Conquest Through Religion
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Conquest Through Religion

The Aztec, despite their humble beginnings, produced one of the greatest civilizations of Mexico. Originally they were nomadic warriors from northern Mexico who settled about a.d. 1200 on a small, heart—shaped island in Lake Texcoco and created the city of Tenochtitlán. From here, as an amphibious community dependent on the lake, they adapted sandbanks, marshes, and a network of islets for the purposes of living. These warlike people conquered central Mexico and imposed worship of their gods on the nearest villages on the mainland. Doubtless the conquests were quite barbaric, but ruthless savagery seemed appropriate to their religious beliefs. The Aztec reached their greatest power and development under Montezuma II, who ruled from 1502 to 1520. With the coming of the Spanish conquerors, his downfall, and that of his people, was abrupt and final.

Perhaps the collapse of the Aztec civilization resulted from the beliefs basic to their religion. According to legend, in the midst of darkness one of the gods hurled himself into the flames of a great fire. He emerged transformed into the brilliant sun. But the sun remained immobile and would not move without "fuel," which of course was blood. The other gods sacrificed themselves so that the sun, deriving life from their death, might begin moving. This symbolized the Aztec belief that life can come only from death; there is merely a transformation of energy.

Because the sun died every night, it had to be resurrected with human blood. Only this "precious water" would give it the strength to be reborn and to move across the sky. Human sacrifice became imperative as the sole means whereby humanity could survive at all. Without the steady flow of blood, the sun would stop and the entire world would plunge into darkness and death. About 15,000 humans a year were sacrificed to the sun god Huitzilopochtli. However honorable sacrificing oneself may have been, most of the victims were prisoners taken in the frequent wars, which were often started solely to round up victims for sacrificial rituals.

The Aztec war machine, always seeming to be in the act of conquering, was really geared more to the capture than to the slaughter of the enemy. In the military hierarchy, rank and honor depended upon the number of captives taken; a man who took no prisoners carried no esteem, even if he were a prince. This obsession partially accounts for their dismal performance in the open field against the relatively small band of Spaniards, who sought to kill with their swords. The Aztec weapons were more suited to wound; the rationale was that a dead enemy could not be sacrificed to the gods.

Aztec wars of conquest and prisoner—taking were an almost constant fact of life, and the gods were kept satisfied with the flowing blood of sacrifice. The greatest recorded sacrifice of all time took place in the year 1487, in the reign of Ahuitzotl, to inaugurate the Great Temple, which of course had to have its start in blood. The emperor, together with two allied rulers and his leading official, led the way, accompanied by throngs of priests. Everyone, priests as well as victims, was dressed as a god. The captives who were to be sacrificed, duly painted and feathered, formed interminable lines that stretched along the main causeways into the city. The performance had an enormous captive audience since the people of neighboring towns were ordered, on pain of death, to come to the capital to watch the proceedings. No one was exempt from attending the ritual, and not a single man, woman, or child was seen in the streets of their hometowns.

Records confirm that the sacrificial slaughter lasted four complete days. When Ahuitzotl and his royal colleagues wearied of gashing open the victims' breasts and tearing out their hearts, priests and other lesser dignitaries took up the knives in their place. So covered was the temple with fresh blood that it appeared to have been painted red. According to tradition, the victims numbered 80,400—a figure repeated by several sources.

Many daily activities of the Aztecs were sacred in nature, and human sacrifice in their daily life was common. One of the more violent games, played only by dignitaries and warriors, was tlachtli, played with a hard rubber ball on an I—shaped court. The object of the game was to knock the ball into the opponent's end of the court, much the same as in modern volleyball, except without using hands or feet to move the ball. Teams could also win the game by making the ball pass through either of two stone rings set on the sidewall of the court. The rings were 20 feet above the ground and just large enough for the ball to pass through. On the rare occasion when a goal was achieved through the rings, the person who scored, along with his friends, was allowed to confiscate clothes and possessions of any spectators they could catch. Most often they would attempt to catch a rich noble, the only person able to repay them for what they had endured.

Since the ballgame was fairly dangerous, players were covered with a protective, armorlike leather garment. Still accidents were quite frequent, with crushed ribs or chest and broken limbs common. Occasionally a player unable to rise from the field at the end of a game would simply bleed to death. And a defeated player just might have his more successful rival assassinated. In either case, one of the bloodthirsty gods would profit from the sacrifice.

One of the more unusual customs practiced by the Aztec was their selection each year of a very handsome young man to be sacrificed to their chief god Tezcatlipoca. For 12 months the man was treated royally as if he were a king and allowed every possible luxury. He was taught to play the flute, an important skill for royalty. He ate the same foods as the king and was wined, fed, and doted upon constantly. His every whim was taken seriously and satisfied immediately. He spent the last month with four beautiful girls of his own choosing. At the end of the month he led a procession to the temple of Tezcatlipoca. As he lay on the sacrificial altar, four men held him down while a priest, using an obsidian knife, cut open his chest and tore out his heart. His death would ensure the continued life of the god.

Historians are sure that the all—powerful religion of the Aztec was the unifying ingredient in their lives. The blurred relationship between life and death made human sacrifice infinitely acceptable. Ancient predictions of the future were common knowledge to the Aztec. For example, the most powerful wind god, Quetzalcóatl, was predicted to return from exile in 1519. He was fair—skinned and bearded, and would be riding on an animal (which turned out to be a horse) that only the gods could ride.

By an extraordinary coincidence Cortez unknowingly fulfilled the ancient Aztec prediction. The bearded Spaniard, bent only on conquest and plunder in the name of his country, arrived on the Atlantic coast to begin his invasion of Mexico in 1519, just as predicted. When he appeared, all the chiefs and priests fell on their knees in awe and hailed him as the god Quetzalcóatl. Even the great Montezuma thought Cortez was the returned wind god. No real resistance would be permissible against a powerful god.

The Aztec were so thoroughly beaten that their descendants were never able to rise from the disaster, in which all authority, beliefs, and religion collapsed. All that remained of this brilliant civilization was the peasant. With his hut, his field of maize, some poultry, and limited hopes for the future, he alone survived. Historians, both native Aztec and Spanish conquerors, have ignored this peasant, who, now as then, continues to lead his patient, laborious life in nonthreatening obscurity.