Aztec Character


Alonso de Zorita wrote of the Mexicans: 'These people are by nature very long-suffering, and nothing will excite or anger them. They are very obedient and teachable. ... . . The more noble they are, the more humility they display.' This description suggests a meek and spineless people, very different from the Aztecs of popular imagination who are forever shedding blood on either the altar or the battlefield. The contradiction, however, is more apparent than real.

On the one hand the Mexicans showed what Parry has called 'a very high degree of social docility-the willing submergence of the individual in the personality of the tribe', but against this must be set a streak of personal individualism with a tendency towards violence and extremism.

In a military state like Tennochtitlan physical bravery was taken for granted, and death in battle was something to look forward to. As a Mexican poet put it:

Success in war had given the Aztecs more than a fair share of national pride, and the arrogance of Mexican officials and tax-gatherers was notorious. The structure and values of society were designed to foster competition and pride in achievement, and the Aztecs were clearly not lacking in ambition and self esteem, nor apparently in passion, for the severe penalties for adultery and drunkenness-both of which are crimes of excess suggest that these were two evils which could only be kept down by repression.

A well-bred Aztec was, however, expected to exercise self control and to behave with dignity. Sahagun has left a word-portrait of the perfect nobleman, a person who is serious and modest, who 'wishes no praise', who is 'solicitous of others', chaste and devout, eloquent but discreet in his conversation, diligent, wise, polite, 'a follower in the ways of his parents', and an example to other people. This, of course, is an idealized picture, and the high standard of behavior may have been more often sought after than achieved.

The same emphasis on moderation, responsibility, and self restraint is found in the Precepts of the Elders, a class of literature written in a high-flown and wordy style to instruct young people in behavior and manners. Here is one Aztec father talking to his son:

There is much more in the same vein, and near the end inevitably comes the sentence which every young man has heard at some time or other: 'Son, if you do not heed your father's advice, you will come to a bad end, and the fault will be yours.'

The Mexicans were addicted to making speeches and giving advice, often at. great length, and many of their songs and poems have a philosophical theme which gives further insight into the 8 Pectoral ornament in the shape of a double-headed serpent. Turquoise mosaic on a wooden base

Aztec temperament. One obsession is with the transitory nature of life and the difficulty of finding anything permanent on earth:

Even the search for philosophical truth ends only in failure and doubt.

How many can truthfully say that truth is or is not there?

Some people found a solution in epicureanism, the enjoyment of life while it lasts, but even their pleasure was tinged with melancholy:

The same fatalistic acceptance can be seen in man's relationship with the gods, when the love of pageantry and ceremony which affected every part of Aztec life reached its climax in the ritual of worship.

Generalizations about national character are always dangerous and likely to be misleading, but the typical Aztec (who must have been as rare as the typical Englishman) seems to have been a good citizen, rather conservative and tied to tradition, with his competitive and aggressive instincts held in check by good manners and self-control, ceremonious in his dealings with other people, sensitive to beauty and to the symbolism which underlies philosophy and religion, inclined to be pompous and perhaps a bit humorless, honest and hard- working, proud of his position in society, superstitious and fatalistic in his attitude towards life.


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