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 snail’s 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 Tenochtitlan. They themselves erected their capital over an islet and made it flourish until they extended their power to the borders of the Anahuac valley.
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 in.
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 to them.
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 holidays plenty.
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 as
1,000 to 5,000 people, formed large circles and, to the beat of drums called ueuetl, and the sound of the rattle bells, they danced and sang in honor of their gods.
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 into 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 families!
Another game they enjoyed betting on was Patolli. 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 listen.
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