Around 1300 AD, about 200 years after the Maya Indians disappeared, a wandering tribe of Indians wandered into the Valley of Mexico. These people were called the Aztecs.
When the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, other tribes were already in residence. They had already taken the best land. The Aztecs had to make due with the swampy shores of Lake Texcoco.
They had to adapt to their environment. They built canoes, fished, and hunted birds that lived near the water. They created floating gardens for growing food. They created more land for agriculture by filling in the marshes. They built dikes to hold back the water. The Aztecs were a very clever people.
After a while, they began to conquer the neighboring tribes. They conquered first one tribe, and then another, and then another. They expanded and expanded until they had built an empire.
One day, around 1500 AD Spanish soldiers arrived in the Valley of Mexico. They were amazed at what they saw. One soldier said, “There were soldiers among us who had been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and Rome and all over Italy, who said that they had never before seen a market place so large and so filled with people.”
The Spanish brought guns, horses, huge fighting dogs, and disease. The Aztecs had never been exposed to childhood diseases like measles. Many became ill once the Spanish arrived; many died. As well, the Spanish had help from the other tribes in the area. These tribes saw a chance to get even, and perhaps even to rid themselves of the feared and hated Aztecs.
Today, there are around 1,000,000 (one million) descendants of the ancient Aztecs living and working in Mexico. Human sacrifice is no longer part of their festivals, of course. But the beautiful art and clever games the Aztecs created are still enjoyed today.
Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus
The ancient Aztecs believed in many gods and goddesses. Each god had a job to do. The sun god, for example, brought the sun up every day. The Aztecs believed it was important to keep the sun god happy. They truly believed if the sun god was not happy, he would refuse to bring up the sun, and the world would end.
Since the Aztecs believed in a great many gods and goddesses, and each had an important job to do, the ancient Aztecs spent most of their time trying to keep their many gods happy and well fed.
The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary. They used people to feed their hungry gods. Some of the people sacrificed were Aztecs. But most of the people they sacrificed to keep their gods happy were people captured from neighboring tribes. This did not make them popular with their neighbors!
Each time the Aztecs tried to settle down and build a city of their own, other tribes in the area would band together to chase them away. No one wanted the Aztecs for a neighbor. The Aztecs were very sad about this. They did so want a city of their own.
According to legend ... One day, the Aztecs were magically visited by their main god. He promised his people that they would have a city of their own some day. To find it, they were to look for an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake. When the Aztecs found the magical place of the eagle, snake, and cactus, they were not to make war with their neighbors. Instead, they were settle down peacefully until they had gained strength. They were to use that time to build a glorious Aztec city, a city of their own.
For the next 200 years, the Aztecs wandered in the Valley of Mexico. They never doubted their god. They never gave up. They were always on the lookout for an eagle, perched on a cactus, holding a snake in his mouth. One morning, an Aztec priest was standing on the swampy shore of Lake Texcoco. He yawned and looked out across the lake. He could not believe his eyes. On one of the many small islands that dotted the lake, he saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, with a snake wiggling in its mouth.
The Aztecs had found their home at last. Aztec legend says the cactus grew immediately into an island. It was on that island that the Aztecs founded their civilization. They named the island Tenochtitlan, "the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus".
The ancient Aztecs invented a game called Volador, the flying bird game. Wearing costumes designed with beaks and feathers, Aztec athletes would complete to see who could complete the round trip with the most style and speed.
The game went something like this - First, all the players climbed a 60-90 foot pole. After they reached the top, they each tied a rope to the top of the pole. Hanging on tightly with their legs, they spread their arms wide, kicked off, and sailed around the pole like eagles until they reached the ground again. Many spectators gathered to watch the flying birds. It was a very dangerous sport.
Today, well-trained Mexican acrobats perform this wonderful spectacle. If you ever get a chance to see a performance, don’t miss it. It’s absolutely fabulous.
Other Aztec achievements and inventions include:
Causeways and Bridges that linked the islands of their great capital city of Tenochtitlan together.
Structures – Statues, Pyramids, Temples
Stelas – Memorial pillars commemorating their gods and major events