The greatest figure in the study of the Aztec peoples of Central Mexico was a Franciscan monk, Frey Bernardino de Sahagún, who came to Mexico in 1529 and spent most of his life there.

His General History of the Things of New Spain is therefore the most important extant document regarding the Aztec culture as perceived by a European. It was originally published in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and consists of verbatim transcriptions of interviews Sahagún conducted with native Aztecs who had learned many religious and historical texts as part of their schooling, and had actually experienced the things they described. Sahagún presents us, then, with that most important tool of scholarship--a first-person account.

The English edition of Sahagún's monumental work was written by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble and was published as The Florentine Codex. This work captures exactly the flavor of Aztec speech, with all of its circumlocutions and poetical repetitions.

As one begins any study of Aztec culture, the first thing that becomes readily apparent is that the Aztecs were, indeed, cultured. Their civilization was absolutely astounding in its architecture, government, religion, literature, art, cuisine, and social mores.

Upon serious reflection one concludes that it was the Spaniards--under the murderous direction of the villainous Hernan Cortés, aided and abetted by the King of Spain and the Catholic Church--who were the real savages in the New World, for they destroyed this sumptuous civilization utterly, in the space of one generation.

As an example of the "savage" behavior of the Aztecs, Sahagún's history quotes a nobleman, who advises his son on the eight rules of modern living:

  • "First, thou art to be one who riseth from sleep, one who holdeth vigil through the night. Thou art not to give thyself excessively to sleep, lest...thou wilt be named a heavy sleeper...a dreamer...

  • "And second, thou art to be prudent in thy travels; peacefully, quietly, tranquilly, deliberately art thou to go...Do not throw thy feet much, nor raise thy feet high...lest thou be named fool, shameless...Nor art thou to go trampling; thou art not to seem like a firefly, not to strut, not to bustle about....

  • "Third: thou art to speak very slowly, very deliberately; thou art not to speak hurriedly, not to pant, nor to squeak. Lest it be said of thee that thou art a groaner, a growler, a squeaker...Moderately, middlingly art thou to carry, to emit thy spirit, thy words. And thou art to improve, to soften thy words, thy voice.

  • "Fourth: thou art to pretend not to dwell upon that which is done, that which is performed. Especially art thou to depart from, to forsake, evil. And thou art not to peer at one, not to peer in one's face...much less at someone's wife, for it is said he who stareth at, who peereth into the face of another's wife, with his eyes committeth adultery....

  • "Fifth: Guard, take care of thy ears, of that which thou hearest. Do not gossip; let what is said remain said. Ignore it...If thou canst not ignore it, respond not....

  • "Sixth: When thou art summoned, be not summoned twice, be not called twice. The very first time, thou art to arise responding, to arise quickly...thou art to be diligent, and thou art to do things at only one bidding, for if thou art twice summoned thou wilt be considered as perverse, lazy, languid, negligent, or thou wilt be considered as one disdainful of others, as a haughty one. This is the time when the club, the stone should be broken on thee.

  • "Seventh: As thou art to array thyself...thou art not to dress vainly...thou art not to place on thyself the gaudy clothing, that which is embroidered. Neither art thou to put on rags, tatters, a loosely-woven cape...Moderately art thou to tie it on. Nor art thou to expose thy thou always prudent as to the cape, the sandals; place on thee that which is always good, proper, all fine.

  • "Eighth: Listen! Above all thou art to be prudent in drink, in food, for many things pertain to it...Furthermore, the courtesy, the prudence (thou shouldst show) are in this wise: when thou art to eat, thou art not to be hasty, not to be impetuous; thou art not to take excessively nor to break up your tortillas....

    "Our forefathers, the old men, the old women, the white-haired ones...went saying that on earth we travel, we live along a mountain peak. Over here there is an abyss, over there is an abyss. Wherever thou art to deviate, wherever thou art to go astray, there wilt thou fall, there wilt thou plunge into the deep.

    "Continue with caution on earth, for thou hast heard that moderation is necessary."

The Aztecs, Brian M.Fagen, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1984.
Everyday Life of The Aztecs, Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, 1987.

On Mexico and the Aztecs:

An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Xipe Totec

Below the Line

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