Aztec Civilization: Their Culture and Philosophy

While there are so many fascinating topics to continue to investigate on your voyage of the Aztec, one to stress that has not been covered is the system of reward that influenced the Aztecs in continuing to follow tradition and to trust in their shaman, rulers, and system.

Although we can look back at the past at an empire such as the Aztecs and wonder how they were so influenced to participate in their traditions, hierarchies, and empire-supporting obligations, consider this about the Aztecs: commoners could advance if they captured enemy warriors in battle. During their training, if young soldiers failed, even within a group to capture, they were not allowed to cut off a youthful lock of hair, which would have been considered a lifelong humiliation, according to Bruce G. Trigger in “Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study.” Titles were bestowed on warriors who did capture a prisoner for ritual sacrifice.

Given that they were desperately concerned about their destiny, and sacrifice was explained as a way to commune with the divine, it’s not surprising that there is evidence that they accepted their own sacrifice and cultivated a stoic attitude to death. According to Tim Megarry in “Society in Prehistory: The Origins of Human Culture,” status was achieved in their society through military prowess and capture of prisoners, and they had a vested interest in maintaining the military-religious complex.

Finally, if that social pressure and motivation wasn’t enough, according to Justyna Olko in “Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World: From the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century,” Aztec nobles and warriors strived for personal promotion, even if their lives were at stake; the desire for high-ranking, costly insignia and status items were a strong personal motivation. Commoners drew energy and a renewed sense of purpose from devotion and rituals, as it provided them an unquestionable relevance and importance as a people despite the burden and heavy obligation due to the inherent instability of the universe.

Their fear of the impending destruction of the fifth sun, their motivation to escape the anguish of temporariness of our world, and their desire to endure their responsibility was real. According to Ross Hassig in “Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control,” it wasn’t just a mechanistic fight for the gods, but instead commoners who fought in the wars for good reasons and to gain prominence. These were men and women with real goals and purposes – and real constraints.

Aztec Civilization: Their Philosophy and it's Impact on Social Life and Serving the Kings

The Aztecs appeared to have an underlying spirit beneath everything they did, as if by holding onto the past through myths, religion, and their passed down devotion to traditional ways of communicating with the divine, they would never again be subjugated as they were at the beginning of their journey toward building their own empire. They learned along the way what it took to secure and project power from those regional powers that held them under the gun and made them feel hopeless and disempowered. They developed their own equivalent to a Geneva Convention that made sure that major battles didn’t interfere with growing seasons.

They figured out that headaches were caused by an excess of blood in the arteries in the brain or on the surface of the head before European doctors did. They built extraordinary botanical gardens. Their sacrifice and their cosmic responsibility spoke of their pride and pointed to their temples and a critical nature of the manner of one’s death in determining their spiritual destiny. The afterlife held many promises. Honorable death preoccupied many in their society, while others saw it as a tool of political oppression and looked for other ways to tap into the divine, who defied their interpretation of Nahuatl religion and its political utility.

When we consider looking through that lens at the past, it helps to consider the human qualities of the Aztec that helped them develop their empire and maintain a better sense of how limiting historical accounts are that only tell the story from the Spanish invaders’ perspectives, glorifying their past at the expense of gaining a fuller picture. Piecing together their past, we can continue to explore how much political and social realities, and practical necessities, shaped their decisions. Yet, we cannot consider that they fall conveniently into a derogatory category that justified the Old World invaders or the destruction of their historical records.

Thankfully, for those who know how important name and identity are, they can reflect beyond getting a grasp of the nature of a civilization and see it as a complex society that intrigues us. Maybe how we look at time ourselves and in our place in it keeps death at bay, separate from life. Some who look at time to recreate the past to condemn that which changes around them while they get closer to death never separate birth from death. The Aztecs’ continual awareness of death that permeated their lives did not allow the past to die, but the very nature of life’s pursuits meant that if they allowed this world to extinguish it was a fate worse than death.

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