General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

John Bierhorst

Question for February 2015

If you died from hunger or disease, which underworld or heaven would you go to? Asked by Fleetville Junior School. Chosen and answered by John Bierhorst.

Pic 1: Preparation of a corpse, Florentine Codex Book 3
Pic 1: Preparation of a corpse, Florentine Codex Book 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

Bernardino de Sahagún’s Aztec-language Florentine Codex states: “And there, to the land of the dead [Mictlan], went [the souls of] all those who died [. . .] of sickness - [be they lords or] chiefs [or] vassals [common people]” (Anderson and Dibble, Flor. Cod., bk. 3, 1952, appendix, first chapter, p. 39).
And Burr Cartwright Brundage adds: “Mictlan was the abyss underground into which humans tumbled at the end. It is not a place of Dantesque torments but only of darkness and pseudobeing. People there are cold, remote, and dumb. It is ruled over by the skeletal Lord of the Dead and his spouse who is a deathly form of the earth goddess. In Mictlan all individuality is erased. Each shade is like another” (The Jade Steps: A Ritual Life of the Aztecs, 1985, p. 190).

Pic 2: The Aztecs took great pains to prepare the dead for their journey to the next world. (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 2: The Aztecs took great pains to prepare the dead for their journey to the next world. (Detail of) mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Fellow Pannelist Dr. John Schwaller adds:-

This is a fascinating question. Unlike Christians who believe that when a faithful person dies they go to heaven, for the Aztecs people just died. For Christians, the afterlife is a factor of how the person lived while alive. For the Aztecs, the afterlife was determined by the specific nature of how they died. For the vast majority of people there was no afterlife. So when a person died of old age, or hunger, or disease, that person just died with no afterlife. A very few people who died under very special circumstances did go to a type of afterlife. Babies who died before being weaned went to an afterlife where they nursed from a life-giving tree and eventually became hummingbirds. Warriors who died in battle, and women who died in childbirth, went to a special afterlife. But we do not know how long the spirit would remain there. People who died from being hit by lightning or who drowned went to the afterlife of Tlaloc, the god of rain. But we simply do not know if the Aztecs believed that these afterlives were eternal, or just way stations on the road to oblivion.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: 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
• Pic 2: Photo by Evita Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore.

John Bierhorst has answered 2 questions altogether:

If you died from hunger or disease, which underworld or heaven would you go to?

Why did the Aztecs dance when they fought?

Comment button