One of the really cool things about where I live now – in the historic center of Mexico City – is that live in and walk around the same piece of land that was once the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. I’m literally just down the street from where the wandering Aztec tribe saw an eagle standing on a cactus eating a snake – a sign from the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl that this was the center of the universe and where they should build their city. So it’s really fun to think of what my neighborhood looked like 650 years ago as they built the highly organized city of some 200,000 people.
It’s also fun to think of all the wild stuff that used to go on around here back in the Aztec days. For example, I was reading recently about the dedication of the Templo Mayor, a shrine built for the god Huizilopochitli back in the late 15th century. See, Huizilopochitli was a pretty demanding sort who required a steady stream of sacrificial victims if he was expected to keep the sun rising every day. So for the Templo Mayor dedication, the Aztecs lined up 20,000 prisoners of war – the queue stretched for 3 miles – and sacrificed them all one after another over a period of four days. Now that’s what I call a grand opening!
Here’s another amusing anecdote from Aztec history: Back when they were working as mercenaries for Coxcox, ruler of Culhuacan, the Aztecs conquered the nearby civilization of Xochimilco and sent Coxcox 8,000 human ears as proof of their victory. Coxcox was so happy, he agreed to their request to make his daughter an Aztec goddess. Imagine his surprise when he showed up at a banquet in his honor and the entertainment included an Aztec dancer dressed in his daughter’s skin!
So as you can see, those Aztecs were pretty hard-core. Which helps, in part, to explain why Hernan Cortes and his small band of Spaniards were able to overthrow Tenochtitlan relatively easily. The Aztecs had pissed off so many of their neighbors in their endless quest for sacrificial victims that Cortes had little trouble finding allies to take them on.
Stories like these make me chuckle when I think of the Neal Young song “Cortez the Killer,” in which he sings of the Aztecs: “Hate was only a legend, war was never known...”
Neal Young writes some good songs, but his Mesoamerican scholarship leaves a little to be desired.