Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The Customs of the Aztecs

We are not even yet quite ready to go back to join Cortes at Vera Cruz, for we want first to make more of a visit to the city of Tenochtitlan, or Mexico, to see how it is built and how its people live.

We know that Tenochtitlan, the present city of Mexico, stood on piles driven into Lake Tezcuco. In its center was a large square which contained the royal palaces and the chief temple. From this square ran four broad avenues, north, south, east and west. As Tenochtitlan was really an island, three of these avenues became causeways to join the city to the neighboring mainland. The northern causeway was called the dyke of Tepejacac; the southern, the dyke of Iztapalapan; and the western, the shortest of the three, the dyke of Tlacopan. The causeways were built of lime and stone and were wide enough for ten horsemen to ride abreast. They were cut through in places by canals, and the bridges over the canals were drawbridges which could be raised if necessary.

The center of the square and the center of the whole city was the great temple shut in by its stone wall eight feet high. The wall opened on four sides to the main avenues. Over each entrance was an arsenal filled with ammunition, and ten thousand soldiers were kept in barracks nearby. The temple itself was built in five terraces, of huge blocks of stone, on a base three hundred feet square. Each terrace was a story, and the one hundred and fourteen steps which led up outside were so arranged that to reach the top story one had to pass four times around the building. The top was a flat roof of paving-stones with two towers, before which fire burned continually on two altars. This temple in the middle of the city, with a broad street running from each of its four sides, and its big, flat roof high above all the surrounding buildings, was set like a fortress in the heart of Tenochtitlan.

Most of the other streets were narrow, for the canals were the real streets. Tenochtitlan was an Indian Venice. To the Aztecs, their canoes were their horses, and the water their avenue. Some of the canals had footpaths beside them and footbridges over them. Most of the bridges were drawbridges, like those on the great causeways, so that at a moment's notice the bridges could be raised and the city not only cut off from the mainland, but one part of the city could be divided from another.

Not content with building a firm city in the lake, some of the Mexicans lived on floating islands. The poorer people made, out of reeds tightly woven together, rafts two hundred feet long, covered three or four feet deep with rich soil taken from the lake bottom. Here they raised flowers and vegetables for the market of Tenochtitlan. Some of these islands were firm enough for trees to grow on, and sometimes their owners built huts on them and lived there. Then, with a long pole, they pushed their gardens around, like houseboats, through the shallow water on the lake edge and sold their vegetables as they grew.

Tenochtitlan was nearly nine miles in circumference. It held about sixty thousand houses and probably about three hundred thousand people. A thousand men daily watered and cleaned the streets, so that a man "could walk through them with as little danger of soiling his feet as his hands," an old Spaniard says. Water was brought into the city by a great aqueduct from the hill of Chapultepec—"the grasshoppers' hill"—where Montezuma had his summer palace. A double line of pipes was laid so that there could be always one in repair. Through this pipe a stream of water as big as a man's body ran down from the hill into all the fountains and reservoirs of Tenochtitlan. There were openings in the aqueduct where it crossed the bridges, and through these openings water was let into cans in canoes and carried to all parts of the city.

The Aztecs not only brought into their city pure water for household purposes, but they used canal irrigation systems. There were very severe laws, too, against cutting the forests, and the trees, also, helped the moisture of the land. Agriculture was held in high esteem. Special gods looked after it, the months were named for it, and all Aztecs, except royalty, the high nobility and the merchants, were farmers in more or less degree. The men did most of the work but the women helped sow the seed and husk the corn which gave them their flour, while from the stalks they made sugar. Besides Indian corn, they raised cacao and bananas and the Mexican aloe or maguey, which was their chief stay. The root was good to eat; the juice was manufactured into a drink; its leaves were crushed into a pulp and made into paper, and what were left over were used to thatch the peasants' roofs; its fibers made cord and thread; and its thorns pins and needles. It might well be called "a Swiss Family Robinson tree."

Merchants, as well as farmers, were much respected in Anahuac. Besides the great markets, there were no shops. The merchants, with their rich goods of gold and silver, feather work and fine cotton stuffs, traveled over their own countries and even into others. As there were no horses in Mexico, porters carried the goods, each man having a load of fifty or sixty pounds. Rich merchants traveled with a large retinue, which became an army in case of attack and defended their masters' goods. The country to which the merchant belonged was always ready enough, too, to send soldiers to his support if he suffered in a foreign land, for every tribe was glad of an excuse to attack a foe and conquer it. Very often the prince employed these merchants as spies as they traveled about. They made a guild of their own and were allowed special privileges.

In the western part of Tenochtitlan was the great market of Tlateloco, whose enclosure was three times the size of the great Square of Salamanca, the largest square in Spain. It was surrounded by a portico where each tradesman had his booth. Merchants from all Anahuac met here, goldsmiths, potters, painters, stone-cutters, chair-makers, florists, fruiterers, fishermen, hunters—each eager to sell his wares. The most beautiful things were the pieces of fine cotton gorgeously dyed, the wonderfully wrought gold ornaments, and the feather work for which the Mexican Indians were famous. They wove tapestry and cloaks out of the feathers of the gay tropical birds so skillfully that the work looked like embroidery or painting.

Market day was the fifth day of every week, and the market on that day often held fifty thousand people. The trading was sometimes done by barter, and sometimes by the currency of the country which consisted of bits of tin stamped with a T, bags of cacao and quills of gold-dust. Officers were stationed in the market to see that no one cheated and that the required customs were paid.

The Aztecs had a knowledge of arithmetic to help them in their business affairs. The children were taught arithmetic, astronomy, history, mythology, and some of them were taught picture-writing. They did not need grammar as their only writing was by pictures. The temples were the schools; the priests taught the boys and the priestesses taught the girls. In arithmetic a series of dots stood for the numbers up to twenty. Twenty was a flag, and from that they went on with flags and dots to a hundred. The square of twenty was a plume and its cube was a purse. If they wanted a fraction, they drew only part of the plume. The Aztecs knew a good deal about the solar system and marked out a year for themselves, dividing it into eighteen months of twenty days each, and adding five days that belonged to no month at all and were thought to be unlucky. A month was divided into four weeks of five days each, and the last day was fair-day. The Aztecs understood eclipses, but it is not certain that they had arranged a system of constellations.

Montezuma, who had had the training of both priest and warrior, was very well educated. He began his reign humbly, remembering he had been a priest, but soon he seemed to forget that, in his increasing power as a warrior. He grew bold and fierce and harsh, both with his own subjects and the outlying nations he conquered, laying on them heavy taxes to pay for his luxury. He soon thought his father's palace—the palace of Axayacatl on the west side of the great square of Tenochtitlan—was not good enough for him and built for himself on the south side of the square, facing the temple, a new palace of red stone, ornamented with marble. Though low, like most of the Aztec houses, it covered so much ground that one of the Spaniards said he was tired out in walking through it, and another said that on its terraced roof thirty knights might have held a tournament. Its woodwork was of carved cedar put together without a nail, and the walls were hung with fine, gorgeously dyed cotton cloth, with furs and with tapestry of the wonderful feather work. Without were courtyards with fountains, beautiful gardens, aviaries and menageries. The summer palace at Chapultapec was even more luxurious.

The Emperor lived in state among all these fine surroundings. His halls were filled with his train of nobles. He was served by men of high birth. He bathed once every day and changed his dress four times. He never wore a garment twice, but gave it away. He ate alone. He had game from the forests, and fish caught twenty-four hours before in the Gulf of Mexico, two hundred miles away, and carried by the swift-footed Indian "postmen" straight to the royal table. His pastry was made of corn-flour. Hundreds of dishes were spread on the floor before the Emperor; he pointed out those that he wanted and they were kept hot in chafing-dishes. Then a screen was put around him and he was served on a low table. He drank chocolate beaten to a froth and served in a gold cup. Then a gold finger-bowl was brought and his meal was done.

Dinner finished, he smoked while jugglers amused him. Afterward came a nap, and then the Emperor was ready for his business of state; the receiving of ambassadors from foreign states or from his own vassals. So high a position had Montezuma made for himself through his victorious wars that the greatest noble could come into his presence only with downcast eyes, with no shoes and with a coarse cloak thrown over his rich clothing.

Montezuma made all the laws for Mexico and appointed judges to see that the laws were carried out. These judges held office for life and their word was final. No one could appeal from their decision even to the Emperor. If a judge took a bribe he was killed. Each chief city had its judge, and under him were less important magistrates whom the people chose for themselves.

Courts were held where cases were tried. There were no lawyers; each party stated his own case and brought in his own witnesses. The testimony was written in picture-writing by a clerk. If punishment by death was declared, a line was traced with an arrow across the portrait of the man condemned. Some of the laws were severe. Not only murder, but sometimes robbery and drunkenness were punished by death. Montezuma watched over his law courts carefully and dealt severely with any wrongdoing on the part of the judges. Sometimes he wandered about in disguise to see how they were conducting themselves.

But however much Montezuma seemed to forget his priestly training, it really at bottom never lost its influence. He was intensely religious according to the queer mingling in Aztec religion of gentle, poetic faith and ferocious fanaticism. Perhaps the Mexicans, in following the Toltecs, had found and adopted a mild religion and had fastened on it some of their own fierce beliefs, until it had become a savage religion of superstition and human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Although the Aztecs believed in a supreme God whom they addressed as "the God by whom we live; omnipresent; that knoweth all thoughts; and giveth all gifts; without whom man is as nothing; invisible, incorporeal, one God of perfect perfection and purity; under whose wings we find repose and a sure defense," this idea of one God as Spirit was too great for their savage minds really to comprehend, and they made, for their daily and more intimate worship, thirteen other chief gods and two hundred inferior gods, to whom they consecrated special days and festivals. Like the Greeks, they made gods of the seasons and the harvests and of various occupations. They were all symbolized by images of wood or stone or metal and were usually uncouth and hideous.

Their supreme deity, invisible Spirit, who had no image or temple, stood first. Next came a mild god, Tezcatlipoca, who created the world and watched over it. He had his place in one of the two sanctuaries on the temple area. The other sanctuary was dedicated to a frightful conception whom the Aztecs called Huitzilopotchli, their war god. His altar called constantly for human sacrifices. In their wars the Mexicans tried not to kill their foes but to take them alive. The captives were fattened like beasts, and on great festivals to Huitzilopotchli they were killed by thousands on his altars, and their flesh was eaten by the Aztecs at their banquets which attended the festival.

Huitzilopotchli had many hundreds of priests, men and women, in his temples; in the great temple of Tenochtitlan there were five thousand priests, who taught or painted or sung or offered sacrifices. At their head were two high-priests, second in authority only to the Emperor, and his advisers in all public matters.

Quetzalcoatl, god of the air, was another important deity of the Aztecs. Their history said that Quetzalcoatl had once as a man lived among them. He had been a loving and generous friend; he made them beneficent laws; he instructed them in farming; he taught them the use of metals, gold and silver and the obsidian which the Aztecs used as steel. His worship was mild and loving, for he forbade human sacrifice and sought only to benefit man. But tradition said that one of the other chief gods grew jealous of Quetzalcoatl, who was obliged to leave the country. On his way to the coast he stopped at the city of Cholula and lingered some years teaching its inhabitants. A great temple was built here in Quetzalcoatl's honor when he moved on, and this temple made Cholula the Sacred City of Anahuac.

Quetzalcoatl in the meantime went down to the gulf and embarked in his mystic canoe made of snake skins and sailed away, promising sometime to come back. The people watched him go, and when his tall form—white-skinned, dark-haired—faded from sight, they called him The Fair God, and set themselves patiently to wait for his return with his followers to rule again in Anahuac.

At the end of every fifty-two years, when in December came the five unlucky days which ended the year, the Aztecs thought the end of the world was coming. They broke to pieces their furniture and utensils, as well as their little household idols; the sacred fires in the temples were allowed to go out; everything was in wild disorder. On the evening of the fifth day the priests, in their richest dress, marched in procession out of the capital to a high mountain six miles away, carrying with them materials to kindle a new fire. They reached the mountain before midnight, and waited till the Pleiades were at the zenith, when by rubbing sticks together, they attempted to start a new fire. If the fire was lighted, it was a sign that the world would last another fifty-two years, and as the flames leaped up and caught the pile above it, shouts of joy arose from all the housetops in Tenochtitlan, where the people were anxiously watching the mountain-top. Before the sun rose, fast-running couriers had carried all over the country torches started at the new fire, so their altars and hearths were once more alight.

Then the people went to work to buy new gods and furniture and to clean their houses. When that was done, dressed in their best, they all went to the temple to return thanks. The days following were given up to feasting and dancing.

Such were the Aztecs under their Emperor, Montezuma. He himself was almost as queer a mixture of hardness and softness as was his religion. For some time now he had been looking for the return of Quetzalcoati, "the Fair God." Many omens had pointed that way. In 1510 the Lake of Tezcuco suddenly overflowed its banks and swept away part of Tenochtitlan. The next year one of the temple towers caught fire, also without any apparent reason, and could not be put out. The year following this, three comets appeared, and as late as 1518 a strange light that covered the whole eastern sky like a sparkling sea of fire had caused great terror not only to Montezuma but to all the people of Anahuac.

Montezuma had consulted the King of Tezcuco about this last omen, which happened not long before Grijalva's appearance on the coast, and Nezahualpilli had told him that it meant the downfall of the Aztec empire. When the news of Grijalva's landing came to Montezuma, he trembled. Surely this was Quetzalcoati, the Fair God, come back, but was he coming to bless or to punish?

Grijalva, however, departed without disturbing Montezuma, who again forgot he was a priest and went on with his exactions as a warrior. The omens could not mean what Nezahualpilli had said.

And then to this great king on his throne in Tenochtitlan came Teuhtlile's messengers, running from the seacoast with the picture newspaper in their hands. More white beings had arrived on huge white-winged birds. Some of the beings were half-man and half-beast with iron feet. Thunder and lightning came from their weapons.

Montezuma studied the pictures and listened to the reports, and again he trembled. Was Nezahualpilli right? Was this Quetzalcoatl? How should he meet him?

And then the two parts of Montezuma's nature began to argue. The warrior-half said, "Here is a foe; let us go down and crush him." The priestly half said, "It is the return of the god; let us go down and welcome him." And how could Montezuma tell which side was right?

The Emperor was not happy as he sat in his palace studying Teuhtlile's picture-writing.