Aztecs, probably from Aztatl (heron), and Tlacatl (man), “people of the heron”, in the Nahuatl, or Mexican, language of Mexico, a surname applied to the tribe of the Mexica, or Chichimeca Mexitin (whence Mexico and Mexicans), a ramification of the Nahuatl linguistic stock which occupied aboriginal Mexico, in more or less contiguous groups, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when the Spaniards first came into contact with them. The Mexica proper held only a group of islands about the center of Lake Tezcuco, and one or two minor settlements on the shore. In 1519 the tribe numbered about thirty thousand souls of all ages and sexes, and was able to put into the field eight thousand warriors. By far the greater part of the population was concentrated in the central settlement called Tenochtitlan (from tetl, “stone”, nochtli, “prickly pear”, and Ilan, “place,” or “site”), which was founded, as is generally admitted, about the year A.D. 1325. Until their settlement upon the lake, the history of the Mexican tribe is uncertain. Data, in the shape of picture-writings, are fragmentary, except such as were executed in the sixteenth century by Indians, under the impulse of the viceroys or of ecclesiastics. These documents record constant shiftings of the tribe from points which are as yet undetermined, like Aztlan (Place of the Heron) and Chicomortoc (Seven Caves). These places are by most authorities located north of Mexico, and some color is given to the assumption by the relationship traced between the Nahuatl language of Mexico and Nicaragua and the Shoshonian idioms of the Northwest.
The Mexicans were the last of the Nahuatl-speaking Indians to reach the shore of the great Lake of Mexico. They found the valley occupied by several tribes of the same stock, and were received by these as intrusive destitutes. Thrust back and forth among these tribes for a number of years, and exposed to great sufferings, the feeble remnants of the Mexicans finally sought refuge on some sandy patches that protruded into the middle of the lake, and here they found, if not absolute, at least comparative, security. While in the beginning they had to subsist on aquatic food (fish and insects), they began to slowly increase in numbers. There being little space for tillage, they imitated a device in use among the tribe of Chalco; the construction of rafts which they covered with soil, and thus secured vegetable diet. Timber being obtainable only on the mainland, they resorted to adobe for the construction of shelters, and a settlement was gradually built up which gave promise of stability. Soon after their establishment in the lake, the Mexican tribe was composed of two groups; one of these was Tenochtitlan, the other bore the name of Tlaltelolco. Each of them having its own government, hostilities became inevitable, resulting in the defeat of the Tlaltelolco people. For some time after, the latter were held in a kind of servitude, until mutual resentment commenced to wear off. The overthrow of Tlaltelolco took place at the beginning of the fifteenth century, which is as near a date as we venture to assign, too close precision in dates previous to the conquest not being advisable as yet.
In the meantime, the other tribes speaking the Nahuatl idiom, who were established on the mainland (Tezcuco, Tlacopan, Atzcapozalco, Xochimilco, Chalco, etc.), alternately at peace and at war with each other, had not paid much attention to the Mexicans. About the time of the overthrow of Tlaltelolco, the Tecpanecas of Atzcapozalco obtained decidedly the upper hand and exacted tribute and servitude of their neighbors. They finally attempted to overrun the Aztecs also, and were successful for a short time, but the latter, directed by their war-chief, Moctecuzoma Ilhuicamina, and his colleague, the Cihuacohuatl Tlacaellel, formed an alliance with the tribes of Tezcuco and defeated the Tecpanecas, reducing them to a minimum of influence in the valley. Out of this alliance arose, in the middle of the fifteenth century, a formal league between the Mexicans, the tribe of Tezcuco, and that of Tlacopan offensive and defensive, after the manner of the “League of the Iroquois“. The events preceding the formation of this league are stated in many ways, according as information has been obtained from one or the other of the tribes entering into it, each claiming, of course, the leading part; but it is certain that the Mexicans held the military leadership, and probably received the greater part of the spoils. From the formation of this league dates that extension of Mexican sway which has led to the erroneous conception of a primitive Mexican nationality and empire.
The first aggressions of the confederates were on the tribes of Xochimilco and Chalco, at the southern outlet of the valley. They seem to have been reduced to tribute and the condition of tributaries and military vassals. Then, in the second half of the fifteenth century, raids began upon Indian groups dwelling outside of the lake basin. These raids were conducted with great shrewdness. East of the valley, powerful tribes of the Nahuatl linguistic stock, such as Tlaxcala, Huexotzinco, Cholula, and Atlixco, grouped about the great volcano Popoca-tepetl, were carefully avoided at first. The war parties of the confederates circumvented their ranges, pouncing upon more distant groups, nearer the coast. The same thing took place with Indians south of the valley, where the League extended its murderous inroads to Oaxaca. The vanquished were either exterminated or dispersed, if they resisted too well or attempted to recover their independence; or else were reduced to the payment of a tribute, annually collected by special gatherers dispatched from the valley, and of whom the tributaries were mortally afraid. This tribute consisted of products of the land, and of human victims for sacrifice. Besides, the subjected tribes were bound to service in war. The social condition of the vanquished was unchanged; they kept their self-government, their autonomy. The extent of Mexican, in the sense of confederate, sway has been exaggerated; neither Yucatan nor Guatemala was affected, and what have been represented as Mexican “subjects”, or “colonies”, in those countries were tribes of Nahuatl language established in the South at a very early date, and having no connection with Mexico and its Indians except the tie of common speech. Hence the so-called “Mexican Empire” was composed of a confederacy, territorially restricted to the lake basin, and outlying tribes, autonomous but tributary. All attempts of the Aztecs and their allies to overrun, in the manner above described, the more powerful tribes residing even in their immediate vicinity, failed. An attack on the Tarascans of Michuacan under the war-chief Axayacatl, about 1475, resulted in disastrous defeat. The wars with Tlaxcala, Cholula, and Huexotzinco, as well as with Atlixco, ended usually in drawn battles, with no decisive advantage for either side. Still, it is not unlikely that the confederates would ultimately have succeeded, since they had, through their raids on the coast-tribes, cut off their adversaries from the supply of salt, and also surrounded them almost completely, cutting off their resources in the direction of the sea.
This was the condition of affairs when, in 1519 Cortez landed at Vera Cruz, then an uninhabited beach. He recognized the weak points of the situation, and successively brought over to his side the enemies of the league, then one of its members, Tezcuco, and finally, with these auxiliaries, captured the lake-stronghold of the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs, putting an end to their existence as a tribe. The degree of culture which the Mexicans, or Aztecs, had reached was not superior to that of any of the sedentary tribes of the Mexican tableland, and in some respects it was below that of the Indians of Yucatan, Honduras, or Chiapas. Their social organization rested on the basis of localized clanship, twenty clans (Calpulli), with descent in the male line, forming the autonomous units which the tribe enveloped like a shell. The representatives of these clans, one for each, constituted the supreme tribal authority, the council, or Tlatocan, and were elected for life or during good behavior. These in turn, with the sanction of the religious chiefs, selected a head war-chief, or Tlacatecuhtli (Chief of Men), and an administrative head, who bore the strange title of Cihua-Cohuatl (Snake Woman), and probably had more religious attributes. It was the former whom the Spaniards understood to be a monarch, whereas he was properly but a chief executive, subject to removal. Moctecuzoma (Montezuma) was deposed while a captive of Cortes, and there are indications that one of the earlier chieftains (Tizoc), suffered a similar fate. The twenty clans were grouped in four principal quarters, each had its own war-chief with a special title. The four were subordinate to the Chief of Men, who was also ex officio the commander-in-chief of the joint forces of the confederacy. Each clan administered its own internal affairs, the tribal council only intervening in case of dissensions between clans, and managing intercourse with the two other members of the league.
The religious organization of the Mexicans had become very complex. The numerous Shamans (called priests by most authors) were grouped into four subdivisions, the medicine-men (Tlama-cazqui, probably), the hunters (Otomitl), and the warriors; above all of whom were the two Teotecuhtli as heads of worship. This organization was perpetuated, as among many Indian tribes today, by selection and training. The basis of the creed was a rude pantheism. Monotheism was unknown. Nor are there any traces of early Christian teachings. The so-called “cross” of Palenque is, first, not a work of the Mexicans, but of Maya tribes, and, second, it is not a cross but an imperfect Swastika. In consequence of the pantheistic idea of a spiritual essence pervading creation, and individualizing at will in natural or human f orms, numberless fetishes, or idols, were manufactured, which entailed a very elaborate cult and a very sanguinary one, from the time that historical deities (deified men) began to assume prevalence. The chief idols of the Mexicans were historic personages, probably Shamans of very early times, surrounded by a halo of miraculous deeds, hence credited with supernatural powers and, finally, supernatural descent. These fetishes (Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcohuatl, etc.) were sometimes of more than human size, of stone and wood, elaborately carved and bedecked with cloth and ornaments. To the idols human victims were sacrificed in various ways, and, relatively, in large numbers, although it is scarcely possible that more than hundreds—not thousands as reported—should have been slaughtered annually. The victims were obtained in warfare, and also formed part of the tribute imposed upon conquered tribes. Aside from these cruel executions, the Shamans subjected their own persons to not less cruel tortures and to severe penance.
A certain education was given to the male youth in special buildings connected with the houses of worship and called Telpuchcalli (Houses of the Youth). That education consisted in the rehearsal of ancient songs and the use of weapons. For counting, and for the preservation of historic memories, as also for tribute, pictographs, executed on a thin paste of maguey fibre spread over delicate pieces of tanned hide, were sometimes used. These paintings could indicate numbers (by dots and symbols), names (figures related to the meaning of the word), dates (dots and signs), and events (one or more human figures in action). Besides, they had two distinct calendars, the origin of which seems very ancient. Their great cycle was of fifty-two years subdivided into four periods, of thirteen years each. The years were named Tochtli (Rabbit), Acatl (Reed), Tecpatl (Flint), and Calli (House), and these four names were repeated thirteen times in the great cycle. The month consisted of twenty days, named and figured after the same method. They had also a ritual calendar, of twenty periods of thirteen days each, and for ceremonial purposes only. Their numeration went from one to twenty, from twenty to four hundred, eight thousand being the highest figure having a symbol (Xiquipilli, a bag, or sack). Their knowledge of heavenly bodies was limited; they knew the bissextile, and used a rude correction, but had no astronomical instruments. Neither had they any conception of the angle as a means of measuring. Dress and adornment were elaborate, in official functions; otherwise, the costume was simple, of cotton, with sandals and without trousers. The head was bare, except in the case of chiefs and some of the Shamans. Ornaments were of gold, silver, and bright stones, mostly turquoises, the stones being esteemed for color or brilliancy only. Gold was obtained as tribute, also silver. They knew how to fuse the metals by means of the blowpipe. They used copper and an accidental bronze, but no iron. Obsidian played an important part, being the material for edged tools and mirrors. They had no metallic currency, gold and silver were only for ceremonial and personal decoration.
The buildings of Tenochtitlan were of adobe (sun-dried bricks). The houses were mostly low, but wide; the places of worship small and dingy chapels, erected on the tops of huge artificial mounds of earth encased in stone work. These mounds (teo-calli, houses of the gods, or spirits) occupied the center of the settlement, and contained some sculptures remarkable for size and elaborateness. The teo-calli were also citadels to the otherwise unprotected pueblos. The several causeways built from Tenochtitlan to the mainland, were very creditable achievements. Tenure of lands was communal, without private ownership, each clan holding a certain area, distributed for use among its members. Agricultural implements were primitive. Land-tillage was of secondary importance to a tribe essentially lacustrine, and which relied chiefly upon warfare for its subsistence. Together with their confederates of Tezcuco and Tlacopan, the ancient Mexicans, or Aztecs, lived by preying upon other tribes, either plundering or levying tribute. They had no thought of founding a state or nationality. Commerce was carried on, even with tribes that were hostile, and it sometimes gave a welcome pretext for aggression. Of domestic quadrupeds they had only a species of indigenous dog. Like all Indian towns, Tenochtitlan had a large central marketplace (tianquiz), the extent and resources of which have been considerably exaggerated, as well as most other features of so-called Indian civilization.