Loading...

The Mayans are Mesoamerican civilizations developed by their people called the Maya. It is known for its advanced and beautiful writing system, culture, arts, math, calendar, and astronomical system. Click here to see more posts in this category.

Scroll down to see more articles about the history of the Mayans.

Mayans: Overview of the Civilization and History

(See Main Article: Mayans: Overview of the Civilization and History)

Mayan Symbols

Mayan symbols are a rich source of material culture for the Central American civilization and are among the most important archeological finds that have helped piece together their economics, farming methods, politics, and social practices.

Symbols carry the heart of every culture, and every culture’s symbols represent its inner reality to the people of that culture. Symbols can be anything, a gesture, a song, a phrase or an image. They often carry many layers of meaning that everyone in the culture understands intuitively.

Loading…

Hundreds of Mayan symbols can be found carved on stone, which allows archeologists and other researchers to gain an understanding of their culture. In fact, Mayan writing consists of symbols called glyphs. Of the hundreds of Mayan symbols, some appear more often on the carved stelae and temple walls in Mayan cities, revealing their importance to the culture. Glyphs of animals were powerful symbols to the Mayans, especially the jaguar and the eagle. The following shortlist describes a few important Mayan symbols.

mayan symbols

Kukulkan

The Mayan feathered serpent deity Kukulkan was known to other Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs and Olmecs who worshipped the god under different names. The myth surrounding this deity mentions the god as a creator of the cosmos in the Popul Vuh, the Kiche Maya sacred book. The serpent god is also called the Vision Serpent. Feathers represent the god’s ability to soar in the heavens while as a serpent the god can also travel the earth. Kukulkan cult temples during the Post-Classical era can be found in Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan. The serpent cult emphasized peaceful trade and good communication among the cultures. Since a snake can shed its skin, it symbolizes renewal and rebirth.

Jaguar

The jaguar, to the Mayans, was a powerful symbol of ferocity, strength, and valor. Since the big cats can see well at night, it symbolizes perception and foresight. As a god of the Mayan underworld, the jaguar ruled the celestial forces of night and day. As such, it represents control, confidence, and leadership. Mayan warriors wore jaguar skins into battle as a sign of honor and courage. The Mayans held the jaguar second only to Kukulkan in religious importance.

Hunab Ku

In the Yucatec Mayan language, Hunab Ku means one god or the only god. The term appears in the 16th-century texts such as the Book of Chilam Balam, written after the Spanish had conquered the Mayans. Hunab Ku is associated with Itzama, the Mayan creator god. Mayan scholars believe the concept of a supreme god over all the others was a belief that Spanish friars used to convert the polytheistic Mayans to Christianity. Hunab Ku was popularized by a modern Maya day-keeper, Hunbatz Men, who considered it a powerful symbol associated with the number zero and the Milky Way. He calls it the sole giver of movement and measurement. Scholars of the Maya say there is no pre-colonial representation of Hunab Ku, but New Age Mayans have adopted the symbol to represent universal consciousness. As such it is a popular design used for modern Mayan tattoos.

6 Reasons Why the Mayans Were an Awesome Civilization

Over the last few decades, the Mayan civilization has deeply captured our interests and imaginations. Generations of curious explorers have dived headfirst into the deep jungles of Central America and discovered buried cities, remarkable pyramids, spiritual mysteries, and astronomical and mathematical wonders that caused our fascination with this ancient culture to grow.

They left behind intricate architecture, unique cuisine, and languages that have had a tremendous impact on our modern world. Yet, the deeper we dive into the Mayan universe, the more obscure our vision of it becomes. After years of research and excavations, historians are still unable to tell us who these people really were, where they came from, and how their great empire collapsed. However, the little that we have learned reveals that the Mayans were an impressive, sophisticated and awesome civilization.

They Invented the First Organized “Ball Game”

When we think of sports, some of the first things that come to mind are ball games such as football and basketball, cheerleaders, and expensive halftime shows. We rarely think about the origins of these organized games, which date back thousands of years to the subtropical regions of Central America. Today’s sports fans have nothing on the Mayans. These people were serious about their games, deadly serious. Matches were life or death competitions accompanied by complex religious rituals.

Loading…

Tikal National Park in Guatemala, the largest excavated site in the entire American continent, houses five ancient ball courts that date back more than 3000 years. Researchers believe that the first organized team ball game in history was held there by the Mayans. Forget about golden medals and million-dollar contracts – the Mayans competed for their right to live. The winning team kept their lives, and the losing team was sacrificed to the gods and got to spend eternity in the Underworld.

Ballplayers wearing jade necklaces, little protective gear, and scary face paint would step out into hard stone courts seeking victory. They used a heavy eight-pound rubber ball with a human skull in the center of it. The game consisted of passing this ball around without it touching your hands, and then getting it to pass through a small basketball-like hoop. That is some serious ball!

They Developed Some of Our Favorite Foods

A lot of today’s favorite foods were developed in the ancient Maya world. For instance, the Mayans were the first to take out the seeds of cacao and toast them to make hot chocolate. They didn’t make M&Ms or Snickers bars, nor did they add milk or sugar to make the cacao taste sweeter. Instead, they drank their chocolate straight up as part of religious ceremonies. The Mayans saw cacao as a sacred fruit sent to them by the gods and even used it as currency. When the Spaniards got to Central America, they adapted the drink and added sugar and milk to make it taste better.

They were also responsible for other popular foods such as guacamole, corn tortillas, micheladas, and tamales.

They Used Glitter to Make Their Temples Shine

In 2008, scientists discovered large traces of mica, a shiny glittery material, while analyzing a Mayan temple in Honduras. It is believed that they painted their sacred temples with mica in order to make them sparkle in the sun. The paint would give their holy buildings a mystical appearance during the day.

They Built Pyramids to Reflect Astronomical Events

The Mayans were probably the most advanced astronomers during their time. Many of their amazing structures, such as the temple of Kukulcan, were built solely to depict astronomical events. During equinoxes, a shadow called the serpent slithers in a snake-like motion along with one of the temple’s staircases. This effect is caused by the sun’s angle, and how its light hits the building terraces.

At the Chichen Itza temple, the front staircase of the building marks Venus’s most northern position. The corners of the building also align with the sun’s position during summer solstice and winter solstice.

They Developed the Concept of Zero

While many historians believe that the idea of zero first originated in Babylonia, the Mayans independently developed it during the fourth century. Zero was represented as a shell-shaped glyph.

They Built a Great Civilization in the Middle of the Rainforest

One of the most intriguing things about the Mayans is how they were able to build, develop, and sustain a great civilization in the middle of the rainforest. Other large civilizations typically built their great empires in dryer climates, where centralized management systems formed the foundation of their cities.

Loading…

The Mayans took advantage of the area’s natural resources such as limestone, salt, and volcanic rock, and were able to thrive in it despite unstable climates.

Mayans at War

Environmental challenges, disputes with neighbors, and scarcity of resources led to the Mayans being at war. For many years, archeologists thought the Mayans a peaceful people, capable of war, but rarely indulging in it. However, as archeologists explored more Mayan cities and more evidence was uncovered, they realized that Mayans often fought wars, especially during the Late Classical era of 600 to 900 A.D. In fact, during that time a series of misfortunes hit the Mayans:

  • population exceeding the carrying capacity of the land
  • deforestation leading to soil erosion
  • decrease in soil fertility
  • sustained drought
  • malnutrition and disease
  • decreased trust in Mayan rulers
  • growing hostility among city-states as resources became scarce
  • endemic warfare

Earlier wars were fought for captives for human sacrifice, and for land, natural resources, and control of trade networks. City-states might even have arranged battles for captives as the Aztecs did with their Flower Wars.

However, the population growth and environmental destruction of the Late Classical era meant less food to feed the hungry cities. War for resources became endemic with battles fought between big city centers that dragged in many smaller polities. As warfare became more extensive and constant, Mayan societies began to fall apart. Finally, surviving Mayans abandoned their lowland cities and disappeared from that area.

The Mayans were fierce warriors, while not quite at the level of the Mongols, still a deadly threat to their neighbors.

Mayans at War: Long Distance Weapons

The Mayans had both long-distance weapons and melee weapons. The long-distance ones included bow and arrow, blowgun, slings, and throwing spears. When the atlatl or spear-thrower was brought to the Mayans from Teotihuacan around 400 A.D., it was quickly adopted and became the Mayans’ dominant long-distance weapon. The atlatl greatly increased the accuracy, force, and range of the spear; when thrown from an atlatl a spear reportedly could pierce the Spaniards’ metal armor. The blowgun was predominantly used for hunting, but it had some wartime uses as well. Mayan warriors used bows and arrows more during the Post-Classical era.

Mayans at War: Melee Weapons

When armies clashed in battles, they used melee weapons, including clubs, axes, stabbing spears, and knives. The Mayan war club resembled the Macuahuitl of the Aztecs in that it was lined with obsidian blades on three sides. These 42-in long clubs could stun, break bones, or cut. They were capable of cutting off a horse’s head. Mayans also used axes with heads of stone, obsidian, flint, or bronze. The sharp edge of the ax could kill, but the dull edge could stun. The object of the battle was often to capture, not kill, enemy warriors, making the ax a good weapon. In hand-to-hand combat, the Mayans used the same 10-inch blade knives they used in sacrifices.

Mayans at War: Defensive Weapons

The Mayans built fortifications around some of their cities. Examples of this include Seibal and Tikal. For defense, warriors carried shields, and elites and veterans wore thick, cotton armor treated with rock salt that could withstand obsidian. Helmets were unknown and warriors wore elaborate headdresses instead. Warriors also used body paint and animal skins to show their status.

Mayans at War: Unusual Weapons

The Popul Voh, the book of the Kiche Maya, tells of hornets and wasps used as defensive weapons. When attackers came, defending warriors had gourds filled with hornets that they threw into the midst of the attackers. Hornets erupted out of the gourds and angrily attacked, killing many warriors. The defenders won the battle.

The Mayan Pantheon: Gods and Goddesses

(See Main Article: The Mayan Pantheon: Gods and Goddesses)

With between 166 and 250 named gods, the Mayans had a complex and changeable pantheon. They had gods to oversee every human action and aspect of life: gods for birth and death, for the ball game and gambling, for travel and traders, for pregnant women and infants, for youth, age, health, and suicide, for wild nature and for agriculture, a god of maize and of thunder, creator gods and gods of destruction, death gods and gods of heaven. All of these gods were changeable as well. They could be one sex or both, young and old, good but sometimes evil, depending on the time and circumstance.

Loading…

Mayans saw their gods act in every event. The late Robert Sharer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in his book “Daily Life in Maya Civilization” (Greenwood Press, 2009) that the ancient Maya believed that everything “was imbued in different degrees with an unseen power or sacred quality,” call k’uh, which meant “divine or sacredness.”

“The universe of the ancient Maya was composed of kab, or Earth (the visible domain of the Maya people), kan, or the sky above (the invisible realm of celestial deities), and xibalba, or the watery underworld below (the invisible realm of the underworld deities),” Sharer wrote.

Because of the complexity, early European observers likely did not fully grasp the Mayan religion and pantheon. However, scholars have deciphered enough of the Mayan codices and hieroglyphics to cite the major Mayan gods. These gods are listed below, but the list is not comprehensive by any means.

Itzamna

Itzamna - Wikipedia

Itzamna is a creator god, one of the gods involved in creating human beings and father of the Bacabs, who upheld the corners of the world. Itzamna taught humans the crafts of writing and medicine. Itzamna is sometimes identified with the high god Hunab Ku and the sun god Kinich Ahau.

Yum Kaax

A nature god, Yum Kaax is the god of wild plants and animals, the god of the woods. He is the god venerated by hunters and by farmers, who hunt wild animals or carve their fields out of his forest.

Maize God

The Mayans had both a female and a male maize god and both a simple vegetative god and a more powerful, tonsured male maize god. The tonsured maize god personifies maize, cacao beans and jade. He is a patron god of the scribal arts, dancing and feasting. Mayan kings often dressed as the maize god during rituals of his life, death and regeneration.

Hunab Ku

Hunab Ku is a pre-Columbian god whose name translates as the only God or the one God. Scholars are still debating whether Hunab Ku is an indigenous god or a creation of the Spanish. Most think he is indigenous. The Spanish focused on Hunab Ku in persuading the Mayans of the core belief of Christianity.

Kinich Ahau

Kinich Ahau is the sun god of the Mayans, sometimes associated with or an aspect of Itzamna. During the Classic period, Kinich Ahau was used as a royal title, carrying the idea of the divine king. He is also known in the Mayan codices as God G and is shown in many carvings on Mayan pyramids.

Ix Chel

Ix Chel is the goddess of medicine and midwifery, also known as the goddess of making children. She is represented as an aged woman.

Chaac

Chaac is the goggled-eyed rain god, of prime importance to the Mayans. Chaac has a four-fold aspect, with each aspect representing the cardinal directions and colors. Chaac brought clouds, thunder, lightning and most importantly, rain.

Loading…

Kukulkan

Kukulkan is the feathered serpent god of the Mayans. Kukulkan was worshipped by other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztecs, where the god was known as Quetzalcoatl. A Mayan cult grew up around Kukulkan, the priests of which helped peaceful trade and communications among the Mayans. Human sacrifices were offered to Kukulkan.

Mayan Religion and Cosmology

Much of the Mayan religion is not clearly understood today because of its complexity and rich pantheon of deities. Scholars have been able to decipher some of the major elements of Mayan religion, but other elements may never be known.

Cosmology

To the Mayans, the world was flat with four strong gods at each of the corners representing the cardinal directions. Above the earth was heaven with its 13 layers, each represented by a god. Below was Xibalba or the underworld, a cold, unhappy place divided into nine layers, each with its own Death Lord. When a Mayan died of natural causes, his spirit went to the underworld where it had to work its way up through the layers to get to the supreme heaven. Women who died in childbirth, those who died as a sacrifice and sacrificial victims of the ball court went to the supreme heaven immediately after death.

Spiritual World

The Mayans were animists in their beliefs, that is, they believed that everything was imbued with a spiritual essence or force, including inanimate objects such as rocks and water. These spiritual essences were to be honored and recognized. The gods were the supreme spiritual forces, but even the spiritual essence of a tree or a frog deserved respect. Every Mayan had a spiritual guide, a Wayob that could appear as an animal or in a dream in order to help that person through life. Thus, to the Mayans, the entire world they lived in was filled with spiritual forces. At times, the spirits required appeasement; at other times, they could be helpful.

Cyclical Nature of Time

The Mayan idea of time was cyclical, cycles of creation and destruction, of seasons, of rituals and events, of life and death. When Mayans died, it was believed they had moved on, not ended forever. Maize was of such central importance to the Mayans that the life-cycle of the maize plant is at the heart of their religion as is the Maize God himself. All of Mayan life was intimately bound up in cycles, which tied in to the centrality of the Mayan calendars.

Importance of Calendar/Astronomy

Mayan priests closely tracked all the cycles important to Mayan life. Priests kept the calendars, the solar cycle calendar with its 365 days, the sacred calendar of 260 days and the Long Count Calendar. They also interpreted the cycles, looking for clues to the future and prophetic inspiration. Priests determined the days propitious for religious rituals and ceremonies. The priests who kept track of cycles and calendars were expert mathematicians and astronomers. Planet cycles were tracked in order to recognize patterns, which they then relayed to the king of the city. Mayans believed that the gods imparted meaning to celestial patterns from which their priests could foretell the future.

Mayan Religion and Cosmology

(See Main Article: Mayan Religion and Cosmology)

Itzamna, a creator god and the god of writing, calendars and medicine. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the Mayan religion is not clearly understood today because of its complexity and rich pantheon of deities. Scholars have been able to decipher some of the major elements of Mayan religion, but other elements may never be known.

Cosmology

To the Mayans, the world was flat with four strong gods at each of the corners representing the cardinal directions. Above the earth was heaven with its 13 layers, each represented by a god. Below was Xibalba or the underworld, a cold, unhappy place divided into nine layers, each with its own Death Lord. When a Mayan died of natural causes, his spirit went to the underworld where it had to work its way up through the layers to get to the supreme heaven. Women who died in childbirth, those who died as a sacrifice and sacrificial victims of the ball court went to the supreme heaven immediately after death.

Loading…

Spiritual World

The Mayans were animists in their beliefs, that is, they believed that everything was imbued with a spiritual essence or force, including inanimate objects such as rocks and water. These spiritual essences were to be honored and recognized. The gods were the supreme spiritual forces, but even the spiritual essence of a tree or a frog deserved respect. Every Mayan had a spiritual guide, a Wayob that could appear as an animal or in a dream in order to help that person through life. Thus, to the Mayans, the entire world they lived in was filled with spiritual forces. At times, the spirits required appeasement; at other times, they could be helpful.

Cyclical Nature of Time

The Mayan idea of time was cyclical, cycles of creation and destruction, of seasons, of rituals and events, of life and death. When Mayans died, it was believed they had moved on, not ended forever. Maize was of such central importance to the Mayans that the life-cycle of the maize plant is at the heart of their religion as is the Maize God himself. All of Mayan life was intimately bound up in cycles, which tied in to the centrality of the Mayan calendars.

Importance of Calendar/Astronomy

Mayan priests closely tracked all the cycles important to Mayan life. Priests kept the calendars, the solar cycle calendar with its 365 days, the sacred calendar of 260 days and the Long Count Calendar. They also interpreted the cycles, looking for clues to the future and prophetic inspiration. Priests determined the days propitious for religious rituals and ceremonies. The priests who kept track of cycles and calendars were expert mathematicians and astronomers. Planet cycles were tracked in order to recognize patterns, which they then relayed to the king of the city. Mayans believed that the gods imparted meaning to celestial patterns from which their priests could foretell the future.

Mayan Societal Collapses

(See Main Article: Mayan Societal Collapses)

While most readers are aware of the more famous collapse of the Classic era, an earlier Mayan collapse preceded it during the Late or Terminal Pre-Classic era. The reasons for the earlier collapse remain as murky as those for the later, but both emptied out great Mayan cities and resulted no doubt in much death and destruction. Neither, however, ended Mayan civilization, as millions of Mayans remain in their historical homelands even today. Both collapses remain one of archeology’s greatest mysteries.

Loading…

What caused these societal collapses? There are many theories, but archeological proof for one single cause is lacking. We know, from looking at the downfall of past civilizations such as Rome, that a combination of causes is far more likely than one distinct cause. Scholars today look at the many factors that could lead to the collapse of a vigorous society, both external and internal. Scholars cite environmental degradation as a likely component: soil erosion, decreasing fertility of the soil, volcanic eruption, deforestation and drought were all elements of the ecological disaster for the Mayans. A population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment always leads to ecological destruction.

Other scholars look at societal pressures: decreasing natural resources that led to increased competition and endemic warfare over the same shrinking fertile lands. Political strife, the people losing faith in their leaders, elite competition, malnutrition and disease combined with massive environmental problems led to a drastic decline of Mayan populations in the Pre-Classic from A.D. 100 to 250 and at the end of the magnificent Classic era from 900 to 1100.

Mayan scholars put forth a variety of theories regarding the Mayan collapses including endemic warfare, foreign invasion, epidemic diseases, disruption of trade routes, climate change, systemic ecological collapse and long-lasting sustained drought. All of these and more may have contributed to massive declines in population and the abandonment of major Mayan cities. What is more remarkable is that the Mayan have survived it all, still retaining their culture and beliefs on the same land their ancestors held. While most Mayan today are Catholic, many retain elements of their culture and beliefs, even visiting their great cities of old.

The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture

(See Main Article: The Aztec Empire: Society, Politics, Religion, and Agriculture)

The Aztec Empire was the last of the great Mesoamerican cultures. Between A.D. 1345 and 1521, the Aztecs forged an empire over much of the central Mexican highlands.

At its height, the Aztecs ruled over 80,000 square miles throughout central Mexico, from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean, and south to what is now Guatemala. Millions of people in 38 provinces paid tribute to the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, prior to the Spanish Conquest in 1521.

Click here to see more posts in this category. Scroll down to see articles about the government, religion, military, and agricultural system of the Aztec Empire.

Aztec Empire Overview

The Aztecs didn’t start out as a powerful people. The Nahuatl speaking peoples began as poor hunter-gatherers in northern Mexico, in a place known to them as Aztlan. Sometime around A.D. 1111, they left Aztlan, told by their war god Huitzilopochtli that they would have to find a new home. The god would send them a sign when they reached their new homeland.

Scholars believe the Aztecs wandered for generations, heading ever southward. Backward and poor, other more settled people didn’t want the Aztecs to settle near them and drove them on. Finally, around A.D. 1325, they saw the god’s sign—the eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent on an island in Lake Texcoco, or so the legend has it. The city established by the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan, grew to become the capital of their empire.

Fortunately, the site was a strong, strategic area with good sources of food and clean water. The Aztecs began to build the canals and dikes necessary for their form of agriculture and to control water levels. They build causeways linking the island to the shore. Because of the island location, commerce with other cities around the lakes was easily be carried out via canoes and boats.

Through marriage alliances with ruling families in other city states, the Aztecs began to build their political base. They became fierce warriors and skillful diplomats. Throughout the late 1300s and early 1400s, the Aztecs began to grow in political power. In 1428, the Aztec ruler Itzcoatl formed alliances with the nearby cities of Tlacopan and Texcoco, creating the Triple Alliance that ruled until the coming of the Spanish in 1519.

The last half of the 15th century saw the Aztec Triple Alliance dominating the surrounding areas, reaping a rich bounty in tribute. Eventually, the Aztecs controlled much of central and southern Mexico. Thirty-eight provinces sent tribute regularly in the form of rich textiles, warrior costumes, cacao beans, maize, cotton, honey, salt and slaves for human sacrifice. Gems, gold and jewelry came to Tenochtitlan as tribute for the emperor. Wars for tribute and captives became a way of life as the empire grew in power and strength. While the Aztecs successfully conquered many, some city states resisted. Tlaxcalla, Cholula and Huexotzinco all refused Aztec dominance and were never fully conquered.

The Aztec Empire was powerful, wealthy and rich in culture, architecture and the arts. The Spanish entered the scene in 1519 when Hernan Cortes landed an exploratory vessel on the coast. Cortes was first welcomed by Montezuma II, but Cortes soon took the emperor and his advisors hostage. Though the Aztecs managed to throw the conquistadors out of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish regrouped and made alliances with the Aztec’s greatest enemy, the Tlaxcalans. They returned in 1521 and conquered Tenochtitlan, razing the city to the ground and destroying the Aztec empire in the process.

Governance of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec Empire had a hierarchical government with power and responsibility running from the top down. The empire’s rule was indirect over its provinces. That is, as long as the province or territory paid the tribute it owed the empire in full and on time, the empire left the local leaders alone.

Loading…

The foundation of the empire’s hierarchical structure was the family. A group of interrelated families then formed a calpulli, a sort of neighborhood or guild. The calpullis organized local schools and shrines and took care of the group as a whole. Each calpulli elected a headman to oversee the calpulli’s responsibilities. Most Aztec cities contained many calpulli.

The headman of each calpulli was a member of the city council. The city councils had a good deal of power; they made sure the city ran smoothly. Each council had an executive council of four members. These four members were nobles and usually a member of a military society.

One of the four executive council members would be elected the leader of the city, the tlatcani, who oversaw not only the city but the surrounding countryside as well. These city councils and leaders formed the provincial network of the empire.

At the center of the empire were the main Aztec altepetls, or city states, of Texcoco, Tlacopan and Tenochtitlan. Of the three, Tenochtitlan gradually muscled its way to dominate over the others.

The pinnacle of power centered in the Huey Tlatoani, the Reverend Speaker or emperor. The emperor had absolute power and was worshipped as a god. By the emperor’s side was his Snake Woman or Cihuacoatl, who functioned as a grand vizier or prime minister. Although Snake Woman was the title of this position, it was always held by a man, usually the emperor’s brother or cousin. While the Huey Tlatoani dealt with issues of diplomacy, tribute, war and expansion of the empire, the Snake Woman’s responsibility was Tenochtitlan itself.

Directly under the emperor were his advisors, the Council of Four. These advisors were generals from the military societies. If something were to happen to the emperor, one of these four men would be the next Huey Tlatoani. The council advised the emperor in his decisions.

The empire required a host of other government offices, which were filled by a city’s noble families. Each city had a court system with Special Courts, Appellate Courts and a Supreme Court. The city’s merchant class, the pochteca, had their own court to consider matters of trade.

Managing the constant incoming tribute goods from far-flung provinces required another power structure, both central and provincial. Government officials also oversaw the markets, from the central markets of the cities to the smaller markets of town and country.

All of the priesthood and government officials reported to the emperor and his Council of Four. All supported the emperor. Although the Aztec Empire’s grip on its provinces was light, the tribute flowed into the central coffers.

Loading…

 

Weapons of the Aztec Empire

As Aztec warriors showed their courage and craftiness in battle and skill at capturing enemy soldiers for sacrifice, they gained in military rank. The Aztec emperors honored the higher ranks with weapons and distinctive garb that reflected their status in the military.

Aztecs warriors carried projectile weapons such as bow and arrows to attack the enemy from afar. They also carried weapons for the melee when armies came together. The lowest ranks of warriors carried a club and shield. Higher ranks were awarded finer weapons. Each rank in the army wore special clothing that denoted the honors they had won.

Projectile Weapons of Aztec Warriors

Atlatl

The atlatl was a spear thrower, which produced greater force from a greater distance. Only the highest ranks were allowed these weapons as they were in the front lines of the battle. Each warrior carrying the atlatl also carried many tlacochtli, 5.9 foot long spears tipped with obsidian.

War Bow and Arrows

The tlahhuitolli was a five foot long war bow strung with animal sinew. Warriors carried their arrows, barbed with obsidian, flint or chert and fletched with turkey feathers in a micomitl or quiver. Quivers could hold about 20 arrows.

Slings

Aztec warriors and hunters carried slings made of maguey cactus fiber. The warriors collected rocks as they marched. They also made clay balls spiked with obsidian and full of obsidian flakes. Even well armored enemies could be wounded by these.

Blowguns

Blowguns and poisoned darts were more often used in hunting, but Aztec warriors trained in ambush would bring along their tlacalhuazcuahuitl and darts tipped with poisonous tree frog secretions.

Melee Weapons

Clubs

Aztec warriors carried different types of clubs. The macuahuitl club was edged with obsidian blades. While the obsidian shattered easily, it was razor sharp. A macuahuitl could easily decapitate a man. A macuauitzoctli was a long club made of hardwood with a knob on each side. A huitzauhqui was a baseball bat type club, although some of these were studded with obsidian or flint. A cuahuitl was a club shaped like a baton, made of oak. A cuauololli was basically a mace, a club topped with a rock or copper sphere.

Tepoztopilli were spears with obsidian points.

Itztopilli were axes shaped like a tomahawk with a head of either copper or stone. One edge was sharpened, the other blunt.

Tecaptl were daggers with handles seven to nine inches long. They had a double sided blade made of flint. Aztec warriors drew their tecaptl for hand-to-hand combat.

Armor

Aztec warriors carried round shield made of wood that was either plain or decorated with their military insignia called a chimalli. The higher rank warriors had special chimalli with a mosaic of feathers denoting their society or rank.

Basic Aztec armor was quilted cotton of two to three thicknesses. The cotton was soaked in salt brine then hung to dry. The salt crystallized in the material, which gave it the ability to resist obsidian blades and spears. An extra layer of armor, a tunic, was worn by noble Aztec warriors. Warrior societies also wore a helmet made of hardwood, carved to represent their society or different animals like birds or coyotes.

Tlahuiztli were special suits awarded to various ranks of the military. Each rank wore different colored and decorated tlahuiztli to make them easily distinguished on the battlefield. Each rank also wore pamitl or military emblems.

Warriors of the Aztec Empire

The Aztec warrior was highly honored in society if he was successful. Success depended on bravery in battle, tactical skill, heroic deeds and most of all, in capturing enemy warriors. Since every boy and man received military training, all were called for battle when war was in the offing. Both commoners and nobles who captured enemy warriors moved up in military rank or became members of military orders. Many nobles joined the army professionally and functioned as the command core of the army.

While the Aztec economy depended on trade, tribute and agriculture, the real business of the empire was war. Through war, the Aztec Empire gained tribute from conquered enemies. People captured during war became slaves or sacrifices in the Aztec’s religious ceremonies. Expanding the empire through further conquests strengthened the empire and brought more riches in tribute. For this reason, the emperor rewarded successful warriors of both classes with honors, the right to wear certain garments in distinctive colors, nobility for the commoners and higher status for nobles and land. Every Aztec warrior could, if he captured enemy warriors, advance far in society.

Aztec Warrior Societies

Rank in the military required bravery and skill on the battlefield and capture of enemy soldiers. With each rank, came special clothing and weapons from the emperor, which conveyed high honor. Warrior clothing, costumes and weaponry was instantly recognizable in Aztec society.

  • Tlamani: One captive warriors. Received an undecorated obsidian-edged club and shield, two distinctive capes and a bright red loincloth.
  • Cuextecatl: Two captive warriors. This rank enabled the warrior to wear the distinguishing black and red suit called a tlahuiztli, sandals and a conical hat.
  • Papalotl: Three captive warriors. Papalotl (butterfly) were awarded with a butterfly banner to wear on his back, conferring special honor.
  • Cuauhocelotl: Four or more captive warriors. These Aztec warriors reached the high rank of Eagle and Jaguar knights.

Eagle and Jaguar Knights

Eagle and Jaguar warriors were the two main military societies, the highest rank open to commoners. In battle they carried atlatls, bows, spears and daggers. They received special battle costumes, representing eagles and jaguars with feathers and jaguar pelts. They became full-time warriors and commanders in the army. Great physical strength, battlefield bravery and captured enemy soldiers were necessary to obtain this rank.

Loading…

Commoners who reached the vaunted Eagle or Jaguar rank were awarded the rank of noble along with certain privileges: they were given land, could drink alcohol (pulque), wear expensive jewelry denied to commoners, were asked to dine at the palace and could keep concubines. They also wore their hair tied with a red cord with green and blue feathers. Eagle and jaguar knights traveled with the pochteca, protecting them, and guarded their city. While these two ranks were equal, the Eagle knights worshipped Huitzilopochtli, the war god and the Jaguars worshipped Tezcatlipocha.

Otomies and the Shorn Ones

The two highest military societies were the Otomies and the Shorn Ones. Otomies took their name from fierce tribe of fighters. The Shorn Ones was the most prestigious rank. They shaved their heads except for a long braid of hair on the left side and wore yellow tlahuiztli. These two ranks were the shock troops of the empire, the special forces of the Aztec army, and were open only to the nobility. These warriors were greatly feared and went first into battle.

Religion of the Aztec Empire

While many other Aztec art works were destroyed, either by the Spanish or by the degradations of time, Aztec stone carvings remain to give us a glimpse into the worldview of this supreme Mesoamerican culture. These masterpieces were discovered in Mexico City in the buried ruins of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its grand pyramid, Templo Mayor.

Statue of Coatlicue

Coatlicue was the Aztec’s earth mother goddess, although a fearsome one. Goddess of the earth, childbirth, fertility and agriculture, she represented the feminine power of both creation and destruction. A massive stone statue of Coatlicue was discovered in Mexico City in 1790. Almost 12 feet tall and 5 feet broad, the statue shows the goddess as much a goddess of death as of birth. With two facing serpents as her head, claws on her hands and feet, a skirt of serpents and a necklace of skulls, hands and hearts, she reveals the Aztec’s terrifying view of their gods.

The myth of Coatlicue tells of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and the sun. The myth of Coatlicue tells of a priestess sweeping the sacred temple on Mount Coatepec when she was impregnated by a ball of feathers. Her son Huitzilopochtli is born full grown when Coatlicue is attacked by her daughter, the moon goddess. The newborn warrior kills his sister and cuts her into pieces, symbolizing the victory of the sun over the moon. The statue was so horrifying that each time it was dug up, it was reburied. The statue now resides at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Stone of Tizoc

The Stone of Tizoc is a carved disk showing the victory of the emperor Tizoc over the Matlatzinca tribe. The emperor had it carved to celebrate his victory and reveal the martial power of the Aztecs. The large, circular disk has an eight-pointed sun carved on the top, which was used for sacrificial battles. A warrior captured in battle was tied to the stone, and armed with a feather lined club. Aztec warriors, armed with obsidian lined clubs, fought the tied warrior and naturally defeated him. The side of the eight-foot diameter disk depicts Tizoc’s victory. The Matlatzincas are shown as despised barbarians, while Tizoc and his warriors are represented as noble Toltec warriors. The Stone of Tizoc artfully mixes sun worship, mythology and Aztec power. Today this masterful carved stone is at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Sun Stone

Another massive stone disk, the carvings on the Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone, show the four consecutive worlds of the Aztecs, each one created by the gods only to end in destruction. This basalt stone, 12 feet in diameter and three feet thick, was discovered near the cathedral in Mexico City in the 18th century. At the center is the sun god Tonatiuh. Around Tonatiuh are the four other suns which met destruction as the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca fought for control. After the destruction of a sun and the epoch it represents, the gods had to recreate the world and humans until finally the fifth sun held. At either side of the center, jaguar heads and paws hold hearts, representing earth. Fire serpents are at the bottom of the stone, as their bodies snake around the edge. The Sun Stone carving is probably the most recognized artwork of the Aztec world.

Aztec System of Writing: Pictograms

(See Main Article: Aztec System of Writing: Pictograms)

Part of the first page of Codex Mendoza, depicting the founding of Tenochtitlan

Codex painter was an honored and necessary profession in the Aztec world. They were highly trained in the calmecacs, the advanced schools of the noble class. Some calmecacs invited commoner children to train as scribes if they were highly talented, but most scribes were nobles. After the Spanish conquest, codex painters worked with the priests recording the details of Aztec life. These codices are the richest source of information we have about the Aztecs.

The Aztec Empire, as with many empires, required a great deal of paperwork: keeping track of taxes and tribute paid, recording the events of the year both great and small, genealogies of the ruling class, divinations and prophecies, temple business, lawsuits and court proceedings and property lists with maps, ownership, borders, rivers and fields noted. Merchants needed scribes to keep accounts of all their trades and profits. All of this official work required the scribes of the Aztecs—the codex painters.

The Aztecs didn’t have a writing system as we know it, instead they used pictograms, little pictures that convey meaning to the reader. Pictography combines pictograms and ideograms—graphic symbols or pictures that represent an idea, much like cuneiform or hieroglyphic or Japanese or Chinese characters.

To understand pictography, one must either understand the cultural conventions or the graphic symbol must resemble a physical object. For instance, the idea of death in Aztec pictography was conveyed by a drawing of a corpse wrapped in a bundle for burial; night was conveyed by a black sky and a closed eye, and the idea of walking by a footprint trail.

The codices were made of Aztec paper, deer skin or maguey cloth. Strips of these materials up to 13 yards by 7 inches high were cut, and the ends pasted onto thin pieces of wood as the cover. The strip was folded like a concertina or a map. Writing in the form of pictograms covered both sides of the strip.

Only 15 pre-Columbian Mesoamerican codices survive today—none of them Aztec, but from other cultures of about the same time. However, hundreds of colonial-era codices survive—those that carry the art of the tlacuilo (codex painters) but with Nahuatl and Spanish written commentary or description.

The Aztec number system was vigesimal or based on twenty. Numbers up to twenty were represented by dots. A flag represented twenty, which could be repeated as often as needed. One hundred, for instance, was five flags. Four hundred was depicted by the symbol of a feather or fir tree. The next number was eight thousand, shown as a bag of copal incense. With these simple symbols, the Aztecs counted all their tribute and trade. For example, one tribute page might show 15 dots and a feather, followed by a pictogram of a shield, which meant that the province sent 415 shields to the emperor.

Who Was Who in the Mongol Empire?

(See Main Article: Who Was Who in the Mongol Empire?)

Genghis Khan - Children, Descendants & Quotes - Biography

Genghis Khan

Without Temujin, the man who became Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire would not have occurred. Genghis Khan was a strong, charismatic, disciplined military genius who gathered all the Mongol and Turkic tribes of Mongolia under his command through political alliances and conquest. He made every man a warrior through constant military training, then he lead this army in an unending war of conquest across the entire land mass of Eurasia from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Genghis Khan built the largest empire in the history of the world and did most of that during his lifetime. He had one wife, Borte, but innumerable secondary wives.

Women in Genghis’ Life

Hoelun, Genghis’ mother, Borte, his wife and Sorkhaqtani, wife of Tolui, Genghis’ fourth son, were all strong, intelligent women who grew to have a powerful influence and impact on the Mongol Empire. Hoelun raised the young Temujin to be a strong, successful warrior, teaching him the skills of survival, political alliance and loyalty. Both Hoelun and Borte became two of Genghis’ most trusted advisors. When Ogedai became Great Khan after Genghis’ death, Sorkhaqtani became his most trusted advisor, ruling the Mongol Empire in his stead when Ogedai was at war.

Sons

The first son, Jochi, was born soon after Genghis rescued Borte from being kidnapped and probably raped at the hands of the Merkit tribe. Because Jochi’s parentage was uncertain, Genghis did not make him his successor. Jochi became Khan of the Golden Horde.

Chagatai Khan, second son, had an intense sibling rivalry with Jochi and refused to accept Jochi as Genghis’ successor. Chagatai inherited the Chagatai Khangate, which incorporated most of Central Asia.

Ogedai became Great Khan after Genghis died. He warred and ruled following the Yassa, Genghis’ written law. His closest advisor was Sorkhaqtani. Under Ogedai’s rule, the Mongol Empire grew to its greatest extent with the invasions of Europe and Asia.

Tolui, Genghis’ fourth son, inherited the Mongolian homeland. He had had four sons, Mongke, Kublai, Hulegu and Ariq Boke. Most of the Mongol and Ilkhanate emperors were descended from Tolui.

Generals and Advisors

Subutai and Jebe were Genghis Khan’s greatest generals. Both were military geniuses, agile and adept commanders who brought the Mongols many of their most startling conquests. While Subutai was the son of the blacksmith and rose to power because of his brilliance, Jebe started out as Genghis’ enemy. He shot Genghis in 1201 at the Battle of the Thirteen Sides. Jebe came to Genghis as he was recovering from the wound and confessed. Jebe said if Genghis allowed him to live, he’d serve loyally, which he did, becoming the second of Genghis’ best generals.

Loading…

Another that deserves mention is Yelu Chucai, a Confucian scholar who became a chief advisor to Genghis Khan. Yelu Chucai probably saved millions of lives because he convinced the Mongols to tax conquered peoples rather than slaughter them, thus saving their brains and talents for future Mongol use. He is known for telling the Mongol monarch that empires can be won on horseback, but not ruled on horseback.

What Made the Mongol Army So Successful?

(See Main Article: What Made the Mongol Army So Successful?)

How could a force of 100,000 mounted, lightly armored warriors armed with bow and arrows defeat nearly every other army that came against them? Most of the Mongol’s enemies outnumbered them by the hundreds or thousands. How then could the Mongol army continually win against such odds? A combination of training, tactics, discipline, intelligence and constantly adapting new tactics gave the Mongol army its savage edge against the slower, heavier armies of the times. The Mongols lost very few battles, and they usually returned to fight again another day, winning the second time around.

What European and Middle Eastern armies saw as weaknesses were actually strengths in the Mongol army: their much smaller horses were more agile than their heavy counterparts. The light compound bow used by the Mongols had great range and power, the arrows could penetrate plate armor at a close distance.

Training

Mongols began riding at any early age, and hunting as soon as they could hold a bow. Both Mongol horses and people were tough, agile and sturdy with great endurance. The Mongol army continually trained the troops in rotations, formations and diversionary tactics. They trained for as many circumstances as they could think of so they could react fast and sure to any tactic of the enemy.

Archery

The Mongol army was primarily mounted archers using a compound bow made of horn, wood and sinew. The bows’ range was unmatched at the time for force and accuracy, and the archers could shoot in any direction, even behind. The archers made possible many of the Mongol’s battlefield tactics, riding to encircle the enemy then raining arrows among them, killing many men and horses from a distance.

Discipline

Every soldier received a share of whatever booty was taken. Mongol warriors fought under strict discipline, and every man was subject to it, from generals to the lowest soldier. The training regimen, discipline, leadership and superb intelligence made the Mongol army an unconquerable force.

Breakup of Tribal Unity

Genghis wanted his army loyal to him, not to their tribal leaders. He broke up the tribes when he assigned men to various units in the army to ensure their basic loyalty was to their units and to Genghis. Genghis then organized his army by the decimal system in groups of 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000 with leaders at each level. Each unit could fight at the unit level or in combination with all of the other units, generally without constant supervision.

Mobility and Speed

The speed of the Mongol army wasn’t repeated again until the 20th century. Mongol warriors could ride 60 to 100 miles a day, an unheard of speed in those times. Each man had four or five horses that traveled with the army so he could switch to a fresh horse often. Mongol ponies were small but fast, and could live off even the sparsest grasses. Mongol horses had great endurance and could run for miles without tiring.

Mongol Empire: Arts and Culture

(See Main Article: Mongol Empire: Arts and Culture)

Mongol Empire art was quite sophisticated. While the Mongols didn’t produce much literature or fine art during the Mongol Empire, they appreciated and cultivated the arts of the sedentary peoples around them. The Mongol Khans became great patrons of the arts, supporting artists and artisans of all kinds. While not artists themselves in the traditional Mongolian culture, once peace was established in the Empire, all the Khans and sub-khans protected and patronized the arts. In fact, the Mongol Empire gave rise to a flourishing of the fine arts, benefiting the literature and decorative and fine arts of all the people they ruled.

Under Genghis Khan, textile workers, architects, stone carvers and jewelers were relocated from the Middle East and Central Asia to Mongolia to create the magnificent works of art desired by the Mongols. Under Ogedai, Genghis’ son and successor, artisans were put to work building and decorating Karakhorum, the Mongols’ capital city. Under Kublai, Genghis’ grandson and Great Khan, the Yuan dynasty of China saw all the arts flourish, from delicate blue porcelain vases to elaborate staged theatrical plays.

During the pax Mongolica, as artists and artisans traveled throughout the Empire, cross cultural influences in the arts took hold. One can see the blue from Afghani lapis luzuli on Chinese porcelains or Persian elements in Golden Horde artifacts. The art motif of the Chinese dragon made its way to European paintings. Thus, while the Mongols didn’t create art, the arts blossomed because of Mongolian cultural protection and patronage.

Mongol Empire Art: Mongolian Music

Of all the arts, the Mongols themselves loved and cultivated music, developing a unique form of singing known as throat singing or khoomi. Khoomi is difficult to explain; it involves using the diaphragm and throat to sing one tone or note and the mouth to sing another one or two. It sounds like one voice singing two or more notes at the same time, both the fundamental base note and a harmonic tone or note on top of that. It is both beautiful and strange with a few notes coming from one voice and a single singer. The bass note emanates from the singer’s throat and the higher, harmonic notes vibrate from the mouth, sometimes sounding like a waterfalls or monks chanting.

A key element of traditional Mongolian music is the Long Song form. Each syllable of each word is drawn out or extended for a long duration. One four-minute song, for example, might only have 10 words, but each syllable of each word is prolonged, with vibrato on the vowels. The long vibrating notes gives these songs a deeply meditative quality that carries over the grand distances of the steppes. Mongolian songs express the singer’s deep feelings for their horses, natural beauty, love of family or the nomadic life. Mongolian herders sing to their herds just as American cowboys sang to theirs.

Long songs may be accompanied by the other key element of Mongolian traditional music, the Morin khuur or horse-head fiddle. These Chinese-derived two-string fiddles have elaborately carved horses’ heads crowning the fiddle. The Morin khuur can sound the deep tones of the cello or it can emulate the neighing of a Mongolian horse. Occasionally a Mongolian flute and other Mongolian string instruments may accompany the Long song or it can be sung a cappella.

 

 

Cite This Article
"ANCIENT/MEDIEVAL HISTORY – PAGE ONE" History on the Net
© 2000-2022, Salem Media.
May 23, 2022 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/ancient-medieval-history-page-one>
More Citation Information.
×