Sunday, October 21, 2012

Origins » Aztec Pantheon › Aztec Society › The Aztec Calendar › The Aztec New Fire Ceremony » History


Characters and historical events ››

  1. Aztec Pantheon
  2. Aztec Society
  3. The Aztec Calendar
  4. The Aztec New Fire Ceremony
  5. Cortes & the Fall of the Aztec Empire
  6. The Ball Game of Mesoamerica
  7. The Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli
  8. The Tizoc Stone
  9. Throne of Montezuma

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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Aztec Pantheon

by Mark Cartwright

The gods of the Aztecs (1345-1521 CE) were many and varied and, as with many other ancient cultures, deities were closely associated with things and events important to the culture and the general welfare of the community. These include gods of maize and the rain to nourish it, fire and the hearth to cook it, and all manner of gods to represent major celestial bodies, prominent geographical features and extreme meteorological events from the Morning Star to evening frost. Many of the gods were ancient Mesoamerican deities worshipped by the cultures preceding the Aztecs but were adopted, adapted, and assimilated into the Aztec's own unique assembly of gods and goddesses. Below is a list of the principal Aztec deities in alphabetical order.


The god of voluptuousness and one of the Ahuiateteo. Alternatively known as Macuilxochitl or considered an aspect of Xochipilli.


The five gods who embody the dangers of excess in eating, drinking, and pleasures in general. They each have a specific date in the annual calendar, all with a 5, a number associated with excess. They are Macuilxochitl (the most important; 5 Flower), Macuilcuetzpalin (5 Lizard), Macuilcozcacuauhtli (5 Vulture), Macuiltochtli (5 Rabbit), and Macuilmalinalli (5 Grass). In cases of excess, they can deliver misfortune and disease.


An earth and water goddess.


'Lord of the Chase,' a hunting god. See Mixcoatl below.

Centeotl (Cinteotl)

'Sacred Maize,' god of late-ripening maize. He was the son of Toci and associated with the 4th month, Hueytozoztli. He was the 4th of the nine Lords of the Night.

Centzon Huitznahua

Also called the Octli deities. The 400 sons of Mixcoatl who were fed to the sun and who represented the southern stars. They and their sister Coyolxauhqui had attempted to kill their mother Coatlicue but were defeated by Huitzilopochtli.

Centzon Mimixcoa

The 400 northern stars, counterparts of the Centzon Huitznahua and associated with the Milky Way.

Centzon Totochtin

The 400 rabbit gods of pulque and drunkenness. They are the offspring of Mayahuel and Patecatl and also known as the Octli deities.


'Precious Owl,' god of the night and the black aspect of Tezcatlipoca.
The Gulf of Mexico was known as Chalchiuhcueyecatl or 'Waters of Chalchiuhtlicue'.


'Jade Her Skirt,' goddess of the sea, rivers, lakes, and springs. Associated with the day Serpent and trecena 1 Reed. She is 3rd of the 13 Lords of the Day and 6th of the nine Lords of the Night. The Gulf of Mexico was known as Chalchiuhcueyecatl or 'Waters of Chalchiuhtlicue'.


'Precious Turkey,' an aspect of Tezcatlipoca and deity of the night and mystery. He was patron of the day Tecpatl, Flint Knife.


'In the House,' the goddess of the hearth fire and patron of metalworkers, especially goldsmiths. Also known as Cuaxolotl.


'Seven Serpents,' the goddess of food and especially seed corn. She was associated with the 4th month, Hueytozoztli. Celebrated on the day 7 Coatl with a feast and in the harvest festival in the 11th month, Ochpanitzli.


'Woman Serpent,' an earth goddess associated with fertility, childbirth, midwives, and the direction west.


'Star-Skirted,' goddess of the heavens and one of the several names for the Milky Way. She rules the 3rd of the 13 levels of the Aztec cosmos.


'Serpent Skirt,' an earth-mother goddess associated with fertility, warfare, governance, agriculture, and patron of childbirth. She was considered the female aspect of the primordial god Ometeotl. The goddess was worshipped in the spring ritual of Tozozontli in the rainy season and in the autumnal hunting festival of Quecholli when an impersonator of the goddess was sacrificed. She is the mother of Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui.


'Painted With Bells,' the goddess of the Moon or Milky Way who was famously butchered by her brother Huitzilopochtli after she led the Centzon Huitznaua (the 'Four Hundred Huiztnaua' who represented the stars of the southern sky) in a bid to kill her mother, the goddess Coatlicue.


'Wind and Air,' an ancient Mesoamerican god of winds, especially those which bring rain. Sometimes known as Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl and considered the wind aspect of Quetzalcoatl. For the Aztecs, he was born on the day 9 Wind and was patron of the second day, Ehecatl. He was a creator god, and by rescuing the bones of the dead from the Underworld, he created mankind. He is sometimes credited, too, with discovering maize, pulque, and music.


'Old Coyote,' the ancient Mesoamerican god of dance, music, sex, cleverness, and trickery. Patron of feather workers, he was associated with the trecena 1 Flower and patron of the day Cuetzpallin.


'Old, Old Deity,' The old Fire god, often associated and represented by Xiuhtecuhtli. He was the 1st of the nine Aztec Lords of the Night and 13 Lords of the Day. He was linked to the 10th month, Xocotlhuetzi/Hueymiccailhuitl.


'Blue Hummingbird on the Left' or 'Hummingbird of the South,' who for the Mexica was the supreme being and son of the two primordial gods Omecίhuatl and Ometecuhtli. In an alternative version, he is the offspring of Coatlicue and brother of Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec. He is the god of war and the sun, and patron of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, where he had led his people to and instructed them to settle. He was associated with gold, warriors and rulers. His calendar name was Ce Técpatl (1 Flint) and his nagual or animal spirit was the eagle. The god had a temple dedicated to him on top of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan. 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 a bread effigy was taken to the god’s temple in a great procession and then eaten.


'Huixtotin Woman,' goddess of salt. She was associated with the 7th month, Tecuilhuitontli.


'Old Lady,' an earth goddess associated with fertility, death and the Milky Way. She was 13th of the 13 Lords of the Day and associated with the 17th month, Tititl when a festival was held in her honour.


'Obsidian Blade,' right-hand man of Tezcatlipoca. He was 2nd of the nine Lords of the Night.


'Obsidian-Bladed Butterfly,' an earth goddess associated with fertility. Mother of Mixcoatl, she is patron of the day Cozcacuauhtli and the trecena 1 House.


'Obsidian Curl,' the god of snow, mountain peaks, frost and the cold. An aspect of the black Tezcatlipoca. He is patron of the day Acatl.


God of health and medicine who was the brother of Xochipilli and Macuilxochitl.


'White Woman,' goddess of the sacred mountain which bears her name.

Lords of the Day

See Tonalteuctin.

Lords of the Night

See Yohualteuctin.


'Five Flower,' a god of flowers, plants, music, and dancing. Associated with the specific date 5 Flower. The patron god of the royal household, games (especially patolli and the ballgame) and gambling. He is the leader of the Ahuiateteo gods who represent excess pleasure and punishment.


'Green Skirt,' goddess of rain and second wife of Tlaloc.


'Blue Skirt,' the goddess of the sacred mountain of that name.


'Maguey,' the goddess of the Maguey plant, used to make the alcoholic drink pulque. The goddess was usually depicted as a beautiful young woman and was associated with fertility. Sometimes she is referred to as ‘the woman of 400 breasts,’ no doubt in reference to the milk-like sap of the plant. She is the mother of the 400 Octli Deities, consort of Patecatl, and patron of the day Tochtli (Rabbit).


The Moon goddess.


'Mictlan Woman,' female equivalent or consort of Mictlantecuhtli.


'Lord of the land of the Dead,' god of death, darkness and the Underworld (Mictlan). His wife is Mictlantecacihuatl. He was associated with owls, spiders, bats, and the direction south. The god was the ruler of the 10th day Itzcuintli (Dog), the 5th Lord of the Night and the 6th (or 11th) Lord of the Day. Mictlantecuhtli was particularly worshipped in the Aztec month of Tititl when, at the temple of Tlalxicco, an impersonator of the god was sacrificed and incense was burned in his honour.


'Cloud Serpent,' an ancient god of hunting, also known as Camaxtli, and associated with the stars, especially the Milky Way. He is the father of the Centzon Huitznahua and Quetzalcoatl. He was associated with the 14th month Quecholli when feasts and hunts were held in his honour.


God of twins and deformities. He and his brother Tecuciztecatl sacrificed themselves to create the sun and moon of the 5th and last epoch of the Aztec cosmos.


One of the four directional Tlalocs gods and patron of reed mat weavers.

Octli Deities

The gods of pulque, the alcoholic beer made from the fermented juice of the maguey plant. They were also known as the Centzon Totochtin (400 Rabbits) as it was believed a rabbit had first discovered the juice of the maguey by nibbling on a leaf. They are the offspring of Mayahuel and Patecatl. 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, a symbol of Tlazolteotl.


'Two Lady,' a primordial creator goddess. Another name for Tonacacihuatl.


'Two Lord,' a primordial creator god. Another name for Tonacatecuhtli. He rules the 13th and highest level of the Aztec cosmos. Patron of the day Cipactli (Crocodile).


'Two God,' the androgynous primordial god whose male and female aspects are Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl.


'Left-handed,' one of the Tlalocs gods and protector of those who lived near water. Credited with inventing equipment for fishing such as nets and harpoons.


Father of the Octli Deities and god of drunkenness. His consort is Mayahuel and was also associated with medicine, herbs, and mushrooms. Patron of the day Malinalli (Grass).


Messenger of Huitzilopochtli.


The young sun god who was a manifestation of Tonatiuh, the supreme sun god of Mesoamerica. His most frequent manifestation was Xochipilli, god of summer and flowers. He is the 3rd of the nine Lords of the Night.


The god of the sacred Smoke Mountain.


'Split at the Top,' an earth goddess associated with duality.


'Quetzal Feathered-Serpent,' the god of winds, rains and storms who is half snake and half quetzal bird. He is the son of the primordial god Ometeotl and brother of Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, and Tezcatlipoca. An ancient Mesoamerican god, he was considered the creator of the world and mankind, the discoverer of maize, and inventor of agriculture, science, the arts, and the calendar. He is the 9th of the 13 Lords of the Day. His name was adopted as part of an Aztec ruler's titles.


An aspect of Cihuacoatl associated with pregnancy and childbirth.


A moon god and brother of Nanahuatzin. The pair sacrificed themselves to create the sun and moon of the 5th and last epoch of the Aztec cosmos. Patron of the day Miquiztli (Death).


The god who honoured warriors who fell in the 'Flower Wars' which gathered sacrificial victims. He was, with Mictlantecuhtli, the 6th of the 13 Lords of the Day.

Tepeyollotl (Tepeyolohtli)

'Mountain Heart,' a jaguar god of the earth's regenerative powers.


'Little Old Hills,' the little Tlalocs, gods associated with mountain rain and water.


'Deities-Their-Mother,' an earth goddess associated with fertility.


'Bald Rock Honourable Place,' god of the sacred mountain of that name.


'Smoking Mirror,' the omnipotent and all-seeing god responsible for all things which happen. Also known as Ipalnemoani ('Lord of the Near'), Moyocoyani ('Maker of Himself'), Titlacauan ('We His Slaves'), Tloque Nahuaque ('Night-Wind'), and Yaotl ('Enemy'). Tezcatlipoca could be a bringer of happiness but also took on more sinister connotations when he was known as the lord of the shadows or night, a sorcerer of black magic and the bringer of evil, death, and destruction as Chalchiuhtecólotl, ‘Precious Owl,’ or Chalchiuhtotolin, ‘Precious Turkey'. The god, being the supreme deity, was closely linked with Aztec rulers and so was a major feature of coronation ceremonies. He was especially revered at Texcoco. Tezcatlipoca was the 10th of the 13 Lords of the Day, was associated with day 1 Death, and especially worshipped during Toxcatl, the 5th month of the 18-month solar year. He was associated with the horned owl in the Mesoamerican calendar, whilst his nagual or animal spirit was the jaguar.


The gods representing the Pleiades constellation.


The Aztec version of the Mesoamerican Bat-god who represented maize and fertility.


'Dawn Lord,' representing an aspect of Venus, the Morning Star, whose rays could damage both people and crops. He is 12th of the 13 Lords of the Day.


'He Who is the Embodiment of Earth,' the god of rain, water, lightning, floods, droughts, and agriculture. In the Aztec Creation myth, Tlaloc was ruler of the 3rd Sun, he was linked to Mazatl (Deer), the 7th day, his calendar equivalent was 9 Ocelotl - the Jaguar, he was number 8 of the 13 Lords of the Day and 9th Lord of the Night, and his animal sign was the eagle. Tlaloc had four particular manifestations as the four colours and the four cardinal directions, collectively known as the Tlalocs. His sister is Chalchiuhtlicue (or in some versions his wife or mother), herself a goddess of rivers, oceans, and floods. Tlaloc had two wives: first Xochiquetzal, the flower and fertility goddess, but when she was abducted by Tezcatlipoca, he took a second, Matlalcueitl, another rain deity. Associated with mountains, Tlaloc was considered the ruler of the Tlaloque - a motley group of rain, weather, and mountain gods (Little Tlalocs). Tlaloc had a temple dedicated to him on top of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan. The god was especially worshipped in the months of Atlcahualo (the 1st in the Aztec solar calendar), Tozoztontli (3rd) and Atemoztli (the 16th).


'Place of Tlaloc,' Mt. Tlaloc, dwelling place of Tlaloc the rain god and the otherworldly paradise where victims of floods, storms, and diseases such as leprosy were received after death.

Tlalocs (Tlaloque)

'Little Tlalocs,' a group of mountain gods associated with rain and water who were ruled by Tlaloc. They represent the four cardinal directions.


'Earth Lady' (although the name has a male suffix), an earth goddess associated with fertility. In mythology, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, in the form of snakes, ripped her body in two. From one half came the sky, and the other became the earth. She is the 2nd of the 13 Lords of the Day. She swallows the sun every evening and regurgitates it the next morning.


'Sacred Filth,' goddess of filth and lust but also purification and cures of diseases. She was associated with the 11th month Ochpaniztli. She was patron of the day Ocelotl (Jaguar), 5th of the 13 Lords of the Day and 7th of the nine Lords of the Night.


'Grandmother,' an important earth goddess associated with fertility, warfare, cures, and the patron of midwives. She was also known as Teteo Innan ('Mother of the Gods') and Tlalli Iyollo ('Heart of the Earth'). Toci was honoured by a major harvest festival in the 11th month, Ochpaniztli.


'Our Flesh Woman,' a primordial creator goddess. Another name for Omecihuatl.


'Our Flesh Lord,' another name for Ometecuhtli, he was a primordial creator god closely linked to procreation. He was patron of the first day Cipactli and the trecena 1 Cipactli.


The 13 Lords of the Day and their associated 'bird':
1. Xiuhtecuhtli / Huehueteotl (blue hummingbird)
2. Tlaltecuhtli (green hummingbird)
3. Chalchiutlicue (hawk)
4. Tonatiuh (quail)
5. Tlazolteotl (eagle)
6. Teoyaomiqui / Mictlantecuhtli (screech owl)
7. Centeotl-Xochipilli (butterfly)
8. Tlaloc (eagle)
9. Quetzalcoatl (turkey)
10. Tezcatlipoca (horned owl)
11. Mictlantecuhtli / Chalmecatecuhtli (macaw)
12. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (quetzal)
13. Ilamatecuhtli (parrot)


'Honoured Mother,' an earth goddess associated with fertility. A benevolent manifestation of Cihuacoatl.


'Ascending Eagle,' the Mesoamerican Sun god who, for the Aztecs, was seen as a fierce war god.


Fierce female star demons who roamed during particular calendar and celestial events such as eclipses (when they could be seen in the sky). They devoured the unwary and, for the Aztecs, if the sun did not rise after the 52-year cycle and New Fire Ceremony, then the Tzitzimime would destroy the world.


The 'grandmother' goddess in the sky whose demon servants are the Tzitzimime.


'Tender Maize,' god of the first maize and associated with the 8th month Hueytecuihuitl.

Xipe Totec

'Flayed Lord,' the god of spring, and patron god of seeds, planting, and metalworkers (especially goldsmiths) and gemstone workers. Xipe Totec was the son of the primordial androgynous god Ometeotl and the brother of Tezcatlipoca, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl. Considered the source of diseases amongst mankind, he, nevertheless, received many offerings from worshippers calling for him to cure illnesses, especially eye ailments. He was associated with the unfavourable 15th Aztec day-name and was represented by the date 1 Ocelotl. Every spring in the second month of the solar year the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli (aka Coailhuitl or the Snake Festival) was held in honour when war captives were skinned in symbolic imitation of the regeneration of plants and seeds which shed their husks and thereby provide new seeds.


The fiery snake which helps Huitzilopochtli kill Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua. He was associated with turquoise, grass, and the solar year, and is the emblem of the Fire god Xiuhtecuhtli.


'Turquoise Lord,' god of fire, the hearth, and time. He was closely associated with young warriors and rulers. Xiuhtecuhtli was the patron of the day Atl (water) and the trecena period 1 Coatl (Snake) and associated with the month Izcalli. He was the 1st Aztec Lord of the Night and 1st of the Lords of the Day. His nagual or animal spirit was Xiuhcoatl or the Fire Serpent, and his special number was three because in traditional Mesoamerican homes there were three hearths. One of Xiuhtecuhtli’s most important roles was as overseer of the Toxiuhmolpilia festival or New Fire Ceremony. Held once every 52 years on the completion of one full cycle of the Aztec calendar, the primary function of the festival was to ensure the successful renewal of the sun.


'Flower Prince,' god of summer, flowers, pleasure, love, dancing, painting, feasting, creativity, and souls. Closely associated with the corn (maize) god Centeotl, he was sometimes referred to as the ‘Corn-flower Prince’ or Centeotl-Xochipilli, the 7th Lord of the Day. He could also appear as Ahuiateotl, the god of voluptuousness, as something of a youthful and carefree pleasure-seeker, perhaps with a playfully mischievous streak. He has a sister (or female counterpart), Xochiquetzal. The god was associated with butterflies and poetry and the 11th of the 20 Aztec days: Ozomatli (Monkey). He was especially worshipped at Xochimilco.


'Flower Quetzal,' a goddess of flowers, grain, pleasure, and weavers. She also protected childbirth and young mothers and was the patron of the arts in general. She was associated with the 13th month Hueypachtli (aka Tepeilhuitl) and patron of the day Xochitl (Flower) and trecena 1 Xochitl.


Canine god and companion of Quetzalcoatl who was associated with illness and deformity. He is patron of the day Ollin (Earthquake).


'Nose Lord,' god of traders and merchants.


'Lord of the Night,' god of the night sun as it descended into the Underworld.


The nine Lords of the Night and their associated augury:
1. Xiuhtecuhtli / Huehueteotl (unfavourable)
2. Itztli (unfavourable)
3. Piltzintecuhtli-Tonatiuh (excellent)
4. Centeotl (excellent)
5. Mictlantecuhtli (favourable)
6. Chalchiutlicue (favourable)
7. Tlazolteotl (unfavourable)
8. Tepeyolohtli-Tezcatlipoca (favourable)
9. Tlaloc (favourable)
[ Index ▲ ]
[ 2 ]

Aztec Society

by Mark Cartwright

Aztec society was hierarchical and divided into clearly defined classes. The nobility dominated the key positions in the military, state administration, judiciary, and priesthood. While traders could become extremely wealthy and powerful, even their prosperity was based on their class, and most citizens remained simple farmers. There was a limited opportunity for individuals to better their social position, especially in the military and religious spheres. It is also true that nepotism prevailed but, at the same time, promotions could be obtained on merit as well as demotions from incompetence. In practice, though, the vast majority of the Aztec population would have remained in the social group of their immediate family throughout their lives.

The Calpolli

The most important social grouping in Aztec society was the calpolli, which was a collection of families connected either by blood or long association. Elders, led by the calpolec (a chief elected for life), controlled the landholdings of the calpolli distributing it for members to farm as their own on the condition that they paid a regular tribute in return. Another condition of these common farmers or macehualtin (also macehuales) was that they not leave their land untended for more than two years. If a farmer died without children, his land was returned to the elders for redistribution. The calpolli also had their own temple, and so the group performed religious rituals and festivals together. The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan had 80 calpoltin, but the system existed across the empire.
Farmers, or macehualtin, were by far the largest section of Aztec society.


Farmers, or macehualtin, were by far the largest section of Aztec society and they were divided into two further groups. First, and lower in status, were the field workers who did the donkey work of hoeing, weeding, planting, irrigating etc. The higher group was more supervisory in role and consisted of specialised horticulturalists who were responsible for seeding and transplanting. They also understood such matters as crop rotation and the best times for planting. Aztec farmers may be further divided into those who worked their own land and those who worked the land of large estates and paid their rent with whatever they farmed. These serfs were the lowest class of all in Aztec society, known as mayeque; they owned no land and paid up to 30% of their produce to their overlords. In addition to farming, the macehualtin were also expected to perform military service in times of war and assist in state projects such as road and temple building.


Aztec society also contained slaves or tlacohtin ('bought ones') who were conquered peoples, those guilty of serious crimes such as theft, or individuals who had got themselves into so much debt (most often through gambling) that they were forced to sell themselves as a commodity for a certain period or even for life. If they had the means, slaves could also buy themselves free again. Slaves could be required not only to farm but also to work as general labourers, domestic servants, or concubines. Slaves were generally not re-sold and were protected by law from any abuse from their masters or anyone else. Talented slaves could gain important positions such as estate managers and were free to marry non-slaves, with any children from such a marriage being born free as slavery status was not inherited.

Artisans & Traders

The artisan class were known as tolteca after the earlier Toltec civilization, which the Aztecs revered, and so craftsmen were held in high regard. They often worked in specialised large-scale workshops, and they included carpenters, potters, stonemasons, metal workers, weavers, feather workers, and scribes. Other important professions were the merchants, traders, and professional hunters. The most prestigious traders were those who conducted their business over extensive territories and were known as pochteca, a hereditary position. They often traded for the state and specialised in such precious goods as tropical bird feathers, gold, turquoise, shells, greenstone, cacao beans, and exotic animal skins. The pochteca were supervised by the pochtecatlatoque, the most experienced traders, who administered trade and justice amongst the trading class in special courts. One specialised group of traders was the tlaltlani, who traded in slaves. As they had the important role of providing the state with sacrificial victims, they were given special privileges and gained great wealth.
Two other groups of traders were the tencunenenque, who acted as tribute collectors, and the naualoztomeca, who disguised themselves and traded in hostile territory, acting as spies for the state as they picked up loose gossip in foreign markets. Traders were also involved in the state religion, especially the festival of tonalpohualli dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, where they funded celebratory banquets and provided slaves for sacrifice.


The nobility or pipiltin (sing. pilli) were easily identified by their appearance as they exclusively wore prized feather garments. Owners of private land, they were wealthy thanks to tribute from their tenants and serfs. State administrators were selected from the pipiltin class, although commoners might enter this hereditary class by performing deeds of great valour on the battlefield. These social risers were known as cuauhpipiltin or 'eagle nobles'.
One level above the pipiltin was the teteuhctin, who held the highest positions in the state apparatus such as city and regional governors. Living in large palaces, they wore even more splendid clothes and jewellery, and they had the prestigious -tzin suffix added to their names. The Aztec king, the tlatoani, was a member of this class.


The priestly class not only orchestrated the state religion and its many festivals and rituals but also ran the state education system and, to a significant degree, controlled Aztec artistic output in all its forms. A male or female from any social class could become a priest, or tlamacazqui, but the most powerful ones always came from the pipiltin class. At the very top of the religious hierarchy was the king himself aided by two high-priests: Quetzalcoatl totec tlamacazqui, in charge of the Huitzilopochtli cult, and Quetzalcoatl tlaloc tlamacazqui, the head of the cult to the rain god Tlaloc. Other notable priestly positions included the supervisor of the elite state-run schools, the Mexicatl Teohuatzin; the general supervisors of the priesthood, festivals, and temple sites, the Huitznahua Teohuatzin and Tecpan Teohuatzin; and finally, the lowest level of priest were the quacuilli, who were in charge of a small district or parish.
Some priests also became experts in other, yet closely related areas such as astronomy and writing. Still others developed a talent for medicine, prophesy, and the interpretation of visions and dreams. The latter acquired the title tonalpouhque, and they gave advice on which days were auspicious for all manner of events from marriages to long journeys. Priests could also be warriors, and two important priestly functions in Aztec warfare were to carry into battle effigies of the major Aztec gods and to collect sacrificial victims from the bravest warriors amongst the vanquished. Finally, a separate but related group were the witchdoctors and magicians who performed strange ceremonies, claimed transformational gifts, and cast spells on the wicked.


As in modern societies, Aztec education could determine one's future social position. Children of commoners went to school, which was compulsory, but only from their early teens. Before that, children were educated by their parents. That the priority of most males was to become a valuable warrior for the state is evidenced in the practice of all 10-year old boys being given a special haircut with a lock left long at the nape of the neck (a piochtli). Only when they had captured their first prisoner could they cut this lock.
The telpochcalli or 'youth house' for boys gave military training while the one for girls taught duties to be performed in religious ceremonies. Both sexes would also learn dancing, singing, public speaking and recital skills, and history, as well as take fundamental moral and religious lessons.
The calmecac school was reserved for children of the nobility who learnt essential skills for a public career in the military, politics, or the state religion. Again, the sexes were separated, and there is some evidence that exceptionally gifted children from the lower classes could also attend a calmecac. Subjects learnt included rhetoric, music, poetry, law, astronomy, mathematics, history, architecture, agriculture, and warfare. For those selected to enter into the priesthood, their education continued at a special institution called the tlamacazcalli. Here, students endured a severe education and life of austerity which included long periods of meditation, fasting, and sacrificing their own blood by piercing themselves in sensitive places with cactus spines.
A couple would marry in a four-day ceremony when the bride was covered in sparkling powder of 'Fool's Gold'.


A young person's education ended when they were ready to be married. This was arranged by elders, although their selection was probably influenced by the young couple themselves who may have previously established a relationship at the many public festivals. Generally, partners came from the same calpolli. Aged in their late teens or early twenties, the couple would marry in a four-day ceremony when the bride would be decked in red feathers and covered in sparkling powder of 'Fool's Gold' pyrite. Much feasting and speech-making would complete the celebration.
Although women were expected to tend the home, cook, care for children, and practice weaving and basketwork, Aztec women also retained control of their personal property and inherited wealth, and could participate in public life in the fields of medicine, education, religion, and even commerce. Also unusual for ancient societies, Aztec men were expected to bear the responsibility of bringing up their male offspring. Nevertheless, the marriage arrangement favoured the male as the couple lived with his family, and he was also permitted to have several other wives and host a number of concubines.


For the Aztecs, with perhaps the exception of the trader class, wealth was not pursued for its own sake, but rather it was a benefit of one's position. Rank and reputation were by far the most important considerations for those who wished to rise in society and, above all, ownership of land continued to be the greatest indicator of a person's status. Aztec society was clearly stratified and had many levels, but the common bonds of perpetual warfare and an ever-present religion ensured a sophisticated and functional social apparatus was created which was both cohesive and inclusive. Whether this society, already evolving as the trading class became more influential in areas traditionally reserved for the aristocracy, could have developed and prospered had it not collapsed following the invasion from the Old World is one of history's great what if? questions.
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[ 3 ]

The Aztec Calendar

by Mark Cartwright

The Aztecs of ancient Mexico measured time with a sophisticated and interconnected triple calendar system which adhered to movements of the celestial bodies, provided a comprehensive list of important religious festivals and sacred dates, and gave each day a unique combination of a name and a number. In addition, both individual days and periods of days were given their own gods, highlighting the Aztec view that time and daily life was inseparable from religious beliefs. The date, every 52 years, when the calendars coincided exactly was regarded as particularly significant and auspicious.

The Aztec View of Time

In the modern world, time is often imagined as a straight line running from a distant past to an infinite future but not so for the Aztecs. As the historian R.F. Townsend describes,
Time for the Aztecs was full of energy and motion, the harbinger of change, and always charged with a potent sense of miraculous happening. The cosmogenic myths reveal a preoccupation with the process of creation, destruction and recreation, and the calendrical system reflected these notions about the character of time. (127)
For the Aztecs, specific times, dates and periods, such as one’s birthday for example, could have an auspicious (or opposite) effect on one’s personality, the success of harvests, the prosperity of a ruler’s reign, and so on. Time was to be kept, measured, and recorded. It is significant that most major Aztec monuments and artworks conspicuously carry a date of some kind.

Tonalpohualli – ‘Counting of the Days’

The Aztecs used a sacred calendar known as the tonalpohualli or ‘counting of the days’. This went back to great antiquity in Mesoamerica, perhaps to the Olmec civilization of the 1st millennium BCE. It formed a 260-day cycle, in all probability originally based on astronomical observations. The calendar was broken down into units (sometimes referred to as trecenas) of 20 days with each day having its own name, symbol, patron deity and augury:
1. cipactli - crocodile - Tonacatecuhtli - good
2. ehecatl - wind - Quetzalcoatl - evil
3. calli - house - Tepeyolohtli - good
4. cuetzpallin - lizard - Huehuecoyotl - good
5. coatl - snake - Chalchiutlicue - good
6. miquiztli - death - Tecciztecatl / Meztli - evil
7. mazatl - deer - Tlaloc - good
8. tochtli - rabbit - Mayahuel - good
9. atl - water - Xiuhtecuhtli - evil
10. itzcuintli - dog - Mictlantecuhtli - good
11. ozomatli - monkey - Xochipilli - neutral
12. malinalli - dead grass - Patecatl - evil
13. acatl - reed - Tezcatlipoca / Itztlacoliuhqui - evil
14. ocelotl - ocelot / jaguar - Tlazolteotl - evil
15. quauhtli - eagle - Xipe Totec - evil
16. cozcaquauhtli - vulture - Itzpapalotl - good
17. ollin - earthquake - Xolotl - neutral
18. tecpatl - flint knife - Tezcatlipoca / Chalchiuhtotolin - good
19. quiahuitl - rain - Tonatiuh / Chantico - evil
20. xochitl - flower - Xochiquetzal - neutral
The 20-day group ran simultaneously with another group of 13 numbered days (perhaps not coincidentally the Aztec heaven had 13 layers). This meant that each day had both a name and a number (e.g.: 4-Rabbit), with the latter changing as the calendar rotated. After all possible combinations of names and numbers had been achieved, 260 days had passed. The number 260 has multiple significances: it is the approximate human gestation period, the period between the appearance of Venus, and the length of the Mesoamerican agricultural cycle.
In addition to names and numbers, each day was also given its own deity – one of thirteen day-lords (the levels of heaven) and one from nine night-lords (the levels of the underworld). These were taken from the Aztec pantheon and included Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Xiuhtecuhtli, and Mictlantecuhtli. Daylight hours also had their own patron birds such as the hummingbird, owl, turkey, and quetzal, and one day had a butterfly patron. On top of that, each group of 13 days was ascribed its own god too. Finally, in yet another layer of meaning, the 20 days were divided into four groups based on the cardinal points: acatl (east), tecpatl (north), calli (west), and tochtli (south).
Every single day of the year had its own unique name and number combination and so could not be confused with any other.
This all seems rather complicated compared to a modern 7-day week of repeating names but it did have the advantage that every single day of the year had its own unique name and number combination and so could not be confused with any other. For this reason, it was possible for Aztec children to be given the name of the day on which they were born. Records were kept of the days in a book made of bark paper, called a tonalamatl. There was also a class of official diviners who interpreted which dates were the most auspicious for certain events such as marriages, and agricultural chores such as planting particular crops, and which days should be avoided.

Xiuhpohualli – ‘Counting of the Years’

The second Aztec calendar was the xiuhpohualli or ‘counting of the years’ which was based on a 365-day solar cycle. It was this calendar which signified when particular religious ceremonies and festivals should be held. This calendar was divided into 18 groups of 20 days (each with its own festival). These 'months' were:
1. Atlcahualo – stopping of the water
2. Tlacaxipeualiztli – flaying of men
3. Tozoztontli – lesser vigil
4. Hueytozoztli – great vigil
5. Toxcatl – drought
6. Etzalqualiztli – eating maize and beans
7. Tecuilhuitontli – lesser feast of the lords
8. Hueytecuilhuitl – great feast of the lords
9. Tlaxochimaco – offering of flowers
10. Xocotlhuetzi – the fruit falls
11. Ochpaniztli – sweeping
12. Teotleco – return of the gods
13. Tepeilhuitl – feast of the mountains
14. Quecholli – a bird
15. Panquetzaliztli – raising of the quetzal-feather banners
16. Atemoztli – falling of water
17. Tititl – unknown significance
18. Izcalli - growth
Some scholars begin the sequence with Izcalli and so Atlcahualo becomes the second 'month' and so on. There was also an extra period, the nemontemi (literally, ‘nameless’ days) tagged onto the end of the year which lasted 5 days. These still did not ensure a complete solar accuracy (achieved by our leap-year) and so the calendar did eventually slip out of synch with the seasons, which necessitated the moving of festivals and even re-naming of days. The nemontemi was a strange period of limbo when nobody dared do anything significant but waited for the renewal of the calendar proper. The whole year had a name, one of four possibilities in sequence: Rabbit, Reed, Flint Knife, and House. To distinguish between repeating years they were each given one of 13 numbers, e.g. 1-House was followed by 2-Rabbit. Thus, when all four names had been used 13 times, one full 52-year cycle had passed.

The Calendars in Unison

The tonalpohualli and xiuhpohualli calendars ran simultaneously, as Townsend describes,
They have often been explained as two engaged, rotating gears, in which the beginning day of the larger 365-day wheel would align with the beginning day of the smaller 260-day cycle every 52 years. This 52-year period constituted a Mesoamerican “century”. (127)
The passing of one 52-year cycle (xiuhmolpilli) to another was marked by the most important religious event of the Aztec world, the New Fire Ceremony, also known, appropriately enough, as the ‘Binding of the Years’ ceremony. This was when a human sacrifice was made to ensure the renewal of the sun. If the gods were displeased, then there would be no new sun and the world would end.
Every second 52-year cycle was even more important to the Aztecs as this was when the tonalpohualli and the 52-year cycle coincided exactly. Curiously, although the 52-year periods were important blocks in Aztec history, they were never given an individual name and all dates started afresh at the beginning of a new cycle. This, no doubt, reflected the Aztec cosmos mythology where the world and humanity were being constantly renewed in perpetual cycles of change.
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[ 4 ]

The Aztec New Fire Ceremony

by Mark Cartwright

The New Fire Ceremony, also known as the Binding of the Years Ceremony, was a ritual held every 52 years in the month of November on the completion of a full cycle of the Aztec solar year (xiuhmopilli). The purpose of it was none other than to renew the sun and ensure another 52-year cycle. The New Fire Ceremony, or Toxhiuhmolpilia, as the Aztecs themselves called it, was by far the most important event in the religious calendar because, quite simply, if the ceremony failed, then the Aztec civilization would end.

The Solar Calendar

The timing of the ceremony and the number 52 were significant as this was the exact coinciding point of the first days of the two Aztec calendars which were then in simultaneous use: the ancient Mesoamerican and sacred tonalpohualli 260-day cycle and the xiuhpohualli, the Aztec 365-day solar and ceremonial calendar. In addition, every second cycle (104 years) was given even more significance as on that precise date the tonalpohualli coincided with the 52-year cycle. The Aztecs saw such time cycles as a mirror of the ancient cosmic cycles which, in Aztec mythology, had created the world. The historian Jacques Soustelle describes well the reason a ritual like the New Fire Ceremony was of such concern to the Aztecs,
At bottom the ancient Mexicans had no real confidence in the future, their fragile world was perpetually at the mercy of some disaster: there were not only the natural cataclysms and the famines, but more than that, on certain nights the monstrous divinities of the west appeared at the crossroads, and there were the wizards, those dark envoys from a mysterious world, and every fifty-two years there was the great fear that fell upon all the nations of the empire when the sun set on the last day of the 'century' and no man could tell whether it would ever rise again (114).

Xiuhtecuhtli God of Fire

The ceremony was overseen by Xiuhtecuhtli, also known as the 'Turquoise Lord', the Aztec god of fire. His name reveals not only his association with turquoise but also with Time, as xiuhitl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, meant both 'turquoise' and 'year'. Fire, as with many other ancient cultures, was considered a fundamental element of the universe, present in all things. Xiuhtecuhtli's pillar of fire was believed to run right through the cosmos from Mictlan, the Underworld, to Topan, the Heavens. The association between the sun and fire is made in Aztec mythology with the self-sacrifice of the gods Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl who threw themselves into a fire at Teotihuacan in order to produce the Sun and Moon respectively. As we shall see, in the New Fire Ceremony one particular fire was essential to the success of ensuring the return of the life-giving sun.

Preparation For The Ceremony

Preparation for the ceremony began with the extinguishing of all fires of any kind, from temples to household hearths - the latter being especially associated with Xiuhtecuhtli. Next, a thorough cleaning operation was undertaken with the streets being swept, old hearth stones were thrown away along with old cooking utensils, old clothes too, and even idols were ceremoniously washed and cleansed. Another ritual was to tie bundles of 52 reeds together, creating a symbolic xiuhmopilli. Pregnant women were locked in granaries and their faces were painted blue in the belief that they would not then turn into monsters during the night. Children also had their faces painted and were kept from sleeping to prevent them turning into mice. Finally, as darkness fell, the populace stopped all activities, climbed the roofs of their homes and waited with a hushed silence and baited breath for what was to come.
If the fire burned brightly then Xiuhtecuhtli had blessed the people with another sun. If not, the world would end.

The Ceremony

Then, just outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, high priests gathered at the summit of the sacred volcanic mountain south-east of Lake Tetzcoco, Mt. Uixachtecatl (also referred to as Huixachtlan or Citlaltepec and meaning 'thorn tree place', even if it is now called 'Hill of the Star'). The priests were magnificently dressed as the gods with fine cloaks, masks, and feather headdresses and led by the figure of Quetzalcoatl. Here, on a platform visible to the whole city below, the priests waited until midnight and a precise alignment of the stars which would signal the ceremony could begin. When the Tianquiztli (the Pleiades) reached their zenith and the Yohualtecuhtli star shone brightly in the very centre of the night sky, this was the moment a human sacrifice was made. The High Priest, probably dressed as Xuihtecuhtli and wearing a turquoise mask, cut out the heart from the living victim and a fire was kindled in the empty chest cavity using the sacred firestick drill, the tlequauitl. If the fire burned brightly, then all was well and Xiuhtecuhtli had blessed the people with another sun. If the fire did not catch, then the Tzitzimime would come without pity. These terrible monsters, armed with wickedly sharp knives, would roam the dark and sunless earth slashing and eating all humanity without exception. The world would end.
Fortunately, this terrible tragedy never occurred, and after each ceremony, when the fire burned well within the victim's chest, the flame was used to light a huge pyre so that all could see the success of the ceremony in the city below. Then the flames were transferred to Tenochtitlan where they were used to light the fire at the temple of Huitzilopochtli on top of the Templo Mayor pyramid. Next, the fire at the city's Fire Temple was lit and from there, runners ensured that all the fires of the city were, once again, lit.
Following the successful ceremony, hearth stones were renewed and offered incense and quails in thanks. Then, after a suitably pious morning of fasting, there was, understandably, a great deal of partying. The revellers wore new clothes, feasted on amaranth-seed and honey cakes, and drank pulque beer. A little later, Aztec rulers, buoyed by this divine endorsement of their rule, would embark on a series of state building projects such as Motecuhzoma I did in 1455 CE when he greatly enlarged the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan.
The New Fire Ceremony was successfully held in 1351, 1403, 1455, and again in 1507 CE. Curiously, although perhaps indicative of the belief that each cycle was a new beginning, the Aztecs did not specifically date different 52-year cycles. The calendar, as it were, was each time reset to zero. The last New Fire Ceremony, then, ushered in the 5th sun of the Aztec era, poignantly the last according to Aztec mythology and, with the arrival of the European invaders, so it turned out to be.

The New Fire Ceremony in Art

The New Fire Ceremony is referred to in various instances of Aztec and colonial art. Stone sculptures representing the xiuhmopilli bundles have been excavated at Tenochtitlan, each with a date stamp hieroglyph of the year they were produced. The ceremony of relighting the fires at Tenochtitlan is represented in an illustration in the Codex Borbonicus (Sheet 34), c. 1525 CE. Priests carry bundles to transfer the fire and they wear turquoise masks, as do other citizens, including women and children. Also included is an image of Montezuma (aka Motecuhzoma II), the Aztec ruler who presided over that final ceremony in 1507 CE.
One of the most famous of all Aztec artworks is the turquoise mosaic mask of Xiuhtecuhtli now in the British Museum. Perhaps similar to the masks worn by the High Priests in the Fire ceremony it has conch shell eyes and dates to the 14th century CE. Finally, the celebrated Throne of Motecuhzoma II was specifically sculpted to commemorate the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 CE. The throne has date glyphs carved on the front, a depiction of Xiuhtecuhtli and other gods at the sides, and the seat back carries a large sun disk.
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[ 5 ]

Cortes & the Fall of the Aztec Empire

by Mark Cartwright

The Aztec empire flourished between c. 1345 and 1521 CE and dominated ancient Mesoamerica. This young and warlike nation was highly successful in spreading its reach and gaining fabulous wealth, but then all too quickly came the strange visitors from another world. Led by Hernan Cortés, the Spaniard’s formidable firearms and thirst for treasure would bring devastating destruction and disease. The Conquistadores immediately found willing local allies only too eager to help topple the brutal Aztec regime and free themselves from the burden of tribute and the necessity of feeding the insatiable Aztec appetite for sacrificial victims, and so within three years fell the largest ever empire in North and Central America.

The Aztec Empire

By around 1400 CE several small empires had formed in the Valley of Mexico and 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 leader became the supreme ruler - the huey tlatoque ('high king') - and the city established itself as the capital of the Aztec Empire.
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. 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 with a population of around 11 million. As the chronicler Diego Duran put it, the Aztecs were "Masters of the world, their empire so wide and abundant that they had conquered all the nations." (Nichols, 451)
The empire was loosely 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, imposition of the Aztec religion (especially worship of Huitzilopochtli), and most importantly of all, the ever-present threat of military intervention. This meant that it was not a homogenous and mature empire where its members had a mutual interest in its preservation. Some states were integrated more than others whilst those on the extremities of the empire were exploited merely as buffer zones against more hostile neighbours. In addition, the Aztecs were heavily defeated by the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo in 1515 CE. One neighbouring power in particular, a constant thorn in the Aztec flank, was the Tarascan civilization. Endlessly troublesome, they, the Tlaxcalans and others, would prove to be vital allies for the Spaniards when they came to plunder and conquer the vast riches of Mesoamerica. Fighting for their independence from Aztec rule they did not realise that they would merely be replacing one rapacious overlord for another even more destructive one.
By 1515 CE rumours in the Aztec heartlands and several bad omens 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.

Hernan Cortés & the Conquistadores

The Spanish Governor of Cuba, Diego Velasquez, had already sent several expeditions to explore the mainland coast of America starting in 1517 CE, and these had reported strange ancient stone monuments and brightly dressed natives from whom were bartered fine gold objects. Ironically, one group of natives had actually been sent by the Aztec king Motecuhzoma II Xocoyotzin (Montezuma) to see for themselves who these mysterious bearded men were, but a lack of a common language meant the Spanish returned to Cuba unaware they had missed an opportunity to finally prove there was a large civilization and source of treasure beyond the coast. Velasquez was convinced enough by the gold objects, though. The governor organised another expedition and chose as its leader Hernan Cortés. In his fleet of 11 ships went 500 soldiers and 100 sailors, all of them adventurers and treasure-seekers.
Cortés, a native of Extremadura, had studied law at university, but at 19 years old he had decided to leave Spain and try his luck in the Caribbean colonies. After running a plantation and participating in the conquest of Cuba, he was now in his mid-30s and ready for his stab at fame and glory. Perhaps not only out for gold, Cortés was a deeply religious man, and the spirit of evangelism, for him if not his followers, was an extra motivation to open up this New World.
Landing on the Tabasco coast at Potonchan, Cortés immediately met hostilities, but the Europeans easily subdued the natives with their superior weapons and tactics. As a gift of reconciliation Cortés was presented with some slave girls, and one of these, a certain Malintzin (aka Marina or Malinche), would prove an invaluable asset as she spoke both the local Mayan language and, crucially, also the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. One of Cortés’ men spoke the former so that now the way was open to parley with any representatives the invaders came across. Malintzin would remain at Cortés’ side throughout the campaign, and together they would have a son, Don Martin.
Cortés was directed to sail north, and this he did, landing near the town of Cempoala where he came across two Aztec tax collectors extracting the king’s tribute from the locals. Word soon reached Motecuhzoma that a large force of violent men was confidently approaching the Aztec heartlands.

Facing the Enemy - Montezuma

Motecuhzoma, after consulting his council of elders, decided on a strategy of diplomacy. He sent gifts to the Spanish, which included ceremonial costumes, a massive gold disk representing the sun, and an even bigger silver one representing the moon. These were gratefully received and likely made the Spanish even more interested in plundering the land for all it was worth. Ignoring instructions to return to Cuba, Cortés instead sent a shipload of the treasures they had so far acquired and letters requesting royal support to Charles V of Spain. Then a garrison was established at Veracruz on the coast. Cortés next burned all of his ships to remind his men that in the following months of hardship it was to be conquest or death. In August 1519 CE, Cortés marched directly to Tenochtitlan.
The capital was located on the western shore of Lake Texcoco and boasted at least 200,000 inhabitants making it the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. It was a huge trading centre with goods flowing in and out, such as gold, turquoise, foodstuffs, and slaves. The Spanish invaders, allowed to freely enter the city, were hugely impressed by its splendour, its magnificent architecture and artwork, its wonderful gardens, artificial lakes, and flowers. Cortés was eager to meet the Aztec king Motecuhzoma. Taking the position of tlatoani, meaning ‘speaker’ in 1502 CE, he ruled as an absolute monarch and was considered a god by his people and a manifestation and perpetuator of the sun. Initially, relations were friendly and valuable gifts were exchanged between the two leaders. Cortés received a necklace of golden crabs, and Motecuhzoma a necklace of Venetian glass strung on gold thread and scented with musk.
The history of the conflict about to unfold 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 already shown their military prowess and the devastating effectiveness of their superior weaponry - cannons, firearms and crossbows - in quickly defeating a force of Otomi-Tlaxcalan, and they had also taken 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. This seems a more reasonable explanation than the traditional view, now rejected by modern historians as a post-conquest rationalising fiction, that Motecuhzoma reverently believed that Cortés was the returning god Quetzalcoatl of Aztec mythology.
After an initial air of cordiality between the two sides, things soon turned sour when Cortés audaciously took Montezuma hostage.
Whatever the reasons, the initial air of cordiality between the two sides soon turned sour for within two weeks the Aztec ruler was audaciously 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 or Templo Mayor in the city’s sacred precinct.

The Fall of Tenochtitlan

The crisis deepened when Cortés was forced to return to Veracruz and face a new force sent from Cuba to arrest him for disobeying his orders to return to Cuba. Some of the remaining Spanish, commanded by Pedro de Alvarado, were then killed at Tenochtitlan after they tried to interrupt a ceremony of human sacrifice. This incident was just what Cortés needed, and after battling the Cuban relief force at Veracruz and persuading its leader Panfilo Narvaez to join his cause, he returned to the city to relieve the besieged remaining Spanish. The Aztec warrior commanders, unhappy at Motecuhzoma's passivity, overthrew him and set Cuitlahuac as the new tlatoani. The Spanish tried to have Motecuhzoma calm the populace, but he was struck in the head by a thrown rock and killed. Some think the Spanish strangled him in secret as he was clearly of no use to either side any longer.
Holed up in the royal palace, Cortés resisted several waves of attacks and then fought to control the gigantic Templo Mayor pyramid, which was being used as a handy vantage point to rain down missiles on the Spanish. A fierce battle ended in Cortés taking control of the temple, which he then set fire to, horrifying the population. Cortés grabbed what booty he could and fled the city in a running night battle on the 30th of June, 1520 CE, in what became known as the Noche Triste (Sad Night).
Gathering local allies from his Tlaxcala base, and now supported by Texcoco, Cortés first won a great battle near Otumba and then returned to Tenochtitlan ten months later, laying siege to the city with a fleet of specially built warships. With these ships, Cortés was able to block the three main causeways which linked the city to the edge of Lake Texcoco. Lacking food and ravaged by smallpox disease earlier introduced by one of the Spaniards, the Aztecs, now led by Cuauhtemoc, finally collapsed after 93 days of resistance on the fateful day of 13th of August, 1521 CE. Tenochtitlan was sacked and its monuments destroyed. The Tlaxcalans were ruthless in their revenge and slaughtered men, women, and children wholesale, even shocking the hardened Spanish veterans with their atrocities. From the ashes of this disaster rose the new capital of the colony of New Spain, and Cortés was made its first governor in May 1523 CE.

Conquering the Empire

With the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish set about pacifying the rest of the empire and discovering what other treasures could be plundered. In this, they were helped enormously by two factors. The first was help from disgruntled subject peoples or traditional enemies of the Aztecs. On the march to Tenochtitlan, Cortés had already enlisted the enthusiastic help of the Tlaxcalans, both in men and supplies. With the collapse of the Aztec hierarchy, other local communities were only too willing to see the back of them and free themselves from heavy tribute and the systematic capture of people to be sacrificed at the Aztec capital.
The second factor in the Spaniard’s favour was the primitive weaponry and ritualised warfare of their opponents. 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. Effective though these were against even more poorly equipped native Americans, they were next to useless against the Spanish guns, crossbows, steel swords, long pikes, cannons, and armour.
Cavalry was another devastating weapon in the hands of the Europeans. Elite Aztec warriors and officers also wore spectacular feathered and animal skin costumes and headdresses to signify their rank. This made them highly conspicuous in battle and a prime target to dispatch as early as possible. Shorn of their commanders, the Aztec units often disintegrated into panic. The Aztecs were used to loose formations in battle; their primary objective had always been to capture a valiant opponent alive so that they might be later ritually sacrificed, and warfare was highly ritualised with precise moments for starting and ending. The objective of Aztec warfare was never to destroy completely the enemy and overturn their culture, while the Spanish were intent on exactly that. The two sides were not just centuries but millennia apart in terms of arms technology and warfare tactics.
There could only be one winner, and within three years Mesoamerica, including the Tarascan capital of Tzintzuntzan and the Maya highlands, were under Spanish control. Gradually, Franciscan friars arrived to spread Christianity, and the bureaucrats took over from the adventurers. In 1535 CE, Don Antonio de Mendoza was made the first viceroy of the kingdom of New Spain.


Montezuma 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 fall just as the previous four eras had done, and so it came to pass. The Aztec empire collapsed, its temples were defaced or destroyed, and its fine art melted down into coins. Ordinary people suffered from the European-introduced diseases which wiped out up to 50% of the population, and their new overlords did not turn out to be any better than the Aztecs. Systematically and ruthlessly, the culture of the ancient Mesoamericans, a heritage going back millennia, was repressed and where possible eradicated in an effort to install the new order of the Old World. Unfortunately, with the continued extraction of tribute both in goods and forced labour, this new order was no less brutal and unforgiving than the old one.
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[ 6 ]

The Ball Game of Mesoamerica

by Mark Cartwright

The sport known simply as the Ball Game was popular across Mesoamerica and played by all the major civilizations from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. The impressive stone courts became a staple feature of a city’s sacred complex and there were often several playing courts in a single city. More than just a game, though, the event could have a religious significance and featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. The contests even supplied candidates for human sacrifice, for the sport could, quite literally, be a game of life or death.


The game was invented sometime in the Preclassical Period (2500-100 BCE), probably by the Olmec, and became a common Mesoamerican-wide feature of the urban landscape by the Classical Period (300-900 CE). Eventually, the game was even exported to other cultures in North America and the Caribbean.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú & Vucub Hunahpú.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú. The pair annoyed the gods of the underworld with their noisy playing and the two brothers were tricked into descending into Xibalba (the underworld) where they were challenged to a ball game. Losing the game, Hun Hunahpús had his head cut off; a foretaste of what would become common practice for players unfortunate enough to lose a game.
In another legend, a famous ball game was held at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan between the Aztec king Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (r. 1502-1520 CE) and the king of Texcoco. The latter had predicted that Motecuhzoma’s kingdom would fall and the game was set-up to establish the truth of this bold prediction. Motecuhzoma lost the game and did, of course, lose his kingdom at the hands of the invaders from the Old World. The story also supports the idea that the ball game was sometimes used for the purposes of divination.

The Court

Courts were usually a part of a city’s sacred precinct, a fact which suggests the ball game was more than just a game. Early Preclassic playing courts were simple, flattened-earth rectangles but by the Late Formative Period (300 BCE onwards) these evolved into more imposing areas which consisted of a flat rectangular surface set between two parallel stone walls. Each side could have a large vertical stone ring set high into the wall. The walls could be perpendicular or sloping away from the players and the ends of the court could be left open but defined using markers or, in other layouts, a wall closed off the playing space to create an I-shaped court. The court at Monte Albán, Oaxaca is a typical example of the I-shaped court. The length of the court could vary but the 60 m long court at Epiclassic El Tajín (650-900 CE) represents a typical size.
The flat court surface often has three large circular stone markers set in a line down the length of the court. Some of these markers from Maya sites have a quatrefoil cartouche indicating the underworld entrance which has led to speculation that the game may have symbolised the movement of the sun (the ball) through the underworld (the court) each night. Alternatively, the ball may have represented another heavenly body such as the moon and the court was the world.
Surviving courts abound and are spread across Mesoamerica. The Epiclassic city of Cantona has an incredible 24 courts with at least 18 being contemporary. El Tajín also has a remarkable number of courts (at least 11) and it may well have been a sacred centre for the sport, much like Olympia for athletics in ancient Greece. The earliest known court is from the Olmec city of San Lorenzo whilst the largest surviving stone playing court is at the Mayan-Toltec city of Chichén Itzá. With a length of 146 m and a width of 36 m, this court seems almost too large to be actually played in, especially with the rings set at the demanding height of 8 m.

The Rules

The exact rules of the game are not known for certain and in all probability there were variations across the various cultures and different periods. However, the main aim was to get a solid rubber (latex) ball through one of the rings. This was more difficult than it seems as players could not use their hands. One can imagine that good players became highly skilled at directing the ball using their padded elbows, knees, thighs and shoulders. Teams were composed of two or three players and were male-only. There was also an alternative version, less-widespread, where players used sticks to hit the ball.
The ball could be a lethal weapon in itself, as measuring anywhere from 10 to 30 cm in diameter and weighing from 500 g to 3.5 kg, it could easily break bones. Remarkably, seven rubber balls have been preserved in the bogs of El Manatí near the Olmec city of San Lorenzo. These balls range from 8 to 25 cm in diameter and date from between 1600 and 1200 BCE.

The Players

Players could be professionals or amateurs and there is evidence of betting on the outcome of important games. The game also had a strong association with warriors and war captives were often forced to play the game.
Players were frequently depicted in Mesoamerican art, appearing in sculpture, ceramics and architectural decoration - the latter often decorating the courts themselves - and these depictions often show that the players wore protective gear such as belts and padding for the knees, hips, elbows and wrists. The players in these works of art also typically wear a padded helmet or a huge feathered headdress, perhaps the latter being for ceremonial purposes only. Zapotec relief stones at Dainzú also depict ball players wearing grilled helmets as well as knee-guards and gauntlets.
Winners of the game received trophies, many of which have been excavated and include hachas and palmas. A hacha was a representation of the human head (early ones might have actually been heads) with a handle attached and was used as a trophy for a winning player, a piece of ceremonial equipment or as a marker in the court itself. A palma was also most likely a trophy or element of ceremonial costume worn by ball players. They are frequently represented in stone and can take the form of arms, hands, a player or a fan-tailed bird. Other trophies for game winners include stone yokes (typically u-shaped to be worn around the waist in imitation of the protective waist gear worn by players) and hand stones, often elaborately carved. All of these trophies are frequently found in graves and are reminders of the link between the sport and the underworld in Mesoamerican mythology.
As games often had a religious significance the captain of the losing team, or even sometimes the entire team, were sacrificed to the gods. Such scenes are depicted in the decorative sculpture on the courts themselves, perhaps most famously on the South ball court at El Tajín and at Chichén Itzá, where one relief panel shows two teams of seven players with one player having been decapitated. Another ominous indicator of the macabre turn that this sporting event could take is the presence of tzompantli (the skull racks where severed heads from sacrifices were displayed) rendered in stone carvings near the ball courts. The Classic Maya even invented a parallel game where captives, once defeated in the real game, were tied up and used as balls themselves and unceremoniously rolled down a flight of steps.
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[ 7 ]

The Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli

by Mark Cartwright

The striking turquoise mask now in the British Museum in London is thought to represent Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire, and dates to the final century of the Aztec empire, c. 1400-1521 CE. It is made from hundreds of small pieces of turquoise glued onto a cedar wood base and was meant to be either worn by a god impersonator in religious ceremonies or worn by an effigy of the god. The mask was almost certainly part of the treasure brought back from Mesoamerica by Hernán Cortés and presented to Charles V.


The mask measures 16.5 cm x 15.2 cm and is covered with hundreds of pieces (or tesserae) of turquoise which were cut and shaped by hand to create a contoured mosaic to capture the three-dimensional features of the human face. The tesserae were attached to the carved cedar wood (Cedrela odorata) mask using pine resin as glue. To better represent the shape of a face the wooden base was also bent before the tesserae were added. The inner surface of the mask was painted with red hematite. The eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth are rendered with tesserae cut with particular precision. The various shades of turquoise are also used to great effect - bluer tesserae around the cheeks, upper lip, chin and forehead - to further enhance the contrast between the flatter parts of the face with more prominent features such as the nose and eyes.
The eyes of the god are rendered using mother-of-pearl (Pinctada mazatlantica) whilst the eyelids were originally gilded with wafer-thin gold foil. The seven teeth are of conch shell (Strombus gigas or S. Galeatus), although two are modern synthetic replacements. Two holes, one at each temple, were originally decorated with a border of mother-of-pearl and indicate the object was intended to be worn as a mask during certain Aztec religious ceremonies, either by an impersonator of the god dressed in full regalia and who would ultimately be sacrificed, or by an effigy of the god, commonly used during royal burial ceremonies.

Xiuhtecuhtli or Tonatiuh?

It is not absolutely certain just who the mask represents. The mask is not unique as several other examples of this Aztec art form have survived for posterity, as have drawings of them in the Codex Borbonicus. Some scholars have taken the presence of the raised cabochon tesserae as representing the warts of the sun god Tonatiuh. In Aztec mythology it was the old and wart-covered god Nanauatzin who sacrificed himself by jumping into the fire which created the sun of the 5th and present era. Emerging from the fire in triumph, Nanauatzin had been transformed into Tonatiuh.
However, it is now thought that the most likely candidate for who the masks represents is Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec new god of fire, whose name translates as 'Turquoise Lord'. In Nahuatl the word for turquoise is xihuitl, which also means 'year'. One of Xiuhtecuhtli’s most important roles was as overseer of the Toxiuhmolpilia festival or New Fire Ceremony. This was held once every 52 years on the completion of one full cycle of the Aztec calendar (xiuhmolpilli). The purpose of the ceremony was to ensure the successful renewal (or re-occurrence) of the sun. Xiuhtecuhtli was often represented using turquoise and the mask, according to some scholars, has one other particular link to the god. The darker shades of the tesserae on the cheeks and bridge of the nose create a stylised butterfly, as do those on the forehead, a creature closely associated with Xiuhtecuhtli and a symbol of change and renewal.
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[ 8 ]

The Tizoc Stone

by Mark Cartwright

The Tizoc Stone is a huge stone cylinder from the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan which depicts a sun-disk on its flat upper surface and carries a frieze around its outer edge showing Aztec warriors and the Aztec king Tizoc, whose reign from 1481 to 1486 CE was troubled by rebellions across the empire. The stone was almost certainly used during sacrificial ceremonies in either fighting contests or as a receptacle for the hearts of sacrificial victims.
The huge stone is made from basalt and measures 2.67 m in diameter and stands 92.5 cm high. Covered in rich relief carvings the stone as a whole is thought to represent the cosmos as defined by the Aztec Empire. The top surface shows a sun-disk with eight points or rays representing the four cardinal and inter-cardinal directions. Running around the upper edge of the outer surface of the stone is a band of stars representing the heavens whilst running around the lower edge is a double row of pointed vertical blades which represent the earth. This lower band also has four masks depicting the Aztec earth deity, each placed at one of the four cardinal points.
The main frieze which runs around the outer edge of the stone is carved in relief and depicts 14 Aztec warriors taking captive the gods of other conquered civilizations. The warriors, all facing to the right and, therefore, moving counter-clockwise around the stone, are grasping the gods by their hair which was a standard way to represent capture and submission in Aztec art. Also depicted, wearing the full ceremonial regalia of the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca which includes a large headdress, is Tizoc himself. The various cities that the captives represent are shown via name glyphs and the stone, therefore, represents the Aztec domination of central Mexico, glorifying, in their eyes, the order that their Empire brought to the cosmos.
The stone may have been used as a platform in the fighting contests which were a common ritual in Aztec sacrifices.
The stone may have been used as a platform in the fighting contests which were a common ritual in Aztec sacrifices. In these bouts a single victim was made to fight against a squad of hand-picked warriors or knights. 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 the circular stone platform (temalacatl) but his weapon was usually a feathered club while his opponents had vicious razor-sharp obsidian swords or clubs (macuauhuitl). An alternative function of the stone may have been as a cuauhxicalli or receptacle to receive the hearts of sacrificial sacrifices.
The Tizoc Stone was discovered on the 17th of December 1790 CE under the Plaza de la Constitución of Mexico City, which was constructed over the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. It now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
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[ 9 ]

Throne of Montezuma

by Mark Cartwright

The magnificent stone monument variously referred to as the Monument of Sacred War, the Teocalli of Sacred War, the Temple Stone or, more simply, the throne of Motecuhzoma II (Montezuma), the Aztec king (tlatoani) who ruled at the time of the Spanish conquest, is covered with relief carvings of symbols, gods and Motecuhzoma himself. The throne, carved in the shape of a pyramid temple, commemorates the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 CE and, through art, demonstrates the inseparable link between fire and water and between this world's rulers and the eternal cosmos. It is one of the masterpieces of Aztec art and can be admired in its permanent home in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.


Discovered in 1831CE near the palace of Motecuhzoma II under what is now Mexico City, the throne was carved in 1507 CE from volcanic stone and measures 1.23 metres in height and around 1 metre in both depth and width.The object as a whole celebrates the triumph of the sun and the top is inscribed with the year 2 House which translates as 1345 CE, regarded as the traditional founding date of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. The throne appears in the form of a typical Aztec stepped pyramid with the back representing the sacred temple which stood at the top of such monuments. The stone may, in fact, be considered as a votive commemorative or teocalli (meaning 'house of god') of sacred warfare and the New Fire Ceremony (Toxiuhmolpilia). This ritual, held only once every 52 years on the completion of the full Aztec calendar cycle, was perhaps the single most important event in Aztec religion and life in general.
The throne appears in the form of a typical Aztec stepped pyramid with the back representing a sacred temple.
Presided over by the Xiuhtechutli, the god of fire, the purpose of the ceremony was to ensure the successful renewal (or re-occurrence) of the sun. Atop Mt. Uixachtecatl (or Citlaltepec), near the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, priests gathered at midnight and awaited a precise alignment of the stars. Then a sacrifice was made to Xiuhtecuhtli by cutting out the heart of a sacrificial victim. Fire was then kindled inside the open chest cavity and if the fire lit successfully all was well. If the flame did not light then it was believed to signal the coming of terrible monsters, the Tzitzimime, who would roam the darkness eating all mankind.
With the unthinkable possibility that the sun might not actually reappear, every ceremony was a crucial moment in Aztec society, but perhaps the one of 1507 CE was more significant than most. The Aztec empire had suffered several misfortunes leading up to the event, notably a devastating famine and destructive snowstorms, so that a new cycle and a fresh start was just what Motecuhzoma needed. Ultimately, the sun did appear again to welcome in another 52 years of cosmic harmony but, in reality, it was only 14 years later that strangers from the west would bring about the cataclysmic collapse of the Aztec civilization.


The twelve steps which approach the seat are flanked by an image of a rabbit on the left signifying the calendar date 1 whilst on the right side reeds represent the date 2. It has been suggested by scholars that these dates represent either the first and last years of the 52-year cycle or the years in which this particular New Fire Ceremony crossed over. Above these symbols, again, one on either side, are representations of cuauhxicalli - the vessels used to hold offerings such as the hearts of sacrificial victims during religious ceremonies. The one on the left has markings indicating a jaguar skin and the one on the right has eagle feathers.
The back of the seat of the throne carries a large sun disk on which are indicated the cardinal and inter-cardinal points, a common motif in Aztec art. On the left of the sun disk stands the figure of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, wearing his usual hummingbird headdress and with his left foot in the shape of a fire serpent whilst on the right stands Motecuhzoma II performing a sacrifice to the god. The seat of the throne has a relief of the earth monster Tlaltecuhtli of Aztec mythology. Therefore, when Motecuhzoma sat on the throne, he was in contact with both the earth and sun, and so was fulfilling his role as sacred guardian of both, separating them with his person and preventing the sun from collapsing onto the earth.
The large eagle on the back of the throne reminds of the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlán when Huitzilopochtli indicated the correct site with an eagle sitting on a cactus. The figures are the Aztec people who offer their hearts in sacrifice and homage to their gods and ruler. At the sides of the stone seated gods, each with a tetl or stone symbol on their backs, self-sacrifice blood from their loins, a typical ritual of Aztec religion. The four deities represented are Tlaloc (god of rain), Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Dawn), Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire), and Xochipilli (god of flowers, summer and music). There are also marked the dates 1 Flint and 1 Death and a smoking mirror to represent Tezcatlipoca, the god of destiny. These scenes, therefore, combine with the other relief carvings on all sides of the stone to give compelling testimony of the divine favour enjoyed by Motecuhzoma's reign.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0


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