« PreviousContinue »
tule houses, and naming their pueblo Tenochtitlán, or the Place of the Stone-Cactus. From this humble beginning dates the rise of the famous Aztec "Empire." In the course of some two hundred years, particularly through the political skill and military ability of the Montezuma dynasty-if such a term may be applied to the ruling family of a semi-civilized people -the crude collection of huts on the lake's margin grew into a populous, ordered city, and the tribe developed into an organized nation, holding sway, not only over the Valley of Mexico, but also over a vast territory beyond.
The Aztec kingdom, embracing about 16,000 square leagues, in reality consisted of a confederation of three separate tribes. with their capitals respectively at Mexico, Tezcuco, and Tacubaya, but the Aztecs completely dominated the alliance and controlled both its policies and government. Beyond the actual limits of the alliance, scores of subjugated tribes, conquered from time to time in indescribably savage wars, paid various forms of tribute to the Aztec sovereign. Most oppressive and heartless of these exactions was the annual toll of victims required for the human sacrifices. In various forms this Aztec overlordship extended from one ocean to the other, and from the northern limits of the Valley of Mexico as far south as the Isthmus of Tehauntepec.
Civilization: The civilization of the Aztecs, whether borrowed from the Toltecs or Mayas, or of their origin, was remarkably well developed. Hospitals and public charities existed. for the sick and the unfortunate. Trades and crafts, especially among the metal workers, lapidaries, and weavers, were organized under a system not unlike the guild system of mediaeval Europe, with well defined rules and an established order of apprenticeships. There were also regularly graduated social classes, a well organized system of local and national government, an elaborate judicial system, and a rudimentary postal service. There was also among the priests some skill in medicine, and a more correct knowledge of the solar system than that possessed by the Greeks or Romans.
On the other hand, there were certain serious deficiencies of the Aztec civilization almost as marked as were its attainments. Painting and music existed only in the crudest forms. There was no coinage system and no system of phonetic writing. Neither wax nor oil was employed for light. The only domestic animals were rabbits, turkeys and little dogs, all alike used for food.
Government: The Aztec government was theocratic and military. At its head stood an hereditary sovereign; next came the priests; then a very powerful nobility; and finally the army. Slavery and peonage were fundamental institutions. Much of the land was held by the king, the priests, the nobility and the
military chiefs. Village communal holdings, however, were an essential feature of the system of land tenure, and each villager cultivated his own part of the common lands.
The judicial system was organized in a manner partaking of a high degree of civilization. In all the principal cities there were inferior and superior courts, and a sort of police or justice court, corresponding in some degree to the ward magistrate of modern times. Above these stood a supreme court (to which appeals might be taken) consisting of the king and his highest councillors. Laws and court records were preserved by official "stenographers" who made use of an elaborate system of ideographic writing for the purpose.
In the punishment of criminal offenses, little leniency was shown. The theft of gold or silver was punished as an act of sacrilege as well as an offense against society. The culprit was first flayed alive and then sacrificed to the god of precious metals. Other crimes were punished by crushing the head of the prisoner between two stones, or by cutting his heart out as he lay bound alive upon the altar. A young man found drunk was beaten to death, and a young woman stoned. A slanderer was singed with pine torches until the scalp was laid bare.
Court: The court of the emperor, Montezuma, was organized after the style of an oriental monarch. Six hundred nobles and men of rank were his personal attendants; three hundred or more youths served daily at the royal table. The latter was furnished with every variety of fish, flesh, fowl, fruit, and vegetable known to the country. Little chafing dishes, heated with charcoal, stood at each plate to keep the viands warm. Napkins and bowls of water, precursors of the modern finger bowl, were furnished each guest both before and after eating. The table was adorned with ornaments and dishes of gold, silver, and semiprecious stones, curiously wrought to imitate a thousand objects, animate and inanimate, in which the land abounded.
For Montezuma's edification and amusement, there was an aviary containing every species of bird to be found in Mexico. Three hundred servants were assigned to the care of these birds. Besides this aviary, there was also a great zoological garden connected with the palace, and a choice collection of human freaks. Albinos, dwarfs, giants, and the like, were all a part of this royal museum, and each was provided with his separate apartment and his own keeper.
Calendar: One of the highest evidences of Aztec civilization, borrowed perhaps from their Maya or Toltec predecessors, was their accurate and detailed method of reckoning time. The year was divided into 18 months of 20 days each. Both months and days were named, the latter being called after familiar objects, such as Dawn, Wind, House, Lizard, Serpent, Death, and so on.
As there were 365 days in the Aztec year, it was so arranged that 5 intercalary days should come, according to the modern calendar, from February 24 to 28, inclusive. Every 104 years, 25 additional days were added to care for the annual six hour excess over the 365 days-this, of course, on the same principle that accounts for our own leap year. Instead of reckoning by centuries, as we do, the Aztecs dealt in cycles, each of which consisted of 52 years and was divided into quarters of 13 years. The beginning of each new cycle was the occasion of a great religious festival, culminating in the rite of kindling the sacred fire upon the bare breast of a human sacrifice.
The City of Mexico: The City of Mexico, or Mexico as it is more properly called, the old Tenochtitlán of early Aztec days, built as it was in the midst of a marshy lake, was connected with the mainland by four great causeways of stone. The chief of these, still used as a street in the modern city, was four or five miles long and wide enough for ten horsemen (had there been such a thing in pre-Spanish times) to ride abreast upon it. Many of the streets were "very wide and straight," while others were merely canals, built to furnish water to the city and outlying gardens, and to provide a passageway for canoes. The main thoroughfares were regularly lighted, cleaned, and patrolled; while in sanitary provisions the city, numbering between 60,000 and 100,000 inhabitants, was far ahead of its European contemporaries. It has been spoken of as "probably more spacious, cleaner, and healthier than any European town of that time."
Among the most characteristic features of the city, and of Aztec economic life as a whole, were the great market places where the business activities of the people centered. The largest of these was minutely described in the second letter of Cortés to his sovereign, Charles V. In this letter he says:
"There is one square twice as large as that of Salamanca, rounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than 60,000 souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords-as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. There are also exposed for sale wrought and unwrought stone, bricks burnt and unburnt, timber hewn and unhewn, of different sorts. There is a street for game, where every variety of birds in the country are sold, as fowls, partridges, quails, wild ducks, fly-catchers, widgeons, turtle doves, pigeons, reed birds, parrots, sparrows, eagles, hawks, owls, and kestrels....There are also sold rabbits, hares, deer, and little dogs, which are raised for eating. There is also an herb street, where may be obtained all sorts of roots and medicinal herbs that the country affords. There are apothecaries' shops where prepared medicines, liquids, ointments and plasters are sold; barber shops, where they wash and shave the head; (razors of obsidian were used) and restaurateurs, that furnish food and drink at a certain price....There are all kinds of green vegetables, especially leeks, onions, garlic, watercresses, nasturtium, borage, sorrel, artichokes, and golden thistle; fruits also of numerous descriptions....honey and wax from bees....Different kinds of cotton
thread of all colors in skein are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market, which has the appearance of the silk market at Granada, although the former is more abundantly supplied. Painters' colors as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthenware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and an endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all, or most of them, glazed and painted....
"Every kind of merchandise is sold in a particular street or quarter assigned to it exclusively, and thus the best order is preserved. They sell everything by number or measure; at least so far we have not observed them to sell anything by weight. There is a building in the great square that is used as an audience house, where ten or twelve persons, who are magistrates, sit and decide all controversies that arise in the market, and order delinquents to be punished. In the same square there are other persons who go constantly about among the people observing what is sold, and the measures used in selling; and they have been seen to break measures that were not true."
Religion: The Aztecs, like the Greeks, were pantheists. In addition to a supreme being, corresponding to the Olympian Jove, they worshipped thirteen major gods and over two hundred inferior divinities. Two of their gods deserve special mention. One of these, Quetzalcoatl, the God of the Air, or the Fair God, was the god of peace and of prosperity. It was he who had taught men to cultivate the earth, to work in metals, and to make laws. But Quetzalcoatl had been driven from the country by a stronger divinity, leaving among the Aztecs the tradition of his kindly rule and the promise of his beneficent return. The legends pictured him as a being of princely stature, with white instead of copper colored skin, a full beard and thick black hair. In the coming of Cortés, the Aztecs saw at first the fulfillment of this cherished prophecy.
In direct contrast to the character of the Fair God, was the Aztec conception of Huitzilopotchli, or Mexitli, their ferocious God of War. After making all due allowance for the prejudice and exaggeration of the Spanish conquerors in their descriptions of the worship of this inhuman deity, the fact still remains that the practices of the Aztec religion were as cruel and bloodthirsty as any the world has known.
The largest of the Aztec temples was built of stone, in the form of a truncated pyramid, and overlooked all other buildings of the city. "Three of its sides were smooth," according to the quaint old description of Don Antonio de Solis, "while the fourth had stairs wrought in the stone; a sumptuous building and extremely well proportioned. It was so high that the staircase contained a hundred and twenty steps, and of so large a compass that on the top it terminated in a flat, forty-foot square. The pavement was beautifully laid with jasper stones of all colors. The rails, which went around in the nature of a balustrade, were of a serpentine form, and both sides were covered with stones resembling jet, placed in good order, and joined with white and
red cement, which was a very great ornament to the building." A thick wall, eight feet high, surrounded the temple proper, making an enclosed area large enough to contain a village of 500 families. Gardens, sanctuaries, shrines, and apartments for the priests were contained within this enclosure. The encircling walls were cut by four huge gates, each of which faced one of the cardinal points of the compass.
The most characteristic feature of the Aztec religion was the human sacrifice in various forms. Sometimes the victims were drowned, sometimes burned, sometimes starved to death, sometimes compelled to take part in a sort of gladiatorial contest against overwhelming odds. The most common, as well as the most revolting form of sacrifice, however, was conducted by the priests on the great altar stone on top of the temple. The method of carrying out this rite was thus described by one of the early Spanish chroniclers:
"At the sound of musical instruments they brought forth an Indian from among the prisoners taken in war. He was accompanied and surrounded by illustrious noblemen. His limbs were painted red, with white stripes; one-half of his face was painted red; a white plume was glued into his hair; he carried in one hand a walking stick, very gay with knots and ties of leather, and some feathers inserted in it; in the other hand he bore a shield with five small bundles of cotton on it; on his back was a little bundle which held a few eagle feathers, lumps of ocre, pieces of gypsum, candlewood, and papers bound with rubber.
When the procession reached the top of the great temple, the victim was placed upon the sacrificial stone; and there, in the sight of all the city below, "four ministers of the sacrifice seized him by the hands and feet and held him fast, while the high priest ascended to the rock with his knife in his hand and cut the victim's throat.... The blood drained into the bowl in the center of the rock, and poured through a canal, and ran down the side in front of the chamber of the sun; and the sun, sculptured on the face of the rock was drenched with blood."
The heart of the victim was afterwards cut out and presented to the sun, and the body, or certain parts of it, eaten by the worshipers.
In perhaps the most typical form of sacrifice, the heart was torn out while the sacrifice remained alive. The skulls of the victims were spitted and placed as a gruesome fringe around the temple. Statements, perhaps exaggerated, credit the Aztec priests with sacrificing 20,000 persons annually in this worship, and of putting to death 60,000 victims when the great temple was dedicated.
The significance of this debasing and dehumanizing religion in Aztec history ought not to be overlooked. Its chief influence was to render its followers callous to human suffering and indifferent to human life. It also furnished a plausible explanation for the harsh measures adopted by the Spanish conquerors to subdue the city. Finally, the demand for victims for the sacrifice did much to drive the tributary tribes into alliance with the Spaniards against the Aztecs when Cortés appeared.