Dawn dyes the contour of the
mountains red. A perfumed,
warm breeze dominates the air.
Dew slides through the branches of
trees and the petals of countless
flowers. Far away, the
ancestral sound of a sea snailís
conch is heard. That is how
the Aztec Empire awoke.
The Aztecs worked hard to
build their city and were then able
to enjoy every day in their
beautiful and colorful
themselves erected their
capital over an islet, and made it
flourish until they extended their
power to the borders of the
With impressive tenacity and
creativity, they founded their
capital over a marshy lake.
They used what we call
chinampas, which were
inter-woven trunks or branches 2.5
meters in diameter, and on them they
would pile mud from the bottom of
the lake. Then they were able
to use this "land" to plant crops
They placed these chinampas
in a fixed position by planting a
type of tree whose roots anchored at
the bottom of the lake. The
chinampas were actual
"floating gardens", much like what
exists today in Xochimilco.
Ever since they discovered
agriculture, the Aztecs called
themselves "Agricultural Warriors",
as only a war could call them away
from their beloved land. They
dedicated 200 days of the year to
taking care of their crops, corn,
beans, squash and other vegetables.
The other 165 days were dedicated to
resting, though not to vacation.
During this period of rest, each
member of the family worked on a
particular type of craft; the men
usually dedicated themselves to
pottery and the making of sandals;
the women in the making of the
family's clothing. This way
they relaxed and they allowed the
land to rest as well so that
it would continue being so generous
As we can see, the Aztecs didn't
really have much of a vacation, but
they did have a lot of holidays.
Their year was divided into 18
months and each month was dedicated
to one or various gods, making the
On these special days, the women
wore beautiful huipiles
- sleeveless blouses with ornate
necklines which were worn over
skirts - and the men painted their
faces with green, red or yellow
circles, they greased their hair and
wore feathered headdresses.
The dancers, which could be as many
1,000 to 5,000 people, formed large
circles and, at the beat of drums
called ueuetl, and the
sound of the rattle bells, they
danced and sang in honor of their
Each circle was formed by dancers of
similar age groups and social
classes. For example, the
elders from high social classes were
in the inner circle, while the
younger members and those from lower
classes were in the outer circles.
The dances they performed had a
highly religious meaning, which is
why it was very important to execute
every step with exactness.
They also had dances for their own
enjoyment, more personal in
nature, in which they danced for
personal or familial events.
The Aztecs also had
spectacular dances such as the
Voladores de Papantla ,the
Sun Dance, in which the dancers
climbed a high pole or mast; they
tied themselves to long cords wound
around the pole. They would jump off
the pole, and the cords would unwind
making them look like flying birds.
When the Spaniards saw this dance
they were extremely impressed by
their courage and dexterity
Equally spectacular was the
Tlachtli, a game which was
played with a ball. This game
was a match in which two teams
participated. The field, in
the form of an H between two walls,
was divided in two, each team having
its own part.
The object of the game was to pass
an eight-to-ten-pound rubber ball to
the side of the other team.
The ball was not to be touched by
the hands or arms of the players;
they could only use
their feet and hips.
There was a stone ring on each side
of the field, through which the
players were to pass the ball.
The first team to achieve this
difficult task won the
game. The players wore leather
belts to protect them from the
strikes of the other team.
Only the ruling class could
participate in this sport.
However, just about anyone could
watch, and generally there was heavy
betting involved. They would
bet large quantities of gold, their
slaves, fine clothing - even
their own freedom and that of their
Another game they enjoyed betting on
It was played on a kind of table
rock in the form of a cross, and at
each of the four extremes there were
cells or squares. Beans marked
with dots symbolizing numbers were
used. Each player threw his
beans and advanced on the board.
The first player to make his way
around the board won the game.
Both Tlachtli and
Patolli had a religious
meaning as well and before playing,
the players would pray.
Another form of entertainment was
hunting. Poor people hunted to
increase their food supply or to
trade, while the wealthy did it for
fun. There were also bow and
arrow competitions and rowing
contests on Texcoco
Lake as well.
Children enjoyed watching these
games and participating in races
against one another. Their
parents made marbles, whistles,
rattles, bows and arrows for them.
Just like any child from any time in
history, they would imitate their
elders, pretending to be soldiers,
hunters, dancers, businessmen,
parents and teachers. They
also enjoyed riddles and were very
skilled in inventing their own.
As we know, the Aztecs were very
good speakers and did a lot of
praying. They wouldn't miss a
chance to offer advice, speeches and
poems to any one who was willing to
Going to the marketplace was, and
still is, a great source of fun.
They would delight in seeing the
merchandise that the pochtecas,
or traders, brought from the most
remote places of Mesoamerica.
They would talk with the traders and
with their neighbors, and sometimes
they even fought among themselves
until the authorities would come to
solve the problem.
As you see, the Aztecs were not only
excellent warriors, they were
hardworking people that also knew
how to spend their spare time!
May Herz & Angie Galicia
you'd like to learn more about the
pre-Hispanic cultures we recommend:
Mexican Pre-Hispanic Cultures