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The Aztec Culture

This page was created for ATID 410-1 at North Dakota State University.

Created by Chris Althoff, Randy Habeck, Brad Hegseth

The Aztecs

The Aztec culture originated in the four-corner area of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Colorado. In the late twelfth century they began a slow migration southward until they reached Mexico (Figure 1) and gained prominence in the late fourteen hundreds. The Aztecs were an advanced civilization that built intricate cities such as Tenochtitlan, which was their island capital. The Aztecs were primarily a sedentary culture that relied on hunting and gathering. The Aztecs were dedicated to their religion. A showing of this dedication was human sacrifices in impressive ceremonies to the gods. Dress was an important part of Aztec religion and daily life. The Aztecs were a very advanced civilization for their time and through religious beliefs, government involvement, and family life they lived a full and productive life.

The Aztec empire was advanced for its time. It had an elaborate government and society that consisted of four classes. The four classes were nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. These classes showed a hierarchy of power with nobles being the most powerful and slaves being the least powerful. In government most of the office positions were hereditary, but one could obtain a high office by serving the emperor. Slaves were obtained through war and people who couldn't pay their debts were also enslaved. Commoners made up the majority of the population and survived by farming. Serfs worked the land for nobles.

Aztec economy was based upon agriculture, corn being the most important crop. They practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and many times achieved crop surpluses. These surpluses were stored and used during hard times. They also had elaborate irrigation systems, which allowed them to farm dry lands. They farmed shallow lakes by scooping up mud and forming islands called chinampas. These islands made for very fertile land that was effective for growing crops. At Tlateolco they had an extensive market that was the largest of its time. Interestingly the Aztecs had no money system; rather they traded goods and services.

Religion was a staple in the Aztec culture. The Aztecs worshiped hundreds of gods and goddesses; each represented a different aspect of life. Ceremonies were very important to the Aztecs during the agricultural year ensuring good crops. During these ceremonies human sacrifices were given to the gods. Many of the sacrifices were war prisoners or children. They felt that human hearts and blood gave the gods strength. Large temples were built to perform these sacrifices.

Family was a major aspect of Aztec life. The men were primarily hunters and gatherers, while women mainly cooked and wove clothing. Young boys were educated by their fathers until the age of ten when they started school. Young girls stayed at home with their mothers and learned household chores. Common wedding ages were sixteen for women and twenty for men.

The Aztecs had many different kinds of food they enjoyed. Some of the most popular dishes were tacos, tortillas, and tamales. Other foods were seeds from the sage plant, which were used as cereal, spicy peppers, eggs, turkey, rabbit, dog, and other things. A delicacy for the Aztecs was green slime, which was scooped off the top of Lake Texococo. It was said to have tasted like cheese. For refreshment they often drank water and on special occasions they drank beer and the nobles enjoyed chocolate sweetened with honey.

The warm climate forced the Aztecs to develop clothing that was loose and flowing. Women wore sleeveless blouses and wraparound skirts. Men wore cloth around the hip area and a cloak over a shoulder. Nobles wore cotton clothing with much decoration. The poor wore clothing made from maguey fibers. During religious ceremonies masks were often worn.

For protection the Aztecs constructed simple houses. Their houses were constructed for purpose rather than beauty. In the highlands the houses were made of adobe. In the lowlands the walls were made of branches plastered with clay. The homes were not the only buildings that families had. They also had storehouses and small sweathouses, which were used for steam baths.

The Aztecs expressed themselves through music, arts, crafts, and the sciences. Music played an important role in Aztec religious rituals. The most important instruments were flutes, drums, and rattles. These were played along with chanting to help worship the gods. A popular way to pass the time was through art. Some of the Aztec art is still around today. One such piece is the Calendar Stone (Figure 2). This stone, which was twelve feet in diameter, represented the Aztec universe. It is thought that the hearts of human sacrifices were placed on this stone and presented to the gods. Feathers were used for head dresses, cloaks, and masks. Other crafts were woodcarving, pottery, and weaving. Showing their knowledge in the sciences, the Aztecs had a 365 day calendar that is accurate by today's scientific standards.

The Aztec communication skills were very well developed for their time. The Aztecs had their own language called Nahuatl. They wrote their thoughts through a system of writing known as pictographic writing. This consisted of small pictures that represented words. However, this form of writing was not developed enough to provide full expression of ideas, but it is considered very advanced for its time. Pictographic writing was mainly used by the highly educated to keep business records.

To conclude, the Aztecs were a highly civilized culture. Their extensive four-class society along with religion and government gave it a strong structure. The farming based economy gave the people an effective way to make a living. The music, arts, and crafts gave the Aztecs a means of expression. As one can see the Aztecs lead a structured and meaningful life that enabled the Aztec society to become a very advanced civilization.

Aztec Dress

Aztec dress plays an important role in Aztec culture. One reason they wore clothing was for protection. The Aztec army wore extensive forms of armor to protect them in times of war. They also clothed themselves because of modesty; this was the main reason for dress of the commoner. Dress also helped one to recognize social status and rank. For example, nobles dressed differently from serfs, commoners, and slaves. Aztecs also adorned themselves in special ways to conduct ceremonies such as sacrifices. Dress is an important area in many facets of Aztec culture and played a vital role in determining class, government rank, and religion.

Dress is a common way to distinguish between Aztec social classes. Within Aztec society there are four social classes: nobles, commoners, serfs, and slaves. Figure 1 shows the dress of many of the four classes in a crowded market. Nobles were the highest in rank and could easily be recognized by the manner that they dressed. To achieve noble status one could become a religious leader or inherit the status. A common material used in noble clothing was cotton. The dress included symbols of their high rank. For example, the more one's clothing was decorated the higher rank they were perceived to have. Gold was an important adornment to a noble's dress. Another accessory to noble dress was feathers on the head and on their robes. Bright colors were also a sign the individual was of high rank. The function of noble dress was adornment and modesty. They often dressed to draw attention to themselves. The noble dress also communicated the status they had obtained. Another function of noble dress was to show that they were involved in government and many times showed their role as religious leaders.

Commoners and serfs dressed much alike. They dressed with much less accessories and the colors used were less bright. For men of these ranks a loincloth was often all that was worn, while women often wore a simple cotton dress. The major reason for dress for these ordinary people was modesty. They also dressed for convenience and utility on the job. For example, they dressed differently for agricultural work and hunting.

Slaves often wore very little clothing. Slaves did wear jewels in holes in their face and had feathered mantles that were admired for their workmanship. A skirt of feathers completed their attire. Slave clothing didn't have much purpose. The main purpose was modesty and for general work functions. Figure 2 shows the feathered mantle of a slave.

The Aztec army dressed much differently than the rest of the culture. The main reason for this was for protection in times of war. The dress of higher warriors was very elaborate. Their bodies were covered with a close vest of quilted cotton. Although impenetrable the garment was very light. The wealthier chiefs often wore a thin layer of gold or silver instead of the vests. Covering this inner layer was a coat of extravagant feathers. Helmets were often made of wood and fashioned to look like the heads of animals. They also carried shields to fend off arrows and spears. The shields were made of woven reeds with feathers lining the outside. On the cover of some shields there were figures of some animals that represented different strengths that the Aztecs believed they received from these animals. Figure 3 shows a typical Aztec shield. Often the warriors waved a panache of feathers dusted with stones and precious metals. They often wore collars, bracelets and earrings of the same materials. Commoners wore body paint, which was the color of the banner of the chief who they followed. They wore very little clothing other than a simple girdle around the loins. Warriors could earn the right to wear costumes of animals for the amount of prisoners they capture. Figure 4 shows a warrior costume. As one can see, the main function of army dress was for protection. The dress allowed for proper protection against the weapons of the time. Another function of the dress was to show the chief that they followed. The Aztec warriors did this by painting the color of the chief's banner on their body. For upper soldiers dress also showed role and rank. While for common soldiers, it was used for modesty.

The Aztecs had many futile weapons they used to fight neighboring tribes. One such weapon was a wooden club edged with sharp pieces of obsidian. This weapon was called a macuahuitl and disabled an opponent often without killing the enemy. Aztecs also used bows and arrows and spears. A device called an atlatl increased the range and force of the spears. The weapons main function was to disable the opponent protecting the warrior.

Religion was another area where dress played an important role. Many ceremonies involved human sacrifices to one of their gods Tezcatlipoca. The people who were sacrificed were often painted red and black. The red symbolized blood and new life, while the black represented the evils they had done. The Aztec priests who conducted the sacrifices wore black robes stained with blood. Interestingly the Aztecs often ate portions of the sacrificed bodies believing they would receive strength and bravery. Often Aztecs wore masks to participate in sacred rituals. Figure 5 shows one such mask. The religious dress served the function of adornment and communicated the role of the individual in the ceremony.

Montezuma, one of the kings of the Aztec culture was an influential part of Aztec dress. Many of the things he wore were often passed down to lower cultures and represented power. Montezuma wore a mantle, which was white and blue called a tlimatli. This mantle folded over his shoulders and was held together by a green clasp called a chalchivitl. He wore precious gems set in gold on other parts of his dress. His feet were adorned with golden sandals. Montezuma's dress was mainly for adornment and to show his high-ranking status.

In the book Functions of Dress, Penny Storm defines aesthetics as a groups ideal of what is beautiful in form and style, their collective taste. The Aztecs aesthetics were extensive jewelry often made of gold or precious stones. Headdresses often made of feathers were also considered to be very beautiful. Cotton was a major fabric of Aztec clothing and was considered to be the best material. For women binding the hair with a cotton scarf was considered very elegant. Women's hair was often long and flowing. Aztecs overall view of beauty is that adornment along with tasteful colors makes for beautiful dress.

In conclusion, the way the Aztecs dressed is related to religion, social class, government roles, as well as aesthetics. The functions of the dress vary with every aspect of Aztec culture and everyday life. The way people dressed also allowed the people to tell the difference between the social classes. Aztec dress was also crucial in many religious ceremonies. To the Aztecs beauty was signified by lots of color, gold jewelry, and cotton clothing. Aesthetics was vital in choosing how one would dress. Aztec dress signified social status, government rank, and religious ceremonies.


Source 1: Bricker, Victoria R. (1981). Supplement To The Handbook Of Middle American Indians.
(Vol. 1). Aztecs. pg.193, 232, 230, 208-209.

Source 2: Bricker, Victoria R. (1992). Supplement To The Handbook Of Middle American Indians.
(Vol. 5). Aztecs. pg. 67-68, 63.

Source 3: de Marly, Diana. (1990). Dress in North America. (Vol. 1). pg. 5-11.
New York: Holmes & Meier.

Source 4: Microsoft Corp. (1997). Aztecs. Microsoft Encarta 1997.

Source 5: On-line Source. Early Aztec History.

Source 6: Storm, Penny. (1987). Functions Of Dress. pg. 237-238, 288. Englewood
Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Source 7: World Book Encyclopedia. Aztecs. 1996 Edition. pg. 999-1004.