The Conquistadors are Coming
First Contact Essay
- Part A -
“On these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that very night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut opened, and their arms and thighs had been cut off. The walls were covered with blood. We stood greatly amazed and gave the island the name isleta de Sacrificios [Island of the Sacrifices].”
“They strike open the wretched Indian's chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols. They cut off the arms, thighs and head, eating the arms and thighs at ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam and the body is given to the beasts of prey.”
After seeing such images, it is understandable why, at first the invading Spaniards would have seen the Aztec Culture barbarous, uncivilised and backward, but if they had taken careful observation of the culture they would have most definitely found otherwise, the Aztec were in fact a highly civilised, sophisticated and complex culture that created and utilised many things that are found today in our modern world.
I will be examining the fact that the Aztecs were in fact a highly civilised culture throughout this essay and will be making close reference to three subject areas.
The Aztec had a highly complex religion that worshiped various gods, some examples of these types of gods are; The Sun God, Coatlicue (see pic 1.1), The God of Corn, Centeotl (see pic 1.2), The God of Lakes and Streams, Chalchiuhtlicue (see pic 1.3) and The Goddess of Food and Produce (and by extension fertility), Chicomecoatl, (see pic 1.4).
As well having gods for nearly everything, the Aztec priests created a 356 day calendar based on their religion, and the movement of the sun and the stars. This calendar consisted of eighteen months of twenty days, and if you have done your maths properly you will have found that there is five days leftover. These days were considered to be a bit like the Christian idea of Sunday, except these five days were supposed to be cursed and evil and this was the reason for a lack of work on these five days. These months had names like; Dog, Crocodile, Monkey, Wind, Vulture, Rabbit, Lizard, Flower and Death Head.
To make things even more complex within this calendar, they had periods that related to their past history or climatic conditions, they had periods such as Days of Growth (Spring), Says of the Descent of Water (Winter) Days of Dryness (Summer) and The Useless Days ( as mentioned earlier).
This begs the question, how can a civilisation that has created gods for nearly everything, and a calendar that makes close reference to both our modern-day calendar and to certain astronomical movement, be called un-civilised ad backwards, the answer is that they aren’t, the fact that they were called uncivilised and backwards is a gross misunderstanding and lie by the Spaniards.
The Aztecs had an extremely complex and sophisticated system of society, everything from buying and selling of goods to their system of getting married.
The outstanding nature of these markets can be seen from a extract taken directly from The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz de Castillo;
“The moment we arrived in this immense market, we were perfectly astonished at the vast numbers of people, the profusion of merchandise, which was there exposed for sale, and at the good police and order that reigned throughout.... Every species of merchandise had a separate spot for its sale. We first of all visited those divisions of the market appropriated for the sale of gold and silver wares. Of jewels, of cloths interwoven with feathers, and of other manufactured goods…”
“In this market-place there were also courts of justice, to which three judges and several constables were appointed, who inspected the goods exposed for sale. I had almost forgotten to mention the salt, and those who made the flint knives; also the fish, and a species of bread made of a kind of mud or slime collected from the surface of this lake and eaten in that form, and has a similar taste to our cheese. Further, instruments of brass, copper, and tin; cups, and painted pitches of wood; indeed I wish I had completed the enumeration of all this profusion of merchandise. The variety was so great that it would occupy more space than I can well spare to note them down in. Besides which the market was so crowded with people, and the thronging so excessive in the porticoes, that it was quite impossible to see all in one day.”
It is clear that the Aztecs had a highly sophisticated system of buying and selling goods and that was the markets of Tenochtitlan, as well as the immense variety of goods to be bought and sold, the Aztec had a way of organising the location of goods around the market place, a bit like modern-day isles in a supermarket, i.e. having all the valuables together etc. On top of this the Aztec then had people policing the markets, making sure that no sale was unfair or biased as well as judges, which inspected the quality of the goods for sale.
In addition to the complex nature of these markets, the Aztec has a sophisticated method of marriage, although slightly sexist, nothing with the same complexity was heard of in the time. The males make most of the choices here, not the females. The male choses the bride and then they ask and old woman to send the message to the bride’s family. They choose whether or not the couple can get married, if so the process goes on. The Groom then also needs to get permission to be married to the bride from your teacher. The wedding day is then chosen by making sure it is a ‘good’ or blessed day on the Aztec calendar (mentioned earlier). After the day is chosen there is a feast before the wedding which the female’s family organises. After the feast, the wedding occurs at night and the girl is taken to this on the back of an old women. The rest of the guests travel to the wedding from the feast by a torch lit procession, the couple are then joined together in marriage by tying the male’s cloak to the female’s blouse. Today this is still known as “tying the knot”. At long last there is a final feast in which there is alcohol to drink, although only people over thirty can drink.
It is very difficult to call the Aztecs barbarous and unsophisticated after being taught about this extremely complex procedure that must be followed when getting married.
The Aztecs had amazing architecture throughout their whole empire but I will be making close reference to the amazing city of Tenochtitlan.
Tenochtitlan is a city that is built on the island in the middle of a large lake, the Aztecs built their amazing capital city on this lake and made man made bridges branching out from the island across the lake, once again this was very much unheard of in this time period. In the centre of this city, there were two great temples that looked over the whole city. (see pics 1.5, 1.6, 1.7).
“And when we saw all those towns and villages built in the water, and other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. These great towns . . . and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision. . . . Indeed some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream . . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen, or dreamed of before”
It was clear that when the Spaniards came across the marvellous and aesthetically pleasing city it was something they had never before seen in their western world.
The city of Tenochtitlan was divided into four zones or campan, each of these campan were then divided up into twenty districts or calipullis, and each of the calpaulli was then crossed by streets or tlaxilcalli. There were three main streets that crossed the city, each leading to one of the three causeways that led out of the city to the mainland. The calpulli were also divided into channels used for transportation, with wood bridges that were removed at night.
After learning about the marvel of the urban planning of Tenochtitlan, it extremely difficult to call the Aztec unsophisticated and backward.
It is because of the Aztecs Sophistication and complexion of their Religion, Society and Architecture that the claims by the Spanish that they were backward and uncivilised are completely ludicrous and unsubstantiated
Deary, T. & Brown M. (1997). Angry Aztecs. London, UK: Scholastic.
(2004). Aztec Gods & Godesses . Retrieved August 11, 2007, from Crystal Links Web site: