General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Professor Susan D. Gillespie

Question for May 2013

If warriors turned into butterflies in the afterlife, what did ordinary people turn into? Asked by St. Neot’s Prep School. Chosen and answered by Professor Susan D. Gillespie.

Life and afterlife in the Aztec world: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Life and afterlife in the Aztec world: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City  (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs believed in multiple alternative destinations for the souls of people who died. However, one’s “afterlife” depended not on how one lived one’s life - for good or ill - but only upon how one died.
The souls of warriors who died in battle or were captured and killed in ritual sacrifice would lift up the sun from the eastern horizon to the midpoint of the sky beginning each dawn. It is said that they did this for four years, after which time they were transformed into hummingbirds and butterflies. The souls of the merchants who died in skirmishes with enemies on their trading expeditions had the same fate.
Who took the sun down from the midpoint in the sky to the western horizon, so that it could begin its nightly journey through the underworld? That was the task of women who died in childbirth. They were likened to soldiers who had been killed in battle.

Toponyms (Place glyphs) for the tributary town of Mictlan, province of Coixtlahuaca; details from Codex Mendoza fols. 43r & 52r
Toponyms (Place glyphs) for the tributary town of Mictlan, province of Coixtlahuaca; details from Codex Mendoza fols. 43r & 52r (Click on image to enlarge)

People unfortunate enough to be struck by lightning or to die by drowning - not uncommon occurrences among lake-dwelling peoples - were believed to have been chosen in that manner to serve Tlaloc, the rain and storm god. They spent their afterlife in Tlalocan, a paradise of flowering plants. Individuals who died from specific kinds of diseases also dwelt with Tlaloc.
As for the vast majority of people who died ordinary deaths, it was said that their souls undertook a four year journey to the deepest layer of the underworld, Mictlan, to serve the Lord of the Land of the Dead, Mictlanteuctli. Although it was not a punishment for anything they had done, the journey undertaken by the souls through the different levels of the underworld was fraught with dangers and difficulties.

Picture sources:-
• Main picture: photo by Graciela Sánchez/Mexicolore
• Glyphs from Codex Mendoza: scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London.

Professor Susan D. Gillespie has answered 3 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs work at night?

If warriors turned into butterflies in the afterlife, what did ordinary people turn into?

Have any ancient rubber balls been found?

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: in answer to your first question, yes, Mictlan really was pretty much the ‘end of the road’, a dark, still, motionless place ruled by the Lord of Mictlan (to whom you brought gifts with you on your journey). Once there, your three ‘spirits’, life-forces or soul-essences ‘enjoyed’ different fates: your heart (‘yollotl’) is the home of the TEYOLIA (the essence of human life) - this was the only spirit that travelled to the afterlife, and was associated with the world above the earth. Your brain (‘cuatextli’) is the home of the TONALLI (the force of love and heat) - this stayed on earth to be kept by your family as ashes in a box with a tuft of your hair, and was associated with the highest heavens of the cosmos. Your liver (‘elli’), being full of blood, is the home of the IHIYOTL (courage, the soul, the engine of passions but also the force of cold) - this was dispersed after death in winds, spirits and illnesses, and was associated with the underworld.
You can read more about this in the second of our articles on the Day of the Dead, here -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/day-of-the-dead-2