Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Aztec Empire

Fig.1: Egyptians often show up just to laugh at 
the Aztec pyramids.
Among all pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations located in the Central Valley of present-day Mexico, none come more first alphabetically than the Aztecs. Okay, I guess I'll give them more credit than that. The Aztec peoples created one of the most complex and fascinating cultures in North America, and established many customs prevalent within Mexico today. Its so-called "Empire," actually an alliance of three prominent city-states along with their groupies, successfully ruled and expanded throughout the region. They increased their wealth through natural resources and tribute, as well as their side-business through a technological advertising firm ("Let Adztech work for you!"). The main city of Tenochtitlan is estimated to have been the largest city in the world by the beginning of the 16th century, thoroughly embarrassing those feces-encrusted towns of London and Paris. But like pretty much everything, the Spanish had to arrive and screw it all up, conquering their land in the 1520s. Maybe if the Aztec engaged in a little more human sacrifice, their sun deity would have shone more favorably on them (which I would also argue is what currently ails the world economy).

Just like the Inca (who called themselves Tawantinsuyu), the Aztec had an identity crisis on their hands. If anything, the Nahuatl word "aztecatl" was used to comprise any ethnic group who traced their origins to the mythical land of Aztlán. Of course, this eventually turned out to be most of the people in Central Mexico, cause who doesn't want to claim their ancestors came from some place considered legendary? (That's why I'm proud to say my grandparents were born and raised in the magical town of Scranton!) As such, the Aztec consisted of many cultures who spoke different languages and had different methods for human sacrifice (I personally prefer the Xochimilca method of heart-extraction). Arguably the dominant group were the Mexica, who established and ruled from Tenochtitlan, and eventually lent their name to the U.S. state of New Mexico, the town of Mexico in the Philippines, the Jefferson Airplane song "Mexico," among other less important things and places.

Fig.2: Mexico often wins first place 
in the category of "Most Specific 
Coat of Arms."
Legend states that the Mexica left Aztlán in search of a place to build a new city. After the standard pre-roadtrip human sacrificing, the deity Huitzilopochti told them they would find the perfect spot where an eagle was eating a snake on top of a cactus. They came close several times, seeing a hawk eating a snake on top of a cactus, an eagle eating a really long worm that looked like a snake from a distance on top of a cactus, and an eagle eating a snake on top of a ferocactus (forcing Huitzilopochti to then clarify that he only meant cacti in the genus opuntia). Finally in 1325, after two hundred years of wandering and losing valuable resources (aka: humans to sacrifice), they finally saw that specific vision on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, which was later celebrated on the Mexican flag and coat of arms (fig.2). There they built the city of Tenochtitlan, and came under the protection of the ruling Tepanecs. After a hundred years, they didn't wish to be ruled anymore, and allied with the neighboring cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan to throw off that rule. They succeeded in 1428 (which marked both the year of the war and the number of human sacrifices needed for victory), and this Triple Alliance informally became the Aztec Empire of note.

Of course if this was the Super Friends, Tenochtitlan was Superman and Batman combined, while Texcoco and Tlacopan were the lowly Wonder Twins ("Form of: a half-eaten rattlesnake!"). During the 1440-1469 reign of Moctezuma I, the city's influence grew over other groups in the Valley of Mexico (fig.3), and soon Tenochtitlan could truthfully use those coffee mugs that said "World's Greatest Partner in the Aztec Triple Alliance." The Empire really consisted of various city-states (or altepetl, if you wanted to be snooty about it) who were mostly left to their own devices, except they were expected to pay a tribute of goods, soldiers, and (you guessed it) human sacrifices. Of course this meant there were plenty of rebellions to Aztec rule from time to time, but hey, those people were just asking to be sacrificed! Tenochtitlan's power reached its height during the reign of Ahuitzotl from 1486-1502, doubling the size of the Aztec territory and wealth. Surely, it would have taken a chance invasion by an unknown power across a vast ocean with superior technology and a literal boatload of diseases to bring these guys down (yeah, like that's going to happen)!

Fig.3: All the colors of the human sacrificial rainbow!
Like most cultures, religion was a pretty big deal for the Aztecs. Strictly speaking, they didn't believe in "gods" persay; instead, they adhered to a mystical force called tēōtl that guided them throughout their lives from the battles they fought all the way to what color socks would match the rest of their outfits. The symbolic and physical representation of that force was called tēixiptla, which the tēōtl would take in the minds of the believers (like that Huitzilopochtli jerk who sends people on wild eagle-eating-a-snake-on-a-cactus chases). In this sense, the Aztec religion was almost like the Christian beliefs of transubstantiation and consubstantiation... whatever they mean (I just wanted to use some big words). The right to rule, from the beloved Emperor of Tenochtitlan to the lowly ombudsman, came from these deities. Or at least those officials claimed, and I know I wouldn't argue with someone if I thought Tlaloc (the tēixiptla in charge of sending rain, lightning, and earthquakes at people) was on his side.

Fig.4: Typical drawing from an Aztec 
3rd grade art class.
This relates to the Aztec past-time. No, not the stupid Mesoamerican ballgame, a sport even more boring than pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I mean human sacrifice, of course (couldn't you tell by my seven terrible jokes on the topic?)! Historians argue over whether the Aztecs merely practiced the custom at a rate on par with other civilizations in Central America, most notably the Maya, or went all Jeffrey Dahmer with the thing! According to Aztec mythology, the gods sacrificed themselves for the good of mankind, so the Aztecs continued the practice in order to pay it forward (just like when you pay for the person coffee behind you's coffee at Starbucks, only with less foam and more blood). During warfare, Aztecs would merely attempt to injure their enemies so that they could be captured and sacrificed later, meaning that more points were given to arrows in the knee. Many even saw it as an honor to be sacrificed for the gods, which allowed them to stay at the cushy five-star tier of the afterlife rather than the sketchy roadside motel version if you simply died in your bed. So how many people died per year as a result of these sacrifices? Estimates range from as low as 600 (the executioner was in a slump that year) to as many as 250,000 (that's a kill every five seconds)! PETA would be happy to know that animals were sacrificed on equal terms, with the deity Quetzalcoatl even demanding hummingbirds to be killed (a pain to shoot in the knee, indeed)!

If there was ever a human that the Aztec wished had been sacrificed, it was the explorer Hernán Cortés. A small-time magistrate for the Spanish colonial government in Cuba, he planned to sail to the mainland in order to make his own fortune. Unfortunately the governor there had a gripe with Cortés over a game of Pictionary ("Does that look like a jackal to you?!"), and he revoked his permit to go. Cortés pretended he didn't know about that whole thing and went anyway in 1519. To ensure that his 600 troops wouldn't mutiny against him and return to Cuba, he purposefully sunk his ships upon landing in Mexico, although he  regretted this decision once he remembered that his cartridge of Pokemon Crystal with a complete Pokedex was on board. It didn't take long for Cortés to learn that the folks in Tenochtitlan were the big men on campus; many groups, notably the Tlaxcaltec, allied with the Spanish with the hope of freeing themselves of Aztec rule. The Emperor, Moctezuma II, eventually welcomed Cortés into the city with open arms, reportedly because he believed the Spaniard was the early embodiment of the god Quetzalcoatl. (Who do you think was the narcissist who reported that piece of information? Hint: it rhymes with Squortés!)

Fig.5: How every episode of Perfect Strangers ended.
Soon enough, the Spanish and their allies started to wear out their welcome quicker than Felix from The Odd Couple (or Balki from Perfect Strangers, if you prefer). Reports echoed regarding Aztec emissaries killing Spaniards on the coast, which convinced Cortés to imprison Moctezuma in his own palace. Then in 1520, the Spanish massacred some Aztec nobility during a festival where human sacrifice was being performed, a practice that the Spaniards in all of their Catholicism just never could appreciate. Soon a rebellion ensued, where Moctezuma was killed by rock thrown by an unknown assailant. Both sides blamed each other for the Emperor's death, but I'd like to think that Moctezuma got his revenge, and the rock-thrower was on the toilet for weeks!

Anyway, the Aztecs kicked the Spanish out of Tenochtitlan, which they called La Noche Triste (Night of Sorrows) not due to the loss of life during the riot, but because they had to leave all their precious gold behind (priorities, people). Undeterred, Cortés received Spanish reinforcements and recruited even more Mesoamerican allies, returning in 1521 saying, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick Aztecs...and I'm all out of bubble gum." That he did, taking the city after a two month siege. The Valley of Mexico was brought under the control of the Spanish crown. As for their indigenous allies, since they comprised of the majority of the army that brought down the Aztecs, the Spanish forever treated them with the respect, dignity, and right to independence that they so valiantly fought for.

Wait, no. After rechecking my sources, turns out that wasn't the case. The Spanish practically enslaved them and gave them smallpox. Sorry for the misinformation there. It won't happen again.

But let's not focus on the sad things. We should honor the Aztec civilization for all of their accomplishments and the legacy they left behind. No, not their system of government, or knowledge of astronomy, or that Mexico City is built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, or even that their customs and language are still practiced by many Mexicans today. I'm talking about chocolate. Wonderful, sweet, warm, happy chocolate, which might have come from the Aztec word xocolātl. Sure, cacao was most likely popularized by the Maya and imported, and then took a much different form from what we prefer today (xocolātl means "bitter water" in Nahuatl, which doesn't sound like something I'd want to crave when I'm having a bad day). But having anything to do with chocolate gives the Aztec an A+ in my book! Glad to see all that human sacrificing was worth it in the end (thus the phrase, "I'd kill for a Hershey bar right now!").

Fig.6: Only 46 Aztecs were sacrificed to make this box of chocolate possible. A noble death, indeed!

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