The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it is in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. — James Madison

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Laws, Games, Food, Manufactures,
Arts, and Architecture

Notwithstanding the cloud from the smoke of sacrifice hung constantly above the lovely valley of Anahuac, it appears from the historic records, that the Aztecs sometimes indulged in lighter enjoyments and possessed many mirth-making games. Though common crimes were punished with terrible severity and the ordinary citizen was closely hedged about by rules, the transgression of which was death, he seems to have had periods of hearty enjoyment. The laws in such a community, where life was held lightly in esteem, were necessarily severe; it is not of importance that we should devote our space to an enumeration of the crimes that entailed the death penalty, and we will merely remark that they were many, as in the days of Nezahualcoyotl, King of Tezcoco. Many of the transgressors were sacrificed at some of the festivals, especially at that of Xipe, god of the goldsmiths. Slavery was countenanced, though the child of a slave was born free;  and if a refractory slave—even though his owner had the right to punish him by placing a wooden collar about his neck and selling him for sacrifice—could escape, and gain the royal palace, he was considered free henceforth, More than this, if any one not his owner, or sons of his master, undertook to stop him, he lost his own freedom from that moment.

Their laws and customs—especially as regarding war and the invasion of an enemy's territory—will be more fully dwelt upon in the progress of the Conquest.

A rich and expressive language, like the Mexican tongue, was capable of extensive use in the mouths of poets and orators. They composed hymns almost without number, historical poems, verses on love and morality, in all of which was manifest their love for the objects of nature that surrounded them, to which they made figurative allusions. Nezahualcoyotl, the wise King of Tezcoco, was the great patron of art, and richly rewarded successful composers in the Nahua tongue.

Dramatic poetry received almost as much attention as lyric. In the great square of Tlaltelolco the Mexicans had built a theatre where they had a mimic stage. It was about thirty feet square, and raised twelve or thirteen feet above the level of the market-place, adorned with flowers and feathers. Here, after having dined, the people assembled to witness the actors, "who appeared in burlesque characters, feigning themselves deaf, sick with colds, lame, blind, and crippled, and addressing the idol for a return of health. Others appeared under the names of different little animals, some in the disguise of beetles, some like toads and lizards, while several little boys, belonging to the temple, appeared in the disguise of butterflies and birds of various colors; upon encountering each other they reciprocally explained their employments, which was highly satisfactory to the people, as they performed their parts with infinite ingenuity. This took place at their principal festivals only, when all the spectators made a grand dance, which terminated the ceremony."

Their musical instruments consisted of horns, sea-shells, little flutes or pipes, and two great drums, called respectively Huehuetl  and Teponaztli. The first was a tall cylinder of wood—perhaps only a hollow log—the top of which was covered with a tightly-stretched deer-skin. The second was wholly of wood, with two narrow slits in its centre, and by beating this portion with drumsticks covered with rubber gum they produced a soft, agreeable sound. The sound of the larger could be heard a distance of two or three miles. To the accompaniment of these instruments, the Mexicans sang and danced their sacred dances. The dances were, some of them, of complicated pattern, and could only be learned by long and frequent practice. To this day, this love for music and dancing continues among the Mexicans, and some of their songs, dances, and rude instruments are yet preserved among the people of secluded districts.

In their games proper the Mexicans displayed the greatest ingenuity and patience. That called by the Spaniards the voladorez, or "flyers," was a wonderful exhibition, and would even be considered so in modern times, In the centre of some square the young men planted a tall, straight tree, stripped of its branches, and encased it in a wooden cylinder. Four ropes hung from the top, supporting a square frame, to which they tied four other ropes, and twisted them about the tree. Four men, who were to be the firers, mounted to the top of the tree disguised as great birds, like eagles and herons, and fastening themselves to the ends of the ropes, swung themselves into the air. As they did this the frame was put in motion and they revolved about the tree, the ropes becoming untwisted and their flights wider, until they reached the ground. Usually, an Indian would climb to the top of the cylinder, some sixty feet above the ground, and beat a little drum with one hand while waving a flag with the other. The conception of such a complicated game as this required a high intelligence, while its performance was attended with so much danger as to demand great skill and courage in those who took part in it.

Men Flying

Games of foot-ball were much in vogue among these people, the principal one of which, called tlacheco, was indulged in by even the kings and nobles. You will remember that the two kings, of Mexico and Tezcoco, resorted to a game of ball to decide whose interpretation should be given to the omens in the sky, in the year 1508; that the fugitive prince, Nezahualcoyotl, won the favor of the people by his skill at this game, and that the brave Tlascallan chieftain frequently played it.. They also had games resembling dice and backgammon, instead of cubes of ivory using large beans marked with dots.

Feats of strength and agility were greatly encouraged in a nation like theirs, given to war, and called upon to under-go great hardships. Some of their acrobatic feats might put to shame many of our athletes of to-day. One is mentioned as having been exhibited before the Pope of Rome by two Mexicans sent over by Cortes. One of them balanced a heavy piece of wood, about eight feet in length, upon his feet, and whirled it round and round, as he lay on his back with his feet in the air, with a man sitting astride each end of the beam. They also performed feats similar to those common among our acrobats of the present day; such as, a man dancing upon a piece of timber supported on the shoulders of two others; two men dancing upon thee head and shoulders of a third, etc.

The attainments of the Mexicans in the higher arts, such as sculpture, historical painting, and the goldsmith's art, were of no mean order. Though compelled to work with instruments of copper, and mainly with chisels of flint  (as iron and its uses was unknown to them), they executed admirable sculptures in stone, statues of clay, wood, and copper, gold and silver. The vast number of their idols bears witness to their patience and industry, even though thousands have been destroyed, and those we see to-day are not a hundredth part of those produced. It was acknowledged by the gold and silversmiths of Europe that some of the work of the Aztec artists could not be produced by the best workmen among them. Besides the wonderful figures in various metals, gems set in gold, and objects of art and utility, the Mexicans fabricated most wonderful mosaics of the feathers of birds. This feather-work was something entirely new to the Spaniards on their arrival, and an art that seems to have been exclusively of Aztec origin. It is one of the very few that have survived to the present day; perhaps the only one practised in its perfection. In the manufacture of pottery they were very skillful, especially the natives of Cholula, the district in which dwelt the priests of Quetzalcoatl. As weavers, also, they produced admirable cloth of cotton, of the fibres of the maguey, and the mountain palm. They made mats of palm leaves and rushes, twisted thread and ropes of maguey fibre, and dressed the skins of birds and quadrupeds so excellently that they could be worn as garments.

The goddess of medicine, Tzapopotlatenan, had a great number of very skillful followers, who understood the hidden virtues of the plants of Mexico and cured desperate diseases and wounds. If we wish a notable example of their skill, we will find it in the curing of the dangerous wounds that were received by Cortes, in the retreat from Mexico, which were healed by simples applied by a Tlascallan physician. As a great preventive against disease the Mexicans used the bath frequently—especially the Temazcalli, or vapor-bath, a low, oven-like structure of brick, where steam was generated from the water poured upon heated stones.

Vapor Baths.

What the Aztecs ate, may interest many to know, as in those days the range of food-plants, and animals suitable for the table was quite limited. They had no cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, horses, donkeys or fowls (save turkeys). In the early years of their existence in Anahuac (as we have already seen), they subsisted upon the roots of marsh plants, snakes, lizards, frogs, flies, and flies' eggs; fish of the lake, and small animals, such as rabbits, etc., that they could catch.

Maize, or "Indian corn," was their chief reliance at all times, from the very earliest period of which we have any knowledge, and from it they made those corn-cakes known in the Spanish colonies of America as tortillas. These are made from corn that has been soaked in lime-water, crushed to a fine paste between two stones, and formed into thin, wafer-like cakes that are baked upon a stone or metal slab over a quick fire. From this valuable grain they also made strengthening gruels and drinks, as well as from the cacao or chocolate bean, and the chia, both which are native to this country and were unknown in Europe till after the Conquest. Their seasonings were salt, made from the water of Lake Tezcoco and from salt-springs, peppers, and tomate—tomatoes. They made wine from the maguey, or Mexican aloes,—the famous "pulque,"—and other beverages from the corn, the mountain-palm, and other plants.

So we may see, that, though they did not possess a great variety, yet they utilized all that their country afforded, Eggs they had from the turkeys, iguanas, turtles, and perhaps the alligators; their meats were the flesh of quail and other native birds, rabbits, deer, and wild hogs, or peccaries. Having no beasts of burden, they trained their children to carry heavy loads over great distances, which they do even now, surpassing every other people in respect to endurance and strength. It is said that they had not found out how to make candles from wax, and as they had no sheep they could not obtain tallow; but in the coast countries they made use of those luminous coleoptera called fire-flies, and in the uplands torches of ocotl, or resinous pine-wood, to give them light at night. The habits of the people were very simple, and as they usually rose with the sun and retired at dark, they had little need for artificial light.

Making bread>


Every house had its idol, before which they daily burned incense of gum copal, which is a spontaneous product of the country. After laboring a little while in the morning, the poorer people had their frugal breakfast of tortillas, or atolli—maize gruel, which meal they repeated in the afternoon. They ate sparingly, but drank frequently, and the nobility enjoyed a siesta after their meals, soothing themselves to sleep by the aid of tobacco, which they smoked through a little pipe of wood, or a reed, mixed with the leaves of the liquidamber.

Finally, in a list of the vegetable productions that ministered to the wants of the Mexicans, should not be forgotten a singular fruit and a root that provided them with soap. The root, called the amolli, possessed excellent cleansing properties, not only when used upon the person but upon cotton and linen.

We have glanced over the Aztecs and their surroundings; to complete the picture we need to be informed upon their household economy, one or two arts, and their architecture. Their houses, even those of the nobles, were not furnished with a great variety of furniture. The beds of the poor were coarse mats of rushes, spread upon the floor, while those of the higher classes were finer in quality and used in greater quantity, covered with sheets of cotton, or linen woven with feathers; the pillows of the poor were logs of wood, or stones, those of the rich were probably of cotton, while quilts of cotton and feathers covered them at night. For chairs they had low seats carved of wood, or heaps of rushes or palm leaves, and at their meals they spread a mat upon the ground, instead of using a table, and "used napkins, plates, porringers, earthen pots, jugs, and other vessels of fine clay, but not, as we can discover, either knives or forks." No household was complete without the metatl, or stone corn-mill, the chocolate jug, and the xicallis, or vessels made from gourds or calabashes.

The houses themselves, the dwellings of the Mexicans, were at first simple huts of reeds and rushes, and later on were made of sun-dried brick or stone and mud, with a thatching of grass, palm leaves, or the long, thick-leaves of the maguey. As the city of Mexico improved, the houses of the lords and nobles were built of tezontli, a rough, porous stone that was easily worked and laid with lime. They were generally constructed in two stories, with halls and large courts, with a door opening to the street and another to the canal. The roofs were flat and terraced, the floors and pavements were of plaster or cement, and the walls covered with plaster so white and glistening as to shine like silver in the sun. Battlements and turrets adorned and defended the walls of some, fountains were enclosed in their courts and gardens, and fish-ponds were numerous and well laid out. They had no doors, but mats were hung in their place, with shells, broken pottery, or some such thing hung to them to warn the family, by their jingling, of the entrance of any one. It was not customary, however, for any one not a member of the family to enter another's house, and the laws against thieves were so strict that there was little danger from stealing. Conspicuous examples of their skill in architecture will be pointed out when we return to the city of Mexico in the ranks of the conquerors. Let us speak of two great achievements of this people, then we will take up the thread of historical events again.

Their calendar system was so nearly perfect as to exciter the highest admiration. It has already been alluded to. Their great "calendar stone," by aid of which they calculated the recurrence of their cycles and the return of their festivals, may yet be seen in the city of Mexico, where it is cemented into the western wall of the great cathedral; which position it has occupied since 1790, though its antiquity is much greater than that. It is said to weigh forty if five tons, is eleven feet in diameter, and was hewn from a great basaltic rock.


The most wonderful accomplishment of the Mexicans is yet to be mentioned—their celebrated picture-writing. It is thought that this art of representing historical events by means of paintings was an invention of the Toltecs. It is by means of them that their early history, as given in previous pages, has been preserved. Thousands of them were destroyed by the first Spanish missionaries to Mexico, as "works of the devil," but a sufficient number were hidden, from them, and afterwards discovered and preserved, to be of service in constructing the aboriginal history. Besides the picture-paintings, proper, they had also a system of hieroglyphs, they could count up to any required number, and each numeral was represented by a different character, and each cite giving tribute to the crown; and not only material things, but abstract ideas had their particular characters.

Having, in these latter pages, given a description of Aztec life, customs, character, and accomplishments, we shall be prepared to pursue the history of this people through a period subsequent to the arrival of the Spanish adventurers in the Gulf of Mexico.