Aztec History & Stone Sculpture

Exploring the influences through an art object in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and the diverse history of the collection of tribes called the “Aztec”

Okh Eshivar 2019 From the mountain Temple and from archaeology . The Cihuateotl

Hi, Tomb Raider fans!

Today, I am going to spotlight something from Shadow of the Tomb Raider that I noticed in Paititi. These are all over the game. These are not Maya, yet the Maya culture is woven into the game well along with the Aztec. Including South American tribes like the Inca, Moche, Chimu and various other tribes from Peru. This is another Aztec object, like the calendar stone I wrote about previously.

But first, let’s take a brief look into the Aztec …


About the Aztec Empire

First of all, did you know that the name “Aztec” is not about one people but actually what we term as Aztec is, in fact, about a group of people from central Mexico known as the Mexica. It was long after the central hub city Tenochtitlan was established by the Mexica people (AKA Aztec) that they formed a union with two other influential cities known as Texcoco and Tlacopan.

Over time the empire of states grew as they conquered more cities throughout the region. However, the capital city was Tenochtitlan due to being a military power which led the way in the conquest of new territory. Though the empire was still a triple power, the centre of the Empire would reside in Tenochtitlan.

What was interesting is how the city states paid tribute through individual government to the triple alliance with the most significant portion going to Tenochtitlan. The empire’s people were happy in a government structure that worked. It is believed they would have grown considerably farther if not for the invasion of the Spaniards in the 1500s.

Where Did They Come From? 


The Aztec Empire ruled from 1428 AD to 1521


There is nothing documented by the Spanish explorers that refer to any tribe as Aztec. Not even the records of Hernan Cortes nor Bernardino Sahagun. The Spanish explorers called them the “Mexica” because these people called themselves by that name.


A name by the whim of a god…


The name “Aztec” is more than likely from their origin mythos. One of these legends tells a story of these Mexica peoples coming from a place called Aztlan (the land to the north), so they also called themselves the Azteca when they lived in their native area.


During the time of the fall of the Toltec empire, the Azteca left their native land and wandered. While travelling they came across a place called Teo Culhuacan, they gathered more numbers in this place, for there were eight other roving tribes known as the Mexi. Here. The Azteca adopted their god (Huitzilopochtli) who told them to change their name to the Mexica. He also said to them to continue their journey, which led them to central Mexico. By the way, Mexica is the root origin word for Mexico.


To Expound on this mythos story


According to one of the codex, the possibly mythical land of Aztlan had a tyrannical elite called the Chicomoztoca. Guided by a priest, the Azteca fled their native land due to the Chicomoztoca. The previously mentioned god Huitzilopochtli commanded them to use the name Mexica, and they could no longer be allowed to use the name Azteca. Punishment for leaving Aztlan.


Another interesting version of this myth …


There are several tellings of the exodus to the southern lands of the Mexica tribes from Aztlan. Though they tell the same story, they vary in the information that defines their plight, and reasons.  


According to legend, the many tribes from the emergence caves of Chicomoztoc left from the caves to settle their lands in the south. Each tribe respectively found a place to start their cultural capital.


The Aztec / Mexica calendar denotes the day they left on their journey. It is recorded as May 24th 1024 AD. They wandered for a few years looking to settle. Many other Nahua tribes like them inhabited the southern lands already, due to the Azteca leaving last. Finally, after they arrived at Lake Texcoco, they saw the vision they have been searching for, for years. It was an eagle standing atop of a cactus with a serpent in its beak. Along the shore of Lake Texcoco was the beginning of the great city Tenochtitlan, and the so-named Aztec / Mexica empire.  


From the 16th Century Codex Boturini. It is unknown who created this codex; however, it is a depiction of the Azteca, leaving Aztlan to forge a life beyond its boundaries. The subject is on a boat, for legend says Aztlan is on an island in the middle of a lake.

In a name …

So, now we know the name (Aztec) or Azteca is the name of the people that hailed from Aztlan, and Mexica is the name for the same people who merged with other tribes in 1325 to establish Tenochtitlan and eventually found the triple alliance of three cities that was the hub of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. So basically, Aztec is a name used to encompass many tribes that united under one empire.

American archaeologist Michael Smith (2013) & American archaeologist Frances Berdan (2014) have interesting views that define the name Aztec. They are the people that lived in central Mexico and the nearby valleys during the triple alliance or the Aztec Empire are known as “Aztec”. There is another idea that the people that dwelled in central Mexico and spoke their language known as Nahuatl were collectively called the Aztec for that was the language the Azteca spoke. Either way, the name Aztec is clearly not about one tribe of people.

Why is the language Nahuatl you ask?

Chicomoztoc (the place of the seven caves) Image credit

To understand this question, you need to learn more about the origin of the Nahua peoples and Chicomoztoc (the place of the seven caves).

Chicomoztoc (The Place of the Seven Caves) is according to legend the place where the Nahuatl speaking tribes like the Azteca, Mexica, Toltec among many others emerged. Chicomoztoc shows up a lot in central Mexican codices as well as other documents.

Artists depictions of the mythical place usually show it as a subterranean hall leading into a circular room with seven chambers (caves) along its walls. Each chamber is named with a glyph that denoted a different Nahua ancestry or lineage.

On closer observation, you will notice some artists rendition of the entrance to Chicomoztoc as the mouth of a giant lion from which the tribes emerged.

Aztecs leaving Chicomoztoc, 7 Caves. Image credit

An interesting concept of creation and one that is widely told throughout Mesoamerica. These myths reach as far as the Anasazi a Puebloan tribe which is found in the American Southwest four corners region that comprises Utah, northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado.  A fascinating area of my country that I have visited many times. 

Now, for the part of Tomb Raider that I enjoy. That is how the game pulls from factual places, objects and legends. One of the latest examples is a stone sculpture I noticed in various areas of Shadow of the Tomb Raider.

The Aztec Stone Sculpture in the game and archaeology.

The following screenshot is from the game, and it aids as an inspiring example of these fascinating stone statues.

Side by side picture I made of the one from the game and one from ancient times.
Title/Artist: Deity Figure (Cihuateotl)Department: AAOACulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 15th-early 16th century

But what is a Cihuteotl?

The piece in this article is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art US

The Cihuateotl was a depiction of women that died during childbirth and were the representation of their angry spirits. In the Aztec belief, they compare giving birth to a battle comparing the women to warriors that died a violent death. Aztecs believe that a woman captures her child’s spirit in birth in the same way a warrior captures an enemy.

In the Aztec mythos about the Cihuateotl, they are thought to inhabit the west AKA  Cihuatlampa (The place of women) where the sun sets.  The sun comes into play about them because as said before, the women being the male warrior counterparts assisted the sun on its journey through the underworld until it rose in the morning.

The Aztec Ritual Calendar Days

There are five dreaded days on the Aztec calendar that are the times the Cihuteotl descended to earth and haunted certain areas of roads to snatch children because they were never allowed to have any children in life.

About the Statue

This particular statue is showing a woman wearing a skirt with a knotted belt. She is sitting down. Her hair is messy and shown through sculpted, twisted swirls. Her face is typical of Cihuateotl it looks like a skull. Her hands are intimidating held upfront like a wildcat. She appears to be ready to jump on some unsuspecting child on an Aztec ritual day.

 About the Five Days

I have written about the Maya Calendar systems. We know that the Aztecs based theirs on the Maya system. However, here is the meaning of the Aztec calendric version of the five days.

The Aztecs had a solar calendar called the Xiuhpōhualli (the Maya Haab calendar) that recognised a 365-day year. This means 365 days were divided into 20-day months. By doing it this way, there were 18 months in a year with a remainder of five days, which are the five unlucky days or unnamed days.

We know much of this information from Dominican friar Frey Diego Duran as quoted here:

“In ancient times the year was composed of eighteen months, and thus it was observed by the native people. Since their months were made of no more than twenty days, these were all the days contained in a month, because they were not guided by the moon but by the days; therefore, the year had eighteen months. The days of the year were counted twenty by twenty.”Diego Durán

The Aztecs and Stone Sculpture

Stone sculpture is an ancient art that the Olmec peoples in the Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco of Mesoamerica founded. Mesoamerican stone carving blossomed from ordinary volcanic stone to semi-precious stones. The tradition was handed down throughout the history of the various tribes. In this case, we will explore its part in the Aztec culture.

The Aztec empire was a hegemonic empire with a central city hub known as Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) and in its sacred precinct is where only the best stone sculptures by Aztec artists resided. These sculptures represented their religious beliefs and were elements in religious rituals. The largest concentrations of tribute statues to gods and goddesses were found here.

In traditional form, the female statues would assume a kneeling position with their hands placed on their knees. In contrast, male figures usually displayed their knees pulled upward, and their arms crossed on top of them. Aztec stone sculpture featured not only human form but also animal, plant and musical instruments.

Here are some examples of more male and female Aztec sculpture

Thank you for viewing this piece. I shall be back again with more updates.

Explore the World



King, Heidi. “Aztec Stone Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aztec History

The Olmec

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