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What did Aztec religion share with wider Mesoamerican cultures?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Richard Willmott: What did the Aztec religion and myths have in common with wider Mesoamerican culture of the time and before? (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Map of Mesoamerica and its cultural areas
Pic 1: Map of Mesoamerica and its cultural areas (Click on image to enlarge)

In short, plenty! Remember, the Mexica (Aztecs) were the last in a long line of civilisations going back thousands of years in the area we now know as Mexico and Central America. Inevitably, they had a great deal in common. Karl Taube sums this up nicely in his highly recommended short book Aztec and Maya Myths:-
Ancient Mesoamerican peoples shared a series of cultural traits; among the most striking are two calendars of 260 and 365 days that permutate in a great cycle approximating fifty-two years, hieroglyphic writing, screenfold books and masonry ball courts with rings. Although the peoples inhabiting this area were of many distinct cultures, often speaking mutually unintelligible languages, none the less there was widespread contact over millennia through migration, trade, conquest and pilgrimage. It is therefore not surprising that many themes are shared between the mythologies of the Aztec, Maya and other peoples of ancient Mesoamerica.

Pic 2: Moctezuma orders the construction of the Coateocalli; Codex Durán, fol. 58
Pic 2: Moctezuma orders the construction of the Coateocalli; Codex Durán, fol. 58 (Click on image to enlarge)

Taube continues: As a means of legitimisation, the Aztec aggressively adopted the beliefs and iconography of earlier peoples. For instance, the site of Tula, the legendary Toltec capital, was accorded special prominence, and certain Aztec gods can be traced back to Tula and still earlier Teotihuacan. The Aztec also incorporated religious practices from contemporaries, including peoples of Puebla, the Gulf Coast Huastec and the Mixtec of Oaxaca [see map, pic 1] The conscious adoption of foreign customs both solidified conquest and offered cultural unification; the Aztec even had a special temple, the Coateocalli, [pic 2] which contained the captured images of foreign gods. Although Aztec mythology thus has many deities and themes derived from other Mesoamerican cultures, certain myths are wholly Aztec - particularly the mythic origins of Huitzilopochtli at Mount Coatepec, which served as a sacred charter for the expansion of the Aztec state.

Pic 3: ‘A Mesoamerican model of time and space’; page one from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer*
Pic 3: ‘A Mesoamerican model of time and space’; page one from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer* (Click on image to enlarge)

Taube goes on to put forward a series of key concepts in Mesoamerican thought and belief that permeated the region and that were shared by the Aztecs:-
• Calendrics, sacred geometry and the alignment, ordering and balance of cosmic time and space (see pic 3)
• Study of large and small cycles of human and cosmological time: from the cycles of Sun, Moon and Venus (all deities), to longer ‘counts’ or rounds reaching into thousands of years
• Reverence for the balance between key oppositional forces in the cosmos, particularly those between day and night, good and bad, life and death, creation and destruction - and the duty of both humans and gods to maintain these, largely through the ritual practice of human (and self-)sacrifice
• The importance of the spirit world and the role of spirit guides (or ‘familiars’)
• The role of (hero) twins in creation mythology (to be found not only in Mesoamerica but in societies as far apart as the Mississippi and lowland South America)
• Respect for humility and a deep disdain for arrogance and greed, providing role models for the organisation of society (cf, the Aztec myth of the humble, brave, pimply god who became the Sun, and the story of the Hero Twins in the Maya Popol Vuh).

Suggested further reading: Aztec and Maya Myths by Karl Taube, British Museum Press, London, 1993.

Image sources:-
• Pic 1: Map from Wikipedia (‘Mesoamerica’)
• Pic 2: Image scanned from our own copy of Códice Durán - Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme, Arrendedora Internacional, Mexico City, 1990
• Pic 3: Image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, Graz, Austria, 1971.

*Learn more about this, ‘the most famous page in pre-Columbian literature’

Learn more about ‘spirit guides’ or nahuales

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