I talk a lot about the Aztecs* as a civilization, which belies the fact that Aztec culture was full of fascinating and distinctive characters (it would make a fantastic historical drama a la Vikings or Rome). Here are a few:
Fasting Coyote (Nezahualcoyotl) was a philosopher king and legal reformer of the city of Texcoco famed for his poetry and his more metaphorical take on the gods (there’s a story–perhaps true, perhaps not–that he argued that all the gods were just aspects of the supreme deity Tloque Nahuaque–“Lord of Near and Nigh”). He was part Shakespeare, part Hammurabi.
His contemporary, Tlacaelel, was a Machiavellian advisor (his official title, confusingly, was “Serpent Woman,” which was sort of a secretary of the interior). He’s been called a “creative psychopath,” since he elevated the war god Left-Handed Hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli) to the most important in the pantheon, and emphasized an interpretation of his faith that said that those warriors who died on the sacrificial stone went to paradise–providing an ideological drive for Aztec conquest. He lived for decades, watching his dream of a Mexico dominated by Tenochtitlan come to pass, dying peacefully at 90.
Cuauhtemoc (“Descending Eagle”) was the last Great Speaker (Emperor) of Tenochtitlan. He fought Cortes until his city was starving and bodies dead from smallpox lay in the street. Many Spanish soldiers considered the Aztecs the fiercest and most frightening enemies they had ever faced, and Cuauhtemoc (today Mexico’s national hero), sums up the indomitable and unyielding spirit of Aztec warrior culture. He supposedly ordered a great deal of treasure hidden before he surrendered, but would not give its location up to the Spaniards even under torture.
Ever wonder what an Aztec serial killer might look like? I know I have. But worry not, fellow would-be Mexicriminologist because we have one on record–a female, no less. A noblewoman in the 1400s (I’ve forgotten her name), took a series of lovers (generally male slaves), then had her servants kill them and commissioned statues in their likenesses. To anyone who asked, she replied that they were her “gods.” She was caught (I think by Fasting Coyote’s son) and ultimately executed–Precolumbian Mexico’s answer to Erzebet Bathory.
There were merchant-adventurer-spies (the Pochteca) who walked the length and breadth of Mesoamerica, trading for exotic goods like jade, quetzal feathers, and jaguar hides. There were sorcerers who used the severed forearms of women who died in childbirth to cast hypnotic spells. There were courtesans who wore their hair loose and snapped chewing gum as an advertisement of their services. There were skilled artisans of feathers and gold. There were beautiful courtesans In a historical first, free public school was provided to both boys and girls (though they were kept separate).
Aztec Mexico was a vital, flamboyant, intoxicating, beautiful, and terrifying world to live in–a world of larger-than-life characters and unbelievable pageantry. We neglect its stories and legacy at our own impoverishment.
*”Aztec” is kind of an imprecise term, but I use it to mean Central Mexican Nahuatl speakers rather than just the people of Tenochtitlan (better called the Mexica).