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The Amazing Art of Aztec Running

Even though mostly known for human sacrifice and other gruesome practices, the Aztecs were anything but savages. The many temples and pyramids, the complex calendar and writing system still testify to the accomplishments of the Central American culture. At the height of its power, their empire spanned from northern Mexico to Guatemala and was an administrative masterpiece that just came to a sudden end when the Spaniards under Hernán Cortés arrived.

For almost 200 years they managed to control a vast territory much bigger than most European nations at the time - without horses or a significant use of ships - how did they do it?

A complex running network

Sadly, due to the destruction of most of the original sources by the Spanish Conquistadors, most of the knowledge we have about how the Mexica - the name by which the Aztecs referred to themselves - managed their realm comes from European scribes. In his letters to the Spanish Crown, Cortés described how a corps of highly trained fast runners maintained the flow of information by covering 260 miles - per day. Other accounts spoke of distances even higher - up to 350 miles!

The Titlantli - which is Nahuatl for messenger - were stationed with distances of approximately 3.6 miles between each other, so the message was transported through a relay system, passing messages along from one runner to another - mostly orally. The Titlantli consisted of young men and were well respected for their service, which could later benefit their military career.

They even had to dress accordingly to the news they carried, yes you read that correctly. If the Aztecs suffered a military defeat, the messenger was expected to have messy hair and no one actually had to speak to him to understand the message. Neatly plaited hair, a colorful outfit and a pair of weaponry were signs of good news and people would follow the runners to the palace to share the excitement.

But not only did they carry messages, the Aztec nobility enjoyed their services for the transportation of luxury goods as well, including snow and ice (probably for cooling their Cocoa cocktails) - so speed was crucial!

This swift and highly efficient communication network is believed to be one of the major reasons for the Aztec's initial success on building their empire.

Running as a ritual

The existence of 4 different words to describe the term "running" - paina, tlaloa, totoca, and tlacza - gives us an idea of the importance running had in Aztec society. One deity was literally called Paynal - the Runner. Religion played a big role in running and vice versa - training was monitored by priests from a young age and the lads had to participate frequently in ceremonies as well.

One particular interesting (and cruel) example was the New Fire Ceremony. A victim - usually of higher rank than for regular festivities - was sacrificed and had a fire ignited in the chest, thus making the fire holy. It was then used to light the Priest's torches which had to be quickly carried by the runners to the various temples of the empire, they'd better arrive before the fire goes out!

An even older origin?

Recent studies suggest that the running took place even before the Aztecs developed into the advanced society of the 14th and 15th century. In fact, some members of the much larger family of the Uto-Aztecan languages are known to be proficient runners as well - the Hopi of Arizona made running part of their prayer rituals and the Tarahumara - being the most famous ones - still keep the tradition alive until today with their ability to run distances up to 200 miles - in one session.


Sep 3th-5th 2021 - Aztec Emperor Run & Marathon

This season we again offer a historical run of the ancient world. This time it takes us to the ancient Aztecs. In the old Aztec Empire runners were the communication network of their times. At intervals of about 5km there was one running post each. The Titlanti, as the runners were called, could transmit through this relay runs a message or small goods over a distance of up to 450km within a day. Run also your Aztec run with your Titlanti distance!


 Picture 1 : Jose Lorenzo Muñoz via pexel 
Picture 2: Luis Domenech via unsplash
Picture 3 : Stormseeker via unsplash

1 comment

  • It is very nice that they have a career that speaks of my ancient culture in Mexico, my country, especially from the Mexica. But I want to mention something: the main photograph used in this blog is the pyramidal structure called El Castillo, in the archaeological zone of Chichen Itzá (525-1100 years after our Era), in the state and peninsula of Yucatan. This area is not Mexica (Aztec). It corresponds to the Mayan culture and was built eight centuries before the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (1325), capital of the Mexica. The Aztec capital fell under the city of Mexico founded by the Spanish and now capital city of the country, so few vestiges have been rescinded. One that could show the city of the Mexica would be the so-called Templo Mayor, next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. Aztec and Mayan cultures are from Mesoamerica, they correspond to different time and cultural backgrounds. As an extra data: Chichen Itzá is considered one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. Thank you.
    Eva Brito

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