Popular perception paints the Aztecs as warriors who stalked the jungles for unwitting human sacrifices. But the archaeological record has revealed a wealth of cultural gems. So what’s fact and what’s fiction? Let’s find out! Here are 8 interesting facts about the Aztecs.
1. They didn’t call themselves Aztecs
Aztec means’ people from Aztlan,’ a mythological ancestral city of the Aztec people. The Spaniards gave them this name. The Aztecs referred to themselves as the Mexicas. Unsurprisingly, this is where the word Mexico comes from.
2. Many of their ancient ruins are… racquetball courts
Throughout Central America, archaeologists have discovered courts, complete with rubber balls, hoops, and racquets. Though the details vary site-to-site and from age-to-age, it is clear that the Aztec people had a lasting love affair with a type of team-based sport, a combination of soccer, racquetball, and basketball.
3. They practiced a polite form of slavery
The Aztecs captured slaves, sold their children into slavery, and even sold themselves into slavery. The details of the transactions are surprisingly enlightened. Slaves could earn money, buy land, negotiate the length of their servitude, and even buy their own freedom.
4. Their pantheon accepted all comers
Having more than one god is not unusual, but gaining new gods every year for hundreds of years is. The Aztecs had a very accepting cosmology that welcomed any god worshipped by another culture that the Aztecs encountered. The Aztec pantheon eventually grew to include hundreds of gods from dozens of different cultures.
5. Their capital city was the third-biggest in the world
The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was a truly awesome city. Carved from the unforgiving density of the jungle, it reached its peak around the year 1500, swelling to over 200,000 inhabitants. That made the city, at the time, the biggest in the new world, and the third biggest anywhere on the planet. Only Constantinople and Paris were bigger.
6. They had complex fashion trends for their teeth
Some Aztecs filed their teeth down and replaced them with gems. Others dyed their teeth with natural pigments, making brightly colored grills 500 years before the current trend.
7. They liked human sacrifice. A lot.
The Aztecs believed that their gods continually sacrificed themselves to keep the universe running. So how better to pay the gods back than by returning the favor? The Aztecs skinned, decapitated, and ripped the still-beating heart out of their sacrifices, be that sacrifice a captured enemy or one of their own.
8. They celebrated polygamy but punished adultery
Aztec society allowed men to collect wives; the more wives a man had, the higher standing he could attain. Women did not have the same right. As unfair as this is, if anyone caught a man cheating on any wife, he was put to death.
The Aztecs, or Mexica, were a diverse group of people. Like the diverse societies we live in today, theirs was filled with all manner of culture. It ranged from the beautiful to the scary to the downright bizarre.