The Aztec Empire peaked in wealth and influence during the century prior to Spanish conquest. The Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, also known as Mexica or Tenochca, expanded their empire through war and trade, subjugating other nations and demanding tribute. In addition to their political and economic aspirations, the Aztecs practiced a complex, polytheistic religion through rituals evoking death and revival.

Origins

The Aztecs named themselves after Aztlan, the "White Land" from which their ancestors migrated. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the exact location of Aztlan is unknown; the term may refer to the plateau of northern Mexico or it may not exist at all. The Aztecs believe their ancestors settled in Tenochtitlan, now called the City of Mexico, upon recognizing a sign from Huitzilopochtli, their god of sun and war: an eagle eating a snake atop a nopal cactus.

While the Aztecs believed in hundreds of gods, they saw Huitzilopochtli as fundamental to their livelihood. They believed that bloodletting and human sacrifice gave Huitzilopochtli the strength he needed to provide the sunlight necessary for agriculture.

Flowery War

The Aztec Triple-Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan shared a common culture with most of the Nahuatl-speaking civilizations, though this did not preclude rivalry. In the case of the Xochiyaoyotl, or Flowery Wars, they were able to appeal to their common culture in the interest of appeasing the gods, specifically Huitzilopochtli, to prevent crop failure and famine.

The Aztecs believed teyolia, or divine force, resided primarily in the human heart and, to a lesser degree, in human blood. Thus, human sacrifice was a means of satisfying the gods on a physical and spiritual level. According to the Australian National University, "When a warrior was sacrificed to the sun, it was believed that by extracting the heart his teyolia was released and received by Huitzilopochtli as energy." During a Xochiyaoyotl, warriors would capture members of the opposing forces rather than kill them outright. Later, priests would remove the captives' hearts in a ritual they called “the flowery death.” Victims often went willingly, as they believed the only path toward Tonatiuhican, an afterlife in the Land of the Sun, was through death by childbirth, war or sacrifice.

Agriculture

Astronomer priests would track and predict the course of the sun and the moon to determine when to conduct a sacrifice associated with agriculture. They devoted five months to Tlaloc, god of rain and “he who makes things sprout.” According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, "Children were sacrificed to Tlaloc on the first month, Atlcaualo, and on the third, Tozoztontli. During the sixth month, Etzalqualiztli, the rain priests ceremonially bathed in the lake; they imitated the cries of waterfowls and used magic ‘fog rattles’ (ayauhchicauaztli) in order to obtain rain."

In addition, priests selected a man to represent the Xipe Totec, god of fertility and renewal, toward the end of the dry season. During the sacrifice itself, priests killed and flayed the victim. One priest would don the victim's flayed skin and dance for days on end. The Art Institute of Chicago notes the symbolism of the ritual: "Like living seed within a dried husk, the deity impersonator embodies the relationship between death and the renewal of life." Because ritual was associated with planting maize, priests would often adorn the skin with gold or yellow decor.

Days of the Dead

While human sacrifice fell out of practice in the aftermath of Spanish conquest, a number of Aztec rituals continue to this day. Prior to conquest, the Days of the Dead festivities would last for an entire month. The rituals also honored the goddess Mictecacihuatl, who ruled over Mictlan, the underworld where most of the deceased resided. Families would celebrate their deceased relatives and invite them to join in with the festivities.

According to Burke Museum, "The Aztecs believed that the souls of the dead traveled to Mictlan, where they found rest. The aroma of copal incense and the bright color and fragrance of cempascuchitl (marigolds) then guided them back to visit their relatives." The festive nature of the Days of the Dead gives some insight into Aztec attitudes toward death. Helen Tafoya-Barraza writes that Aztecs believed "life was a dream and only in death did one become truly awake." With this in mind, Aztecs regarded deceased ancestors as sources of wisdom worthy of respect and celebration.