A sad day it was for all Anahuac when in 1470 the great Nezahualcoyotl died, for in the reign of his successor, a sage, but no warrior, the Tezcucans fell more and more under the influence of the fierce Aztecs across the lake. Montezuma I., a bold, ambitious monarch, now ruled in Mexico. A war-like prince he was, and victory always crowned his arms, until the terror of his name spread far and wide. He was soon recognised as head of the triple alliance, and arrogantly adopted the proud title of Emperor, while Nezahualpilli, the king of Tezcuco, became more like a great vassal than an independent monarch.
Just seventeen years before the coming of the Spaniards the terrible Montezuma died, and the four chief counsellors of the empire met, according to Aztec custom, to choose his successor from the members of the royal family. Gruesome were the titles of these four electors. The first was called the Prince of the Deathful Lance, the second the Divider of Men, the third the Shedder of Blood, and the fourth the Lord of the Dark House. Their choice fell on a nephew of the last emperor, also a Montezuma. Both soldier and priest, he seemed a ruler who would be to his people, in the words of the electors, a "steady column of support." When the news of his election was brought to him he was humbly sweeping the pavement of the great temple, and as he listened to the eloquent good wishes of his subjects, thoughts of his own unworthiness moved him to tears.
To bring home captives to grace his coronation was ever the first duty of an Aztec monarch, and Montezuma II., who led his armies at once against a rebel tribe, returned in triumph with a goodly throng of victims for the gods. Never had Tenochtitlan known so brilliant a scene. With music and games and dances, and the awful pomp of priestly ceremonies, the exultant Aztecs celebrated the coronation of their emperor. From far and near the people flocked to see the magnificent sight, and even some noble Tlascalans, the hereditary enemies of the Aztecs, were present in disguise. They were recognised, but amidst the general joy the new emperor deigned to forgive these daring intruders.
In the very heart of Montezuma's dominions lay this little independent republic of Tlascala, fenced in by its mountains and impassable gorges, a constant menace and source of weakness to the Aztec. In vain did the allied armies of the empire march against the hardy mountaineers. No Indian force could wrest from them the liberty they had so passionately maintained for over two hundred years.
Victorious on every other hand, Montezuma extended his empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and far to north and south conquered tribes acknowledged the Aztec sway. By terror alone were these subject peoples ruled. No love or loyalty could they have for the distant emperor who exacted from them a tribute so grinding that it drove them to frequent revolt. Then would the Aztec armies mercilessly ravage their lands and carry off the rebels by hundreds to slavery and sacrifice.
Hardly less dreaded than the tribute-gatherers were the Aztec merchants, who took high rank in Mexico, and travelled supported by small armies through the wide empire to the countries beyond its bounds. They often served as ambassadors, and were highly honoured by the emperor, who addressed the most aged and revered of their number as "uncle." Drastic was the punishment meted out to all who dared to resist or molest these haughty traders. One of the old Mexican paintings represents the execution of a cacique and his family, with the destruction of his city, for maltreating the persons of some Aztec merchants.
Trade and agriculture, so despised in Spain, were much respected in Mexico. "Apply thyself, my son," said an old cacique, "to agriculture, or to feather-work, or some other honourable calling. Thus did your ancestors before you. Else, how would they have provided for themselves and their families? Never was it heard that nobility alone was able to maintain its possessor." Each trade had its own quarter in the capital, its own cacique, its special god and festivals.
A strange mixture indeed were the Aztec people, in some ways so civilised and refined, in others so barbarous and cruel. They did not scruple to slaughter throngs of innocent victims, yet they established in all their chief cities hospitals where the sick were tenderly nursed and the wounds of the warriors bound and healed. "Their surgeons," says a Spanish chronicler, grimly, "were so far better than those in Europe that they did not protract the cure in order to increase the pay!"
In shining contrast, not only with the brutality of other North American Indians, but with the jealous despotism of the civilised Asiatic races, was the respect and consideration with which the Aztecs invariably treated their women. Indeed, even in Europe the peasant woman, ignored by knightly chivalry, was often compelled to work like a slave in the fields, while in Anahuac she only shared in such light labour as sowing the seed and husking the corn.
As for the Aztec ladies, their life was easy and happy. Shut up in no hateful harem, they were free to walk unveiled through the streets of their city and to share in the festivities and amusements of the men. The youths and maidens delighted to end a feast with dancing, while their elders sat on drinking pulque and watching the graceful movements of their children. To every guest a gift was offered, and then they withdrew, "some commending the feast," says an old Spanish writer, "and others condemning the bad taste or extravagance of their host; in the same manner as with us."
Though polygamy was allowed in Mexico, marriage was regarded as sacred and celebrated with the most solemn rites. Letters have been preserved which show how close and tender were family ties.
"My beloved daughter," writes a mother to an Aztec maiden just entering on life, "very dear little dove. . . . The first thing that I earnestly charge upon you is, that you deserve what your father has now told you; since it is all very precious, and persons of his condition rarely publish such things. . . . The second thing that I desire to say to you is, that I love you much, that you are my dear daughter. . . . See that you receive our words, and treasure them in your breast. Let your clothes be becoming and neat, that you may neither appear fantastic nor mean. When you speak, do not hurry your words from uneasiness, but speak deliberately and calmly. . . . Neither mince, when you speak, nor when you salute, nor speak through your nose; but let your words be proper, of a good sound and your voice gentle . . .
"In walking, my daughter, see that you behave yourself becomingly, neither going with haste, nor too slowly; since it is an evidence of being puffed up to walk too slowly, and walking hastily causes a vicious habit of restlessness and instability. . . . And when you may be obliged to jump over a pool of water, do it with decency, that you may neither appear clumsy nor light. When you are in the street, do not carry your head much inclined, or your body bent; nor as little go with your head very much raised; since it is a mark of ill-breeding; walk erect, and with your head slightly inclined . . . Walk through the streets quietly, and with propriety. . . . Do not look upon those whom you meet with the eyes of an offended person, nor have the appearance of being, uneasy. . . . Show a becoming countenance that you may neither appear morose nor too complaisant . . .
"See, likewise, my daughter, that you never paint your face, or stain it or your lips with colours, in order to appear well. . . . But that your husband may not dislike you, adorn yourself, wash yourself, and cleanse your clothes; and let this be done with moderation; since if every day you wash yourself and your clothes, it will be said of you that you are over-nice; they will call you tapetetzon tinemaxoch.
"My tenderly loved daughter, see that you live in the world in peace, tranquillity, and contentment all the days that you shall live. See that you disgrace not yourself, that you stain not your honour, nor pollute the lustre and fame of your ancestors. See that you honour me and your father, and reflect glory on us by your good life. May God prosper you, my first-born, and may you come to God, who is in every place!"
This conception of one supreme God "omnipresent, that knoweth all thoughts, and giveth all gifts," was a heritage from the ancient Toltecs which the Aztecs were fast losing under the influence of their priests, whose power grew ever more formidable as Montezuma, becoming less of a soldier and more of a priest, gave himself up to the dark mysteries of superstition.
In the fierce faith taught by the Mexican priesthood were many gods, most of them blood-thirsty and sinister monsters. To the service of each god, with its endless rites and ceremonies, were dedicated hundreds of priests, who had quarters within the temple precincts. Much land was attached to the chief temples, teocallis, and the priests soon acquired great wealth. In their hands was the education of the young and the care of the hieroglyphical paintings. Wellnigh as mighty as the emperor himself were the two high priests, who stood at the head of this vast and powerful order.
Chief among Aztec deities was Huitzilopotchli, the war-god, whose altars reeked with human blood. All-armed he had been born into the world, a spear in the right hand, a shield in the left, and a crest of green feathers on his glittering helmet. For this "devil incarnate" had been built, about twenty-eight years before the coming of the Spaniards, the great teocalli, the pride of Mexico.
Not less savage was Tlaloc, the god of rain, who in seasons of drought demanded children for his victims ere he would deign to open the heavens. The tears of the little ones as they were borne through the streets robed in white and wreathed with flowers, were held to foreshadow the coming of the life-giving rain. Parents sometimes freely offered their own children, for all who died this terrible but glorious death gained in the future life a place in the highest heaven.
In this after-world warriors who had fallen in battle and the victims of the gods passed at once into the presence of the Sun, whom they followed with songs and dances in his shining progress across the skies. Their spirits, after some years of this triumphant glory, gave life to the clouds and to the sweetest singing-birds, and dwelt happily in the gardens of Paradise for ever and ever. The good who died tamely of disease knew no such bliss, but enjoyed, nevertheless, a future life of indolent contentment, while the wicked sank to a place of everlasting darkness.
To the bodies of the dead, which were arrayed like gods, were fastened pieces of paper, charms against the dangers of the dark road of death. The bodies were burned, and the ashes, collected in an urn, were treasured by relatives. At the funeral of a wealthy man many slaves were sacrificed.
Curiously like the Christian was the Aztec rite of baptism. At dawn all the relations of the child assembled in the courtyard of the house, lighted by torches of fragrant pine. When the sun had risen, the midwife or priestess, taking the baby in her arms, turned her face towards the west, and sprinkling water over the head of the child prayed, "May these heavenly drops remove from you the sin which was given to you before the beginning of the world, and cleansed by these waters may you be born anew." Then the midwife bestowed on the child the name of one of its ancestors, and with great rejoicing the friends and relatives congratulated the happy parents.
One thrilling festival the Aztecs celebrated which might come but once in a man's life. Four times, they held, since the Creation had mankind been swept away. Time was divided into cycles of fifty-two years, and it was believed that some day at the end of a cycle the sun would be for a fifth time darkened, and the whole wide world destroyed. Hence as the last year of a cycle drew to its close, fear and foreboding fell like a pall o'er the land of Anahuac. On the last five "unlucky" days the people gave way to wild despair. They tore their garments, and broke in pieces their pots and pans and furniture, and even their household gods. No fire was lit in any house, and the sacred temple flames were left to die untended. With fasting and supplication the evening of the last day was awaited.
Then a procession of priests, bearing in their midst a fair and spotless victim, left the city gates and wound their way to a lofty hill six miles distant. There on the summit was stretched the victim, and at midnight on his bare wounded breast was kindled the New Fire. To the funeral pile the flames soon spread, and as they flared high into the sky the people watching on hillside and valley, from village and city, broke forth into shouts of exultant joy. Swift runners lighting their torches at the sacrificial fire bore them here and there over the country-side, and erelong the great Sun himself, rising in his glory, proclaimed that the gods were indeed granting a new cycle of time to the world.
In rapturous festivity were passed the following thirteen days. Houses and temples were furnished afresh, and the people, donning their gayest garments, filled the flower-bedecked streets with music and laughter.
Still more fantastic was the festival of the god Tezcat, the "soul of the world." Each year a young captive, beautiful in person and noble in blood, was chosen to be the earthly image of the god. "Tezcat who died yesterday is come again!" sang the people, prostrating themselves before him in adoration, wherever he passed attended always by reverend elders and royal pages. For a year he lived as a god in luxury and splendour, his only duty to appear often in the streets that the people might at the sound of his lute rush forth to worship Tezcat the mighty.
At the beginning of the twelfth month the four loveliest maidens in the land, arrayed and named like the four chief goddesses, were given to him as brides. For one month he lived with his wives, feasting each day with the chief nobles of the city. But when the last day came the mad revelry ceased, and the captive was borne across the lake in a royal barge to a place named "Melting of Metals," where rose a teocalli, called the "House of Weapons."
Here in the sight of worshipping crowds he bade farewell for ever to his four weeping brides. Then the priests led their victim up the steep track which, winding round and round the pyramid, reached at last the summit. At each turn he must fling to the winds his musical instruments, his garlands of flowers, or some gay emblems of his godhead. Five priests, in robes embroidered with mystic scrolls, at a sign from the high priest, who was clothed in scarlet, seized their prey and stretched him upon the jasper stone of sacrifice. Two held his arms, two his legs, and one his head, while the high priest, with wild incantation, raised his curved knife of flint-like itztli, struck open at a single blow the victim's breast, and tore from it the bleeding heart. The multitudes below sank to their knees as the trophy was first held up an offering to the Sun, and then laid at the feet of the image of Tezcat. "This," cried the priest, "is a type of human destiny, for all earthly splendour is but a shadow which flees away!"
Most horrible was the end of the festival. The head of the slaughtered victim was set upon a stake called the "post of heads," and the body was dressed and served up by skilled cooks with delicious sauces at the religious banquet which followed the sacrificial ceremony. It was only in obedience to their blood-thirsty religion that the Mexicans were cannibals, and then they strove with elaborate art to disguise the human flesh by flavourings and seasoning.
Amid the gloom of foul and deathly superstitions the story of Quetzalcoatl, the Fair God, shines with welcome relief, for here, as among all primitive peoples, is seen the ideal man personified in the hero demi-god. Tall and strong he was, with white skin, dark hair, and flowing beard, this god who had dwelt among the people of Anahuac far back in the golden age. He it was who taught them the arts of gem-cutting, metal-casting, husbandry, and government, and under his rule the spirit of peace and plenty settled upon the land. He was "God of the Air," and in his time the birds sang more sweetly and the flowers bloomed more freely than ever before or since. No sacrifice would he allow save offerings of fruits and flowers.
But the Fair God had a deadly foe in Tezcat, the savage "Soul of the World." Mad with jealousy this blood-stained monster resolved to drive the Plumed Serpent, as Quetzalcoatl was called, from the land of Anahuac. Now it chanced one day that the Fair God was ill, and there came to the gate of his palace an aged man bearing a medicine which he declared would give immediate health and strength. In an evil moment Quetzalcoatl quaffed the magic drug, and at once his sickness left him, but in his mind sprang a craving to depart. "Drink again!" cried the old man, who was really the god Tezcat in disguise. Once again the Fair God drained the cup, and the second draught instilled into his very blood an irresistible passion to wander.
Burning his palaces of gold and silver, turquoise and precious stones, he set forth on his journey followed by bright-feathered singing birds, and where he passed the flowers gave forth a sweeter scent. At the city of Cholula, thenceforth sacred, he paused for twenty years, and in his honour a great pyramid was raised. But again the potent poison in his veins drove him from his palace, temple, and people. To the eastern sea he made his way, and there awaited him a magic boat of serpents' skins. Before embarking he turned to his weeping followers and bade them bear this solemn promise to his faithful people: "One day I will come again with my descendants and will rule once more as god and emperor."
So the Aztecs looked ever for his coming. And when rumours had reached them of the landing of Columbus in the far-away islands of the ocean their expectation daily grew. White-skinned strangers had come among the Indian races, surely the Fair God was on his way!