Aztec mythology is the collection of beliefs, stories, and religious practices of the Aztec civilization, one of the world’s most famous ancient civilizations. It is drenched in the cycle of destruction and rebirth, ideas borrowed from their Mesoamerican predecessors and delicately woven into the fabrics of their own legends. Whilst the mighty Aztec empire may have fallen in 1521, their rich history survives in their myths and fantastical legends.
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What is Aztec Mythology?
Aztec mythology refers to the religious beliefs, stories, and rituals practiced by the Aztec civilization, which existed in Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th century. The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica, were an indigenous people who built a powerful empire in central Mexico. Their mythology played a crucial role in shaping their culture, social structure, and worldview.
It was a complex system of beliefs that revolved around a pantheon of gods and goddesses, creation myths, and concepts of life, death, and the afterlife. The mythology was closely intertwined with daily life, rituals, art, and architecture.
Who Were the Aztecs?
The Aztecs – also known as the Mexica – were a thriving Nahuatl-speaking people native to Mesoamerica, Central Mexico down into Central America, prior to Spanish contact. At its peak, the Aztec empire spanned an impressive 80,000 miles, with the capital city of Tenochtitlán having upwards of 140,000 residents alone.
The Nahuas are indigenous people that reside in much of Central America, including the countries of Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, amongst others. Having become dominant in the Valley of Mexico around the 7th century CE, it is thought that a multitude of pre-Columbian civilizations are of Nahua origin.
In the present day, there are roughly 1.5 million people that speak a Nahuatl dialect. Classical Nahuatl, the language thought to be spoken by the Mexica in the Aztec empire, is not present as a modern dialect.
How Did Earlier Toltec Culture Inspire Aztec Civilization?
The Mexica adopted many mythological traditions that originally belonged to the Toltec culture. Oftentimes mistaken for the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs were viewed as semi-mythical themselves, with the Aztecs attributing all art and science to the earlier empire and describing the Toltecs to have made buildings out of precious metals and jewels, especially their legendary city of Tollan.
Not only were they viewed as wise, talented, and noble people, the Toltecs inspired Aztec methods of worship. These involved human sacrifices and a number of cults, including the famed cult of the god Quetzalcoatl. This is notwithstanding their innumerable contributions to Aztec-adopted myths and legends.
The Toltecs were regarded so highly by the Mexica that toltecayotl became synonymous with culture, and to be described as being toltecayotl meant that an individual was particularly innovative and excelled in their work.
Aztec Creation Myths
Thanks to the expansiveness of their empire and their communication with others through both conquering and commerce, the Aztecs have multiple creation myths worth considering rather than a single one. Many cultures’ existing creation myths were combined with the Aztecs’ own earlier traditions, blurring the lines between old and new. This can be especially seen in the tale of Tlaltecuhtli, whose monstrous body became the earth, as such was an idea echoed in earlier civilizations.
For some background, at the beginning of time, there was an androgynous dual-god known as Ometeotl. They emerged from nothingness and bore four children: Xipe Totec, “The Flayed God” and god of the seasons and rebirth; Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Mirror” and god of the night sky and sorcery; Quetzalcoatl, “Plumed Serpent” and god of the air and wind; and lastly, Huitzilopochtli, “Hummingbird of the South,” the war god and the god of the sun. It is these four divine children that would go on to create earth and mankind, although they would frequently butt-heads about their respective roles – especially who would become the sun.
In fact, so often were their disagreements, that Aztec legend describes the world as being destroyed and remade four different times.
The Death of Tlaltecuhtli
Now, at some point prior to the fifth sun, the Aztec gods realized that the waterborne beast known as Tlaltecuhtli – or Cipactli – would continue to devour their creations to try and sate its endless hunger. Described as a toad-like monstrosity, Tlaltecuhtli would crave human flesh, which certainly wouldn’t work out for future generations of man that would come to inhabit the world.
The unlikely duo of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca took it upon themselves to rid the world of such a threat and under the guise of two massive serpents, they ripped Tlaltecuhtli in two. The upper portion of the body became the sky, while the lower half became the earth itself.
Such cruel actions caused the other gods to give their sympathies to Tlaltecuhtli, and they collectively decided that the different parts of the mutilated body would become geographical features in the newly created world. This former monster became revered by the Mexica as an earth deity, though their desire for human blood did not end in their dismemberment: they demanded continued human sacrifice, or else crops would fail and the local ecosystem would take a nose-dive.
The 5 Suns and Nahui-Ollin
The predominant creation myth in Aztec mythology was the Legend of the 5 Suns. The Aztecs believed that the world was created – and subsequently destroyed – four times before, with these different iterations of the earth being identified by which god acted as that world’s sun.
The first sun was Tezcatlipoca, whose light was dull. Over time, Quetzalcoatl grew jealous of Tezcatlipoca’s position and he knocked him out of the sky. Of course, the sky became black and the world became cold: angry now, Tezcatlipoca sent jaguars out to kill off man.
Next, the second sun was the god Quetzalcoatl. As the years passed, mankind became unruly and stopped worshiping the gods. Tezcatlipoca turned those humans into monkeys as the ultimate flex of his power as a god, crushing Quetzalcoatl. He stepped down as the sun to start anew, ushering in the era of the third sun.
The third sun was the god of rain, Tlaloc. However, Tezcatlipoca took advantage of the god’s absence to kidnap and assault his wife, the beautiful Aztec goddess, Xochiquetzal. Tlaloc was devastated, allowing the world to spiral into drought. When the people prayed for rain, he sent down fire instead, continuing the downpour until the earth was fully destroyed.
As much as a disaster world-building had been, the gods still desired to create. In came the fourth sun, Tlaloc’s new wife, the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue. She was loved and honored by mankind but was told by Tezcatlipoca that she feigned kindness out of a selfish desire to be worshiped. She was so upset that she cried blood for 52 years, dooming mankind.
Now there is the Nahui-Ollin, the fifth sun. This sun, ruled by Huitzilopochtli, was thought to be our present world. Each day Huitzilopochtli is engaged in battle with the Tzitzimimeh, female stars, who are led by Coyolxauhqui. Aztec legends identify that the only way for the destruction to overtake the fifth creation is if man fails to honor the gods, allowing Tzitzimimeh to conquer the sun and plunge the world into an unending, earthquake-ridden night.
The next creation myth of the Aztecs focuses on the earth goddess, Coatlicue. Originally a priestess that kept a shrine on the sacred mountain, Coatepetl, Coatlicue was already the mother of Coyolxauhqui, a lunar goddess, and the 400 Centzonhuitznahuas, gods of southern stars, when she became unexpectedly pregnant with Huitzilopochtli.
The story itself is a strange one, with a ball of feathers dropping on Coatlicue while she was cleaning the temple. She suddenly became pregnant, raising suspicion amongst her other children that she had been unfaithful to their father. Coyolxauhqui rallied her brothers against their mother, convincing them that she had to die if they were to regain their honor.
The Centzonhuitznahuas decapitated Coatlicue, causing Huitzilopochtli to emerge from her womb. He was fully grown, armed, and ready for the ensuing battle. As the Aztec sun god, a god of war, and a god of sacrifice, Huitzilopochtli was a force to be reckoned with. He triumphed over his elder siblings, decapitating Coyolxauhqui and tossing her head into the air, which then became the moon.
In another variation, Coatlicue gave birth to Huitzilopochtli in time to be saved, with the young god managing to cut down the sky deities that stood in his way. Otherwise, Coatlicue’s sacrifice can be interpreted from an altered 5 Suns myth, where a group of women – including Coatlicue – immolated themselves to create the sun.
Important Aztec Myths and Legends
Aztec mythology stands out today as being a magnificent blend of numerous beliefs, legends, and lore from diverse pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. While many myths were adapted to the Aztec view of things, evidence of earlier influences from great ages preceding unmistakably emerge.
The Founding of Tenochtitlán
One of the more prominent myths belonging to the Aztecs is the legendary origin of their capital city, Tenochtitlán. Although the remains of Tenochtitlán can be found at the heart of Mexico City’s historic center, the ancient altepetl (city-state) was the center of the Aztec empire for nearly 200 years until it was destroyed by Spanish forces after a brutal siege led by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés.
It all began when the Aztecs were still a nomadic tribe, wandering at the behest of their patron god, the war god, Huitzilopochtli, who was to guide them to fertile land in the south. They were one of a number of Nahuatl-speaking tribes that left their mythical homeland of Chicomoztoc, the Place of Seven Caves, and changed their name to Mexica.
Throughout their 300-year-long journey, the Mexica were accosted by the witch, Malinalxochitl, a sister of Huitzilpochtli, who sent venomous creatures after them to deter their travel. When asked what to do, the god of war advised his people to simply leave her behind while she slept. So, they did. And when she awoke, Malinalxochitl was furious at the abandonment.
Upon finding out that the Mexica were staying in Chapultepec, a forest that would become known as a retreat for pre-Columbian Aztec rulers, Malinalxochitl sent her son, Copil, to avenge her. When Copil tried to stir up some trouble, he was captured by priests and sacrificed. His heart was removed and thrown aside, landing on a rock. From his heart, the nopal cactus sprouted, and it is there that the Aztecs found Tenochtitlán.
The Second Coming of Quetzalcoatl
It is well known that Quetzalcoatl and his brother, Tezcatlipoca, didn’t quite get along. So, one evening Tezcatlipoca ended up getting Quetzalcoatl drunk enough to seek out their sister, Quetzalpetlatl. It is implied that the two committed incest and Quetzalcoatl, shamed by the act and disgusted with himself, had laid in a stone chest while adorned with turquoise jewels and set himself on fire. His ash floated upwards to the sky and became the Morning Star, the planet Venus.
The Aztec myth states that Quetzalcoatl will one day return from his celestial abode and bring with him abundance and peace. Spanish misinterpretation of this myth led conquistadors to believe that the Aztecs viewed them as gods, honeying their vision enough that they didn’t realize them for what they truly were: invaders high on the success of their European inquisitions, coveting legendary American gold.
Every 52 Years…
In Aztec mythology, it was thought that the world could be destroyed every 52 years. After all, the fourth sun saw just that at the hands of Chalchiuhtlicue. Therefore, to renew the sun and grant the world another 52 years of existence, a ceremony was held at the end of the solar cycle. From the Aztec perspective, the success of this “New Fire Ceremony” would curb the impending apocalypse for at least another cycle.
The 13 Heavens and the 9 Underworlds
Aztec religion cites the existence of 13 Heavens and 9 Underworlds. Each level of the 13 Heavens was ruled by its own god, or sometimes even multiple Aztec gods.
The highest of these Heavens, Omeyocan, was the residence of the Lord and Lady of Life, the dual-god Ometeotl. In comparison, the lowest of the Heavens was the paradise of the rain god, Tlaloc and his wife, Chalchiuhtlicue, known as Tlalocan. It is further worth noting that the belief in 13 Heavens and 9 Underworlds was shared amongst other pre-Columbian civilizations and not wholly unique to Aztec mythology.
In Aztec mythology, where one went in the afterlife was largely determined by their method of death rather than their actions in life. Generally, there were five possibilities, known as Houses of the Dead.
Houses of the Dead
The first of these was the sun, where the souls of warriors, human sacrifices, and women that died in childbirth went. Viewed as a heroic death, the departed would spend four years as cuauhteca, or companions of the sun. The souls of warriors and sacrifices would accompany the rising sun in the east in the paradise of Tonatiuhichan while those who died in childbirth would take over at midday and help the sun set in the western paradise of Cihuatlampa. After their service to the gods, they would be reborn as butterflies or hummingbirds.
The second afterlife was Tlalocan. This place was in an ever-flourishing verdant state of Springtime where those who died a watery – or particularly violent – death would go. Likewise, those who have been ordained to be in Tlaloc’s care by having certain illnesses would similarly find themselves in Tlalocan.
The third afterlife would be granted to those who died as infants. Named Chichihuacuauhco, the realm was riddled with milk-ladened trees. While in Chichihuacuauhco, these infants would drink from the trees until it was time for them to be reincarnated at the start of a new world.
The fourth, Cicalco, was an afterlife reserved for children, child sacrifices, and those who passed from suicide. Known as “The Place of the Temple of Venerated Corn,” this afterlife was ruled by tender maize matron goddesses.
The final House of the Dead was Mictlan. Ruled by the death deities, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, Mictlan was the eternal peace granted after the trials of the 9 layers of the Underworld. Those deceased who did not die a noteworthy death in order for them to reach eternal peace and thus, rebirth, were forced to go through the 9 layers for four painstaking years.
Aztec Society and the Role of Priests
Aztec religion was innately tied to the society as a whole and even influenced the empire’s expansion. Such an idea is illustrated throughout Alfonso Caso’s The Aztecs: The People of the Sun, where the vitality of Aztec religious ideals in relation to the society is emphasized: “There was not a single act…that was not tinged with religious sentiment.”
Both intriguingly complex and strictly stratified, Aztec society placed priests on an equal footing with nobles, with their own internal hierarchical structure as a mere secondary reference. Ultimately, priests led the vastly important ceremonies and oversaw the offerings made to the Aztec gods, who could throw the world into devastation if not rightfully honored.
Based on archeological discoveries and first-hand accounts, Mexica priests within the empire displayed impressive anatomical knowledge, which was desperately needed to complete certain ceremonies that required live sacrifices. Not only could they swiftly decapitate a sacrifice, they could navigate a human torso well enough to remove the heart while it was still beating; by the same token, they were experts in flaying skin from bone.
As far as religious practices go, Aztec religion implemented various themes of mysticism, sacrifice, superstition, and celebration. Regardless of their origin – whether primarily Mexica or adopted by other means – religious festivals, ceremonies, and rituals were observed across the empire and participated in by every member of the society.
Spanning five whole days, Nemontemi was viewed as an unlucky time. All activities were put on hold: there was no work, no cooking, and certainly no social gatherings. As they were deeply superstitious, Mexicas would scarcely leave their home for these five days of misfortune.
Up next is Xiuhmolpilli: a major festival that was meant to stop the end of the world from happening. Also known by scholars as the New Fire Ceremony or the Binding of the Years, Xiuhmolpilli was practiced on the final day of the 52-year stretch of the solar cycle.
For the Mexica, the purpose of the ceremony was to metaphorically renew and cleanse themselves. They took the day to untether themselves from the previous cycle, extinguishing fires across the empire. Then, in the dead of night, priests would ignite a new fire: the heart of a sacrifice victim would be burned in the fresh flame, therefore honoring and emboldening their current sun god in preparation for a new cycle.
One of the more brutal of festivals, Tlacaxipehualiztli was held in honor of Xipe Totec.
Of all the gods, Xipe Totec was perhaps the most grisly, as he was thought to regularly wear the skin of a human sacrifice to represent new vegetation that came with the Spring season. Thus, during Tlacaxipehualiztli, priests would sacrifice humans – either war prisoners or otherwise enslaved individuals – and flay their skin. Said skin would be worn for 20 days by the priest and be referred to as “golden clothes” (teocuitla-quemitl). On another hand, dances would be held and mock battles would be staged in honor of Xipe Totec while Tlacaxipehualiztli was being observed.
Prophecies and Omens
As was the case with many Post Classical Mesoamerican cultures, the Mexica paid close attention to prophecies and omens. Thought to be accurate foretellings of the future, those that could give advice on odd occurrences or divine distant events were held in high esteem, especially by the emperor.
According to texts that detail the rule of Emperor Montezuma II, the decade prior to Spanish arrival in Central Mexico was rife with bad omens. These foreboding omens included…
- A year-long comet burning across the night sky.
- A sudden, unexplainable, and immensely destructive fire at the Temple of Huitzilopochtli.
- The lightning struck at a temple dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli on a clear day.
- A comet falling and fragmenting into three parts on a sunny day.
- Lake Texcoco boiled, destroying houses.
- A weeping woman was heard throughout the night, crying out for her children.
- Hunters captured an ash-covered bird with a peculiar mirror atop its head. When Montezuma gazed into the obsidian mirror, he witnessed the sky, constellations, and an incoming army.
- Two-headed beings appeared, though when presented to the Emperor, they vanished into thin air.
By some accounts, the arrival of the Spanish in 1519 was also viewed as an omen, believing the foreigners to be heralds of the impending destruction of the world.
Unsurprisingly, the Aztecs practiced human sacrifices, blood sacrifices, and sacrifices of small creatures.
Standing alone, the act of human sacrifice is among the most prominent features associated with the religious practices of the Aztecs. The conquistadors wrote of it in horror, describing racks of skulls that towered overhead and how deftly Aztec priests would use an obsidian blade to extract the sacrifice’s beating heart. Even Cortés, after losing a major skirmish during the siege of Tenochtitlán, wrote back to King Charles V of Spain about the way their enemies went about sacrificing the captive offenders, “opening their breasts and taking out their hearts to offer them to the idols.”
As crucial as human sacrifices were, it was not generally implemented in all ceremonies and festivals as the popular narrative would lead one to believe. While Earth deities like Tezcatilpoca and Cipactl demanded flesh, and both blood and a human sacrifice were required to fulfill the New Fire Ceremony, other beings like the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl were against taking life in such a way and were instead honored through a priest’s blood sacrifice instead.
Important Aztec Gods
The Aztec pantheon saw an impressive array of gods and goddesses, with many being borrowed from other early Mesoamerican cultures. In all, the consensus is that there were at least 200 ancient deities worshiped, although it is difficult to gauge just how many there truly were.
Who Were the Main Gods of the Aztecs?
The major gods that ruled over Aztec society were largely agricultural deities. While there were other gods that were unquestionably revered, those deities that could have some sway over crop production were held to a higher standard. Naturally, if we were to consider creation itself as the epitome of all things outside of the immediate necessities for survival (rain, nourishment, security, etc.), then the main gods would include the Mother and Father of All, Ometeotl, and their four immediate children.