Five things writing taught me about Aztecs

“But how can you have a good history without any Aztecs?”

I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the rest of the conversation that led to that quote, a gem from my former coworker Emily. Emily and I always had the most ridiculous conversations (Such as discussing whether or not we would eat one another, were we made out of hamburgers) at work, which didn’t tend to hinder productivity.

I always loved mythology, but what I read most was what was already popular and well known – Information on Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology is easy to find. It wasn’t until my husband and I were together that I became interested in Aztec mythology.

My husband was born in the United States, but spent his childhood in Mexico. Aztec history was something he learned in school, as well as bits and pieces of the Nahuatl language. Despite his best efforts, he still can’t get me to pronounce any of the words correctly, though I come passably close with the name of our dog, Xochitl.

Writing bits and pieces of Aztec lore into Death of the Sun was originally another joke, but as I started learning from my husband and reading about Aztecs during the writing of the book, I learned a lot of interesting things and it eventually took a shift for the serious. For example, here’s a few tidbits I learned.

The Aztec calendar stone is a mystery

Despite being what is probably the most universally recognized symbol of the Aztecs, the calendar stone is often confused with the Mayan calendar. The purpose of the Aztec calendar stone is still debated by historians and archaeologists, though it is named because its surface bears a repeating pattern that mathematically indicates the number 365, which we recognize as the number of days in a modern year. The calendar stone is recognized to depict 5 “sun ages”, leading it to sometimes be called the Stone of the Five Eras. The Fifth Era had already ended by the time the stone would have been carved, though, making its purpose even more boggling! Also referred to as the sun stone, it was discovered in Mexico City in 1790, almost 270 years after the fall of the Aztec empire. The symbol is now widely embraced and used to represent Mexican culture, appearing in artwork and jewelry throughout the country.

The lifespan of the sun is 52 years

The Aztecs went through sun gods like nobody’s business. The five sun ages represented by the calendar stone were ruled by five different deities – Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Chalchiuhtlicue, and Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh’s face is believed to be depicted in the center of the calendar stone, and he was also the first sun god to succeed in not destroying the world. Despite this noble success, Tonatiuh was later replaced by Huitzilopochtli, the warrior god who was worshipped alongside Tlaloc in Tenochtitlan. Huitzilopochtli needed help, however. The Aztecs believed the sun could not move on its own, and Huitzilopochtli was not strong enough to keep it going, leaving his followers afraid they’d be trapped in night for the rest of Huitzilopochtli’s 52-year rule as sun god. To solve this perceived problem, they chose to supplement his strength with  human sacrifice for the rest of his rule.

Aztec gods had many jobs – And names

Few gods served only one purpose to the Aztecs. For example, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc were both sun gods, but Tlaloc also served as the god of rain and water, while Huitzilopochtli was the god of war. Through the ages, many of the gods cycled through different roles, some even shifting from being recognized as major deities to minor ones, and vice versa. Along with many jobs, quite a few gods had numerous names, which can be easy to confuse with other gods entirely. Huitzilopochtli was also known as Xiuhpilli and Totec – Not to be confused with Xipe Totec, which was the name of the deity of life, death, and rebirth… and also another name for Tezcatlipoca, though Tezcatlipoca and Xipe Totec were not the same god. Confused yet?

Tenochtitlan’s founding gave Mexico its flag

While there’s much debate about where the Aztecs originated, there’s no questioning where they ended up. According to legend, the Aztecs wandered for ages after a great hardship, cause and effect unknown, forced them to leave their original home. The sun god Huitzilopochtli bid them search for a new home, and told the priests they would know where to settle when they saw the sign – A golden eagle perched atop a cactus, devouring a snake. It’s a symbol that should sound familiar, because to this day, it’s the coat of arms visible on Mexico’s flag. It’s no wonder that the symbol that led them to settle in Tenochtitlan has remained such a strong cultural emblem, since Tenochtitlan has since been swallowed by Mexico City, the third most populated city in the world.

Photo courtesy of my cell phone

Aztecs probably lived in North America

Growing up in southern Illinois, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. According to the Aztec creation story, the Aztecs emerged from the ground by a great body of water, a region known as Aztlán. The actual location of Aztlán is obviously unknown, but evidence of the travels of the Aztecs are scattered all across the United States. One such instance is near my childhood home, a site known as Cahokia Mounds. Artwork found at the mounds now decorates overpasses in the area, and it bears a striking resemblance to Aztec art, something my husband remarks on every time we go to visit my family.
The story of the Cahokia mound builders meshes almost perfectly with that of the Aztecs, too – A great culture that simply disappeared one day, shortly before the time period in which the Aztec civilization began its rise in the heart of Mexico. While there are similar earthen mounds and pyramids throughout the United States, there’s a very large concentration of them along the Mississippi river, all the way up to the Great Lakes – a region that fits the traditional description of Aztlán quite well. Of course, we’ll never know if the connection is really there. After all, when the other regional natives were asked where the vast numbers of people living at the Cahokia mounds site went, the answer was the same from all of them: They simply didn’t know.

Regardless, this taught me that what Emily said is very true. How can you have a good history without any Aztecs?

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