History

5 astounding facts about the Aztec Empire

During the early 15th century, the Aztecs inhabited a piece of what is modern-day Mexico, developing a fascinating culture and traditions. While so many traces of the Aztec Empire vanished when the last of their civilizations died off, some, however, were left behind and dug from the Earth.

There is plenty to learn about the Aztecs, so expand your knowledge on the Aztec Empire with these five fascinating facts about the historic civilization.

Human sacrifice

Panorama of Teotihuacan Pyramids with mountains in the background
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Today, the concept of human sacrifice comes with a ton of moral questions and falls under the modern rule of law. Look back six centuries, however, and things were quite different. To the Aztecs, human sacrifice was not only commonplace, but it was also an honor to be offered to the gods.

The civilization at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, practiced a variety of forms of human sacrifice. Some people were drained of their blood, others removed of their hearts. It wasn’t uncommon for cannibalism to be part of the ritual.

Early reports of ritualistic kills came from Andres de Tapia, a conquistador that happened upon what is believed to have been an Aztec altar. Flanked by towers made only of human skulls near a wooden rack that displayed even more human bones, the Templo Mayor saw plenty of death. At the end of the ritual, the sacrifice was thrown down the stairs of the temple.

The Aztecs and chocolate

Chocolate in various forms: ground up, bars, and chocolate covered fruit
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On July 7, 1550, chocolate was first introduced in Europe. But before Europeans got their hands on the precious bean, the Aztecs were using cacao as a form of currency. Due to its rich and flavorful properties and the caffeine boost it provided, Aztecs believed that cacao was delivered to them by the gods.

To the Aztecs, chocolate was more valuable than gold. That made cacao inaccessible to lower classes. Aztec ruler Montezuma II was known for enjoying a chocolate beverage every now and again. At the end of the day, he was suspected of drinking gallons of chocolate as he enjoyed the energy it provided him and the sweet drink’s aphrodisiac properties.

They worshiped more than 200 gods

Clay artwork depicting an Aztec god
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As with any ancient civilization, the Aztecs attributed much of their lives to the gods of their culture. While some mythologies have one or a dozen gods, Aztecs worshiped more than 200 deities. The pantheon consisted of major gods, like Ometecuhtli, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.

Each god oversaw a different aspect of society, with the aforementioned three being linked to the creation of man or the sun. Many gods became the subject of sacrifices, even those like Xipe Totec, who oversaw the seasons. It’s believed that Xipe Totec, also known as the Flayed One, had a particularly gruesome sacrifice that saw the victim removed of his skin.

Aztec rulers were said to be an embodiment of the gods and often claimed to know the will of the god they represented.

Aztecs used weapons of obsidian

Mound of obsidian
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Weapons are a vital part of a civilization’s ability to survive. Without them, any invader could claim any land they wish. The Aztecs knew the importance of weapons and opted to use a material that could rival high-quality steel. Obsidian was known for being sharper than standard steel, which is what made a weapon like the macuahuitl devastating during battle.

The obsidian-tipped weapons were sharp enough to behead enemies and sacrifices with little effort. Along with the club-like macuahuitl, the tepoztopilli provided warriors distance as an obsidian-tipped polearm.

With limited access to conventional metals, Aztecs were forced to turn to volcanic glass. The implements proved more than useful, especially when it came to hunting local game.

What’s in a name?

Aztec dancer in the Zocalo in Mexico City, Mexico.
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While they are commonly referred to as Aztecs, the people that settled Tenochtitlan and the surrounding empire referred to themselves by an entirely different name. Known as the Tenochca, the people of Tenochtitlan have gone on to become known as the Mexica, a name offered by Spanish conquistadors. That, however, isn’t entirely accurate as Mexica originally referred to the tribes that lived within the Basin of Mexico.

Aztec, on the other hand, originally belonged to the people who left Aztlan. Over the centuries, it became the blanket name for those who ruled over Mexico from 1428 to 1521.

The legacy of the Aztecs

Photo of Teotihuacan plaza, pyramids, and mountains in Mexico
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These bits of information about the Aztecs are just the tip of the iceberg. Though the civilization died out in the mid-16th century, there is a continued curiosity about the highly advanced, death-obsessed culture.