General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Pat Hoodless

Question for April 2006

Which was the most powerful Aztec god? Asked by Woodstock CE Primary School. Chosen and answered by Pat Hoodless.

The Aztecs believed in many different gods, some of which had been ‘captured’ from other tribes or towns. There were several very important Aztec gods such as the following:-

Tezcatlipoca – Smoking Mirror who was often addressed as ‘Giver of Life’.

Quetzalcoatl – Feathered Serpent

Tlaloc – Rain God

Xipe Totec – Lord with the Flayed Skin

Tonatiuh – Sun God

Ometeotl – Two-god, the original creator of the gods, capable of appearing either as male or female

However, it was Huitzilopochtli who was honoured above all in Tenochtitlan as patron god of the Aztecs. Huitzilopochtli was associated with sun and fire and had strong links with the Aztec rulers. He may have been a Toltec god in much earlier times, later adopted by the Aztecs. The Aztecs believed in renewal of life from previous ages, and Huitzilopochtli was very much part of this belief, since he had been re-born to lead them. He was considered to be one of the original four descendants of Two-god, the first god of all. Along with Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli was given the task of creating the earth, other gods and people.

In the images we still have of him, Huitzilopochtli is shown wearing a blue-green hummingbird headdress, a golden tiara, white heron feathers and the smoking mirror. He usually carries the fire serpent and his face is painted yellow and blue, with a black mask dotted with stars around his eyes. He would have been adorned with paper banners and sometimes carried a shield and darts in his hand.

Picture 1 Huitzilopochtli in the Codex Borbonicus
Picture 1 Huitzilopochtli in the Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The name Huitzilopochtli means ‘hummingbird on the left’, or ‘hummingbird of the south’. The hummingbird is one of the most striking birds of the region, but in Aztec times it was identified with blood and war. This tiny bird is quite aggressive and fearless, and will attack creatures many times its size. The courage of the hummingbird was therefore identified with that of Huitzilopochtli. The Aztecs also compared their religious ritual of bloodletting with the hummingbird’s way of sucking nectar from a flower. Its long beak is often represented as a blade in carvings, and the hummingbird is sometimes shown piercing the heart of a man as he emerges from a flower.

Picture 2 Hummingbird, California
Picture 2 Hummingbird, California (Click on image to enlarge)

According to legend, Huitzilopochtli played a central part in the story of the creation of the Aztec nation. He commanded the Aztecs to leave their home in Aztlan and to search for a new place to live. Huitzilopochtli is also said to have ordered the tribe to change its name and to carry the equipment of nomads: bows, arrows and nets. This resulted in a long journey through new lands and many dangerous adventures, yet his image was carefully carried all the way. Huitzilopochtli’s sacred sign for the place where they were to settle and build their city, passed to a priest in a vision, was an eagle perched on a cactus. Eventually the Aztecs saw this sign, on an island on Lake Texcoco, and there they built a shrine to Huitzilopochtli, claiming the island as their permanent home. The site of the shrine eventually became the place where the Aztecs built the Great Temple in the centre of their capital city, Tenochtitlan, which eventually grew to cover the island.

Picture 3 The Aztec great temple, illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Picture 3 The Aztec great temple, illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

The southern pyramid of the Great Temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, and was covered with the red and white symbols of war and sacrifice. The northern pyramid was dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain god, and was covered with blue and white symbols representing rain and moisture. The Great Temple was, then, a double pyramid around 60 metres high. It was often referred to by the Aztecs as Coatepec, or “Serpent Hill’, the place where Huitzilopochtli was born and where he killed his sister Coyolxauhqui. Many of the human sacrifices, with bodies hurled down the temple steps, are now thought to have been re-enactments of Huitzilopochtli’s victory over Coyolxauhqui.

According to legend, Huitzilopochtli had been miraculously conceived by a guardian princess, Coatlicue. Her previous children, Coyolxauhqui and the Four Hundred Huitzana, on hearing this news gathered to kill their dishonoured mother. Huitzilopochtli, however, was suddenly reborn, wearing full armour and acting as an invincible warrior. He used his ‘fire serpent’ a heat ray of the sun, to kill and scatter his opponents, including his sister, Coyolxauhqui , and to help establish the Aztec tribe and renew his authority. He had been reborn to lead the Aztecs.

Huitzilopochtli played an important part in the investiture of a new ruler in Tenochtitlan. A new king or emperor would burn incense, present offerings and make blood sacrifices from his own body in front of the temple of Huitzilopochtli. Once dressed in his ceremonial robes, and sitting in his throne, the new ruler would be taken back to Huitzilopochtli’s shrine to be presented with a jaguar’s claw for sacrificial bloodletting from his ears and legs. This was known as ‘autosacrifice’. Followed by prayers and sermons, quail were offered to affirm the relationship between the new ruler and Huitzilopochtli. The new ruler was therefore converted in this ceremony into the living heir of Huitzilopochtli, becoming almost a god himself.

Celebrations in honour of Huitzilopochtli dominated religious ceremonies in Tenochtitilan. These were performed to portray fertility after a drought. A great figure made from dough would be dressed as Huitzilopochtli, carried to his temple and then eaten. Tributes were presented to him and dances performed in his honour. The annual Panquetzaliztli festival was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. For this important festival, preparations were begun by the priests long beforehand and four slaves prepared for sacrifice. Expensive gifts were prepared by traders for guests, other traders and nobles, who would be invited to a great banquet. There were many processions and sacrifices, culminating in the sacrifice of the four slaves.

Huitzilopochtli was supremely important to the Aztecs both in war and in human sacrifice. After a violent conquest, they often insisted that the defeated town take on Huitzilopochtli as their own god. This was very unwelcome to the conquered people, since his worship required regular human sacrifice. The Spanish invaders saw him as the devil incarnate because of the huge number of human sacrifices that were regularly carried out in his name. However, the extent of human sacrifice has been questioned by some scholars such as Durán, who expressed surprise at the figure of 80,400 victims who were supposed to have been sacrificed for the rededication of the temple of Huitzilopochtli in 1487. Some scholars think that these figures were exaggerated by the Spanish invaders. Even so, the largest number of human sacrifices were made in honour of Huitzilopochtli, the most powerful of the Aztec gods.

Sources

Miller, Mary and Taube, Karl: An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, 1993, London, Thames and Hudson

Smith, Michael E.: The Aztecs, 1996, Oxford and Massachusetts, Blackwell

Townsend, Richard F.: The Aztecs, 1992, London, Thames and Hudson.

Illustrations: pic1 from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris), p.34; pic 2 from ‘California Earthframes’ © by Bettina & Uwe Steinmueller; pic 3 from ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso (University of Oklahoma 1958)

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