Why were Aztec gods so violent

The legacy of the Aztecs

On the famous Zócalo Square in Mexico City, on the very edge, next to the ruins of the sacred Aztec pyramid Templo Mayor, scientists discovered the remains of a strange creature. The animal - a dog? a wolf? - lay in a two and a half meter deep shaft for 500 years. It probably had neither a name nor an owner. But this animal must have meant a lot to someone: it wore a collar made of jade beads, turquoise studs on its ears and gold bracelets.

With little golden bells on his fetters. The find, known since then as Aristo-Canine (for example: the aristocratic dog), was discovered by a team of archaeologists under the direction of Leonardo López Luján in the summer of 2008. Excavations at this site had begun two years earlier after an amazing object was excavated for a new building was brought to light: a twelve-ton, rectangular monolith made of pale pink andesite.

The stone slab was broken in four. Its relief shows a terrifying image of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli (pronounced "tlal-tek-tli"), who symbolizes the Aztec cycle of life and death. She is shown crouching to give birth to a child and drinking the blood of her afterbirth. This find is already the third, flat Aztec monolith that was discovered in the vicinity of the Templo Mayor. The first - uncovered in 1790 - was a 24-ton black basalt sunstone. And in 1978 the eight-tonne disc of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui was found.

After years of excavation work, López Luján and his team came across some extremely exotic offerings from the Aztecs in a deep pit next to the relief stone. Under a patch on the floor of the Zócalo that had been repaired with plaster, they discovered 21 sacrificial knives made of white flint, painted red. They symbolize the teeth and gums of the monstrous Aztec earth goddess. Her mouth is wide open to take in the dead. Even deeper digs revealed a bundle wrapped in agave leaves. It contained pointed jaguar bones that were used to pierce human victims. Aztec priests also used it to shed their own blood as a gift to the gods. Next to these perforators were pieces of copal resin, which was also used as incense for spiritual purification. The bundle also contained feathers and jade beads - everything carefully arranged.

To López Luján's surprise, there was another offering several meters below the bundle, this time in a stone container. Inside there are two west-facing skeletons of golden eagles (the birds were symbols of the sun). Around them were arranged 27 sacrificial knives, 24 of which were stuck in furs and other clothing like dolls. They represent deities who were also associated with the setting sun. By January 2010, the team had discovered a total of six offerings in the shaft. The deepest of them was seven meters below street level and contained a ceramic jug with 310 green stone beads, ear studs and small figures. Each of the excavated items had apparently been precisely placed with care. Together they recreated the entire cosmology of the Aztec Empire.

At the bottom of the second sacrificial box, López Luján found a richly decorated animal. It was covered with sea shells and the remains of crabs and snails - creatures brought from the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific. López Luján knew that this tableau in Aztec cosmology points to the first stage of the underworld, where the dog leads the soul of its master over a dangerous river.

But whose human soul? Since the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés in 1521, no remains of an Aztec ruler have been discovered. But the historical records show the cremation of three Aztec rulers. Her ashes are said to have been buried at the foot of the Templo Mayor. Upon discovering the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli, López Luján noticed that the god figure was holding a rabbit in its right claw foot. Ten points could be seen above it. In the Aztec script, “10 rabbits” stands for the year 1502. The codices handed down from that period show that Ahuitzotl (pronounced “Ah-ui-tzohtl”), the most feared ruler of the empire, was solemnly buried that year.

López Luján is convinced that Ahuitzotl's grave cannot be far from where the relief stone was found. If he is right, then the so-called Aristo Dog is probably an underground guide to the secrets of a people we know as the Aztecs. However, they called themselves Mexica (pronounced: "Meh-schi-ka"). The legacy of this culture is considered to be at the heart of Mexican identity.

If López Luján succeeds in finding the grave, then this would be the climax of extraordinary research that has been going on for 32 years and is intended to shed light on an often mythologized and misunderstood empire. “The past is omnipresent in Mexico,” says López Luján. This is especially true of the Aztec Empire, on whose foundations modern Mexico is - literally - built.

In 1978 the sensation came to light: Researchers discovered the Templo Mayor - in the middle of the second largest metropolis in the world! This realization resulted in a spectacle that was more reminiscent of a Broadway premiere than an archaeological triumph. Celebrities came from all over the world: Jimmy Carter, François Mitterrand, Gabriel García Márquez, Jacques Cousteau, Jane Fonda. Today the whole thing is repeated: Since it became known that one or more rulers are probably buried on the edge of the square, López Luján spends a lot of time smuggling celebrities through the cramped excavation site on the west side of the pyramid. Even ordinary people ask for admission at the secured entrance. López Luján often fulfills this wish. The good-humored 46-year-old understands the psychological attraction of this place. “The Mexicans know that they are living in a tragic present,” he says. "But the past gives them a certain self-confidence."

Unlike the Maya culture, which is spread across several countries - the other great pre-Columbian power in Mesoamerica - the Aztecs are identified exclusively with Mexico. The country never misses an opportunity to use the mythical power of its ancestors for itself. The Mexican flag shows the Aztec eagle in the middle. It also graces the logos of the country's two main airlines. There is the Bank Azteca and the TV Azteca channel. The eagle is emblazoned on the jerseys of the national soccer team. Home games are played at the Estadio Azteca. Mexico City, too, involuntarily reminds us of the city-state of Tenochtitlán - and of the Aztec invincibility.

But if you only see the Aztecs as symbols, you will misunderstand them. Their powerful empire, a triad of the city-states Tenochtitlán, Texcoco and Tlacopán, existed for barely a hundred years before it was destroyed by the European conquerors. As much fear and terror as these rulers spread in the areas they controlled, their power was fleeting. They did not build temples and did not impose their culture on anyone, like the Romans or the Inca.

Instead, the Aztecs maintained a "cheap empire", as some scientists call it. The conquered were allowed to rule themselves as long as they paid tribute in the form of certain goods. The protection system was reinforced by occasional demonstrations of force. The Aztecs demonstrated their ingenuity in the center of Tenochtitlán. However, many of their customs, images, and religious practices were borrowed from older cultures.

López Luján's father, the Mesoamerica expert Alfredo López Austin, puts it this way: “The most common misunderstanding is that the Aztecs created their own culture through and through. That's not true." But the caricature of a bloodthirsty people is just as inaccurate. The Spanish conquerors thoroughly overestimated the violence of the Mexica. For example, they claimed that 80,400 people were killed in a single temple dedication. But such a bloodbath would have largely depopulated Central Mexico. Therefore, opinions are circulating today that reject any human sacrifice by the Aztecs as a European fiction.

That goes too far, however. In the past 15 years, chemical studies of porous surfaces all over Mexico City have shown “traces of blood everywhere,” says López Luján. "There are the sacrificial stones, the sacrificial knives, the corpses of 127 victims: the human sacrifices cannot be denied." However, he immediately adds that these practices existed elsewhere in the world at that time. The Maya and numerous other cultures had such rites before the Aztecs. «This form of violence does not characterize one or the other ethnic group - it characterizes the age. There was a war-like atmosphere in which the religions demanded human sacrifices to appease the gods, ”explains López Austin.

The Aztec Empire arose out of nowhere. The first Mexica came from the north, supposedly from Aztlán. However, no one knows where this land could have been or whether outside of the legends it even existed. These immigrants spoke Nahuatl, like the mighty Toltecs, whose dominance in central Mexico had ended in the 12th century. The Mexica language was the only connection to earlier high cultures. The newcomers were often driven out of the high valley of Mexico. Eventually they came across an island in Lake Texcoco that no one else claimed. In 1325 they gave it the name Tenochtitlán ("City of Tenoch"). The island was little more than a swamp. There was neither drinking water nor stones and wood to build on. But the ragged settlers, described by the renowned scholar Miguel León-Portilla as “as good as cultured”, compensated for this with an “indomitable will”.

The settlers occupied the ruins of the once powerful city-states Teotihuacán and Tula. Everything they found there they made their own. By 1430 Tenochtitlán was more powerful than the two submerged cities in their heyday. The settlement now had impressive aqueducts and was criss-crossed by canals and dams that divided the urban area into four quadrants. The water system was arranged around a central pyramid, which had two staircases and a double temple on the plateau at the top. Their architecture was not very original, but that was exactly the intention. The Mexica wanted to establish a connection with their ancestors. The ruler's notorious advisor, Tlacaelel, made sure of that with a lot of propaganda.

In the first half of the 15th century, Tlacaelel rewrote the entire history of Mexica. He declared his people to be descendants of the great Toltecs and raised the sun and war god Huitzilopochtli to the pantheon of sublime Toltec deities. And he went one decisive step further. As Miguel León-Portilla writes, Tlacaelel gave the empire the new, fateful purpose of «conquering all other countries ... in order to capture victims. For the sun, the source of all life, would die if it were not supplied with human blood ».

So the Mexica subjugated one city after another. So the once maligned immigrants rose on and on. In the middle of the 15th century, under Moctezuma I, they moved more than 300 kilometers to the south and expanded their territory into the present-day states of Morelos and Guerrero. A few years later they advanced north and as far as the Gulf Coast. In 1465 the last resistance in the high valley of Mexico was broken with the Chalco alliance. It was to be destined for the eighth Aztec ruler, Ahuitzotl, to expand the empire to the breaking point.

Ahuitzotl has no face. There is no portrait of the man whose remains López Luján is looking for at the Templo Mayor. "The only representations we have of an Aztec ruler show Moctezuma II, and they too were only made after his death on the basis of Spanish descriptions," says López Luján of the last Mexican ruler before the Spanish conquest. "We know many details from the life of Moctezuma II, but we know almost nothing about Ahuitzotl."

So much is known: The high-ranking officer ascended the throne in 1486 after his brother Tizoc lost control of the empire and died - possibly through poison, but perhaps also through the hand of his younger brother. Its name already refers to violence: In Nahuatl, the word ahuitzotl describes a vicious, otter-like creature that could strangle people with its muscular tail. In the 16 years of his rule, Ahuitzotl achieved 45 conquests.

Colorful representations in the Codex Mendoza are dedicated to these successes, a documentation of the Aztec picture writing and culture from the early Spanish colonial times.

Ahuitzotl's troops conquered areas from the Pacific right down to what is now Guatemala. Some campaigns were pure demonstrations of power to punish unruly rulers. But most fights were aimed at the satisfaction of two desires: to steal treasure - and to take people prisoner in order to offer them to the gods.

When Ahuitzotl came to power, the supreme will of Aztec rule was already firmly established: to gather the best that a region had to offer. "Traders acted as spies," explains the archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, who from 1978 directed the extensive excavations at the Templo Mayor. The scouts explored the wealth of a city, and the ruler's army then prepared to attack. "The military expansion was an extension of the economic power," explains Matos Moctezuma. «The Aztecs did not impose their religion on anyone. They were only after the treasures. "

Nothing - not even gold - was of greater value to the Mesoamerican peoples than jade. The gem symbolized fertility and was only found in the mines of Guatemala in Central America. It is therefore not surprising that Ahuitzotl set up trade routes there and not only secured the coveted green stones, but, according to López Luján, "also quetzal feathers, gold, jaguar skins and cocoa, which the Aztecs used as money to grow on trees". Thanks to these riches, Tenochtitlán developed into a powerful center of trade and culture, "at that time the most diverse city of the arts, similar to Paris and New York later," says the researcher. The Mexica used the conquered treasures to decorate the elaborate religious rituals in Tenochtitlán. The Templo Mayor wasn't just a funerary pyramid like its counterparts in Ancient Egypt. It was a symbol of the sacred mountain of Coatepec. This "snake hill" was the setting for a cosmological soap opera: The newborn sun god Huitzilopochtli murdered his sister, the warrior and moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, and threw her corpse down from the mountain. The Mexica believed that regular human sacrifices would satisfy the gods and maintain the cycle of life. But without such a tribute the gods would perish and the world would perish.

"The holy mountain is just as important a symbol as the cross in Christianity," says the religious historian Davíd Carrasco. For the Mexica and most other Mesoamerican cultures, "destruction and creation were repeated". It was part of the rituals in honor of the sacred mountain that colorfully clad captive soldiers had to climb the steps of the pyramid and perform ceremonial dances. Then their hearts were cut out and their bodies rolled down the steps.

In order to have enough prisoners to sacrifice, the Aztecs made constant campaigns. On certain days, ritual battles were held in neutral territory, which were not about land gain, but only about prisoners.

As the Aztec researcher Ross Hassig notes, every war was started with "burning a large pyre of paper and incense between the two armies." The Mexica did not speak of a "holy war" - because for them every war was considered holy. Struggle and religion were inextricably linked.

More than any of his predecessors, Ahuitzotl expanded the empire to the south, cut off the trade routes of the mighty Tarasken in the west and ruled all conquered areas with a hard hand. "He was more energetic and brutal than anyone else," says the archaeologist Raúl Arana.

“If tribute payments were refused, he sent the military. Under Ahuitzotl, the Aztecs reached unimaginable size. But maybe that was too much.At some point all power systems reach their limits. " The Mexica lost this powerful builder of their empire at the height of their supremacy.

In 1502 - "10 rabbits" - Ahuitzotl was killed. Allegedly, a beam hit him in the head while escaping from his palace in a flood caused by an aqueduct that was too hastily built. Ahuitzotl had initiated the project to tap the sources from neighboring Coyoacán. The local lord of the city had warned Ahuitzotl against the highly irregular influx - the ruler had him killed for it.

At Ahuitzotl's funeral, 200 servants escorted him to the afterlife. The exquisitely dressed slaves carried provisions and were taken to the Templo Mayor. There their hearts were torn out and their bodies were thrown on a pyre. They were - like their master - allegedly buried in front of the Templo Mayor.

This is exactly where López Luján's team found the Tlaltecuhtli monolith and the "Aristo dog". Other offerings in the immediate vicinity. One was discovered under a villa built for an officer by Cortés. Others lay several meters below the large relief stone. In both cases, López Luján knew where to look after drawing a complicated system of east-west axes, "imaginary lines", on a map of the site. “This symmetry is repeated everywhere,” says López Luján. "The Aztecs were obsessed with it."

The work of archaeologists is arduous and lackluster. This is partly due to the typical conditions of an excavation in an urban area: the researchers have to obtain permits, bypass sewers and avoid cables laid underground. You have to take care of the guarding of an archaeological site, which lies in the middle of one of the most attractive pedestrian precincts in the world. But they work so conscientiously not least because it requires the accuracy of Aztec planning.

López Luján is standing by a pit in which his team uncovered a chest of sacrifices the size of a chest in May 2007. "It took us 15 months to examine all of the contents," he says. “There were ten layers and more than 5,000 objects in a small space.

Their arrangement seems random, but it is not », López Luján continues. «Everything has a cosmic meaning. The challenge for us is to decipher the logic and spatial patterns. When the archaeologist Leopoldo Batres worked here a hundred years ago, he was interested in the objects as such. He considered them archaeological trophies. In the 32 years that we have been researching here, we have found that the objects themselves are less important than the way in which they are spatially connected to one another. "

Every find is a great blessing for Mexico, because the conquistadors brought many valuable objects to Spain. From there they spread across Europe. Apart from their aesthetic value, the new finds also illustrate the Aztecs' attention to detail, which served to appease the gods - and thus also the continuation of the world.

To ensure this, the empire had to keep growing. It became more and more demanding and ultimately could no longer be sustained.

"The irony of this story is that the Aztecs at some point expanded their empire too much on the fringes - and ultimately ended up marginalized themselves," says Carrasco. “They were so far from home that they could no longer provide their own warriors with food and transport and protect the traders. The empire became too expensive, and at some point the Aztecs could no longer cope with it. "

Ten years before the arrival of the Spaniards, Ahuitzotl's successor Moctezuma II was apparently already plagued by gloomy premonitions. He had continued his predecessor's policy of expansion, had great power, wore a tiara made of turquoise and gold, had 19 children and a zoo full of exotic animals, as well as "dwarfs and albinos and hunchbacks".

Nevertheless, the ninth Aztec ruler tormented his own cosmic uncertainty. A codex notes that in 1509 “a bad omen appeared in heaven. It looked like a burning corn on the cob ... fire seemed to bleed from it like from a wound in the sky ».

Moctezuma's fears were justified. “More than 50,000 warriors rebelled. They wanted to keep their goods and put an end to the Aztec attacks on their settlements, ”says Carrasco. The 500 Spaniards who docked in Veracruz in the spring of 1519 would not have been able to cope with the Aztec troops despite their rifles, cannons and horses. Instead, Cortés and his soldiers reached Tenochtitlán on November 8th, accompanied by several thousand Tlaxcala warriors (hereditary enemies of the Aztecs) and their allies. The Spaniards were spellbound by the sight of the shimmering city on the lake - "some soldiers even asked whether the things they saw were not just dream images," reported an eyewitness. But the heroism of their host Moctezuma in no way intimidated them.

A Mesoamerican legend has it that the powerful bearded god Quetzalcoatl, exiled for incest with his sister, will one day return across the water and regain his rule. This legend was known to Moctezuma. And so he presented Cortés with the “Treasure of Quetzalcoatl”, a costume that also included a “snake mask with turquoise inlay”. But did Moctezuma really see the Spaniard as the return of the snake god? For a long time this was the common view. Or did he cunningly put Cortés into the divine garb of a future human sacrifice? His gesture is the last Aztec uncertainty. The events that followed are facts. Blood flowed in the streets of Tenochtitlán. The empire ended in 1521 - brutally wiped out by the Spaniards.

"We are convinced that sooner or later we will come across Ahuitzotl's grave," says López Luján. But no matter how deep the archaeologist digs, he will not get to the core of Aztec mysticism. It will continue to move modern Mexico. Invisible, primal and majestic at the same time, she conjures up the power of ordinary mortals to turn swamps into prosperous empires.