Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Mythology

Mictlantecuhtli is the god of death in ancient Aztec religion and was also one of the rulers of the Aztec underworld, Mictlan.

But this deity also wasn’t so fond of such straightforward reasoning.

The interaction between life and death in Aztec religion is circular. Death is a necessity since it prepares you for a new life. As the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli also played a key role in the creation of life.

Who is Mictlantecuhtli?

Mictlantecuhtli god

Aztec god of death Mictlantecuhtli is a fascinating god in an already fascinating set of underworld gods. Mictlan is the place over which he ruled, which is the name for the Aztec underworld. His residence consisted of nine layers. Some believe he lived in the most northern realm, while others believe the Aztec god switched between the nine hells.

Together with his wife, he was the most important Aztec god related to the underworld. Mictlantecuhtli’s wife had a somewhat similar name, Micetecacihualtl. They lived in a cozy windowless house, decorated with human bones.

How Was Mictlantecuhtli Created?

According to Mesoamerican mythology, the couple was created by the four Tezcatlipocas. It’s a group of brothers consisting of Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, and Huitzilopochtli. The four brothers are believed to have created all and everything and were mainly related to the sun, humans, maize, and war.

Mictlantecuhtli is but one of the many death deities that can be found in Aztec mythology. But, he was certainly the most important one and was worshiped throughout different Mesoamerican cultures. The first references to Mictlantecuhtli appear early on, way before the Aztec empire.

What Does Mictlantecuhtli Mean?

Mictlantecuhtli is a Nahuatl name that can be translated to ‘Lord of Mictlán’ or ‘Lord of the world of the death’. Other names that are used to refer to Mictlanecuhtli include Tzontemoc (‘He Who Lowers His Head’), Nextepehua (‘Scatterer of Ashes’), and Ixpuztec (‘Broken Face’).

a-sculpture-Mictlantecuhtli

What Does Mictlantecuhtli Look Like?

Mictlantecuhtli is generally depicted as a six feet tall, blood-spattered skeleton with human eyeballs. Also, Aztecs believed that owls were closely related to death. For that reason, Mictlantecuhtli is normally depicted wearing owl feathers in his headdress.

In some other depictions, he is not necessarily a skeleton but a person wearing a toothy skull. Sometimes, Mictlantecuhtli was wearing clothes of paper and used human bones as earplugs.

What is Mictlantecuhtli the God Of?

As god of death and ruler of Mictlan, Mictlantecuhtli was the boss of one of the three realms that are distinguished in Aztec mythology. The Aztecs distinguished between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. The heavens were referred to as Ilhuicac, the earth as Tlalticpac, and, as we know by now, Mictlan was the underworld consisting of nine layers.

The nine levels of Mictlan were not just a fun design that Mictlantecuhtli thought of. They had an important function. Every dead person had to travel through all nine levels in order to reach full decay, allowing them a full regeneration.

Every level of Mictlan came with its own side quest, so being dead was not at all a relief of any burden. To complete all the side quests on every level, you had to schedule about a year or four. After four years, the deceased would reach Mictlan Opochcalocan, the lowest level of the Aztec underworld.

Four years is quite the journey, something of which the Aztecs were fully aware. Dead people were buried or burned with a myriad of goods to sustain this long journey through the underworld.

Is Mictlantecuhtli Evil?

While worship of Mictlantecuhtli involved ritual cannibalism and sacrifice, Mictlantecuhtli itself is not by definition an evil god. He simply designed and managed the underworld, which doesn’t make him evil. This also links back to the perception of death in Aztec religion, since it’s not a definite end but rather a preparation for a new beginning.

Mictlantecuhtli-sculpture

Worship of Mictlantecuhtli

So, Mictlantecuhtli wasn’t necessarily evil. This, too, is evident in the simple fact that Mictlantecuhtli was actually worshiped by the Aztecs. Not necessarily to keep the god of death happy, but more so to celebrate his work. Do you know of any other religion where the ‘devil’ is worshiped? 

Representation at Templo Mayor

One of the most prominent representations of Mictlantecuhtli was found at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City). Here, two life-size clay statues were uncovered, guarding one of the entrances.

The Great Temple has this name for a good reason. It was simply and most probably the most important temple of the Aztec empire. Mictlantecuthli guarding an entrance speaks to the importance of the skeletal figure.

When Was Mictlantecuhtli Worshiped?

The Aztec calendar consists of 18 months, each of 20 days, with an extra five days in the end, which are deemed the most unlucky of all. The month that was dedicated to Mictlantecuhtli was the 17th of these 18 months, called Tititl.

Another important day on which the god of the underworld was worshiped is called Hueymiccaylhuitl, an Aztec holiday that honors those who recently died. The aim was to help prepare people for the long, four-year journey they had to make throughout the domain of the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli.

The remains of dead people were burned during the festival, initiating their trip to the underworld and afterlife. It was also an opportunity for dead souls to return to earth and visit those who were living.

Man representing the Mexica god of death Mictlantecuhtli during the Day of the Dead celebrations
A man representing the god of death Mictlantecuhtli during the Day of the Dead celebrations

How Was Mictlantecuhtli Worshiped?

The worship of Mictlantecuhtli wasn’t all that pretty. In fact, a god impersonator was habitually sacrificed to worship the Aztec god of the underworld. The flesh of the impersonator was eaten, emphasizing the close relation of Mictlantecuhtli with ritual cannibalism.

On a more peace-evoking note, incense was burned to honor Mictlantecuhtli during the whole month of Tititl. That would probably help with covering the smell of dead people.

What Did the Aztecs Believe about Death? 

Going to Mictlan was not reserved just for the people who hadn’t lived morally fulfilling lives. Aztecs believed that close to every single member of society had to make the trip to the underworld. While in Christianity, for example, god judges every individual and determines their path after death, Mictlantecuhtli handles it a bit differently.

The gods in the Aztec pantheon are perhaps closer to designers of societies than judges of individuals. The Aztecs believed the gods created the things that allowed beings to live, which included food, shelter, water, and even war and death. Individuals were simply subject to the interventions of the gods.

Mictlantecuhtli-detail

After Dying

This is also seen in beliefs surrounding the afterlife. The afterlife path was affected by how people died, which was mostly quite trivial. People could die normally, from old age or disease. But, people could also have a heroic death, like being sacrificed, dying because of childbirth, or death by nature.

In case of heroic death, people wouldn’t go to Mictlan, but to the realm that corresponds with the type of death. So for example, someone who died from lightning or flooding would go to the first level in Ilhuiciac (heaven), managed by the Aztec god of rain and thunder: Tlaloc.

Although Aztec heaven was objectively a more comfortable place to reside, people didn’t go there based on a sort of social score they achieved during their lifetime. The way in which people died sure was heroic, but it didn’t speak to the heroic nature of the person. It was simply an intervention of the gods to keep the balance in the cosmos.

Life and Death as a Cycle

It should be clear by now that death had quite an important role in Aztec mythology. Sure, other gods might’ve had bigger temples, but the importance of Mictlantecuhtli should not be understated. Although any god of death is naturally feared because of the suffering involved, Mictlantecuhtl might have some positive connotations that are undervalued.

Some researchers take it as far as the negative connotations of the whole idea of ‘death’ that was transcended in the Aztec culture. Death is simply an important component to secure balance in the cosmos.

What is Life without Death?

The Aztecs believed that death allows life, and life requires death. This might be hard to grasp for anyone with an atheist mindset surrounding the concepts of life and death. But it simply implies that you never really die. Or rather, that ‘dying’ is not a definite ending to life. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, similar ideas can be found.

Death is like sleep, it allows you to rest. Mictlantecuhtli is basically the one that allows you to be in this state of death, in this state of resting or stillness. This perfectly aligns with the idea that the Aztec god of death is worshiped for its ability to design and manage the Aztec underworld, creating a perfect place to regain energy.

If applicable, a dead person would transform into a different being after passing through all nine levels of Mictlan.

At this level, the body would be totally decomposed, but that doesn’t mean the person is gone. The person was basically stripped from their body. At this point, Mictlantecuthly could decide whether these persons should get a new body or function in their upcoming life.

Disk-of-Mictlantecuhtli
A disk of Mictlantecuhtli found in Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun

The Myth of Mictlantecuhtli

The ruler of the underworld didn’t have a very relaxed life. Ruling over the realm where almost every single person goes after their death can be quite stressful. To add, Mictlanecuhtli was fond of keeping everything in check. However, one of the other Aztec gods, Quetzalcoatl, thought he could test Mictlantecuhtli a bit.

In fact, Quetzalcoatl was the one that created our current time by testing out the Aztec ruler of the underworld. It was out of sheer hopelessness because the four creator gods were the only ones left after the collapse of the earth and heavens. But, the earth and underworld still existed. Quetzalcoatl combined the two to create a new civilization.

Quetzalcoatl Enters Mictlan

With minimum equipment, Quetzalcoatl decided to travel to Mictlan. Why? Mostly to gather human bones and remake the human race. As guardian of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli was at first quite fiery. After all, other Aztec gods weren’t allowed to interfere with the afterlife of dead people. Eventually, however, the two gods were able to strike up a deal.

Quetzalcoatl was allowed to collect the shattered bones of any human being, but he could just wander around for four rounds maximum. Also, he was obliged to blow a conch shell. It allowed Mictlantecuhtli to know where the Quetzalcoatl was at all times. This way, the god couldn’t leave without the Aztec ruler of the underworld noticing.

Quetzalcoatl-god
Quetzalcoatl

Trickster Moves

Quetzalcoatl wasn’t just any odd god, however. He was determined to place new human beings on earth, something which he already was quite experienced with. Quetzalcoatl had to drill holes first since the conch shell wasn’t functioning well. After that and with the purpose of tricking Mictlantecuhtli, he placed a swarm of bees in the horn.

By placing the bees, the horn would blow automatically, allowing Quetzalcoatl to make a run for the exit without the Mictlantecuhtli double-checking his loot.

However, the Aztec god of death found out that Quetzalcoatl was playing tricks with him. He wasn’t really charmed by his shenanigans, so Mictlantecuhtli ordered his wife to dig a hole for Quetzalcoatl to fall into.

Although it did work, Quetzalcoatl managed to escape with the bones. He took the bones to earth, poured blood over them, and started a new life for human beings.

READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World

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