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From the land of the gods

The Aztecs' most celebrated and ruthless warrior captures the eye of Annie Harris and the heart of art in London

The Aztecs have come to the Royal Academy of Arts. Sculptures and other beautiful and exciting objects made their way in huge crates from all parts of the world, most importantly from the Aztec homeland, Mexico, but also from places much closer at hand like the British Museum. Walking through the galleries, we have the impression of a great people, whose gods and customs, though very different from our own, we can still sense powerfully and vividly through their art. The Aztecs paid their artists with fabulous jewels set with jade, rock crystal and obsidian and with highly valued, painted cotton cloaks. This was because they believed that artists had "god in their hearts". Since artists so often depicted the gods - of whom there were about 1,600 at the height of Aztec power - this is not surprising.

The Aztecs were one of many Mesoamerican nomadic tribes. They wandered down from the north into the Valley of Mexico in 1325 on an island in a marshy lake where they founded the city, Tenochtitlan. Later, they created a legend for themselves, which told of their journey from their original home in Aztl n, the "place of the white herons", to a promised land, the "place of the prickly pear growing on a stone", a place that their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli, foretold they would recognise when they saw an eagle standing on a nopal cactus with a snake in its beak. This image can be seen on the Mexican flag.

Over the next 200 years, the Aztecs' power increased until their empire extended from central to southern Mexico, including part of present-day Guatemala. But in 1521 they were conquered by a small army of Spaniards, whom the Aztecs mistook for one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl. Their great metropolis of 250,000 people was destroyed and in its place the Spaniards built what eventually became Mexico City. However, many aspects of Aztec culture, including the language, survive to this day.

The exhibition opens with the origins of the Aztecs and progresses through galleries of works showing the human form, the natural world, gods of life and death, priests, rituals and the calendar, the royal family and warfare, gold, the Templo Mayor, turquoise and the Spanish invasion. The Aztecs associated the natural world with religious belief. Their world was full of gods, hidden even in a blade of grass or a speck of rock. Even fleas were worth sculpting, as you will see in the exhibition. The signs on their calendar include a deer, a jaguar, a rabbit, an eagle, reeds, grass, wind and rain.

Recent archaeological excavations of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City have greatly increased our understanding of Aztec culture. Other important aids are the books or "codices" in which the Aztecs invented a language of elegant glyphs or pictures to describe their society. The last gallery reveals how the two cultures, Aztec and Spanish, reacted to and influenced each other, while the Aztecs were absorbed and converted to Christianity.

Children might like to imagine the Spaniards arriving for the first time in Tenochtitlan, centre of the Aztec empire. The salt-water lake, in which the city was built, was surrounded by high, flat-topped mountains. A grid of canals separated the small, man-made blocks of land which composed the four city quarters. In the very centre the Great Temple rose, like two man-made, flat-topped mountains. Here lived the two gods, Tlaloc, god of rain, whose temple was blue, and Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war and patron god of the Aztec people, whose temple was red and black.

As the Spaniards progressed into the city, maybe they were led by the hum of the crowd to a great colonnaded market place. Here they gaped at strange, unrecognisable vegetables, like maize, squash, tomatoes, chillies, avocados, and something called cacao or chocolate, and at the fact that dogs and grasshoppers were on sale as food. But they were soon drawn to the temple that could be viewed from every part of the city, noticing as they went the gleaming white of the public buildings and the people bustling along through the immaculate streets - women were seemingly born with a broom in their hands! They could identify important people by the fact that they wore sandals and beautifully embroidered cotton clothes, while the workers went barefoot and wore plain clothes made from some rough, brownish fibre (cactus).

When the Spaniards arrived at the huge, open square and the temple buildings that made up the ceremonial heart of the Aztec empire, they saw beautifully carved statues of gods and spirits everywhere, all brightly painted and some even wearing real clothes. Flowers, grown in the islands around the city for use during the hundreds of festivals held every year, decked the statues and temples. But the Spanish were shocked to discover that the priests there were in the process of conducting human sacrifices.

At the top of steep steps leading up to the temples, the hearts and blood of enemy captives were being offered to the sun god. The Aztecs suffered from a great anxiety that the sun's fire would one day go out. The only way to keep it alight was to feed it constantly with human hearts and blood. It was the gods themselves who first set this sacrificial example by jumping into the sun's fire to keep it burning. The Aztecs were therefore desperate to collect victims for the sacrifice, so an Aztec warrior's mission was to take as many enemy captives alive as possible (for this reason, their obsidian daggers were designed to wound and not to kill). The most celebrated warriors - those that had taken the most captives - were the Eagle and Jaguar warriors, who wore eagle and jaguar costumes.

"The Eagle Warrior", represented in the clay sculpture illustrated here, was one of two sculptures discovered by archaeologists in a highly painted room in the Templo Mayor called the House of Eagles. Traces of painted eagle wings are still visible on the clay figure. Warriors followed the god Huitzilophotli, a sun god represented as a hummingbird. The myth of his birth was widely depicted. The god's mother was sweeping the floor when a ball of fluff sprang up and lodged in her chest. She became pregnant with Huitzilopochtli, the sun god. But her daughter, the moon, was jealous of her brother-to-be and she came with her 400 brothers, the stars to kill him. Huitzilopochtli heard them coming, jumped out of his mother and killed them all, just as the sun puts out the moon and the stars in the morning. When the dead warriors returned to earth they became hummingbirds, like Huitzilophotli, or butterflies. As the song goes: "Do not fear, my heart!In the midst of the plainMy heart craves deathBy the obsidian edge.Only this my heart craves: Death in war." - Song of War.

Annie Harris is head of education at the Royal Academy Visits, gallery talks, junior and secondary audio guides, workshops, family events, publications, lectures, courses, music.Tel: 020 7300 5995 for information.Aztecs at The Royal Academy of Arts, November 16 2002 to April 11 2003.Next week in Teacher: a guide to the exhibition and teaching resources.

Teaching tips

Key stage 1: Make an eagle warrior nose pendant Draw the eagle warrior outline, small enough to hang from your nose, onto cardboard. Cover with gold chocolate paper and hang from your nose by a slit in the head-dress. KS2: The Aztecs thought of everything with its opposite: heat with cold, man with woman, light with dark. Choose a cardboard box that will fit on your head and paint mask-like faces with eye-holes on the four sides. You might have war on one side and peace on the other, with rain and drought on the other two sides, for example. Change your character to its opposite with a turn of the box.

KS2 and 3: Invent a pictorial language The Aztecs told their story in picture-words or "glyphs". These are small, uncomplicated pictures that stand for something. Invent your own picture-word language so that you can tell your own family story in glyphs. A simple picture of a face might stand for you, for example, but how would you show it is you and not just anyone? (No letters or words!) "Picture" (not write) your story on a long narrow piece of paper that can be folded in a concertina way to look like a codex.

GCSE Throughout the exhibition you will be struck by mysterious images: a necklace of hands and hearts, a face with many layers, a man revealing his liver. Although at first difficult to decipher, these symbols reveal Aztec beliefs, hopes and fears. Choose five symbols still used in our culture and explore their meanings. How might scholars in the year 3000 interpret the Nike symbol?

Not forever on earth, Only a brief while here.

Although it were jade It will be broken. Although it were turquoiseIt will be shattered. As if it were quetzal feathers Not forever on earth,Only a brief while here.

Aztec Song of War

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