CSUMB- Spring 2001
The Aztecs were an ancient civilization and still speak to us when we listen. Many clues to their existence provide glimpses into their daily lives and activities.
Their legacy continues as archaeologists, scholars, scientists and others unearth the remains of sacred burial grounds. Discoveries of eerie and frightening magnitude continue to surface allowing scrutiny and hypotheses about their culture.
The worship of animal dieties, their belief in blood letting and terrific sacrifices, the ballcourts and the skull racks hold great intrigue and mystery. These indisputable relics of the past are now housed in museums for public viewing as invaluable, cherished art.
I think the Aztecs and all of the primitive tribes of Mesoamerica must have had terrifying reasons to believe so utterly in their pantheons of incorporated gods adopted from conquered areas of Mesoamerica.
The Aztecs were the last barbaric tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, and were referred to as 'people whose face nobody knows.' Around 1323, they continued their thrust into the area to finally fulfill a tribal prophecy where they built a city where an eagle was seen sitting on a cactus, holding a snake in its mouth. Coe, 1994:158-9
They worshipped and made ceremonial sacrifices to the sun or winged-serpent god, the eagle god, the moon god, and many others who presided over the life and death, prosperity or poverty, good or bad weather that determined the harvest. They lived very close to nature and as we know, there is no fury like that of Mother Nature. Just imagine from the depictions in ancient drawings the huge insects and stalking animals that appear to be the size of the humans who dared navigate down the perilous lakes to trade or conquer.
Still, everyone in the Aztec village performed duties to keep their civilization strong and dominant under fear. Even the little children played great roles in so doing. When young children were captured in conquest they were highly prized for sacrificial purposes. It is said that the louder the cries of the children, the more rain would come from the rain god to quench the parched land and increase the crops.The gods were thusly impressed to bestow great miracles upon the Aztecs by such tremendous gestures of child sacrifice.
Often war was waged for the express purpose of acquiring captives for sacrifice. You see, the gods were satiated with the vessel of human blood in which to dwell and make their existence known. With each conquest, the Aztecs burned the books of the conquered and rewrote history to reflect the Aztec glories.
This is how the puritanical Aztecs acquired a mystic-visionary view of themselves as the chosen people, the true heirs of theToltec tradition: fighting wars and gaining captives so as to keep the fiery sun moving across the sky. Although this is one interpretation of how and why the Aztecs were such prolific human sacrificers, the fact remains that a lot of evidence shows hyperactivity in this bizarre and horrific behavior.
Somehow though, they managed to have life beyond their prime directives of conquest and sacrificial ceremonies. Extensive trade systems wre established throughout "The Valley of Mexico" where water was plentiful. For example,"Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco were sweet water lakes. Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, was the capital of the Aztec Empire and home of the Mexica" (Ortiz de Montellano 1990:96) and supplied by routes along the salt water of Lake Texcoco.
The Aztecs, or "People of Peyote" dominated Central Mexico in the 15th century, but for more than two thousand years before them Mesoamerica had been the home of a series of impressive civilizations. (Ortiz de Montellano1990:96)
The pre-conquest period saw the rise and fall of the Olmec who lived in Tlatilco around 800 B.C., a place regarded as the key site representing the early Preclassic period in the Valley (Coe, 1994:167) of Mexico. Empires were constantly built and destroyed over distinct periods of time spanning the pre-conquest period to the actual conquest of the Aztecs in Mesoamerica by Spaniards in 1521.
As civilization upon civilization succeeded and collapsed, replacements were born throughout the different archaeological and carbon dated periods of human habitation in the Valley of Mexico near the life sustaining lakes. The Aztecs created hydro establishments that were formed by changing the lake's behavior with the introduction of ingenious agricultural practices that resulted in raised field cultivation; (Coe, 1994:163) the floating food and shelter on top of chinampas. These made ideal, watery storefronts and self-sustaining quarters for the residents and travelers.
The "chinampa cultivation was another sophisticated agricultural technique...Chinampas were not affected by droughts and produced up to seven crops a year, starting with seedlings including two corn crops. (Coe 1964)." (Ortiz de Montellano1990:96)
In 1519, the Aztecs used canoes to navigate the the marshy canal Causeways to the island capital of Tenochtitlan. This is where the "Texcocan poet king Nezahualcoyotl bountifully constructed a 10-mile long dyke to seal off a spring-fed, freshwater lagoon for Tenochtitlan...A Nahuatl poem suggests:
The Spanish Conquistodores were on the march into the heathen territories of Mexico (New Spain) during the time of the Aztec zenith. Accounts of the Spaniard, Hernan Cortes estimate that the Aztec population of the capital exceeded 300,000! A sophisticated class system was in place and distinguished ones lot in life.
Slaves or tlatlacotin ('bought ones') could negotiate their status to work off gambling debts. Slavery was neither hereditary nor permanent and children of slaves were born free.
Then there were the third class serfs and bondsmen called mayeque who comprised over 30% of the Aztec empire population.
Next in line were the vast majority of commoners, called macehualtin who worked the lands of their communal calpolli that was a localized, land-holding corporation with ritual functions in its own temple and gods, and even an association with a day in the 260-day count Coe, 1994:167.
The calpollec was their elected for life chief.
Further up the "social ladder were the noblemen or pipiltin. Coe, 1994:167-8.
Of equal or higher status were the long-distance merchants, a small hereditary group called pochteca who often used covert, spy tactics in the service of the empiric ambitions of overthrowing adversaries. This group consisted of twelve organizations or guilds located in the heart of the empire. Coe, 1994:167
Next came the royals, called teteuhctin; and, finally the emperor who was called the tecuhtli.
The whole of the Aztec empire stretched across the conquered lands and cultures of Mesoamerica. Those conquered became slaves forced to pay a hefty booty. If they could not afford the fines of conquest in terms of material goods then their lives were forfeit in sacrifices. This fed the wealthy rulers and their pantheon of gods acquired in conquests and incorporated into the Aztec belief systems.
The capital is where the bulk of various items, including humans were destined to be traded, bought and sold. "On higher ground at the center of Tenochtitlan, the focal point of all the main highways which led in from the mainland, was the administrative and spiritual heart of the empire, and the conceptual center of the universe.
This was the Sacred Precinct where the Aztec emperor, the semi-divine Huei Tlatoani or 'Great Speaker' dealt with the external side of Aztec polity-warfare, tribute, and diplomacy. It was a paved area surrounded by the Coatepantli ('Snake Wall'), and containing, according to Fray Bernardino de Sahagun-our great authority on all aspects of Aztec life, 78 buildings.
The Sacred Precinct was dominated by the double Temple of Huizilopochtli
(their tribal diety's name means 'Hummingbird on the left') and Tlaloc
(the Great Temple), its twin stairways reddened with the blood of sacrificed
captives...Other temples were dedicated to the cults of Tezcatlipoca,
his adversary Quetzalcoatl, and Xipe Totec, the god of springtime.
The main pyramid temples were located in the cities of Tenochtitlan and in Tlatelolco, the centers of the Aztec society. Surrounding marketplaces served over 60,000 people involved in buying and selling of food staples, condiments and sundries. These consisted of items such as beans and maize which is the staple food of Aztec society.
The Aztecs believed that their hero-god Quetzalcoatl, who created humanity with his own blood, turned himself into an ant so as to be able to steal a single grain of maize which the ants had hidden inside a mountain; this he gave to humans so that they might be nourished. Coe, 1994:30. Maize was a self-fertilizing plant and easily sustained the prolific growth of the Aztec empire.
Other foods and goods sustaining the Aztecs were also found at the enormous market places. Tortillas, nutritive peppers, amaranth vegetables, fruits and nuts, cacao (also used as money), chicle chewing gum, along with articles of agave clothing, cotton, precious stones and metals, pottery, chocolate, vanilla, cane, copper, tobacco, dahlias, mahogany, quetzal plummage and slaves all paid to increase the empire.
The Aztec empire, its war machine and economy depended on the agricultural basis of the Mexican peoples. Therefore, the inhabitants were mostly very well fed and had an interesting, varied diet that included chia, squash, honey, fish, dog, insects, monkeys and the cannibalized human flesh of captives.
The captives or slaves hearts' were excised with an obsidian knife; carved and snatched out of the cavity of their chests that had been split open. The still beating, fresh organ was then offered in ceremony and fed to the sun god. The skin was flayed, dried and worn by the diety impersonator. The remaining flesh and bones of the human carcass were carved up and made into a soup.
Under such awful rule, the Aztec empire thrived by terrorizing lesser equipped neighbors and demanding cruel homages. This behavior must have left the regular people little hope for good mental health! It is said that much of the herbology practised was specifically to deter stomach ailments probably due to their constant state of dread and knowledge that their world was doomed to disastrous endings and constant perils.
These predilections became built into their daily worship and ritualistic attempts to please multiple gods with neurotic contributions while simultaneously profiting the empire. The common Aztecs probably craved a semblance of perceived goodwill among those conquered subjects, remaining hostile neighbors and themselves when not warring against one another.
Still, the market's main function was to furnish war provisions to the state, mainly maize in forms that would not spoil on long marches. Coe, 1994:167.
The area had an abundance of vegetation that gave rise to the use of hallucinogenic plants such as peyote and morning glory. I think these people were in constant altered states and probably were quite sedated when the children were sacrificed. How else could they agree to such cruelty and exhort the child to scream louder? They believed that the torment of its death would surely compel the gods to respond with a change of weather kindness.
This is because their anthropomorphic universe linked terrestrial and celestial processes with the biological processes of the human body. Just as the movements of celestial bodies influenced the fate and health of humans; reciprocally, the tears of children to be sacrificed during Tlaloc's festivals produced rain. Ortiz de Montellano1990:45
Nevertheless, the present world is enamored and grateful for the spread of their potent elixers. Tequila was and is made from a smaller, blue maguey plant cousin of the fermented, alcoholic beverage preferred by the Aztecs called pulque that was derived from the larger maguey plant. I have never tried it but I feel sure it is awfully potent and probably tastes like it may have looked and sounds; like slimy phlegmish puke.
At first I was unsure whether or not everyone was inebriated or drugged in this society. However, so far in my quest to submit a substantive final paper, I have come across accounts that tend to support this notion. I have read that they even drugged prisoners with datura and or damiana to keep them submissive and easy to sacrifice! Hmmm.
Well, I have continued searching and now find that the Aztecs lived austere lives and limited their consumption of alcoholic beverages to not more than four cups during a feast and drunkenness was punished with severity and even death; although old people were released from this prohibition and allowed to get thoroughly inebriated whenever they pleased. Coe, 1994:175
It is also important to note that the entire culture; men, women and children chewed the cocao leaves and managed the mountainous terrain and the mega steps up the sheer pyramid faces to carry out their trade or meet their noble or forced ceremonial fate.
Now let's pause for a moment while you try
Back to our story...
Artisans crafted and sculpted the gruesome images of the distorted aminal god figures onto all kinds of objects from the throne to the huge pillars that constituted the palace.
Even the eating bowls made from gourds were adorned with the images of their gods. Their utensils for eating, tools for pounding, grinding and digging were likewise full of carved symbolisms to their gods.
The Aztecs worshipped complexes of dieties that had alter egos called nahualli. Tezcatlipoca's nahualli was a skunk! These personalities were necessarily associated with the concept of opposition and with the cardinal directions. Particular groups, classes and professions had specific tutelary dieties.
|Storm god||Rain-water-agricultural fertility|
|Flower Prince||Agricultural fertility|
|Two Rabbit||Pulque, maguey,fertility|
|Mother of gods||Earth and fertility; patroness
of curers and midwives
|Our lord with the flayed skin||Agricultural fertility;
patron of goldsmiths
This chart that I have created is only a tiny sample of hundreds of gods the Aztecs worshipped! Each plant grown, each plot of earth tilled, every child born, all circumstances and consequences of life and death were accounted for and attributed to some diety or another. An example of how far the Aztecs went to please their gods or kings is related in the story of how,
during the reign of Motecuhzoma I, an old garden that once belonged to the "ancestors" was discovered by the Aztecs in Huatepec, in the modern state of Morelos. It was decided that this warm, well-watered place in the shadow of Popocatepetl (volcano) would be rebuilt.
So the fountains, springs, streams, reservoirs, and the irrigation systems were restored by a commissioned overseer named Pinotetl. Messengers were dispatched to the tropical coast of Veracruz to request of the Lord of Cuetlaxtlan plants of the vanilla orchid, cacao trees, and other valuable species. They were carefully transported by native gardeners capable of replanting them in the proper season and tending them in Huaxtepec.
The treasured plants were dug up with their roots encircled in earth, and then wrapped in fine textiles and dispatched to the city. Before planting them, the gardeners assembled for a planting rite. they fasted for eight days and, drawing blood from their earlobes, they spattered the plants. Pinotetl supplied incense, paper, and rubber for burnt offerings, and also many quail, whose blood was spattered over the plants and upon the earth.
The success of these ceremonies was apparent before three years had passed, for the transplants began to blossom luxuriantly. The Cuetlaztla gardeners were amazed to see that the plants could flourish away from their original home. Motecuhzoma took great joy in the successful experiment and gave thanks to the Lord of the Heavens and of the Day and the Night. Townsend, 1993:170-1
Considering the depth of devotion to the dieties, it is no wonder that the Aztecs believed that illnesses and accidents were often the work of malevolent gods who persecuted and rewarded them as deserved. This way of thinking produced shamanistic healers within their society who used various means of divination such as tossing some kernels of old corn and observing how and where they would fall. Thus predictions of whether or not supernaturally induced illness or death would visit a household could be made by specialists called paini, which means one who drinks medicine.
The Aztecs also recognized that other illnesses were due to natural causes. They treated insect and snake bites by cutting into the bite and sucking out the venom. then rubbing tobacco into the wound. Sprains and such injuries were believed to damage the blood, producing swelling, inflammation, and possible infection at the site of the trauma. Ortiz de Montellano1990:96
Diagnoses such as this required a different type of specialist, one who was educated in the fine Aztec schools to learn Shamanistic and logical ways of deportment. Although the Aztec physicians treated the whole patient; the mind, body and spirit heat called tonalli, they primarily prescribed treatments according to symptoms. This healer rarely needed divination to diagnos an illness and exhibited skillful knowledge of the abundant healing herbs in Mesoamerica.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Aztec medicine men and women, consult the great book by Ortiz de Montellano "Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition."
The Aztecs used their habitat to remain a very healthy, vibrant people during their reign in Mesoamerica from the 1250-1521. They were amazing people who contributed much to the spread of civilization.
Evidence of their existence, history and dieties are excavated daily by scholars and occasional tourists in Mexico. There is much work to be done to tell their story, perhaps this is impossible. Still, their legacy lives on and perhaps I will find an Aztec herb shop nearby.
A fitting end to this phase of my research on the Aztecs use of plants, herbs and foods in Mesoamerica is found in the following beautiful Aztec poem attributed to the philosopher-king Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco:
Is it true that on earth one lives? Not forever on earth, only a little while. Though jade it may be, it breaks; Though it be quetzal plumes, it shall not last. Not forever on earth, only a little while. (Cantares Mexicanos) Smith 1996:2-3
I visited the Salinas Courthouse today. As a result of this course, (SBSD325) I can now draw comparisons and recognize the similarities in the old structures that grace the Salinas downtown business center.
I noticed and appreciated the artwork that adorned the entire area. I saw the history of the Aztec people and discovered the correlations, similarities and evidence of their existence. Their amazing legacy continues and will survive well into the future.
I completed my business upstairs in the first wing of the courthouse and found myself outside, looking up and around the perimeter. The details and historical account in the artwork portraying Indians, conquistadores, may160122Catholic padres, and other imposing figures of white men astounded me. In the center of the courtyard is a beautiful fountain. It is adorned with intricate, proud portrayals of ancient inhabitants. I am fascinated and took 27 pictures with my handy little Earthlink digital camera.
I finally recovered from the awesome art displayed and sought directions to find a Salinas herb shop. I was told of two: no, just one. The other no longer exists.
So, I hopped in my buggy and searched for the subject of my paper: Herbology: Ancient Medicine Alternative Healing. The "LABORATORIOS CHINOS" was easy enough to find.
I went inside hesitantly but expecting a wonderful array of Aztec cultural affects. I looked around and was dismayed to find nada from Mexico. This store was run by Mexicans but it contained primarily Occidental, Oriental and Ayervedic remedies.
In very broken Spanish, I asked if they knew Nahuatl and where could I find the Mexican herbs in Salinas. The were happy to steer me out the door down about a hundred feet to another store, a grocery store that had some herbs from Mexico.
Alrighty, then. The Magan's Meat Market catered to Salinas' majority population of Hispanics and it did have about five herbal items that were imports from Mexico.
While checking the ingredients, I asked the clerk, Liset what this particular remedy was for. She looked at some chart and I looked at the ingredients and told her that it was probably a stomach remedy. She asked how I knew because that is what the chart she was reading said.
I told her about this report and how important Aztec history is to know. She was only about 17, maybe and could barely read the Spanish on the label of the remedy I was interested in. I hope she became a little more interested in her own culture after our encounter.
As an African American grandmother, I understand how important it is to recover and cherish one's heritage. It is also extremely, urgently imperative that women reclaim our roles as the keepers of health, the healers of family and land.
The Aztec women who met this responsibility were respected, revered and or feared. After all, if you could help me get well from a spider's venom and then conduct the sacrifice of a virgin the next day, then your powers are indeed great and cause untold fear. These women became the village "Bruja" or medicine woman.
The term "Bruja" eventually became associated with witchery. The "Bruja" that I refer to, however, is not a witch. She is an educated woman whose spiritual charge is to keep others well and safe. She has received training all her life and vigilently continues her studies of the herbs in her native home of Mexico. She is about a hundred years old but only looks fifty. How does she stay so young and supple?
Is she taking the blood of others to remain young? Not at all. She just understands the significance of clean water, food combinations, the herbs that have certain effects and how this all works with their Aztec Calendar.
Cuauhxicalli (Eagle Bowl), but it is universally known as the Aztec Calendar or Sun Stone.
Aztec Calendar Mandala.
The Aztec calendar includes exquisite artistic symbolism. I was impressed to discover overwhelming reverence and respect for the plant kingdom, including herbs in their cosmogeny. Click here for more scholarship about the Aztec Calendar. Scroll down the page to see the definitions of the calendar symbols arranged in concentric rings starting at the center. Search for the Outer Ring, then click on the reference to herbs.
Herbs with Buds
I have learned a great deal about the Aztecs
and find it particularly fascinating how the ancients altered
their religious practices by incorporating those of conquered
peoples. This is referred to as syncretism.
Also, they saw the body as ruled by different dieties in their
beliefs. There appears to be a continuity and or resurgence of
the practice of animism in Mexico and other ancient
cultures around the world.
Herbology and alternative healing have helped pave the way for people to look beyond the narrow confines of proscribed doctrines. The ancients used the land fairly wisely, and in turn, it certainly provided sustainenance, food, shelter and medicine.
The need for ecological awareness, preservation and a sustainable planet may seem like elusive trials for future pretenders. Yet, our existence is nebulous and our tenure on this great and wonderful blue planet is not eternal.
Civilizations come and go, leaving their legacies behind. With the past to inform and remind us, we have tremendous opportunities to affect the present and future in positive, life sustaining ways. It will take all of humanity to employ the changes that Nature requires to continue the existence of life.
This could boil down to being simply a matter of trusting your heart, soul, mind and body to manage the often fraughtful journey from mere existence to becoming full-fledged human beings; worthy custodians of our Mother Earth.
Please press the link next to the
herb(s) for more information
about their use and importance.