Even before we humans learned how to build sky scrapers, understand the concept of life insurance, and drive automobiles, religion has been a huge part of our existence. 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.
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 it 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 Huitzilopochtli, 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.
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.
When the Conquest took them by surprise, the Aztecs were still a semi-civilized 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 by 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.