Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Rise of the Aztecs, Part XII, The New Emperor

7 April 2014 Comments (0)

Ten years after the fall of the Tepanec Empire saw the Triple Alliance evolving rapidly, growing by leaps and bounds, with Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, the partners of the famous alliance, cooperating readily when needed, while maintaining their city-states’ independence, developing each into its own direction.

Texcoco, the Acolhua Capital, flourished, growing into what our modern-day historians sometimes tend to call “The Athens of the Western World”; the refined, influential city-state, famous for its extensive collection of arts, huge library, cultivation of artists and “people of culture”.

Nezahualcoyotl

Nezahualcoyotl himself was reported to be a renowned engineer, poet, lawmaker, credited with many personally feats of engineering, from the wonders of his “summer palace” in Texcotzingo – a dry hill completely transformed by stone aqueducts carrying fresh water to nourish huge botanical gardens, complex of palaces, baths, temples, and other wonders of engineering ; to designing of Tenochtitlan’s dike, a huge project of levee that separated the brackish waters of Texcoco Lake from the spring-fed drinkable ones, keeping the frequent flooding of the island-city in check as well.

Tlacopan, the representative of the defeated Tepanecs, kept quiet and docile, satisfied with its smaller role of a junior partner, participating in the alliance’s wars, not put out with its smaller share of the spoils (one fifth of the tribute went to Tlacopan as opposed to the two fifths the Mexicas and the Acolhua received).

Tenochtitlan, the leading partner of the Triple Alliance, flourished more than the others! Their drive to move forward, not curbed by hostile powers or overlords anymore, burst unrestrained, pushing the island-city up the regional map, unstoppable now.

Tenochtitlan

Lead by energetic forceful leaders like Tlacaelel, Tenochtitlan blossomed from the mediocre city-state into a true capital, bursting with building projects aplenty, owner of growing collection of provinces, coping well with its newly gained status and the flow of tribute and manpower.

Tlacaelel’s extensive reforms, social, financial and religious ones, while probably angering some influential people, made this quick transformation possible. For some reason, this prominent, undoubtedly very powerful and outstanding man, had preferred to rule behind the scenes, as he retained his powerful position of the second most influential man of Tenochtitlan until the end of his life, for many more decades to come, serving as the Head Adviser to three emperors in succession, pushing his reforms and making sure his laws remained solid and unwavering, to support the world of clear Mexica domination he was busy ensuring. The Empire of his creation was to spread and hold on for nearly another century, shattered by the Spanish invasion in 1521 and the lethal diseases they brought along. But for the outbreak of small pox that, reportedly, wiped out up to ninety percent of Tenochtitlan’s population alone, the history of the Americas might have looked different today.

An excerpt from “The Triple Alliance (Below the Highlands)

Tlacaelel is working hard to keep our relationship with the towns of the Highlands at peace.” Their hostess seemed to be trying to divert the conversation in safer directions. “He is a great friend of your father and your emperor. As long as he is in power, nothing will ruin our altepetls’ relationship.”

“The Highlands are not looking for trouble. If something happens, it will not be their fault.”

Coatl felt the lightness of his mood evaporating. What would he do if something happened and a war broke? What would Father do? And his brother?

“Tlacaelel will not let anything happen,” repeated his woman stubbornly, her amusement gone. “There will be no war between Huexotzinco and Tenochtitlan, or Texcoco.”

“He has enemies,” said Citlalli quietly. “I hear people talk, in Tlacopan and here. He makes many changes, creates new laws, pushes on radical reforms. Even the priests are angry with him for promoting one new god above the other old ones. Many are unhappy with his way of doing things.”

“Those are the things that need to be done,” cried out their hostess, obviously having a hard time restraining herself from jumping to her feet. “He creates a new world, because the old one is not good anymore. It cannot evolve without radical changes, and people should be grateful for all the work he does instead of criticizing his every step, looking through eyes clouded with jealousy and their own small prejudices. They cannot see beyond the tips of their noses, while he sees to enormous distances, like an eagle.” Her cheeks burning with red again, she glared at them, obviously upset. “He is working so hard, giving everything he has for the future of this altepetl. While all they can do is criticize and lament the passing of the good old times, and the old ways of doing things. Hearing them, one can think it was so very good for Tenochtitlan to exist under Tezozomoc’s crushing paw.”

Coatl glanced at Citlalli, trying to warn her not to argue.

“The Adviser is not always right,” said the girl mildly, ignoring his stare. “He is changing too many things, and he doesn’t have respect for the old ways.”

“But the old ways are not good enough! Can’t you see it?” exclaimed Tlacaelel’s woman. “Mexica people can’t be powerful or important as long as they behave like a small island. Tenochtitlan can’t be ruled by the council of the districts’ elders. It is not practical anymore.”

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

5 April 2014 Comments (0)

I’m honored to present a guest post from , Spanish Bilingual Interpreter at American Translators Association, an expert on Mesoamerica and its various pre-contact nations and cultures.

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortez and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light spears. So heavy was the hail of weapons that one of the chronicles says “…the Mexicas furiously hurled their javelins. It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards…”

What the chronicle described as “javelins” were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and their neighbors.

Most of our understanding of Aztec warfare comes from the chronicles of the Spanish and the documents written by the Aztec and their neighbors after they had been conquered. Like any other expanding power, the Aztec Empire engaged in wars of conquest, supported an elite class of noble warriors, and sent expeditions against neighboring states.

War was aimed at expansion, but at the same time it was also full of high drama and religious ritual. Elite warriors gained glory by capturing opponents for sacrifice, so hand weapons and close combat were emphasized.

The atlatl was an ancient and important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. Although different forms of atlatl were invented sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Ages in both the Old and New Worlds, they had been replaced by bows and arrows in most places.

In modern times atlatl survived in a few places such as Australia, where the bow never arrived, and alongside the bow and arrow in the Arctic and parts of Latin America. In Europe and much of North America we know them only through archaeological finds.

The leverage of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears (usually called darts by atlatlists today) were dangerous weapons. It is frequently claimed that they would have penetrated metal armor.

This is not true, but most of the Spaniards would have worn lighter chain mail or leather and padded cotton armor similar to that of the Aztecs, and Garcilaso de la Vega, a veteran of Indian fights in Peru and Florida, complained that atlatl darts would pass clear through a man.

Nevertheless, we know a lot about atlatl, or spear throwers as they are also called. In a few recent societies, atlatl remained in use long enough to be observed by modern anthropologists.

The best known examples are some of the Inuit (Eskimo) groups in the Arctic, and the native peoples of Australia. Since modern guns have become available everywhere, there are now very few people who continue to use atlatls for hunting or because they wish to hold onto traditional ways.

The deity entwined with a snake on the British Museum atlatl could be Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, or Mixcoatl, a hunter god from the north, or one of several other gods in the complicated Aztec religion.

Although the Spanish explorers who met Aztecs and others using atlatls mentioned the weapons in their chronicles, their accounts of these unfamiliar weapons are brief and often unclear.

The atlatl itself was also an important symbol of warfare and magical power. Most of the important Aztec gods were sometimes shown holding atlatls or darts. Zelia Nuttall, who wrote the first important study of Mesoamerican atlatls, noted that atlatls are often shown with snake designs or associated with serpents.

Atlatls were also elaborately decorated with feathers, and associated with birds of prey, not too surprising for a weapon that threw a deadly feathered dart.

In any case, the few atlatls that survive from the Aztec and their neighbors are highly decorated.

The British Museum specimen is probably one of the gifts sent back to the king of Spain by Cortez, which then were passed around the royal houses of Europe. It is elaborately carved, and gorgeously gilded, a work of art fit for tribute to a king, or the weapon of a noble warrior. It is, however, perfectly usable, and we should not be surprised that fine weapons, symbols of power and religious war, were richly decorated. It seems likely that simpler models were used by most warriors, but we don’t know.

Major battles had apparently begun with a barrage of arrows and atlatl darts, before the warriors closed with macuahuitls – wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian. It is quite likely that Aztec warfare was rather similar to the medieval warfare of contemporary Europe where noble knights fought hand to hand with swords and won glory and ransom, but peasant archers with bows and cross bows did most of the damage and actually decided the outcome of battles.

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