Aztec Sacred Geography


The Aztec (also known as the Nahua, or Mexica) empire—the last of the great Mesoamerican civilizations—dominated the highlands of central Mexico at the time of the arrival of Hernando Cortes in 1519. It had risen to power following a series of military conquests just a century or two earlier and maintained economic control by extracting tributes in the form of foodstuffs and raw materials (as well as personal services) from conquered populations. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, situated at the center of present-day Mexico City on an island approached along three long causeways, had an estimated population of 250,000. The mass sacrifices to their war and sun god Huitzilopochtli, which took place at the great Templo Mayor in the center of the city, are legendary.

The landscape around the Aztec capital is characterized by strings of mountains and towering volcanoes that surround and dominate flat valleys, creating obvious associations between mountains, clouds, rains, fogs, thunderstorms, springs, and rivers. Under the valley floors and mountain slopes are numerous caves created by ancient lava flows. And before time took its toll and the suburbs of Mexico City spread through the landscape, the terrain was also peppered with magnificent human constructions, both the temples of the Aztecs themselves and the conspicuous remains of earlier temples dating back to the Preclassic period (at least as far as the mid-first millennium b.c.e.). This combination created, in the Aztec mind, a vibrant perceived world strewn with the abodes of powerful spirits: mountains were sources of water and rain; caves were entrances to the underworld; and the huge ceremonial center of Teotihuacan with its enormous pyramids, a thousand years old by this time, was itself seen as a magnificent creation of the gods.

Tributes to the gods had to be made in the appropriate place but also at the correct time. One of the most critical actions was to appease Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility, and persuade him to send water for the year’s maize crop. Petitions to Tlaloc were timed in relation to calendar festivals and often involved the sacrifice of children. Thus on the first day of the month Atlcahualo (in the 365-day calendrical cycle or xihuitl), or around the middle of February in the Gregorian calendar at the time of the Conquest, the bodies of sacrificed children were thrown into caves close to mountain sanctuaries, since the water was thought to remain there, inside the mountain, until released by the gods as rain. On the summit of Mount Tlaloc itself, at an elevation of more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), was a shrine containing an idol of the rain god where the nobles from Tenochtitlan and adjacent cities converged during a great festival in the month Hueytozoztli, at the end of April. Here, a young boy was sacrificed while, in a complementary ceremony taking place at a nearby lake, a similar fate awaited a young girl, who was appropriately dressed in blue.

Many different calendrically timed rituals such as these, taking place all over the Aztec empire, generated a network of relationships in people’s minds between sacred places in the landscape (particularly mountains), the activities that took place there, and the timing of those activities. Evidence suggests that those perceptions were reinforced both by the positioning of temples in the landscape and by solar alignments deliberately built into those temples. It has been proposed that the Templo Mayor was (at least approximately) aligned upon Cerro Tlaloc on the horizon to the east, that the sun would have risen more or less behind that mountain on the equinox, and that two prominent mountains on the eastern horizon from Cerro Tlaloc itself, across the next valley, aligned with sunrise on two important days when mountain ceremonies were taking place on that peak. More recent work suggests that the later phases of the temple were in fact oriented upon sunset at the feast of Tlacaxipehualiztli, which coincided with the Julian vernal equinox in 1519 and was duly recorded by the chronicler Motolinia. Whatever the details in this case, the combination of ethnohistorical accounts relating to the nature and timing of ceremonies, archaeological evidence of votive offerings at sites such as mountain shrines, and archaeoastronomical data on orientations and alignments makes a convincing case that many relationships such as these were real enough in the Aztec mind.

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