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Aztecs Essay, Research Paper

The Aztecs were an American Indian people who ruled a mighty empire in Mexico from the 1400’s to the 1500’s. The Aztecs had one of the most advanced civilizations in the Americas and built cities as large as any in Europe at that time. The Aztecs built towering temples, created huge sculptures, and held impressive ceremonies all for the purpose of worshipping their gods. They also practiced a remarkable religion that affected every part of their lives, which featured human sacrifice. In the year 1521 the Spaniards destroyed their magnificent empire, but the Aztecs left a lasting mark on Mexican life and culture.

The majority of the Aztecs lived in what is now called the Valley of Mexico located at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. From the massive pyramids of Tenochtitlan, to the inhabitants of the vast hub of modern Mexico City, the great valley has been the heartland of many empires. However, the mighty Aztecs were the last indigenous group of people to enter the Valley of Mexico. Like many other pre-Columbian cultures, the Aztecs developed their own political system, religion, social structure, agricultural techniques, lifestyle and worldview.

The early Aztecs were semi-nomadic hunters and farmers. According to legend, in about 1000 AD the Aztecs left their mythic, island homeland of Aztlan in the desert frontiers of northern Mexico to begin their 100-year migration south to the Valley of Mexico. Led by their powerful patron god, Huiziloposhtli, they continued their migration southward, stopping along the way to plant crops, to build temples for their gods, and to offer human sacrifices in their honor.

According to the famous legend, the Aztecs finally settled at a spot where an eagle sat upon a cactus eating a snake. This was a sign foretold by their patron god. The sign, found by the priests, finally appeared on a small island in Lake Texcoco. By 1325, on the island, the Aztecs built a temple to Huitziposhtli and began to construct the city of Tenochtitlan, the “Place of Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit.” Over the next 200 years, the city slowly became one of the largest and most powerful cities of the world, and was the giant heart of the Aztecs Empire.

Social structure was an important aspect in the everyday life of the Aztecs. The Aztec society was structured in a hierarchy of four main classes: nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. Social status was determined primarily at birth. All members of the nobility could trace their lineage to the first Aztec ruler Acamapichtli. The only way one could rise up to another class in the system was to perform an outstanding military achievement.

The nobles usually held high military offices and government positions. However, nobles were also teachers, priests, and bureaucratic officials. The nobles controlled most of the wealth in Aztec society. Most nobles also had their own private land or received extra government land for use during their term in public office. Commoners made up the majority of the Aztec population, and many of them made a living by farming their government owned plots. The commoners were the backbone of Aztec society, forming the large labor and military forces that maintained and controlled most of the empire. The serfs worked the land held by the nobles and remained on the land when a new noble acquired it. Slaves were considered property, but their children were born free. Most of the slaves were prisoners of war, criminals or people who could not pay their debts.

Religion was extremely important in Aztec life. The people devoted much of their time to religious practice and even waged war largely to obtain prisoners to sacrifice to their various gods. Much of the Aztec religion was based on traditions already established in ancient Meso-America. Older gods from ancient cultures were the basis for the gods they worshipped, but new gods were always being added to the list. The Aztecs performed ceremonies in the gods’ honor that included gifts of incense, flowers, birds, and animals. These offerings were usually given to happy gods, mainly Quetzalcoatl. Huiziloposhtli, the god of the sun and war, was the god that demanded the most sacrifices. For warriors, the ultimate honor was to be slain in battle or to volunteer for sacrifice in a major ritual, while prisoners were often used for less important rituals. In the important ritual of human sacrifice, the priests would take the victim to the heights of the pyramids where they would stretch the victim over a convex stone. One of the Aztec priests would then slice open the victim s chest with a sharp knife and evict his heart as a tribute to the gods. The Aztecs believed that the gods needed human hearts and blood to remain strong, one of the reasons sacrifices were so important. After the heart had been removed from the victim, the priests would boil the body and members of the village would consume it as an act of ritualistic cannibalism. They may have thought that the dead person’s strength and bravery passed to anyone who ate the flesh.

Men were usually the victims of such sacrifices but women and children were also sacrificed. Women were sacrificed at a fall festival honoring the mother goddess of growing ripe corn. They were decapitated and their bodies were consumed. Children were sacrificed to mainly two gods: the god of rain, Tlaloc, and the god of fire, Xiuhtecuhutli. Children sacrificed to Tlaloc were usually strangled or drowned, and children sacrificed to Xiuhtecuhutli were usually tossed into fire, roasted on hot coals, or boiled to death. While each victim died in a different way all victims had their hearts removed.

The Aztecs held many other religious ceremonies in which nobles and commoners alike participated. Throughout the year people were called upon to participate in colorful performances that pleased the gods. The performances were held outside on the steps of the pyramids and in the great plazas. These ceremonies included musicians who played various musical instruments and dancers who would parade around the pyramids and through the city streets. Most of the other religious activities took place inside walled ceremonial temples on top of the giant pyramids. Priests would climb the huge stairways to the temples and give gifts to the gods. There were also ceremonial centers in which the priests would reside and people would come to pray and give offerings to the gods. The centers also included gardens, living quarters for the priests, and racks to hold the skulls of sacrificial victims. Many centers also had a playing court for a popular game called lachtli, which is somewhat like basketball. The players (usually nobles) tried to hit a rubber ball through a ring with their hips and knees. They could not use their hands or feet in the game.

The typical Aztec household consisted of a husband and a wife, their unmarried children and a number of the husband s relatives. All members of the family helped with the household work. The husband s responsibility was to support the family usually by farming or craftwork. The wife s duties included weaving clothing and cooking the family s food. Family activities often took place in the patio: meals were cooked, children played, and neighbors stopped in to chat and exchange local news.

Agriculture formed the basis of the Aztec economy. Many farmers lived outside the great city on small plots of land, or chinampas. Chinampas were one of the most intensive systems of agriculture ever developed. It was not easy providing food for the thriving capital. As the empire expanded and the population increased, more food was needed. Corn, beans and squash were the principal crops in Tenochtitlan. Corn, the crop in the most demand, was crown in many varieties, sizes, and colors. A strange and mystical relationship existed between the Aztecs and corn. Several gods were associated with corn, and corn was demanded as a sacrifice by many of the gods. Corn was honored in all its various forms, as seeds, small plants and as mature plants. Aztec farmers also grew fruits of many kinds as well as tomatoes, avocados, chili peppers, and herbs. Chilies were very popular and were the basic seasoning for almost all foods.

Aztec farmers live with their families in mud-walled thatch-roofed huts on their plots of land. These houses only consisted of one room with a dirt floor covered with reeds for sleeping. The family rose with the sun to begin work and the day ended when darkness fell. Meat was in very short supply so the Aztecs rarely ate it. Farmers did, however, raise turkeys, ducks and small dogs that were reserved for only the very wealthy. Usually the only meat the farmers ever ate was collected in the lake. Things such as fish, turtles, frogs, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, grubs, and salamanders that were gathered on the lake were eaten only during special occasions. The lake also provided an interesting source of protein. Green lake scum that tasted like cheese was dried into small bricks. Warriors who went into battle often carried this high-protein food.

Times were not easy for the farmers. Farmers worked very hard and gained very little. Farmers could, however be guaranteed a place to live and work for their lifetime in a well organized, structured society.

Children were a much desired, gift from the gods. The midwife bathed the new baby and welcomed him or her with words or affection and warnings about the nature of the world. Once the baby was welcomed into the family by relatives and neighbors, an astrologer selected a day for the naming ceremony. After the child was given a name, small boys ran through the neighborhood streets, announcing the baby s name at every door. A banquet followed the announcements, during which guests were given flowers, and pipes or tobacco to smoke. Friends, neighbors and relatives would feast and celebrate all night during the ceremony.

Throughout childhood, girls and boys were taught their responsibilities by their mothers and fathers. From an early age, mothers taught daughters how to spin thread on a spindle, how to weave cloth on a loom, how to grind corn on a stone and help prepare the family s meal. All women in Aztec society were expected to be accomplished weavers and cooks. From an early age, fathers taught their sons to carry water and firewood, to collect and bring home whatever people dropped at the local market, and how to fish with a net from a canoe.

The fathers of the young boys also served as their educators until age ten. They then went to a school which was ran by their neighborhood. These schools provided general education and military training. There were also temple schools that prepared boys to become priests or other leaders. Some girls attended the temple schools, but the majority learned all their skills at the home. The Aztecs married at an early age, about 16.

All children were expected to conform to the rules of Aztec society and to work and contribute to the needs of the household. Being held over the smoke of a fire in which red chili peppers were burning punished a disobedient child. This was extremely painful to the eyes and burns could become severe.

Warfare was very important to Aztec society because it was considered a religious duty. Aztecs fought not only to enlarge their powerful empire, but to gain prisoners to sacrifice to the gods as well. The highest goal for a young man was to become a successful warrior. All able men were trained to be warriors, but only members of the nobility made up the prestigious Eagle and Jaguar Warriors. Men who took many captives in battle were rewarded. They gained land, high social rank and important government offices.

Aztec methods of combat were designed to capture the enemy rather than kill him. The chief weapon was a wooden club with sharp pieces of obsidian. This weapon was effective for disabling an opponent without killing him. The Aztecs also used bows and arrows and spears. For protection, warriors carried wooden shields and wore padded cotton armor.

Montezuma was the ruler of the Aztec Empire when Hernan Cortes of Spain landed on Mexico. Emperor Montezuma was born about 1480 and is perhaps the cause of his great empire s collapse in 1521. Unlike previous Aztec rulers, who were great warriors and thinkers, Montezuma II was weak and incompetent.

When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, Montezuma was unsure if these strange newcomers were men or powerful gods. Because of this, instead of fighting the Spaniards he tried to get rid of them by trickery, magic, and offering gifts. When this failed, Montezuma allowed Cortes to enter Tenochtitlan without a battle and received him in his court. This turned out to be a grave error. Montezuma was taken prisoner without resistance, but the brutal conduct of the invaders angered the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs were revolted at this treatment by the Spaniards. They managed to drive out the foreigners out of the city for a while, but when the Spanish did take over the city once again the inhabitants revolted. Cortes called on Montezuma to stop the revolt, but the Aztec ruler was stoned while addressing his subjects. After the stoning, there was a large battle. The furious Aztecs ousted the Spaniards from their city once and for all; or so they thought. Three days later Montezuma died of massive head injuries.

The Aztecs thought their enemies had departed for good and would never return. The city returned to its normal daily and ceremonial routine. Unfortunately, things were not very normal for long. A plague of smallpox spread rapidly through the city. The inhabitants of the Americas had no immunity to this new disease brought on by the Spanish. The disease killed thousand of people, including the new Aztec ruler.

On April 18, 1521, much to the Aztecs surprise, the Spanish marched back to Tenochtitlan with large forces of Indian allies and 900 soldiers. The soldiers constructed large boats to hold men and canons. On May 31, 1521, Cortes began his final siege of the great city. The boats sailed off the mainland and arrived at the island where horsemen and cavalry could be brought into the city. With this final task accomplished, the soldiers poured into the city. The siege of the capital lasted 75 days, causing great suffering to the people of Tenochtitlan. The final battle for Tenochtitlan was fought in the great marketplace. Nobles, warriors, and women alike made their last dying effort to capture the city. Unfortunately, this was too little, too late. Of the 300,000 Aztec defenders, only about 60,000 survived.

Aztec artifacts were almost completely wiped out with the entrance of the Spaniards. Many things the Aztecs created are gone and little Aztec architecture remains. The Spaniards considered it their duty as Christians to wipe out the temples and all other traces of Aztec Religion. However, archaeologists have found the site of the Great Temple in downtown Mexico City where Tenochtitlan was once located. Archaeologists have uncovered all four sides of the building and recovered about 6,000 objects, including jewelry, pottery, statues, wall carving, and remains of human and animal sacrifices. They have also restored some other Aztec buildings.

Unfortunately, after the Spanish arrival, Aztec culture came to an abrupt end. Art, literature, customs, religious figures, and almost every trace of the Aztecs were destroyed. However, some Aztec heritage still survives in the midst of modern day Mexico. Though the Aztec civilization may be gone it will never be forgotten.

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