You need Adobe Flash Player to view this content.
Click here to download Adobe Flash Player
General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 17 Aug 2017/1 Flower
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.13.0 - 1701 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Article more suitable for mature students

Aztec dual deity Ometeotl

‘Gods’ of the Month: Ometeotl

The Mexica (Aztecs) are well known for worshipping a large ‘family’ of gods and goddesses. Up at the top and behind the scenes, many scholars have claimed, was a mysterious dual spirit, Ometeotl, omnipotent and omniscient creator of all that exists. Yet the Aztecs apparently didn’t directly worship, build/dedicate temples to, or even refer in their writings and sculptures to Ometeotl. So did Ometeotl really exist? Academic opinion is divided... (Wirtten by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Mesoamerican Big Bang? The first primordial ‘burst of creative energy and power’ (Boone) - opening scene in the Codex Borgia’s cosmogony narrative (pl. 29)
Pic 1: Mesoamerican Big Bang? The first primordial ‘burst of creative energy and power’ (Boone) - opening scene in the Codex Borgia’s cosmogony narrative (pl. 29) (Click on image to enlarge)

Since the publication in 1992 of an article by Richard Haly, entitled Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity (link below) some - particularly in the Chicano community in the USA - have supported Haly’s claim that the existence of Ometeotl should be doubted, conceivably because belief in Ometeotl could be seen as accepting the notion of a supreme - dare one say monotheistic, or ‘single’ - deity, as in the Western tradition.
Haly’s criticism was aimed at the time at the work of eminent Mexican historian and anthropologist Miguel León-Portilla, who argued forcefully for the existence of Ometeotl in his classic and pioneering early work (written in 1956 when he was 30) La Filosofía Nahuatl. Essentially his critics claim that, whilst well-intentioned and a brave pioneer in the rediscovery of ‘Aztec philosophy’, he simply invented the word Ometeotl.
In terms of the word itself, no-one disputes the profound Nahuatl concept teotl - ‘god’, ‘goddess’, ‘life/creator force’, ‘(cosmic) energy’ [pic 1], ‘spirit’; equally, everyone knows that ome means ‘two’. What IS in dispute is whether ‘Ometeotl’ - some sort of primordial spirit of duality - was ever an ancient, pre-Cuauhtémoc (pre-Spanish invasion) concept.

Pic 2: A Mexica newborn is compared to a precious jade: detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: A Mexica newborn is compared to a precious jade: detail from mural by Regina Raúll, ‘Paisaje Mexica’ (1964), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst it is true that primary sources do not mention Ometeotl directly, a large majority of past and present Mesoamerican historians and scholars, as we show below, do, often quoting sources that refer to an original celestial creator couple, albeit with a different name. Often quoted are the Nahua informants of Fr Bernardino Sahagún, who wrote in Book Vi of the Florentine Codex of the all-important ritual speeches delivered by Aztec midwives on the birth of newborns and on the cutting of the umbilical cord:-
’Precious necklace, precious feather, precious green stone, precious bracelet, precious turquoise, thou wert created in the place of duality, the place [above] the nine heavens. Thy mother, thy father, Ome tecutli, Ome ciuatl, the heavenly woman, formed thee, created thee, [sent thee]...’
Ometecuhtli (Two-Lord) and Omecíhuatl (Two-Lady) ruled the highest of the 13 Aztec heavens (some sources suggest there were originally nine, mirroring the nine underworlds) - Omeyocan, the Place of Duality.

Pic 3: 9 Aztec heavens, above which is shown Tonacatecuthli (Ometeotl?) sitting on a throne of maize; Codex Vaticanus A, fol. 1v
Pic 3: 9 Aztec heavens, above which is shown Tonacatecuthli (Ometeotl?) sitting on a throne of maize; Codex Vaticanus A, fol. 1v (Click on image to enlarge)

Omeyocan is described and depicted (pic 3) in the colonial-era Codex Vaticanus A (aka Codex Ríos, Codex Vaticanus 3738) and the deity residing there is named as Ometeotl, (though interestingly the commentator, Pedro de los Ríos, changes the name from Two-Lord to Three-Lord, in a natty attempt to link the deity to the Christian Trinity!). Later in the same codex, however (pic 4), the same deity is depicted and named as Tonacatecuhtli (Lord of Our Sustenance), male counterpart of Tonacacíhuatl (Lady of Our Sustenance), together forming a(nother) primordial generative androgynous force from which all other deities (and then humans) were created. Few images exist of this couple, and their association with Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl, whilst logical and highly likely, is unclear to say the least. In the Histoyre du Mechique, for instance, T-T are placed in the seventh heaven whilst O-O reside in the thirteenth, whereas in the Anales de Cuauutitlan T-T are firmly placed, with other gods, in Omeyocan.
We know that T-T were primordial deities reaching back to Toltec and probably pre-Toltec cultures and that the Toltecs (so revered by the Aztecs) held belief in a supreme (dual) deity at the heart of their religious tradition. The trouble is, no sacrifices or prayers were directed to them, references to them are rare, and different names keep popping up in association with them...

Pic 4: Tonacatecuhtli and the first human couple; Codex Vaticanus A, fol. 12v
Pic 4: Tonacatecuhtli and the first human couple; Codex Vaticanus A, fol. 12v  (Click on image to enlarge)

At this point, time to introduce yet another eternal but remote ‘first pair’, our ‘divine grandparents’, Cipactonal (male) and Oxomoco (female), famously depicted in the Codex Borbonicus (pic 5). Whilst in some sources (Codex Borbonicus, Codex Borgia) the couple are shown as (very old) humans, in the (later) Codex Vaticanus B (3773) they are seen as deities (top pic/pic 7). Other epithets given to them included Tloque Nahuaque (God of the Near and Far), Ipalnemohuani (Giver of Life) and Moyocoyani (One who Invents Oneself). Beyond bisexual, this couple, to paraphrase Klein, completely epitomized Male and Female. ‘To the Aztec, creation is the result of complementary opposition and conflict. Much like a dialogue between two individuals, the interaction and exchange between opposites constitute a creative act. The concept of interdependent opposition is embodied in the creator god, Ometeotl... possessing both the male and female creative principles’ (Taube).

Pic 5: Our ‘divine grandparents’, Oxomoco (L) and Cipactonal (R), Codex Borbonicus, pl. 21 (detail)
Pic 5: Our ‘divine grandparents’, Oxomoco (L) and Cipactonal (R), Codex Borbonicus, pl. 21 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Since in the Mesoamerican tradition individuals ‘are thought to accrue more life force in the process of ageing’ (Taube) it is hardly surprising that this primordial life force should be depicted as extremely old (with beard, only one or two long teeth, severe wrinkles...), or that the creators of life should be associated with some of the oldest gods in the Aztec pantheon: Huehueteotl (pic 10), Xiuhtecuhtli, Tonatiuh, Xochipilli/Xochiquetzal, and indeed with two of Ometeotl’s most famous children, world-creators Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcóatl. It’s no coincidence that we find these same two gods paired on the page opposite Oxomoco-Cipactonal (O-C) in the Codex Borbonicus. Their presence there, and the fact that Oxomoco is seen casting divinatory grains on the ground (pic 5), give important clues to answering the question lurking in our minds from the start: Why were the Givers of Life so rarely ‘seen’, let alone worshipped?

Pic 6: A large Cipactli (Alligator) day sign sits alongside Tonocatecuhtli and the ‘first couple’; Codex Borgia pl. 9 (detail)
Pic 6: A large Cipactli (Alligator) day sign sits alongside Tonocatecuhtli and the ‘first couple’; Codex Borgia pl. 9 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Surrounding both O-C and Quetzalcóatl/Tezcatlipoca (not shown in pic 5) are 52 year-bearer signs, indicating a complete ancient Mesoamerican calendar ‘century’. All these beings were closely associated with divination, sorcery, fate, with the workings - indeed with the very creation - of the ancient ritual calendar, the tonalamatl. It’s also no coincidence that in both Codex Borgia (pic 6) and Codex Vaticanus B (pic 7), alongside Tonacatecuhtli and the primordial couple we see the first of the twenty day signs, and first of the trecenas or 13-day ‘weeks’, namely Cipactli (Alligator/Crocodile) a sign and calendrical period firmly associated with origins, duality and sustenance.
This begins to explain why, in Quiñones Keber’s words, ‘knowledge about [O-O/T-T] was limited to calendric and divinatory specialists’ - why references to them are rare, only found in cosmological and cosmogonical passages in the texts, which were ‘sketchily recorded’ after the Spanish invasion.

Pic 7: Note the Cipactli calendrical sign, as in pic 6; Codex Vaticanus B, fol. 28
Pic 7: Note the Cipactli calendrical sign, as in pic 6; Codex Vaticanus B, fol. 28 (Click on image to enlarge)

It was over a century ago, in 1904, that the great German scholar Eduard Seler, in his Commentaries on the Codex Borgia, first suggested that these supreme creator beings were the ‘product of philosophical speculation’, born from the need humans have always had for a First Cause. León-Portilla developed this idea further, suggesting that wise Mexica elders (tlamitiname) discussed, philosophized and wrestled with the question of where Ometeotl resided - concluding, in some texts such as the work of Sahagún, that the answer was in the navel, the centre of the earth. Then, in 1971, the ‘grandfather’ of Aztec studies, H B Nicholson, set out a pioneering schema in order to categorize - and make sense of - the large number of deities in the Aztec pantheon: firmly at the top he proposed The Ometeotl Complex. ‘An extensive cluster of deities which were, in effect, only aspects of a single fundamental creative, celestial, paternal deity best expressed this theme. The basic conception was that of a sexually dualistic, primordial generative power, personified in a deity conceived both as a bisexual unity, Ometeotl, or, more commonly, as a male...female pair, the primeval parents of both gods and man’.

Pic 8: Tonacatecuhtli (Ometeotl?), patron of the day 1-Alligator (bottom right box, and in the deity’s headdress), and the creation of the first couple; Codex Borgia, pl. 61 (detail)
Pic 8: Tonacatecuhtli (Ometeotl?), patron of the day 1-Alligator (bottom right box, and in the deity’s headdress), and the creation of the first couple; Codex Borgia, pl. 61 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Time and time again we see pointers to the supreme importance of duality (Ometeotl), reflected so powerfully in the very language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, which contains, in song, poem and speech a wealth of flowery, disfrasismos or paired-meaning metaphors (Carrasco). ‘Just as Christians invented the Trinity, the Nahuas invented Duality’, wrote Cecilio A. Robelo in 1951 in his classic Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl, a concept so basic to the Mexica, to Mesoamerican ideology and ubiquitous throughout the world. Maffie calls this transcendent Ometeotl ‘two sacred energy’ or ‘two sacred power’, and borrows from Cecelia Kelin in arguing that ‘the cosmos is Ometeotl’s grand weaving in progress’. Perhaps it is Maffie who succeeds best in counter-arguing Haly’s claim that Ometeotl doesn’t exist: echoing Quiñones Keber’s point that references to Ometeotl/T-T are limited to cosmological/cosmogonical texts, he writes, crucially, ‘Yet no-one argues this gainsays Tonacacatecuhtli-Tonacacíhuatl’s existence”.

Pic 9: Ometecuhtli/Tonacatecuhtli as on old creator being; note the Alligator figure in his headdress. Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel, Switzerland
Pic 9: Ometecuhtli/Tonacatecuhtli as on old creator being; note the Alligator figure in his headdress. Museum für Völkerkunde, Basel, Switzerland (Click on image to enlarge)

As a cosmic principle, as Our Mother, Our Father, as a dualistic deity - shared, incidentally, with the ancient Maya with their shadowy first-couple Hunab Ku (for whom no images seem to exist) - as a self-generating force, that ‘breathed’ spirit into every new baby’s heart, as the ‘personification of godhead in the abstract’ (Nicholson), the arguments for the existence of Ometeotl seem now to be overwhelming. Miguel León-Portilla’s conclusion remains as decisive as ever: ‘Behind the apparent confusion of the entire Nahuatl pantheon was the ever-present Ometeotl’...

Works consulted (ALL of which reference Ometeotl in one form or another!):-

Florentine Codex (Sahagún), Book 6: Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy (trans. Dibble & Anderson), 1969
Codex Telleriano-Remensis, Eloise Quiñones Keber, 1995
Aztec Art, Esther Pasztory, 1983
Comentarios al Códice Borgia, Eduard Seler, 1963 (1904)
El Pensamiento Náhuatl Cifrado por los Códices, Laurette Séjourné, 1989
Cycles of Time and Meaning in the Mexican Books of Fate, Elizabeth Hill Boone, 2007
• ‘Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico’, Henry B. Nicholson, in Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, 1971
The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Mary Miller and Karl Taube, 1993
Aztec Thought and Culture. Miguel León-Portilla, 1963
The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico. Jill L. McK. Furst, 1995
The Aztec Arrangement, Rudolf A. M. van Zantwijk, 1977
Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, 2006
Daily Life of the Aztecs, Davíd Carrasco, 1998
The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend, 2000
Daily Life of the Aztecs, Jacques Soustelle, 1961 (1955)
Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Warwick Bray, 1068
The Aztecs, Michael E. Smith, 2003
Mexico From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe, 1994
Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God, Guilhem Olivier, 2003
• ‘Aztec History and Cosmovision’, Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, in Moctezuma’s Mexico, Davíd Carrasco and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, 1992
Diccionario de Mitología Nahuatl, Cecilio A. Robelo, 1951
Painting the Conquest, Serge Gruzinski, 1992
The Aztecs, People of the Sun. Alfonso Caso, 1958
• ‘The Central Face of the Stone of the Sun: A Hypothesis, Carlos Navarrete and Doris Heyden, 1974, in The Aztec Calendar Stone, Khristaan D. Villela and Mary Miller (Eds.), 2010
The Rabbit on the Face of the Moon, Alfredo López Austin, 1996
Firefly in the Night, Irene Nicholson, 1959
• ‘Enemy Brothers or Divine Twins?’, Guilhem Olivier, in Tezcatlipoca, Elizabeth Baquedano, 2014
Memory, Myth and Time in Mexico Enrique Florescano, 1994
The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, John M. D. Pohl and Claire L. Lyons, 2010
Aztec Philosophy, James Maffie, 2014
The Flayed God: the Mythology of Mesoamerica, Roberta H. and Peter T. Markman 1992
Los Dioses Supremos (Encyclopedia gráfica del México antiguo), Salvador Mateos Higuera, 1992
• ‘Axis Mundi’, Roberto Velasco Alonso, in The Aztec Empire, catalogue curated by Felipe Solís, 2004.

Pic 10: Multiple figures of the ‘very old’ god, Huehueteotl, Museo Anahuacalli, Mexico City
Pic 10: Multiple figures of the ‘very old’ god, Huehueteotl, Museo Anahuacalli, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Image sources:-
• Main picture: image scanned from our own copy of El Pensamiento Náhuatl Cifrado por los Códices, Laurette Séjourné, Siglo XXI, Mexico City, 1989
• Pix 1, 6 & 8: images from the Codex Borgia scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1976
• Pix 2 & 10: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 & 4: images from the Codex Vaticanus A scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1979
• Pic 5: image from the Codex Borbonicus scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1991
• Pic 7: image from the Codex Vaticanus B scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1972
• Pic 9: photo courtesy of the Werner-Forman Archive.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 06th 2017

emoticon Q. How did Aztec gods outdo each other?
A1. By wearing more ‘dualery’ than their rivals...
A2. By challenging each other to a ‘dual’.

‘Weaving the Aztec Cosmos: The Metaphysics of the 5th Era’

‘How did Mesoamericans envision the cosmos?’

‘Ometeotl, the God that Didn’t Exist’

Read Richard Haly’s 1992 article

Feedback button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: OK, thanks for clarifying...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks, but who’s Kurly?!