TLALOC , the pan-Mesoamerican deity of rain and fertility, was named by the Aztec, or Mexica, of Central Mexico. They chose a word derived from the Nahuatl term meaning "he is the embodiment of the earth." Other fertility deities throughout Mesoamerica include Chac among the Maya, Cocijo among the Zapotec, Tzahui among the Mixtec, and Tajin among the Totonac. Many of these deities continue to be worshiped by the contemporary indigenous people of Mesoamerica.
Tlaloc made his first appearance at Teotihuacan between 200 and 700 ce. He is depicted iconographically in murals and temples with round, "goggle" eyes and a fanged mouth. He strongly resembles a jaguar, with predatory features. At Teotihuacan, ideas regarding rain, fertility, wealth, and prestige were combined with human sacrifice and warfare.
More detailed textual information exists regarding Tlaloc during the Mexica period (1325–1521 ce). During the calendar year, which for the Aztec consisted of eighteen twenty-day "months" and five "unlucky days," approximately half of the ceremonies were dedicated to Tlaloc. These ceremonies—such as human sacrifices, fasting, and feasts—focused on topics such as ancestors, food, rain, and fertility. Worship of Tlaloc, therefore, encompassed a wide spectrum of Mesoamerican concerns and articulated more general understandings of the entire cosmology.
Water was an important element in Mesoamerican religions. Its presence in the iconography at ceremonial centers illustrates its material and symbolic importance. The circulation of water through the ceremonial precinct was intimately associated with the deities who were housed in temples there.
According to the Aztec cosmology, all material existence was surrounded by water. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec (still spoken by nearly three million Mexicans), the word for city is altepetl. Its literal translation is "water mountain," and it describes the central ceremonial temple that defined the city. Mountains were thought to be containers of water, which made its way from the sea. Tlaloc oversaw the circulation of water through the earth; therefore, human beings propitiated him so that he would release just the right amount of water.
Ritual descriptions emphasized the relationship of the human body and the earth. Both objects were understood to simultaneously be containers of, and surrounded by, liquid. Human flesh was a container for blood, which was understood as a living fluid. During gestation, the human body was surrounded by amniotic fluid. These material aspects of human existence mirrored the Aztec's understanding of their living landscape. Thus, they would perform healing practices, divinatory activity of various sorts, and rituals surrounding childbirth and child-rearing at particular places, where Tlaloc could receive the gifts of human beings.
The material makeup of the human body corresponded with the material makeup of land. Thus Tlaloc, although a rain deity, was also understood to be Tlalteuctli—the "earth lord." His body was likened to that of the crocodile: the ridges of his back were associated with the mountains and ravines, and he was said to float on the primordial saltwater sea. The Tlaloques were "rain dwarfs"; namely, lesser deities associated with various climatological phenomena such as snow, sleet, and lightning.
Tlaloc needed to eat. The ceremonial relationship between human beings and the Tlaloques was primarily based on food exchange. Rain was essential for the development of agriculture in Mesoamerica. In particular, the development of maize cultivation over several thousand years had become the basis for urban culture. Consequently, the Aztec performed ritual strategies for propitiating the rain deities so that they would release adequate amounts of moisture for agricultural bounty. Human beings grew and prospered due to the interaction of earth and water on Tlaloc's body. The Aztec believed that the flesh and blood of human beings, given to Tlaloc through human sacrifice, sustained and regenerated his body. Thus, Tlaloc and the Aztec were in an intimate, reciprocal relationship.
Ceremonial temples, or altepetl, were openings to the watery dwelling of the deities. Yet human existence was understood to materially depend on this hidden world of Tlalocan ("the place of Tlaloc"). Ritual activities performed at these places brought human beings into intimate contact with the entire cosmos. Material elements such as earth, water, air, human flesh and blood, trees, and various kinds of animals were understood to be in dynamic interaction with each other.
Since Tlaloc was seen as a living embodiment of the land, whose primary duty was to control the circulation of water both inside and above the earthly plane, the title of "rain deity" is an insufficient description. Attempting to describe the dynamic nature of the ceremonial interactions between the Aztec and Tlaloc as a feeding relationship, one scholar has referred to the mythic world of the Aztec as an "eating landscape."
Arnold, Philip P. Eating Landscape: Aztec and European Occupation of Tlalocan. Niwot, Colo., 1999. Discusses the importance of fertility rites for the Aztec and describes how they meaningfully inhabited their material world.
Broda, Johanna. "Las fiestas Aztecas de los dioses de la luvia: Una reconstruccíon según las fuentes del siglo XVI." Revista Española de Antropología Americana 6 (1971): 245–327. Presents a comprehensive outline of rain and fertility gods as described in early colonial sources.
Nicholson, H.B. "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, edited by Gordon F. Eckhom and Ignacio Bernal, pp. 395–446. Austin, Tex., 1971. This important article on deities of the Aztec includes a lengthy section on Tlaloc and the Tlaloques.
Sandstrom, Alan R. Corn Is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman, Okla., 1991. Sandstrom describes the contemporary understanding of Tlaloc among Nahuatl-speaking people.
Philip P. Arnold (2005)