A Beautiful World: Ancient texts reveal Aztecs’ history in their own words

Camilla Townsend poses for a photo.
Camilla Townsend’s new book, "Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs," documents the story of the Aztecs from an entirely new perspective, that of the Aztecs themselves.
Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Camilla Townsend’s new book, "Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs," documents the story of the Aztecs from an entirely new perspective, that of the Aztecs themselves. Townsend is a history professor at Rutgers University and the author of numerous historical books. She also happens to be an expert in the Nahuatl language of the ancient Aztecs.

“I wanted to write a book about Aztec history,” Townsend said, “because even though there are lots of books out there, and have been for many years, they’re all based on Spanish sources and give us a sense of the Aztecs as brutal people really, truly savages. In fact, they were not. They were human beings just like the rest of us.”

Townsend took ancient Aztec scripts, which had been collected and archived but never fully translated, and compiled selections in her book, "Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.” The title is taken from the Aztec belief that the world has been made and remade five times, and that we are currently living under the “Fifth Sun,” which began a few thousand years ago.

'Fifth Sun' by Camilla Townsend
'Fifth Sun' by Camilla Townsend
Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Townsend explains almost every part of Aztec culture was rewritten by the Spaniards.They even assigned the name “Aztecs” to the Native peoples of the Mexican basin. Those Native peoples referred to themselves as the Mexica (meh-HEE-kah). She interchanges the names “Aztecs,” “Mexica” and “Nahuatl” in her book.

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Five hundred years ago, the Aztecs were a group of nomadic farmers who built one of the greatest empires in history. Their capital city was called Tenochtitlan, and was built on an island in the middle of lake Texacoco, in modern-day Mexico City. The ancient Aztecs developed remarkable techniques of engineering and architecture to build causeways, palaces and pyramids. They expanded their empire and spread out across the great valley of Mexico, assimilating neighboring tribes and building transport routes to both coasts.

Townsend describes an advanced culture: “They had aqueducts bringing fresh water from across the lake on the shore. They had concerts in front of the temples where the Aztec kings lived. They had libraries of painted scrolls. It was a beautiful and impressive site.”

Then, in 1519, during the leadership of Moctezuma II, a Spanish conquistador named Hernán Cortés landed in the Gulf of Mexico with 500 men. They had advanced weaponry and the aid of conquered neighboring tribes when they ultimately attacked the Aztecs, which resulted in the empire’s annihilation.

After the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spaniards controlled history's narrative. But now, thanks to Townsend’s translations, we have the Aztecs’ side of the story.

The Aztecs had a traditionally oral storytelling culture, but began to write their stories down after the Spanish friars arrived and taught them the Roman alphabet. The friars were trying to teach their indigenous students how to read the Bible, but their education also provided a way for the Aztecs to write their own histories.

One thing Townsend discovered in her research was that the Aztecs were a far more peaceful people than Spanish history has taught us. In fact, their side of the story is quite different from the Spanish version.

“There’s a widespread misconception that the Aztecs thought the Europeans were Gods,” Townsend said. “But this narrative was made up in the late 1500s by Franciscan friars. In older records, that are closer to the time of conquest, there's no evidence of anything like that. They were not expecting a God to return. They did not think human beings could be Gods. There's nothing in their stories that indicates they thought that.”

She found women in Aztec culture were powerful and children were revered.

“The Aztecs teach us that even in a warrior culture such as theirs, women in their world have equal voices. Women were not afraid to speak up. Women ran the markets. Women participated in telling stories and telling poetry. They were strong. One of the stories I found was about an Aztec princess who has been captured by her people's enemies and was about to be sacrificed. She’s supposed to be terrified, or casting aspersions on her enemies. Those are the Aztecs we think we know. But in fact, she's seeking desperately to hang on to her dignity, squaring her shoulders, trying to speak loudly and saying to the people around about, you can kill me now. But you cannot kill my people. My people's children and their children's children will still survive. And one day you will regret this war that you have made against us and treating me this way. I didn't expect to find in their histories an Aztec woman sounding so plaintive and so proud, so dignified.”

Townsend said spects of Aztec culture are still alive today.

“There are literally more than a million speakers of the Aztec language in Mexico today,” she said. “In fact, some of them now live in the United States. But more than that, it isn't just that their language survives, but beautiful aspects of their culture also survive. The idea that everyone's point of view in a community is important, and that everyone's point of view should be represented in history, still lives on in modern communities in Mexico. The idea that every part of a community should participate in carrying the weight of a public event, or public duties, so that no one group has to pay for everything, or do all the work. That idea is very much alive and in modern towns in Mexico. The idea that men and women are both important, that you need both for a happy world, and that their peaceful coexistence is central to the future. The idea that children are, of all people, the most important, and must be loved, and laughed with, is still very vibrant, very much alive in modern Mexican villages. So I think it is very true to say that Aztec culture does live on today.”

One of the most beautiful parts of the Aztec culture, according to Townsend, is that it was based on reciprocity and mutuality.

“Men and women needed each other, as did grown-ups and children. Different communities, different townships, all conceived of themselves as being important, but of others as being important as well. They always made sure that everybody was represented. They believed very much that society would function better if everybody had a say over their own future. It would never have occurred to the Aztecs to have a population of people who were always destined to be enslaved, because it was so important to them to feel that everybody had a stake in society and that everybody feels respected. There’s so much we can learn today from their culture.”

“Fifth Sun; A New History of the Aztecs” is published by Oxford University Press.