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Professor Guilhem Olivier

Question for July 2016

Did the Aztec gods ever make a sign or an appearance? Asked by Redriff Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Guilhem Olivier.

Pic 1: The wind god, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ fol. 282v, detail (L); a wind storm, Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 46v, detail (R)
Pic 1: The wind god, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ fol. 282v, detail (L); a wind storm, Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 46v, detail (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec gods could show themselves to their devotees in different ways. For starters, the Aztecs believed certain natural phenomena to be divine acts: for instance, the night wind was considered to reveal the presence of the war god Huitzilopochtli or of the god of fate Tezcatlipoca. The appearance of certain animals too could be taken as showing the presence of gods - the owl was the messenger of the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlantechutli, and certain black frogs were equated with servants of the Tlaloque, small rain gods.

Pic 2: The owl, messenger of Mictlantecuhtli: on a wooden tongue drum in the British Museum (top), and in Book V of the Florentine Codex (bottom)
Pic 2: The owl, messenger of Mictlantecuhtli: on a wooden tongue drum in the British Museum (top), and in Book V of the Florentine Codex (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

Deities could appear in people’s dreams - to communicate their will to priests, or to tell artists how to represent them in paintings or statues. Finally, some brave warriors would climb mountains at night to challenge gods such as Tezcatlipoca in fights in the hope of winning and demanding in reward the capture of enemy warriors on the battle field (the next day). So Aztec gods were considered ‘close’ to humans, who could make offerings and give sacrifices and prayers to them, but in return could demand gifts and favours - all part of a system based on constant exchanges between human beings and deities.

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Los dioses aztecas podían manifestarse de diversas maneras ante sus devotos. En primer lugar ciertos fenómenos que nosotros llamamos “naturales” eran considerados por los aztecas como manifestaciones divinas, por ejemplo el viento de la noche, del cual se decía que revelaba la presencia del dios de la guerra Huitzilopochtli o del dios del destino Tezcatlipoca. La aparición de ciertos animales delataba también la presencia de dioses, por ejemplo un buho que era el mensajero del dios de la muerte Mictlantecuhtli, o bien ciertas ranas negras que eran los dobles de los Tlaloque, los pequeños dioses de la lluvia.

Las deidades aparecían en sueños, para indicar a los sacerdotes sus voluntades, o bien para explicar a los artistas cómo debían de representarlos en pinturas o estatuas. Por último, algunos guerreros atrevidos podían subir de noche a las montañas donde se enfrentaban con dioses como Tezcatlipoca; incluso los podían vencer en una pelea y pedir al dios derrotado el poder de capturar enemigos en el campo de batalla. De manera que los dioses aztecas eran de alguna manera “cercanos” a los hombres, los cuales podían hacerles ofrendas y sacrificios, dedicarles rezos pero también exigir dones y favores a cambio en un sistema de intercambio recíproco que se daba entre mortales y deidades.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: images scanned from our own copies of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993 (L) and Codex Telleriano-Remensis: Ritual, Divination and History in a Pictorial Aztec Manuscript by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995 (R)
• Pic 2: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore (top), image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994 (bottom).

Professor Guilhem Olivier has answered 2 questions altogether:

Which was the most sacred animal for the Aztecs?

Did the Aztec gods ever make a sign or an appearance?

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