Tezcatlipoca: Corner Stone of Aztec Mythology

The Aztec god Tezcatlipoca is often talked about in relation to his three brothers. Together, they form the very basis of Aztec mythology and, therefore, the worldview of the Aztecs. This god, often considered to be the supreme deity, is seen as evil by some, while others think he was one of the kindest gods of all.

Who is Tezcatlipoca in Aztec Mythology?

Tezcatlipoca

It becomes clearer and clearer that Tezcatlipoca was one of the most important Aztec gods. Not only because he was one of the creator gods, but more so because he was the first embodiment of the living world.

Besides, Tezcatlipoca was present in Ilhuicac (the heavens), Tlalticpac (the earth), and Mictlan (the underworld). This is normally referred to as Tezcatlipoca being an ‘omnipresent god’. Such an omnipresence is a rare occurrence for Aztec gods since every god normally stays within its own realm.

The importance of Tezcatlipoca in Aztec religion changed quite severely over time. Specifically, right before and just after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec people, Tezcatlipoca saw a surge in popularity.

What Was Tezcatlipoca the God Of?

Tezcatlipoca was a jack of all trades, and then some. He is associated with a myriad of realms, most importantly the night sky, the cardinal North, hostility, leadership, and conflict.

Aztec Jaguar God

Tezcatlipoca was also known to appear in different animal forms. In fact, he is often seen as the Aztec jaguar god because of his relation to the night sky. The maculate skin of the feline animal is thought to be related to the night sky.

Creator God Tezcatlipoca

But, maybe more importantly, Tezcatlipoca was also one of the four creator gods, meaning he was a supreme deity. This has connections with the world as we know it today, which the Aztecs deemed to be the Fifth Sun.

The fact that we live in the Fifth Sun also means that there were four other worlds (or rather, suns) before this. Every new sun was set in place following a catastrophic occurrence that destroyed all life in the previous ‘sun’.

Tezcatlipoca played a role in the earlier installments of the world but also has a role in the latest installment.

His role has to do with the recreation of the heavens and the earth. To reinstall heaven and earth, he had to shake up the underworld. This combination also explains the omnipresence of Tezcatlipoca in heaven, earth, and the underworld: he was there when they were made.

Tezcatlipoca by Lewis Spence
Tezcatlipoca by Lewis Spence

Conflict Was Central to Tezcatlipoca

In any interpretation of Aztec mythology, Tezcatlipoca wasn’t really on good terms with his brother, Quetzalcoatl. In fact, they were fighting more often than not.

Both were seen as instrumental to the creation of life, and some even argue that Tezcatlipoca originally was the one that gave life to the Aztecs. However, his brother Quetzalcoatl stopped him in the process and did it himself.

Exactly this idea of conflict is also something that the Aztecs related to Tezcatlipoca. More than anything, Tezcatlipoca appears to be the embodiment of change through conflict, something highly appreciated by a culture known for its violent nature.

When Was Tezcatlipoca Worshiped?

In relation to the Aztecs, Tezcatlipoca was first described in the Florentine Codex, the first ethnographic study of Aztec mythology. While Tezcatlipoca became known as the creator god in the Aztec pantheon, he was already an established god way before the Aztecs ruled large parts of Mesoamerica.


The worship of Tezcatlipoca goes back to the Olmec society and the Mayas, so that’s starting around 1000 BC. We can say for certain that he was already worshiped by these societies because the translation of his name, smoking mirror, exists in both the classic Maya and classic Olmec mythologies.

What Does Tezcatlipoca Look Like? 

The different aspects of Tezcatlipoca also mean that he had many different depictions. Generally, three depictions can be distinguished: his human form, his animal forms, and his form as an Aztec deity.

The Florentine Codex describes the human form of Tezcatlipoca as a male figure with black stripes painted on his face. The smoking mirror was overly present in his depictions, most prominently on his chest. It allowed him to see all human thoughts and all human actions. In fact, one representation of the Aztec god of the night is simply an obsidian knife.

The earliest representations of Tezcatlipoca can be traced back to the Toltec empire. In fact, some of the depictions at Chichen Itzá are related to the Aztec god.

Lord of the Smoking Mirror

Tezcatlipoca is a word from the Nahuatl language, the language used by the Aztecs. As indicated, it directly translates to the smoking mirror. One of the most important nicknames of Tezcatlipoca was therefore ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’. There were a couple of reasons for his name and nickname.

For starters, Tezcatlipoca was related to volcanoes. As you might know, volcanoes can be quite smokey at times. Also, there is a lot of pressure and lava involved. Because of this, volcanoes ‘produce’ quite remarkable pieces of rock. One of these pieces of volcanic stone is known as the obsidian rock, or obsidian mirror: flat shiny objects made of volcanic glass.

The Aztecs named obsidian the smoking mirror, and this type of rock nowadays represents Tezcatlipoca in all its aspects. According to Aztec mythology, Tezcatlipoca even lost his left foot in a battle and replaced it with a piece of volcanic stone.

The combination of the smoke of a volcano and the mirror-like objects explains the nickname, but there is more. The smoke that is related to the obsidian mirror is also connected to the smoke of battle and conflict. Tezcatlipoca was known to be fond of battle and conflict, which contributed to the popularity of the nickname ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’.

obsidian
Obsidian

Other Names for Tezcatlipoca

So the original name Tezcatlipoca was related to the obsidian mirror. However, there are some other names that were used to refer to the Aztec god. In turn, each name tells us a great deal about the type of god Tezcatlipoca was.

The names are mostly separate incarnations of Tezcatlipoca. Important Aztec gods are believed to have at least one incarnation for each world, meaning that many gods have up to five different incarnations which can be worshiped at the same time.

Titlacauan

The most important alternative to Tezcatlipoca is probably Titlacauan, which directly translates to ‘We Are His Slaves’.

This, of course, doesn’t sound great, but it is related to a period of worship dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. During this period, slaves were actually freed because they were the slaves of Tezcatlipoca. In this incarnation, Tezcatlipoca represented a source of universal power.

Moyocoyatzin

Titlacauan was but one of the many names that were used to refer to Tezcatlipoca. Another name was Moyocoyatzin, which translates to ‘Maker of Himself’. In this role, our Aztec god was basically invincible and could do anything he wanted.

The name Moyocoyatzin was used in the later eras of Tezcatlipoca worship and speaks of his potential to destroy and pull down the sky and to kill anything in his sight. The name Moyocoyatzin is also indicative of his late surge in popularity since he ‘pulled’ one of the latest suns out of the sky.

Telpochtli

Outside Titlacauan and Moyocoyatzin, Tezcatlipoca was referred to as Telpochtli (Male Youth). This confirms his position as the patron god of Telpochcalli. Telpochcalli were basically schools for young women and men where they learned to serve the community.

In other instances, these were also some type of military schools, speaking of Tezcatlipoca’s relationship with war.

Less Popular Names

There were many more names for Tezcatlipoca. For example, he was called Yohualli Ehécatl (Night Wind), Ome Acati (Two Reed), or Ilhuicahua Tlaticpaque (Possessor of Sky and Earth).

Although these names definitely speak of his abilities and powers, honoring Tezcatlipoca was mostly in relation to his incarnations as Moyocoyatzin, Titlacauan, and Telpochtli.

What are Tezcatlipoca’s Powers?

The powers of Tezcatlipoca are rooted in his omnipresence, which was epitomized by the obsidian mirror he became known for. The reflections that he could see with the mirror were portals that told him something about the present or future world. The mirror allowed Tezcatlipoca to spy on others and trick them if necessary.

A-representation-of-Tezcatlipoca
A representation of Tezcatlipoca

Shape-Shifter

Other than his fortune-telling abilities, Tezcatlipoca was a shape-shifter. He would often shape-shift to a specific type of animal, each with its own meaning. We already discussed Tezcatlipoca as the jaguar god because of his function as the Aztec god of night.

But, another example is Tezcatlipoca as the same god but depicted as a white turkey. His form as a white turkey represented his ability to cleanse individuals of their guilt. Other forms in which Tezcatlipoca was depicted were a coyote, lobster, monkey, or vulture.

His different depictions were far from trivial. In Aztec religion, gods simply aren’t univocal. They change their disguise depending on the role they seek to fulfill.

Other Aztec gods were also depicted as different animals, but these were normally limited to just one single animal. Tezcatlipoca being depicted as many different animals again reaffirms his role as an omnipresent god. Still, most of the disguises that Tezcatlipoca used were for trickery.

Worship of Tezcatlipoca

The Aztec calendar had a total of 18 months. Many of them were devoted to the worship of several Aztec deities. The month that was mostly related to the Aztec god of the night was Toxcatl. In modern terms, this is somewhere in May.

The month of Toxcatl represented the height of the dry season. It is not particularly clear why exactly this month was chosen, but that doesn’t make the rituals during the month any less interesting.

Impersonator of Tezcatlipoca

During the festival, one of the most physically perfect young men was elected to be treated as a god for the next year. Quite literally, that is, since the Aztecs would treat the young man as if it was Tezcatlipoca. This, too, speaks of Tezcatlipoca’s position as the patron deity of Telpochtli, the place where these perfect young men were trained.

From the point when he was chosen, the boy would travel through the Aztec capital city and perform ceremonies and rituals. He could eat only the best food and wear only the finest clothing. During the year, the young man was trained to be an excellent musician, enabling him to play the flute like a signing Quetzal bird.

A New Toxcatl

A year would pass in this manner. At the dawn of the next Toxcatl, all the things he learned in the past year would be applied during a new series of ceremonies for Tezcatlipoca.

At the beginning of the month, the young man was presented with four virgins to whom he had to get married. Together, they would wander through the streets of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) and spread the spirit of Tezcatlipoca. This was all in preparation for the final part of the year-long ceremony.

At that point, the personification of Tezcatlipoca would travel to the most important temple of the Aztec capital, Templo Mayor. Here, the young man walked up the stairs whilst playing his heavenly tones on the flute. He played his songs on four flutes, in fact, representing all the cardinal directions.

On his way up, the personification of Tezcatlipoca would destroy the flutes. When he reached the top, the priests of Templo Mayor (the High Priests) awaited him. Then, the young man was sacrificed in order to honor Tezcatlipoca. Immediately after, a new individual was chosen, awaiting a new round of human sacrifice in the next year.

Young-man-offered-to-Tezcatlipoca
A young man offered to Tezcatlipoca by Bernardino de Sahagún

Birth Signs Related to Tezcatlipoca

Outside the month of Toxcatl, the Tezcatlipoca was related to two more things. These were basically birth signs which predicted the fate and future of the newborns.

Ce Ocelotl

The first birth sign was called Ce Ocelotl, which translates to 1 Jaguar. It wasn’t really a treat to be born with this birth sign, but rather a threat. Ce Ocelotl stands for bad luck. Anyone born with this birth sign would most likely become a war prisoner or a slave. Any woman born with this birth sign would most definitely suffer a life of hardship.

Luckily for the people doomed to be born in Ce Ocelotl, there was a remedy for the bad destiny. Things that could be done were, for example, sleeping little and working hard, caring for your family, regular fasting, and self-sacrifice (by piercing the tongue with thorns).

It’s probably justified to say that some of the remedies sound as bad as the suffering of the birth sign itself. Evidently, the Aztecs saw it a bit differently.

Ce Miquiztli

The second birth sign related to the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was known as Ce Miquiztli, or 1 Death. While it seems like this wasn’t a very joyful birth sign either, it was actually quite a favorable one.

The ones who were born with this birth sign were the biggest devotees of Tezcatlipoca, or at least that’s what was expected from them. If they were, they would be richly rewarded by Tezcatlipoca. However, these riches had to come from somewhere.

The god of smoke used his smoking mirror to identify the people that were born with the birth sign Ce Miquiztli, but who weren’t faithful to him. He would take their riches and basically offer them to the ones he favored.

The Importance of Tezcatlipoca

The myths of Tezcatlipoca are necessarily related to his family. The Aztec god was given birth by a pair of gods known as Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. In many interpretations, the pair of gods are the original creator gods of the universe. In turn, they would give birth to the creator gods of planet earth.

The creator gods stood in the cardinal directions of the universe: North, East, South, and West. This group of Aztec gods birthed by Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl were known as the Tezcatlipocas. That’s right, the group of creator gods is called after the god discussed in this article. This has everything to do with the sun cycles in Aztec mythology.

Quetzalcoatl-and-Tezcatlipoca
Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca – two of the four Tezcatlipocas

Who are the Four Tezcatlipocas? 

First, we should determine who exactly were the four Tezcatlipocas. Obviously, Tezcatlipoca himself was part of the group and was related to the cardinal North. But there were three more.

His first brother goes by the name of Quetzalcoatl, or the Feathered Serpent. Quetzalcoatl is related to the cardinal East. In the cardinal South, the war god Huitzilopochtli would appear. In the West, Xipe Totec, the Flayed Lord of agriculture, appeared.

Not only were the four Tezcatlipocas related to a cardinal direction, but they were also related to color. The black Tezcatlipoca is the one discussed in this article. The red Tezcatlipoca was Xipe Totec while the blue Tezcatlipoca was Huitzilopochtli. Lastly, the white Tezcatlipoca was Quetzalcoatl.

The Aztecs believed that the combination of color and cardinal direction was obvious. For example, they saw red as a sign for everything related to the West. Therefore, the Aztec god that popped up in the West would be referred to as the red Tezcatlipoca. There is a reason for it, but let’s stick to the story of the Tezcatlipocas for now.

Inhabiting the World

Representing every cardinal direction, the Tezcatlipocas represented the universe and everything in it. The first thing they did was to create a race of giants, besides some other important gods that were needed to make inhabitable earth.

The most important deities created were Tlaloc, the most important rain god, and Chalchiuhtilcue, the most important water goddess.

But, life needs something more than just water and earth. Indeed, a sun is needed in order to live. To provide a sun for the world, one of the cardinal gods had to sacrifice itself into a fire, becoming the sun above the earth.

The Myth of the Tezcatlipocas

While it was not the only component needed for life to flourish, the first sun was definitely the most important at that time.

The reason why the group wears the name Tezcatlipocas is probably that Tezcatlipoca ruled the world as the very first Sun. He was the one who sacrificed himself or rather was chosen to sacrifice himself. There are two versions of why that was the case.

Some people say that Tezcatlipoca had to sacrifice himself because he was the most disabled: he had his foot replaced with an obsidian mirror. Others say that it was the contradiction that was the essence of Tezcatlipoca being sacrificed. As the Aztec god of the night, he would be the most fitting to determine what his exact opposite was.

The-Aztec-God-Tezcatlipoca-and-His-Temple
The Aztec God Tezcatlipoca and His Temple by Juan de Tovar

The Dawn of the First Sun 

Being the first sun didn’t mean that Tezcatlipoca did a very good job as the supreme god, however. During the time that Tezcatlipoca was the sun, he wasn’t able to shine bright enough for the earth to thrive.

His brothers accepted him being there, but soon enough became impatient with his lack of shine. Specifically, the Feathered Serpent couldn’t stand Tezcatlipoca merely shining above the Aztec earth. He thought the most important creator god should do better, so he decided to take action. So how does one take action against the first sun?

Well, Quetzalcoatl defeated his brother by simply slapping him out of the sky.

Tezcatlipoca wasn’t all too happy with Quetzalcoatl overtaking his position, so he unleashed a horde of jaguars into the world from his nightly realm. It would lead to the very first solar eclipse, allowing the second sun to rise.

Here Comes the Second Sun

With Tezcatlipoca’s reign and the temporary powers of Quetzalcoatl gone, there was a vacancy for the new ruler of the earth. The white Tezcatlipoca Quetzalcoatl was, still, eager to take this position. After all, he was the most prominent brother who thought he could do better.

It didn’t take long for the plumed serpent to shine bright in the sky. While Tezcatlipoca’s version of the earth was inhabited by giants, Quetzalcoatl’s earth was inhabited by some shorter hominids. However, their ego was quite big. In fact, they began thinking too highly of themselves, taking the gods, the earth, and life itself for granted.

This time, it was the black Tezcatlipoca who couldn’t contain his aggression, transforming the hominids into monkeys. Quetzalcoatl couldn’t stand his new inhabitants of the earth and decided to descend to earth as Huracan, blowing away all of the civilization.

Three Times Isn’t a Charm

Tlaloc, the god of rain in the Aztec pantheon, had enough of the shenanigans between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. With the inhabitants already gone, he jumped into the fire, creating a world dominated by water.

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

The race of humans that was created in the process only ate seeds. Nothing too bad, one would say, but it plays an essential part in relation to the importance of maize in the Aztec empire.

Having someone other than the family as supreme deity didn’t really sit well with the Tezcatlipocas, however. The black Tezcatlipoca himself decided to take action and use his skills as a trickster god.

With his deceiving nature, Tezcatlipoca seduced and stole the wife of Tlaloc. In grief, Tlaloc stopped giving water to earth. Actually, he got so annoyed that he decided to bring down great fires to the earth, making the world itself a fiery ball in the process.

It goes without saying that all life was destroyed, again. Tlaloc’s reign was the shortest one, around 365 days.

Do We Need More Than Four?

As soon as Tlaloc’s wife was gone, he married a new one. This was the goddess of water, Chalchiuhtlicue. She, too, jumped into the fire and created a new race. The Aztec god of night Tezcatlipoca still wasn’t fancying a god other than one of the four brothers to be the sun.

So, he told the people that Chalchiuhtlicue was simply faking her love for them. All for the sake of gaining their trust and eventually making them her slaves. Chalchiuhtlicue couldn’t believe it and started crying blood.

She might’ve reacted a bit too emotionally because the blood-crying would go on for 52 years. 52 years of blood rain was enough to make the inhabitants of the fourth world go extinct.

The Fifth Sun

There are a couple of interpretations of the Fifth Sun. But, it is certain that Quetzalcoatl was the one. Well, eventually.

After the eclipse of the fourth sun, there was a bit of a debate about whom to sacrifice next. However, none of the Tezcatlipocas was fond of doing so anymore. Two lesser gods jumped in the fire instead, before Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, and Quetzalcoatl could even decide.

The four brothers didn’t accept a new reign and replaced them with one of their own.

The white Tezcatlipoca was again the one to take action. Quetzalcoatl went to the underworld, Mictlan, stole human bones, mixed them with his own blood, and repopulated the earth.

five-suns
A prehispanic Mexican Stone of the Five Suns

People of the Sun

The people that populated the earth after Quetzalcoatl did his magic were the ones the people of the Aztec empire related with. The Aztecs believed it was their duty to aid the sun, not the moon. Through blood and human sacrifice, they would help the sun in its daily battle with the moon. Obviously, this was the battle with the ‘lesser gods’ that tried to overthrow the reign of the Tezcatlipocas.

Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl: Opposing Forces

Although they were brothers, it is quite obvious that Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl weren’t on any good terms. Not only was this visible in the fact that they were opposing colors, black Tezcatlipoca and white Tezcatlipoca, but also in their battle surrounding who would reign the earth.

The battle between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl is not just a battle on the mythological level. It is also a battle in terms of societal and political structure. Just before and right after the Spanish conquest, the question about the most important god increasingly became a battle between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.

Then, the question becomes what it means when either one is considered the most important god. That’s mostly a question that is answered by the different city-states that existed in the Aztec empire 

Tezcatlipoca, in this case, was related to discourse and was even placed higher than being a creator god. He was seen as one aspect of Ometecuhtli, the one who allowed the Tezcatlipocas to live in the first place.

Some of the city-states were already worshiping Tezcatlipoca like that. In this form, he necessarily overthrew Quetzalcoatl as the Fifth Sun. Others were still worshiping Quetzalcoatl as the most important god since he was the one that brought maize and was against human sacrifice.

The transition in mythology was never concluded because the Spanish colonizers made sure to wipe out anything related to the worldview of the Aztecs. Unfortunately, we can only use our imagination to fill in the blanks.

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