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The Voice of the Aztecs

Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For the Mexica, the people of the Aztec Empire, destruction was a form of salvation in more ways than one.

The Spaniards’ attempt to obscure a prominent Mexica artifact actually preserved it, providing us with key insights into the native culture. Warfare also played a salvific role in Mexica religion, and this cultural feature proved the salvation of Nahuatl, the dominant Mexica language.

Truly, destruction was the means of preserving Mexica culture and the Nahuatl language—the Aztec voice—into the modern day.

The Aztec Sunstone

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán sported this Mexica monolith for under a hundred years before the Spanish arrived. While converting the city into their own capital—known as Mexico City—the Spaniards buried the Sunstone to erase its pagan history from view.

However, burying the Sunstone preserved it for the present day. In 1790, maintenance construction on the city’s central plaza brought it back to light, and the Sunstone currently serves as a main attraction at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Mexica deities and religious symbols adorn the Sunstone (as explored on the next page). This iconography allows Mexica culture to continue speaking today.

The Nahuatl Language

The Mexica people—also called the Nahua people—viewed the Spanish conquest as no different from their own empirical conquests. In fact, they helped the Spanish conquer the other indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Because of this, the Nahua are the most populous indigenous people in Mexico. They adopted the Latin alphabet, produced their own literature, and continued to thrive. Today, there are 1.5 million native Nahuatl speakers in Mexico, with various dialects. This language, far from dead and buried, certainly still speaks!

Nahuatl Pronunciation

The “tl” sound is the single most characteristic sound of Nahuatl. Make an “l” sound, and note how the sound comes around the sides of your tongue. Then, holding the tip of your tongue between your teeth, make a “t” sound with the sides (not the tip or back) of your tongue. The result should sound almost like a click. Once you have the hang of it, you can release your tongue from between your teeth.

The Face with the Obsidian Tongue

The central face is broadly agreed to be Huitzilopochtli, the glorious sun and war god. However, it may also be Yohualtecuhtli, associated with the darkened sun at the end of a world.

Quinto Sol or “Fifth Sun”

The four boxes around the central face represent the four cosmic epochs, or “suns,” of the past. The Mexica believed they were living in a fifth and final epoch—represented by the face at the center—thus, much of their worship was directed towards preventing its end.

First was Ocelotonatiuh or “Jaguar Sun.” Humanity was eaten by jaguars.

Second was Ehecatonatiuh or “Winds Sun.” The gods turned humanity into monkeys, giving them the grip to survive a hurricane.

Third was Quiauhtonatiuh or “Rain of Fire Sun.” The gods turned humanity into birds, giving them flight to survive a rain of fire.

Fourth was Atonatiuh or “Water Sun.” The gods turned humanity into fish, giving them the adaptation to survive a flood.

20 Days

The ring of 20 boxes represents the days of the month according to the Mexica sacred calendar, a 260-day tonalpohualli or “day count.” This differs from their agricultural calendar, the 365-day xiuhpohualli or “year count.”

  1. Cipactli or “Crocodile” 
  1. Ehecatl or “Wind” 
  1. Calli or “House” 
  1. Cuetzpallin or “Lizard” 
  1. Coatl or “Serpent” 
  1. Mizuiztli or “Skull” (Death) 
  1. Mazatl or “Deer” 
  1. Tochtli or “Rabbit” 
  1. Atl or “Water” 
  1. Itzquintli or “Dog” 
  1. Ozomatli or “Monkey” 
  1. Malinalli or “Herb” 
  1. Acatl or “Cane” 
  1. Ocelotl or “Jaguar” 
  1. Cuauhtli or “Eagle” (Warrior) 
  1. Cozcaucuauhtli or “Vulture” 
  1. Olin or “Earthquake” 
  1. Tecpatl or “Obsidian Knife” 
  1. Quiahuitl or “Rain” 
  1. Xochitl or “Flower” 

Xiucoatl or “Fire Serpent”

Two flaming serpents encircle the outer edges of the Sunstone; the faces of Tonatiuh (the day and sun god) and Xiuhtecuhtli (the night and fire god) are depicted in their mouths. The flames inside their bodies also reflect flowers. This represents the Flower Wars, in which the Mexica conquered neighboring peoples to supply humans for sacrifice, thereby postponing the final end of humanity.

Erika Stauffer