The Course of Mexican History

By Michael C. Meyer; William L. Sherman et al. | Go to book overview

5
Aztec Society and Culture

It is one of the paradoxes of history that violence and artistic development are entirely compatible within the same society; brutality coexists with refinement and justice. Aztec society is a good case in point. We have seen the emergence of a state committed to a policy of war and hostage to a bloodthirsty religion; it is also true that Aztec society and culture embodied some remarkably enlightened codes of conduct and justice, sensitive accomplishments in the arts, an orderly administration, and behavior that was strangely puritanical in outlook. In some respects it was civilization of the highest order.


AZTEC RELIGION

The mutually reinforcing relationship between Aztec cosmology and imperial policy bears examination. Aztec ideology certainly incorporated longstanding aspects of Mesoamerican religions, but it is probable that other elements were added by fifteenth-century rulers who recast migration history and myth in order to facilitate and legitimate their conquests. The Aztec rationale for human sacrifice had its origin in a cosmic view that encompassed the demands of their god Huitzilopochtli, lord of the sun and god of war, as well as a myth of solar struggle. They believed that the sun and earth had been destroyed in a cataclysm and recreated four times, and that in their age of the fifth sun, final destruction was imminent. That fate was, understandably, to be avoided as long as possible, and the Aztecs believed that special intervention through Huitzilopochtli would serve their interests.

Furthermore, the Aztecs accepted the view of a natural cycle: the sun, along with the rain, nourished the plant life that sustained human life, and therefore humans should give sustenance to the sun and rain gods. Ancient deities had sacrificed themselves to the sun, and mere mortals could hardly decline the same honor. The greatest offering that could be made, the highest expression of piety, was the giving of life itself. In practice, the ritual offering to the sun god involved the re-

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