This is part of our Diverse Expression of Grief series, written by Hilary Dockray. This article is intended as an educational piece to share other cultures’ beliefs around death, grief, and the afterlife. By examining other cultures throughout our history, we can see how our current-day thoughts surrounding death and grief may have been shaped and gain insight into our current understanding of these matters.
Ancient Aztec Civilization: Life and Afterlife
The ancient Aztec civilization had a perspective on life and afterlife that is remarkably different from the perspectives of many modern cultures. It was largely shaped by their religion, which permeated nearly every aspect of ancient Aztec life.
Background on Ancient Aztec Civilization
The term Aztec can refer to certain native ethnic groups that have lived in what is today Mexico. It can also refer to those people who spoke the Nahuatl language and lived in Mesoamerica from the 14th to 16th centuries. The most specific group of people the term Aztec can refer to, and is the definition most people relate to the term, are the people of Mexica ethnic descent who founded the city of Tenochtitlan in 1325 and subsequently developed the Aztec empire. Tenochtitlan was the capital of the empire until Spanish conquer in 1521 and was the heart of ancient Aztec civilization.
The ancient Aztec civilization was highly advanced, claiming accomplishments in architecture, mathematics, medicine, language, farming, and technology. The Aztecs also developed and lived by two calendar systems that served different purposes: a solar calendar that measured time, and a ritual calendar for religious festivals. Their government, political, military, and class structures were highly developed and complex. They entertained themselves with art, poetry, games, and sports, the latter being so central to Aztec life that the celebrity of their successful athletes rivaled that of modern professional athletes.
But what the Aztecs may be most notable for was their religion, and specifically the mass human sacrifice it called for. Human sacrifice carried out for religious purposes is not unique to ancient Aztec civilization, but the scale of human sacrifice the Aztecs performed is; historians estimate that the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people every year. People within the Aztec empire were used for human sacrifice, but the Aztecs also warred with outsiders for the express purpose of capturing more candidates for human sacrifice.
Why did the Aztecs commit human sacrifice, and in such great numbers? They believed that those who were sacrificed provided crucial nourishment to many of their deities who would in turn keep nature and the cosmos in balance. In the Aztec’s creation story, several gods had to sacrifice themselves in order to sustain the weak god who nobly sacrificed himself to create the sun. This initial mass sacrifice by the deities was not enough, however; they also called on the Aztecs to continually perform human sacrifices as a means to maintain the movement of the sun as well as to repay the deities for their sacrifices.
Aztec Perspective on Life, Death, and the Afterlife
Since human sacrifice and obtaining candidates for human sacrifice dominated much of Aztec life, warriors and those who were sacrificed received great glory and honor for what they did. But the trade-off of this was that life could be tenuous and short. How did these conditions for life affect how the Aztecs viewed death? Many people in the past and today believe that if people have afterlives, what a person’s afterlife is like is determined by how that person lived. In contrast, the Aztecs believed that how a person died determined what that person’s afterlife was like.
There were different realms a person could go to in their afterlife. Warriors who died in battle or by sacrifice either went to a paradise in the east and joined the sun’s rising in the morning, or joined the war god Huitzilopochtli in battle. Women who died in childbirth were considered just as courageous and honorable as warriors who died, and thusly went to a paradise in the west and joined the sun’s descent in the evening. People who died from lightning, drowning, certain diseases, or particularly violent deaths went to Tlalocan, a paradise presided over by the god Tlaloc located within the Aztec’s thirteen heavens.
In contrast, those who died of most illnesses, old age, or an unremarkable death went to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. Once in Mictlan, a person had to traverse through a harsh terrain with many trials in order to descend from Mictlan’s top level to its final ninth level. This grim path for those who died in more ordinary ways highlights how Aztecs perceived both life and death; in general, there was greater esteem for people who died from premature but honorable deaths than for people who avoided these endings and managed to grow into old age.
Aztec Expressions of Grief in Writing
The Aztec’s mass human sacrifices and grim afterlife in Mictlan paints a picture of a civilization that could be harsh both in life and death. Aztec poetry and prayers provide a softer contrast to this harshness, however, such as in this prayer:
Oh, only for so short a while you have loaned us to each other,
because we take form in your act of drawing us,
and we take life in your painting us, and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while have you loaned us to each other.
Because even a drawing cut in obsidian fades,
and the green feathers, the crown feathers, of the Quetzal bird lose their color,
and even the sounds of the waterfall die out in the dry season.
So, we too, because only for a short while have you loaned us to each other.
This prayer reveals a tenderness for the bonds made between people in life that could not even be extinguished by the honor that came from death in sacrifice or battle. Words captured loss and grief again for the Aztecs in poetry on the fall of the empire to the Spanish conquistador Cortés, such as in this poem composed by an Aztec poet in the mid 1520s:
Nothing but flowers and songs of sorrow
are left in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw warriors and wise men.
We know it is true
that we must perish,
for we are mortal men.
You, the Giver of Life,
you have ordained it.
We wander here and there
in our desolate poverty.
We are mortal men.
We have seen bloodshed and pain
where once we saw beauty and valor.
We are crushed to the ground;
we lie in ruins.
There is nothing but grief and suffering
in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw beauty and valor.
Have you grown weary of your servants?
Are you angry with your servants,
O Giver of Life?
The poetry about the fall of the empire is particularly wrenching because the Aztecs mourned not only the loss of all of those who died, but also the loss of their home and their way of life. While often vilified for their mass human sacrifices, the Aztecs were also an advanced civilization with a rich culture. Many people think their beliefs were incomprehensible or anathema and therefore cannot relate to the Aztecs, but they lost nearly everything they knew, created, and achieved, and that is a feeling that many throughout human history could relate to.
But while the empire was gone, the Aztecs did not disappear entirely; Tenochtitlan became Mexico City, and many modern people of Mexican descent can claim Aztec/Mexica ancestry. Some people were thought to reincarnate after death into a different living being, sometimes into butterflies or birds. The Aztec empire, in a way, reincarnated into something different as well.
About the Author
Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. She is expecting her MSSW in December of 2012 and hopes to work in nonprofit administration and management. She is an advocate for the understanding of grief and the support of those who grieve in both her personal and professional lives. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to be a guest blogger for The Christi Center.
Here are just some of the links I used to write this entry of the Diverse Expressions of Grief series, and where you can also learn more about the ancient Aztec civilization and its perspective on life and afterlife:
General information on the Aztecs:
In-depth account on the fall of the Aztec empire to the Spanish:
Information about Aztec beliefs on afterlife:
Source for Aztec prayer: Rupp, J. (1988). Praying our goodbyes. Ave Maria Press.
Source for Aztec poem: (1973). L. Hanke (Ed.), Latin America: A Historical Reader. The Book Service Ltd.
More poetry can be found here: