Essay on Aztecs
Through written and artistic accounts of the first encounters between the Aztecs and the Spanish, we are able to see how the first impressions of each group affected how they dealt with each other. There is much evidence of the Spanish first impressions of the Aztecs, but because the Spanish destroyed most of the written and artistic accounts of these events, we are left with little evidence of the Aztec perspective towards meeting Cort's and the Spaniards for the first time. However, with the evidence that still exists, it is possible to see at least some distinction in how these images and impressions of the Spanish may have impacted the Aztecs. Whether in speculating the differences in clothing, physical appearance, or practices, the Spanish and the Aztecs perceived each other differently and that affected the outcome of their actions towards each one another.
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Probably the strongest piece of evidence in the Spanish first impression of the Aztecs, are the letters from Fernando Cort's to the Spanish Emperor Charles V. These letters are firsthand accounts of Cort's encounters with the Aztec people. Cort's described the Aztecs as people of "middle size and features well proportioned". He said some had body piercing in which they put large and ugly objects into their piercing. He described the clothes they wore as "long veils, very curiously worked" and made distinctions between what common people wore and what the superiors wore. He also compared the food they ate, which was mostly maize and grain, to what the native people ate in Cuba. What fascinated Cort's and his men the most about the Aztecs was their amazing architecture, the likes of some of which had never been seen before in Europe at the time. This painted the Aztecs as very intelligent people because they were capable of such architecture, but it is the Aztec's religious practices that cause Cort's to believe the Aztec were misguided. Cort's explains in detail the "horrible and abominable" practices of human sacrifices made by the Aztecs. European artistic images show the Aztecs cutting their own people apart and boiling them alive. These practices caused the Spaniards to think of the Aztecs as heathens and enemies of the Catholic faith and thus must be instructed in their beliefs or punished.
When the Spanish first arrived, they were in awe of the architecture of the Aztecs and this amazement may have contributed to them possibly respecting the Aztec people at first for their accomplishments. Differences in religion, however, probably sparked most of the aggressive behavior of the Spanish towards the Aztecs. They saw the human sacrifices and other practices of the Aztec religion as barbaric. This caused them to view the Aztecs as inferior and ultimately as enemies against their faith. With that state of mind, it was no longer necessary for the Spanish to try to peacefully deal with the Aztecs. Cort's also speaks of an event in which a female translator tells him about an Aztec plot to "fall upon...and kill" the Spanish conquistadors. It's not proven whether this actually happened, but if it did, then this is what pushed the Spanish to kill the Aztecs and pillage Tenochtitlan.
The Aztec accounts of the Spanish aren't very reliable because they're adaptations of stories passed over the years, but in comparison to the actual letters from Cort's, a lot of the events are the same. Upon the arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs greet them with many gifts. It is believed by some that the Aztecs may have thought of the Spanish as gods and this would explain why the text describes an event in which the Aztecs began making human sacrifices to Cort's and his men. It's quite easy to speculate why the Aztec would think of the Spanish as gods because they had never seen such humans before. The Aztecs were astonished by the strange iron armor worn by the Spanish, covering almost their entire bodies. They were also shocked by their light skin, facial hair, and blonde hair. What surprised them the most though was the different food the Spanish ate in which they described as "like human food" large and white, and not heavy "something like straw, but with taste of a cornstalk." They were probably describing some sort of pasta. Also, the Spanish brought horse with them which were animals the Aztecs had also no familiarity with. This is obvious since they described them as giant deer. The most detail is probably given to the Aztec's description of the Spanish cannons. The roar, the smoke, the sparks, and the explosion were unlike anything the Aztec had ever heard or seen before. "If the cannon is aimed against a mountain, the mountain splits and cracks open. If it is aimed at a tree, it shatters the tree into splinters. This is a most unnatural sight, as if the tree had exploded from within." Obviously such a weapon would make the Aztec very wary of the Spanish, but also make them think of them as magical people such as gods. One of the last things described is the mysterious illness the Spanish brought with them that killed off most of the Aztecs. Accounts read that "The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses" and sores broke out all over the body. Smallpox was the deadliest weapon of the Spanish.
The weapons of the Spanish are probably what intimidated the Aztecs the most and are probably what made them wary enough to have guards watching the Spanish at all times in the city. The Aztec knew they were no match for the Spanish armor, iron swords, and cannons. At first, the Aztec dealt with the Spanish out of kindness and perhaps even worship, but after their first impression, they probably became more and more fearful of Cort's and his men. With a lot of their people suffering from small pox, the Aztec's numbers were no longer much of an advantage over the Spanish, thus making the susceptible to an easy defeat. The Aztecs could really do nothing, but watch their own be slaughtered by the Spanish because their weapons and war practices were inferior compared to the conquistadors. The Aztecs were used to battling other tribes and taking prisoners as opposed to shedding a lot of blood. All of this led to the conquering of the Aztec empire by the Spanish.
Though the accounts of the Aztec aren't as reliable sources as those of the Spanish, it is still possible to get a great understanding of the impressions each group of people got from each other upon their first encounter. With this understanding, it's also easy to derive an idea as to how these impressions affected how the Spanish dealt with the Aztecs and how the Aztecs dealt with the Spanish. The strong differences of these two cultures ultimately lead to a conflict which quickly turned into a massacre by the Spanish conquistadors.
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The Aztecs are undoubtedly one of the most unusual cultures that ever existed. For centuries people have been thinking with horrified fascination about these people that combined complicated social structure, educational system and impressive scientific and cultural development with human sacrifice on massive scale, cannibalism and constant wars of conquest. Here are some Aztec culture facts that can make an awesome essay.
Probably the first thing everybody thinks hearing about the Aztecs is human sacrifice – and for a good reason. All pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures practiced it to this or that extent, but the Aztecs took it to a completely new level.
According to Aztec mythology, gods sacrificed their lives to sustain the fading sun and save humankind, and this made humans indebted to them for all eternity. Moreover, the sacrifice of gods was not a single act, but more of a continuous process, which required constant reenactment. The power of gods kept the sun alive, and to give gods this power, they had to give them blood and hearts, which were considered to be fragments of the sun’s heat.
Aztecs divided time into 52-year cycles and fearfully ended the end of each – if the gods didn’t receive enough sacrifices throughout the cycle, the sun would go out and the world would end. The main reason for Flower Wars the Aztecs constantly waged on their neighbors was to provide enough captives to fill the sacrifice quota. Even Aztec war strategy and tactics were mainly devised to wound and capture rather than kill as many enemies as possible.
Human sacrifice was an extremely important part of everyday life in Aztec society – it was carried out during each of their many festivals and for special occasions and was accompanied by elaborate rituals and done by various methods according to which god it was intended for. The most popular method was the extraction of the heart, but victims were often burned, flayed, drowned, starved and decapitated. Afterwards priests would often wear their skins (they were considered holy relics and symbolized rebirth) and cannibalize their corpses. And there were a lot of them – during the opening ceremony of one particularly big temple, as reported in their codices, they slaughtered between 10,000 and 80,400 people in the course of four days, while normally settling for about 20,000 per year.
Despite their extremely warlike nature and penchant for torture and human sacrifice, the Aztecs were far from being uncultured, which probably made them a great deal more disturbing and frightening. At the zenith of its glory their capital, Tenochtitlan, housed between 200,000 and 300,000 people, by far eclipsing most European cities of the time, with possible exceptions of Constantinople and Venice.
The Aztecs were also probably the first nation in the world to ever establish the system of universal mandatory education – it took place before the age of 14 and was carried out by parents under supervision of authorities. Among other things, children had to learn the so-called “sayings of the old” – a collection of statements that embodied the Aztec ideals and conditioned them for future service. After 14 children attended more advanced schools, divided into two types: the ones dedicated to theoretical sciences like astronomy, writing, mathematics etc., and the ones dealing with military and practical education.
Aztec civilization was based on domination over the surrounding peoples and aggressive expansion, and the Aztecs themselves were a nation of warriors from the outset. Being initially a small and insignificant migratory tribe, the Aztecs managed to conquer almost the entire Mesoamerican region in a little more than a century, and warfare occupied one of the central positions in their lifestyle and social arrangement. Aztec empire had a relatively small standing army for its size – only the members of elite warrior societies which were extremely hard to get into, served as full-time military forces. However, military training was an integral part of basic education, and every male Aztec was prepared to the role of a soldier since childhood. Therefore, during military campaigns large numbers of warriors were drafted from commoners.
Warfare was also the only way for a man of low birth to improve his station in life – through showing bravery on the field of battle and, in particular, through capturing enemy warriors alive for the further use as sacrifices. After taking four prisoners, one was accepted into one of elite warrior societies, like Eagle and Jaguar warriors. Taking six prisoners and more led to the greatest possible honor – to be accepted into the most prestigious society, Cuachicqueh, or the Shorn Ones (called so because they shaved their heads except for one braid over the left ear), who served as elite shock troops and swore to kill any of their number who makes a step back during a battle.
Trade was an important component of Aztec everyday life: their merchants travelled all across Mesoamerica and beyond and were united into exclusive guilds, and every large settlement had regular market days on which all kinds of merchandise exchanged hands. Basic currency for all transactions was cacao beans which had to be exported from lowlands. They were used mostly for small purchases; for large transactions the Aztecs used standardized lengths of cotton cloth of varying quality and value (from 65 to 300 beans).
Aztec empire had a code of laws that regulated everyday life and meted out punishments. However, by our standards these regulations and punishments sometimes look rather bizarre. For example, death penalty (usually through strangulation) was common for serious crimes, which included murder, theft and public drunkenness (unless you were over 70 years old). The most usual punishment for less serious offences was to have your house demolished. These included, for example, petit larceny and wearing of clothes too lavish for your social status.
The Aztecs will undoubtedly continue to intrigue us for many years to come. Fortunately, the body of evidence telling us about them is rather large compared with other Mesoamerican cultures, which means that you will have a lot of material for your history essay!
- A. Caso, The Aztecs, People of the Sun (tr. 1958, repr. 1967).
- Berdan, Frances F., Richard E. Blanton, Elizabeth H. Boone, Mary G. Hodge, Michael E. Smith and Emily Umberger (1996) Aztec Imperial Strategies. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.
- Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. (1998) Huitzilopochtli’s Conquest: Aztec Ideology in the Archaeological Record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
- Durán, Fray Diego (1964) The Aztecs: The History of the Indians of New Spain. Translated by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. Orion Press, New York.
- Kellogg, Susan (1995) Law and the Transformation of Aztec Culture, 1500-1700. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- León-Portilla, Miguel (1963) Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Náhuatl Mind. Univ. Oklahoma Press, Norman.
- Smith, Michael E. (2003) The Aztecs. 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
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