Aztec Indians 2 Essay, Research Paper
Introduction to the People of the Sun
The sun is a visible, astronomical fact – “the one immutable fact of existence, the source of all life on earth.” It journeys overhead from east to west by day, dips into darkness, and by night travels underground west to east to rise triumphantly again at dawn – the start of a new day (Waters 203). The sun has been the focal point of energy and worship in many cultures throughout the world. The Aztecs were one culture that used the light of the sun to triumph over the Central Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs were indeed “the people of the sun”. The Aztecs rotated their lives and structured their society around the spirit of the sun.
In respect of the Aztec origin, this paper will center it’s interpretations around the rays of the sun. The sun seems to be the root from which the Aztec culture grew and produced. Warfare and human sacrifice provided the function of replenishing that root. The first section of this paper will illustrate three myths centered around the sun. The proceeding section will show how these myths helped structure the Aztec society.
I. Myths Of The Aztecs
In order to understand the Aztec civilization as a whole, it is necessary to look at the role myths played in developing and maintaining the Aztec way of life. Myths are a mixture of historical fact and fiction which can be used to explain the structure of social and political organization, and the significance of warfare and human sacrifice among the Aztecs. Myths will provide a gateway into the complexities of the Aztec way of life.
Smith raises an important point in that the Aztecs had a number of different, even contradictory, myths describing the creation of the world, the gods, and it’s people (205). There are indeed numerous myths that can be interpreted as being the reason why the Aztecs lived the life that they did. The fact of the matter is that no one myth or combination of beliefs can truly explain the complexities of a society that existed centuries ago. The way of life of the Aztecs was culturally constructed and anyone outside of that culture can only unravel interpretations. This paper will center interpretations around myths of the sun.
The Four Suns
At the beginning of creation there was an original “two-deity” high god, Ometeotl, who existed in both male form and female form. This couple produced four sons: Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli. With the births of these four gods, a cycle of creation and destruction began that continues to the present day. In the following Michael Smith illustrates this cycle of the four sons:
There have been four previous ages or “suns”, each controlled by a different god and peopled by a distinctive race. Each sun was destroyed by a different cataclysm. The god Tezcatlipoca presided over the first sun, when a race of giants roamed the earth. This sun was destroyed by jaguars who ate the giants and destroyed the earth. During the second sun, presided over by Quetzalcoatl, humans who lived on acorns populated the earth. This sun was destroyed by hurricanes, and the people were transformed into monkeys. People of the third sun, under the god Tlaloc, ate aquatic seeds. The world was destroyed by a fiery rain and humans were turned into dogs, turkeys, and butterflies. The fourth sun, presided over by Clalchiuhtlicue, was a time of gathers who ate wild seeds. They were turned into fish in a great flood. (Smith 205)
This cycle of creation and destruction brings us to the present reigning fifth sun. It’s governing deity is Tonatiuh and its people are maize-eaters. According to Aztec myth, this world too will be destroyed, by earthquakes, and its people will be devoured by sky monsters. The destruction of a world age or sun can only come at the end of a 52- year cycle known as the calendar round, but the number of cycles that will pass before the apocalypse is unknown.
This belief that the Aztec leader, the sun, would be defeated must have placed a feeling of fear and pessimism deep in the souls of the Aztec people. “This profound melancholy contrasts sharply with the energetic conception of being a chosen people” (Caso 95). The Aztecs were a powerful culture who conquered states from the coast of one ocean to the other, and reigned over this empire for hundreds of years. How could such reigning warriors believe that one day their ultimate power, the sun, would be defeated?
In the second section of this paper, one will conceive a people who centered their lives around their great god the sun. Human sacrifice and warfare will show their loyalness to the sun and the power it created in the survival of the Aztec culture. Even though the acts of the Aztecs may have appeared loyal and courageous, one must remember the myth of the four suns and the cycle that would cause their sun to one day be conquered. Pessimism and fear must have laid in the souls of the Aztec people. Perhaps this fear can help explain the Aztecs’ great devotion and dependence on their gods, which will be described later through sacrificial measures.
The Creation Of The Complete Sun
How the gods had their beginning and where they began is not well known. But this is plain, [that] there at Teotihuacan… when yet there was darkness, there all the gods gathered themselves together, and they debated who would bear the burden, who would carry on his back – would become – the sun. And when the sun came to arise, then all [the gods] died that the sun might come unto being… And thus the ancient ones thought it to be. (Friar Bernardino do Sahagun)
According to the Aztec myth of creation the fifth sun was created through sacrifice. Michael Smith tells about The Birth of the Sun at Teotihuacan, which begins with the gods gathering in the darkness at Teotihuacan to bring forth the sun. The two gods that were chosen to become the sun were: Tecciztecatl – a rich, powerful and haughty lord; and Nanahuatzin – a weak, poor, scab-covered god. A huge fire was built for sacrifice. Tecciztecatl showed fear in his attempt to throw himself into the fire, so he became the moon, while Nanahuatzin manifested as the sun. But the sun did not move in the sky and when asked why he replied, “Why? Because I’m asking for their blood, their color, their precious substance” (Bierhorst 148). With this response, the gods realized they must sacrifice themselves in order to make the sun move across the sky. “Quetzalcoatl performed the deed, cutting open the chests of the gods and removing their hears to offer up to Tonatiuh. And so the sun assumed its correct path across the sky” (Smith 208).
As illustrated in this myth, the suns creation and movement began with the sacrifice of various gods. Malinowski states that “the myth of creation acted as a charter which legitimized the practice of human sacrifice.” The Aztecs believed that just as the gods sacrificed themselves for the sun, the people must also provide blood and hearts in order to keep the sun shining.
The Battle of the Sun Against the Powers of Darkness
“Huitzilopochtli was the sun, the young warrior, born each morning from the womb of the old goddess of the earth and dying again each evening to illuminate with his dying light the world of the dead” (Caso 13). It was believed that at the beginning of each day Huitzilopochtli, the incarnation of the sun, had to open combat with his brothers , the stars, and his sister, the moon. This battle of day is clearly illustrated in The Aztecs by Alphonso Caso: Armed with the serpent of fire, Huitzilopochtli frightens off the stars and moon with his “arrows of light”. When he achieves his victory, he is carried up to the center of the sky by the spirits of warriors who have died in combat or sacrificial stone. When afternoon begins, he is picked up by the spirits of women who have died in childbirth, for they are equal to warriors because they also died taking a man prisoner – the newborn child. During the afternoon the souls of the mothers lead the sun to its setting, where the stars die and where the sun, like the eagle in his fall to death, is gathered close again to the earth.
Each day this divine combat is begun anew, but in order for the sun to triumph he must be strong and vigorous. For that reason man must give nourishment to the sun. The Aztecs were the people of Huitzilopochtli and therefore the chosen people of the sun. It was their duty to supply him with food, or “the magic substance that is found in the blood of man” (Caso 13). With this principle in mind, war can be viewed as a form of worship and a necessary activity in the Aztec’s continuation of life.
II. The Implications Myths had on Aztec Society
In this section it will become apparent to the reader that, to a certain extent, Aztec reality paralleled Aztec myth. The cycle of destruction of the four previous suns, the creation of the complete sun and the battle it fights to rise each day, can justify the importance of warfare and human sacrifice amongst the Aztecs. These two aspects of Aztec civilization were not only a means in which the people paid tribute to the gods and restored the suns energy, but also instruments that helped structure the political and social systems. The sacrifices to the great sun also restored the importance of commoners in the Aztec class system. Fear may have lied deep in the souls of the Aztecs with the fact that their fifth sun would some day be defeated. But that fear and their loyalty to the great sun, allowed the Aztecs to rise and shine for many years over many lands.
The Function of Warfare Amongst the Aztecs
The term Xochiyaoyotl or “flowery war” was established to highlight the Aztec notion that war was fought primarily to take prisoners for sacrifice to the sun. The function of war for the Aztecs was not to gain new territories or to exact tribute from conquered people, even though this seems to be a natural occurrence for the winners of war. War was not only necessary for the life of a new day, but also for the expansion of the Aztec Empire.
As the population of the Aztec Empire grew so did the demand for food, goods, raw materials and labor. These needs were met through the expansion of trade routes, the addition of commoners to the empire, raising the cost of transporting goods, and increasing tribute obligations. Warfare was responsible for the steady increase in demands for goods and services by the state. Traders evoked attacks against neighboring communities, providing the Aztecs with a reason for war and the subsequent expanse of the empire. Expansion of the empire meant increased demands for goods and services which were supplied by the means stated above. This cycle of war, expansion and increased demands for goods and services by the state repeated itself time and time again. This process could have been detrimental to the Aztec Empire if it were not for the threat of human sacrifice which kept everyone in line.
Warfare was responsible for the supply of tribute goods to the state from surrounding communities. When the Aztecs went to war they would supply their enemy with all of the equipment needed for war as well as inform their enemy that war was in the future. Once this was done the community under attack had two choices. If the enemy wished to surrender peacefully they would meet their invaders bearing gifts of gold, food, and raw materials. By doing this a community was not only giving into Aztec domination, but also sentencing itself to a lifetime of paying tribute and supplying able men for war. The second choice that was available to a community under attack from the Aztecs was to defend themselves against the invaders. By choosing to defend themselves a community was putting themselves in a risky situation. A community conquered by the Aztecs had to pay very heavy tribute and almost all warriors captured in war were sacrificed at the Templo Mayor. The threat of human sacrifice ensured that the surrounding towns would put up very little resistance to Aztec rule as they feared mass sacrifice as a consequence for trying to maintain independence, and thereby aided in the expansion of the Aztec Empire.
“The struggle of the sun against the powers of darkness was not only a struggle of the gods, but it was also, above all, the struggle of good against evil. The mission of the Aztecs, was, then, to be on the side of the sun, the symbol of good, opposing the fearful gods of darkness, the symbols of evil” (Caso 94). This quote carries the message that the Aztecs found justification for their expansion and conquests. They were not merely a people who used the threat of human sacrifice to gain dominion over the city-states, moreover they were a people on a mission to give strength to their gods and win the war of good over evil.
The Function of Human Sacrifice Amongst the Aztecs
…they took [the captive] up [to the pyramid temple] before the devil, [the priests] going holding him by his hands. And he who was known as the arranger [of captives], this one laid him out upon the sacrificial stone.
And when he had laid him upon it, four men stretched him out, [grasping] his arms and legs. And already in the hand of the fire priest lay the [sacrificial knife, with which he was to slash open the breast of the ceremonially bathed [captive].
And then, when he had split open his breast, he at once seized his heart. And he whose breast he laid open was quite alive. And when [the priest] had seized his heart, he dedicated it to the sun.
After the heart was removed, the victims, “were sent rolling down the steps of the temple, and the steps were bathed in blood.” A priest then cut off the head for mounting on a skull rack next to the pyramid. (Smith 223)
After witnessing such a gruesome bloodshed, one must wonder how such an appalling sacrificial slaughter could be the basis of paying loyalty to a god, and in turn creating and maintaining a powerful society. Without the practice of human sacrifice life as the Aztecs knew it would simply cease to exist, for the sun would be unable to give energy to life if it did not receive energy from sacrificial victims. The Aztecs believed that life depended on a continuous regeneration of energy between the sun, which gave energy to all earthly life forms, and sacrificial victims, who gave up their “tonalli” (heat from the hearts of sacrificial victims) to the sun so that it may continue to sustain life.
These repeated sacrifices were echoes of mythical events. Sacrifices kept the myth of the battle between the sun and the moon, the light and dark, day and night alive for the Aztecs. The daily birth of the sun is nestled in the energy given through human sacrifice. It was this energy source, the “tonalli”, which covered up the fear of a defeated sun and resurrected the light it shone for that present day and cycle.
Sacrifices not only restored the suns energy, but also provided a cycle that conserved the Aztec’s social and political systems. To remain a member of Aztec society an individual had to serve the state by: waging war on surrounding communities; paying tribute to the state; or giving one’s own life to ensure the continuation of the state. Human sacrifice functioned to maintain social organization by infusing each member of the Aztec community with a sense of what must be done in order for the State to continue to function.
Human sacrifice not only provided the power for the sun to shine, but also glorified the expansion and power of the Aztec Empire. The practice of human sacrifice was symbolic of the superiority the Aztec Empire and nobles had over all conquered communities. Sacrifice was not just a symbol of eternal life, it was also a tool used by the Aztecs to punish insubordination and refusal to pay tribute. The practice of slave sacrifice ensured the cooperation of the commoners within a community, for any disobedient slaves were eligible for sacrifice.
Transformation from Human to Ixiptla
As stated above, the threat of human sacrifice was used by the Aztecs as a means for expansion, ensuring future tribute to the state, and keeping all members of the Aztec Empire in their places performing their part to ensure the survival of the empire. A key concept that may be missing in this belief is that even though it may seem like human sacrifice was used in a overpowering and threatening way, the victims of this ritual were not considered ordinary mortals. Just as the great gods sacrificed themselves, so too were these commoners’ and slaves’ giving up there lives for the good of the people. Michael Smith points out ixiptla translated as “deity impersonator” as being one of the key concepts of human sacrifice among the Aztecs.
The preparations for a sacrifice began long before the actual cut of the knife, sometimes as much as a year in advance. Most victims for sacrifice were enemy warriors captured in battle. Victims were carefully chosen to match the requirements of the god to be honored. The person who captured the victim sponsored the sacrifice, thereby gaining prestige. The higher the rank of the victim, the greater the prestige. Through a series of rites and ritual cleansing, the human victim was transformed into the embodiment of the god on earth. The greatly-respected ixiptla spent his last days or months living as a god, and when the day of sacrifice arrived, he went with honor to meet his fate.
Many sacrifices were followed by a ceremonial meal at which the family of the captor or sponsor ate a portion of the victims body. This was a highly religious occasion designed to honor the victim’s memory. “The victim was viewed as a symbolic kin relation of his captor, and this act of cannibalism was a sacred part of the whole ritual of sacrifice” (Smith 225). Portions of the body and blood were distributed among these people and the gods as a manifestation of the restoration of life’s energy. To the Aztecs, then, human sacrifice was indeed necessary if life was to continue for the people of the sun and the state.
The Aztec Class System
The preceding conception that slaves were chosen to be transformed into Ixiptla, sacrificed to the gods and manifested by the people who captured them, in a way contradicts the Aztec class system. There existed two groups of people within the Aztec society: the lords, nobles, and priests (pipiltin) made up one group; while the commoners and workers (macehualtin) made up the other. The pipiltin controlled the economic, political, social and religious systems within their ward. They were people born of high descent, who enjoyed many privileges and had authority over the commoners of their ward. The majority of Aztec population was made up by the commoners or the working class citizens. These people were not of noble birth and as a result they all had to pay tribute to the supreme leader with their products and services, which were required by the State. All of the macehualtin were required to take part in war and expansion. Extreme bravery on the battlefield was about the only way that members of the macehualtin group could increase their status or possible acquire land of their own.
The king was the supreme leader of the Aztec Empire. He was responsible for all of the provinces and people over which he had control. The king was extremely powerful as a result of the Aztec belief that kings were the descendants of the god Huitzilopochtli, the god of war who was responsible for the movement of the sun. This belief manifests the role of kings as being in the position to mediate between the gods and men, and initiate the celestial activity of human sacrifice. It is important to note that the kings, unlike the victims of sacrifice, were not regarded as gods. It was only those slaves who were chosen for sacrifice that truly became connected with the great Aztec gods.
The priests were in charge of the administration and care-taking of the temple; learning about and educating others about the gods, rituals, the calender and astronomy; and most importantly the priests were in charge of performing the rituals. Priests kept the sacred fires burning in large braziers, played music at ceremonies, and made numerous offerings to the gods. “Their faces and bodies were dyed black. Much of their body was scarred and mutilated from constant bloodletting. Their unwashed hair, worn long, became matted with dried blood from their ears and tongues” (Smith 221). This description of a typical Aztec priest may paint a gory picture to outsiders, but it also shows their true devotion to the gods. They would surrender their blood through “autosacrifice” or piercing in order to pay tribute to the gods and rekindle the suns energy. Although autosacrifice was an important and prevalent ritual, it was only a substitute for the more powerful human sacrifice.
The lords, nobles and priests may seem more important than the commoners and working class citizens, however these lower class citizens were essential in creating the powerful Aztec society. It was the tribute of products and services that the commoners paid to the State which allowed the upper class to enjoy their majestic lifestyle. As stated above, it was the slaves who could become the formations of great deities and die for the sun and it’s people. It is ironic that these lower ranked citizens were indeed the ones who became closer to the great gods and provided in many ways for the rise of the Aztec culture. Each person, therefore, had an important role to play in the construction of the empire and the continuation of the life of the great sun.
Conclusion to the People Of The Sun
Light, life or matter in electronic state is transmitted from the sun, reflected by the planets to Earth in molecular state; and this, combined with the Earth’s mineral state of matter, produces cellular matter or organic life on the surface of the Earth. But when the organic bodies incorporating this energy die, their energy is reconverted into light and returns to the sun. (Waters 206)
This illustration of the sun can be seen as the basis for which the Aztecs lived. The Aztecs were indeed the people of the sun. They held many myths that centered around the creation and rising of the sun, and it was through these myths that they created their own society and rose as a great empire. The Aztecs offered their own bloods and hearts to restore the sun, and the sun returned this energy for life back to the people. It was the sun who inspired the Aztecs to conquer the surrounding towns and grow as a powerful culture. It was the sun which allowed even the lowest ranked people to manifest as the people of the sun. Even though the Aztec life was permeated by the profound sadness of a future of defeat, it still remained strong and vital. Each day that the sun rose was a battle to be celebrated by the Aztec people, for the god of life has reigned.
As has been stated before, myths are a mixture of fact and fiction. This is enough to make one wonder how much truth there is in the myths that have been discussed in this paper. It is the decision of each individual to decide what they want to believe, because there are in fact many ways to be human. The manner in which the Aztecs decided to live was their own cultural construction, and is only left for others to construct interpretations and universal meanings. One thing is certain, the sun played a vital role in the way of life of the Aztec people. The Aztecs decided to pay tribute to the sun as an important source of energy that gives light and life to all creations. Through this energy given off by the sun, the Aztecs grew and flourished as a powerful people. Although some aspects of Aztec life may seem ruthless to it’s interpreters, one ray of light can be sent to all of humanity. Every living soul lives beneath the same bright sun, and with the dawning of each day one should be thankful and celebrate the gift of life they have received for that new day.