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The Aztecs: A Case Study

The Aztecs are an ancient culture that had many customs and rituals that by modern standards are considered barbaric. Their culture was made up of different social classes, and was primitive yet very advanced. They were located in the mainland of Mexico, and their empire was quite vast over that area. Their culture began around 1100, and ended around 1520. The exact numbers of the Aztecs is not known due to the age of their culture, but judging by the size of their empire it was quite large. The only figure I could find was that in 1519 there were more than 1,000,000 people living in the civilizations boundaries.

The reason that I was drawn to this culture was some of the practices that they had. The most interesting being the human sacrifices to the gods, and the large ball game that they played that sometimes went on for days without a stop. The Aztecs lived primarily in a fertile volcanic valley of Mexico where they built their capital city named Tenochtitlan. The land in which they lived was a plateau seeing that most of the surrounding was mountainous. The soil in the settled areas was very rich and good for growing crops, due to the volcanic eruptions that occurred. The valley of Mexico was the heartland of Aztec civilization.

It is a large internally drained basin surrounded by volcanic mountains that are as high as 9,000 ft in elevation. Thousands of years of soil erosion had produced deep, rich soils in the valley and a system of shallow, swampy, salt lakes in its center. This gave the Aztecs a diverse variety of foods that could be available. The salty lakes made available fish, turtles, insect larvae, blue-green algae, and salt. The food that was eaten by the Aztecs varied by social classes. The peasants lived mainly on corn and beans, except for a duck or a crow that they may have trapped in their garden.

Their only domesticated animals were rabbits, dogs, and turkeys which were fattened and eaten on special occasions. Corn was the main food of The Aztecs and many foods were made fresh daily from it. Every morning the woman of the family would grind up fresh corn, and make bread for the day. The higher classed people, however, enjoyed eating turtles and crabs imported from the coast. It was odd to the Spaniards to find that one of the delicacies of the Aztecs was dog. Aztec homes also differed by social class, peasants built their huts around the edge of the city.

While handymen lived nearer to the center in mud-brick houses. In each of these homes there was normally a mudbrick tub, and they all consisted of a single room. Nobles that were higher in society lived in palaces built of whitewashed stone, and with over a hundred rooms, and were built around the main plaza. Inside of all houses the rooms were almost bare, light came in from wooden torches and round the room were stored the familys possessions and objects of daily use. Even palaces had no doors but instead had cloth hung over openings, this allowed for cool air to circulate throughout the house.

For the Aztecs clothing was way of showing social status, so there were very strict laws about who could wear what. An ordinary citizen wore a loincloth and cloak, which had to be made of plain undyed maguey-fiber cloth. And if they were caught wearing sandals in the palace they were put to death. Nobles wore cotton cloaks with borders of precious stones. Craftsmen were able to dye the cotton green, and other colors; they also wove geometric designs into their cloak to symbolize their status in the culture. The Aztecs loved to wear jewelry, but there were also strict laws about this.

Most people pierced their ears to hold plugs of shell or polished stones. Nobles were allowed to wear gold and carved precious stones in their lower lips to show their high rank. Farmers were among the lowest in the dress, they slept in their loincloth, and in the morning he got his blanket and tied it around his shoulder and he was dressed. Women wore a woven blouse with an embroidered skirt that held it in place. Every class also had their own haircuts varying from highest to lowest for the most festive style. Through my studies of the Aztecs I was shocked to find out how much dress, and appearance had to do with social status.

The economy of the Aztecs was largely one of bartering (trade). The trading was of many goods; this is how the large open air markets operated. In the central market there were 4 hierarchal levels or marketplaces. These marketplaces were an area of bustling activity while they were open. The reason that these were so busy was that they were only open for and Aztec week (which is 5 days). While the market was open there were many stands set up where merchants paid a small fee to operate a stand to sell their goods. At the market products were monitored for quality, and if a product was found of bad quality they were shut down.

At the same time anyone caught shoplifting was taken to the court at the market, and found guilty. The punishment was being beaten to death on the spot. The currency that was used was cacao beans for small purchases, for larger purchases the Aztecs used quachtli (cotton capes of standard sizes). The economic level of the Aztecs was quite high, and was considered as more sophisticated markets that several other civilizations. Even though there was no official currency they did use objects as money ranging from beans to capes.

The only unique feature that I could pick out is how well the market was monitored by the people looking for quality products. This shows an amount of sophistication on their behalf, by regulating trade in a way. The economy was very complex, in the way that all aspects of it were tied together, which made the Aztec empire unified. The economy was highly commercialized and dynamic, but it was not a capitalist economy. There was no paid labor, land was not a commodity to be bought and sold, and there were no chances for investment.

The markets and the economy were embedded in a rigid system of social classes, and no amount of economic success would enable one to cross class barriers. The Aztecs at the personal level were taught to act sophisticated, with self-control, while still acting well behaved in public. The Aztec people loved to give speeches and help others with problems. In the social sense of personal acting they were a very confident people, who were proud of their family. In public they were expected to live and act appropriately to the class that they held in society.

The family that the Aztecs lived in is a nuclear family consisting of the mother, father, and children all in one house. The parents of the boy who was getting married arranged marriages within the culture. Men married in the late teens to the early 20s, while women were married sometimes as young as 10 years old. After the bride was selected the wedding date was picked. If the marriage fell on an unlucky day it was thought that it would fail. Weddings took place in 2 parts first with a feast at the wifes house, and then a trip to the grooms house for the actual wedding.

To signify the union clothes were tied together to show the unity to the gods. Once young people were married they assumed adult roles, and responsibilities. Their society practiced monogamy, there were not multiple wife families in the culture. The kinship was mainly handled by men, and was patriarchal. The Aztec religion was based largely on a debt that humankind owed to the gods, which could only be paid back through sacrifice and blood letting. The religion focused on agricultural fertility and worship of the sun, which the Aztecs felt the gods created.

The Aztec religion was a complex blend of traditions, unified by emphases on blood, sacrifice, and debt payment. Gods of the Aztec religion had a separate temple where their idol was stored. Several priests ran each temple, along with commoner boys, and people who were studying the priesthood. Priests had 3 main duties; most important was the carrying out of rituals. They also left food for the idols, and kept sacred fires burning. The lower priests ran the calmecac, supervised by the tlamacazton and personnel, and also kept the sacred books.

Above the tlamacazton were the fire priests; these were the priests responsible for human sacrifice rituals. Regular priests assisted at the stone of sacrifice, but only a fire priest could wield the lethal flint knife. The head priest was known as a Quetzalcoatl, who presided at the top of the Templo Mayor pyramid, and other buildings. The Aztec religion called for quite a large amount of human sacrifice ceremonies, which were necessary to pay the debt to the gods. There were two different ways of paying back the gods, Autosacrifice, or bleeding oneself.

Heart sacrifice was also practiced, which was believed to a higher sacrifice to the gods. Autosacrifice was viewed as an alternative to heart sacrifice to pay back the dead. While heart sacrifice was considered stronger to show the gods respect. The heart sacrifice took place on a pyramid on the stone altar, the heart of the person is removed, and then the head is cut off and placed on a skull rack on the pyramid. The people sacrificed were not looked upon as mere mortals, but as deities whose deaths were similar to the gods original deaths.

The Aztecs did not have many myths that were in their culture, but they did have a few on the birth of their culture. The main myth is of the four suns, in which one main god, created two other gods, who in between the creation of earth, other gods, and people were distributed. The name of the myth of the four suns comes from the four previous ages of gods which came before the present set. The Aztecs had several other myths in their culture, all of which dealt with creation of objects, and light in the culture.

The Aztecs used many different mediums in the art that they made, the most popular being stone sculptures, and paintings. Almost all of the art depicted religious symbols that were very important to the culture. The style of art is referred to as the Mixteca-Puebla style. The art that they did reflected their religious beliefs, and everyday life. There were collaborations by many carvers on projects for kings, which were mainly large temples, and pyramids. The use of music and dance was mainly reserved to religious rituals and ceremonies.

Drums were the main instruments mentioned in written works, and in drawings. Some other instruments were trumpets on conch shells, pottery flutes and whistles, and rattles. Dances were both with men and women, in which they moved in a circular pattern around the musician in the center. Young people in the culture were especially proud of their ability to dance. Song and dance were not widely used outside of ceremonial purposes, unless in celebration. These were parts of the culture, but as most things were it remained mainly a religious practice.

The Aztecs were also one of the cultures of the world that built pyramids. The pyramids were not built as a burial chamber like the Egyptians though; they were built as pedestals for temples. The temples that were atop these structures were very well decorated, with statues of the deity they were dedicated to in the center of the temple. Although no statues still exist there are written accounts from the Spanish conquerors journeys to the region. In closing the Aztec culture was a very complex culture, with many rituals and ceremonies.

Their culture is a very interesting one to study especially in the realm of human sacrifice, and the brutality that took place. They lived in a polytheistic society where there were many gods, and the number continued to grow. That was the downfall of the Aztecs and many other great Mexican cultures. For the Aztecs Cortez came to explore for Spain, and destroyed and stole a lot of elements from their culture. Cortez came at the end of a 52 year cycle of the calendar at which the god Quetzalcoatl would return to destroy them.

So the Aztecs received the Spanish very well, at that time the Spanish attacked and destroyed the culture. It is funny to think that a culture was destroyed by its own religious beliefs. In the end the strong belief in gods led to the end of a great early civilization of the Mexican country. A complex culture as well, which as time progressed became more sophisticated and wealthy. The Aztecs were very interesting to study, and they are also an example how beliefs can be a hindrance to a culture, and maybe lead to its demise.

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