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Presione para ir a la versión en español Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Mexicolore contributor on the Aztecs Guilhem Olivier

The Gods of the Mexica (2)

Here (finally - our fault!) is the second part of the superb introductory essay on this all-important topic generously written specially for us by Professor Guilhem Olivier, of the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City.

Pic 10: Small mountain gods (Tepictoton) in the guise of amaranth seed figurines, Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 267r
Pic 10: Small mountain gods (Tepictoton) in the guise of amaranth seed figurines, Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’, fol. 267r (Click on image to enlarge)

Gods and rituals
Undoubtedly rituals, both public and private, played a vital role in the life of the ancient Mexica, to the point that every stage in the life cycle – birth, marriage, death, etc. – involved the fulfilment of specific rites. In the same way, different social groups, communities or states had their own rituals aimed at venerating their patron gods or furthering their influence on society.

Of course it was the ritual practice of sacrifice that has drawn most attention among those who have described the religion of the ancient Mexicans (Pic 13). Just as in many other religions of the world, the sacrifice of animals and human beings constituted a central element in the cosmovision of the Mexica. Their purpose was to feed the Sun and the Earth. In the myth of the origin of the Sun and the Moon, the story is told of how two gods sacrificed themselves in a giant bonfire in order to transform themselves into the two celestial bodies, and in order for these to begin moving in the sky. In fact, the idea that life springs from death was a fundamental one in Mesoamerican thought, as we saw in the myth of the origin of humans from bones.

Pic 11: Loaders carrying sacred bundles: a smoking mirror, symbol of Tezcatlipoca (L), hummingbird, symbol of Huitzilopochtli (R); Codex Azcatitlan, folio 7
Pic 11: Loaders carrying sacred bundles: a smoking mirror, symbol of Tezcatlipoca (L), hummingbird, symbol of Huitzilopochtli (R); Codex Azcatitlan, folio 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

We know that children, young men and women, the elderly could all be ‘images’ of deities for certain periods of time, at the end of which they would be sacrificed. Let’s take the example of the 20-day ‘month’ of toxcatl in Tenochtitlan. This was the principal feast dedicated to Tezcatlipoca, during which a young war captive would represent the god. As he passed through the streets, playing his flute, smelling flowers and smoking cigars, people would bow before him and eat earth as a sign of respect, and women would show him to their children. Shortly before the feast, Tezcatlipoca’s representative married four women, each images of the goddesses Xochiquétzal, Xilonen, Uixtacíhuatl and Atlatonan. Twenty days later the youth, who had been sumptuously attired by the king himself, accompanied by his four wives, rowed in a small canoe towards a low temple. Under his own will, the youth slowly ascended the steps of the pyramid. As he climbed, he broke a flute on each step. Once at the top of the building, the priests sacrificed him, opening his chest to remove his heart that would be offered to the Sun (Pic 14). In broad terms, the representative of Tezcatlipoca acted out the role of substitute for the king or tlatoani whose death or self-sacrifice was played out by this young man. In other words, the youth represented the king’s protective deity, whose will he carried out on earth.

Pic 12: The king’s ‘ministers’ bearing incense burners and autosacrifice needles; a sacred bundle is visible in the temple behind. Florentine Codex Book 8, fol. 46r
Pic 12: The king’s ‘ministers’ bearing incense burners and autosacrifice needles; a sacred bundle is visible in the temple behind. Florentine Codex Book 8, fol. 46r (Click on image to enlarge)

In parallel with all these magnificent public rituals, attended by thousands, countless private rites took place, in diverse locations: in private homes to celebrate a birth, in fields to encourage the earth’s fertility, in caves, to give thanks to the spirits of the mountains, etc. Many of these rites have survived in indigenous communities – albeit with some changes - to this day, out of the sight and control of the state or local government.

Gods and society
Most Mexica deities were broadly linked to specific cities, towns, or neighbourhoods. The growing number of gods in the Post-Classic era paralleled society’s steady evolution, and the structure of the ‘family’ of gods closely reflected the community’s social structure; if we look at the guilds of the time – groups of people that specialised in the same trade or profession – we quickly recognise their associated gods: Coyotl Ináhual for featherworkers, Xipe Tótec for workers of precious metals, Yacatecuhtli for merchants, Tláloc for farmers, etc. (Pic 15). Even the least fortunate, those often referred to rather erroneously as slaves (tlatlacotin), were protected by a god as powerful as Tezcatlipoca. Obviously the ruling classes were privileged with their own guardian deities, such as Tláloc (protecting priests), Xochipilli (nobles) and Tezcatlipoca with Huitzilopochtli (for the king himself).

Pic 13: Scene of human sacrifice, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 70r
Pic 13: Scene of human sacrifice, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 70r (Click on image to enlarge)

The myths recount how the gods provide humans with life, sustenance [food] and cultural benefits, in exchange for prayers, songs, offerings and sacrifices. This central dependence on divine beings translated into expressions of devotion on the part of the indigenous population that left the Spanish friars in utter awe. Clearly the ancient Mexicans gave frequent expression to a profound veneration of their gods. If it’s true some sources show evidence of captives or slaves resisting their own sacrifice, other reliable sources confirm that many who were due to be sacrificed – such as the representative of Tezcatlipoca, described above – faithfully accepted their fate. And it was the importance of fate that weighed on humans’ minds, tied directly as it was to their date of birth. This has given rise, over the years, to the famously ‘fatalistic’ character of the ancient Mexicans. I think this opinion needs qualifying. Let’s take the example of Tezcatlipoca’s apparitions, as the god of fate. In reality it was always possible that meeting the deity could turn into a confrontation, and a daring warrior could even defeat Tezcatlipoca himself and demand gifts and favours from him. So without underestimating the undoubted importance of destiny, the attitudes of mortals also play their part in shaping relationships with supernatural beings. We should recall that the gods needed humans too to keep them fed, praised, and indeed sacrificed through representations in order later to be born again.

Pic 14: Sacrifice of a youth representing Tezcatlipoca for the feast of the ‘month’ of Toxcatl, Florentine Codex, Book 2, fol. 30r
Pic 14: Sacrifice of a youth representing Tezcatlipoca for the feast of the ‘month’ of Toxcatl, Florentine Codex, Book 2, fol. 30r (Click on image to enlarge)

The Five Suns of the Mexica
Name / Translation / Calendrical Name / Source of Destruction

Tlaltonatiuh / ‘Sun of earth’ / 4-Océlotl (‘4-Jaguar’) / Collapse of the sky, earthquake, arrival of jaguars

Eecatonatiuh / ‘Sun of wind’ / 4-Ehécatl (‘4-Wind’) / Hurricane

Quiauhtonatiuh / ‘Sun of rain (of fire)’ / 4-Quiauitl (‘4-Rain’) / Rain of fire

Atonatiuh / ‘Sun of water’ / 4-Atl (‘4-Water’) / Flood

Ollintonatiuh / ‘Sun of movement’ / 4-Ollin (‘4-Movement’) / Earthquake

Pic 15: ‘Cóyotl Ináhual’ was the patron god of featherworkers; stone figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 15: ‘Cóyotl Ináhual’ was the patron god of featherworkers; stone figure, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Principal gods in Post-Classic era central Mexico*
Celestial creator deities:-

Ometéotl complex
Ometéotl (‘God of Two’) – supreme deity
Ometecuhtli (‘Lord Two’) – masculine part of supreme deity
Omecíhuatl (‘Lady Two’) – feminine part of supreme deity
Tloque Nahuaque (‘Overlord of the near and the far’) – supreme deity, master/mistress of the universe

Tezcatlipoca complex
Tezcatlipoca (‘Smoking Mirror’) – creator god of the cosmos and of humans, father of maize
Titlacahuan (‘We her men’) – god of destiny
Yáotl (‘Enemy’) – god of war
Iztlacoliuhqui (‘Curved obsidian blade’) – god of planet Venus, ancestor god
Tepeyóllotl (‘Heart of the mountain’) – jaguar aspect of Tezcatlipoca

Pic 16: Tezcatlipoca, owner of the obsidian mirror of destiny and god of fates, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, fol. 44
Pic 16: Tezcatlipoca, owner of the obsidian mirror of destiny and god of fates, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, fol. 44 (Click on image to enlarge)

Quetzalcóatl complex
Quetzalcóatl (‘Feathered serpent’) – creator god of the cosmos and of humans and of the calendar, discoverer of maize
Ehécatl (‘Wind’) – god of wind

Xiuhtecuhtli complex
Xiuhtecuhtli (‘Lord of turquoise, of the year’) – god of fire and time
Huehuetéotl (‘Old god’) – old god of fire
Chantico (‘In the house’) – goddess of the hearth

Deities of fertility and agriculture:-

Tláloc complex
Tláloc (‘The earthy god, Full of earth’) – god of rain and lightning
Tepeticton (‘Little modelled ones’) – gods of the mountains
Chalchiuhtlicue (‘She with the jade skirt’) – goddess of rivers and births

Pic 17: Load-carrier bears a sacred bundle containing a smoking mirror, symbol of Tezcatlipoca, Codex Azcatitlan, fol. 7 (detail)
Pic 17: Load-carrier bears a sacred bundle containing a smoking mirror, symbol of Tezcatlipoca, Codex Azcatitlan, fol. 7 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Cintéotl-Xochipilli complex
Cintéotl (‘Maize cob god’) – god of maize/corn
Xochipilli (‘Prince of flowers’) – god of flowers, nobles, music
Huehuecóyotl (‘Old coyote’) – vulgar god of music, an aspect of Tezcatlipoca
Chicomecóatl (‘7-serpent’) – goddess of maize

Ometochtli complex
Ometochtli (‘2-rabbit’) – patron god of the 400 gods of pulque
Mayahuel (?) – goddess of the agave plant

Teteoinnan complex of goddesses
Teteoinnan (‘She the mother of gods’) – mother goddess
Tlazoltéotl (‘Goddess of waste’) – goddess of physical pleasure and confession
Coatlicue (‘She with the serpent skirt’) – mother goddess of the earth
Itzpapálotl (‘Obsidian butterfly’) – goddess of ancestors and of the Chichimecs
Xochiquétzal (‘Quetzal-flower’) – mother goddess, patroness of weavers and of harlots

Pic 18: One of the giants: Quetzalcóatl, from the Codex Magliabechiano; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 18: One of the giants: Quetzalcóatl, from the Codex Magliabechiano; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Gods of war and of sacrifices to nourish the sun and the earth:-

Tonatiuh complex
Tonatiuh (‘Sun’) – god of the sun

Huitzilopochtli complex
Huitzilopochtli (‘Hummingbird of the left’) – Mexica god of war

Mixcóatl-Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli complex
Mixcóatl (‘Cloud-serpent’) – god of ancestors, new beginnings and patron of hunters
Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (‘Lord of the dawn’) – god of the planet Venus

Xipe Totec complex
Xipe Totec (‘Our lord the flayed one’) – solar god of war and of fertility

Pic 19: One of the giants: Tezcatlipoca, from the Codex Borgia; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias
Pic 19: One of the giants: Tezcatlipoca, from the Codex Borgia; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)

Mictlantecuhtli complex
Mictlantecuhtli (‘Lord of Mictlan’) – god of death and the underworld
Mictecacíhuatl (‘Lady of Mictlan’) – goddess of death and the underworld
Tlaltecuhtli (‘Lord/Lady of the earth’) – god(dess) of the earth

Yacatecuhtli complex
Yacatecuhtli (‘Nose Lord’) – god of merchants.

*Taken from Nicholson, Henry B., ‘Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico’ in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Austin, University of Texas Press, vol. 10, 1971.

Further reading:-
• Graulich, Michel, Myths of Ancient Mexico, Norman and London, University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
• López Austin, Alfredo, Los mitos del tlacuache. Caminos de la mitología mesoamericana, México, Alianza Editorial Mexicana.
• Miller, Mary y Karl Taube, The Gods and symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. An illustrated dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion, London, Thames and Hudson, 1993.
• Nicholson, Henry B., “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico” in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Austin, University of Texas Press, vol. 10, 1971.
• Olivier, Guilhem, Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, the ‘Lord of the Smoking Mirror’, Niwat, University of Colorado Press, 2008.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 2: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Borgia, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pix 3 & 7: imagse scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vaticanus-Latinus 3738, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pix 4, 12 & 14: images scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 5 & 8: photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pix 6 & 15: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 9: image scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Pix 10, 11 & 17: public domain
• Pic 13: image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Maglabechiano, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 16: image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971
• Pix 18 & 19: images scanned from our own copy of Mexico South by Miguel Covarrubias, Cassell & Co., London., 1946.

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