- Historic Sites
The City Of The Living God
From a long-obscure life of Cortés, written by his own secretary, comes a narrative of the incredible splendors of Moctezuma’s Axtec capital
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
At each entrance of the great temple there was a large hall containing sizable chambers on its two floors. They were filled with arms, for the temples of every town were community houses and served as defenses and fortresses, which is why munitions and stores were kept in them. There were also three other halls of equal height, with flat roofs, tall and large, their walls of painted stones, the ceiling joists fancifully carved; and within, many chapels or chambers with very small doors, very dark inside, where an infinite number of idols were kept, great and small, made of many kinds of metals and materials. All of them were black with blood, for they were smeared over and sprayed with it whenever a man was sacrificed. They stank horribly, in spite of which the priests entered the chapels daily and, when they were preparing to kill and sacrifice a man, would allow no one else to enter, unless it was some great personage. These ministers of the devil had a large pond, fed by a pipe leading from the principal drinking fountain, where they washed off the blood of the sacrifices, from themselves and their robes. This pond was also used for the kitchens and the poultry. The rest of the great square was empty and open, and was used for the raising of birds, for herb gardens, sweet-smelling trees, rose bushes, and flowers for the altars.
Such, just as I have described it, was the great temple of Mexico, so vast and so strange, which these deluded men raised to their false gods. It housed continually five thousand people; all slept within it and ate at its expense, for it was very rich, having many towns whose obligation it was to build and maintain it in service.
T HE GODS OF M EXICO , it was said, numbered two thousand. The most important of them were Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, whose images stood upon the altars at the summit of the teocalli . They were of stone, of gigantic size, thickness, and height, covered with mother-of-pearl, in which many pearls, precious stones, and gold were set, held in place by a cement made of zacotl , decorated with mosaics representing birds, snakes, animals, fishes, and flowers, done in turquoises, emeralds, chalcedonies, amethysts, and other small stones, which made a very handsome design against the mother-of-pearl. Each of the idols wore about its waist thick snakes of gold, and each wore a necklace of golden hummingbirds, a golden mask with mirror-like eyes, and, at the back, a dead man’s face—all having their meaning and symbolism. The two gods were brothers: Tezcatlipoca, god of plenty, and Huitzilopochtli, god of war, who was worshipped and esteemed above all the others.
Another very large idol stood in the chapel of the said gods which, according to some, was the greatest and best of them. It was made of all the edible and useful seeds found in the country, which were ground and kneaded with the blood of innocent babes and virgins, who had been sacrificed and their hearts offered to the idol as first fruits. The priests and ministers of the temple consecrated the idol with the utmost pomp and ceremony. The people of the whole city and country attended the consecration with incredible rejoicing and devotion, and many of the pious approached the idol after it had been blessed, to touch it with their hands and press into the dough precious stones, small pieces of gold, and other jewels and ornaments taken from their persons. After the ceremony, no layman might touch the idol or enter its chapel, not even the monks, but only the tlamacazque , that is, the priest. They replaced the idol from time to time and broke up the old one, and blessed were they who could obtain a piece of it for a relic and precious memento, especially the soldiers. At the time of the consecration of the idol, a flask of water was also blessed; it was piously guarded at the foot of the altar to sanctify the king when he was crowned, and to bless the captain-general when he was elected during a war, he being given some of it to drink.
O UTSIDE THE TEMPLE , more than a stone’s throw from the principal gate, was an ossuary built of the skulls of men taken in battle and sacrificed. It was in the form of a theatre, longer than it was wide, of stone and mortar, with its benches, between the stones of which skulls were set, teeth outward. At the ends of the theatre were two towers, built entirely of mortar and skulls, the walls of which, containing, so far as could be seen, no stone or other material, were strangely handsome. In the upper part of the theatre stood seventy or more tall poles, four or five spans apart, into which pegs had been driven from top to bottom. These pegs stood out like studs, and each of them had five skulls impaled on it through the temples. Andrés de Tapia, who described it to me, and Gonzalo de Umbria counted them one day and found them to number 136,000 skulls, including those on the poles and steps. Those in the towers could not be counted. This was a cruel custom, although it had some color of humanity, because it was a reminder of death. Certain persons had the duty of replacing the skulls that fell out, so the number did not diminish.