Aztec Mythology in Context
The mythology of the Aztec civilization, which dominated central Mexico from the 1300s through the early 1500s ce, described a universe that was both grand and dreadful. Worlds were created and destroyed in the myths, and splendid gods warred among themselves. Everyday items, like colors, numbers, directions, and days of the calendar, took on special meaning because each was associated with a deity, or god. Aztec religious life ranged from keeping small pottery statues of the gods in homes to attending elaborate public ceremonies involving human sacrifice .
The Aztecs migrated to central Mexico from the north in the 1200s ce. According to their legends, they came from a land called Aztlán, the source of their name. The Aztecs were not a single people but several groups, including the Culhua-Mexica, the Mexica, and the Tenocha. In the early 1300s, these groups formed an alliance and together founded a city-state called Tenochtidán (pronounced teh-nowch-TEE-tlan) on the site of present-day Mexico City. The people of Tenochtidán rose to power and ruled a large empire during the fifteenth century.
The Aztecs were newcomers to a region long occupied by earlier civilizations such as the Olmecs and the Toltecs, who had developed a pantheon, or worship of a collection of gods, and a body of their own myths and legends. The Aztec culture absorbed the deities, stories, and beliefs from these earlier peoples and from the Maya (pronounced MYE-ah) of southern Mexico. As a result, Aztec mythology contained religious and mythological traditions shared by many groups in Mexico and Central America. Under the Aztecs, certain aspects of the religion, notably human sacrifice, came to the forefront.
When Spanish colonists defeated the Aztecs and settled in the area, they destroyed as many Aztec documents and images as they could. They did this because they believed the Aztec religion was evil. Much of what we know about Tenochtidán and Aztec customs comes from accounts of Spanish writers who witnessed the last days of the Aztec empire.
Core Deities and Characters
In the Aztec view of the universe, human life was small and insignificant. An individual's fate was shaped by forces beyond his or her control. The gods created people to work and fight for them. They did not offer favors or grant direct protection, although failure to properly serve the gods could lead to doom and destruction.
Duality, or the presence of two opposing forces in one thing, was the basic element of the deity Ometecuhtli (pronounced oh-me-teh-KOO-tle). This god had a male side called Ometeotl (pronounced oh-me-TEH-oh-tl) and a female side known as Omecihuatl (pronounced o-me-SEE-wah-tl). The other gods and goddesses were their offspring. Their first four children were Tezcatlipoca (pronounced tehs-cah-tlee-POH-cah), Quetzalcoatl (pronounced keht-sahl-koh-AHT-1), Huitzilopoch-tli (pronounced wee-tsee-loh-POCH-tlee), and Xipe Totec (SHE-pay TOH-tek), the creator gods of Aztec mythology.
Originally a Toltec god, Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Smoking Mirror, was god of the night sky. The color black and the direction north were associated with him. He had a magical mirror that allowed him to see inside people's hearts. The Aztec people considered themselves his slaves. In his animal form, he appeared as a jaguar. His dual nature caused him to bring people good fortune at some times, misery at others.
Tezcatlipoca's great rival and opponent in cosmic battles, as well as his partner in acts of creation, was Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, an ancient Mexican and Central American deity absorbed into Aztec mythology. His color was white and his direction west. Some stories about Quetzalcoatl refer to him as an earthly priest-king, which suggests there may have been a Toltec king by that name whose legend became mixed with mythology.
As a god, Quetzalcoad had many different aspects. He was the planet Venus (both a morning and an evening star), the god of twins , and the god of learning. The Aztecs credited him with inventing the calendar. A peaceful god, Quetzalcoad accepted sacrifices of animals and jade, but not of human blood. When he was defeated by Tezcadipoca, Quetzalcoatl sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean on a raft of serpents. The legend arose that he would return over the sea from the east at the end of one of the Aztecs' fifty-two-year calendar cycles. When the white-skinned Spanish invader Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, some Aztecs thought he was Quetzalcoad come again, a belief Cortés encouraged.
Huitzilopochdi, Hummingbird of the South, is a deity that originated with the Aztecs. He was the sun and war god. The souls of warriors who died in battle were said to become hummingbirds and follow him across the sky. Blue was his color and south his direction. The Aztecs claimed that an idol of Huitzilopochdi had led them south during their long migration and told them to build their capital on the site where an eagle was seen eating a snake. The worship of Huitzilopochdi was especially strong in Tenochtitlán, where he was regarded as the city's founding god.
Xipe Totec, the Flayed Lord, had a dual nature. He was a god of vegetation and life-giving spring growth. At the same time, he was a fearsome god of torture and sacrifice. His intense duality reflected the Aztec vision of a universal balance in which new life had to be paid for in blood. Xipe Totec's color was red, his direction east.
The Aztecs also incorporated the worship of Tlaloc (pronounced TLAH-lok), an important god of rain and fertility long known under various names in Mexico and Central America. He governed a host of lesser gods called Tlaloques (pronounced TLAH-loh-kes), who made thunder and rain by smashing their water jars together. Other deities, such as Huitzilopochdi's mother, the earth goddess Coatlicue (pronounced kohaht-LEE-kway), Lady of the Serpent Skirt, probably played key parts in the religion of the common people, who were mainly farmers. Many minor deities were associated with flowers, summer, fertility, and corn.
Many Aztec myths tell all or part of the story of the five suns. The Aztecs believed that four suns, or worlds, had existed before theirs. In each case, catastrophic events had destroyed everything, bringing the world to an end. Many stories related the Loss of the Ancients, the mythic event in which the first people disappeared from the earth. One version says that Tezcatlipoca stole the sun and Quetzalcoatl chased him and knocked him back down to earth with a stick. Tezcatlipoca then changed into a jaguar and devoured the people who lived in that world. The Aztecs combined versions of this story to explain the disappearance of people at the end of each of the four worlds that had existed before theirs. Carvings on a stone calendar found in 1790 tell how, one after another, jaguars, wind, fire , and flood destroyed the Ancients.
According to Aztec myth, at the beginning of this world, darkness covered the earth. The gods gathered at a sacred place and made a fire. Nanahuatl (pronounced nah-nah-WAH-tl), one of the gods, leaped into the fire and came out as the sun. However, before he could begin to move through the sky, the other gods had to give the sun their blood. This was one of several myths that described how the gods sacrificed themselves to set the world in motion. Through bloodletting and human sacrifice, people imitated the sacrifices made by the gods. The example of the deities taught the Aztec people to believe that feeding the sun with blood kept it alive.
Tezcatlipoca created the first sun, known as Nahui-Ocelotl, or Four-Jaguar. It came to an end when Quetzalcoatl struck down Tezcatlipoca, who became a jaguar and destroyed all the people. Quetzalcoatl was the ruler of the second sun, Nahui-Ehécatl, or Four-Wind. Tezcatlipoca threw Quetzalcoatl off his throne, and together the fallen god and the sun were carried off by a hurricane of wind. People turned into monkeys and fled into the forest.
The third sun, Nahuiquiahuitl (pronounced nah-wee-kee-ah-WEE-tl) or Four-Rain, belonged to the rain god Tlaloc. Quetzalcoatl destroyed it with fire that fell from the heavens. The water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue (pronounced chal-choo-TLEE-quay) ruled the fourth sun, called Nahui-Atl (pronounced nah-wee-ATL) or Four-Water. A fifty-two-year flood destroyed that sun and the people turned into fish. Quetzalcoatl gave life to the people of the fifth sun by sprinkling his own blood over the bones of the only man and woman who had survived the flood. The gods created the world with blood and required the sacrifice of human blood to keep it intact. One day, however, the fifth sun would meet its end in a destructive earthquake.
The Aztecs lived in the world of Nahui-Ollin (pronounced nah-wee-oh-LEEN; Four-Movement), the fifth sun. They believed the earth was a flat disk divided into north, east, south, and west quarters, each associated with a color, special gods, and certain days. At the center was Huehueteotl (pronounced hway-hway-tay-OH-tul), god of fire. Above the earth were thirteen heavens. Below the earth were nine underworlds, where the dead dwelled, making nine an extremely unlucky number. A myth about Tezcadipoca and Quetzalcoatl tells how the world was quartered. They made the earth by seizing a woman from the sky and pulling her into the shape of a cross. Her body became the earth, which, angered by their rough treatment, devoured the dead.
Another myth tells of Tezcadipoca and Quetzalcoatl working together to raise the sky. After the flood ended the fourth sun, the sky collapsed onto the earth. The two gods became trees, pushing the sky up as they grew. Leaving the trees supporting the sky, one at each end of the earth, they climbed onto the sky and met in the Milky Way.
Key Themes and Symbols
The idea that people were servants of the gods was a theme that ran through Aztec mythology. Humans had the responsibility of keeping the gods fed, otherwise, disaster could strike at any time. The food of the gods was a precious substance found in human blood. The need to satisfy the gods, especially the sun god, gave rise to the related theme of human sacrifice.
Priests conducted ceremonies at the temples, often with crowds in attendance. Masked performers acted out myths using song and dance, and priests offered human sacrifices. To prepare for the ceremonies, the priests performed a ritual called bloodletting, which involved pulling barbed cords across their tongues or other parts of their bodies to draw blood. Bloodletting was similar to a Mayan ceremony known as the Vision Quest. Peoples before the Aztecs had practiced human sacrifice, but the Aztecs made it the centerpiece of their rituals. Spanish explorers reported witnessing ceremonies in which hundreds of people met their deaths on sacrificial altars. The Aztecs sacrificed prisoners, which contributed to their drive to conquer their neighbors.
Sacrifice was linked to another theme, that of death and rebirth. The Aztecs believed that the world had died and been reborn several times and that the gods had also died and been reborn. Sometimes the gods even sacrificed themselves for the good of the world. Though death loomed large in Aztec mythology, it was always balanced by fertility and the celebration of life and growth.
Another important idea in Aztec mythology was that the outcome of a person's life was already determined by the gods. The Aztec ball game, about which historians know little, may have been related to this theme. Aztec temples, like those belonging to other cultural groups throughout Mexico and Central America, had walled courts where teams of players struck a rubber ball with their hips, elbows, and knees, trying to drive it through a stone ring. Some historians believe that the game represented the human struggle to control their destiny, or future path in life. It was a religious ritual, not simply a sport, and players may have been sacrificed after the game.
The theme of fate was also reflected in the Aztecs' use of the calendar. Both the Aztecs and the Maya developed elaborate systems of recording dates. They used two calendars: a 365-day solar calendar based on the position of the sun, and a 260-day ritual calendar used for divination, or predicting the future through supernatural means. Each day of the ritual calendar was influenced by a unique combination of gods and goddesses. Divination involved interpreting the positive or negative meanings of these influences, which determined an individual's fate. Priests also used the ritual calendar to choose the most favorable days for such activities as erecting buildings, planting crops, and waging war.
The 365-day and 260-day cycles meshed, like a smaller wheel within a larger one, to create a fifty-two-year cycle called the Calendar Round. At the end of a Calendar Round, the Aztecs put out all their fires. To begin a new Calendar Round, priests oversaw a ceremony in which new fires were lit from flames burning in a sacrificial victim's chest.
A third key theme of Aztec myth was that of duality, a balance between two equal and opposing forces. Many of the Aztec gods and goddesses were dualistic, which meant they had two sides, or roles. Deities often functioned in pairs or opposites. Further, the same god could appear under multiple names or identities, perhaps because Aztec mythology drew elements from a variety of sources.
Aztec Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The legacy of Aztec mythology remains strong within Mexico. Aztec images and themes continue to influence the arts and public life. In the late 1800s, Mexico won independence from Spain but had yet to establish its own national identity. Civic and cultural leaders of the new country began forming a vision of their past that was linked with the proud and powerful Aztec civilization. Symbols from Aztec carvings, such as images of the god Quetzalcoatl, began to appear on murals and postage stamps. Mexico's coat of arms featured an eagle clutching a snake in its beak, the mythic emblem of the founding of the Aztec capital.
During the 1920s, Mexico's education minister invited artists to paint murals on public buildings. The three foremost artists in this group were Diego Rivera, José Clémente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Although their paintings dealt mainly with the Mexican Revolution and the hard life of Indians and peasants, the artists also drew upon Aztec mythology for symbols and images to connect Mexico's present with its ancient past. In one mural, for example, Rivera combined the images of the earth goddess Coatlicue and a piece of factory machinery. Although early colonists tried to eliminate it, Aztec mythology has increasingly become an important part of Mexico's national identity.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Letters from Mexico (2001) is a new translation of the letters written by Hernando Cortés, Spanish conqueror of the Aztecs, to the king of Spain. The letters detail Cortés's deeds (in a way that made himself look good) and provide a glimpse of the Aztec culture at the time of Spanish invasion in 1519.