General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Jul 2019/3 Lizard
Text Size:

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

Professor David Carballo

Question for May 2019

Where did the Aztecs get the names of their gods from? Asked by Royal Masonic School (Juniors). Chosen and answered by Professor David Carballo.

Pic 1: The Aztec language, Nahuatl, in words and pictures: a page from the ‘Primeros Memoriales’ of Bernardino Sahagún (fol. 61v)
Pic 1: The Aztec language, Nahuatl, in words and pictures: a page from the ‘Primeros Memoriales’ of Bernardino Sahagún (fol. 61v) (Click on image to enlarge)

This is a great question that is fun to reflect on. First, it is important to emphasize a few things about the Aztec language, Nahuatl, and Aztec thought. Nahuatl is an agglutinative language, meaning that terms are often added together to create what to us look like very long words, and may be a few different words expressing the same concept in English. Some names of Aztec gods can therefore be long. Nahuatl is also a highly metaphorical language and likes to combine two concepts together into a couplet, where the sum of the two may create a different meaning than the constituent parts. Aztec thought includes the concept of animal spirits or essences (the nahual), which apply to people and to gods. Because of this, depictions of gods can often include a mix of animal attributes - like fangs or feathers - and other times take on a fully human form. The animal elements express something about the animal spirit of the god, and may be referenced in their name.

Pic 2: Stone sculpture of Huehueteotl in the form of a brazier. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: Stone sculpture of Huehueteotl in the form of a brazier. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Here are some examples. One of the oldest gods in central Mexico was called Huehueteotl, which translates literally as “old-old god” or meaning “very old god.” Huehueteotl was the god of fire and volcanoes and was depicted as an old man with wrinkles on his face, who is usually seated and hunched over with a brazier for holding fire or burned offerings on his head (pic 2). This is a pretty literal name for a god. The name Quetzalcoatl combines the quetzal bird with a snake (coatl). It is usually translated as “feathered serpent,” (pic 3) but it seems clear that the Aztecs (and Maya, who called him Kukulcan) were specifically referring to quetzal feathers -considered the most beautiful by Mesoamericans - and not any old feathers. Quetzal feathers connote preciousness. Quetzalcoatl was often depicted as a flying snake, or a “sky dragon,” and was associated with the wind that brings the rain and the imperceptible air all around us. Sometimes, however, he was depicted as a person, and the feathered serpent could be considered as his nahual.

Pic 3: Stone sculpture of Quetzalcoatl as a feathered serpent. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 3: Stone sculpture of Quetzalcoatl as a feathered serpent. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The patron god of the Mexica-Aztecs (the dominant political group of Tenochtitlan) was Huitzilopochtli, whose name translates as “hummingbird of the south (or left).” He has associations with warfare and the sun. Hummingbirds have a few attributes that may have interested the Aztecs, including their colorful feathers, their ability to fly perfectly straight (like an ideal arrow or dart that would be used in battle), and the ability to do something like hibernation where they slow their heart down (especially when it’s cold) and seem to come back to life - like a type of rebirth. This then became a symbol for the Aztecs for the souls of dead warriors, along with butterflies, who share some of these attributes. Huitlizopochtli’s shrine on the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan was to the south, which may be the reason for that part of his name. The other god sharing the Great Temple (pic 4) was also one of the oldest in central Mexico: the storm god Tlaloc. Tlaloc was associated with rain and agricultural fertility. He had the fangs of a jaguar and the roar of that animal may have been equated with thunder. Scholars debate the meaning of his name, but tlalli is the word for land/earth so Tlaloc may translate as “above the land.”

Pic 4: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of the main Templo Mayor of Tenochtitilan. Note the twin temples to Tlaloc (L) and Huitzilopochtli (R) on top
Pic 4: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias of the main Templo Mayor of Tenochtitilan. Note the twin temples to Tlaloc (L) and Huitzilopochtli (R) on top (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the difficulties in answering this question fully is that we do not know what the dominant language was at the pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan, where a lot of these same gods are also depicted. So, while we can see some clear connections between the concepts for how gods and the elements they represented were depicted, we don’t know what their names were and how similar or different these were from the Nahuatl names.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image scanned from our copy of Primeros Memoriales (Codice Matritense de la Real Academia de la Historia), facsimile edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1993
• Pic 2: Photo by Ana Laura Linda/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Image scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, illustrated by Miguel Covarrubias, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958.

Professor David Carballo has answered just this one question

Comment button