New Vision of the Aztecs

THE LATE AFTERNOON sun illuminates Mexico City’s Great Temple of the Aztecs. I pause outside the shrine of the rain god Tlaloc to examine a guardian statue colored turquoise and burnt-orange. The stone figure reclines, knees bent, its head turned to one side, as if anticipating my approach. In its hands is a bowl meant for offerings.

Not long ago, this statue and more than seven thousand other Aztec artifacts, even the Great Temple itself, were only memories. These jewels of the 14th- to 16th-century city of Tenochtitlan lay buried beside the Zócalo, Mexica City’s historic plaza. I am here today to help celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the excavation of this sacred site, an excavation that continues today.

My host is David Carrasco, a Princeton University historian of religions. Until I read Carrasco’s book Religions of Mesoamerica, I had dismissed the Aztecs as merely violent people. In school I had learned about how they rose from a nomadic tribe to create the largest empire in pre-Columbian Central America, but my teachers had stressed the Aztecs’ bloody sacrifices.

Just as well, I had always thought, that Cortez had conquered Montezuma in 1520 and put an end to Aztec tyranny.

Yet as I tour the Great Temple ruins, I am beginning to see for myself that Aztec culture was about far more than conquering rival tribes. The Aztecs’ spirituality was rich, their poetry stirring, their agricultural practices pioneering. With no knowledge of iron or steel, Aztec artisans carved near-perfect statues out of hard rock.

The Great Temple was once surrounded by pyramids and considered by the Aztecs to be the center of the world. According to legend, Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325 when an eagle lowered its head to mark the sacred spot. The eagle with a snake in its mouth remains the symbol of Mexico.

Today, the quiet of this sacred space offers an astonishing contrast to the teeming activity of the Zócalo. There, alongside narrow cobbled streets, vendors sell their wares, people kneel to pray inside the majestic neoclassical Metropolitan Cathedral, and tourists line up to view the Diego Rivera murals inside the National Palace, the site of the original palace of Montezuma.

The excavation of the Great Temple began in 1978 when workmen installing a new municipal lighting system struck a massive stone sculpture of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, “she with bells painted upon her cheeks.” The disk-like statue, its mouth slightly open, is said to represent the phases of the moon. The sculpture is now a centerpiece of the Museum of the Great Temple, which adjoins the excavation site and holds many impressive artifacts.

The moon goddess sculpture

Looking at these artifacts, I am struck by how closely beauty and violence are intertwined in Aztec culture. Recent scholarship reveals that human sacrifices were viewed as permitting the human body’s divine forces to nourish the elements, so vital to an agriculture-based society. Days of preparations, including fasting, music, and artistry, preceded the moments of ritual violence.

The sun and rain gods stood at the apex of the Aztec world, which contained 13 heavens, 4 directions, and 9 stages leading into the underworld. No pre-Hispanic images have survived of Huitzilopochtli, the sun deity, also worshiped as the war god. But one wing of the museum is devoted to the rain god Tlaloc, whom the Aztecs viewed both as a god of fertility and a deity to be feared. In one stunning piece, the god’s face is colored aquamarine, the eyes surrounded by coiled serpents, a forked tongue protruding from the mouth.

The Aztecs depended on Tlaloc because they were an agricultural people. They introduced corn, beans, tomatoes, squash, and other crops to the Spanish, who, in turn, brought them to Europe. Museum exhibits reveal that the Aztecs were also master builders known for their terracing, their irrigation canals, and their remarkable system of recycling sewage.

Even in modern times, Tlaloc seems to retain his power. This was evident when a 168-ton basalt statue of the deity was transported from a remote Mexican village to the nearby National Museum of Anthropology in 1964. Villagers initially protested having the statue moved, fearing that it would precipitate a drought. Thousands of people assembled to watch as the huge stone image was hauled away on a specially-built trailer. It was the dry season in the Valley of Mexico, yet suddenly the rain began to pour. Another downpour occurred as Tlaloc was installed in the museum garden.

Worlds merge in the Zócalo. Dancers in Aztec costumes perform just steps away from the ancient temple ruins.

AS I MOVE down a narrow, winding passageway on the Museum of the Great Temple’s first floor, museum director Eduardo Matos Moctezuma whispers to my companions: “If he does not return, well….” Round a corner is a stunning display of artifacts that the archaeologist discovered only a hundred yards away: a pair of clay figures atop stone benches with skeletal chests, protruding red livers, and outstretched palms. These figures are the guardians of the underworld. Broken and buried in mud when my guide, archaeologist Francisco (Paco) Hinojosa and others discovered them, they were painstakingly restored piece by piece. Holes in the clay heads show where natural hair was fastened for decoration. “The idea of restoring hair, you see, was an Aztec one,” the bald Matos informs me with a wry grin.

Princeton’s Carrasco laughs and adds, “It’s a mistake to think of Aztec society and religion as primarily concerned with violence and aggression. As their pictorial images and ancient texts show, the Aztecs worked cooperatively in farming communities. They developed exquisite crafts and art forms, sponsored poetry festivals, cared deeply for children, worried about the power of gossip, loved telling stories, and warmed to the excitement, color, and tensions of the marketplace. All of these activities were regulated and renewed by ceremonial performances.” Among the temple museum’s many exhibits are life-size dioramas, drawn from surviving texts, which depict the Aztec marketplace with men and women trading in food, pottery, precious stones, and weavings.

My voyage to the heart of Tenochtitlan has given me a new vision of the Aztecs. I walk back outside and along the ancient shrine, leaning forward to look upon a lime- and sandcovered room in which bas-reliefs of the Eagle Warriors, an elite band of Aztec fighters, were unearthed about five years ago. The myth is that, upon their deaths, the warriors were transformed to carry the sun on part of its daytime journey.

Worlds merge in the historic Zócalo beyond. Dancers in Aztec costumes. Magicians with large snakes wrapped around their arms. Mothers bound for the cathedral, their children chasing pigeons. As I pass amid the throngs of passersby, an Aztec verse leaps to mind: “The city lives; Mexico-Tenochtitlan defies time!”

Travel Tips

The Museum of the Great Temple (el Museo del Templo Mayor) is located at Calle Seminario No. 8 along the Zócalo (plaza), and is open from 9 to 5, Tuesday through Sunday. Call 011-525-542-0606 for more information. Advance permission from the Mexican tourist office (011-525-250-0151 or 800-482-9832) is required to visit the surrounding ruins. Also in the Zôcalo are the Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) and National Palace (Palacio National).

The Hotel Majestic (Best Western) has a rooftop restaurant offering a remarkable view of the Historic District: Calle Francisco I Madero No. 73; 011-525-521-8600; fax 011-525-512-6262. On the same street, No. 30 is the Ritz Hotel, 011-525-518-1340. For excellent (and relatively inexpensive) dining, try La Casa de Las Sirenas or one of the other Mexican restaurants located in refurbished colonial buildings around the main square.

Be sure and ride only in official “city taxis,” obtained at any of the hotel desks. The must-see National Museum of Anthropology is about a twentyminute cab ride from the Zócalo, on the Paseo de la Reforma at Gandhi in the Chapultepec part of the city. Call 011525-553-6266. Regular tour buses are available from several locations for trips to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, about 35 miles outside Mexico City.

Up-to-date travel tips are available at Mexico City’s Web site: