The Relationship Between War & Religion in the Aztec Civilization

Aztec boys attended public schools, where they learned about religion and combat.
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While the Aztecs worshiped many gods, their beliefs surrounding Huitzopochtli had the greatest impact on the role their war tactics had in their spiritual lives. As the god of war and the sun, Huitzopochtli required regular human sacrifice in order to provide adequate sunlight and to ensure the success of Aztec forays into different territories.

1 Name and Representation

The word "Huitzilopochtli" is a combination of two words: "huitzilin," or hummingbird, and "opochtli," or directional left and south. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Aztecs believed warriors would be reborn as hummingbirds, signifying a close tie between the soldiers and their god. Indeed they credited Huitzilopochtli, "the resurrected warrior from the south," with leading the early Aztecs away from their homeland of Aztlan to the Nahuatl-speaking Valley of Mexico they would later dominate. Taking the form of an eagle, Huitzilopochtli signaled their final destination by slaying a snake and eating it atop a nopali cactus.

2 The Mythic Takeover

The Aztec noble Tlacaelel played a huge role in the elevation of Huitzilopochtli from tribal to primary god. Tlacaelel wished to cast the Aztecs as the gods' chosen rulers of the region, choosing to destroy any written history that revealed their nomadic origins. According to Alison Cheney of Princeton University, the worship of Huitzilopochtli supplanted that of the Nahua sun god, Nanahuatzin, and set the stage for later Aztec ritual and warfare: "Huitzilopochtli was said to be in a constant struggle with the darkness and required nourishment in the form of sacrifices to ensure the sun would survive the cycle of 52 years, which was the basis of many Mesoamerican myths." Indeed, Tlacaelel created ritualized warfare in order to sacrifice more warriors to Huitzilopochtli.

3 The Flowery Wars

While the Aztecs engaged in their fair share of wars to expand their empire and improve their financial interests, they considered the Flowery Wars to be more ritual than war. Initiated by Tlacaelel, the Flowery Wars typically involved the Aztec Triple-Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan and their enemy city-states, including Tlaxcala and Cholula. Each army would take captive enemy warriors back to their cities, where priests would first bathe prisoners in sacred springs, then take them to the sun temple to remove their hearts. Prisoners typically went willingly, as Nahua people believed sacrifice guaranteed them an afterlife in the Land of the Sun.

4 Priests of War

The high priest of Huitzilopochtli shared the top position in Aztec clergy with the high priest of the rain god, Tlaloc, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Chicago Field Museum notes that, given the regard the people had for Huitzilopochtli's priests, "State religion justified the idea of military conquest, the collection of tribute, the capture of sacrificial victims, and the conscription of young warriors – all to maintain the Aztecs' central place within the cosmic order." Aztec boys learned about the role religion played in warfare early, as they attended public schools, where they learned about war and religion from soldiers and priests, respectively, according to Aztec History. Priests also played a role in consulting with Aztec rulers regarding the ideal day to launch a campaign against a city that refused to comply with Aztec rule.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.