General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 16 Dec 2017/5 Alligator
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Summary for Kids banner

Where are the Aztec gods now?

(Click the pictures in order to see them in a separate window)
Some people think the Aztecs (Mexica) died out completely after the Conquest. Not so! The Spanish destroyed cities but many villages survived and continue to be inhabited by Aztecs to the present day...
While some Aztec gods, like Huitzilopochtli, have disappeared altogether, others ‘live on’, even if disguised a bit: the creator god of duality, the Sun, the rain god (still sometimes blamed today if maize crops fail)...
... fertility gods, earth gods, today called ‘Grandfather’ and ‘Grandmother’, mountain gods, wind spirits...
maize spirits, ‘Death’, female monster spirits, sorcerors...
And there are plenty more that experts have found still going strong in some villages: gods of the moon, stars, comets, crops, caves, clouds, fire, house, hearth, year, earth’s surface, and hummingbirds...
emoticon So many Aztec gods seem to be still alive and often
‘in good spirits’!

Click to close Tec's summary for kids
Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Professor Alan Sandstrom

What happened to the Aztec gods after the Conquest? (1)

This is one of two superb answers we have received from experts to this question, raised by a school during a Mexicolore team workshop on the Aztecs. We are delighted that Professor Alan Sandstrom and Dr. Eleanor Wake have both generously prepared articles in response. The first is here, the second is in our ‘Spanish Conquest’ section (link below). Alan Sandstrom is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Indiana (USA). We are deeply grateful for this wonderful contribution, based on his own field research in Mexico over many years...

Pic 1: Contemporary Aztec village showing houses of extended family
Pic 1: Contemporary Aztec village showing houses of extended family (Click on image to enlarge)

This is a wonderful question that is not easy to answer briefly. Most people think of the Aztecs as the people who created the magnificent civilization in Mexico that was brought down by the Spaniards and their Native American allies in the early 1500s. Most assume that the Aztecs as a people ceased to exist following the conquest. But this is not the case. There are between 1.5 and 2 million people today who continue to speak Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and many are directly descended from the Aztecs themselves. The conquest destroyed cities but left most rural communities intact and many small villages continue to be inhabited by Aztecs to the present day [see photographs 1-8].

Pic 2: Contemporary Aztec thatch-roofed house.  Firewood for the cooking fire is stacked to the right and some of the family clothing is hanging against the house on the left.
Pic 2: Contemporary Aztec thatch-roofed house. Firewood for the cooking fire is stacked to the right and some of the family clothing is hanging against the house on the left. (Click on image to enlarge)

Contemporary Aztec (Nahua) villages vary enormously in the degree to which they continue to practice the ancient religion and follow the old gods. Some have lost their Aztec beliefs and practice forms of Catholicism or Protestantism that are very similar to religions practiced in Europe or North America. Others follow traditions that are firmly rooted in the ancient Aztec past and hold beliefs in the same gods worshiped by their ancestors. Most contemporary Aztec communities fall somewhere between these two extremes of religious belief and practice.

Pic 3: Boy standing before his thatch-roofed house in contemporary Aztec village. The house is built on stones to keep out rainwater, and smoke from the cooking fires inside escapes under the edge of the roof.
Pic 3: Boy standing before his thatch-roofed house in contemporary Aztec village. The house is built on stones to keep out rainwater, and smoke from the cooking fires inside escapes under the edge of the roof. (Click on image to enlarge)

It is important to remember that the Spaniards and literate Aztecs who chronicled the ancient civilization wrote about people in the cities. They neglected to document village life and religious traditions in smaller communities. The result is that we know little about the people who lived at the edges of the Aztec empire and even less about their gods and rituals. However, Aztec villagers must have shared many features of their culture with people in the cities, and so we can assume that the gods worshiped in the rural areas must have been similar to those worshiped in urban centers.

Pic 4: Contemporary Aztec woman seated inside her house embroidering a blouse with her daughter looking on.
Pic 4: Contemporary Aztec woman seated inside her house embroidering a blouse with her daughter looking on. (Click on image to enlarge)

It is also important to remember that the Spanish conquerors did everything they could to destroy the Aztec religion, which they believed was created by the devil. The Aztecs under Spanish rule were not allowed to practice their old religion and were expected, under penalty of law, to adopt the dominant Spanish Catholic religion.

Pic 5: Boys sitting in front of their village schoolhouse. The two in the middle are dressed in the traditional costume worn by adult men.
Pic 5: Boys sitting in front of their village schoolhouse. The two in the middle are dressed in the traditional costume worn by adult men. (Click on image to enlarge)

So what happened to the Aztec gods after the conquest? Some apparently have disappeared completely or their identities blended with other deities so that today they are unrecognizable as separate deities. One of the major gods of the Aztecs at the time of the conquest was Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird-Left”), the god of war and sacrifice who, along with many other deities associated with warfare, is no longer worshiped by people today.

Pic 6: Girls standing near their village schoolhouse. They are getting ready to go to school.
Pic 6: Girls standing near their village schoolhouse. They are getting ready to go to school. (Click on image to enlarge)

Many of the remaining gods continue to be venerated but they may in fact be blends of different Aztec deities, or ancient gods combined with sacred figures from Spanish Catholicism. The Aztec creator high god was Ometeotl (“Two-God”), whose wife was called Omecihuatl (“Two-Lady”). Contemporary Aztecs in northern Veracruz have a god they call Ometotiotsij who also has a wife (or female aspect). Ometotiotsij may be translated as “Two-Our Honored God,” but the name can also be interpreted as “Lord and Lady of the Duality.” The name and beliefs surrounding this sacred being reveal that it is a direct descendant of the ancient deity. Today, this god is sometimes simply called Totiotsij (“Our Honored God”) or in Spanish Dios (“God”).

Pic 7: Family poses for photograph outside of their house. The man on the left in traditional costume is standing behind his granddaughter. Next to him is his son’s wife, a grandson (the girl’s brother), and his own son.
Pic 7: Family poses for photograph outside of their house. The man on the left in traditional costume is standing behind his granddaughter. Next to him is his son’s wife, a grandson (the girl’s brother), and his own son. (Click on image to enlarge)

The sun was also an important god for the Aztecs who they called Tonatiuh (“Sun”), and it continues to be worshiped by the contemporary Aztecs under the name variation Tonatij (“Sun”) [see photograph 9]. When speaking Spanish, the people call the sun Jesús (Jesus), providing an example of how ancient ideas are combined with Spanish sacred figures in the contemporary religion. The sun was sacred to the ancient Aztecs, and over the years they simply combined this idea with the new sacred figure of Jesus brought by the Europeans. Writers sometimes call this blended god the Sun-Christ.

Pic 8: Boys playing marbles beside their houses.
Pic 8: Boys playing marbles beside their houses. (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient Aztecs believed that rain was controlled by Tlaloc (personal name) who was assisted by small, dwarf-like figures called Tlaloque that were associated with thunder and lightning. Water itself was the domain of a goddess called Chalchiuhtlicue (“Jade-Her Skirt”). These different gods exist in many forms today and continue to be worshiped in Native American communities throughout Mexico. Today, Aztecs in northern Veracruz refer to Chalchiutlicue as Apanchanej (“Water Dweller”). They conceive of her as a woman with long hair and a fish tail in place of her legs and she resembles a mermaid. For the contemporary Aztecs, Sahua (“San Juan” or “Saint John the Baptist”) has replaced Tlaloc. He is believed to have a ferocious temper and lives at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

Pic 9: Contemporary Aztec ritual dedicated to the sun. The circular altar covered with offerings is located at the top of the pole from which colored paper streamers emerge representing the rays of the sun.
Pic 9: Contemporary Aztec ritual dedicated to the sun. The circular altar covered with offerings is located at the top of the pole from which colored paper streamers emerge representing the rays of the sun.  (Click on image to enlarge)

People say that when angered he sends violent storms that can destroy the maize crop. Apparently it is Saint John the Baptist’s association with water in Christian belief that has led the contemporary Aztecs to see him as equivalent to the ancient Tlaloc. He sends his dwarf-like assistants called Pilhuehuentsitsij (“Little Old Ones”), the equivalent of the Tlaloque, to carry water to caves at the peaks of a sacred mountains. From there, Apanchanej sprinkles the water on the fields in the form of rain. They have rubber sleeves and as they move through the sky, they strike their walking sticks causing thunder and lightning [see photographs 10-13].

Pic 10: Contemporary Aztec altar constructed as part of a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain.  The offerings are dedicated to various deities to promote crop fertility. The arch represents the celestial realm, decorated with pinwheels representing stars.
Pic 10: Contemporary Aztec altar constructed as part of a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain. The offerings are dedicated to various deities to promote crop fertility. The arch represents the celestial realm, decorated with pinwheels representing stars. (Click on image to enlarge)

Many contemporary Aztecs continue to worship and make offerings to the ancient earth gods that they address as “Grandfather” and “Grandmother” [see photographs 14-15]. Earth gods under many different names and forms were important deities for the ancient Aztecs. This fact is not surprising because the Aztecs were farming people and so the fertility of the earth is one of their key concerns. One earth-related god among the ancients was Tonantzin (“Our Sacred Mother”), and she continues to be one of the most powerful deities among present-day Aztecs.

Pic 11: A woman shows the paper image of Water Dweller that has been placed before the main altar in a water pot. The paper figure is dressed in a greencloth costume and has hair made from braided ribbons.
Pic 11: A woman shows the paper image of Water Dweller that has been placed before the main altar in a water pot. The paper figure is dressed in a greencloth costume and has hair made from braided ribbons. (Click on image to enlarge)

Ten years after the Aztec defeat in the year 1531, she appeared to a poor Aztec man named Juan Diego and promised to watch over his people. She has come down to us as the Virgin of Guadalupe and many consider her to be the patron saint of all Mexico. Aztecs today know her as Tonantsij and they celebrate her feast day on the 12th of December. Once again, we can see that an ancient Aztec deity, combined with European religious ideas, continues to be worshiped by fervent followers in a new form [see photograph 16].

Pic 12: Participants dance before an altar dedicated to crop fertility deities. The woman on the right holds a dressed paper image of Water Dweller while the two in the middle hold images of Grandfather and Grandmother, important earth deities.
Pic 12: Participants dance before an altar dedicated to crop fertility deities. The woman on the right holds a dressed paper image of Water Dweller while the two in the middle hold images of Grandfather and Grandmother, important earth deities.  (Click on image to enlarge)

Another significant god for the ancients was Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl (“Wind-Quetzal Feathered Serpent”). Both ancient and contemporary Aztecs love to use words with more than one meaning and the name Quetzalcoatl is a good example of this practice. The popular name of this god is Feathered Serpent, but it can also be translated as “Precious Twin.” This deity was related to a number of elements including maize, the good wind that brings rain, the creation of human beings, and the development of civilization. It seems likely that the god was created by Aztec priests in the cities out of many smaller gods that existed in the villages during the pre-Hispanic period. In contemporary Aztec villages, this deity still exists in its original, but fragmentary, form. Wind spirits are found widely throughout Mexico, often divided into good and bad varieties. Good winds bring the life-giving rain, while dangerous bad winds cause disease among people. These latter are called malos aires (“bad airs”) in Spanish, and each of the many types of wind spirits is called ejecatl in the modern Nahuatl spelling.

Pic 13: Participants construct an altar dedicated to rain spirits part way up a perilously steep sacred mountain. The leafy arch on the right has been constructed over a table representing the earth’s surface.
Pic 13: Participants construct an altar dedicated to rain spirits part way up a perilously steep sacred mountain. The leafy arch on the right has been constructed over a table representing the earth’s surface. (Click on image to enlarge)

Many people living in Aztec villages today venerate spirits of the seeds and, not surprisingly considering its importance in the diet, maize seeds are usually considered to be the most important. Among the contemporary Aztecs in the Huasteca region of Mexico, the maize spirit is called Seven-Flower and he has a twin sister called Five-Flower. There are many myths told about this pair and they are associated with bringing maize to human beings and to fighting off malevolent forces that threaten civilization. They are truly precious twins. The maize spirit is a modern form of Quetzalcoatl that lives in the minds and religious beliefs of the Aztecs today [see photographs 17-19].

Pic 14: Close-up of dressed paper images of Grandfather and Grandmother, the sacred aspects of the earth. The paper figures are dressed in elaborately embroidered costumes and then wrapped in new bandanas.
Pic 14: Close-up of dressed paper images of Grandfather and Grandmother, the sacred aspects of the earth. The paper figures are dressed in elaborately embroidered costumes and then wrapped in new bandanas. (Click on image to enlarge)

A key god among the ancient Aztecs was the all-powerful, ever-changing, and mysterious Tezcatlipoca (“Mirror-Smoking”). The god existed in many forms and, much like Quetzalcoatl, probably represents a combination of several lesser deities that were venerated in the villages. The deity is associated with darkness, night, and the nahualli, a sorcerer who transforms into an animal to attack his victims. Tezcatlipoca does not exist in his ancient form among today’s Aztecs but there is evidence that, at least in some villages, he has been combined with another pre-Hispanic figure named Tlacatecolotl (“Owl-Man”).

Pic 15: Close-up of paper images of Grandfather and Grandmother earth spirits without their cloth costumes.
Pic 15: Close-up of paper images of Grandfather and Grandmother earth spirits without their cloth costumes. (Click on image to enlarge)

Among contemporary Aztecs, Tlacatecolotl and his wife Tlacatecolotl Sihuatl (“Owl-Man Woman”) are frightening creatures who sometimes lead the souls of the dead in Mictlan (“Place of the Dead”) [see photographs 20-21]. They are dangerous to human health and well-being and the pair must be placated in curing rituals. The supreme leader of Mictlan in ancient times was Mictlantecuhtli (“Lord of the Place of the Dead”) who finds his contemporary counterpart in the figure of Miquilistli (“Death”) represented in cut paper as a human skeleton.

Pic 16: Dancers with head dresses dance during the winter solstice ritual dedicated to the earth mother Tonantsij, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Pic 16: Dancers with head dresses dance during the winter solstice ritual dedicated to the earth mother Tonantsij, the Virgin of Guadalupe. (Click on image to enlarge)

Among contemporary Aztecs, there are many terrifying spirits who threaten human beings and who trace directly back to their ancient ancestors. The transformed sorcerer, or nahualli mentioned above, flies about at night and sucks the blood from unsuspecting victims while they sleep. A kind of hag, called a tsitsimitl, is a fearsome female monster who may devour human beings. The tetlachihuijquetl is a sorcerer who performs rituals to send disease and death to unsuspecting victims. Tlahuelilo (“Wrath”), portrayed today in cut-paper images as a fearsome figure with the tail of an animal, stalks all those who fail to keep their tempers in check.

Pic 17: Women ritual participants dress paper images of the maize spirit before placing them on the altar to receive offerings.
Pic 17: Women ritual participants dress paper images of the maize spirit before placing them on the altar to receive offerings. (Click on image to enlarge)

Dangerous ejecatl wind spirits mentioned above in connection with Quetzalcoatl, are believed by contemporary Aztecs to be the wandering spirts of people who died premature or particularly unpleasant deaths. They are much feared by people today and curing specialists spend a majority of their professional time removing them from people’s bodies and surroundings. The idea of malevolent, disease-causing winds is undoubtedly pre-Hispanic in origin.

Pic 18: Close-up of paper images of seed spirits. Each doll is composed of several paper cutouts stacked on top of each other representing maize, chile peppers, and beans among other crops.
Pic 18: Close-up of paper images of seed spirits. Each doll is composed of several paper cutouts stacked on top of each other representing maize, chile peppers, and beans among other crops. (Click on image to enlarge)

In sum, what can we conclude about the fate of the Aztec gods? We can say that, under pressure from Spanish missionaries and political authorities, some of them have disappeared along with the ancient cities and temples where they were venerated. We can also say that a significant number of them live on and continue to be worshiped by people today. There are many more gods that anthropologists have documented among people today that are not mentioned here, including gods of the moon, stars, comets, crops, mountains, caves, clouds, fire, house, hearth, year, earth’s surface, and hummingbirds. Beliefs in these spirit entities can be traced to the ancient Aztecs.

Pic 19: (L) Chicken blood is sprinkled on paper images of spirits associated with crop fertility and growth. (R) A curer chants over a display of disease-causing wind spirits and underworld figures as part of a ritual to rid a patient of disease.
Pic 19: (L) Chicken blood is sprinkled on paper images of spirits associated with crop fertility and growth. (R) A curer chants over a display of disease-causing wind spirits and underworld figures as part of a ritual to rid a patient of disease. (Click on image to enlarge)

In some cases they have remained remarkably intact while in others they have been combined with other pre-Hispanic deities or with sacred Christian figures brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. The process of blending two or more traditions to form a new one is called syncretism. Syncretism is not unique to the Aztecs but is characteristic of all religions in the world.

Pic 20: Close-up of curing altar showing blackened images of Owl Man and Owl Man Woman with cigarettes in their mouths as a tobacco offering. Laid on paper “beds” are colorful images of disease-causing wind spirits.
Pic 20: Close-up of curing altar showing blackened images of Owl Man and Owl Man Woman with cigarettes in their mouths as a tobacco offering. Laid on paper “beds” are colorful images of disease-causing wind spirits. (Click on image to enlarge)

For further reading:-

• Caso, Alfonso. 1958. The Aztecs: People of the Sun. Lowell Dunham, trans. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Gómez Martínez, Arturo. 2002. Tlaneltokilli: La espiritualidad de los nahuas chicontepecanos. México, D.F.: Conaculta, Programa de Desarrollo Cultural de la Huasteca.
• Nicholson, Henry B. 1971. “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10. Robert Wauchope, gen. ed. Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, part 1. Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal, eds., pp. 395-446. Austin: University of Texas Press.
• Sandstrom, Alan R. [in press, due to be published in 2010]. “Water and the Sacred in Mesoamerica.” In History of Water and Civilization, vol. 7, Fekri A. Hassan, editor-in-chief. Water and Humanity: Historical Overview, Yoshinori Yasuda and Vernon Scarborough, volume eds. Under contract with UNESCO and Cambridge University Press [68-page manuscript available].
• Sandstrom, Alan R. 1991. Corn is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Sandstrom, Alan R., and Pamela E. Sandstrom. 1986. Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

All photos courtesy of and © Alan R. Sandstrom and Pamela Effrein Sandstrom

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 21st 2010

‘What happened to the Mexica gods after the Conquest?’ (2) by Dr. E. Wake

Feedback button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: In principle we’re right with you on this!
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for raising this important question, Maritere. Alan Sandstrom has answered it on a separate page (see ‘The Virgin of Guadalupe and Tonantzin’, in the R/H menu above).
Mexicolore replies: Next month - in April!