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Professor Alan R. Sandstrom

Question for April 2014

Do you know the names of all the Aztec gods? Asked by Northmead Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Alan R. Sandstrom.

Codex Tudela
Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

This is a wonderful question that addresses current research on Aztec religion. The short answer to the question is that it is impossible to know the names of all the Aztec gods because there is no end to them. The Spaniards assumed that Aztec religion was polytheistic, like that of the ancient Greeks or Romans. In polytheistic religions, there are many gods who are usually arranged in a hierarchy from most powerful to least powerful. The Spanish chroniclers who wrote about the Aztecs tried to list their gods but soon found that deities existed in multiple guises and blended into one another. Each god seemed to have many forms, many different names, and even their male or female identity was variable. When the Spaniards observed rituals and asked people about their religion, the gods did not fit neatly into a polytheistic system (or pantheon). At first, modern scholars thought that the Spaniards had made errors in writing about Aztec religion. Now we think that despite their confusion, the Spanish writers did a remarkably good job when they described the Aztec gods. One reason we believe that Spanish accounts of the gods are accurate is that modern descendants of the Aztecs continue to hold many of the beliefs and ritual practices of their ancient ancestors and their ideas about the gods also do not fit the model of polytheistic religions...

Codex Tudela
Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

But we can answer the question in another way. The Aztecs (both ancient and modern) have a belief in a single sacred principle that is like a god. They call this god-like principle teotl in the Aztec language (Nahuatl). People who follow a Judeo-Christian or Islamic religion believe that a single god created the whole universe and all of the human beings in it. This form of religion is called monotheism. For them, there is one god and that god stands apart from the creation. For the Aztecs, the creator and the creation, god and the universe, are identical. Teotl is identified with everything in the universe and all of the people and objects in the world. So all of us and everything that exists are part or aspects of teotl.

Codex Tudela
Codex Tudela (Click on image to enlarge)

This means that for the Aztecs everything in the universe including people are sacred and part of god. Teotl is a single indivisible totality but Aztec priests and artists sometimes temporarily divided up the sacred principle so that people could better understand how the universe worked in relation to their needs and desires. For example, Tonatiuh is sometimes called the Aztec sun god but it is really simply the part of teotl that heats the world and provides life to plants, animals, human beings, and the entire world. In Aztec belief, the sun is not a separate god but rather a partial unfolding of teotl in such a way that it provides heat and life. It is no different in substance or form from the earth, water, corn, human beings, or any of the other things that exist. The Spanish writers misunderstood Aztec religion as a form of polytheism, but in fact, what appeared to them to be many deities are all expressions of a single sacred force in the universe. Because teotl can be temporarily divided in an infinite number of ways there are an infinite number of so-called gods. Scholars call the Aztec form of religion pantheism because god is in everything and everybody. To answer the question, teotl incorporates all the gods that were (or could have been) imagined.

This is just one of the many answers to this question that we put to our Panel of Experts in a survey in December 2013. You can read the full results by following the link below...

Images from the Codex Tudela (original in the Museo de América, Madrid), scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002.

The full results of our survey...

Professor Alan R. Sandstrom has answered 3 questions altogether:

What happened to the Aztec gods after the conquest?

Do you know the names of all the Aztec gods?

Is it true that you could be killed for cutting down a tree?

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