As one of the most interesting societies to grace our planet's history, the Aztecs are a great example of a society that was advanced in many ways that we might not quite understand, while also having different methods to live that would baffle a modern-day person. One of the most interesting ways in which the Aztecs were advanced according to our modern-day standards is the way in which they used symbols and tattoos.
In the Aztec culture, the concept of symbols was incredibly influential, meaning that there was also a huge cultural precedent for body art, otherwise known as tattooing. Because symbols were such a sacred part of cultural understanding, it makes sense that they would also be a huge part of identity, one of the main reasons as to why tattoos were so prominent in Aztec society.
On a surface level, a symbol can be used to describe any depiction or figure that is created in an artistic representation. Because of the time period in which the Aztecs lived, this mainly involved drawings or paintings incorporating symbols to represent certain elements of their society.
Symbols were important in Aztec society because they allowed humans tangible ways to connect themselves to the metaphysical elements that bind us. For example, symbols could represent religious figures and also modern-day feelings, giving the Aztecs ways to express themselves outside of the physical realm. This led to many different types of symbols being used in the society, each having a different purpose.
Some examples of popular Aztec symbols:
As the symbol for the 10th day of the month, the symbol of the dog is used as a guide to the afterlife. This is because that dogs in Aztec society were typically buried with humans as sacrifices that were meant to transport them to the underworld.
Within the Aztec's religious beliefs was the notion that the underworld would require crossing the "ninefold river" which wouldn't be accessible by ordinary humans. Because of this, dogs were associated and embraced with the dead to act as spiritual guides for their transition to the afterlife.
If somebody was born in Aztec society under the symbol of the dog, this would mean that they were pre-destined to rule, sealing the fate of the dog as a symbol of leadership and prosperity.
Aztec Dog Effigy
As the most important crop in all of Aztec society, maize was a sacred object that was revered both in religion and food. The Aztecs believed that the power crop was given to them by their primary deity Quetzalcoatl, which made it sacred.
On top of the primary deity, it was also associated with its own specific god, meaning that the God of Maize was just as significant for Aztec society. They would continually celebrate the significance of the crop by having ceremonies, celebrations, and continually using the crop in new ways.
These uses for maize were examples of the dedication of Aztec society, making the crop a symbol for endurance, perseverance, and sustainability.
Monkeys appeared in many ancient cultures that occupied what we now know as Mexico. This is because the animal was associated with jubilance, frequently being used to represent ceremonies, dance, and satisfaction. Because of the exuberant attitude that monkeys can represent, they also came to represent pranksters and similarly extroverted groups of people.
In the Aztec society, the monkey was meant to represent a day in the calendar, often being applied to the 11th day of each month. It also had an association of apocalyptic notions, best represented in the belief that the world would end with a large spectacle, involving environmental torment through natural disasters and eventually resulting in all of humanity being turned into monkeys.
This mythology of destruction also made a point about the attitudes reserved for those who were exceptionally flippant, meaning that humans can be just as easily forsaken as they are celebrated.
© Xuan Che - Aztec Monkey Head Sculpture
In a sharp contrast to the symbolism surrounding dogs, the Aztecs had intense fear of owls. This was because they associated owls with death due to its status as a nocturnal creature. They thought that the bird was an animal of the night, sealing its associate with dark forces and mystery.
Regardless of where they were used in Aztec society, owls were used as a symbol of misfortune, representing harrowing circumstances for anyone who came across them.
Eagles were used to represent the 15th day of the month according to the Aztec calendar, representing power and dominance. Those who were bestowed the honor of being referred to as an eagle were meant to be leaders and subsequently were revered in society. Those who were associated with eagles were also meant to be prominent in war and other methods of wartime decadence.
© Rafael Saldaña - Aztec Eagle Head
One of the defining factors of Aztec tattoos is the thoroughness of the patterns. Though there were many different ways of representing different symbols in Aztec body art, the largest unifying factor was the incredibly intricate designs for each symbol, often using different types of ornamentation and plenty of lines.
Aztecs would also use tattoos to show their allegiance to a particular god. The tattoos were typically displayed on their chests or stomachs, but there were also other patterns that went on arms and backs, similar to many tattoos in our modern-day culture.
A common theme among Aztec tattoos was the sun. Many people used the sun to represent general feelings of unity as it was the main symbol behind the Aztec calendar. Suns were a way for Aztec people to show a type of grounding regardless of their religious affiliation or specific practices.
In a similar manner to the sun, Quetzalcoatl was another symbol that would bring about general feelings of prosperity and comfort for those who embraced it. As the central deity in Aztec belief systems, Quetzalcoatl was meant to prescribe a general comfort of life to those who confided in it.