The City State
The city-state of Tenochtitlan was located on an island shared with the city state of Tlatelolco[i] off the shores of Lake Texcoco[ii], more than 7,000 feet above sea level, the city covered more than 20 square miles. The city was founded in the mid-13th century on lands that no other settlers in the region wanted. It was designed to fit its setting and was laid out in four quarters with each calpulli or tribal clan allocated a quarter.
Tenochtitlan was built mainly in stone around a system of canals and housed between 150,000 to 300,000 people by the end of the 15th century. There were three causeways to the mainland about twelve feet wide and an aqueduct carried water from Chapultepec Hill. The Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the New World in the early 1500s called Tenochtitlan;
‘The most beautiful city in the world.’[iii]
|Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco|
Tenochtitlan had a central plaza used for a market that the Spaniards claimed was where;
‘More than 60,000 souls gather daily buying and selling….jewelry of silver and gold, precious stones, skins of deer, jaguar, and puma, pottery, and textiles, beautiful mosaics made from bird’s feathers, honey, fish, venison, turkey, fattened hairless dogs, dyes for fabrics, tobacco, rubber and much else besides.’[iv]
The city had been extended into the lake by means of chinampas or ‘floating gardens’, rafts varying in size from 1,100 to 9,000 feet2, and farmed by up to 15 people. They were made from silt and reeds held in place by stakes. The reeds eventually took root in the lake’s shallow waters forming an island. Up to 300 foot long the chinampas were used for the cultivation of fruit, flowers and vegetables for Tenochtitlan’s inhabitants.
Religion and Sacrifice
The city also had a central religious complex, the Great
Templededicated to the gods Huitzilopochtli[v] and Tlaloc[vi] The Huey Teocalli or Templo Mayor
was at the heart of the sacred precinct[vii]
which in turn was at the centre of Tenochtitlan. Enclosed by a wall it was
reserved for the priests and priestesses. The precinct included a ball court,
the temple for conquered idols of captured towns, and tzompamtis – display racks for the skulls of sacrificial
The Templo Mayor itself was an impressive 45 foot high pyramid[viii] topped with temples to both Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. The temple of Tlaloc was decorated in blue and white, the symbols of water and rain, while Huitzilopochtli’s was decorated in red and white symbols of war. Two staircases flanked by sculpted serpents led up to the twin temples. Religion was dominated by the two High Priests of Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc but there were many other gods in the Aztec pantheon[ix].
The priests oversaw the sacrifices which were particularly bloody; ensuring that the sun rose each day required frequent blood sacrifices[x]. The gods were offered the beating hearts of their victims. The prisoners used in the sacrifices were treated with respect, usually cared for by the warriors who took them prisoner.
On their way up the temple steps the victims, as was the custom, were sprayed with a narcotic to dull their senses. Four priests laid the prisoner on the sacrificial stone whilst a fifth tore out his heart.
During the sacrifices musicians played conch-shell trumpets, bone flutes drums and rattles while dancers wearing gold and silver bells performed as the blood flowed down the temple steps. The bodies of the victims, imbued with the presence of god were eaten after death by the victorious warriors. One Spanish chronicler recorded watching a sacrifice of his fellow soldiers;
‘There was sounded the dismal drum of Huichilobos [Huitzilopochtli] and many other shells and horns and things like trumpets and the sound of them all was terrifying. We saw them [the priests] place plumes on the heads of many of them and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dance before Huichilobos, and after they danced they immediately placed them on their backs…..and with stone knives they cut open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts.’[xi]
Ordinary people made minor sacrifices on a regular basis by inserting cactus needles into their ears and offering the blood to whatever deity they wished to propitiate. The Aztec people believed in shamans who they believed had the ability to shapeshift. Many of the Aztec gods had the capacity to appear in animal, human or other forms; the god Tezcatlipoca[xii] took the form of a jaguar while Xolotl[xiii] took the form of a coyote. In addition each person had an animal form which was believed to act as that person’s protector.
Children were valued within the Aztec empire and parents were expected to take pains with educating their children to their position in life. Children were expected to value family, school, their clan, professional organisation and society as a whole. The empire offered opportunities socially and professionally for the common man or woman, especially in the military and priesthood.
The arrival of a child was greeted with war cries from the midwife, honouring the mother’s battle. The child was given a purifying bath during which the midwife spoke to the child about the purifying water deity Chalchiuhtlicue[xiv];
‘Approach thy mother Chalchiuhtlicue, Chalchiuh Tlatonac! May she receive thee! May she wash thee! May she remove, may she transfer, the filthiness which thou has taken from thy mother, from thy father! May she cleanse thy heart! May she make it fine, good! May she give thee fine good conduct!’[xv]
Between the ages of three and four children were introduced to basic household chores and by six or seven were doing tasks outside the home such as gathering reeds or working with fishing nets. Parents passed on specialist knowledge such as bakery or pottery to their offspring, men to their sons and women to their daughters.
The Aztecs used books[xvi] to record their history, laws rites and ceremony, although their writing was closer to pictograms than hieroglyphs, and the books were used more as a pictorial aide memoire.
Children did not attend school until they were at least seven (if they had been promised to the school). There were two types of school (both single sex); one was the telpochcalli, or youth house[xvii], and each clan had one attached to a local temple. The telpochcalli concentrated on moral and religious training, history, dancing, singing and rhetoric[xviii]. Boys were given military training while the girls were trained in the duties they would undertake as priestesses.
The calmecac schools also attached to temples but were solely for the nobility to train their children in leadership. There was only one in each city. Priests as well as the scions of the nobility were trained in the calmecac. According to one Spanish chronicler, as well as the art of warfare children were trained to;
‘Speak well, to salute and to make obeisance….All the verses of songs were taught to them so that they could sing them. These were hymns the verses of which were recorded in their books. In addition they were taught Indian astrology, the interpretation of dreams and the counting of the years.’[xix]
They were taught to read, write and to calculate sums as well as Aztec history which was viewed as a very important subject. There was considerable state control over what history was taught, to ensure that children were educated in state dogma.
The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico – Nigel Davies, Penguin 1985
The New World – Nicholas Hordern, Aldus Books/Jupiter Books 1971
The Ancient American Civilisations – Friedrich Katz, Phoenix Press 2000
Moctezuma and the Aztecs – Elisenda Vila Llonch, the British Museum Press 2009
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztecs and Maya – Charles Phillips, Hermes House 2010
The Aztecs – Richard F Townsend, Thames & Hudson Ltd 2010
[i] Defeated in 1473 by Axayacatl
[ii] Drained by the Spaniards after the Conquest, the Aztecs held fertility rites here yearly addressed to ‘Mother Vast Water’
[iii] The New World – Hordern
[v] The son of the goddess Coatlicue, Huitzilopochtli was the god of war, also known as the Southern Hummingbird or Hummingbird of the Left; who legend had it led the Aztecs from their mythical birthplace in Aztlán he had driven off the god of learning, wind and wisdom Quetzalcoatl who vowed to return in a year Ce Acatl or One Reed, one such year was 1518 which saw the arrival of the Spaniards who were perceived to be agents of a vengeful Quetzalcoatl.
[vi] God of rain and fertility, also known as the Storm Lord
[vii] Housing the numerous buildings and temples dedicated to the Aztec gods
[ix] Circa forty
[x] Blood was the precious liquid sustaining life and was equated with water essential for life; they also practised child sacrifices, in the first month of the Aztec year (14th February to 5th March) to Tlaloc to ensure the fertility of the land. During the dry season from April to May the Tlatoani made an annual pilgrimage to sacred caves in the mountains above Tenochtitlan
[xi] The Ancient American Civilisations - Katz
[xii] God of the night sky, hurricanes and obsidian
[xiii] God of lightening and death
[xiv] Also known as Jade Skirt, she was the goddess of water, rivers, streams, lakes and patroness of childbirth and the wife and/or sister of Tlaloc
[xv] The Aztecs - Townsend
[xvii] For the education of commoners
[xviii] Public speaking without notes was an essential part of Aztec ceremony and men and women were supposed to be proficient in the skill
[xix] The Ancient American Civilisations - Katz