Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Notes on Aztec Art

The Aztec Empire before it was conquered and destroyed by the Spanish produced some of the most extraordinary art that the world has seen. The fact that this art was based upon a very disturbing series of practices and a, from a European point of view, rather odd way of perceiving the world as made this art a very disturbing art for many. This is because of the Aztec practice of mass human sacrifice, along with ritual cannibalism, genuinely horrified contemporary Europeans even as it continues to horrify us. This rather grotesque practice or more correctly atrocity has continued to color the perception of the Aztec's and their culture.1

Now if it is without question that mass human sacrifice is indeed an atrocity, (an opinion I hold), then of course we should condemn the Aztec's for practicing it. If occasional human sacrifice is an abomination than of course mass human sacrifice is even more so. However condemnation is not enough after condemnation comes how do we understand such practices and further how does it affect our evaluation of Aztec culture and society? Of course using one vile practice to condemn utterly a society / culture is generally not fair and certainly it cannot be said that the Spanish were moral improvements over the Aztecs.2 After all what the Spanish oversaw in the conquest of Mexico and its aftermath was the veritable annihilation of a civilization to say nothing of what can only be described as sheer brutal murderous terror and exploitation. The extent of Spanish responsibility for the dramatic and spectacular fall in the Population of Mexico or whether it was the "accidental" effects of disease are hotly contested points. Still it appears to be the case that the population of Mexico was smaller in 1900 C.E., than it was in 1515 C.E., shortly before the Spanish came.3 If anything a damning indication of the catastrophic effects of the conquest.

It appears that the first couple of generations after the conquest were for the native population an age of unimaginable horror and disaster, during which time a steel curtain fell between the world before the conquest and world after. We have very few native voices of this horror. It appears that the native population fell at least 80% and likely 90% or more. We have from Europe chronicles and accounts of the horror of the black death that killed c. 33% of the population of Europe, (1347-1350 C.E.), and its terrible aftermath, which may have reduced Europe's population by c. 40% by 1400 C.E. We have very little concerning the native Mexican reaction to an incomparably worst horror. Further Europe had recovered its population losses by 1500 C.E. As mentioned above Mexico may not have recovered to population levels of c. 1515 C.E., until c. 1920 C.E.4

The aftermath of the conquest puts Aztec atrocities into perspective. There is simply no way to morally use Aztec atrocities to justify this. Further the fact that the Spanish were largely motivated by greed and ambition and not by any desire to end Aztec atrocities also should be factored in. In the end it is simple straight forward Colonialism and Imperialism using Aztec atrocities as a fig leaf of justification.5

As I said a steel curtain as come down between us and the Aztecs because of the Spanish Conquest, which may be compared to something like a "War of the Worlds". However due to Spanish documents describing the old society etc., Indian survivals in modern Mexican culture, Archaeology and the surviving art of the Aztecs we can get a glimpse into their world.

Map of the Aztec Empire showing its expansion under various rulers

The Aztecs started out as a wondering tribe of nomads who settled on some islands in the midst of lake Texcoco c. 1325 C.E., calling the city Tenochtitlan. A century, c. 1420 C.E., later they broke free of vassalage to local rulers and established in alliance with two other cities, (Texcoco and Tlacopan) an alliance to establish a Empire.

Under a succession of able rulers they established an empire which dominated Mexico by the time the Spanish arrived.

Their Capital Tenochtitlan, was a island city crisscrossed with canals and one of the most densely populated cities in the world in 1517 C.E., with a population of c. 150-200 thousand.6

Map of Tenochtitlan c. 1518 C.E.

The art of the Aztecs being Imperial as the usual attributes of Imperial powers. Massive size and the attempt to intimidate.

An example of this is Aztec Temple pyramids like the following two pictures of the pyramid at Teopanzolco.

View of Pyramid of Teopanzolco

View of Pyramid of Teopanzolco

This massive pyramid erected in the late 15th century has on its top the typical two temples of the most important Aztec Gods. One is the common central Mesoamerican rain god Tlaloc the other is the Aztec tribal war god and patron deity Huitzilopochtli, ( Left handed Hummingbird). 7

Among the peoples of Mesoamerican it was a common belief that the Gods shed their blood and lives so that the Man and life could go on living and the Universe could continue to exist. Given that it was considered fair that Humans should shed their blood and lives so that the Gods could continue to live.

Tlaloc the rain God for example shed rain so that the Earth would continue to give forth crops and the peoples of Mesoamerica considered rain and water to be analogous to blood. Tlaloc thus shed his blood so that man should have crops so ergo men should shed blood so that Tlaloc could continue to exist and nourish the Earth.

Huitzilopochtli was also thought of in the same terms and he needed blood and sacrifice so that he could continue to patronize the Aztecs and give them success and victories and as he was assimilated with other gods, like the the Sun he too needed human blood so that the Earth could continue to exist.8

Pyramid at Santa Cecilia Acatitlan

This pyramid erected in the late 15th century is a temple of Huitzilopochtli, which was reconstructed recently. Next to it is the unreconstructed remains of a pyramid to the God Tlaloc. The stone in front was the sacrificial stone on which human sacrificial victims had their hearts torn out with sacrificial flint knives.9

Plan of site of Tetzcotzinco

Built in the late 15th century by the Poet, Philosopher, Diplomat, Warrior and Engineer Nezahualcoyotl, king of Texcoco one of the two allies of the Aztecs. This site consisted of agricultural terraces, a Palace and several villas along with several small temples and baths, and Plazas. The most remarkable part of the system was the massive aqueduct that surrounds the whole site which is a mountain top.10

Remains of stone cut baths of Nezahualcoyotl

The following is a reconstruction of the famous Aztec sun stone as it may have looked like when it was completed in the early 16th century.

Aztec Sun Stone

The stone sums up Aztec and central American conceptions of the Universe. The face in the center is Tonaliuh the Sun God. He is sticking out his tongue, which is in in the form of a sacrificial knife. his face has wrinkles indicating old age. The claws of either side of the head grasp human hearts. Around the God's head is the symbol Nahui Ollin or fourth movement which is the date on which this sun was created at Teotihuacan. Around the head of Tonaliuh are four boxes showing the names of the four previous creations, four Jaguar, four Wind, four Rain, four water. The world that Tonatiuh dominates is the fifth creation or the fifth sun.

Also around the head of Tonatiuh are symbols representing the four cardinal points. North is a warriors head gear symbolizing the power of the Aztecs. The south is symbolized by a monkey which represents one of previous suns of creation. The east is represented by a sacrificial knife or Tecpatl. The west is Tlalocan or the house of Tlaloc the rain god and represents life giving water.

Around the head are the twenty days of the month. The Aztecs had a calender of 18 months of 20 days each complete with a extra month of five days. after that is a ring composed of the names of the months of the Aztec calender. Out of that circle eight arrowheads symbolized the suns rays. The last circle was in the form of two fire serpents that connected heaven and the underworld and also the earth with each other. At the bottom the serpents open their mouths with two heads emerging. One figure is Quetzalcoatl as Tonatiuh the sun or day. The other figure is Tezcatlipoca as Xiuhtecuhtli the night. Thus symbolizing the contest between day and night. They are sticking out their tongues, which are touching. This represents the continuity of time and the alteration of day and night. Further the Gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were in continuous conflict with each other with Quetzalcoatl symbolizing creation and Tezcatlipoca destruction.

Thus the stone represents the balance of creation and destruction in the world, further on the sun stone is a glyph representing the mythical date on which the Aztecs left their mythical homeland of Aztlan to eventually settle in the valley of Mexico and also the date the Aztecs defeated the Tepanec ruler Maxtla to become rulers of the valley of Mexico.

The stone also represents the creation of the world of the fifth sun. In the legend of creation after the destruction of the world of the fourth sun the gods gathered at Teotihuacan to create the world anew. The god Tecuciztecatl volunteered to throw himself into a fire and be reborn as the new sun. The God Nanahuatzin, a minor god of venereal disease, was selected to accompany him. Tecuciztecatl hesitated and drew back but Nanahuatzin threw himself in without hesitation and was reborn as the sun Tonatiuh. Techuciztecatl, thoroughly ashamed, threw himself in and was reborn as the moon.

Tonatiuh was however unable to move and demanded the blood of his fellow gods so he could move. The other gods agreed to this. So Quetzalcoatl sacrificed his fellow gods by removing their hearts with a sacrificial knife. Nourished the sun began to move. But from then on in order to continue to move the sun needs the blood and hearts of humans.11

Statue of Coatlicue

The above statue of Coatlicue is over 10 feet tall and is overall a very frightening image. With her claw like hands and her necklace of human heats, hands and a skull, along with her skirt composed of interlocking serpents this is a frightening image. The climax of stunning grotesqueness is the "head" composed of two serpent heads meeting and forming a terrifying mouth and divided tongue and two eyes. Although that is the visual intent of that part of the sculpture is to suggest a head in reality it is not a head. In fact Coatlicue is in fact shown decapitated and the serpents symbolize streams of blood from her neck.

Coatlicue is in fact an Earth Goddess, a mistress of life and death, fertility and destruction. Like many Mexican deities she has dualistic and contradictory aspects so that she is both a goddess of life and a goddess of death. Coatlicue is also the mother of the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli, and gave birth to him as she was dying.12

Sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli

The above sculpture was found near the remains of the great pyramid in Mexico city in 2008 C.E.; it represents another Earth Goddess, this time called Tlaltecuhtli. Like the statue of Coatlicue it is a monumental sculpture over 10 feet tall. The claw like hands and feet and the tongue indicating a avid need for blood, human blood. The image is one of raw elemental power.

Like virtually all the Mexican gods Coatlicue and Tlaltecuhtli have to shed their blood and die and be reborn so that man could live, crops could grow and the universe continue to exist.

The pre-columbian Mexicans associated water with blood. Basically water, which was the blood of the gods nourished the earth and gave life to both man and beast and therefore man and beast should shed their blood and sometimes give their hearts to nourish the gods so they could continue to nourish the earth and men.13

Stone of Coyolxauhqui

In Aztec myth Coyolxauhqui was the sister of Huitzilopochtli. When she found out that her mother Coatlicue was pregnant, supposedly by a ball of down at the hill of Coatepec, Coyolxauhqui allied with her 400 brother slew her mother. As she lay dying Huitzilopochtli was born and springing from the womb of his mother he avenged her death by dismembering his sister Coyolxauhqui and routing the 400 hundred brothers. Huitzilopochtli was armed with a fiery serpent called the Xiuhcoatl. Coyolxauhqui's dismembered body fell to the base of the hill of Coatepec.

The stone image depicts Coyolxauhqui at the moment of dismemberment with her head and arms and legs cut off. The arms and legs are in a curious swastika like design. She is naked except for a belt around her waist with a skull attached, along with a headdress, skull like images on her knees and sandals. The image is believed to date from c. 1490 C.E., and is about 13 feet across.

In Aztec myth Coyolxauhqui represented the forces of evil and chaos which had to be defeated so that order could be imposed. She was also associated with the ballgame. Temples to Huitzilopochtli had a ball court next to them. At this ball court there would be re-enactments of the battle between Huitzilpochtli and Coyolxauhqui, and of course the forces of order would triumph over the forces of chaos. This sculpture was found at the base of the great pyramid in Mexico city, where it served to symbolically represent the sacrificial victim who like Coyolxauhqui falling down the hill of Coatepec would be thrown the pyramid steps after sacrifice.

It is possible that the contest between Huitzilpochtli and Coyolxahqui represents in highly mythologized form a contest between different factions among the Aztecs during their migrations which reached some sort of violent resolution at the hill of Coatepec.14

Throne of Motecuhzoma II

The above is believed to be a ceremonial throne built c. 1510 C.E., in the shape of a pyramid, for the Aztec Emperor Motecuhzoma II, the unfortunate Emperor who encountered Cortes. Aside from the usual Aztec motifs of skulls and feathered warriors the top image depicts a sun disk with the rain god Tlaloc on one side and Motecuhzoma II on the other.

It appears that Moteuhzoma II is being depicted as some sort of intermediary between and subjects and the rain god Tlaloc to ensure the fertility of the soil and the continued well being of the empire. This apparently goes well with Moteuhzoma's attempts to consolidate the empire and to exhault his own status as semi divine. 15

Coiled Serpent possibly Xiuhcoatl

Depictions of serpents are very common in Aztec art generally speaking they can come in two forms. Serpents like the above, which are fairly realistic depictions of snakes are likely representations of Huitzilopochtli weapon Xiuhcoatl with which he destroyed his sister Coyolxauhqui and her brothers.16

Feather Serpent representing Quetzalcoatl

Feathered Serpent Representing Quetzalcoatl

One of the great Gods of pre-Columbian Mexico was Quetzalcoatl, the so-called feathered serpent. He was commonly depicted as a serpent with feathers. In Mesoamerican mythology he was associated with creation, civilization, culture and order. He was also associated with benevolence on the one hand and the cruelty needed to impose order. Quetzalcoatl was partly named after the Quetzal bird with its magnificant emerald green feathers which were considered prize treasures by the peoples of Mesoamerica. The feathers on the sculptures and paintings of the feathered serpent were quetzal feathers.

As mentioned above it was he who sacrificed his fellow gods so that the world of the fifth Sun could continue to exist. Because of this the priests who engaged in human sacrifice by heart extraction were often called Quetzalcoatl, given that in symbolic terms they performed same function as the god Quetzalcoatl did in order for the world to continue to exist.

In Mesoamerican myth Quetzalcoatl was in eternal conflict with the forces of disorder, chaos and destruction symbolized by the god Tezaltlipoca.17

Aztec Jade Mask

This magnificant jade mask was apparently among the items sent by Cortes to Charles V in about 1518 C.E. probably because it was not made of gold or silver it was not melted down. Exactly who or perhaps what it represents is not known. Possibly it is a representation of death. The pre-columbian Mexicans considered jade more valuable than gold or silver so to them this would be a exceptionally valuable treasure. Fortunately for this object the Europeans did not think that it was valuable; so it survived intact.

It was probably a ceremonial mask worn on ritualistic occasions.18

Page from the Codex Mendoza

This is the first page of the Codex Mendoza a post conquest Mexican book produced c. 1540 C.E., written for the then Spanish Viceroy of Mexico Mendoza. The Codex Mendoza is 71 pages long. It is divided into three parts. It is in the form of the hieroglyphic writing of the Aztec with extensive annotations written in Spanish on the manuscript. It was written by surviving Aztec scribes.

The first part is a history of the Aztec from the foundations of the Aztec Empire in 1325 C.E., to the fall of the Empire to the Spanish. The second part is a tribute list of the tributary provinces of the Empire. It appears to be incomplete. The third part is an over view of Aztec life, pre-conquest, covering occupations, life, law and administration.

The above picture is of the first page of the Codex Mendoza Which depicts the foundation of the Aztec Capital Tenochtitlan in 1325, on islands in lake Texcoco. The name Tenochtitlan means cactus flower so the depiction of a flowering cactus with the Eagle on top representing the imperial destiny of the Aztecs. Often the eagle is shown eating a serpent. In fact this image is on the modern flag of Mexico.

The division into four quarters represents the division of Tenochtitlan into four quaters with the men inside each section representing leaders at the time of foundation. The figures at bottom represent early conquests of the Aztecs.19

Page from the Codex Mendoza

The above is part of the third section from the Codex Mendoza. In this case a governement official is instructing two youths in various tasks and also instructing them to avoid idlness and thievery. The two figures on the right repesent a tramp and a thief.20

Page from a divination text

The image above is from a divination text and depicts the thirteen days in Aztec sacred calender of 260 days, (13 times 20). This calender operated simultaneously with the regular calender of 365 days. It was believed that careful consultation of auspicious versus inauspecious days could achieve good fortune and avoid bad fortune. Further it was believed that the day on which one was born helped to dertermine one's fate and that careful attention to the effects of being born on a particular day could avoid disaster.21

Page from a divination text

This page represents a god eating a human arm while around him floats day signs indicating various days in the sacred calender.22

Sacrificial Offering

The above is the front of a skull with inlays in the eye sockets and a sacrificial blade in the nasal cavity. It is certainly a goulish image and quite horrifying. It was among the offerings found in Great pyramid of Tenochtitlan. The blade in the nasal cavity symbolizes the way a sacrificial blade snuffs out the breath of life in the sacrificial victim. In this case the former occupant of the skull. The bulging inlaid eyes symbolize death. The back of the skull as been removed which adds to the macabre horror of this image. This offering was probably made to the Aztec patron god Huitzilpochtli.23

As this brief view of Aztec art indicates, much of this art is visiseral dealing with deep unconcious forces of life and death. This art also dealt with elemental, almost Freudian forces, of the id and the violent. It as elements of horror and brutality and a frightening awarness of how close the forces of creation and destruction are to each other and in fact how dependent they are on each other. To those who want brutal realities of life and death carefully hidden Aztec art is too direct, too in your face.

1. See Keen, Benjamin, The Aztec Image in Western Thought, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1971, pp. 43-47, 96-97, 525-526, Austin, Alfredo Lopez, Lupin, Leonardo Lopez, Aztec Human Sacrifice, in The Aztec World, Editors, Brumfiel, Elizabeth M., Feinman, Gary M., Abrams, New York, 2008, pp. 137-152.

2. See Todorov, Tzvetan, The Conquest of America, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1984, Las Casas, Bartolome, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Penguin Books, London, 1992, (Modern study indicates that although this account is both one sided and exagerates it contains far too much truth to be dismissed as simply propaganda), Rivera, Luis N., A Violent Evangelism, John Knox Press, Louisville Kentucky, 1992, Leon-Portilla, Miguel, Editor, The Broken Spears, Second Edition, Beacon Press, Boston MASS., 1992, Denevan, William M., Estimating the Unknown, in The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, Second Edition, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI., 1992, pp. 1-12, at pp. 4-7.

3. See Denevan, Native American Populations in 1492: Recent Research and a Revised Hemispheric Estimate, in Denevan, pp. XVII-XXIX, at p. XXVIII, Gives a total population of Mexico in 1518 C.E., as 17,174,000. In McEvedy, Colin, Jones, Richard, Atlas of World Population History, Penguin Books, London, 1978, p. 292 gives the population in 1900 as 13.5 million.

4. See Sanders, William T., The Central Mexican Symbiotic Region, in the Basin of Mexico, and the Teotihuacan Valley in the Sixteentth Century, in Denevan, pp. 85-150, McEvedy, p. 292, Whitmore, Thomas M., Disease and Death in Early Colonial Mexico, Westview Press, San Francisco CA., 1992, pp. 201-214, Prem, Hanns, J., Disease Outbreaks in Central Mexico during the Sixteenth Century, in "Secret Judgements of God", Editors, Cook, Noble David, Lovell, George, University of Oklahoma Press, London, 1992, pp. 20-48, Stannard, David E., American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, pp. 75-82, Todorov, p. 133.

5. See Todorov and Las Casas, Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs, Third Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2009, pp. 220-241, Smith, Michael E., The Aztecs, Second Edition, Blackwell, London, 2003, pp. 272-279. see also Diaz, Bernal, The Conquest of New Spain, Penguin Books, London, 1963, and Prescott, William H., The History of the Conquest of Mexico & The History of the Conquest of Peru, Cooper Square Press, New York, 2000, (Originally Published in 1843 and 1847), Thomas Hugh, Conquest, Touchstone Books, New York, 1993.

6. Sanders, William T., Tenochtitlan in 1519: A Pre-Industrial Megalopolis, in Brumfiel, pp. 67-85, at p. 84.

7. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p. 241.

8. Ibid, pp. 148, Miller, Mary & Taube, Karl, The Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames and Hudson, london, 1993, pp. 93-96.

9. Aguilar-Moreno, p. 240.

10. IBID, pp. 244-247.

11. Miller, pp. 158, 172, Aguilar-Moreno, pp. 140, 181-182, The names of the months of the Aztec Calander are Cipactli (Crocodile), Ehecatl (wind), Calli (house), Cuetzpallin (Lizard), Coatl (serpant), Miquiztli (death), Mazatl (deer), Tochtli (rabbit), Atl (water), Itzcuitli (dog), Ozomatli (monkey), Malinalli (plant, grass), Acatl (reed), Ocelotl (jaguar), Cuauhtli (eagle), Cozcacuauhtli (vulture), Ollin (movement), Tecpatl (flint, obsidian), Quiahuitl (rain), Xochitl (flower). The special five day month at the end was called Nemontemi (usleless, nameless) and was considered unlucky.

12. Aguilar-Moreno, pp. 190-191, Miller, pp. 64-65, 68, Davies, Nigel, The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico, Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 201-202, 223-224. .

13. Townsend, p. 185.

14. Miller, pp. 64- 65, 68, 93-96, 188-189, Aguillar-Moreno, pp. 224, 192-193.

15. Aguilar-Moreno, p. 186-187.

16. Aguilar-Moreno, pp. 195-196, Miller, pp. 188-189.

17. Aguillar-Moreno, pp. 139-141, 149-150, 195, Miller, pp. 140-142, Davies, 220-223.

18. Coe, Michael D., Koontz, Rex, Mexico, Sixth Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2008, p. 168.

19. Ross, Kurt, Codex Mendoza, Miller Graphics, Ch-Fribourg, 1978, pp. 11-12, 18-22.

20. IBID, p. 114.

21. Brumfiel, p. 180, Davies, pp. 225-227, Miller, pp. 48-54, Aguilar-moreno, pp. 290-299.

22. Phillips, Charles, The Complete Illustrated History of the Aztec and Maya, Hermes House, London, 2005 , p. 379.

23, IBID.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. I enjoyed your posting here on the Aztec society, and religion. It is quite difficult to find quality photographs of the more sophisticated Stone Coiled Feather Serpent representing Quetzalcoatl versions in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. I was there many years ago visiting this museum, and Oaxaca of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs along with John Carlson as a guide. I was enthralled by these particular Quetzalcoatl sculptures. Thanks, P Brad Parker, sculptor

  2. Thank you for your comments. I am glad you found my posting of use to you. Yeah it can be difficult to find pictures of various Aztec sculptures.

    I`m also glad you were able to visit the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. A definitive must see for anyone visiting Mexico City.

    All the best.