The Aztecs were bloodthirsty cannibals who all perished in the Spanish Conquest, right? These and other common misconceptions about the Aztecs are just that: inaccurate myths that get this Mesoamerican civilization wrong.
The real Aztecs were a complex, compelling society. Reaching its peak from the 14th to the 16th centuries, the Aztec Empire dominated parts of what is modern-day Mexico. Theirs was a rich, layered world enlivened by bustling trade networks, diverse social customs, and an imaginative religious life. But it didn't last forever: In 1521, the Spanish Conquest - led by Hernán Cortés - brought the Aztec Empire to an end.
Since then, the Aztecs have been misrepresented again and again. Indeed, a lot of what we know about the Aztecs actually comes from the accounts of Spanish invaders who weren't exactly objective witnesses. They peddled some of the same Aztec misconceptions that people continue to believe. Other myths and untruths emerged in subsequent centuries, when scholars and the general public struggled to make sense of the Aztec world.
From misrepresentations to straight-up lies, these myths about the Aztecs are stark reminders that just because something is taken for granted doesn't mean it's true.
Myth: They Were Called 'Aztecs'
The Lie: The people who lived at Tenochtitlán and fell to Spanish guns and germs were known as the Aztecs.
The Origin: The trend to refer to the people of Tenochtitlán as "Aztecs" became widespread in the 19th century, when American historian William Prescott published History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and called all Nahuatl people "Aztecs."
Why It's Wrong: The people we know as the "Aztecs" actually called themselves the Mexica. The word "Aztec" comes from the fact that the Mexica - according to their founding myths - originated in Aztlán and moved to the site of Tenochtitlán. The Mexica were simply a sub-group of people who claimed to come from Aztlán.Mind blown?
Myth: They And Other Indigenous Cultures Resigned To Their Fate And Went Extinct
The Lie: The Aztecs saw the writing on the wall: They believed that the arrival of the Spanish was a sign that their world was coming to end. They accepted their fate and, as people not meant for the modern world, became extinct.
The Origin: Like so many damaging myths about the Aztec Empire, this one props up Spain's narrative of a benevolent conquest: The Spanish weren't bad guys, the claim goes; they were just fulfilling their destiny.
In Father Bernardino de Sahagún's account of Hernán Cortés's meeting with Montezuma, the Spanish friar positions the Aztecs as eager to hand over their land to Spain. Sahagún puts words in Montezuma's mouth as he welcomes Cortés, calling Mesoamerica "your" land:
Our lord, you are very welcome in your arrival in this land. [...] You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit under its canopy, which I have kept for while for you. [...] I am not just dreaming that I have seen you and have looked at you face to face. I have been worried for a long time, looking toward the unknown from which you have come, the mysterious place. For our rulers departed, saying that you would come to your city and sit upon your throne. And now it has been fulfilled, you have returned. Go enjoy your palace, rest your body. Welcome our lords to this land.
Why It's Wrong: There's tons of evidence that the Aztec defended themselves against Spain's aggression. After Cortés seized control of Tenochtitlán and turned Montzeuma into his captive, residents of the city rebelled and temporarily ousted the Spanish.
Archaeologists excavating Zultepec-Tecoaque - the site of a city allied with the Aztec Triple Alliance - have found evidence that residents imprisoned and sacrificed the Spanish in 1520. That's not exactly the behavior of folks who were resigned to their fate.
It's also wrong to say that the Aztecs went extinct - they didn't. While it's true that the Spanish Conquest took the lives of millions of Aztecs, thanks to warfare and disease, they didn't all pass.Mind blown?
Myth: Their Society Was Undeveloped And Unsophisticated
The Lie: The Aztecs were an unsophisticated people who didn't have culture.
The Origin: European colonizers liked to paint Native Americans as uncivilized barbarians in order to bolster their claim that they had a right to invade.
Why It's Wrong: The historical and archaeological evidence is clear: Aztec culture was incredibly rich, complex, and sophisticated.
The Aztecs were accomplished engineers, thanks in part to their productive system of mathematics. In Tenochtitlán, for instance, they constructed aqueducts, palaces, and pyramids. Their structures were enough to impress Hernán Cortés, who gushed to King Charles V of Spain that "even when we who have seen these things [at Tenochtitlán] with our own eyes, are yet so amazed as to be unable to comprehend their reality." Bustling markets - well stocked with crafts from trained artisans and goods from far-reaching trade networks - also enlivened Tenochtitlán.Mind blown?
Myth: Malinche Was A Backstabbing Traitor To Her People
The Lie: La Malinche (AKA Marina), an indigenous woman who became Cortés's lover and interpreter, betrayed Mesoamerica when she allied herself with the Spanish.
The Origin: Why blame the men who actually invaded Mesoamerica when you can blame a woman, right?
Why It's Wrong: Malinche remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the Spanish Conquest. While it's true she assisted the Spaniards, her story is too multilayered to be reduced to that of a "traitor."
Likely born sometime around 1505, Malinche was sold into slavery when she was a child. Her fate became entwined with Hernán Cortés's when she was given to him as an enslaved worker. Intelligent and multilingual, she eventually became his translator. As an interpreter, she not only translated the Nahuatl language and culture for the Spaniards, but also fed Cortés intel, unveiled conspiracies against him, and facilitated his alliances.
Malinche and Cortés also had sexual relations - she bore him a son, Martín, who traveled to Spain with his father - but the power imbalance between them and the fact that her voice remains missing from the historical record makes it impossible to say that it was a consensual relationship.
Indeed, historians urge caution when considering her story. As a woman who was gifted to Cortés as a slave, Malinche wasn't in a position to work against him. Moreover, as historian Camilla Townsend has explained, Malinche's worldview wasn't clearly divided into "Mesoamerican" and "Spaniard":
Mexicans today generally consider Marina to have been a traitor to Native American people. But at the time, if anyone had asked her if she should perhaps show more loyalty to her fellow Indians, she would have been genuinely confused. In her language, there was no word that was the equivalent of "Indians." Mesoamerica was the entire known world; the only term for "people native to the Americas" would have been "human beings." And in her experience, human beings most definitely were not all on the same side. The Mexica were her people's enemies. It was they who had sold her in Xicallanco. Now this relatively small group of newcomers wanted to make war on the Mexica. No one in her world could have imagined that she owed loyalty to Moctezuma's people. While she lived, and for many years afterwards, no one expressed surprise at the course she chose. Only modern people who lacked knowledge of her situation would later say that she was some sort of traitor.Mind blown?