by Harry Stevens
Photos by Beverly Stevens and Michael Durnan
(Editor's Note: It has often been noted that ‘the victors write history' and the story of the Aztecs is no exception to this rule. The ‘victors' in this case, however, are not the 16th century Spaniards. These have been vanquished by the views of the prevailing elite in Mexico, which after a two-century struggle is supreme in their vast wealth and almost total control of the country's resources, and indeed, its understanding of its own history. As a result, today's Mexicans will tell you that because the Aztecs were pre-literate, the only documents surviving from the Conquest were written by the Spanish — who of course had every reason to exaggerate to justify their actions. For the most recent scholarship on the question of Cortés and the Spanish invasion, click HERE.)
Two worlds collided on that fateful day in 1521 when the Spaniard Cortés (shown here in Orozco's monumental mural) encountered Montezuma and his fabled Aztecs.
Ancient Mexico City: At first, the Spanish were dazzled by the technical and engineering prowess of the builders of an advanced city on the shallow lake of Tenochtitlán. Montezuma welcomed them, believing they were the fulfillment of a prophecy that a white hero would return to his people. After this promising beginning, however, the Spanish rapidly turned on their obliging hosts and utterly destroyed their elegant city.
What happened? What made the Spaniards act as they did? Who were the Aztecs, really?
Captured Indians building Aztec pyramids: They called themselves ‘the Mexica', and they were allied with the the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan in a Triple Alliance of city-states . (The term ‘Aztec' was first used in 1810 by Alexander von Humboldt as a collective term describing all people linked to the Triple Alliance.)
Religion dominated the lives of every man, woman and child — a religion polytheistic in theology, with devotions to gods of nature, the earth, moon, stars, wind, fire, creation, and gods of drinking and excess, of fertility, of death and the underworld, and of trade.
Their principal deity was Tezcatlipoca, the ‘Smoking Mirror', ‘Lord of the Dark', god of phantoms and monsters, demiurge of creation. The mightiest god was Quetzelcóatl, the feathered or stone serpent. Other gods were Mixcóatl (‘cloud serpent') the god of war, hunting, and sacrifice; Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of the dead; and Tláloc, the god of rain and fertility.
Their religion was sacrificial in practice. There were large festivals and monthly rituals by the state priests in temples built to some of their gods (or demons). Some of these gods needed to be satiated by human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and/or self-sacrifice. The Aztec's self-sacrifice involved daily blood-letting, offering token gifts — one's own blood — to refresh and give thanks to the earth every day.
Death & the Aztecs: The Aztec view of death is key to understanding these people, who believed that death was instrumental in the continuation of creation, and that humans had the responsibility to sacrifice themselves or others in order to allow life to endure. For them, the sun rose and set only because of their sacrifices to the sun god, Huitzilopochtli (‘hummingbird wizard', called ‘Lover of Hearts' and ‘Drinker of Blood').
The Aztecs, in essence, wanted to attract natural forces beneficial to humans, and repel those forces that were not beneficial. It was ultimately only through death would the Aztec be able finally to repay their debt to their gods, returning flesh and blood to the earth — a ‘circle of life'.
Aztec Pyramids and Temples: Tourists crowd the step-pyramids of central America today, marveling at the engineering skills of these ancient Americans. These impressive edifices were primarily used for religious worship and/or sacrifice, with shrines and temples on top. Each main city had at least one pyramid, with stairways up the four sides to the place where offerings and sacrifices were performed. And in addition to regular offerings of plants, minerals, beads, and animals, there were human sacrifices.
The best known Aztec pyramid was the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán. This step pyramid rose 197 feet above the city and was built specifically to pay tribute to the Aztec gods Huitzilopochtli (god of war and the sun) and Tláloc (god of rain and fertility). Construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325, and it was rebuilt six times. It was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 as part of their campaign to subjugate the Aztecs; the Cathedral of Mexico City today stands in its place. (The archeological site lies just to the northeast of the Zócalo, or main plaza of Mexico City, in the block between Seminario and Justo Sierra streets.)
The Truth About the Human Sacrifices: Twentieth century historian and founder of Christendom College Warren Carroll tells us that …”the law of the empire required a thousand sacrifices to the Aztec tribal god Huitzilopochtli in every town with a temple, every year; and there were 371 subject towns in the Aztec empire, though not all of them had full-scale temples.” 1
One such sacrificial celebration occurred over four days and four nights in 1487, as described by R.C. Padden, to dedicate the pyramid temple of Huitzilopochtli in the city of Tenochtitlán by the ruler Tlacéllel. According to Padden, who was drawing from native American sources describing an event which occurred two generations before the Spanish arrived, 80,000 men were sacrificed — one every 15 seconds. Others say the numbers were much lower, in the 20,000 range. Whatever the number, it is important to note that the Aztecs reported that Tlacaéllel, at age 89, witnessed this event for the whole four days.
This is a difficult topic in modern Mexico. Although Mexicans know that the Aztecs were a warrior culture, most in fact have never heard these statistics, as the historical perspective on this time is usually presented from the point of view of the Indian victims of the Spaniards. Although the official line in Mexican state schools and indeed the Anthropology Museum of Mexico City is to underplay the frequency and ferocity of human sacrifice in the Aztec culture, multiple contemporary sources describe the horror — the beating hearts cut out, the bodies thrown down the pyramid steps and fed to zoo animals.
The limits of modern conjecture
Archaeologists define this era as the late Post Classic (1300-1521 AD), characterized by a predominance of militarism and a structural basis of military hierarchies made up of fierce young men. This does not address obvious questions of logistics.
How could so many could be sacrificed, unless they went willingly, as has been proposed? The sacrificial victims were usually prisoners, captured during tribal conflicts. Others have proposed that their docility reflected the Aztecs' understanding of the life cycle; sacrifice and death were needed for the continued existence of the world. Blood fed the gods and kept the sun from falling. The sacrifices maintained cosmic order and a struggle against the darkness.
Nevertheless, the scene is difficult for a 21st century mind to grasp — standing in a line, waiting one’s turn, and willingly ascending the steps of the pyramid to one's horrific fate.
Once mistakenly believed to be the ‘Aztec calendar', recent scholars have proven that this massive stone was actually an altar upon which gladiators were sacrificed.
Conquering the Aztec Demons
From a distance of nearly five centuries, the extent of the demonic dominance of this bloodthirsty culture of death seems overwhelming; one is compelled to ask — who but Our Lady could conquer such demons?
Although Cortés and his Spaniards — along with indigenous tribes whom the Aztecs had preyed upon — defeated Montezuma and destroyed the Tenochtitlan temple, it was the gentle peasant Juan Diego — born in 1474, thirteen years before the dedication of the Tenochtitlán temple — who would play the most pivotal role in the transformation of Mexico to a Christian country. He was the earthly messenger Our Mother used to crush the serpent’s head. (Editor's Note: For the story of Juan Diego, click HERE.)
After Cortés, Spanish missionaries fanned out across the country, but met with little success; the fact is that few conversions occurred among the Mexica or their allies. In fact by 1532 — one year after Our Lady appear to Juan Diego — only about 200,000 had converted, less than ten percent of the highly urbanized population. Just sixteen years later, however, in 1548, it was reported to the Spanish Crown that nine million were baptized.
“I want you to know for certain, my dear son, that I am the perfect and always Virgin MARY, Mother of the True God from Whom all life comes, the Lord of all things, Creator of Heaven and Earth. I greatly desire that a church be built in my honor, in which I will show my love, compassion, and protection. I am your Mother full of mercy and love for you and all those who love Me, trust in Me, and have recourse to Me. I will hear their complaints and I will comfort their affliction and their sufferings. So that I might show all My love, go now to the bishop in Mexico City and tell him that I am sending you to make known to him the great desire I have to see a church dedicated to me built here.”
Our Lady to Juan Diego, December 1531
 R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk.
 Francis Johnston, The Wonder of Guadalupe.
 Elizabeth Graham. “There is no such thing as ‘Human Sacrifice” http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/no-such-thing-as-human-sacrifice
- Warren Carroll, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Conquest of Darkness, Christendom Press
- C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk.
- Francis Johnston, The Wonder of Guadalupe, Editorial Verdad y Vida, SA, de CV
- Elizabeth Graham. “There is no such thing as ‘Human Sacrifice” http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/no-such-thing-as-human-sacrifice