General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2021/4 Dog
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Our In-House Team

Question for August 2006

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow? Asked by Park Lane Primary School. Chosen and answered by Our In-House Team.

Pic 1:  Itztlacoliuhqui, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, plate 12
Pic 1: Itztlacoliuhqui, adapted from the Codex Borbonicus, plate 12 (Click on image to enlarge)

The short answer is Yes - ITZTLACOLIUHQUI, Aztec god of frost, ice, cold, winter, sin, punishment and human misery. His name means ‘Curved Obsidian’*. He was patron god of the calendar sign Reed. Being a (dis)guise of (Black) Tezcatlipoca, one of the creator gods, Itztlacoliuhqui was associated with the night, and with the cold North, and it’s perhaps not surprising to find his image from the Codex Borbonicus (Pic 1) has very little colour in it. Wherever he appears in the codices his face is shown only as a piece of finely curved black obsidian (another example is Pic 3, from the Codex Borgia). Some say his harsh blindfold reflects his blindness to the hardship inflicted on poor Mexica farmers and their families by a bad frost that might destroy their vulnerable crops.

Pic 2: a severe snowstorm recorded in the year 7-Reed (1447), Codex Telleriano-Remensis
Pic 2: a severe snowstorm recorded in the year 7-Reed (1447), Codex Telleriano-Remensis (Click on image to enlarge)

Talking of punishment, according to legend Itztlacoliuhqui started off life as the god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Lord of the Dawn, Venus) who, after a shooting match with the Sun God Tonatiuh during the creation of the Fifth World Era, was punished by Tonatiuh and transformed into Itztlacoliuhqui, god of stone and coldness ‘...and for this reason it is always cold at the time of the dawn...’ (Follow the link below to read our feature on ‘The God with the Longest Name?’)

Pic 3: Itztlacoliuhqui, adapted from the Codex Borgia p. 69
Pic 3: Itztlacoliuhqui, adapted from the Codex Borgia p. 69 (Click on image to enlarge)

Snow wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Aztecs. In the Florentine Codex there is a little chapter (6) in Book 7 dedicated to Frost, Snow, Clouds and Hail. Snow and Frost were signs that Harvest was coming:-
’The frost [god] was called Itztlacoliuhqui. Once yearly the cold came. During the feast of Ochpaniztli the cold began. And for 120 days this persisted and there was cold. And it ended and disappeared [during the feast] called Tititl. When [the month] came to an end, it was said: “For the frost hath departed. Now there will be sowing - it will be a time of sowing...” SNOW: it was only the servant and companion which followed, accompanied, and spread the frost over the earth. It was considered to be like the rain. And it was said that when there was snow, [crops] would be harvested; the crops would be good. It foretold, and was an omen of, [good] crops.’

Pic 4: ice, snow and hail - Florentine Codex, Book 7
Pic 4: ice, snow and hail - Florentine Codex, Book 7 (Click on image to enlarge)

However, as we all know in winter, too much cold, ice and snow can kill. In the year 7-Reed (1447), during the reign of Motecuhzoma I (Moctezuma 1), the Codex Telleriano-Remensis records a terrible snowstorm and blizzard, of which plants, animals and humans were all victims. The upturned figures (Pic 2) literally represent the world of nature turning upside-down and failing to function in a predictable way. As it happens, several major natural disasters were reported during the reign of Moctezuma I.

Pic 5: the ‘tlachpanoni’ or straw broom in Itztlacoliuhqui’s hand
Pic 5: the ‘tlachpanoni’ or straw broom in Itztlacoliuhqui’s hand (Click on image to enlarge)

Can you see what Itztlacoliuhqui holds in his hand (Pic 1)? It’s a ‘tlachpanoni’, a decorated straw broom, symbol of sweeping clean (pic 5). The very name of the 20-day ‘month’ Ochpaniztli means ‘Sweeping’, the duty of all Aztecs during the 120-day cold season which ended with the ‘month’ Tititl. Not just houses, but streets, hills and causeways all had to be swept clean, every day. In a way perhaps it was a sign of punishment from the God of Coldness, Itztlacoliuhqui; after all, one of the strict punishments parents inflicted on naughty children was that of staying up at night to sweep clean the house... By the way, the decorated paper wrapped round the broom was a possible sign that whoever held the broom would not themselves become ‘dirty’ from the sins and dirt that the broom came in contact with.

So there you go - snow, you either love(d) it or hate(d) it!

*(2018) We’re most grateful to Todd Gorman, who has pointed out that, according to Nahuatl scholar J. Richard Andrews (in his Introduction to Classical Nahuatl), the name could mean “Everything Has Become Bent by Means of Coldness”, or “Plant-Killer-Frost” - follow the link below (Wikipedia). Either way, the names all have the same essential connotation: frosty cold, as sharp as an obsidian blade...

’Los Dioses Menores’ by Salvador Mateos Higuera (Mexico City, 1994)
Codex Telleriano-Remensis, facsimile edition by Eloise Quiñones Keber (Austin, Texas, 1995)
Florentine Codex, facsimile edition by Arthur Anderson and Charles Dibble, (Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1953) and facsimile edition published by the Club Internacional del Libro (Madrid, 1994)
For schools: ‘Mythology of the Aztecs and Maya’ by David Jones (London, 2003) and
’Aztec and Maya Myths’ by Karl Taube (British Museum Press, 1993)

‘The God with the Longest Name?’

Wikipedia entry on Itztlacoliuhqui

Our In-House Team has answered 22 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have different types of chewing gum to today’s?

Did the Aztecs have a god of snow?

Which parts of the Day of the Dead festival go back to the Aztecs?

Why did they put holes [gaps] in the [upright huehuetl] drums?

Was Snake Woman an Aztec empress?

How big was the Aztec army?

Did they have First Aid?

Which pet was the Aztecs’ favourite?

Why did they call them ‘chinampas’?

Did the Spanish have an interpreter when they conquered the Aztecs?

Which was the Aztecs’ most fearsome weapon?

Why was the Sun God called Tonatiuh?

Did they send post (mail)?

Did they have the same seasons as we do?

What did they do with the shells of armadillos after eating the meat?

Why didn’t Aztec houses have doors?

Which was the biggest group [job sector] in Aztec society?

Why is it better to support loads on the forehead and not on the shoulders?

When children were punished, how long were they held over smoking chillies for?

What was the Aztecs’ greatest fear?

Why did the Aztecs believe gold was the poo of the Sun God?

Is it a dragon in the Wind sign on the Sunstone?

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