History on Aztecs

The Aztecs: A Pre-Columbian History
April 10, 2019 – 02:54 pm
Illustration of an Aztec woman

The Aztecs had been an enlightened people during their years of expansion. They not only married Toltec nobility but also sought out knowledge of past arts and crafts. They hired teachers from the Mixtecs, who knew a great deal about Toltec customs and included many fine artisans among the tribe. The work of Aztec artists was almost entirely concerned with religion. It is possible to understand the inner meaning of many of their best works because captive Aztec nobles gave much information to Spanish missionaries after the Conquest.

When the Aztecs first settled on Cactus Rock, the religion which they described was already an ancient one, an expression of the inner spirit of Mexico. It was the result of generations of philosophical thought by American Indians who had built up a new kind of life from the discovery of agriculture right up to the evolution of great cities. Basically they believed that beyond the world and the gods of nature there must be a Supreme Creator, whom they named Ometecuhtli (Omeh-teh-koo-tli), Two Lords. As the Supreme Creator he was thought to be two persons in one, for no creation could take place without the cooperation of male and female. Ometecuhtli is shown as a pair of very old people or as a single being dressed half as a woman and half as a man.

It seems that Ometecuhtli was the product of thought by learned philosophers. Most Mexicans looked to the central fireplace in their homes as the shrine of the oldest of the gods. They called him Huehueteotl (Old Old God) and saw in him a symbol of the continuous creation of fire (equivalent to life) and the destruction of used-up things. He was a fountain of change at the heart of everything. His place in the heavens was the Pole Star, the pivot of the universe. The oldest image of this god, shown as an aged man seated with a fire-bowl balanced on his head, comes from the ruined pyramid of Cuicuilco, near Mexico City. It dates from more than 2000 years before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The Mexicans believed that 13 domed heavens circulated around the pivot of the universe. There was one for each of the visible planets, the sun, the moon, the clouds, the lightning, the heat, and the rain; all contained within the dome of the fixed stars. Under the flat surface of the earth there were thought to be nine underworlds, the lowest of which were the lands of the dead.

As the central hearth-fire in the house was the pivot of earthly life, so the souls of the dead who eventually entered the fire in the lowest region of the universe ascended to a point where the Creator might send them back to earth. This was a philosophic idea of reincarnation. Most people appear to have expected a long stay in the underworld, which was after all a very happy place where people in the form of skeletons enjoyed a normal social life, presided over by the Lord and Lady of the Dead.

Mother Earth Legends

The Aztec legends describe Mother Earth as a strange monstrous being with the shape of a gigantic alligator. Long ago, the earth was drawn up from the great waters of creation by the black god Tezcatlipoca (Tess-kah-tli-poh-ka), Smoking Mirror, so named for his symbol, a black obsidian mirror which has a cloudy appearance and was used by the soothsayer to descry the future. As Tezcatlipoca put his foot into the waters, the monstrous alligator snapped at it, but the foot was not torn off until the terrible god of magic and youthful energy had drawn the earth monster from the waters and forced her back into the dry land. Since then the god has had but a single foot and his lonely footprint in the heavens is the constellation of the great Bear. According to another story, his foot was cut off when the doors of the underworld closed on his leg.

Tezcatlipoca was lord of the four directions on earth, East, West, South and North. He was also lord of the Nature gods, when these other gods were developed. A legend told of a cave in the universe where the Mother of the Gods gave birth to starry offspring. They were the 400 Northerners, the 400 Southerners, and the planets. Then she became pregnant again. The children were upset and planned to destroy the new child. Only the golden moon girl wanted to protect her mother.

When the new child was born, it proved to be the monstrous Tezcatlipoca armed as a warrior. He destroyed all the stars, and seeing his sister among the slain, he realized that her head might yet live, so he cut it off and cast her into the sky, where the head with golden bells on her cheeks can still be seen as the Moon. Each day when the sun emerges in our real world, we see that the stars of night are slain, but they are reborn as the moon comes among them, grows pregnant and then meets her ever-recurring end.

The Fifth Sun

Once the earth was established, the gods created men. Four times the human race became too self-opinionated and had to be destroyed, at about 2000-year intervals. They were destroyed by the ferocious beasts, fire, the waters, the winds. Now the present human race, who were made by the gods from the beloved maize plant which is still the sustenance of mankind, are being tested.

So the Aztecs believed that the end of this universe would come from a terrible earthquake. Whether after this fourth sun the earth would be re-populated by a better human race remains to be experienced in the future, but on each re-creation a new sun was made by the gods.

Source: teachersinstitute.yale.edu
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