The Aztecs dominated Mesoamerica from around 1325 until the conquest of the Spaniards around 1520. (1) The Aztecs ruled with brutal force and human sacrifice was very important to continue pleasing the gods. They shared similar gods and symbolism with other Mesoamerican civilizations such as the serpent deity, the Jaguar and the Sun god, and believed themselves to be the heirs of the great warriors of the Toltecs. (1) Their temples and monuments show strong ties to the cultures of Mesoamerica that had inhabited the area before them and it’s obvious they strived to surpass previous civilizations.
This paper will highlight the common building methods and purposes of the Aztecs and how those structures represented the Aztec worldview. I’ll also delve into the evidence that suggest they were a dominating, history changing people that took traditions of Mesoamerica much further To completely understand the purpose and the motives to build the great pyramids and temples of the Aztecs, one must look at the civilizations that inhabited the region thousands of years before them. Since the rise of Mesoamerican societies, polytheism has been the most common religion.
The native peoples worshipped many gods and seemed to be in search of the meaning of life. Each society throughout the ages centered their religion on the forces of nature, they worshipped gods who controlled forces of nature and each was worshipped in a different way. The practice of monument and temple building in Mesoamerica has generally had the same purpose, to please and worship the gods. Unlike the great pyramids of Egypt that were built as tombs for Pharaohs, the Mesoamerican pyramids were built mainly as ceremonial monuments.
The grandest of temples of the Mesoamericans was usually dedicated to the sun god, their protector. Although each civilization worshipped in a different way the concept was usually the same, build huge temples that resembled aspects of nature to please the gods. This is why almost all of the Mesoamerican temples incorporate symbolic animals into their hieroglyphs and art work. Another example of symbolism is the shape of their temples that resemble mountains. (3) So, as we look at how the Aztecs built monuments we can see that they practiced many of the same traditions and ceremonial building processes as their predecessors.
In fact, it was acceptable to, instead of destroying old temples build over them. It was believed that since the old temple was blessed by the gods, building over it would further please the gods, adding more stairs, a larger sacrificial are at the shrine at top and reaching closer to the heavens. (2) Aztecs would also add their own symbolism to shrines and temples that they had either discovered or conquered. This was the case at Teohtihuacan, a site believed by the Aztecs to be the place where humanity of the current era started.
The Aztecs were amazed by the pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the Avenue of the Dead. They believed the Toltecs were the one who built it but we know now the site is much older; nonetheless the Aztecs used these shrines for their own purpose. The Aztecs were on a divine mission to conquer as much of Mesoamerica as they could. They conquered native peoples and used their existing shrines for their religious purposes and used the captured people as an offering of blood and human sacrifice to the gods. Evidence of this is all over Mesoamerica as many sites have mass burials and altars at temples.
The Aztecs believed it was their destiny to continue to expand and build temples and offer blood to please the gods. One of Mesoamerica’s premiere cities was Tenochtitlan, present day Mexico City. It is no surprise that this is the location of Templo Major. The double temple was constructed of stone and covered in stucco then brightly painted. The Temple was built with two staircases leading up to the two shrines on the top of each temple’s peak, one dedicated to the god of rain and fertility Tlaloc and the other to the god of the sun and war, Huitzilopochtli.
Tradition states that Templo Major was constructed at the place where the sun god himself gave the Aztec people the sign that they had reached their destination. (4) The structure was built to worship the two gods and to worship them better the temple had to reach into the sky. Also one could not see the top of the temple because of its steepness. At the top of both platforms were altars where thousands of human sacrifices were performed. The temple had been built upon many times making it closer to the heavens each time.
It is likely that the Aztecs built larger and larger temples to appease the gods and to bring well-being to the Aztecs. It is a common theme among Aztecs for entire city centers to be dedicated to ritual ceremonies. There are approximately 78 buildings in the Templo Major complex but the double temple of the Sun and Rain gods towers above all the others. (5) Many Mesoamerican cultures had long since been familiar with astrological movements and patterns, The Aztecs were no different. Templo Major is aligned with the cardinal directions; this indicates the cosmic forces that influenced Aztec religion.
As well as its cardinal alignment The Temple is designed to represent the 11 levels of heaven and 9 levels of hell, the entire structure is meant to represent the location where humans on earth cross into the underworld. (6) Humans were sacrificed at shrines at the top of both sets of stairs, so it makes sense that this be the place where humans cross heavenly planes. It is a common theme among Aztec cities for entire city centers to be dedicated to ritual ceremonies. There are approximately 78 buildings in the Templo Major complex but the double temple of the Sun and Rain god’s towers above the others. 5) The Aztecs used their architectural ability to please the gods and send the message of their power to anyone who saw their temples. Templo Major is just one of many examples of how the Aztecs used temples for ceremonies and to demonstrate the status of the civilization. There are Aztec temples all over Mesoamerica and older temples that the Aztecs used themselves too. When a group of people believe that they are the chosen ones and that god is on their side they can achieve great things.
The Aztecs believed from the time they arrived at Tenochtitlan that their destiny was to be the greatest of all civilizations before them. The civilizations before them failed and collapsed, many for reasons unknown; but to the Aztecs it was because they had displeased the gods. The previous civilizations fell short of their responsibility to nurture the gods, that’s why the Aztecs believed they no longer existed. The monuments, temples and shrines left in Mesoamerica in times preceding Aztec rule, were evidence to the Aztecs of their ancestors failed efforts to please the gods. So what did the Aztecs do?
They built larger temples than their predecessors, with more intricate symbols and a desire to be more in unison with the cosmos. They believed that everything their ancestors did was not enough, and to survive as the Aztec people they had to go to much further lengths. Of course, in direct correlation to the increase in temple size was the increase in ritual human sacrifice. They went hand in hand and the Aztecs believed that was the key to becoming the greatest of all mankind. A better relationship with the gods meant better bounty during harvest and more success in their constant war campaigns.
The appeasement of the gods was a viscous cycle that worked like a machine to keep the Aztec state healthy. The arrival of the Spaniards in 1520C. E. put an end to the great Aztec state. The Spaniards were in awe of the Aztecs architectural ability but were also horrified at the purpose of these grand monuments. They attacked and conquered the Aztecs and destroyed as much of their religious traditions as possible. They erected a catholic cross on the top of Templo Major and put an end to all human sacrifice. (7)
With a society like the Aztecs who believed them to be the chosen people of their gods and on a divine mission to conquer all others; it is probable that the Aztecs would not have slowed down for centuries to come if not for Spanish intervention. Their quest for heavenly and political power was at its height at the time of the ancient civilizations death.
(1) Scarre, Christopher, and Bryan M. Fagan. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2008. Print. (2) “Aztec Temples. ” Aztec History. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://www. aztec-history. com/aztec-temples. html>. (3) “Aztec Architecture. ” ThinkQuest. Oracle Foundation.
Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://library. thinkquest. org/10098/aztec. htm>. (4) “El Templo Mayor De Mexico-Tenochtitlan. ” 35 Anos Viajando Por Mexico. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www. mexicodesconocido. com. mx/el-templo-mayor-de-mexico-tenochtitlan. html>. (5) Hassig, Ross (2001). Time, History and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. Austin TX USA: University of Texas Press. (6) “Templo Mayor. ” Archaeological Research Institute. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://archaeology. la. asu. edu/tm/pages2/mtm10. htm>. (7) -Gomez, Juana (1997). Dictionary of Mexican Rulers 1325-1997. Westport CT USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 8.