|Fig.1: Egyptians often show up just to laugh at
the Aztec pyramids.
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."
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!
|Fig.4: Typical drawing from an Aztec
3rd grade art class.
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.
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!