Ancient America: Some Aztec Gods

For the general public, the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) are probably the best-known ancient American civilization. Like the Christians who later conquered much of the Americas, the Aztecs established their empire through religiously inspired military conquest.

The religion of the Aztecs, likes those of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, was polytheistic: that is, many different gods were worshiped. In comparing the Aztec pantheon of gods with those of the Greeks, archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes of the Aztec gods:

“They were related to one another, but in no systematic way as, say, many of the Greek deities were. Nor was there a hierarchy of gods and goddesses.”

As with religions elsewhere in the world, such as Christianity, the religion of the Aztecs incorporated the beliefs, ceremonies, and deities of earlier religions. Some of the deities were the patron deities of social, political, or economic groups; some were tribal deities. Brian Fagan reports:

“Even individual people might have their own special divine patrons, usually the deity associated with the day of their birth.”

With regard to the importance of the deities and religion to the daily lives of the Aztecs, Brian Fagan writes:

“The Mexica believed that they lived only through the grace of the gods, the deities who gave them sustenance, rain, and everything that flourished on earth. Almost every act, however trivial, was surrounded with a religious symbolism that is difficult for us to understand.”

Today, we don’t know exactly how many deities (gods and goddesses) were worshiped by the Aztecs. To confuse the issue for non-Aztec people, the deities often have several names reflecting their many aspects. In his book Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, Miguel León-Portilla writes:

“Quite often they are designated by a number of different names. In addition, the myths interweave, overlap, merge, and become tinted with local color.”

Listed below are a few of the better-known Aztec deities:

  • Ometeotl: this is an all-pervasive deity who is often portrayed as bisexual. In their book Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson report:

“The god was a combination of the male and female generative forces, associated with fire and maize and also called the Old Sorcerer.”

  • Tezcatlipoca: this is a youthful, virile, and all-knowing deity who is associated with the four directions. This god is of Toltec origin. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of young warriors.
  • Quetzalcoatl: the feathered serpent is an ancient concept in Mesoamerica and certainly predates the rise of the Aztec. He has a major role in the religions and ceremonies of many different cultures. Quetzalcoatl is associated with divination, astronomy, and astrology.
  • Huitzilopochtli: called Hummingbird on the Left, this is the patron god of the Aztecs. Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson write:

“Huitzilopochtli appears in the earliest histories of the Aztec, as patron and protector on the long journey out of Aztlan to Tenochtitlan.”

Brian Fagan writes:

“A minor god elevated to greatness by imperial propagandists, Huitzilopochtli became the very personification of virile warriorhood, a young, brave god, who sought constant human sacrifices as his rightful due.”

Michael Coe and Rex Koontz, in their book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, describe Huitzilipochtli this way:

“…he was the tutelary divinity of the Aztec people; the terrible warrior god of the Sun, he needed the hearts and blood of sacrificed human warriors so that he would rise from the east each morning after a nightly trip through the Underworld.”

With regard to his prowess as a war god, Huitzilopochtli provided miraculous powers to the Aztecs which enabled them to defeat their enemies and expand their empire.

  • Xiuhtecutli: is the fire god and was associated with the coronation of rulers.
  • Tlaloc: is the god who controls the rain. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“One of the more horrifying Aztec practices was the sacrifice of small children on mountain tops to bring rain at the end of the dry season, in propitiation of Tlaloc. It was said that the more the children cried, the more the Rain God was pleased.”

The wife of Tlaloc is Chalchiuhtlicue (The Lady of the Jade Skirt) who is the goddess of water.

  • Chicomecoatl: is the goddess of the young maize plants. She is also associated with pulque, the intoxicating (i.e. alcoholic) beverage that is brewed from the maguey plant.
  • Teteoinnan: this goddess is the Earth Mother who was worshipped by doctors and midwives.
  • Xipe Totec: “Our Lord the Flayed One” is a fertility god who is portrayed as wearing a human skin. Michael Coe and Rex Koontz report:

“He was the god of spring and the renewal of the vegetation, impersonated by priests and those doing penance, wearing the skin of a flayed captive—the new skin symbolizing the ‘skin’ of vegetation which the earth puts on when the rains come.”

Aztec Metalwork

The concept of working with metal to fashion ornaments and tools did not originate in Mesoamerica but seems to have diffused into the region sometime in the seventh century from the south—Panama, coastal Ecuador, or Peru. Metal working seems to have diffused initially into West Mexico through maritime trade. According to Dorothy Hosler, writing in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology:  “These maritime traders primarily transmitted technical knowledge, although they sometimes traded artifacts, which were then copied using local materials.”

As a result of this diffusion of knowledge, the Mexican metalworkers and artisans developed their own distinctive artistic and aesthetic style. This style emphasized the symbolic possibilities of metal.

From West Mexico, metalworking diffused to the east and was present in the Valley of Mexico by the eleventh century. By the time the Aztecs rose to power in the Valley of Mexico in the fourteenth century, metalworking was well-established among the Mesoamerican civilizations.

The technology of alloying tin or lead with copper was unknown in the Valley of Mexico, so the Aztec metalworkers worked with soft, lustrous metals such as copper, gold, and silver. None of these metals were found in the Valley of Mexico and had to be imported from distant areas.

Metal smiths melted copper and gold nuggets in fairly simply charcoal-fired furnaces. In order to maintain high and even heat in the furnaces, relays of workers would blow through a tube to provide air to the flames.

Aztec society was highly stratified with groups of artisans living in their own residential quarters. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book The Aztecs, writes:  “This close-knit residence pattern enabled the artisans to organize their own people in ranked guilds and to train their successors in organized apprenticeships.”

The metalworkers were ranked among the highest of the artisan guilds and the products which they created were reserved almost exclusively for the nobility. These products included necklaces, ear plugs, masks featuring animals and humans, plaques, and other ornaments. Brian Fagan also reports:  “The ruler restricted the privilege of wearing gold and silver ornaments so carefully that many metal-workers enjoyed a special relationship with the palace.”

Some objects were created using a lost wax technique in which the artisan would first create a mold using ground charcoal and clay. This likeness would then be covered with a skin of melted beeswax and then the entire object encased in a shell of ground charcoal and clay. After drying thoroughly, the mold would be heated so that the beeswax would flow out of special holes. The molten gold or silver would be poured in to replace the beeswax. When completed, the artisan would have a fine duplicate in gold or silver of the original prototype. In extracting the final product, the mold would be smashed and thus each object would be unique.

Relatively little Aztec gold and silver artwork exists today. The Spanish were more interested in the metal than in the art, so they simply melted it down.

An Aztec Creation Story

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By the time the Aztec civilization began to flourish in the Valley of Mexico, the ancient city of Teotihuacan had already been long abandoned and was simply a place with gigantic monuments. The Aztec gave this place the name Teotihuacan, which means “birthplace of the gods.”

Teatihuacan Moon

Teotihuacan Avenue

According to Aztec mythology, Teotihuacan was the place of the most recent creation. The Aztec creation story tells of five successive Suns. The first Sun was ruled by Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror) and was inhabited by giants. This Sun ended when Quetzalcóatl (Plumed Serpent) caused the giants to be devoured by jaguars. This second Sun, ruled by Quetzalcóatl was destroyed by winds and its people turned into monkeys. The third Sun was ruled by the rain god Tláloc. It was destroyed by a rain of fire and its inhabitants turned into birds. The fourth sun was ruled by Chalchiútlicue, Tláloc’s sister. It was destroyed by floods and its inhabitants turned into fish.

Teotihuacan was where all of the gods gathered in council to determine which god would be willing to sacrifice himself to restart the world’s cycle. At this time the entire world was in darkness. Two of the gods came forward: a warrior god (Tecuciztécatle, who was headstrong and haughty) and a humble god (Nanahuatzin, who was weak and cowardly).

The gods then built a great fire. According to Aztec tradition, the fire was so great that no one could get near it without burning and almost suffocating. The warrior god found that he could not bring himself to throw himself into the flames of this great fire. Three times he tried to throw himself into the fire; three times he ran at the fire, and three times he stopped before he got to the fire. The humble god, on the other hand, ran directly into the fire. He was turned to ashes and then he rose as the sun, a great shining disk to light the new world and the new cycle of the world.

The warrior god, shamed by the actions of the humble god, then leapt into the flames and rose into the heavens as the moon. At first, both the sun and the moon were equally bright, but then one of the gods obscured the brightness of the moon by throwing a rabbit into its face.

The sun and the moon, however, simply sat in the heavens. The rest of the gods then realized that all of their deaths would be needed to restart the cycle. It was only by this action that they could be resurrected and renewed. Thus the gods immolated themselves in the primal fire. One of the gods went through the fire and emerged as the wind. The god of the wind blew through the heavens and set the sun and the moon in motion. In this way the sun began to pass through the heavens during the day and the moon by night.

Note: this is only one version of the story. There are a number of other variations of it.

Ancient America: The Rise of the Aztec Empire

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The rise of the Aztec empire really began in 1150 with the fall of the Toltec empire. The Toltecs had established their state in Tula, which was to the north of what would become Tenochtitlan. Their empire spread through most of central Mexico. After a period of droughts and internal factional conflict, the city collapsed and was burned and looted, possibly by the Chichimeca (the “wild” tribes to the north).  

The fall of the Toltec empire was followed by a period in which rival states battled for power. These states included the Zapotecs, centered at Mitla, the Mixtecs, in the northern Oaxaca area, and the Tarascan kingdom, plus the Chichimeca.

By 1200, the Valley of Mexico contained a number of moderately sized city states. The Aztec, who arrived in the Valley about 1248, adopted some of the key organizational and ideological principles which they learned from the refugee Toltecs. These included the ruling elite or pipilitin and the requirement that only a descendant from a royal Toltec dynasty could become the emperor.

In 1300, the Aztec were still a small tribe. In addition to knowing how to cultivate the land, the Aztec were fierce warriors who were inspired by their war god Huitzilopochtli (which means “hummingbird on the left”). The Aztecs were vagrants continually trying to find a territory to occupy. All of the good land in the Valley of Mexico was already occupied by city-states. Thus the Aztec offered their services as mercenaries for these local rulers. They often offended these rulers with their barbarous behavior and their capture of local women for wives.

In 1323, they were working for the Coluacan (also spelled Culhuacan) people. Coluacan, located in the southern portion of the Valley of Mexico, was the city-state to which the Toltec nobility had fled following the collapse of their empire.

The Aztec obtained a princess from their employers by asking the Colhuacan for a noble bride, and the Colhuacan complied as they feared the fierce Aztec mercenaries. The Aztec then killed the princess and the priests donned her skin. When the Colhuacan saw the priest wearing her skin, they were so angered that they attacked the Aztec, killed many of them, and drove them out. From here, the Aztec retreated to a marshy unoccupied Island. It was here that they established Tenochtitlan.

In 1367, the Aztec used their military might to support the nearby kingdom of Tepanec that was expanding on the mainland, then ruled by Tezozomoc.  As the Tepanec expanded their rule over more and more city-states in the Valley of Mexico, the Aztec benefited from their alliance with the Tepanec.  From this alliance, the Aztec learned about the techniques which the Tepanec used to build and rule their empire.

In 1426, the old ruler Tezozomoc died and was replaced by his son Maxlatzin. He was concerned that the Aztecs had been growing too strong under the Tepanec’s protection.   He therefore sought to reduce the Aztec’s power in 1427. At this time, the Aztec’s third king died and was replaced by Itzcoatl, who chose Tlacaelel, a brilliant military strategist, as his chief adviser.  The two of them decided to resist and fight rather than submit to Maxlatzin’s threats and pressure.  Within a year, the Aztecs had crushed the Tepanec and destroyed their imperial city.   So now the Aztec had become the greatest state in Mexico.

With the help of Tlacaelel, Itzcoatl reduced the power of the other nobles, and turned himself into an absolute ruler. He developed a new vision of the Aztec as the “chosen people” who were the “true heirs” to the Toltec. The Aztec rewrote history to link the Aztec to the Toltec and to show that the Aztec were the heirs, the direct descendents, of the Toltec nobility.

The next Aztec emperor, Motechuhzoma Ilhuicamina ruled from 1440-1469. With Tlacaelel’s help, he set up a Triple Alliance between Tenochtitlan and two neighboring states – Texcoco and Tlacopan – to carry out the “Flowery War” – the continual fight against other states to capture victims to sacrifice to the sun god.  

In 1469, Axayacatl became emperor and ruled until 1481. Under his rule, the Aztec empire expanded even further and most of central Mexico came under Aztec domination. Ahuitzotl ruled the Aztec from 1486 until 1502. He was followed by Motecuhezoma Xocoyotzin who ruled until conquered by the Spanish. Under his rule, the Aztec empire faced increasing challenges due to internal resistance and rebellion.  

Ancient America: The Aztec

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When the Spanish began their conquest of Mexico in 1519 they encountered a powerful nation known as the Aztec. The Aztec called themselves Mexica and from this the name Mexico is derived.

According to oral tradition, the Aztec originated in a land known as Aztlan. Some experts feel that Aztlan was actually in Arizona. The Hopi-an ancient Arizona people-are linguistically related to the Aztec. Furthermore, there are some similarities between some of the Hopi stories of origins and those of the Aztec. There are others, however, who feel that Aztlan was in Northern Mexico, perhaps in the present-day state of Sonora.  

According to their oral traditions, the Mexica (Aztec) were to wander the earth looking for the promised land. The promised land would be in a broad valley. In the center of this valley there would be a lake. In the center of this lake there would be an island. In the center of this island they would find an eagle sitting upon a cactus with a snake in its claws. It was here that they were to build the great city which would be the capital of their empire.

The story describes the valley of Mexico and the location of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Today, this story is symbolized on the Mexican flag which shows an eagle on a cactus with a snake in its claws.

When the Aztec arrived in the Valley of Mexico they found it to be densely populated. There were at this time a number of city-states in the valley. Initially, the Aztec did not begin construction of their city, but instead went to work for these city-states as mercenaries (military contractors in today’s terminology). The Aztec soon gained a reputation as fierce and skillful warriors.

The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325, less than two centuries prior to the Spanish conquest. Tenochtitlan was a fully planned city. It was based on a symmetrical layout that was divided into four city sections called campan.  Within each of these four sections were calpolli: groups of related families. Each of the calpolli had its own temple and gods. Leadership of the calpolli was provided by a principal chief who was elected for life.

Each calpolli was subdivided into a hierarchical class system. The elite-also called nobility-formed the top group, and most of the people were commoners. It was possible for commoners to advance to nobility through valor in battle. At the bottom of the class system were the serfs and the slaves. People became slaves because they were unable to pay their debts, which were usually due to gambling losses.

Tenochtitlan was on an island. The Aztec connected it to the mainland with three major causeways. The spiritual and political center of the city was the ritual precinct. Here the Aztec built a great pyramid that rose nearly 200 feet in height. The pyramid and the temples and palaces which surrounded it were built of stone.

The Aztec, like the other American Indian civilizations, did not have draft animals or wheeled vehicles. To facilitate traffic-the flow of people and goods-throughout the city they constructed a web of canals. Canoes provided quick and easy transportation.

To feed the city’s population, the Aztec surrounded their island city with chinampa beds. These floating gardens provided an extremely efficient agricultural system. With this system, the Aztec managed to obtain up to seven harvests each year. A single chinampa hectare would feed 20 individuals per year. It is estimated that the chinampas of Tenochtitlan could feed a population of about 180,000 people.

In the time just prior to the Spanish invasion, the population of Tenochtitlan was estimated at 200,000 and the total population of the area (what we would call the metropolitan area today) was estimated at about 700,000.

The Aztec emperor was selected by a council of nobles, chief priests, and top war officers. However, the emperor was selected from the royal lineage and was usually the brother or son of the previous emperor. This was not a democracy. Once in power, the emperor was an absolute ruler. He was supported in this role by a close link with the god Huitzilopochtli. As a rule he was a representative of this god.

When a new emperor was selected, he was first taken by the chief priests to the Great Temple. Here he meditated, fasted, and prayed. Then the priests would escort him to his palace for a coronation banquet attended by kings from other lands outside the Aztec domains. After his coronation, he was treated as a semi-divine being. When he traveled, a group of nobles would carry him on a litter of feathers. Cloths would be strewn on the ground as he walked so that his feet wouldn’t touch the earth.

Economically, the Aztec are considered to be a pre-capitalistic people. They had a market economy which included the use of several types of currency. For small purchases, cacao beans served as money. These were not native to the Aztec homeland and had to be imported from Mexico’s lowland areas. This increased their value. For larger purchases, the Aztec used standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli. These two forms of money were used primarily when making purchases in the markets.

A typical Aztec town would have a weekly market, but the larger cities held markets every day. According to the Spanish, the central market of Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister city, had about 60,000 shoppers per day.

Within a typical market there would usually be several different kinds of vendors. These would include farmers who would be selling some of their produce and potters who were selling their vessels. In addition, there were professional merchants. These merchants would travel from market to market buying and selling different products.

The professional merchants were organized into pochteca, a type of guild. There were 12 of these hereditary guilds, each with their own gods. The pochteca were wealthy and powerful. The pochteca would travel throughout Mesoamerica, seeking goods which they could sell in the various markets throughout the Aztec empire. This was dangerous work for it was not uncommon for them to be attacked and killed for their goods, or to become ill while traveling through unfamiliar country. The pochteca also served as the judges and supervisors of the larger markets.

While the Aztec certainly had a mercantile, commercial economy, it is not considered to be capitalistic. Two items which are important in a capitalistic economy were not for sale: land and labor.

While the Aztec had neither draft animals nor wheeled vehicles, they did interconnect the many cities and towns of the empire with roads. At regular intervals-roughly 10 to 15 kilometers-there were places for the travelers to rest and to eat. There were also latrines at these rest stops. The cost of maintaining these roads was collected through tribute from the communities.

The Aztecs grew to have great political and economic power in Mexico because they were able to conquer many of the other Indian nations in the area. They did not, however, govern these conquered nations directly. Instead, the Aztec political organization was set up to extract tribute from these conquered peoples and to gain wealth for the Aztec ruling class. Each of the conquered nations pledged obedience and tribute to the Aztec empire. The Aztec empire can best be described as a hegemony of city-states. It was a jumble of states under Aztec military control which was supported by Aztec religion.

There were about 38 states in the empire which paid tribute to the Aztec. This tribute included valuable goods (foodstuffs, exotic tropical feathers, gold, jade, turquoise, resin, incense, feathered warrior costumes) and captured warriors to be used in sacrificial rites.

As an example of tribute, the southern province of Techtepec was required to produce 16,000 rubber balls a year for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. In order to make these balls, the Techtepec would have needed to collect sap from about 50,000 trees.  Each ball took about 15 hours to make.  Thus 16,000 work days would have been needed to produce the balls required for tribute. Once produced, the 16,000 balls, which would have weighed more than 100,000 pounds, had to be carried by human porters to Tenochtitlan which was some 200 miles away.

The Aztec maintained their empire through hard power: through an efficient and well-led army which was constantly waging war. Aztec culture gloried warfare and warriors. All Aztec men participated in war: even the nobility, the priests, and the merchants fought in the battles. Through valor on the battlefield, commoners could raise their social status and obtain great wealth. Death in battle was regarded as a glorious sacrifice to the war god Huitzilopochtli. Aztec warriors were dedicated to die in battle.

The Aztec wars are commonly known as the Flowery Wars. The purpose of the Flowery Wars was to obtain captives who could then be sacrificed to the Aztec gods, primarily Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca.

Aztec religion was centered around a founding warrior hummingbird deity, Huitzilopochtli, and other gods devoted to war.  Huitzilopochtli was the most important of the Aztec gods and the largest temple (pyramid) in the Aztec cities was dedicated to him.

After Huitzilopochtli, the next most important war god was Tezcatlipoca (also called Black Tezcatlipoca). He was called the “smoking mirror” god because he carried with him an obsidian mirror. With this mirror he could see everything that took place in the world. He also carried arrows with him so that he could punish wrongdoers. Tezcatlipoca was able to take on many different guises and to transform himself into other gods.

The Aztec had a god of vegetation and fertility whom they called the Xipe Totec (“Our Lord the Flayed One”). He was worshipped as a god of renewal and thus provided the people with plentiful crops. Priests and warriors honored Xipe Totec by wearing the skin of flayed captives of war.  

Some of the other Aztec gods included Tlaloc, the god of the storms (and thus the bringer of rain), and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god who was the lord of life. Quetzalcoatl was a lesser deity who was associated with healing, love, and light. Quetzalcoatl’s association with peacefulness and harmony was in stark contrast with the rest of the Aztec pantheon which focuses on war. Thus, Quetzalcoatl had reduced stature in Aztec culture and was even banished to return at some time in the future.

The Aztec also had numerous other gods of the earth, the heavens, and the underworld.

According to Aztec religion and world view, the sacred and special role of the Aztec was to keep the sun in the heavens and thus prevent the final destruction of the world. Every day, the sun would fight off the evils of the night and arise weak in the morning. In order to provide the gods with the sustenance to prevent the total destruction of the world, the Aztec had to “feed” the gods the essence of human life each morning. With the blood and the energy from these sacrificed humans, the gods could continue to maintain the world. Rather than sacrifice their own people, the Aztec preferred to sacrifice war captives.

Huitzilopochtli in particular required the hearts of enemy warriors to keep going and to keep the sun in the sky. Thus, the priests would perform ceremonies each morning on the tops of the pyramids in which they would rip out the hearts from war captives and offer them to Huitzilopochtli.

It should be pointed out that human sacrifice was found throughout Mesoamerica and that the practice pre-dates the Aztec arrival in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztec, however, carried out human sacrifice at an unprecedented level. For example, in 1487 the Aztecs reported that they sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days. There are some who feel that this is an exaggerated figure, but it is evident that the Aztec sacrificed lots of people and that the world did not end during their reign.

The weakness of the Aztec empire lay in the fact that it was forged by conquest and held together by tribute. The Aztec were constantly having to put down rebellions within the empire and there were a number of states that remained independent. If the Spanish had not arrived to conquer them, it is quite possible that the Aztec empire would have collapsed anyway.