The Aztecs were a race of Mesoamerican people who were especially powerful in the 14th to 16th centuries. The area now known as Mexico city was at the heart of the Aztec empire and many ruins and monuments still remain within the city, marking the art and culture of the war-like Aztec peoples.
The History of Tribal Aztec Tattoos
The Aztecs were a very proud race. Warriors who were captured in battle would often submit to their captors and willingly allow themselves to become blood sacrifices. These sacrificial events drew large crowds of people who would watch as the captured warriors were led to the top of the Aztec pyramid temples by priests. At the peak of the pyramid a short ceremony would take place, in which the warrior was bent backwards over a stone. Priests would stretch his body taut as another priests sliced open the warrior’s belly and reached inside him, removing the still-beating heart and holding it up for the crowd to see. The body of the warrior would then be tumbled in a bloody mess down the steps of the pyramid. This method of sacrifice could be performed incredibly fast, meaning that with several priests working together, a few thousand sacrifices could be made in a single day.
Aztecs believed that blood was very important, that the spirit essence of man existed in his blood. By tumbling the bloody bodies of the sacrificed warriors down the steps of their temple, they were essentially giving the warrior’s power to the temple by allowing the warrior’s blood to soak into the stone of the temple.
In some ceremonies, Aztec priests would collect the skulls of the sacrificed warriors and display them on wooden racks. The skulls were skewered by wooden poles through holes drilled into the temples. These racks would mark religious and political areas such as temples and public grounds. The skulls were a display of power – a show of how many people that particular sect of Aztecs had captured and slain. Sometimes decorative skulls were carved or sculpted in honor of the dead. This connection with death and displaying human skulls may be one of the cultural practices that led up to the use of sugar skulls to honor the dead in Mexico. (For examples of sugar skull tattoos, see Celebrate the Day of the Dead with Sugar Skull Tattoos.)
The Aztec blood sacrifices are one of the most well-known facts about this Mexican race, but it was not the only aspect of Aztec culture that should be noted. The Aztecs were highly cultured and enjoyed holding festivals in which musicians, poets, acrobats, dancers and singers would compete for a prize. Poetry was especially appreciated, and when viewed in the vivid picture language of the Aztecs, the poem comes to life, recreating the Aztec culture for just a few moments.
The Meaning of Aztec Tattoos
The Aztec language, Nahuatl, uses pictures as words. For example, the word “eagle” is expressed with a drawing of an eagle’s head. The picture word for rain is a bit more obscure, depicting what could be a rain deity instead of the rain itself. Many Aztec temples, buildings and other structures were decorated with these picture words, and while these carving may appear purely decorative to the modern eye, the creatures, deities and elements portrayed in the images held a wealth of meaning for ancient Aztecs. The Aztecs would have used these carvings to mark places in much the same way that we use sign boards and street signs today.
The Aztec style of art is highly distinctive, with a particular shape that marks Aztec symbols. This art style has been recreated by tattoo artists to create modern Aztec-styled tattoo designs. Because the Aztec picture language accepted the same word presented in different ways, this use of the Aztec style to create a tattoo design would probably have been greeted by the Aztec people as an acceptable use of their written language.
The most popular Aztec tattoos feature animals such as eagles, jaguars, frogs and monkeys. These are totem animals, also known as spiritual guides. When a person chooses an animal totem, it is because they feel a particular affinity for that animal and are inspired by the creature’s way of life. Some totems are a symbol of power and of being at the top of the food chain, such as eagle and bear totems. Other totems, like the frog totem, celebrate the importance of that animal in the circle of life, while others display a characteristic that humans enjoy, such as the silly humor associated with monkeys, or the slow ponderous nature of the tortoise.
Aztec tattoos celebrate the culture of the Aztec people and the animal or deity depicted in the tattoo. An Aztec tattoo can be an animal totem or a word created out of the Nahuatl language. For people of Mexican descent, the Aztec language can be used to create tattoos of children’s names or a meaningful word. If you’re not keen on creating a word tattoo, tattoos of the Aztec gods and goddesses have powerful meanings too.