The Aztecs


The Chichimecs  



 The rise of the Mexica or Aztecs

Establishment of the city of Tenochtitlan  

 Aztec religion and Culture


 Rule of the Empire


 Aztec Art  


 Moctezuma I

The Great Famine




Collectively, certain Nahuatl speaking people migrated to the  Central Mexican valley in 13th A.D. from the north and the Spanish invasion are commonly referred to as the Aztecs. The Aztec empire was ruled by a political body called the Triple Alliance, made up of the Acolhua people of Texcoco, the Mexica in Tenochtitlán, and the Tepaneca people of Tlacopan. . In 1431 a Triple Alliance was established between Texcoco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlán becoming the foundation of the Aztec Empire . Tenochtitlan quickly became dominant and ruled the Alliance by the time of the Spanish arrival  . The word ' Aztec '  is derived from Nahuatl meaning  " people from Aztlan .' Aztlan is the supposed mythological homeland of the Nahuatl speaking culture, located north the Central Mexican valley .



Aztec calendar, carved during the reign of Axayacatl , with the face of the Sun god Tonatiuh in the center, the 4 rectangles around the god are symbols of the 4 previous ages, the Aztecs believed they lived in the age of the last or 5th sun which would destroy humanity .


The Chichimecs of the North 

Northern Mexico

With the collapse of Tula in the 12th century, the primitive Chichimecs again poured into the Valley of Mexico from the north . One of  the most prominent of the Chichimec invaders of this time was called Xolotl ( named after the dog faced god of death ) who led his people into the valley in 1244 and made their capital at Tenayuca. The military success of Xolotl was in a large part due to their use of the bow and arrow, which was much more lethal than the throwing spear or atl-atl that the Toltecs still used . In 1246 the Chichimecs conquered the city of Culhuacan. the son of Xolotl married a princess of the Toltecs gain respectability .

Aztec civilization creation myth - Legend of the five Suns -

The story of creation is a story of birth, death, and rebirth. When the world is destroyed, it is born again through sacrifice of one of the gods.Creation of five Suns:First creation by Tezcatlipoca - The first sun - Jaguar Sun (Nahui Ocelotl)Second creation by Quetzalcoatl - The second sun - Wind Sun (Nahui Ehecatl)Third creation by Tlaloc - The third sun - Rain Sun (Nahui Quiahuitl)Fourth creation by Calchiuhtlicue - The fourth sun - Water Sun (Nahui Atl)Fifth creation by Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl - The fifth sun - Earthquake Sun

The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire

Excellent source book for covering the rise and fall of the

Mexica(Aztec) civilization. Filled with many high quality art pictures .


During the long reign of Xolotl ( 1244-1304 ), the Chichimec hegemony was established in the Valley of Mexico. The nomadic Chichimec became civilized while in contact with the older Toltec cultural area. They exchanged there caves for huts, their animal skins for woven clothes and ate cooked meat instead of eating it raw .the began to use the Nahuatl language, which was the main language used in the Valley . In 1230 another nomadic group of Chichimecs, known as the Tepanecs recognized Xolotl as overlord, established themselves in the city of Atzcapotzalco.


With the death of Xolotl in 1304, the Tepanecs became the most powerful group in the Valley, led by their leader Tezozomoc, who ruled from 1363 to 1427 , conquering Xolotl's city of Tenayuca and many other cities in the Valley such as Xochimilco and Cuahnahuac and unified under one government most of central Mexico .

The rise of the Mexica or Aztecs 

Statue of the mother of Huitzilopochtli, Coatlicue the Mother Goddess

of the Earth . According to legend, this god, speaking

through her priests, ordered the tribe that would become

the Aztecs to leave their homeland of Azatlan in northwest

Mexico, and search for a new homeland .

Another Chichimec group that migrated into the valley, according to legend from the coastal area of Aztatlan were the Mexica and were also known as the Aztecs . Azteca is the Nahuatl word for "people from Aztatlan." According to the legend, the southward migration began in 1064 . There is currently no consensus among scholars as to whether Aztlan is a mythical location only or whether the myth also has an actual historical component, nor where such an historical location might have been. Believing that their hummingbird god Huitzilopochtli had chosen them for greatness, they searched for their promised land .According to Legend, Huitzilopochtli gave them the prophecy that when they saw a they saw an eagle which was perched on a nopal cactus full of its fruits, eating a snake, they would have arrived at the promised land .they arrived into the Valley of Mexico and were regarded as uncivilized barbarians , but were feared as fierce warriors . They became subjects of the ruler of Culhuacan, Coxcox. The Aztecs asked Coxcox for his daughter to be made the queen of the Aztecs, which he agreed to. He was horrified to find a dancer wearing the skin of his daughter at a banquet in his honor. His daughter had been sacrificed to the god Xipe Totec ( god of life and rebirth ) and flayed !


 Mexico Unexplained: Journey to Aztlan,

the Mythical Land of the Aztecs


Establishment of the city

of Tenochtitlan 

Sign of the promised land and symbol of Mexico



Virtual Tenochtitlan

Enraged, Coxcox attacked the Aztecs and scattered them survivors into a marsh around Lake Texcoco , where they lived on a small island in the lake around the year 1345.this is where they saw the vision prophecised by the god Huitzilopochtli This was to become the great city if Tenochititlan . From the island they built causeways .Tezozomoc, the strongman of central Mexico at the times, used the Aztecs as mercenaries . In 1376 Tezozomoc allowed the Aztecs to elect a king to rule over them . By the time of Tezozomoc's death in 1426, the forth Aztec king Itzocoatl was able to establish Aztec independence by uniting with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan. this triple alliance would soon control central Mexico .

By the time of Moctezuma II when the Spanish arrived, Tenochtitlan was a truly impressive city, with a population estimated to have been between 100 - 200,000 and occupied much of the center of present day Mexico city .The core of the city had a great double pyramid dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc .Among the shocks to the Spanish were the racks on which thousands of skulls were displayed .the city was interlaced with thousand of canals used for transportation .There was a zoos with plants and animals for all over the empire .Long causeways joined the city to the shores. Garbage and waste were carried away by barges, and most people bathed once a day .

Aztec religion and Culture 

Ancient Aztec religion was a complex interaction of gods, dates, directions and colours. It seems that most of the preoccupation in the religion had to do with fear of the nature, and a fear of the end of the world.

In the Aztec and most of the Mesoamerican cultures, the first people were created out of maize dough. The gods were disappointed in their creations due to their arrogance and lack of piety and destroyed them . The first creatures were a race of giants which the gods had devoured by jaguars, the most recent were turned into fish when the gods made floods to wipe out their creations .This attempt by the gods was number four for the Aztecs and number three for the Maya .The world was made by the self sacrifice of the gods. The world was perfected for humans by the blood sacrifices of the god Quetzalcoatl .

The Aztec civilization presents a paradox, on the one had there is what appears to be a bizarre, bloodthirsty religion that demanded beating human hearts, on the other hand some aspects of Aztec society were very enlightened for the time in regards to justice and refinements in the arts and the ability to rise in society based on merit .

 The most striking aspect of Aztec culture is the high demands for human sacrifice . In the Aztec world view, the sun and earth had been destroyed and recreated four times and they were in the age of the fifth sun, and destruction was imminent . Naturally, they wished to avoid this fate and believed that through intervention through the sun god, Huitzilopochtli this could be done, if he was appeased . The greatest act of reverence was to offer the sun god, the source of life in return. Without these sacrifices, it was feared the sun might stop rising or disappear an it does during an eclipse .The Aztec saw themselves as "the People of the Sun," whose divine duty is to wage cosmic war in order to provide the sun with his tlaxcaltiliztli ("nourishment"). Without it, the sun would disappear from the heavens. Thus the welfare and the very survival of the universe depends upon the offerings of blood and hearts to the sun, a notion that the Aztec extended to many of the deities of their pantheon.

There were different types of sacrifices depending on the god honored . The most common, for the sun god, was for the victim to be held down atop a temple while his heart was cut out with an obsidian knife .Those who were sacrificed to Xipe Totec, such as Coxcox's daughter was were flayed or bound and shot with arrows, their blood symbolizing falling rain . Those honoring the fire god were drugged with hashish and placed in fire .

A gladiatorial sacrifice

There was also a type of gladiatorial sacrifice in which a captured warrior was tied by the ankle to a stone. He was given a dull weapon to fight a series of well-armed Aztec warriors. If he defeated the warriors , he was given his freedom .Aztec successes seem to justify these sacrifices, and when things went bad, more sacrifices were in order, as with the great famine .In order to provide the gods with their sacrifices, a constant state of war was necessary .

Huitzilopochtli was the predominate god of the Aztecs, but there were many gods, usually for an element in nature. Tezcatlipoca (smoking mirror ) associated with the night an hurricanes, was favored by warriors .Quetzalcoatl , the sky and creator god was revered by the priests. the gods of foreign and conquered peoples were also incorporated into the ever growing Aztec pantheon .


Aztec Women

Emperors were always chosen from the royal family, but the heir apparent was not fixed, the best candidate was chosen in a policy of choosing merit over birth. Manners of the royal family were to serve as examples, emperors would often get into the thick of the battle and expose themselves to danger .Nobility was not an inherited right and one had to earn it .Little wealth was inherited by children .

Eagle knight

All abled bodied males were expected to bear arms and distinction in battle was a way a commoner could rise to nobility . In order to attain the rank of warrior, a prisoner had to be taken. then he could join the military elite a become a member of the knightly orders, such as the Eagle or Jaguar knights .

To become a priest began with training in a monastery school. Priests spent many hours in prayer and fasting, and performed acts of self mutilation while in or trying to attain a higher state of mind by passing a thorn between the tongue, ear or penis .

The merchants, called pocteca, led trading caravans as far as Central America .

A great majority of the people were farmers, laborers and other types of commoners and were organized into districts called calpullis, which was a clan made up of many families and was the basic social unit .

There was also slavery in Aztec society. Slavery was not passed on from parent to child and slaves had certain rights .Some served as slaves to pay of a debt or to avoid starvation .

School was compulsory for children, the type of school depended on ones social class .The children of nobility entered a school of strict discipline and long hours of study in history, religion, astronomy and other subjects. The school for the other classes was less strict and boys learned basic subjects and the rudiments of warfare while girls learned the household arts .Modesty, courtesy and conformity were prized virtues .

The Aztec legal system was complex, with judges in the major cities appointed by the emperor .they had great power and could arrest even high placed nobles. The nobility, who were supposed to rule by example, received tougher sentencing under the law .

Aztec medical practices were on par with those in Europe of the time, and in some ways more advanced ..Doctors knew how to set broken bones and treat cavities and even performed brain operations .Like the Europeans they believed bloodletting was good for the health .Many medicines from plants were used and are still used in rural areas today .

The base of the diet for most people was maize, beans, chili and squash and many types of fruit .Commoners seldom ate meat, but on special occasions a small hairless dog was cooked .Cacao from the tropics was made into a chocolate drink .

Rule of the Empire 

The Aztec empire was in reality a loose coalition of subject city states that paid tribute. The Aztecs did not desire to colonize conquered lands or imposing their own political leaders, religion ( with the exception of  Huitzilopochtli being worshipped as the supreme god )and institutions. as long as the vassal states sent tribute they were allowed considerable autonomy .Thus vassal states were never assimilated into Aztec culture and were quick to assume their independence when Aztec power was weak .

Aztec Art 

Coyolxauhqui( Moon Goddess ) disk , found

in Mexico City in 1978

The Aztecs excelled in stone sculpture and are quite striking. they are monumental in size with great attention to detail. Most statues were made for religious reasons .They were also great at jewelry making and were influenced by the metalwork of the Mixtecs, but most of their work was seized by the Spanish and melted . A special skill was those of the feather craftsmen.

Mask of death and rebirth

Aztec music was composed mainly for ceremonial purposes and musicians had great prestige. However, an imperfectly performed ritual often carried the death penalty .

Aztec Pottery


Aztec Ceramics


Nezahualcoyotl on the 100 Peso bank note

The leader of Texcoco at this time was Nezahualcoyotl, who became famous for his poetry and building an aqueduct to Tenochtitlan. He built a large library in holding thousands of manuscripts, large temples and baths .


The Aztecs

Michael Smith

Smith provides a compelling reinterpretation of the standard history of the Aztec empire. Based upon archaeological research conducted during the past 15 years


Map of the Aztec Empire

To view a larger image click here .

Moctezuma I 1398? - 1469

Itzcoatl died in 1440 and his nephew, Moctezuma I became ruler of the Aztecs .even before taking power, Moctezuma was a powerful general, and during his reign of 28 years he conquered many cities an extended Aztec rule south and northeast .During this time a uniquely Aztec artistic style came into being. Moctezuma extended the boundaries of the Aztec empire beyond the Valley of Mexico to the Gulf Coast, subjugating the Huastec people and Totonac peoples and thereby gaining access to exotic goods such as cocoa, rubber, cotton, fruits, feathers, and seashells.About 1458, Moctezuma lead an expedition into Mixtec territory against the city-state of Coixtlahuaca, the pretext being the mistreatment of Aztec merchants. Despite the support of contingents of Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo warriors, traditional enemies of the Aztecs, the Mixtecs were defeated. While most of the defeated chieftains were allowed to retain their positions, the Mixtec ruler Atonal was ritually strangled and his family was taken as slaves.

The Great Famine 

The growth of the Aztec empire was checked in 1450 be a terrible famine caused by flooding. to placate the gods the Aztecs made human sacrifices in ever-increasing numbers .When, after 5 years food again became plentiful, the priests observed that the sacrifices had been successful. One event that occurred during the famine was to have catastrophic results when the Spanish arrived. during the famine, it was arranged with the state of Tlaxacala to engage in a Xochiyaoyotl or Flowery War for the purpose of gathering sacrificial victims which were running low, to please the gods .Flowery wars were defined by rules, however, for some reason this war got out of control and resulted in a real war and the people of Tlaxacala and the Aztecs became bitter enemies .

 Axayacatl r. 1469 - 1481

Moctezuma I died in 1468 and was succeeded by Axayacatl, who ruled from 1469 to 1481.He is chiefly remembered for subjugating Tlatelolco one of the three members of the triple Alliance,  the growing pretensions and arrogance of the Aztecs, with their excessive demands for tribute caused many tributary towns to rebel, which Axayacatl stopped and to prevent future trouble placed garrisons in many towns .He also continued to conquer new areas, and in the course of one battle lost a leg .Not all attacks for tribute and sacrificial victims were successful. In 1479 Axayacatl attacked Tarasca in the area of Michoacan in modern Mexico. The Tarascans surprised the Aztecs with copper weapons and Axayacatl lost most of his army .


The next leader of the Aztecs was Tizoc,who ruled from 1481-86 a brother of Axayacatl. Many towns were conquered during this period, but the real power behind the throne was said to be the gifted general Tlacaelel. It was rumored he poisoned Tizoc, who was said to be cowardly in battle .Tlacaelel then engineered the election of Ahuitzol to the throne, the third son of Moctezuma I.


Ahuitzotl , who ruled from 1486-1502  was an aggressive king who led his armies on far off expeditions of conquest . During his reign he conquered the valley of Oaxaca, expanded the Aztec empire up the Gulf coast and conquering cities in Guatemala. In 1487, when dedicating a new temple to the god Huitzilopochtli he sacrificed an estimated 20,000 people who stood in three columns three miles long .Axayacatl established a bureaucracy to control his expanding empire. He died in 1502. By the end of his reign the Aztecs controlled much of central and southern Mexico, up to the Mayan lands .Not all attacks for tribute and sacrificial victims were successful. Ahuitzotl also supervised a major rebuilding of Tenochtitlan on a grander scale including the expansion of the Great Pyramid


Moctezuma II  1466 - 1520

By the time of Moctezuma II, the Aztec empire reached its maximum extent, as far south as the narrow waist of Mexico at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and had conquered the Zapotec kingdom in Oaxaca in 1502 .Moctezuma almost certainly heard of the landing of the Spanish on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517 and the reports of their ' floating houses .'In 1517 a comet appeared. a bad portent in Aztec culture as well. This was also the end of the Aztec 52 year cycle, when dramatic changes occur . A courier showed the emperor pictures of strange white men with beards bearing crosses, could this be Quetzalcoatl returning at last ?

Conquistador: Hernan Cortes

Epic in scope, entertaining as it is enlightening, Conquistador is the story of Hernan Cortes, his confrontation

with King Montezuma, and the last stand of the Aztecs.


One of the few remaining examples of Aztec

feather work, Moctezuma's headdress

London show sheds light on Aztec Emperor






Early Spanish expeditions

to Mexico