Aztec Civilization: How They Are Portrayed and How Their History Survives

If you’re keeping up on the current portrayals of Mexicans and by extension those who may be drawn to their Aztec roots in the media, you may have recently seen a controversy brewing in Texas. The controversy centers around an image on the cover of a Texas textbook that teaches Mexican-American heritage. The image depicts an “Aztec Dance Look” and features a bare-chested man with an elaborate headdress. The content has been criticized as characterizing Mexican-Americans in a racist way and conflating the history of Mexico with that of Mexican-Americans, since the cover image is in no way reflective of today’s Mexican-Americans.

It also negatively depicts the Chicano movement of the civil rights era for its activism as separatist in nature, when they were seeking their own empowerment within the American community at large. Instead of celebrating the need for a group to claim its roots and stand proudly wherever they may be, stereotypes glaze over the real intentions of people who reclaim their own pasts. In reality, and with cultural sensitivity, the Chicano movement distinguishes itself from Mexican roots by tapping into the very cultures that lived in the Mexican territories and the southwestern US territories before Mexico existed. Chicanos consider themselves Olmec, Mayan, Toltec, Aztec, and various indigenous people.

Steeping oneself in the iconography of the Aztec and authentic history isn’t only for individuals tracking their family lines on Ancestry.com. Shows like the very popular wrestling show Lucha Underground on the El Ray Network pride themselves in bringing on characters that are Aztec gods. Fans love it. The show researched the seven Aztec tribes that lived in the Chicomoztoc (the place of the Seven Caves) in Aztlan. Aztlan is purportedly the original home of the Aztec (meaning: people of Aztlan). This book will later discuss some of the Aztec Genesis stories and of the Nahua people who emerged from the seven caves. As legend would have it, at least in presenting the seven tribes that this show refers to and comprises in their seven medallions, these tribes were: Chalcas, Alcolhuas, Tepanecs, Tlahuicas, Tlascaltecs, Xochimilcas, and Aztecs. Some accounts list other tribes as part of the initial seven, like Malinalcas and Huexotzincas. People who view the show who have Latin roots feel like the show speaks to them on a cultural level.

The Aztecs separated from the other Nahua tribes at these caves. The names of each of the tribes mentioned are derived mostly from the areas where they eventually settled after their exodus. The Lucha Underground title belt is comprised of gold from each of the seven tribes. The show taps into the possible myth or legend of the Chicomoztoc that has historically been explored in many studies of the early migration of the Aztec and continues to enthrall anyone interested in Aztec history and their cultural traditions. According to mythology, the caves were like Mother Earth’s womb. The seven different caves brought into the world the leaders of the first people of these seven tribes. As the metaphoric place of emergence of all people of central Mexican descent, this place served as the ancestral homeland even if it was blended into any factual attempts to fit together any migrations to real places. Some investigators who question that these caves were mythical have tried to identify it on modern maps. Others question a single point of origin. Yet, it has had a lasting effect in the cultural traditions.

It’s understandable if we step back for a moment and consider how many cultural and religious traditions do not base their beliefs on empirical evidence but a need to honor the need of our ancient ones to provide some answers about why the world was the way it was. It reinforced a need for a sense of place and to find some threads to a history that was destroyed by conquerors. As we will discuss later, the Aztec’s creation myths shaped their daily lives. Moreover, while we may be in an information age, we must remember this. The purpose of myth has often been to a culture much less about proving the stories true and more about explaining major events in a way that preserved the cultural values and traditions of a people and didn’t relegate the question as unanswerable, but allowed the listener to interpret the past. Many interpretations exist of the cave with the seven tribes. As we will soon discuss, the organization of time and the rhythms of life governed the lives of the ancient Aztec. It is fascinating that a show like Lucha Underground weaves in the folklore into their program in today’s world, feeding the cultural needs of its viewers and helping them unlock the mysteries of the past.

As important as it is to retain some cultural tie to a past for a people, it is also significant to consider primary sources, artifacts, ancient texts, and archaeological evidence in broadening our understanding of the ancient Aztecs. With a history of conquistadors invading their lands, the Aztec history has taken time, perseverance, and dedication. Building the history has been magnified by the interest of the future generations who didn’t want to reduce them to a void or heap that could only retrace its steps to the times determined to coincide with their last gasps of self-identity. Interest in Aztec history soared between 1700 and 1800.

Our understanding of the Aztec empire relies on interpretations built on excavations, old manuscripts, statues, uncovered grand temples, codices, pictographs, Spanish chroniclers, pre-Conquest ritual calendars, maps, and records that record tributes paid to kings and other royalty. Archaeologists have found tools, human remains, jewelry, and pottery. Ethnoastronomers elaborate on the evidence that has been found, revealing the confluence of religion and everyday life. There exist ethnographies from contemporary Nahuatl-speakers and other indigenous people from Mesoamerica that also lend a valuable resource to our search for answers and to preserve scholarship in understanding Aztec metaphysics, philosophy, social order, their kings, practices, and their human struggles in the world they lived in.

Some of the earliest excavations in the 1790s in Zocalo, today’s main square in Mexico City, led to the discovery of the ancient Coatlicue statue and the Stone of the Sun. Coatlicue means “She of the Serpent Skirt” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztec, and this colossal statue was built sometime between 1487 and 1520. It is made of volcanic andesite and is eleven feet six inches high. Their large stone sculptures are considered one of the greatest artistic achievements. Hundreds of finely carved monuments have been revealed to broaden the interpretation of the Aztec as bloodthirsty warriors. The Aztec artisans inherited a stone carving tradition dating back 2,000 years through the Olmecs, Toltecs, Maya and Teotihuacan civilizations. According to “Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia,” the Aztecs considered the acquisition of stone as an act of domination over the people who lived in the quarry’s territory. In Colonial descriptions of the Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar Stone), the Aztecs considered the stones to have magical properties, and that they could be used in devastating predictions about the overthrow of the empire.

The deity Coatlicue has both female and male qualities, which is often the case in the Aztec cosmology. As the decapitated Aztec goddess of the earth, she wore a skirt made of snakes and a necklace of severed human hands and excised human hearts. Her role as both creator and destroyer of life has been emphasized in interpretations and also symbolizes the ambivalence of nature, according to María Herrera-Sobek in “Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions, Volume 1.” Coatlicue was celebrated twice a year in the House of Darkness, her temple in Tenochtitlan, during the spring ceremony of Tozozontli to celebrate the oncoming rain season and harvest and during the autumn ceremony of Quecholli to celebrate the hunt. These religious practices involved human sacrifice and bloodletting, including flayed skin as an offering to the earth goddess. Much has been written about the religious mythology of Coatlicue, and you can find some excellent starting points listed in the resources flowing of these series.

The Aztec Stone of the Sun is a carved stone that depicts each of the twenty days of the month associated with a god. It resembles a sundial. The stone is 4 feet thick and 12 feet in diameter and weighs 24 tons. At the center of the stone, they carved a human-like face with an obsidian sacrificial knife ( teepatl) as a tongue, depicting the fifth sun, Tonatiuh. This stone has helped archaeologists understand and substantiate the prevailing thinking that Aztecs believed they were living at the time of the Fifth Sun. There is much debate about the significance of some of the dates that are described on the stone and whether the declining period of the Fifth Sun led to a day of destruction, or whether the stone celebrates the creation of the Fifth Sun, the era of the Aztec empire.

This book will further shed light on the mysteries of the ages (suns) as the Aztecs saw it. According to Manuel Aguilar-Moreno in “A Handbook to Life in the Aztec World,” the stone symbolizes the creation of the fifth sun. He suggests that it acts as a celebration of the creation of a world where the forces of creation and destruction play equal roles. Others, like Susan Milbrath in “Heaven and Earth in Ancient Mexico: Astronomy and Seasonal Cycles in the Codex Borgia,” seem to suggest that the day 4 Ollin is the name of the Fifth Sun of the current era, and the predicted date of a cataclysmic earthquake that would destroy the Aztecs. Milbrath continues to reveal that some codices and studies have focused on 4 Ollin and its meaning; one of them, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis 12V, says that if the earth begins to tremble and the sun is eclipsed on this day, then the world will end. The end of El Quinto Sol has been the subject of debate.

The search for these antiquities was spawned by groups that wanted to distinguish themselves from an imperial Spanish background, like the Creoles and Mestizos. During these politically charged times, they began to use evidence of Aztec and indigenous heritage as symbols of opposition to being ruled by Spaniards across the sea, according to David Carrasco in “The Aztecs: A Very Short Introduction.”

During the early 1800s, they unearthed sculptures of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. In 1913, they uncovered the Great Temple in Mexico City. More excavations in the 1970s led to unearthing treasures in Tenochtitlan, like the Coyolxauhqui Stone at the base of the Great Temple. According to Nicholas J. Saunders and Tony Allan in “The Aztec Empire,” the site was considered so important that the President of Mexico in 1978 issued an order authorizing its excavation. A museum was opened at the Great Temple in 1987 containing significant numbers of antiquities. The Coyolxauhqui Stone depicts the daughter of Coatlicue dismembered on the ground for plotting to kill her own mother. You can find the details of the dismemberment by her unborn brother Huitzilopochtli (who only appears grown to stop his sister and the other siblings) in “Crossroads and Cultures, Combined Volume: A History of the World’s Peoples.” According to the authors, sacrificed warriors from all over the empire would have gotten a good look at that circular stone before climbing the temple stairs to their own deaths.

As we will further explore, Aztec people couldn’t escape the attached significance and meaning of the stories of their gods; not only the leaders of the empire but their religious leaders and sculptures reinforced these same concepts of what was considered not just myth but became the reality that underpinned their code of living. As we will learn later, while the status of an individual played a significant role in what was expected of them in playing out the traditions, no one truly escaped the perpetuated responsibilities to the Fifth Sun.

Embrace with us our search of the past to understand how the Aztecs grappled with the ephemeral nature of life. Consider how sacrifice played into their understanding of human responsibility as they heeded the catastrophes that inevitably ruled their world.

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