The Aztec Templo Mayor.

"The "place " of the Great Temple and its ritual traditions remains central and vital in any serious interpretation of the Aztec World."

(Broda 1987:125)

The Aztec Templo Mayor; Symbolic Temple of Aztec myth, religion and ritual.

The archaeology of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan in Mexico City began in 1790 with the recognition that sculptures such as the Aztec Calendar Sun Stone, were culturally important and valuable. Since then, archaeological evidence has combined with written records to verify and expand our knowledge of the Great Temple. Most important to this aim however, has been the excavations between 1978 and 1982 led by Matos Moctezuma, called the Templo Mayor Project, in which, the evidence has been interpreted, yielding notonly a renewed interest in Aztec Studies, but a greater understanding and knowledge of the symbolism of the Temple. Matos Moctezuma explains that, "in short, the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan symbolised to the Aztecs, water and war, life and death, Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. It was a place of glory for the Mexicas and a place of suffering for those under their power."(Moctezuma 1984:78)

The Aztec City of Tenochtitlan.

The Symbolism of the Great Temple.

Matos Moctezuma uses the Aztec World View as the basis for his hypothesis concerning the symbolism of the Great Temple. The Mexica World View, that is, their "beliefs about the origin and structure of the universe, based on their myths and roles played by the gods, [were] all sustained by philosophical and religious ideology"(Moctezuma 1984:186). This worldview, has thus been shown to be embodied in the Great Temple, and is therefore reflected in all parts of it. Further, it was very important to the Aztecs to physically manifest their world view in the temples.

However, the symbolism of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan goes further than a representation of this worldview. It is also a reflection of society, economically and politically, represented by the two deities on the summit of the Great Temple; Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. Tlaloc was the God of Rain, "he gave the Mexicas the rains to irrigate the earth and these rains caused all the grasses, trees, fruits and grains to grow. It was he who also sent hail and thunder and lightning and storms on the water and the dangers of the rivers and the sea...He resides in the terrestial paradise and gives to men the subsistence necessary for life (from Sahagun, in Moctezuma 1984:71)". Conversely, the god, Huitzilopochtli was "another Hercules, exceedingly robust, of great strength and very bellicose, a great destroyer of towns and killer of people. In warfare he was like living fire, greatly feared by his enemies ... and highly esteemed for his strength and prowess in war (from Sahagun, in Moctezuma 1984:72)."

Rituals, offerings and sacrifices were made to these Gods in the Templo Mayor in order to sustain the city since it was dependant on warfare and agricultural production. Moreover, the union between the priesthood and the military resulted in a way to control society at large and to ensure its perpetuation. "The political alliance of priests and warriors was symbolised in the double sanctuaries of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli on top of the city's largest Temple. Moreover, both aspects were embodied in the person of the Aztecs single ruler, the Tlatloani." (Moctezuma 1984:78)

Further, the Aztec state cult, which was based on the solaar calendar, took place at the Templo Mayor and included major festivals which were held there.

"These calendar festivals were celebrated with a tremendous display of people and decorative as well as symbolic elements. They were dramatic representations set against the background of the impressive [templo mayor] architecture of Tenochtitlan. Many ceremonies took place at night, in the glaring light of torches and great fires, or at dawn before the sun rose. The richness of the array of the participants, with the lavish use of gold, splendid feathers, and beautifully woven materials, combined with the dramatic power of the ceremonies, must have had an overwhelming effect uponthe spectator - an effect that cannot be grasped in modern secular terms. In this tense atmosphere the human sacrifices were performed. Myth was enacted and became reality in an overwhelming theatrical setting."

(Carrasco in Boone 1983:69)

Thus, the Templo Mayor, the buildings and the sculptures within it such as the Calendar Stone, was oriented structurally, cosmologically, astronomically and virtually to symbolise and represent the worldview of the Aztecs. Furthermore, this was integral, economically, politically and religiously to the perpetuation and survival of the city, and its leaders, the priests and the warriors.

The Great City of Tenochtitlan.1945.Mural in the courtyard of the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.

The following is one of the last narrative details the Aztec Templo Mayor. It describes the Aztec sacrifice of Spanish soldiers to the sun and war god, Huitzilopochtli, and an attempt, through mythic significance, to rejuvenate the Aztec Empire:

"When we retreated near to our quarters and had already crossed a great opening where there was much water, the arrows, javelins, and stones could no longer reach us. Sandoval, Francisco de Lugo and Andreas de Tapia were standing with Pedro de Alvarado each one relating what had happened to him and what Cortes had ordered, when again there was sounded the dismal drum of Huichilobos and many other shells and horns and things like trumpets and the sound of them all was terrifying, and we all looked towards the lofty Pyramid where they were being sounded, and saw that our comrades whom they had captured when they defeated Cortes were being carried by force up the steps and they were taking them to be sacrificed. When they got them up to a small square in front of the oratory, where their accursed idols are kept, we saw them place plumes on the heads of many of them and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dancce before Huichilobos and after they had danced they immediately placed them on their backs on some rather narrow stones which had been prepared as places for sacrifice, and with some knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to the idols that were there, and they kicked the bodies down the steps, and the Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off their arms and feet and flayed the skin off the faces, and prepared it afterwards like glove leather with the beards on, and kept those for the festivals when they celebrated drunken orgies and the flesh they ate in chilmole.

This shocking description of Aztec ritual killing presents one of the dominant popular images we have of Aztec religion as a tradition of high pyramids, dismal drums, bloodthirsty priests, and eerie settings with cannibalism added for flavour. A more careful look at this description, in terms of familiarity with the Aztec mythic tradition, reveals important clues to the Aztec sense of "orientation" in their cosmos. This text alone shows that the Aztecs seek a vital sense of power at their Great Temple. They act against the growing disequilibrium in their world through aggressive ritual action at their sacred centre. They attempt to revitalise themselves at a time of deep crisis by climbing their temple with captive warriors, and, after ceremonial dancing and singing, killing them on an "altar" and throwing their bodies down the steps. Then they dismember and flay their victims, followed by ritual cannibalism. Aztec history and myth tells us that the practice of temple and mountain ascent to revitalize the world through ritual killing was a time-honored tradition."(Broda, 1987)

Cosmology. Religion. World View. Ritual and Sacrifice. Myth.