Aztec Culture

Aztec culture was at least as complex and colorful as any culture found in the modern world. Human beings today are still benefiting from the culture practiced by the Aztecs in the 14th through 16th centuries. Here are some facts about their culture:

Aztec Religion

The Aztec society was a theocracy. There was no separation between “church” and state. Even the laws that were passed had a sacred aspect to them, and warriors fought not just for the usual reasons people go to war but to capture prisoners to sacrifice to their gods.

The most notorious Aztec sacrifice involved cutting out the heart of the sacrificial victim with a knife made of obsidian, a black, volcanic glass. These victims were sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli, who was the god of the sun as well as the god of war. He demanded human sacrifice to guarantee the rising of the sun every morning.

He was not the only god that required sacrifice and special prayers and rituals. Gods such as Tlaloc the rain god; Tezcatlipoca, the god of wind; Ometeotl, a mysterious deity who may have been the god of duality or creation or both and Quetzalcoatl, the god of the priesthood, required them. Rituals had to be performed throughout the year and on special occasions.

Quetzalcoatl Carving

© Kurt Bauschardt - Carving of the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl

Aztec Art

The beauty and fineness of Aztec art is best seen in their crafts and their architecture. They made jewelry and ornaments out of gold, silver and jade that would not look out of place if they were worn today. Even the costumes of their warriors were beautiful, with robes and headdresses made of different colored feathers.

Among the Aztec artifacts that have been discovered is a wide array of pottery. Layered strips of clay were worked into griddles, storage jars, goblets and other vessels. When the shape was complete, the clay was hardened in open kilns heated over the fire. For the most part, the pottery was white or red with black-and-white geometric designs painted on the sides.

The ruins of Aztec architecture also show a hint of their skill and aesthetics. Thousands of workers labored to build then maintain the many temples, palaces and pyramids of the Aztecs. These buildings were often decorated with stone carvings of the gods.

The most famous example of Aztec art is the Great Sun Disk - a stone that is about 12 feet around and weighs 26 tons. In its center is an image of the sun god and around him swirl images of Aztec mythology, prophecy and history.

Aztec artists also painted pictures on animal skin, cotton and a type of paper made from fig trees.

Aztec artifacts

© Paul Sableman - Aztec artifacts

Aztec Music and Dance

As is true today, Aztecs could not imagine their wold without music in it. On the day of his sacrifice to the gods, the bravest prisoner of war walked to the site of his death in a parade playing a flute, or huilacapitztli.

The nobility kept musicians in their household, and when they reached adolescence, children were taught to play musical instruments and learn the lyrics of important songs as part of the school curriculum. They were also taught songs in the home. Many of these songs were hymns to and about their gods, often beseeching the gods for help in battle, agriculture or another purpose.

Songs called cantares, or ghost songs were more mystical in nature and were sung by specific performers. As they sang they often went into trances to connect with the gods and their ancestors. Other songs were more lightsome, and like the songs people sing today, they were about the everyday occurrences of Aztec culture.

Besides the huilacapitztli, Aztecs played different types of drums, aerophones and rattles. Aztec dance naturally accompanied music and also celebrated and importuned the gods and nature. Their dances were often part of plays and featured actors and acrobats as well as dancers.

Depiction of dancers

© Travis - Depiction of Dancers

Aztec Science and Technology

Aztecs were a bit unusual for their time in they had universal education for both girls and boys. Calmecas trained exceptional girls and boys for religious rites, while schools for more average children were known as Houses of Youth, or telpuchcalli. This was where children were taught history, traditions, religious observances and crafts.

Even though the Aztecs had no alphabet, they were able to keep records of important events and dates by a rebus system that used pictures and symbols. These symbols were written on agave leaf paper that was then rolled up or folded like a map.

The Aztecs did not have access to bronze or iron, and their weapons were made largely of chert and obsidian. By the time the conquistadors arrived, they had just started experimenting with copper.

Aztec culture did not have beasts of burden, and though wheels were known, they were only seen as fit for children’s toys. Since they were surrounded by bodies of water, the Aztecs used dugout canoes to transport goods and people.

On the other hand, their understanding of mathematics was way ahead of similar cultures, as was their understanding of astronomy. They used a vigesimal system, which is based on 20, while our decimal system is based on 10. The system is quite sophisticated, and it took centuries for scholars to figure it out.

Of course, much of the Aztec’s knowledge of these sciences was used in the service of their gods. They were also adept at herbal medicines. Aztec artists recorded the use of these medicines in the Badianus Manuscript, which was produced in the mid 16th century.

Aztec Obsidian Tools

© Travis - Aztec Obsidian Tools

Aztec Culture After the Spanish Conquest

Some historians like to say that the Aztec civilization and its culture completely collapsed after their encounter with the conquistadors. The truth is it didn’t, even though the population was decimated by small pox after the Spanish conquest.

A good number of the heirs of Moctezuma II, the last independent Aztec emperor, became members of the Spanish nobility, and the new Spanish overlords allowed the Aztecs to retain something of their government, at least for a time.

Leaders of the Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910 to 1920 began to appreciate the great contribution of the Aztec people, who had been reviled for centuries, to the culture and very existence of Mexico. Mexico, after all, is a Nahuatl word for the very heart of the Aztec empire.

Aztec leaders are now valorized in modern Mexican art, whether it be in the murals of Diego Rivera or in the National Museum of Anthropology and other museums. As of 2018, 1.5 million people still speak the Nahuatl language, and much of Mexican food borrows from the Aztec diet.

Diego Rivera Mural - Aztec Marketplace

© Jen Wilton - Diego Rivera Mural showing an Aztec Marketplace

Facts About Aztec Culture

  • Nearly everything in the culture revolved around their gods.
  • The Aztecs were highly skilled artists and artisans.
  • They had universal education for both boys and girls.
  • Their science and technology was very advanced compared to the cultures around them.
  • Their medicinal arts were also advanced.
  • The Aztecs used a vigesimal as opposed to a decimal number system.
  • Much of Aztec culture still persists into the 21st century.