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Aztec Art

The Aztec civilization, with its center at Tenochtitlan, flourished in central Mexico during the Postclassic period. They were a conquering civilization with an ever-expanding empire and a central ruler. Their society revolved around war, agriculture, art and their polytheistic religion.

Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was in the Valley of Mexico on swamp land in Lake Texcoco and is now Mexico City. It was founded in 1325 or 1345. According to Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli, their tribal god, led them to a place where an eagle was perched on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. This, as had been told them by Huitzilopochtli, was to be their promised land. At the center of Tenochtitlan, the Great Temple was surrounded by palaces, warrior schools, shrines and a ball court. The temple-pyramid was dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain,  and Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the Aztecs. A chac mool at the entrance to the shrine to Tlaloc held a container in which the hearts and blood of victims sacrificed to the gods of rain and agriculturewere placed(see the above links for examples of aztec art). Each ruler would add to the Great Temple to make it more impressive, honor the gods and commemorate his reign.

Religion was central to the Aztec life. They built enormous pyramid temples and religious centers to honor their many gods and goddesses. They worshipped goddesses of fertility because they considered childbearing important. Many gods were agricultural because of the agricultural emphasis in the society; three goddesses were associated with maize alone. Xipe Totec was the god of springtime and vegetation. The most ancient and revered gods were the creators of the universe and associated with time and the calendar. Quetzalcoatl, which means feathered serpent, was the god of nature, air and earth. Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead. He lived in the Mictlan, where he was joined by those who died a natural death after they passed through nine stages of the afterlife. Those who died in battle and women who died during childbirth joined the sun god in the sky, who it is said decapitated his sister (lunar goddess). The Aztecs mummified some of their dead, and the wealthy were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles.

As with all ancient civilizations, Aztec life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, vegetables, flowers, medicinal herbs, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes, amaranth, and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and digging sticks. They performed elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices in order to ensure rain.

Aztec farmer developed an ingenious method of creating additional fertile land in their swampy environment. Their most productive crops were grown on chinampas, plots of built land in swampy lakes by layering water vegetation and mud to make a matting. Willow trees were then planted around the edge to make them more secure. Rich earth from bottom of the lake was used as fertilizer. They were rectangular in shape with narrow canals between them through which canoes could be paddled to allow the farmers to tend the crops.

The Aztecs hunted peccary, a pig-like animal, and deer with bows, arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian. They captured rabbits and dogs with nets and even hunted and ate the white meat of the armadillo. Along the coast, they fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.

Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times.  Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.

Many items were traded within the Aztec empire, and conquered people had to pay yearly tribute to the ruler. Tunics and shields were valuable and were often paid as tribute. Cacao beans and feathers were also paid as tribute. Attire denoted rank in Aztec society, and only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Warriors were highly honored in the society, and a jaguar helmet was a warrior's insignia and his protection. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky to the Aztecs.  The market at Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan's sister city, was large, with a wide variety of items, and well-supervised and regulated. Barter was the primary means of exchange, though copper axes were sometimes used as money.

War was important and constant among the Aztecs because human sacrifices were believed to keep the sun moving. Weapons were made from naturally occurring substances; spears, knives and clubs were made from flint, wood and obsidian. Warriors were supposed to be noble and serve the gods, and rulers were expected to glorify themselves on the battlefield. The most prestigious warrior orders were those of the eagle and the jaguar. Members of these orders wore appropriate costumes made from either eagle feathers or jaguar pelts.

The Aztec had a hieroglyphic writing system to keep records, a counting system based on the number twenty and two calendars, one based on the sun and the sacred calendar, which was used to predict the future.  In each calendar, every day had a sign.  The solar calendar was 363 days long, with eighteen twenty-day months and five extra unlucky days. The calendar of omens was composed of 260 days and was divided into twenty thirteen-day months. Each day was good, bad or neutral. An Aztec "century" was fifty-two solar years long, at the end of which was a celebration in which the passing of the old century was marked by symbolically "binding the years."

A third calendar related to the planet Venus. Five years in the rotation of Venus was equivalent to eight solar years. Time was kept on Venus using the sacred calendar for omens. A period of 104 years, two solar "centuries," was the amount of time necessary for the sign of the solar year to correspond with that of the year on Venus. This period of time was called an "old age."

The Aztec sun stone, which was found in the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, has a diameter measuring 13.2 feet and it weighs 24 tons. The face of the sun or the lord of the earth is at the center. The calendar signified that the universe had passed through four creations and was currently in the fifth, which would be destroyed by earthquakes.

Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.  A horizontal drum, the huehuetl or tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum, the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks.

Aztec art reflected their environment, religion and everyday life. Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and decoration. Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every Aztec household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had patterns carved into them or were painted.  The Aztecs often painted the inside of bowls and usually painted in two colors; they also cut figures into the sides of clay vessels.  Religious pottery, art and statuary was highly symbolic, while secular ceramic work was quite realistic and expressive. A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver's back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

--Lisa Graff


Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Soisson, Pierre and Janine. David Macrae, trans. Life of the Aztecs in Ancient Mexico (Editions Minerva ? Liber, 1987).

Click Here to View our Selection of Aztec Items


Aztecs | Day of the Dead | Mayan | Molas | Olmec | Pre Columbian