominance across Mesoamerica.
Aztec sculpture has been a better survivor, and its subject was very often individuals from the extensive family of gods they worshipped. Carved in stone and wood these figures, sometimes monumental in size, were not idols containing the spirit of the god, as in Aztec religion the spirit of a particular deity was thought to reside in sacred bundles kept within shrines and temples. However, it was thought necessary to 'feed' these sculptures with blood and precious objects, hence tales from the Spanish conquistadors of huge statues splattered with blood and encrusted with jewels and gold. Other large sculptures, more in the round, include the magnificent seated god Xochipilli and the various chacmools, reclining figures with a hollow carved in the chest which was used as a receptacle for the hearts of sacrificial victims. These, as with most other Aztec sculpture, would have once been painted using a wide range of bright colours.
Smaller scale sculpture has been found at sites across Central Mexico. These often take the form of local deities and especially gods related to agriculture. The most common are upright female figures of a maize deity, typically with an impressive headdress, and the maize god Xipe Totec. Lacking the finesse of imperial-sponsored art, these sculptures and similar pottery figures often represent the more benevolent side of the Aztec gods.
Miniature work was also popular where subjects such as plants, insects, and shells were rendered in precious materials such as carnelite, pearl, amethyst, rock crystal, obsidian, shell, and the most highly valued of all materials, jade. One other material which was highly prized was exotic feathers, especially the green plumage of the quetzal bird. Feathers cut up into small pieces were used to create mosaic paintings, as decoration for shields, costumes and fans, and in magnificent headdresses such as the one ascribed to Motecuhzoma II which is now in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna.
Turquoise was a particularly favoured material with Aztec artists, and the use of it in mosaic form to cover sculpture and masks has created some of the most striking imagery from Mesoamerica. A typical example is the decorated human skull which represents the god Tezcatlipoca and which now resides in the British Museum, London. Another fine example is the mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire, with sleepy-looking mother-of-pearl eyes and a perfect set of white conch shell teeth. Finally, there is the magnificent double-headed snake pectoral, also now in the British Museum. With carved cedar wood completely covered in small squares of turquoise and the red mouths and white teeth rendered in spondylus and conch shell respectively, the piece was probably once part of a ceremonial costume. The snake was a potent image in Aztec art as the creature, able to shed its skin, represented regeneration and was also particularly associated with the god Quetzalcoatl.
Despite the absence of the potter's wheel, the Aztecs were also skilled with ceramics as indicated by large hollow figures and several beautifully carved lidded-urns which were excavated by the side of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, probably used as receptacles for funeral ashes. Other examples of ceramic works are the moulded censers with tripod legs from Texcoco, spouted jugs, and elegant hourglass-shaped cups. These vessels are typically thin-walled, well proportioned, have a cream or red and black slip, and carry finely painted geometric designs in earlier designs and flora and fauna in later examples. The most highly-prized ceramics by the Aztecs themselves, and the type which Motecuhzoma himself used, were the ultra-thin Cholula ware from Cholollan in the Valley of Puebla. Vessels could also be made from moulds or carved while the clay was still leather-hard. A fine example of these anthropomorphic vessels is the celebrated vase representing the head of the rain god Tlaloc painted a bright blue, with goggle eyes and fearsome red fangs, now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Musical instruments were another important part of the Aztec artist's repertoire. These included ceramic flutes and wooden teponaztlis and huehuetls, respectively, long and upright ceremonial drums. They are richly decorated with carvings, and one of the finest is the Malinalco drum which is covered in dancing jaguars and eagles who represent sacrificial victims as indicated by banners and speech scrolls of warfare and fire symbols.

Art as Propaganda

The Aztecs, as with their cultural predecessors, employed art as a tool to reinforce their military and cultural dominance. Imposing buildings, frescoes, sculpture and even manuscripts, especially at such key sites as Tenochtitlan, not only represented and even replicated the key elements of Aztec religion, but they also reminded subject peoples of the wealth and power which permitted their construction and manufacture.
The supreme example of this use of art as a conveyor of political and religious messages is the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan which was much more than a hugely impressive pyramid. It was carefully designed in every detail to represent the sacred snake mountain of the earth Coatepec, so important in Aztec religion and mythology. This mountain was the site where Coatlicue (the earth) gave birth to her son Huitzilopochtli (the sun), who defeated the other gods (the stars) led by his sister Coyolxauhqui (the moon). A temple to Huitzilopochtli was built on top of the pyramid along with another in honour of the rain god Tlaloc. Further associations with the myth are the snake sculptures lining the base and the Great Coyolxauhqui Stone carved in c. 1473 CE, also found at the base of the pyramid and which represents in relief the dismembered body of the fallen goddess. The stone, along with other such sculptures as the Tizoc Stone, related this cosmic imagery to the contemporary defeat of local enemies. In the case of the Coyolxauhqui Stone, the defeat of the Tlatelolca is being referenced. Finally, the Templo Mayor was itself a repository of art as, when its interior was explored, a vast hord of sculpture and art objects were discovered entombed with the remains of the dead and these pieces are, in many cases, works that the Aztecs had themselves collected from more ancient cultures than their own.
Temples extolling the Aztec view of the world were also constructed in conquered territories. The Aztecs usually left existing political and administrative structures in place, but they did impose their own gods in a hierarchy above local deities, and this was largely done through architecture and art, backed up with sacrificial ceremonies at these new sacred places, typically constructed on previous sacred sites and often in spectacular settings such as on mountain peaks.
Aztec imagery which spread across the empire includes many lesser known deities than Huitzilopochtli and there are a surprising number of examples of nature and agricultural gods. Perhaps the most famous are the reliefs of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue on the Malinche Hill near ancient Tula. These and other works of Aztec art were most often made by local artists and may have been commissioned by authorities representing the state or by private colonists from the Aztec heartland. Architectural art, rock carvings of gods, animals and shields, and other art objects have been found across the empire from Puebla to Veracruz and especially around cities, hills, springs, and caves. Further, these works are usually unique, suggesting the absence of any organised workshops.


The large circular Stone of Tizoc (carved in c. 1485 CE from basalt) is a masterful mix of cosmic mythology and real-world politics. It was originally used as a surface on which to perform human sacrifice and as these victims were usually defeated warriors it is entirely appropriate that the reliefs around the edge of the stone depict the Aztec ruler Tizoc attacking warriors from the Matlatzinca, an area conquered by Tizoc in the late 15th century CE. The defeated are also portrayed as Chichimecs i.e. landless barbarians, whilst the victors wear the noble dress of the revered ancient Toltec. The upper surface of the stone, 2.67 m in diameter, depicts an eight-pointed sun-disk. The Stone of Tizoc now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The massive basalt statue of Coatlicue (carved in the final half century of Aztec rule) is widely considered one of the finest examples of Aztec sculpture. The goddess is presented in terrifying form with two snake heads, clawed feet and hands, a necklace of dismembered hands and human hearts with a skull pendant, and wearing a skirt of writhing snakes. Perhaps one of a group of four and representing the revelation of female power and terror, the 3.5 m high statue leans slightly forward so that the overall dramatic effect of the piece is so emotive that it is understandable why the statue was actually re-buried several times following its original excavation in 1790 CE. The statue of Coatlicue now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
The Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone (despite the fact that it is not a functioning calendar), must be the most recognisable art object produced by any of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica. Discovered in the 18th century CE near the cathedral of Mexico City, the stone was carved c. 1427 CE and shows a solar disk which presents the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. The basalt stone is 3.78 m in diameter, almost a metre thick and was once part of the Templo Mayor complex of Tenochtitlan. At the centre of the stone is a representation of either the sun god Tonatiuh (the Day Sun) or Yohualtonatiuh (the Night Sun) or the primordial earth monster Tlaltecuhtli, in the latter case representing the final destruction of the world when the 5th sun fell to earth. Around the central face at four points are the other four suns which successively replaced each other after the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca struggled for control of the cosmos until the era of the 5th sun was reached. On either side of the central face are two jaguar heads or paws, each clutching a heart, representing the terrestrial realm. The two heads at the bottom centre represent fire serpents, and their bodies run around the perimeter of the stone with each ending in a tail. The four cardinal and the inter-cardinal directions are also indicated with larger and lesser points respectively.
As one final example of the wealth of Aztec art which has survived the best destructive efforts of their conquerors, there is the life-sized eagle warrior from Tenochtitlan. The figure, seemingly about to take flight, is in terracotta and was made in four separate pieces. This Eagle Knight wears a helmet representing the bird of prey, has wings and even clawed feet. Remains of stucco suggest that the figure was once covered in real feathers for an even more life-like effect. Originally, it would have stood with a partner, either side of a doorway.


Following the fall of the Aztec Empire the production of indigenous art went into decline. However, some Aztec designs lived on in the work of local artists employed by Augustinian friars to decorate their new churches during the 16th century CE. Manuscripts and feather paintings also continued to be produced, but it was not until the late 18th century CE that an interest in Precolumbian art and history would lead to a more systematic investigation of just what lay under the foundations of modern Mexican cities. Slowly, an ever-growing number of Aztec artefacts have revealed, in case there had ever been any doubt, proof-positive evidence that the Aztecs were amongst the most ambitious, creative, and eclectic artists that Mesoamerica had ever produced.
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Aztec Sacrifice

Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
The Aztec civilization which flourished in Mesoamerica between 1345 and 1521 CE has gained an infamous reputation for bloodthirsty human sacrifice with lurid tales of the beating heart being ripped from the still-conscious victim, decapitation, skinning and dismemberment. All of these things did happen but it is important to remember that for the Aztecs the act of sacrifice - of which human sacrifice was only a part - was a strictly ritualised process which gave the highest possible honour to the gods and was regarded as a necessity to ensure mankind’s continued prosperity.

Origins & Purpose

The Aztecs were not the first civilization in Mesoamerica to practise human sacrifice as probably it was the Olmec civilization (1200-300 BCE) which first began such rituals atop their sacred pyramids. Other civilizations such as the Maya and Toltecs continued the practice. The Aztecs did, however, take sacrifice to an unprecedented scale, although that scale was undoubtedly exaggerated by early chroniclers during the Spanish Conquest, probably to vindicate the Spaniards own brutal treatment of the indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, it is thought that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of victims were sacrificed each year at the great Aztec religious sites and it cannot be denied that there would also have been a useful secondary effect of intimidation on visiting ambassadors and the populace in general.
In Mesoamerican culture human sacrifices were viewed as a repayment for the sacrifices the gods had themselves made in creating the world and the sun. This idea of repayment was especially true regarding the myth of the reptilian monster Cipactli (or Tlaltecuhtli). The great gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca ripped the creature into pieces to create the earth and sky and all other things such as mountains, rivers and springs came from her various body parts. To console the spirit of Cipactli the gods promised her human hearts and blood in appeasement. From another point of view sacrifices were a compensation to the gods for the crime which brought about mankind in Aztec mythology. In the story Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl stole bones from the Underworld and with them made the first humans so that sacrifices were a necessary apology to the gods.
Warfare was often conducted for the sole purpose of furnishing candidates for sacrifice.
Gods then were ‘fed’ and ‘nourished’ with the sacrificed blood and flesh which ensured the continued balance and prosperity of Aztec society. In Nahuatl the word for sacrifice is vemana which derives from ventli (offering) and mana ‘to spread out’ representing the belief that sacrifices helped in the cycle of growth and death in food, life and energy. Accordingly, meat was burnt or blood poured over the statues of deities so that the gods might partake of it directly. Perhaps the quintessential example of ‘feeding’ the gods were the ceremonies to ensure Tezcatlipoca, the sun god, was well-nourished so that he had the strength to raise the sun each morning.

Non-Fatal Sacrifice

Blood-letting and self-harm - for example, from the ears and legs using bone or maguey spines - and the burning of blood-soaked paper strips were a common form of sacrifice, as was the burning of tobacco and incense. Other types of sacrifice included the offering of other living creatures such as, deer, butterflies and snakes. In a certain sense offerings were given in sacrifice, precious objects which were willingly handed over for the gods to enjoy. In this category were foodstuffs and objects of precious metals, jade and shells which could be ritually buried. One of the most interesting such offerings was the dough images of gods (tzoalli). These were made from ground amaranth mixed with human blood and honey, with the effigy being burnt or eaten after the ritual.

Selection & Preparation of Victims

With human sacrifices the sacrificial victims were most often selected from captive warriors. Indeed, warfare was often conducted for the sole purpose of furnishing candidates for sacrifice. This was the so-called ‘flowery war’ (xochiyaoyotl) where indecisive engagements were the result of the Aztecs being satisfied with taking only sufficient captives for sacrifice and where the eastern Tlaxcala state was a favourite hunting-ground. Those who had fought the most bravely or were the most handsome were considered the best candidates for sacrifice and more likely to please the gods. Indeed, human sacrifice was particularly reserved for those victims most worthy and was considered a high honour, a direct communion with a god.
Another source of sacrificial victims was the ritual ball-games where the losing captain or even the entire team paid the ultimate price for defeat. Children too could be sacrificed, in particular, to honour the rain god Tlaloc in ceremonies held on sacred mountains. It was believed that the very tears of the child victims would propitiate rain. Slaves were another social group from which sacrificial victims were chosen, they could accompany their ruler in death or be given in offering by tradesmen to ensure prosperity in business.
Amongst the most honoured sacrificial victims were the god impersonators. Specially chosen individuals were dressed as a particular god before the sacrifice. In the case of the Tezcatlipoca impersonator in the ritual during Tóxcatl (the 6th or 5th month of the Aztec solar year) the victim was treated like royalty for one year prior to the sacrificial ceremony. Tutored by priests, given a female entourage and honoured with dances and flowers, the victim was the god’s manifestation on earth until that final brutal moment when he met his maker. Perhaps even worse off was the impersonator of Xipe Totec who, at the climax of the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli, was skinned to honour the god who was himself known as the ‘Flayed One’.

Ceremonies & Death

Conducted at specially dedicated temples on the top of large pyramids such as at Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan, sacrifices were most often carried out by stretching the victim over a special stone, cutting open the chest and removing the heart using an obsidian or flint knife. The heart was then placed in a stone vessel (cuauhxicalli) or in a chacmool (a stone figure carved with a recipient on their midriff) and burnt in offering to the god being sacrificed to. Alternatively, the victim could be decapitated and or dismembered. M.D.Coe suggests that this method was typically reserved for female victims who impersonated gods such as Chalchiuhtlicue but images recorded by the Spanish in various Codex do show decapitated bodies being flung down the steps of pyramids. Those sacrificed to Xipe Totec were also skinned, most probably in imitation of seeds shedding their husks.
Victims could also be sacrificed in a more elaborate process where a single victim was made to fight a gladiatorial contest against a squad of hand-picked warriors. Naturally, the victim had no possibility to survive this ordeal or even inflict any injury on his opponents as not only was he tied to a stone platform (temalacatl) but his weapon was usually a feathered club while his opponents had vicious razor-sharp obsidian swords (macuauhuitl). In another method, victims could be tied to a frame and shot with arrows or darts and in perhaps the worst method of all, the victim was repeatedly thrown into a fire and then had his heart removed.
After the sacrifice, the heads of victims could be displayed in racks (tzompantli), depictions of which survive in stone architectural decoration, notably at Tenochtitlán. The flesh of those sacrificed was also, on occasion, eaten by the priests conducting the sacrifice and by members of the ruling elite or warriors who had themselves captured the victims.
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[ 4 ]

Aztec Warfare

Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
The Aztecs engaged in warfare (yaoyotl) to acquire territory, resources, quash rebellions, and to collect sacrificial victims to honour their gods. Warfare was a fundamental part of Aztec culture with all males expected to actively participate and battle, referred to in Nahuatl poetry as 'the song of shields', was regarded as a perpetual religious and political necessity. The Aztecs were so accomplished in combat that they eventually forged an empire which covered 200,000 square kilometres and, at the height of their power, they extracted tribute from 371 city-states across 38 provinces.

Warfare in Aztec Mythology

The Aztecs believed that the god of the sun and war Huitzilopochtli had been fully armed and ready for war from the very moment of his birth from his mother Coatlicue. Indeed, the first act of this blood-thirsty war god was to kill without mercy his rebellious sister Coyolxauhqui and his 400 siblings, the Centzonhuitznahuac and Centzonmimizcoa. In mythology, the dismembered bodies of Coyolxauhqui and the 400 became the moon and stars respectively. That warfare was an everyday reality is reflected in the Aztec belief that the conflict between Huitzilopochtli and his siblings re-occurred every day, symbolised by the contest between sun and moon each 24 hours. Further, that war was glorified is evidenced in the belief that fallen warriors accompanied the sun on his daily journey and later returned to earth as hummingbirds. Human sacrifices were regularly made to Huitzilopochtli at his temple atop the great pyramid, the Templo Mayor, at the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. One of the most important such sacrificial ceremonies was held on the winter solstice, the traditional beginning of the campaign season.
Elite units could only be joined by warriors who had displayed no fewer than 20 acts of bravery in battle.

The Aztec Army

The military commander-in-chief was the king himself, the tlatoani. He was assisted by his second-in-command, who had the title cihuacoatl. Joining these two in a war council were four more of the highest ranking nobles, typically relatives of the king. These four had the titles of tlacochcalcatl, tlaccetacatl, tillancalqui, and etzhuanhuanco. Reporting to the council were diverse units of warriors with varying levels of status, although it is important to note that brave and able soldiers could certainly climb through the ranks if they took a specific number of captives. Aztec symbols of rank included the right to wear certain feather headdresses, cloaks, and jewellery - lip, nose, and ear-plugs. Officers also wore large ensigns of reeds and feathers which towered above their shoulders. The most prestigious units were the cuauhchique or 'shaved ones' and the otontin or 'otomies'. These two elite units could only be joined by warriors who had displayed no fewer than 20 acts of bravery in battle and were already members of the prestigious jaguar and eagle warrior groups. Even the lowest ranks could win through valour privileges, such as the right to eat in the royal palaces, have concubines, and drink pulque beer in public.
Warriors were trained from a young age in special military compounds where children learnt to master weapons and tactics and where they were regaled with tales of battle from veteran warriors. Youths also accompanied the Aztec army on campaign, acting as baggage handlers, and when they finally became warriors and took their first captive, they could at last cut off the piochtli hair lock at the back of their necks which they had worn since the age of ten. Boys were now men and ready to fulfil their purpose: to die gloriously in battle and return as hummingbirds.
There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life:
far off I see it: my heart yearns for it!
Nahuatl song
The Aztecs did not have a permanent or standing army but called up warriors when required. Each town was required to provide a complement of 400 men for campaigns, during which they would remain as a unit led by one of their own senior warriors and march under their own standard but also be a part of a larger group of 8,000 men. As many as 25 such divisions, or 200,000 men, could be mobilized for a large-scale campaign. Besides men, towns also had to provide supplies such as maize, beans, and salt, which would be carried on campaign by the baggage handlers. On the march the army was preceded by scouts, easily recognised by their yellow face-paint and conch-shell trumpets, and priests, who bore images of Huitzilopochtli. The main body of the army, often stretching some 25 kilometres along narrow trails, had the elite units leading from the front. Next came ordinary units from each of the empire's allies, starting with the armies of Tenochtitlan, and finally, the troops acquired from tribute quotas brought up the rear. When necessary, camps were simple affairs with reed mat shelters for the elite and the open-air for ordinary troops.

Weapons & Armour

Aztec warriors, who were taught from childhood in weapons handling, were expert users of clubs, bows, spears, and darts. Protection from the enemy was provided via round shields (chimalli) and, more rarely, helmets. Clubs or swords (macuahuitl) were studded with fragile but super-sharp obsidian blades. Spears were short and used for jabbing and stabbing the enemy at close quarters. The atlatl was a dart-throwing device made of wood, and using one, an experienced warrior could direct accurate and deadly darts (mitl) or javelins (tlacochtli) while remaining a safe distance from the enemy or during the first stage of battle when the two armies lined up facing each other. Shields of wood or reeds were made more resistant with leather additions and decorated with heraldic designs such as birds, geometric shapes, and butterflies. Elite warriors could wear leather helmets, elaborately carved with symbols of their rank and unit. Body armour (ichcahuipilli) was also worn and made from quilted cotton which was soaked in salt water to make the garment stiffer and more resistant to enemy blows. There was no uniform as such, but ordinary warriors wore a simple tunic over a loincloth and wore war-paints. Elite warriors were much more impressively decked out with exotic feathers and animal skins. The Jaguar warriors wore jaguar skins and helmets with fangs, whilst the eagle warriors were dressed for battle in feathered suits complete with talons and a beaked helmet.


Usually campaigns began in order to redress a wrong such as the murder of traders, the refusal to give tribute, or failure to send representatives to important ceremonies at Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs also sought to create a buffer zone between their empire and neighbouring states. These areas were treated slightly better, allowed greater autonomy and were obliged to give less tribute. Yet another reason for war was the Coronation Wars. These were traditional campaigns whereby a new Aztec tlatoani proved his worth following his accession by conquering regions and acquiring tribute and prisoners for sacrifice.
Actual fighting was usually preceded by diplomatic missions where ambassadors (quauhquauhnochtzin) reminded of the price of defeat in battle and attempted to persuade a peaceful alternative of reasonable tribute and acceptance of the supremacy of the Aztec gods. Additionally, spies (quimichtin or 'mice') could be sent into the target area disguised as merchants and dressed in local costume. If, upon the failure of diplomacy, war was still necessary and the defending army was defeated, then the principal city was sacked and the whole region considered conquered.
The battlefield is the place:
where one toasts the divine liquor in war,
where are stained red the divine eagles,
where the jaguars howl,
where all kinds of precious stones rain from ornaments,
where wave headdresses rich with fine plumes,
where princes are smashed to bits.
Nahuatl song.
On the battlefield, usually a plain, combat was typically preceded by both armies facing each other with much shouting, posturing, and the beating of drums and blowing of conch-shell trumpets and bone flutes. Leaders positioned troops to best take advantage of local geographical features, and they led from the front and very much by example, throwing themselves into the battle. As the two armies faced off, heavy stones were thrown and followed by a more deadly volley of darts. Then came a bloody hand-to-hand combat, where the obsidian-bladed spears and clubs slashed the enemy creating fearsome wounds. Here all order was lost and battle became a series of independent duels where warriors tried to capture their opponent alive. Indeed, assistants with ropes followed the fighting in order to immediately truss up the vanquished for later sacrifice. Ruse tactics could also be employed, such as pretending to flee the battlefield or hiding in covered trenches in order to ambush enemy troops. Victory conventionally came when the enemy's main temple had been sacked. The discipline and sheer ferocity of the Aztec warriors was usually far superior to that of the enemy and ensured success after success across ancient Mexico.

The Flowery Wars

Besides the desire for new territory and war-booty, the Aztecs very often specifically went on campaign in order to acquire sacrificial victims. Indeed, both sides agreed to the battle beforehand, agreeing that the losers would provide warriors for sacrifice. The Aztecs believed that the blood of sacrificial victims, especially of brave warriors, fed the god Huitzilopochtli. Taken as captives after battles, the victims had their hearts removed and the corpse was skinned, dismembered and decapitated. These campaigns were known as xochiyaoyotl or a 'flowery war' because the victims were defeated warriors who were trussed up, and with their splendid feather war costumes, looked like flowers as they were unceremoniously transported back to Tenochtitlan. One Aztec general, named Tlacaelel, likened this process to shopping in a market and stated that the victims should be as easy to pick up as tortillas. A favourite hunting ground for these military expeditions was the eastern Tlaxcala state and cities such as Atlixco, Huexotzingo and Cholula. The earliest known example of a xochiyaoyotl was in 1376 CE against the Chalca, a conflict which, perhaps unsurprisingly, developed into a full-scale war. Generally speaking, though, the intention was only to take a sufficient number of victims and not to start all-out hostilities; for this reason many Aztec campaigns were not decisive engagements aimed at territorial control. Nevertheless, the flower wars must have reminded who the rulers were and may also have served as a regular pruning of opposition military power.

The Victor's Spoils

First and foremost, successful warfare brought the Aztecs new territory and secured and extended their lucrative trade network. Parcels of land were also distributed to nobles and elite warriors. Defeat did not necessarily mean the end of the vanquished's way of life, for conquered rulers were very often left in power, although sometimes populations were massacred and children relocated and dispersed in other communities. Generally, the real price of defeat was essentially agreements to pay regular tributes in both goods and people to their new masters. Tribute could be in the form of slaves, military service, gold dust, precious jewellery, metals, blankets, clothes, cotton, exotic feathers, shields, cochineal dye, rubber, shells, grain, chillies, chocolate beans (cacao), and salt. Curiously, the Aztecs also took away statues and idols, especially religiously important ones. These 'captives' were symbolically held at Tenochtitlan and illustrated that the new masters controlled not only a people's territory but now also their religion and ideas.

The Aztec Collapse

The Aztecs were very successful in conquering neighbouring territories, especially during the reigns of Moctezuma I, Ahuitzotl, and Moctezuma II (Montezuma), but they did occasionally suffer defeats. One of the worst of these was against their long-time enemies, the Tarascans, in 1479 CE when an army of 32,000 led by Axayacatl was wiped out in two engagements near Taximaloyan. The Aztecs were also constantly having to put down rebellions, and these conquered peoples were often all too happy to side with the European invaders when they came in 1519 CE. Scholars have also noted that the way Aztec warfare was conducted - pre-battle diplomacy, the absence of surprise attack, and especially the lack of a need to completely destroy the enemy - gave the more direct Spanish conquistadores a distinct advantage when they sought to colonize ancient Mexico. Token victories such as the flower wars were not part of the military vocabulary of the European invaders, and the battle for Mesoamerica was, then, perhaps the Aztecs' first and last experience of total war.
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[ 5 ]


Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
Chocolate was one of the most desired foods of Mesoamerica and was consumed by the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, amongst others. Its consumption even spread via trade routes to other parts of the Americas including the Chaco in modern New Mexico. The earliest known use of chocolate was by the Olmec around 1900 BCE and, enjoyed as a drink, it was drunk from special round jars known as tecomates. The Maya used tall cylinder beakers for drinking chocolate, and these very often had text on the rim indicating their intended use. The Aztecs also had richly decorated tall cups specifically reserved for chocolate drinks. It may be that such conspicuous vessels were designed to impress onlookers that the drinker had the means and status to enjoy such a prized drink.
Chocolate is made from the beans of cacao pods from the Theobroma cacao tree (actually native to South America) which was first cultivated in extensive orchards near the Pacific and Gulf coasts of central America, especially in the Xoconusco region and the valleys of the Sarstoon, Polochic, and Motagua Rivers (modern Guatemala and Belize), where the tree thrives in the warm and humid climate. There were, in fact, four varieties of cacao bean or cacahuatl, as the Aztecs knew them, and the corruption of this word or their term for the chocolate drink - xocolatl - is probably the origin of the word chocolate.
So esteemed was chocolate that beans were a commonly traded item, very often demanded as tribute from subject tribes and even used as a form of currency by the Aztecs. In fact, cacao beans were so valuable that they were even counterfeited either to pass as currency or, even more fiendishly, hollowed out of their valuable interior and re-filled with a substitute such as sand. As a currency, we know that in the Aztec markets one cacao bean could buy you a single tomato, 30 beans got you a rabbit and, for the more ambitious shopper, a turkey could be had for 200 beans.
'...the drink of nobles, of rulers - finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter.' Sahagún
As an expensive import then, chocolate was drunk mainly by the upper classes and consumed after meals, typically accompanied by the smoking of tobacco. It may have been enjoyed mixed with maize gruel by the poorer classes at important events such as weddings, but some scholars maintain that the pure chocolate drink was an exclusive status symbol of the nobility. Curiously, it could even be given to favoured sacrificial victims as a final treat before they departed this world, for example, at the annual Aztec festival of Panquetzaliztli held in honour of Huitzilopochtli.
To prepare the chocolate, cacao beans were fermented, cured, and roasted. Then the beans were ground into powder and mixed with hot water, as chocolate was usually (but not always) consumed as a warm frothy drink, the froth made by vigorously whisking the liquid with a wooden implement and pouring the liquid from one vessel to another. Indeed, the froth was considered the best part of the drink. Bitter to taste, it could be flavoured by adding, for example, maize, vanilla, flowers, ground chile peppers, herbs, honey, or fermented agave sap (octli). Apart from the taste, another advantage of chocolate is that it also contains caffeine and so can act as a stimulant.
Bernardino de Sahagún wrote a vivid eye-witness account of how chocolate was prepared by the Aztecs and how to tell a good quality drink from an inferior one:
The seller of fine chocolate (is) one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao (beans); she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam...She sells good, superior, potable (chocolate): the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers - finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; (with) chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. (Inferior chocolate has) maize flour and water; lime water; (it is) pale; the (froth) bubbles burst. (Townsend, 178)
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[ 6 ]

Ghosts in the Ancient World

Origin and history

by Joshua J. Mark
To the people of the ancient world, there was no doubt that the soul of a human being survived bodily death. Whatever an individual's personal views were on the subject, culturally they were brought up with the understanding that the dead lived on in another form that still required some kind of sustenance, in an afterlife that was largely dictated by several factors: the kind of life they had lived on earth, how their remains were disposed of at their death, and/or how they were remembered by the living. The details of the afterlife in different cultures varied, but the constants were that such a realm existed, that it was governed by immutable laws, and that the souls of the dead would remain there unless given license by the gods to return to the land of the living for some specific reason. These reasons could include improper funeral rites, lack of any kind of burial, death by drowning where the body was not recovered, murder in which the body was never found (and so never properly buried), or to resolve some unfinished business or provide a true account of the events surrounding their death, such as when one was murdered and needed one's death avenged and the murderer brought to justice in order to rest in peace.
The appearance of ghosts of the departed, even those of loved ones, was rarely considered a welcome experience. The dead were supposed to remain in their own land and were not expected to cross back over to the world of the living. When such an event did occur, it was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong, and those who experienced a spiritual encounter were expected to take care of the problem in order for the ghost to return to its proper place. This understanding was so prevalent that ghost stories can be found, with very similar themes, in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India as well as regions of Mesoamerica and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland. Ghosts are also depicted in the Bible in much the same way as they were in earlier Roman works. The following is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Many books have been written on the belief in ghosts in each of the cultures that are mentioned and the many that are not. The purpose of this article is merely to provide readers with the basic concepts of the afterlife and the belief in ghosts in the ancient world.

Ghosts In Mesopotamia

Ghosts could appear to people on earth to right some kind of wrong.
In Mesopotamian culture, death was the final act of life from which there was no return. The land of the dead was known by many names; among them was the Irkalla, the realm beneath the earth known as the "land of no return", where the souls of the dead dwelt in a dreary darkness, fed off dirt, and sipped from mud puddles (though there were other visions of the afterlife, such as that expressed in the work Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld). This existence was the final end for all the living, no matter how great or poor a life they had lived, and it was ruled over by the dark queen Ereshkigal. No soul was permitted to leave Irkalla for any reason, not even a goddess, as exemplified in the poem The Descent of Inanna, in which even the Queen of Heaven (and Ereshkigal's sister), Inanna, must find a substitute to take her place once she ascends back to the world of the living. Special dispensation, however, was given to souls who needed to complete some kind of mission. Ghosts could appear to people on earth if it was thought that they needed to right some kind of wrong.
These appearances usually manifested themselves in some kind of sickness among the living. The scholar Robert D. Biggs writes, “The dead – especially dead relatives – might also trouble the living, particularly if family obligations to supply offerings to the dead were neglected. Especially likely to return to trouble the living were ghosts of persons who died unnatural deaths or who were not properly buried - for example, death by drowning or death on a battlefield” (4). The doctors of Mesopotamia, known as the Asu and Asipu, employed spells that would placate the ghosts but, before such treatment could begin, the doctor would ask the patient to honestly confess any sins that could have called the ghost forth from the underworld. Sickness in Mesopotamia was considered an outward manifestation of some sin that was being punished either by the gods or by the spirits of the departed and was always assumed to be the fault of the one who was ill until it was proven otherwise.
Upon one's death, a spiritual entity known as a Gidim was created, which maintained the personal identity of the deceased and traveled on to the land of the dead. It was this Gidim that would return to haunt the living if proper attention had not been paid to funeral rites and burial or if there had been some unlawful act involved in the person's death. Inscriptions do make clear, however, that sometimes the Gidim could mischievously slip out of Irkalla for visits to the earth, where they would harass the living for no good reason. These spirits would be punished by the sun god Shamash by having their funerary offerings taken from them and awarded to Gidim who had no one to remember them on earth, and so no one to provide them with offerings for their continued existence. Although there are records of loved ones returning from the afterlife with warnings or advice, most of the ghosts of Mesopotamia were unwelcome guests who were sent back to their realm through the use of charms, amulets, prayers, or exorcism.

Egyptian Ghosts

The living who were harassed by the ghost would have to plead their case directly to the returned spirit in hopes of a reasonable response.
In ancient Egypt, the return of a ghost was also considered a very serious matter. For the Egyptians, non-existence was an intolerable concept, and it was believed that, at death, the soul traveled to the Hall of Truth where it was judged by Osiris and the 42 Judges by having its heart weighed in balance with the white feather of truth; if the heart was found lighter than the feather, the soul proceeded on to the afterlife, while if it was heavier, it was thrown to the floor where it was eaten by a monster and the soul would cease to exist. One's heart would be lighter if one had lived a good life and heavier if one had not. The afterlife was known as the Field of Reeds, which was a mirror image of one's life on earth in Egypt. One would enjoy the house one knew, the stream by that house, one's favorite tree and dog, and so there was no reason for a soul to want to return to earth unless that soul had a very good reason for doing so.
In the earlier period of Egypt, the soul was considered a single entity known as the Khu, the immortal aspect of an individual but, in later times, the soul was thought to be comprised of five different components. Two of these components, the Ba and Ka (spirit and personality), came together after death in the form of the Akh, and it was this entity that would return as a ghost. If proper rites had not been observed in burial, or some sin had been committed by the living either before or after the person's death, the Akh was given dispensation by the gods to return to earth to redress the wrong. The living who were harassed by the ghost would have to plead their case directly to the returned spirit in hopes of a reasonable response and, if that was ineffective, would need to have a priest intervene and judge between the living and the dead. An example of this would be how, when misfortune fell upon a widower, it was first attributed to some "sin" he had hidden from his wife that she, now all-knowing in the Field of Reeds, was punishing him for. In a letter from a widower to his dead wife found in a tomb from the New Kingdom, the man pleads with the spirit of his wife to leave him alone as he is innocent of any wrong-doing:
What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should have come to this evil pass? What have I done to thee? But what thou hast done to me is to have laid hands on me although I had nothing wicked to thee. From the time I lived with thee as thy husband down to today, what have I done to thee that I need hide? When thou didst sicken of the illness which thou hadst, I caused a master-physician to be fetched…I spent eight months without eating and drinking like a man. I wept exceedingly together with my household in front of my street-quarter. I gave linen clothes to wrap thee and left no benefit undone that had to be performed for thee. And now, behold, I have spent three years alone without entering into a house, though it is not right that one like me should have to do it. This have I done for thy sake. But, behold, thou dost not know good from bad (Nardo, 32).
If properly buried with adequate rites and continually remembered, the spirits of the dead could be of great benefit to the living and watch over them throughout their lives. There was a significant difference, however, in Egyptian understanding of a "spirit" who resided peacefully in the Field of Reeds and a "ghost" who returned to earth.

Ghosts in Greece & Rome

Ghosts in ancient Rome were understood to appear in certain predictable ways and, usually, at certain times of the night.
In ancient Greece, the afterlife consisted of three distinct realms. When one died, a coin would be placed in one's mouth to pay Charon the Ferryman to take the soul across the river Styx. This coin wasn't "payment" exactly as much as a sign of respect between the soul and the gods - the greater the value of the coin, the better seat the soul got in Charon's boat. Once the soul was on the other side, one would pass by the three-headed dog Cerberus and then stand before the three judges to give an account of the life one had lived. When the story had been told, and as the judges conferred, one would be given a cup of water from the River Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, and would forget one's former life on earth. The judges would then assign the soul a location: if you had been a warrior who died in battle, you went to the Elysian Fields which were a paradise; if you had been a good person, you went to the Plain of Asphodel, also pleasant; if you had been a bad person, then you went to the darkness of Tartarus where the soul remained until it had atoned for the sins of one's life. No soul was "condemned to eternal damnation". The soul in Tartarus could become elevated to the Plain of Asphodel in time. As in the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt, souls were not expected to return to earth for any reason, but sometimes they still did. This same basic paradigm was adopted by the Roman culture who held a much more deep-seated belief in ghosts than the Greeks.
In the comedy Mostellaria (The Haunted House), the Roman playwright Plautus tells the story of how a rich Athenian merchant named Theopropides goes away on business and leaves the operation of his home to his son, Philolaches. Philolaches sees his father's absence as an opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest instead of proving himself a responsible steward and borrows a large sum of money to buy the freedom of a slave girl he loves. He then spends even more money to throw a grand party for his friends at his father's home. All is going well for Philolaches until his slave, Tranio, tells him he has just gotten word that Theopropides is returning unexpectedly from his trip and will soon be home. Philolaches panics, not knowing what to do with his guests or how he will explain his enormous expenses, but Tranio assures him all will be well. He locks Philolaches and his guests in the house and meets Theopropides outside, telling him that he cannot enter because the house has been found to be haunted. He tells Theopropides that a ghost appeared to Philolaches in a dream, in the dead of night, while the torches were still lit, and informed him that he was murdered in the house long ago by a his villainous host who killed him for his gold. Tranio further says that the corpse of the murdered man is still hidden in the house, and it is dangerous for anyone to enter. Theopropides believes the story without question and despairs of where he will live now. A money-lender then shows up, demanding payment on the loan Philolaches took out to buy the slave girl, and Tranio explains that this was done to buy the house next door since Theopropides' old home is now uninhabitable. Even when Theopropides goes next door and talks to Simo, the owner of the house, who denies that he sold it to Philolaches, Theopropides still shows no sign of doubting the ghost story.
The improper burial of the dead was considered the prime reason for the return of a spirit from the afterlife.
Ghosts in ancient Rome were understood to appear in certain predictable ways and, usually, at certain times of the night. The historian D. Felton has noted that audiences who enjoyed Mostellaria would have found Tranio's haphazard ghost story hilarious because it departed from what people knew the truth of such a haunting would be: the ghost of the murdered man would appear in a room lit by a torch (since ghosts could not be seen without some kind of light) but would not appear in a dream unless he was a friend or loved one. Ghosts who appeared in dreams were considered a completely different kind of spirit than a "restless" ghost who had suffered an untimely or unjust death and had not been buried with the proper rites. In his haste to put together a story for the master of the house, Tranio confuses two separate types of ghost story and, Felton observes, the ancient audience would have found this confusion funny.
An interesting departure from this paradigm is the story of the maiden Philinnion as told by Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century CE) and later by Proclus (5th century CE), in which Philinnion is married to one of Alexander the Great's generals, Craterus, and dies after six months of marriage. She is returned to life and visits a youth named Machates every night in his room at her parent's house. When she is discovered by her parents, she explains she was released from the underworld for a specific purpose and then dies a second time. The historian Kelly E. Shannon, among others, has pointed out the lengths Phlegon goes to authenticate his story, presenting it as a first person account in the form of a letter relating an historical event which happened in a specific place (Amphipolis) at a certain time (during the reign of Philip II of Macedon) while being careful not to be so specific that a reader acquainted with the history of that place and time would have reason to doubt it. Shannon writes:
What can a reader reasonably be expected to believe? Roman literature is filled with strange and inexplicable creatures, objects, and occurrences, from centaurs to ghostly apparitions to volcanic eruptions. And these are not confined to the world of myth. Accounts of the natural world often focus on phenomena that may seem outlandish or impossible: authors like Pliny the Elder present as true things that a rational modern audience would find it difficult or even impossible to take seriously (1).
This phenomena Shannon references were known to the Romans as mirabilia (wonders or miracles) and included talking beasts, incredibly tall spirit-women, visions from gods, and ghosts. Among the most famous of such mirabilia is the tale by Pliny the Younger (61-115 CE) who tells the story of the philosopher Athenodorus who comes to Athens and hears of a haunted house that is going cheaply because everyone is afraid of the ghost who haunts it. Athenodorus rents the house and, that night, hears the rattling of chains and wakes to find a man in his room who motions that he should rise and come with him. Athenodorus follows the ghost to a spot in the courtyard of the house where the spirit suddenly vanishes. The next day Athenodorus has the city magistrate dig up the spot where they find the remains of a man entwined with chains. The body is buried with all the proper rites, and the house is no longer haunted. This story is typical of a "haunting" in which a spirit appears to seek redress for a wrong. The improper burial of the dead - or lack of any grave - was considered the prime reason for the return of a spirit from the afterlife even above a spirit's desire to have their death avenged.
The possibility of a spirit returning to ask a loved one to avenge his or her death is illustrated in a tale told by Apuleius, in which a man named Thrasyllus falls in love with the wife of his friend Tlepolemus and murders him while out hunting. Tlepolemus's spirit appears to his wife in a dream, tells her how he died, and asks her to avenge him. Thrasyllus has asked if he may court her, but she has denied his suit because she is still in mourning. She now says, however, that he may visit her that night. She offers him wine which is drugged and, once he falls into a stupor, she blinds him with her hair pin, claiming that death is too easy a punishment for what he has done, and he must now wander through life without seeing the world. She then runs to her husband's tomb, tells the story of his death, and kills herself with his sword. Thrasyllus has himself shut up in Tlepolemus' tomb and starves himself to death.
These, then, were the two main ways an ancient audience understood ghosts to manifest themselves (though they were not the only modes of manifestation), either in dreams or in physical appearances and usually having to do with some problem surrounding their death, and this same paradigm is observed in other cultures.

Ghosts in China & India

During the Ghost Festival, people leave out food and gifts for the dead in the hope that they will remain in their own realm and not trouble the living.
In Chinese culture the spirit of a person who had drowned, died alone, died in battle, or suffered some other death where they went unburied would appear bodily and could only be seen at night by torch light. The spirit of an ancestor who wished to relate some information or give a warning would appear in a dream. Ghosts were considered a reality by the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti (470-391 BCE) who argued in favor of accepting the report of the ghost of the minister Tu Po returning from the afterlife and assassinating Xuan, the king of Zhou. He reasoned that when people tell of how a certain machine operates with which one is not acquainted, or how certain people behave or speak in a land they have never been to, one should accept what they say if their report seems credible and if they, themselves, seem reliable witnesses. Following this line of reasoning, then, one should accept what is said about ghosts if those who tell one about them can be trusted in what they have said about other things in life one can verify oneself. As ancient historical accounts, as well as contemporary reports of his time, contained references to ghosts, they should be accepted as a reality in the same way one recognized established history and news reports of the day, even if one has not experienced a ghost oneself.
The Chinese belief in ghosts was heavily influenced by their practice of ancestor worship and the belief that the departed continued to exert a powerful influence on people's lives. As in the other cultures mentioned, the spirits of the dead could benefit the living unless there had been impropriety in burial or funeral rites or the dead had been given dispensation from heaven to return to right a wrong. The Ghost Festival, which originated to honor and appease the dead, continues to be held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year. Known as the "Ghost Month", this time is thought to be when the veil between the realm of the living and that of the dead is thinnest and the dead can easily cross over (similar to the Celtic concept of Samhain and the Mesoamerican festival known as The Day of the Dead). During the Ghost Festival, people leave out food and gifts for the dead to appease and honor them in the hope that they will remain in their own realm and not trouble the living.
The Chinese afterlife was thought of as a journey in which the soul had to cross a bridge over an abyss where it was judged. If the soul was found worthy, it continued on, paused at a pavilion to look back on the land of the living one last time, and then drank a cup of a brew called Mengpo Soup which caused one to forget one's former life entirely. The ghost culture of China diverges at this point on what happens to the soul next; according to some works, the soul goes on to heaven, while according to others, it is reincarnated. If the soul is found unworthy as it crosses the bridge to the afterlife, it slips down into hell where it remains. In either case, the soul was not expected to return to the land of the living and, if one did, and it was not an ancestor appearing in a dream with some warning or advice, it was certain some kind of evil force was involved.
This is exemplified in the story of Ning Caicheng and Nie Xiaoqian from the writer Pu Songling's book of stories of 1680 CE. The story is thought to be much older than the 17th century CE and tells the story of Ning's visit to a temple where he is visited by the ghost of the maiden Nie. She tries to seduce him, but he resists owing to his belief in virtuous conduct. Two other travelers who come to stay at the temple are found dead the next morning with holes pierced in the soles of their feet and their blood drained. Nie comes to respect Ning's virtue in resisting her advances and tells him that she died in the temple when she was only 18 years old and came under the control of a monster demon who inhabited the ground where she was buried. This monster required her to seduce travelers and drain their blood which she then fed to him. Ning digs up Nie's remains and carries them home with him where he re-buries them near his house and pours out a libation on her grave as a sign of respect and honor. Having performed the appropriate funerary rites for the girl, he turns to leave her grave, but she calls out to him, and he finds she has been returned to life due to his virtuous conduct and his efforts in burying her properly. Ning and Nie then marry and, as the story goes, live happily ever after with their children.
Chinese ghost stories often carry a moral along the lines of the Legend of Ning and Nie and emphasize virtuous behavior and kindness to others. Confucius himself believed in the efficacy of the ghost story because he felt the lessons learned from supernatural encounters could instill proper virtues in the living. He felt this was even true of encounters with so-called Hungry Ghosts, which were spirits whose relatives had forgotten their duties of respect and remembrance or spirits of those who had been murdered but whose killers had not been brought to justice. Hungry Ghosts were thought to have received special dispensation from the gods to torment the living until they received their due. The Hungry Ghost could torment the mind of the living or inhabit the home and behave along the lines of the familiar poltergeist.
This was also true in India where the ghosts of the departed were seen as a kind of Hungry Ghosts. In ancient (and modern) India ghosts were known as Bhoots and appeared as humans but with backward feet who could change their appearance without warning. The feet are thought to appear backwards to symbolize that something has gone wrong, that the spirit is in an unnatural state. Bhoots materialize when the person dies before their ordained time on earth. Since they were unable to enjoy the fullness of their lives, they return to earth in the hope of possessing the body of some living person. Ghost possession, including the spirit re-animating their own corpse, was a great concern in ancient India, and some scholars maintain that this led to the practice of cremating the dead. If a body were cremated, the spirit could not return to re-animate it, and the burning of certain spices, along with the use of amulets and prayers, could protect the living from the spirit taking possession of them after it found it could not re-inhabit its dead body.
There are stories involving haunted regions, houses, and even cities where the ghosts have been present for many centuries.
Since these spirits have died before their allotted time, they are very unhappy and usually angry. Ghosts were thought to cause multiple problems when they manifested themselves physically but, as in other cultures, were considered beneficial when they appeared in dreams and could be recognized as the spirit of someone the dreamer had known, especially a relative. A particularly dangerous bhoot was known as the churail, which was the spirit of a woman who had died in childbirth. This ghost was thought to be encountered at crossroads and intersections and would make advances of friendship to the living. If the living person was a woman, the churail would seek to steal her children or try to possess her body and, if a man, it would seek to seduce and then kill him. Once the bhoot had lived out its allotted time on earth, even the churail, it would leave and re-enter the stream of reincarnation. The Indian belief in an afterlife involving the transmigration of souls dictated that the soul of the deceased was judged according to its acts while in the body and would move either up or down a spiritual hierarchy in the next incarnation. It would seem, however, that not every soul moved on, since there are stories involving haunted regions, houses, and even cities where the ghosts have been present for many centuries.
The most famous of these sites is Bangarh Fort in Rajasthan which is an abandoned city thought to be inhabited by ghosts. The city was built under the Mughal Empire in 1573 CE and, as the legend goes, was prosperous until cursed by a reclusive hermit who lived nearby. In one version of the story, this hermit was a wise man who gave his blessing to the building of the city on the condition that none of the houses rose so high as to cast a shadow on his hillside home and so block his sun. The original builders of the city respected his request but, later, it was forgotten and additions were made to the palace which cast its shadow over the hermit's home. He cursed the city and its inhabitants for their lack of consideration and, in a single night, all the upper stories of the buildings were destroyed and the people who survived then deserted Bangarh Fort and built a new city of Bangarh nearby.
The other version of the story involves the beautiful princess Ratnavi and the evil wizard Baba Balnath. The wizard was in love with the princess but knew she would never return his feelings. He concocted a love potion that would powerfully attract the princess to him and disguised it as perfume, which he then had presented to her one day in the market. Ratnavi suspected the bottle held something other than perfume and poured it onto a nearby boulder which, because of the potion's magical powers, drew the boulder directly toward the wizard and crushed him. As he was dying, Baba Balnath cursed Ratnavi and the entire city and swore no one should ever live within its walls again. As in the other version of the story, the city was then deserted in a single night after some catastrophe and, true to his curse, it was never again inhabited by the living. The dead, however, are believed to still reside at Bangarh Fort and there are reports in the present day by people claiming to hear spectral voices, disembodied laughter by the old bathing pool, footsteps, who also say they have seen lights moving in the city and have even seen the spirit of Princess Ratnavi herself.

Mesoamerican Ghosts

In the Maya belief system, lingering ghosts such as those said to inhabit Bangarh were intolerable and needed to be kept at bay through charms and amulets or driven back to the underworld through the intercession of a Daykeeper (shaman). The Maya idea of the afterlife was similar to the Mesopotamian view that the underworld was a dark and terrible place, but the Maya took the vision even further: in the Maya underworld (known as Xibalba or Metnal) there were numerous Lords of the Dead who could trick the soul of the deceased as it sought its way toward paradise. Once the soul descended into this underworld, it was on a journey from which there was no turning back. Ghosts, as with the other cultures mentioned, were not expected to return to the earthly realm. The spirit would leave the body and be conducted across a great expanse of water by a spirit dog who would then help the soul navigate through the various trips and traps of the Lords of Xibalba to reach the Tree of Life which the soul then had to climb up to paradise.
Like the Maya, the Aztecs held that the afterlife was a gloomy place of no return.
Spirits who returned, therefore, were considered unnatural unless, as with other cultures, they appeared in dreams and were recognizable as friends or family members (though even this was not always the case). The Maya preferred to believe that the dead who were not at perfect rest could return in the form of plants that were either beneficial or should be avoided. The best example of this belief is the Legend of the Xtabay which tells the story of two beautiful women, Xkeban and Utz-Colel. Xkeban was treated poorly by the respectable people of the town because she had engaged in unlawful sex with a man outside of marriage, but she was loved by the lower classes because of her goodness of heart and her kindness to all. Utz-Colel was highly regarded by the upper classes because she came from a good family and observed all the social etiquette, but she was hard-hearted and cruel and cared for no one but herself.
One day, a strange and intoxicating fragrance filled the village and, when the poor people followed it to its source, they came to Xkeban's hut and found her dead inside from some unknown cause. The lovely fragrance was emanating from her body. They buried her and, the next day, found beautiful wildflowers growing all over her grave which carried the same scent they had experienced the day before. Shortly after this, Utz-Colel died but, from her body rose a terrible odor. The respectable people of the village buried her with great ceremony as a good and noble woman and planted many flowers but, the next day, the flowers had drooped and died. From her grave then grew the flower known as Tzacam which has no scent while, from Xkeban's grave, grew the Xtabentun flower which smells sweet, and the two women's souls became infused with their respective flowers.
When Utz-Colel found that she was a prickly flower without scent, she was jealous of Xkeban and believed that Xkeban's sin of physical love had somehow brought her such prosperity. She entered into league with the dark spirits of Xibalba to bring her back to life so that she could now have sex with whomever she pleased and be as blessed as Xkeban. Utz-Colel did not understand, however, that Xkeban's act had been motivated by love while Utz-Colel's was motivated by ambition. She was returned to earth as the Xtabay, the flower which grows from the Tzacam cactus but sometimes assumes a human form and waits for travelers at crossroads. If a man pays attention to her, she seduces and then kills him while, if the traveler is a woman, she punishes her by afflicting her peace of mind.
The Aztecs have a similar entity in their beliefs which is actually closer to the churails of India. The Aztec spirit is known as a Cihuateteo and is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. These spirits also haunted crossroads but ignored male travelers; they waited for women with children and then struck the women down and stole their children. They were also thought to be able to slip into homes in the night to abduct children there. Amulets and charms were hung by doorways and windows to ward off the cihuateteo. In the Aztec belief system, ghosts were also unwelcome guests who only brought bad news or served as omens of doom. Like the Maya, the Aztecs held that the afterlife was a gloomy place of no return and so, when a spirit did come back, it was a clear indication that something had gone wrong or soon would.
As with the Tarascan tribe, the Aztecs believed that dogs could see and would protect one against ghosts, and both groups buried their dead with dogs who were thought to then serve the soul in the afterlife as both a guide through the underworld and as a protector against ghosts. The Tarascans were deeply troubled by the fear of ghosts and so developed the concept of the spirit dog. It was thought that ghosts were the spirits of those who had been improperly buried, who had died alone on a hunt and were never found, or who had drowned. These spirits would return to haunt the living until their bodies were found and properly buried with ceremonies. The problem, of course, was that the bodies could not be found. In these cases, the Tarascans held that a spirit dog would find the body and lead the soul away to the afterlife so that it would not trouble the living.
The dead were celebrated in Mesoamerican cultures instead of being mourned and this gave rise to the event known today as The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos). The community gathers on this day to remember those who have passed on to the other side and to celebrate their lives. Originally, the Aztecs honored the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, during this festival, and then honored the souls of children who had died, and then adults who had passed on to the other side. The festival used to take place during the time of the corn harvest (late July through August) but after the Spanish conquest it shifted to November to coincide with All Saints Day of the Catholic church.

Celtic Ghosts

This shift in the season of the Day of the Dead in Mesoamerica came about because of the Catholic church's policy of "Christianizing" previously existing pagan festivals. A similar celebration observed in northern Europe in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is known as Samhain (pronounced sou-when or sow-when). The pagans of these regions saw life as cyclical, not linear, and the year revolved like a wheel. Samhain was the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next and it was thought that, at this time, the veil between the living and the dead grew thin and the dead could walk again in life. This took place in late October/early November and traditionally is considered to begin at sundown on 31 October and go until 2 November (though some have observed the celebration for a week before the 31st of October to a week after). Although many modern day sources on the internet and some popular television shows from the United States claim that Samhain was the Celtic god of the dead and that people would sacrifice to him on 31 October, this is not so. There never was a Celtic god of the dead known as Sam Hain. "Samhain" simply means "summer's end" in the Celtic language.
During Samhain cattle were slaughtered, and the bones were burned in "bone fires", today known as bonfires.
The dead were thought to walk freely through the world during this time and people would prepare meals which their departed friends and relatives enjoyed while alive. Samhain was an important celebration when the harvest was brought in, cattle were slaughtered and salted for the winter, and the bones were burned, a practice which gave rise to the bone fires, which today are known as bonfires. The darker side of Samhain, however, was that the dead who were restless (like the Hungry Ghosts of China) were also free to roam, and so people initiated the practice of wearing masks so they would not be recognized by a spirit who may wish one harm. This custom eventually evolved into the modern-day celebration of Halloween. The Roman Empire had conquered much of the region of the Celts by the 1st century CE and, when Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 4th century CE, the church incorporated many pagan holidays into their calendar. Since Samhain was such a popular festival, it was brought into the church as Allhallows or Hallowmas, which became All Soul's Day and then All Saint's Day when believers prayed for the souls of the dead in purgatory. As with Samhain in Europe, so it was with the Day of the Dead in Mexico; the pagan festivals became days of Christian observances.


Although the belief that the dead could return to earth at All Soul's Day persisted, it changed as the Christian vision of the afterlife became increasingly popular and ghosts came to be linked with demons and the devil. Ghosts are mentioned in the Bible in passages such as Matthew 14:25-27, Mark 6:48-50, and Luke 24:37:39. Among the most famous passages concerning a ghost is the one from I Samuel 28: 7-20 in which King Saul goes to the Witch of Endor and asks her to conjure the ghost of Samuel, his former advisor and a prophet of God. Saul is afterwards cut off from God's favor for choosing to consult a spirit about what he should do instead of trusting in God for his future. Ghosts, and especially conjuring spirits, came to be seen in a negative light as Christianity gained more adherents. The passage in Mark 6 has also been interpreted as a negative representation of ghosts in that the disciples think that Jesus is a ghost when they see him walking on the water. Ghosts could not walk on water, only gods and those who were divine, and so when the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost, it is thought to show their hardness of heart in receiving Jesus' message of salvation. The scholar Jason Robert Combs has noted how the writer of Mark knew that his audience would recognize the symbolism of the ghost. He writes:
Gods and divine men walk on water; ghosts do not. But when the disciples see Jesus walking on water, they believe the impossible rather than the obvious. Mark's insertion of this absurdity, "because they saw him walking on the sea they thought he was a ghost" (6:49), emphasizes in dramatic fashion the disciples' misconstrual of Jesus' messiahship (358).
The author of Mark continually makes the point that the disciples failed to grasp who Jesus was and what his mission was about. His use of the ghost early in his book would have made this point clearly to an ancient audience who would have recognized that a ghost cannot walk on water and that, further, water was often employed to ward off ghosts. The biblical book of I John 4:1 states that one should test all spirits to see if they are from God and not believe that every spirit is what they appear to be. This passage, coupled with the belief expressed in the passage from Mark and I Samuel and others, encouraged an even further negative view of ghosts than people had previously. Although ghosts had always been regarded as unwelcome and unnatural, they were now linked with the demonic and were seen as agents of the devil. People were encouraged to reject the reality of ghosts since, at death, the soul of the person went to either heaven, hell, or purgatory and did not return to earth. If one saw a ghost, then, one should assume it was a trick of the devil to snare one's soul for hell in causing them to doubt the divine order of God. This attitude toward ghosts is exploited for dramatic purposes in Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Prince Hamlet doubts that the ghost he has seen is actually his father returned from the dead and says, "The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil, and the devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy/As he is very potent with such spirits/Abuses me to damn me" (II.ii.610-615). This view of ghosts completely altered the old understanding that ghosts were the souls of those who had died and, since they were of the devil, belief in them was discouraged.
In time, a growing trust in a secular and more "scientific" way of viewing the world completed the work begun by the church and relegated ghosts to the realm of superstition and fiction. Judging from the number of websites and books devoted to the subject, there are many in the modern day who are interested in the subject of ghosts but, generally speaking, the belief is not encouraged culturally; precisely the reverse situation of how ghosts were viewed in the ancient world. The journalist John Keel, who investigated many so-called paranormal events and is best known for his book The Mothman Prophecies, once wrote that there is no such thing as the "paranormal" or "supernatural". After citing a number of strange events which people have experienced throughout history, Keel observed that what people in the modern day call "paranormal" or "supernatural" events are actually normal and natural aspects of life on earth. The world of spirits, ghosts, and souls appearing from an afterlife, according to Keel, may be just as much of a reality today as it was to the people of the ancient world; the reason people no longer accept ghosts as a part of life is simply because a world that operates that way is no longer recognized as valid. A new paradigm of how the world worked rose with Christianity, and then the acceptance of a secular view of the universe, and ghosts were further distanced from the realm of the living until, finally, they lost their actual potency and became the staple of tales and legends.
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Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
Huitzilopochtli (pron. Huit-zi-lo-pocht-li) or ‘Hummingbird of the South’ or ‘Blue Hummingbird on the Left’ was one of the most important deities in the Aztec pantheon and for the Méxica he was the supreme god. He was the god of the sun and war, considered the patron of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán and associated with gold, warriors and rulers. His calendar name was Ce Técpatl (1 Flint) and his nagual or animal spirit was the eagle.
Unlike many other Aztec deities, Huitzilopochtli has no clear equivalents from earlier Mesoamerican cultures. In Aztec mythology Huitzilopochtli was the son of Omecίhuatl and Ometecuhtli, respectively, the female and male aspects of the androgynous primordial god Ometeotl. In an alternative version, the god is the offspring of Coatlίcue, the supreme earth goddess. Huitzilopochtli was also considered the brother of those other great Mesoamerican gods Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and Xipe Totec.

Huitzilopochtli as the Sun

Huitzilopochtli famously avenged the murder of his mother Coatlίcue (or in some versions actually saved her) when he defeated his siblings the 400 Centzonhuitznahuac and Centzonmimizcoa on Mt. Coatepec, the snake mountain. According to the legend, Coatlίcue, whilst sweeping her temple, tucked some feathers under her breast and with these she became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli. Her children were outraged at this development and attacked Coatlίcue but when they decapitated their mother Huitzilopochtli sprang from the corpse with all his weapons in hand and lopped off his sister Coyolxauhqui’s head. In some versions of the myth she had been the leader of the revolt, in others, she had been trying to warn Coatlίcue of the plot against her. In any case, Huitzilopochtli dismembered her corpse so that her torso fell to the bottom of the mountain and when he slung the head into the skies it became the moon. Huitzilpochtli then dealt with his other unruly siblings the Centzonhuitznahuac and the Centzonmimizcoa, putting an end to their takeover attempt and dispersing them into the heavens to become the southern and northern constellations respectively.
For the Aztecs the tussle between Coyolxauhqui and Huitzilopochtli was thought to reoccur everyday which explained the daily exchange for control of the sky between the sun and moon. Huitzilopochtli was believed to be accompanied on the first half of his journey across the sky by the spirits of fallen warriors (who would later return to earth as hummingbirds). From noon the god was then accompanied by the Cihuateteo, the spirits of women who had died during childbirth. When night fell Huitzilopochtli moved through the Underworld until dawn and he then once more travelled the skies.

Worship of Huitzilopochtli

Huitzilopochtli’s rival as the most important Aztec god was Tezcatlipoca but at his city of Tenochtitlán the god was supreme. The focal point of worship to Huitzilopochtli was at the Aztec capital where he had a wooden statue and shrine alongside that of Tláloc atop the Temple Mayor pyramid or Hueteocalli. The god’s temple was on the south side and marked the winter solstice and dry season - the traditional time of war - and the steps leading to Huitzilopochtli’s temple were painted bright red to symbolise blood and war.
Human sacrifices were offered to feed the great god of war.
As Huitzilopochtli was such an important deity he was the beneficiary of human sacrifices whose blood would feed and strengthen the god. Victims usually came from war captives and they were led to the top of the Temple Mayor, their hearts were removed, they were skinned and the corpse decapitated and dismembered, perhaps in homage to Coyolxauhqui and her similar fate at the hands of Huitzilopochtli. The torso of the victim was flung down the steps of the pyramid to land at the base where, significantly, stone-carved snakes recall Mt. Coatepec and a massive round stone depicting a dismembered Coyolxauhqui was found. Meanwhile priests and nobles ate parts of the sacrificed flesh with the heart being most prized. In a more picturesque homage to Huitzilopochtli, flowers and quail eggs were offered to the god, images of him were strung with garlands and women danced the traditional serpent dance.
Huitzilopochtli was worshipped in the ceremony of Panquetzaliztli in the month of the same name when the god’s birth on Mt. Coatepec was commemorated and he was also celebrated during the month of Toxcatl when an effigy or tzoalli made from dough using the amaranth plant and dressed as Huitzilopochtli was taken to the god’s temple in a great procession and then eaten.
The Méxica, especially, revered Huitzilopochtli as they believed he had led them from the legendary Aztlán cave in the northwest desert on a protracted journey that eventually led to their new capital Tenochtitlán. During this migration priests had carried a huge idol of the god who whispered directions, gave the Méxica their name and promised great wealth and prosperity if he was suitably worshipped. Along the way the Méxica settled at different spots, none of which really suited their purpose. A decisive event in the migration was the rebellion incited by Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister Malinalxochitl. This was in revenge for the goddess’ abandonment by the Méxica but with Huitzilopochtli’s help Copil was killed. The great war god instructed that the rebel’s heart be thrown as far as possible into Lake Texcoco and where it landed would indicate the place the Méxica should build their new home, the precise spot being marked by an eagle sitting on a prickly-pear cactus. This is exactly what came to pass and the new capital of Tenochtitlán was built.

Representations in Art

There are few surviving depictions of Huitzilopochtli, probably because the god was relatively young in the Aztec pantheon and he was typically sculpted in wood rather than stone so that there are no surviving monumental representations of him. When he is represented, Huitzilopochtli may be depicted carrying his snake-shaped spear-thrower (atl-atl) which represents the fire-serpent Xiuhcóatl. He may also carry a shield, hold feathered arrows or darts and be painted with blue arms and legs. The god could be symbolised by either a hummingbird (huitzilin) - whose feathers he wore in his helmet - or an eagle sitting on a prickly pear cactus holding a snake in one of its talons, an image seen today in the national flag of Mexico.
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Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
Montezuma, or more correctly, Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin (aka Moctezuma) or ‘Angry Like A Lord’ was the last fully independent ruler of the Aztec empire before the civilization’s collapse at the hands of the Spanish in the early 16th century CE. Taking the position of tlatoani, meaning ‘speaker’, in 1502 CE he would rule as an absolute monarch until 1520 CE, during which time he expanded the empire and was considered a god by his people and a manifestation and perpetuator of the sun.

An Absolute Ruler

Motecuhzoma was the son of the great leader Axayacatl (r. 1469-1481 CE) and was one of the best warriors under his uncle Ahuitzotl (r. 1486-1502 CE). In particular, he distinguished himself in the Aztec campaigns in Tehuantepec and Xoconochco. On the death of Ahuitzotl, Motecuhzoma assumed the highest position in Aztec society and he became, in a sumptuous coronation ceremony, the undisputed religious and political leader or tlatoani in 1502 CE.
We are fortunate to have a first-hand physical description of Motecuhzoma by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who saw him in 1519 CE:
(He was) about 40 years old, of good height and well-proportioned, slender and spare of flesh, not very swarthy, but of the natural colour and shade of an Indian. He did not wear his hair long, but so as just to cover his ears, his scanty black beard was well-shaped and thin. His face was somewhat long, but cheerful, and he had good eyes and showed in his appearance and manner both tenderness and, when necessary, gravity. (Townsend, 19)
As part of the ceremonies to confirm him in his new status Motecuhzoma led an army, in what became known as the Coronation War, to Nopallan, 640 km to the south. Conquering the fortified city he brought back to Tenochtitlan substantial booty and a contingent of captives for ritual sacrifice. The new tlatoani was also commemorated in a specially commissioned stone (now known as the Coronation Stone of Motecuhzoma II) which was covered in carvings depicting the five eras of Aztec mythology, the year sign 11-reed (1503 CE) and the day ‘one alligator’ (4th of June).
Motecuhzoma set about widening the powers of the tlatoani position by simultaneously reducing the duties of the chief of internal affairs (Tlacaellel or Cihuacoatl) so that he became, in effect, absolute ruler and undisputed leader of the Triple Alliance of the three great cities of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan. Motecuhzoma also elevated the status of the nobility by further differentiating them from the rest of society through an increased emphasis on titles, distinguishing clothes and insignia and etiquette at court.
Motecuhzoma commanded, then, an empire which stretched from the northern limits of Mexico to today’s Guatemala.
Motecuhzoma commanded, then, an empire which stretched from the northern limits of Mexico to today’s Guatemala. Indeed, he even expanded it and fought four major wars so that only the Tarascans in the east and the Tlaxcalans in the west remained unconquered. These subject states all paid tribute as indicated in the Aztec tax records. Tribute could take the form of traditional precious materials such as gold and jade, exotic feathers and even animals such as eagles and jaguars. Tribute could also be in the form of clothes, fabrics and foodstuffs such as corn and cacao.

A Life of Luxury

Motecuhzoma certainly lived like a king. His huge palace at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had hanging gardens, a ten-room aviary with fresh and salt-water pools, and even a private zoo with jaguars, eagles, pumas, foxes and snakes amongst hundreds of other exotic animals. The Aztec king was cared for by 3,000 attendants and, according to Bernal Diáz, a typical royal meal included hundreds of specially made dishes which included turkey, venison, duck, pigeon, rabbit, quail, fish and boar, all served on finely decorated and especially delicate Cholula pottery. We are also told that the king ate alone and behind a gilded screen, entertained by jugglers and acrobats.
Other snippets of information about the ill-fated king include the fact that he visited the great city of Teotihuacan several times, a pilgrimage that entailed the crossing of Lake Texcoco by canoe. That he had a fascination for dwarves, hunchbacks and albinos, all of which were kept in special chambers within the royal palace and we also know that he wore golden sandals and loved to hunt birds using a blowpipe. Finally, he was interested in the arts, astrology and philosophy.

The Beginning of the End

Even before the Spanish arrived, all was not quite well with the Aztecs for their empire was based not on military might but existed as a loose binding of subject states run by puppet rulers who extracted the tributes mentioned above and imposed the worship of the Aztec deity Huitzilopochtli. The Aztecs, though, perhaps over-reached themselves and several outer tribes began to rebel, especially following the disastrous defeat in 1515 CE to the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo. These insurrections across the empire were quashed but trouble was never far below the surface and, perhaps most significantly, the harsh treatment of the Tlaxcala would later make them more than willing allies of the Spanish.
Motecuhzoma seems to have had some instinct that troubled times were ahead as he gave great importance to omens such as a comet sighted in 1509 CE and he constantly consulted soothsayers for advice. Aztec mythology foretold that the present era of the 5th sun would eventually collapse just as the previous four eras had done. By 1515 CE rumours of a rapidly approaching crisis were fuelled by sightings off the coast of fantastic floating temples; the visitors from the Old World had finally come.
The Aztec leader’s first strategy with the strange visitors from another world was to attempt to buy them off with gifts. These included ceremonial costumes, a massive gold disk representing the sun and an even bigger silver one representing the moon. However, if anything, this may well have further encouraged the Spanish to plunder this new land for all it was worth.
In August 1519 CE the Spanish leader Hernán Cortés marched on Tenochtitlan. According to the Spanish sources Motecuhzoma allowed them entry to the city. From here on in the history of the conflict is much debated amongst scholars and it is unlikely that the Spanish chroniclers presented a completely impartial account of events. It has been noted that it does seem strange that such a powerful ruler as Motecuhzoma should cut such a passive figure in the record of events brought down to us. However, against that it is certainly true that the Spanish had shown their military prowess and the devastating effectiveness of their superior weaponry - canons, firearms and crossbows - in quickly defeating a force of Otomi-Tlaxcalan and they also took quick and ruthless reprisals against a treacherous plot by the Cholollan. Perhaps Motecuhzoma had taken note of this and took the more prudent policy of appeasement rather than engage the enemy in the field, at least as an opening strategy.
When Cortés and Motecuhzoma finally met in person relations were initially amiable, the Spaniard was given a tour of the city and more gifts were exchanged, Cortés receiving a necklace of golden crabs and Motecuhzoma a necklace of Venetian glass strung on gold thread. Whatever Motecuhzoma had hoped to achieve through diplomacy his plans were scuppered in just two weeks when he was promptly taken hostage and placed under house arrest by the small Spanish force. Motecuhzoma was forced to declare himself a subject of Charles V, handover more treasure and even allow the placing of a crucifix on top of the Great Pyramid in the city’s sacred precinct.
Cortés’ plans met with a setback, however, when he was forced to return to his base at Veracruz to face a rival Spanish faction. In his absence the remaining Spanish unwisely disrupted a religious ceremony involving human sacrifice and fighting broke out. The Aztec warriors, seething at the lack of decisive action renounced Motecuhzoma as their leader and Cuitlahuac was voted in as the new tlatoani. Motecuhzoma was pressed by the Spanish into pacifying his people but was struck on the head by a rock and killed.
Cortés returned to the city to relieve the besieged remaining Spanish but was forced to withdraw on the 30th June 1520 CE in what became known as the Noche Triste. He did, however, return nine months later, this time with his Tlaxcalan allies and, after a lengthy siege, the city finally fell. The Aztecs, led by Cuauhtemoc and ravaged by lack of food and disease, finally collapsed on the fateful day of 13th August 1521 CE. Tenochtitlán was ransacked of any precious goods and its monuments were destroyed. From the ashes rose the new capital of the colony of New Spain and the long line of Mesoamerican civilizations which had stretched right back to the Olmec came to a dramatic and brutal end.

Motecuhzoma in Art

Motecuhzoma is represented in the Histories of the Indies by Dominican Diego Durán where he is seated as a statue is carved of him. We know of one particular statue which 14 sculptors worked on at Chapultepec. The Aztec ruler also appears on the stone throne known as the Teocalli Stone where he appears with a sun-disk opposite Huitzilopochtli. Also attributed to Motecuhzoma, although there is no concrete evidence to do so, is the magnificent feather headdress now in the Museum für Völkerkunde of Vienna. The headdress was probably part of the collection of artefacts given by Motecuhzoma to Cortés who passed on the gifts to Charles V. The headdress is made from 450 green quetzal, blue cotinga and pink flamingo feathers and is further embellished with gold beads and jade disks.
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[ 9 ]


Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
Pulque is an alcoholic drink which was first drunk by the Maya, Aztecs, Huastecs and other cultures in ancient Mesoamerica. Similar to beer, it is made from the fermented juice or sap of the maguey plant (Agave americana). In the Aztec language Nahuatl it was known as octli and to the Maya it was chih. Only mildly alcoholic, the potency of pulque was often increased with the addition of certain roots and herbs.
The drink had its own personified goddess and was featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. Drunk in moderation throughout the region on a daily basis it was served in more copious amounts at important religious festivals and celebrations such as weddings, fertility rites (especially those involving the Aztec god of Summer Xochipilli), and agricultural ceremonies. The substance was not just drunk as the Huastec used pulque as an enema using thin hollow bones; this was a relatively common practice in the administration of hallucinogens in the ancient Americas.

Pulque in Mythology - Mayahuel

The maguey plant, important not just for pulque but also as a source of fibres for weaving, had its own personified deity – a goddess known as 11 Serpent by the Post-classic Mixtecs. In central Mexico the goddess was known as Mayahuel and usually depicted as a beautiful young woman. She was associated with fertility and sometimes referred to as ‘the woman of 400 breasts’ no doubt in reference to the milk-like sap of the plant. Pulque was also personified as a goddess known as 2 Flower. In addition, the god 3 Alligator was closely associated with the drink.
To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give humanity a drink which would lift their spirits.
The consumption of pulque, then, went right back into mythological times and there was, naturally, a myth to explain its invention. The great god Quetzalcoatl was watching humanity one day and noticed that at the end of the working day the people did not dance and sing but, instead, seemed rather miserable. To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give them something which would lift their spirits. Falling in love with a beautiful goddess Mayahuel, Quetzalcoatl whisked her off to Mesoamerica and there, embraced, they turned into a tree with two branches. Now, Mayahuel’s grandmother was not best pleased with this turn of events and so, accompanied by a troop of fellow demons (tzitzimime), she attacked the tree, splitting it into two. Mayahuel was then ripped to pieces and eaten by the terrible demons. A heartbroken Quetzalcoatl collected the bits and pieces left of his lover and tenderly buried them. Eventually, these remains grew into the first maguey plant and humans used it to make pulque. In the end, Quetzalcoatl’s wish that humanity might benefit from a drink which increased their happiness came to pass.
Another famous myth is when Quetzalcoatl, under the drink’s influence, slept with his sister, Quetzalpetlatl. The god’s realization and embarrassment on discovering his shameful act the next morning was used as an explanation as to why the god abandoned Tula, his capital. The episode was also a warning to the Mesoamericans that abuse of pulque could carry serious consequences. For this reason the Aztecs were rather more particular about who could drink pulque compared to other Mesoamerican cultures. They reserved its consumption in public as a special privilege for nobles and warriors and imposed penalties ranging from head-shaving, property destruction, and even the death penalty for repeated cases of drunkenness.

The 400 Pulque Gods

There was also a group known as the pulque gods who were almost always males. These were particularly important to the Aztecs who called them the Centzon Totochtin (400 Rabbits) as it was believed a rabbit had first discovered the juice of the maguey by nibbling on a leaf. The mother of the pulque gods was Mayahuel and their father Patecatl. Taking on many forms, their exact significance has been difficult to determine. Many were associated with specific towns, days, and time periods. They were also representative of drunkenness and sexual lust and so wore half-moon nose rings, symbol of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of lust and filth.
As a group the pulque gods were represented as either the god Ome Tochtli or 2 Rabbit. Several pulque gods have been identified as ceremonially buried beneath the Templo Mayor temple at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Historian Mary Miller suggests this was in homage to the 400 victims killed by the god Huitzilopochtli in Aztec mythology.

Representations in Art

The earliest depictions in Mesoamerican art of pulque are from the great city of Teotihuacan, at its peak between 300 and 550 CE. Here stone relief carvings show masked figures with milky drops falling from their mouths and one mask has a background of maguey leaves.
Monuments set up by the Zapotec civilization (500-900 CE) show scenes from wedding ceremonies where guests are drinking pulque. From the Post-classic period (900-1200 CE) there is a rock painting at Ixtapantongo which is the earliest representation of Mayahuel. She is shown within a maguey plant and holding a cup in each hand, probably containing pulque.
As pulque had a milk-like appearance it was associated with mother’s milk and this is evidenced in such artefacts as the Aztec Bilimek Pulque Vessel on which is a scene showing the drink pouring from the breast of an earth goddess. Finally, Mayahuel and the pulque gods appear in illustrations in several colonial-era codices, notably the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis (sheet no. 25) and on several sheets in the 16th century CE Aztec Codex Magliabechiano.
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[ 10 ]


Origin and history

by Mark Cartwright
Quetzalcóatl (pron. Quet-zal-co-at) was one of the most important gods in ancient Mesoamerica. The god known as the Plumed Serpent is a mix of bird and rattle snake and his name is a combination of the Nahuatl words for the quetzal - the emerald plumed bird - and coatl or serpent. He was also known as Kukulkán to the Maya, Gucumatz to the Quiché of Guatemala, and Ehecatl to the Huastecs of the Gulf Coast. He was regarded as the god of winds and rain and as the creator of the world and mankind. In Central Mexico from 1200 CE he was also considered the patron god of priests and merchants and considered the god of learning, science, agriculture, crafts and the arts. He also invented the calendar, was identified with Venus, the rising morning star, he was associated with opossums and even discovered corn (maize) with the help of giant red ant that led him to a mountain packed full of grain and seeds.
Quetzalcóatl was the son of the primordial androgynous god Ometeotl. In Aztec mythology he was the brother of Tezcatlipoca, Huizilopochtli and Xipe Totec. He is the 9th of the 13 Lords of the Day and is often associated with the rain god Tláloc. The god was particularly associated with the sacred site of Cholula, an important place of pilgrimage from 1200 CE and all round Aztec buildings were dedicated to the deity.
In Central Mexico the god was strongly associated with the wind, in particular as a bringer of rain clouds.

A Creator God

In the Late Postclassical period (from 1200 CE) in Central Mexico the god came to be strongly associated with the wind (in particular as a bringer of rain clouds) and as the creator god Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl. In Postclassical Nahua tradition Quetzalcóatl is also the creator of the cosmos along with either his brother Tezcatlipoca or Huitzilopochtli and is one of the four sons of Tonacateuctli and Tonacacihuatl, the original creator gods. After waiting for 600 years this aged couple instructed Quetzalcóatl to create the world. In some versions of the myth Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca repeatedly fight each other and as a consequence the four ages are created and destroyed with each successive battle between the two gods.
In an alternative version of creation Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca are more cooperative and together they create the sun, the first man and woman, fire and the rain gods. The pair of gods had created the earth and the sky when they transformed themselves into huge snakes and ripped in two the female reptilian monster known as Tlaltcuhtli (or Cipactli), one part becoming the earth and the other the sky. Trees, plants and flowers sprang from the dead creature’s hair and skin whilst springs and caves were made from her eyes and nose and the valleys and mountains came from her mouth. In some versions of the story the divine spirit of Cipactli was understandably upset to have lost her physical body in such a brutal attack and the only way to appease her was through the sacrifice of blood and hearts and so one of the more unpalatable practices of ancient Mesoamerican culture, the ritual of human sacrifice, was justified.
In the myth of mankind’s creation Quetzalcóatl descends into Mictlán - the underworld - where he is sent to remove some bones. However, Mictlanteuctli and Mictlancihuatl, the ruling gods of the underworld, agree to give the bones only if Quetzalcóatl can blow a conch-shell horn that has no holes in it. The clever Quetzalcóatl gets around the problem by having worms drill holes in the conch and putting bees inside to make it sound. Quetzalcóatl also pretends to leave the underworld without the bones, declaring his intention to leave them where they are whilst in actual fact he steals them from under the nose of Mictlanteuctli. The god is outraged at the deceit and makes a pit to entrap the trickster. Quetzalcóatl does indeed fall into the pit and in so doing scatters the ill-gotten bones so that the male and female parts are mixed. Gathering up the bones, Quetzalcóatl escapes the pit and gives them to the great snake goddess Cihuacóatl to magically fashion them into people by mixing them with corn and some of Quetzalcóatl’s blood.

Representations In Art

The earliest surviving representation of Quetzalcóatl is from the Olmec civilization with a carving at La Venta of a beaked snake with a feather crest flanked by two quetzal birds and a sky band. The earliest representation in Mexico is at Teotihuacán where there are 3rd century CE representations of feathered snakes and where a six-tiered pyramid was built in the god’s honour. These representations of the god and those at the later site of Cacaxtla include the god with rain and water suggesting a strong association with that element. The god was often represented in architectural sculptural decoration and he appears at other sites such as Xochicalco but rarely with any human form before the Late Postclassical period, an exception is a carved palma from Veracruz.
From 1200 CE Quetzalcóatl is often represented in human form and usually wears shell jewellery and a conical hat (copilli). He may also have a hat-band holding sacrificial implements, a flower, a fan of black and yellow feathers and ear-rings of jade circles or spiral shells (epcololli). The god also often wears the wind jewel (Ehecailacozcatl) which is a cross section of a conch whorl worn as a pectoral. As Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl he is often black, wears a red mask like a duck’s beak and has long canine teeth. As god of the cardinal directions Quetzalcóatl was also associated with the colours black (north), red (east), blue (south) and white (west).
Following the Spanish Conquest the already complex myths surrounding Quetzalcóatl became even more twisted, a situation not helped by the confusion of the god’s history with that of the legendary first ruler of the Toltecs at Tollan, Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcóactl, who took on the name of the god as one of his titles. Even today the legend and symbolism of Quetzalcóatl lives on and he has become a beacon of Mexican national pride and a powerful symbol of indigenous tradition.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0