The real Aztecs: brutal, bloodthirsty… and caring?

The Aztec people that dominated central Mexico around the 15th century are often depicted as brutal and bloodthirsty – a reputation apparently reinforced by the recent discovery of a "tower of human skulls". Yet, as Caroline Dodds Pennock explains, this doesn't tell the whole story of a society that was also caring, artistic and inclusive...

Aztec double headed serpent carved in wood and decorated in turquoise mosaic pieces (Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

Aztecs, in the guise of bloody priests and brutal warriors, have long stalked the pages of history, myth and fiction, responsible in the popular imagination for the mass murder and cannibalism of thousands of hapless victims. And when the discovery of a great “tower of skulls” in Mexico City was announced in July 2017, it seemed to many people that the stereotypes had been confirmed.

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The structure – actually an Aztec tzompantli (skull rack) – was first revealed in 2015, unearthed during excavations around the Templo Mayor (Great Temple) that stood at the heart of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. But the true scale and size of the tzompantli, and the 6-metre-wide “tower of skulls” at its edge, have become clear only after two years of painstaking archaeological work. Even with only about 25 per cent of the site excavated, close to 700 skulls have already been discovered on the huge tzompantli, which also shows traces of wooden poles, which presumably formed the base of the rack on which the heads of decapitated enemies would have been hung.

Aztec statue, from the 15th century, of a mother holding a baby,
A 15th century Aztec figurine of a mother and baby. Aztec women had more rights than European women at that time (DEA / A. DE GREGORIO / Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the media were fascinated by this revelation. The tower was described as “sinister”, a “chilling” confirmation that the Aztecs were vicious savages who practised “gruesome” rituals. But why do we find this type of violence so particularly horrifying? In the 15th century, when the Aztec empire was at its height, heretics and witches were regularly burned alive across Europe – yet we do not struggle to understand that their murderers were also sympathetic humans who were in some ways ‘like us’. The Aztecs, on the other hand, are viewed as a uniquely vicious and evil people, ranking alongside the Nazis in the popular imagination. In reality, though, Tenochtitlan was not an especially violent place. Interpersonal and illegal violence, such as assault and murder, seems to have been quite rare. Even if human sacrifice is included in the tally, there is no compelling evidence that homicide rates were especially high in the Aztec capital.

A debt of blood

The Aztecs believed that heroic gods sacrificed themselves, spilling their own blood to bring life to humans, to create the sun and to give it the energy to move. Thus a ‘blood debt’ was forged

Our image of Tenochtitlan seems to be based largely on stereotypes that depict Aztec culture as inherently bloodthirsty – perhaps partly because that was how the Spanish presented the Aztecs in attempts to justify their conquest. It’s true that human sacrifice – something we struggle to understand – was central to religious practice in Tenochtitlan. But one of the most remarkable things about the Aztec people is that they were not dehumanised by the brutal rituals of sacrifice. These were compassionate, sophisticated, and very familiar people. They loved music, poetry and flowers, were highly educated – with universal schooling provided for both boys and girls – and treasured close emotional ties with their families. This was a culture in which children were welcomed with joy, and women and men parented together, with fathers raising their sons and women their daughters. It was a place where domestic violence was not condoned, and where women inherited property equally with their brothers. But this was also a place in which capricious and all-powerful gods demanded constant feeding with human blood to prevent the world from coming to an end.

The Aztecs were not mass murderers. They believed that at the beginning of this (the fifth) age of the world, heroic gods sacrificed themselves, spilling their own blood to bring life to humans, to create the sun and to give it the energy to move. Thus a ‘blood debt’ was forged, compelling the Aztecs to feed their gods with human blood in return for the blood sacrificed by the gods at the Aztecs’ own creation. Only human blood and hearts – from their own bodies as well as from sacrificial victims – could keep the sun moving and save the world from extinction. So they offered not only warriors taken in battle but also their own children to fulfil their contract of blood.

This belief was shared across the Valley of Mexico, and Aztec warriors accepted that the “flowered death by the obsidian knife” was their own likely, even desirable, destiny. Rather than compare this to the Nazis’ murderous genocide, a more appropriate parallel would be with the deaths of martyrs: in both situations, victims laid down their life for a god or gods (in theory voluntarily), gaining honour and a privileged afterlife as a result. So why are the Aztecs seen as so evil? Killing – or, indeed, dying – for religion is hardly unusual. Why does history excuse the Conquistadors, who oversaw the devastation of indigenous peoples in the name of religion, as ‘men of their time’, yet condemn the Aztecs?

Aztec musicians perform in an illustration from a missionary codex
Aztec musicians perform in an illustration from a missionary codex. In contrast with the popular brutal image of the Aztecs, they loved music, poetry and flowers, and prized education (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The tzompantli is an important discovery. It confirms the accounts of Conquistadors such as Andrés de Tapia, who described seeing “many skulls set in mortar, with their teeth bared”, on which stood wooden beams where Tapia claimed (probably with exaggeration) to have counted 136,000 skulls. But for me the most interesting aspect was the surprise shown – not only by journalists but also by the team involved – at the fact that the skulls of women and children were among the archaeological remains discovered.

“We were expecting just men,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, “obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war. Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first.” This is certainly an archaeological first – an incredible find – but I don’t find it surprising that there were skulls of women and children on the tzompantli. The sources are clear that men, women and children were all sacrificed, not just as captives from cities that resisted the Aztecs’ imperial ambitions, but also as part of rituals in which their gender and age were significant.

Tenochtitlan was a city structured to serve the demands of a military life. Male children were dedicated to their warrior destiny from birth, with miniature weapons pressed into their tiny hands

Both men and women acted as ixiptla (‘impersonators’ of the gods), who died adorned in the costume of the deity in honour of which a specific festival was celebrated. Children were offered to the water gods, their tears believed to bring the rains that nourished the earth. This was a powerful sympathetic magic: the tears mimicked the longed-for rain. Archaeologists tested the bones of 42 small boys killed at the Templo Mayor during a serious drought, and found that every one of the boys was suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that must have been painful enough to make them cry continuously.

To the modern mind, this is a distressing image, and there’s no reason to think that the Aztecs themselves took death lightly. The training of novice priests was designed to alienate them from family ties, conditioning them to perform rituals precisely and unquestioningly under extreme stress. Grief was also profoundly felt in Tenochtitlan. A woman whose husband was lost in battle spent 80 days in deep mourning, during which time she would not wash her clothes, face or head, simply embracing the filth and tears that mingled on her skin, drawing close to the gods through her suffering. Even though the warrior was believed to have gone to paradise, this did not stop his wife from feeling intense sorrow at his passing. So for the 80 days it took his spirit to reach the sun she lived in melancholy, before casting off her grief along with the grime and returning to normal life.

The idea that only men’s skulls would have been found on the skull rack comes from a common stereotype: we tend to assume that war is a ‘male’ occupation, and violence a ‘male’ practice. And Tenochtitlan was a city structured to serve the demands of a military life in both practical and symbolic terms. All men (except slaves) were warriors, trained to fight and bound to military service. Central systems provided for training and conscription, and mythical histories framed the Aztecs as the chosen people of Huitzilopochtli, god of war, who was their patron. Male children were dedicated to a warrior destiny from birth, with miniature weapons pressed into their tiny hands on the day they were named.

Because of this military focus, Tenochtitlan has often been seen as highly patriarchal, dominated by war, which is presumed to be the domain of men. But though most soldiers were men, warfare and sacrifice were central to the way all Aztecs viewed the world. Mothers and warriors were seen as equivalent in Tenochtitlan. Women were also warriors, battling to “capture” a baby, heralded as soldiers returning from war having “taken to the shield”. This wasn’t just a metaphor: dying during childbirth earned privileges in the afterlife equivalent to dying in battle or on the sacrificial stone.

Illustration showing punishment and education of Aztec children
Aztec children are punished and instructed in paddling canoes, fishing, grinding maize, sweeping and weaving. Aztec parenting was strict but affectionate, and education was provided to all children (Photos.com / Getty Images)

The perpetual battlefield

This parallel between warriors and mothers reflects Tenochtitlan’s balanced gender expectations. The Aztecs believed that men and women played specific but different roles that were equally essential for the success of their city. Thus both sexes had importance and effectiveness, but in very different spheres. Although women were less visible in politics, the significance of this dual organisation shows in the possession by women of tangible markers of authority that they rarely held in contemporaneous European societies. Women were educated and held influential posts, including roles as marketplace overseers responsible for provisioning the army. As well as inheriting and holding property independently, women had the right to divorce and to represent themselves in the courts. Women’s sexuality could also be openly and enjoyably expressed, at least within marriage.

In the Aztecs’ communal world, both men and women were essential to military, social and spiritual success. Tenochtitlan was seen as a perpetual battlefield: a place where military fates were held constantly in the balance. Even in their homes and during peacetime, the Aztecs were preparing for war: while men fought physical enemies on a literal battlefield, women were needed to fight the forces of the universe on a metaphysical one. Women ensured the army’s success through the performance of painstaking and often exhausting round-the-clock ceremonies. When the Aztec forces were on campaign, a wife would rise at midnight and conduct a precise series of rituals, at home and in the temples, appeasing the fickle forces of the universe and petitioning the gods for her husband’s success. Sweeping was a particularly powerful act, helping to control the world’s tlazolli (filth, trash, or stuff out of place), keeping the cosmos in balance, and ensuring the favour of the gods. In a spiritual sense, it was in this domestic space, on the ‘home front’, where battles were believed to be won and lost.

Aztec reasoning and decision-making reflected their place in a world where physical and spiritual universes were interwoven

Skull racks formed part of this complex cosmology. They not only symbolised military power – though enemies would certainly have been intimidated by the overwhelming victories represented by the “tower of skulls” – but also reflected the Aztecs’ cosmology. Their mythical histories told how, at the moment of his birth, Huitzilopochtli – god of war – triumphed over his troublesome sister Coyolxauhqui and threw her down Coatepec (Snake Mountain), where she shattered into pieces. The Aztecs’ patron god asserted his power by dismembering the first challenge to his authority.

Every later sacrifice mirrored this legendary triumph. First, the victim was killed on the summit of the Templo Mayor, their heart cut out on the summit of the pyramid that, adorned with serpents, became another Snake Mountain. Then the body was thrown down the temple steps, tumbling to rest beside a vast carving of the broken Coyolxauhqui that lay at its base. Finally, the corpse was decapitated and its head placed on the skull racks, before the body was dismembered and distributed with great honour. Every skull represented another symbolic triumph of Huitzilopochtli, another payment of the blood debt. The skull rack was a reminder of the towering and terrifying cosmology that overshadowed the Aztecs’ existence. It struck awe into the hearts of Aztecs as well as their enemies.

Mexican human sacrifice can be understood only as part of this complex worldview. Attempts to rationalise Aztec culture have tended to argue that their violence was ‘only’ political, trying to make it comprehensible by explaining sacrifice and war in terms that make sense to a modern audience: dominance, terror, politics, economics. But for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, religion was rational. It provided logical explanations, structures and motivations. The Aztecs did not act purely for religious reasons, but their reasoning and decision-making happened in a world where physical and spiritual universes were interwoven.

The newly discovered “tower of skulls” challenges us to see the world through the eyes of the Aztecs. For them, the world was an ominous place where darkness was ever threatening, where the shadows of the gods loomed over their existence, compelling them to pay a debt of blood to keep the world secure for all humanity. The people of Tenochtitlan were not evil. They were simply people of their time.

Dominanceto decimation

The culture now commonly called Aztec comprised the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica people of the city of Tenochtitlan, on the site of which Mexico City now stands. The term is also often used to refer to the empire dominated by Tenochtitlan and the triple alliance formed with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan. 

The Mexica are believed to have arrived in central Mexico by the early 14th century, founding Tenochtitlan on a swampy island in Lake Texcoco. Ruled by an elected tlatoani (literally, ‘one who speaks’), the Mexica developed sophisticated agricultural systems for maize cultivation on chinampas (artificial islands) and a strong military ethos. During the 15th century the triple alliance conquered neighbouring city-states to create the Aztec empire. At its peak, the population of Tenochtitlan may have reached between 200,000 and 300,000 inhabitants. The city was dominated by the vast stepped pyramidal Templo Mayor (Great Temple), where large numbers of human sacrifices were made – a tradition common to many cultures throughout Mesoamerica.

Despite efforts by tlatoani Moctezuma II to accommodate the Spanish Conquistadors led by Hernán Cortés, in 1521 the Aztecs were comprehensively defeated and Tenochtitlan was levelled by the Spanish, who built Mexico City on the ruins. This conflict, along with outbreaks of disease such as smallpox and measles introduced by the colonisers, decimated the indigenous population and effectively marked the end of the Aztecs’ dominance.  

Caroline Dodds Pennock is lecturer in international history at the University of Sheffield, and author of Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, paperback edition, 2008)

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This article was taken from issue 07 of BBC World Histories magazine