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Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca in the Aztec creation story of the origin of people

The Origin of People

Part of the Mesoamerican myth of the creation of the Fifth Sun (world era) in which we live today, here is the story of the origin of people, based on one (the Leyenda de los Soles) of the different colonial versions written down after the Conquest. Taken from The Aztecs by Michael E. Smith (2nd. edn., Blackwell Publishing, 2003)...

Pic 1: Tlaltecuhtli, the earth monster (who was both male and female)
Pic 1: Tlaltecuhtli, the earth monster (who was both male and female) (Click on image to enlarge)

The creation of the fifth sun, the current age, fell to Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca (top picture). In one version of this myth, the two gods found the earth completely covered with water from the flood that ended the fourth sun. The giant earth monster Tlaltecuhtli (‘Earth Lord’ - pic 1), a crocodile-like creature, swam in the sea searching for flesh to eat. The gods turned themselves into serpents, entered the sea, and tore Tlaltecuhtli in half. The upper part of her body became the land, and the lower part was thrown into the sky to become the stars and heavens. Plants and animals grow from the back of Tlaltecuhtli and rivers pour from her body.

Pic 2: Mictlantecuhtli back to back with Quetzalcoatl, based on the Codex Borgia
Pic 2: Mictlantecuhtli back to back with Quetzalcoatl, based on the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

With the land and sky in place, the gods were ready to create people. They sent Quetzalcoatl to the underworld, Mictlan (‘Place of the Dead’), to retrieve the bones of the people of the fourth sun:-

And then Quetzalcoatl went to Mictlan. He approached Mictlantecuhtli (pic 2) and Mictlancihuatl [Lord and Lady of the Underworld]; at once he spoke to them:
’I come in search of the precious bones in your possession. I have come for them.’
And Mictlantecuhtli asked of him, ‘What shall you do with them, Quetzalcoatl?’
And once again Quetzalcoatl said, ‘The gods are anxious that someone should inhabit the earth.’
And Mictlantecuhtli replied, ‘Very well, sound my shell horn and go around my circular realm four times.’
But his shell horn had no holes.

An ancient Mesoamerican conch shell
An ancient Mesoamerican conch shell (Click on image to enlarge)

The false conch horn was the first of several tricks that Mictlantecuhtli used to block Quetzalcoatl’s mission. Quetzalcoatl called upon worms to drill a hole in the shell, and bees to make the horn (pic 3) play. When Mictlantecuhtli heard the horn, he at first allowed Quetzalcoatl to gather the bones, but later changed his mind. His helper spirits dug a hole, and a quail appeared and startled Quetzalcoatl, who tripped and lost consciousness. The bones were scattered and broken, and the quail chewed on them. Quetzalcoatl finally rose, gathered up the bones, and escaped from Mictlan.

Pic 4: Cihuacoatl, ‘Woman Serpent’
Pic 4: Cihuacoatl, ‘Woman Serpent’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Quetzalcoatl carried the bones to Tamoanchan, a place of paradise. The old goddess Cihuaoatl (‘Woman Serpent’ - pic 4) ground them on the metate [grinding stone] and placed the powder in a jade bowl. Quetzalcoatl and the other gods gathered around and shed their blood upon the ground bones, and the first people of the fifth sun were made.

NOTE. Because Quetzalcoatl dropped the bones and they broke, human beings ended up different sizes!
Julia Flood continues this myth with the story of the origin of maize - follow the link below (and look out for the ants...!!)

Picture sources:-
• Illustrations of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from our own copy of his book Mexico South
• Illustration of Tlaltecuhtli by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs, People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso
• Image based on the Codex Borgia (plate 56): detail from the full-colour restoration edition by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, scanned from our own copy (Dover Publications)
• Pix 3 and 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 15th 2008

Learn more about the conch horn and hear its sound!

The Discovery of Corn

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