From this brief description, the tremendous role that religion played among the Aztecs can be realized. It was so great that it is no exaggeration to say that their entire existence revolved around their religion and that there was not a single act, public or private, that was not tinged by religious sentiment.

Religion was the preponderant factor, and provided the basis even of those activities which appear most alien to religious sentiment, such as sports, games, and war. Religion regulated commerce, politics, and conquest, and intervened in every event in the individual's life, from the time he was born until the priests burned his corpse and buried his ashes. It was the prime motive for all individual acts and was the basic reason for the existence of the state itself.

We can define the Aztec political organization as a military theocracy in which the warrior was subordinate to the priest and the emperor himself, or, more properly, the Tlacatecuhtli, was a priest, for he and all the high officials of state had been educated in the sacerdotal school, the Calmecac.

Just as religion played a preponderant role in the political organization, it was also dominant in the social organization, for the clans, or calpullis—which word the Spaniards translated into barrios, or districts of a city—were not territorial divisions, except as they were under the patronage of a particular god and were the continuation of old families bound not by a biological tie, but by a spiritual kinship which originated in the common worship of a patron god.

This makes it evident why the elders of each city district had a very direct influence on the private lives of the individual families and why they were consulted about marriages, the enrollment of children in schools or in the army, or any matter of solemn or important consequence.

What is the explanation of this omnipresence of religion? We cannot understand it if we do not comprehend that the individual Aztec felt that his people were a people with a mission, a people elected by the tribal god to carry out the destiny of the world and realize the human ideal as they understood it.

The Aztecs were the people of the sun; their city, Tenochtitlan, was founded on the site where the eagle, the representative of Huitzilo-pochtli, alighted on the stone cactus in the middle of the island in the Lake of the Moon. This lake was Lake Texcoco, known esoterically as Meztliapan. There the heart of the first sacrificial victim was thrown. There the tree of thorns was to spring forth, the tree of sacrifice which symbolized the place of thorns, Huitztlampa, the land of the sun, the place to which the tribe had migrated from their home in the white land, Aztlan.

Their priests, the leaders of the migration, had told them that when the sun, represented by an eagle, should alight upon a spiny cactus whose red tunas were like human hearts, there, in that place only, were they to rest and found a city. For this meant that the people of the sun, the chosen people of Huitzilopochtli, had arrived at the place where they were to grow great and become the masters of the world, where they were to become the instrument through which the god would accomplish great deeds. Therefore, the god spoke to them in this fashion:

In truth I will lead thee to the place to which thou art to go; I will appear in the guise of a white eagle; wherever thou art to go, there will I go crying unto thee; go then, watching me only, and when I arrive there, I will alight and there thou wilt see me; so presently make my temple, my home, my bed of grass, there where I was lifted up to fly, and there the people shall make their home, there wilt thou establish thyself.

The first thing to adorn thee shall be the order of the eagle, the order of the jaguar, the sacred war, arrow and shield; this is what thou shalt eat, what thou shalt be needing; and so thou shalt go striking terror. As a reward for thy valor, thou shalt conquer and destroy all the plebeians and the settlers who are already established there, as soon as thou seest the site.

And the god offered the conquerors and brave men the wrought mantles, the maxtles, the tail-feathers of the quetzal bird, to be their emblems and their coat of arms, and they would receive "all things in general: the good, the placid, the fragrant flowers, tobacco, and song, whatever things there be."

In like manner was I sent on this mission, and I was charged to bring arms, bow, arrows, and shield. My principal purpose in coming and my vocation is war, and likewise with my breast, my head, and my arms I must see after and carry on my vocation in many cities and among the peoples which there are today.

First, I shall conquer in war in order to have and name my home of precious emerald and gold, decorated with featherwork. The house shall be adorned with precious emerald as transparent as crystal, and I shall also have all kinds of precious heads of corn, chocolate, cotton, and cloth of many colors, and I shall have it all to see and to possess, for it is commanded of me and my office and for that purpose I came.

And in Coatepec he had told them:

Behold, Mexicans, here is to be your responsibility and your vocation, here you are to watch and wait, and from all four corners of the earth, you are to conquer, earn, and subdue for yourselves. Have then body, breast, head, arms, and strength, for it likewise will cost much sweat, work, and pure blood for you to obtain and enjoy the fine emeralds, precious stones, gold, silver, fine featherwork, rare feathers of all colors, fine chocolate brought from afar, cotton of different hues, many sweet-smelling flowers, all manner of different delicious, delicate fruits, and many other things bringing great pleasure and contentment.

The people of the sun, led by the priests of the god, settled in the middle of the Lake of the Moon. Then they began to fulfill their mission by collaborating in the cosmic function through human sacrifice, a symbolic representation of the assistance that man must give to the sun so that the latter can continue his struggle against the moon and the stars and vanquish them every day.

Each prisoner taken by the Aztecs was a star that was to be sacrificed to the sun to nourish him with the magical sustenance that represents life and to fortify him for the divine combat. The man-star who was sacrificed had his body painted white and wore a black mask signifying the star-studded night. It was believed that he would reinforce with his life the life of the sun.

Hence the pride of the Aztec, who looked upon himself as a collaborator of the gods, for he knew that his life was dedicated to maintaining cosmic order and struggling against the powers of darkness.

In a sense the universe depended upon him for its continued existence; upon him depended the food for the gods, upon him depended the beneficence of the gifts which they showered on mankind. Likewise, the light of the sun, the rain that formed in the mountains and watered the corn, the wind that blew through the reeds, bringing clouds or turning into a hurricane, all depended upon him.

But since the Aztec was a soldier of the sun, and since he had this divine mission in life, to him also went the rewards. To him should belong "things in general, the good, the placid, the fragrant flowers, tobacco, and song."

It is evident that the Aztecs, like every people who believe they have a mission, were better prepared to fulfill that mission if their conquest of other peoples was based upon a manifest destiny. Since the sixteenth century, the apostolic and civilizing zeal of the European peoples has been fired to an extraordinary degree, especially when they feel called upon to save the wealthy from the "barbarians," and more particularly so when those riches cannot be obtained in "civilized" countries: gold, spices, and pearls in the sixteenth century; petroleum, rubber, coal, henequen, and cinchona in the twentieth century.

The Aztecs, like all imperialistic peoples, always found justification for their conquests, to extend the dominion of the city-state, Tenochtitlan, and to convert the king of Mexico into the king of the world, known as Cem-Andhuac tlatoani, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan into the capital of the empire which they called Cem-Andhuac tenochca tlalpan, or "the land of the Tenochcas." The idea that they were collaborators of the gods, the concept that they were fulfilling a transcendental duty and that on their action rested the possibility that the world might continue to exist, enabled the Aztecs to undergo the hardships of their migrations, to settle in a place that the richest and most advanced peoples had rejected, and to subjugate their neighbors. Hence they kept up a constant expansion of their territorial conquests, until their leaders had carried the power of Tenochtitlan to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and had subjected to their domination the more advanced and older peoples who were in possession of the lands on the high plateaus and the coasts.

In addition to this cosmological ideal, the Aztecs also believed that they had an ethical ideal to attain. The struggle of the sun against the powers of darkness was not only a struggle of the gods, but it was also, above all, the struggle of good against evil. The mission of the Aztecs, was, then, to be on the side of the sun, the symbol of good, opposing the fearful gods of darkness, the symbols of evil.

Consequently, the Aztecs had to carry on this ethical struggle until their divine leader should succeed in defeating the evil gods who plotted the destruction of man, and until man should likewise triumph over the powers of evil, symbolic of sin. This concept of sin included primarily drunkenness and sexual incontinence, but the gravest sin was failure to participate in the divine plan, that is, failure to fulfill one's duties toward the gods, or, in other words, to show fear in combat.

As a result, the fundamental virtue among this religious, warlike people was courage displayed in combat and stoicism in the face of pain or death. Even the macegual, or common people, could acquire rank through merit, and the king could make them nobles by bestowing knighthood upon them.

Opposed to this imperialistic and religious ideal there was always a feeling of pessimism in the depths of the Aztec soul. The Aztecs knew that in the end their leader, the sun, would be defeated and would have to perish amidst fearful earthquakes, and then the powers of evil would prevail. The stars and the planets, led by the moon, would descend to the earth, but no longer by means of the tenuous thread of spider web on which, from time to time, during the days of evil fortune, the tzitzimime came down. Instead, they would descend from the heavens in innumerable squadrons of fierce beasts and would destroy mankind.

Therefore, this life, for the Aztecs, was only transitory, and a feeling of pessimism and anguish appeared in their vigorous and terrible sculpture and a tinge of profound sadness in their poetry.

We only came to sleep, We only came to dream, It is not true, no, it is not true That we came to live on the earth.
We are changed into the grass of springtime;
Our hearts will grow green again
And they will open their petals,
But our body is like a rose tree:
It puts forth flowers and then withers.

This profound melancholy contrasts sharply with the energetic concept of being a chosen people, and here is the fundamental contradiction in the Aztec culture.

But if religion was for the Aztecs the strength and reason of their lives, if it took them from the coast of one ocean to another and made Tenochtitlan the queen of Anahuac, it was also a fatal limitation for their culture, as, on a minor scale, it was for all the indigenous cultures of Mexico and Central America.

The creative force of a youthful people was, of necessity, concentrated in the production of religious works. In art as well as in science, in the political and social organization, and in the philosophy of life, the religion that had acted as an incentive became a restraint, and the products of religious enthusiasm smothered the creative personality of the individual and destroyed all possibilities of cultural development.

When the Conquest took them by surprise, the Aztecs were still a semicivilized people who had not yet reached the cultural refinement of the Mayas, the Toltecs, the Totonacs, or the Mixtecs. The Aztecs were in the midst of a flourishing era, but the old indigenous cultures that had already disappeared are eloquent proof of the sterility in which those great civilizations finally ended. They had lacked a constantly progressive ideal that would have led them to conceive of life as something more than an invariable, meticulous repetition of ceremonies in honor of the gods.

Among the great cultures of Mesoamerica, religion, in great part, took the place of technical invention. The fundamental belief was that man did not have to solve his own problems, but must implore the gods to solve them and take pity on mankind. For the Indians of Mesoamerica, sacrifice was the technical means that made the rain fall, the corn grow, an illness disappear, a father, husband, or son return safe from an expedition of war or commerce, or a wife give birth to a strong, vigorous child. Man alone could do nothing; his technique was ineffectual. Only sacrifice could he induce the gods to satisfy with benevolence the needs of mankind.

This profound religiosity of the Mexican Indian, still very much in evidence today, is the scarlet thread in the woof of history; it allows us to understand his way of life, at times indolent, at times active and energetic, but always stoic, because the life of man, according to his way of thinking, depends on the impenetrable will of the gods.