Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano (16th century) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
You’ve heard the word Aztec, but what do you really know?
Who we often refer to as the Aztec people ruled an empire located in what is now central and southern Mexico in the 15th and early 16th centuries. The Aztec people didn’t call themselves that. They called themselves the Culhua-Mexica.
Encyclopedia Brittanica suggests the Culhua-Mexica arose from a tribe of hunters on the northern Mexico plateau that migrated southward until settling in Lake Texcoco.
The Culhua-Mexica founded Tenochtitlan in 1325. Tenochtitlan served as the center or capital of the Culhua-Mexica people. The Culhua-Mexica empire was based on an agricultural system featuring intensive cultivation, elaborate irrigation, and extensive reclamation of swampland.
What happened to them?
The Aztec (or Culhua-Mexica) empire progressed until the appearance of the Spanish explorers in 1519. Their emperor Montezuma II was imprisoned by Spain’s Hernan Cortes, later dying in custody. Montezuma’s successors could not hold off or push back the Spaniards, who captured Tenochtitlan in 1521.
With that, the Aztec empire came to an end. Let’s meet a few important leaders and deities.
Important leaders from Aztec society
Montezuma II was born in 1466 and died in 1520. He was the ninth Aztec emperor, best known for leading his people in conflict with Spain’s Hernan Cortes. Montezuma followed his uncle in power and inherited an empire that included what is now Honduras and Nicaragua.
Montezuma was captured by Cortes in hopes that the Aztec people would not attack for as long as Montezuma was held captive. It is said, though, that Aztec loyalty to Montezuma was undermined by what was perceived as weakness toward the Spaniards.
Spain says Montezuma was attacked by stones and arrows wielded by his own people and died from his wounds.
“The Aztec people, on the other hand, accused the Spaniards of murdering Montezuma.”
Acamapichtli was the first ruler of the Aztecs and founded the Aztec imperial dynasty. Acamapichtli ruled from 1376 to 1395. Before his death, Acamapichtili called the chiefs of the four neighborhoods of Tenochtitlan together and asked them to elect his successor. The chiefs chose Acamapichtli’s son Huitzilihuitl.
Tenochtitlan was divided into those four neighborhoods (Moyotlan, Zoquipan, Cuecopan, and Atzacualco) during Acamapichtli’s reign. Acamapichtli was not from Tenochtitlan himself. To try and bring the city together under his leadership, he married a woman from each of Tenochtitlan’s neighborhoods in addition to his first wife.
The Aztec people worshiped and paid tribute to hundreds of deities, including by bloody sacrifices by priests at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. Because Aztec society was so firmly rooted in agriculture, many of the gods were also agricultural. Aztec-history.com says:
“It was believed that the balance of the natural world and the destiny of humanity depended on these gods, some of which were benevolent, and others of which were insatiable and terrifying.”
The Aztec creation story recounts that Ometecuhtli was self-birthed and androgenous. The god of fertility represented both male and female, as indicated by the translation of the Nahuatl name, which means “Two Lord” or “Lord of Duality” in English.
Ometecuhtli acted, itself, as husband and wife to give birth to four other major Aztec gods: Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec. Ometecuhtli’s duality was said to represent masculine and feminine, but also light and dark, chaos and order, and good and evil.
Quetzalcoatl was a son of the primordial god, Ometecuhtli. Quetzalcoatl was the creator of humanity and Earth. The name is formed from the combination of two Nahuatl words: quetzal, meaning an emerald plumed bird, and coatl, meaning serpent.
Quetzalcoatl was thought of as the god of wind and rain, and intimately involved with endeavors including science, agriculture, and crafts.
No room here for biographies about the hundreds of deities, or even the most high profile of them. Here’s a YouTube video about more:
A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:
Read this article to learn more about the role of human sacrifices in Aztec culture.
The Aztec society and culture is not the only one largely lost to the mists of time. So, too, are the Mayans.