Saturday, December 15, 2012

Mexico City Part 5: Aztec Cosmology

The Bat God is not a deity whom I would want to encounter in dark alley. The god Camazotz was associated with vampire bats, blood, caves, and the night sky. The statue above was reassembled from fragments found in the town of Chalco on the outskirts of Mexico City. The worship of the Bat God originated with the Zapotecs of the Oaxaca area, and later spread to both the Maya and then the Mexica. It is impossible to understand Mexica society unless you have some grasp of their view of the cosmos and the pantheon of gods who occupied it. All state religions are heavily influenced by the need to justify the social, economic, and political arrangements of the regime in power. In this, the Mexica were no different than any of the Christian European governments of their day. This doesn't mean that the Mexica ruling class were just cynical manipulators of their own commoners and others whom they conquered. To the contrary, it appears that virtually everyone in the society, from the peasant in his field to the Emperor on his throne, firmly believed in the efficacy of their gods and the rites they practiced to assuage them, including mass human sacrifice. After all, hadn't Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica god of the sun and war, led them from their hunter-gatherer beginnings to achieving pre-eminent power in their world within a few short centuries? In this posting, I will outline the four dimensional structure of the Mexica cosmos, and provide a look at some of the more important gods and goddesses populating that world.

The Mexica Cosmos and pantheon of gods

Coatlicue was known as the "Mother of the Gods." Her name means "Skirt of Snakes." This enormous statue is 3.05 m (10 ft) tall and carved from a single block of stone weighing several tons. Coatlicue's feet have huge claws and her skirt is made up of writhing snakes, held up by a belt with a human skull for a buckle. She wears a necklace of severed human hands and hearts. Her head is made up of two fanged snakes facing each other. At one point in her story, Coatlicue was decapitated (but apparently not killed) and two great jets of blood spurted up which became snake heads. She was the mother of 400 gods and goddesses and so achieved the name "Mother of the Gods." In addition, she was the "Earth Goddess who gives birth to all celestial things", "Goddess of Fire and Fertility", "Goddess of Life, Death, and Rebirth", and "Mother of the Southern Stars". She was also the patron of women who died in childbirth, a form of death that, in terms of honor, was equivalent to a warrior dying in battle. Interestingly, Coatlicue was not the supreme deity of the universe. That honor goes to Ometeotl, the original, uncreated god, known as the God of Duality who represented the unification of opposites. The dual male and female forms of Ometeotl were Ometecuhtli and Omecíhuatl, respectively. It was through these two that Ometeotl created the universe and all within it. Duality as a concept (male/female, life/death, beneficial/malignant, day/night, etc) was an central theme in Mexica religious thought and art. Ometeotl was so remote and unknowable that no statues or other representations were ever created of the Dual God. Although King Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco did build the only temple ever created for Ometeotl, it had no statue or other image within it. At the highest levels of Mexica religious thought, all other gods were simply facets of Ometeotl. Coatlicue, therefore, was a manifestation of Omecihuatl, the female part of the Dual God. However, ordinary people could not relate to such an intangible deity as Ometeotl, so they chose to regard his various facets as individual and separate gods with their own histories, personalities, and particular areas of influence. In the Mexica view, Coatlicue's most important feature was that she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, their patron god.

Huitzilopochtli dances in full regalia. Notice the eagle attached to his back and the eagle helmet he wears. Eagles were the physical manifestations of this god of the sun and war, and it is no coincidence that the House of the Eagle Warriors was located right next to the Templo Mayor, on top of which stood a temple to Huitzilopochtli. The eagle soars across the sky, like the sun, and is also a fierce predator, hence its relation to war. Also, check out the copper bells on the edges and face of his shield and on the top of the weapon he carries in his left hand. More bells extend from the back of his feathered head dress. They appear very similar to the bells shown in Part 4 of this series. Huitzilopochtli was not only a colorful god, but apparently quite noisy. The painting is from the 16th Century Codex Telleriano-Remensis, an early Spanish reproduction of a Mexica story-painting. Huitzilopochtli was a little-known patron god of a minor tribe of hunter-gatherers until they gained power. According to their migratory legend, the Mexica found a statue of Huitzilopochtli in a cave at Coatepec ("The Hill of Snakes") which was his birthplace. His mother, Coatlicue had already given birth to 400 other gods, including at least one sister named Coyolxáuhqui. One day the Mother of the Gods was sweeping the temple on top of Coatepec and noticed a ball of hummingbird feathers. Not thinking much of it, she picked up the ball and tucked it into her bosum. When she finished sweeping, she looked for the ball but couldn't find it because it had become the fetus of Huitzilopochtli in her womb. In the Nahuatl language of the Mexica, Huitzilopochtli means "Left-handed Hummingbird". Coatlicue's daughter Coyolxáuhqui suspected an illegitimate pregnancy, became enraged, and plotted her mother's demise.

The huge stone head of Coyolxáuhqui is similar in size to the great Olmec heads.  Her name means "the one with bells painted on her face". The bells can be seen carved on either side of her nose. Her eyes are closed in death because the sculpture represents her decapitated head. Coyolxáuhqui roused her 400 brothers against her mother's supposed indiscretion. Together, they decapitated Coatlicue, resulting in the two spurts of blood that became the snake heads sculpted on her statue in the second photo of this posting. However, Huitzilopochtli emerged from his mother's womb fully formed and armed with a fire weapon. He destroyed his treacherous siblings, thereupon becoming the God of War. He was especially angry at his sister and completely dismembered her, throwing her pieces to the bottom of Coatepec hill. The Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlán is a pyramidal reproduction of Coatepec. The act of throwing the bodies of sacrificial victims down the broad stairway reenacts Huitzilopchtli's treatment of his sister. (See the sculpture of this in Part 2 of this series) His mother somehow survived the loss of her head and grieved for her slain children in spite of their attempt to kill her. In order to continue to see them, she turned the male children into stars and Coyolxáuhqui became the moon. Every morning, the triumph of Huitzilopochtli over his sister is reenacted as the sun triumphs over the previous night's moon. As the lunar month passes, pieces of moon-goddess Coyolxáuhqui disappear day by day, recalling her dismemberment by her sun-god brother. The Mexica carried the statue of Huitzilopochtli they found at Coatepec as a war emblem for the rest of their migration. Their first act after founding their capital of Tenochtitlán was to build a temple for him. The temple was rebuilt numerous times, taking its final form as the famous Templo Mayor only a few years before the Spanish arrived.

The massive sculpture of Tonatiuh, God of the 5th Sun, is shown at the Templo Mayor museum.
This piece was so large that I could only photograph it by climbing to the second-story balcony of the Templo Mayor museum. Found at the base of the great pyramid, the carved stone relief was created during the last years before the Spanish Conquest, a time in which Mexica artistry and power were at their height. Tonatiuh is a good example of how confusing the Mexica cosmology can be. He shares the title "God of the Sun" with Huitzilopochtli, along with other attributes such as a physical manifestation as an eagle and a thirst for human blood. He was already important among the various Chichimeca tribes before the Mexica arrived. The Mexica shared a language and various cultural aspects with their now urbanized predecessors. The new arrivals were, in a sense, cultural sponges, and absorbed into their cosmology much that they encountered during their migration. Apparently they thought it important to associate their patron god with the widely recognized God of the 5th Sun. It is significant, however, that the great sculpture of Tonatiuh lay at the bottom of the Templo Mayor, while Huitzilopochtli resided at the temple's top. Ironically, a number of sculptural images of Tonatiuh survived the Conquest, including this one and the one center of the so-called Aztec Calendar, while no images exist of Huitzilopochtli other than various paintings in post-Conquest codicies. Tonatiuh's face is easily recognizable in his various sculptures. Always there are the half-moon eyes, the grinning mouth, and the long serrated tongue extending down toward his chest. The tongue represents a sacrificial knife.  Tonatiuh, like Huitzilopochtli, is the God of the Fifth Sun, which shines over the current era of history. The previous four suns had their own gods, but were destroyed, each in turn, along with the worlds over which they shined and all the people living in them. Other gods sacrificed themselves in order to create Tonatiuh, and to get him moving across the sky, an act greatly beneficial to human beings of the 5th World.  Humans, therefore, were expected to reciprocate and sacrifice themselves to nourish Tonatiuh and enable his cyclical daily journey. Failure to produce human blood in sufficient quantity would stop the sun and result in the destruction of the entire world. The Mexica, therefore, viewed themselves as performing a noble public service through their industrial-scale efforts at human sacrifice.

Tlaloc, the Rain God, was another deity adopted by the Mexica during their migration. Above, Tlaloc is shown on the side of a large pot found at his temple atop the Templo Mayor. Like Tonatiuh, he is easily recognizable and his image can be found throughout Mesoamerica. According to some interpretations of his myth, he was one of the original gods created by Ometeotl. He is always shown wearing round "goggles" over his eyes, with fangs descending from his mouth, and a forked tongue hanging down. As might be expected in agricultural societies dependent upon sufficient quantities of rain, Tlaloc was extremely important. He was also very ancient. His painted image can be found in Teotihuacan on the wall of a palace near the Pyramid of the Moon, a structure already in ruins at least 500 years before the Mexica arrived. In fact, Tlaloc was probably worshipped by Mesoamerican agricultural societies for many centuries before Teotihuacan was even founded. At Tenochtitlán, Tlaloc shared "top-billing" with Huitzilopochtli, with his own temple sharing space with the god of sun and war at the crest of the Templo Mayor. In line with the concept of duality, he was seen as both beneficial and dangerous. While he provided rain for crops, he also sent great storms, lightning, hail, and floods. Not surprisingly, Tlaloc was believed to appreciate regular donations from the Mexica blood drives. A chacmool reclines just outside his temple atop the Templo Mayor with a bowl ready to receive human hearts. Tlaloc's first wife, Xochiquetzal ("Goddess of Flowers") was stolen by another god, so he married Chalchiuhtlicue ("She who wears a jade skirt"). She was the goddess of rivers, lakes, streams, and other freshwater bodies. She was also associated with the first use of maiz (corn) and with snakes. Tlaloc's big sister was Huixocihuatl ("Salt Lady"), the goddess of salt water, and patroness of those who produced salt. Oddly enough, she was also patroness of dissolute women, so perhaps she should have been called the Salty Lady.

Like Santa, Tlaloc needed little helpers. It seems making rain for the entire world was a big and complex job, because Tlaloc had four small helpers, including the one shown above, who were called the Tlaloque (plural of Tlaloc). Notice the signature "goggles" on the figure. Mexica high priests probably saw them as simple facets of the rain god, but common folks, like farmers, thought they were specific gods with their own attributes. The Tlaloque stayed busy brewing up rain in mountaintop jars. These they broke to send out rain and in the process created lightning and thunder. They also lurked about caves where water emerged from the underworld. Each of the Tlaloque was assigned to one of the four cardinal directions, and they acted as pillars to hold up the sky. Each also had his own color: red, yellow, white, and blue.  In some descriptions, the four Tlaloque carried jars about with them, respectively containing rain, frost, drought, and disease. Even as the Mexica cosmos had four directions on a horizontal plane, it also had a vertical plane. There were 13 levels of the upper world and 9 levels of the underworld. The point where they met was everyday reality. The top level was the home of the intangible God of Duality, Ometeotl. The ninth (bottom) level was called Mictlán, and was ruled by Mictlancihuatl, the God of Death and his goddess wife Mictlantecuhtli. Tlaloc himself ruled over the 4th level of the Upper World, called Tlalocan ("Place of Tlaloc"). It was filled with green plants and sunshine and was the final destination of those who died in water-related accidents,such as drowning or lightning strikes.

Quetzalcoatl was the famous Plumed Serpent. Like Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl had been worshiped throughout Mesoamerica since very ancient times. The first known image of a feathered serpent is a sculpture found at the the Olmec site of La Venta on the Gulf Coast. It was carved approximately 900 BC. Quetzalcoatl became a major figure in Mesoamerica with the rise of Teotihuacan about 100 AD. They dedicated a huge palace to him, heavily decorated with feathered snakes. Even after Teotihuacan fell in 650 AD, worship of the snake god continued to spread. In the Maya country, he went under the name of Kulkulkan. The great pyramid in Yucatan's Chichen Itza is called the Temple of Kulkulkan. In the great religious center of Cholula, near modern Puebla, Mexico's largest pyramid (second biggest in the world) was dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. Another key center for plumed serpent worship at that time was the important trading city of Cacaxtla. Next, the Toltecs began their rise and they adopted Quetzalcoatl as one of their major gods. An important Toltec legend was that he adopted human form as Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the first ruler at their capital of Tollan. The Mexica accepted the plumed serpent as a major figure in their pantheon in good part because the Toltec connection helped legitimize them. In the Sacred Precinct at Tenochtitlán, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl once stood directly facing the great staircase leading up to the top of the Templo Mayor. The Mexica believed Quetzalcoatl was one of the original four children of Ometeotl, along with Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, and Tezcatlipoco. These four gods then created all the other gods. In the Mexica cosmic sequence of five successive worlds, Quetzalcoatl was the sun god of the Second World, which ended with a great hurricane.

The bust of a priest of Quetzalcoatl wears a rather jovial expression. The importance of the plumed serpent is shown by the fact the the two most important priests at the Templo Mayor both possessed titles which included Quetzalcoatl's name. A god so ancient naturally picked up a number of attributes and responsibilities along the way. The four sons of Ometeotl were each connected to one of the four cardinal directions and Quetzalcoatl presided over the West. He was connected to Venus (the Morning Star). The plumed serpent was the god of light, mercy and, at least in the Toltec legend, he had opposed the practice of human sacrifice. Many of his facets related to important aspects of civilization. For example, he gave maiz (corn) to mankind, a key factor to moving from the hunter-gatherer stage to a settled life. He also invented books and the calendar and was known as the patron of priests, urban centers, and culture.

Ehécatl, God of the Wind, dances as he plays with a snake.  I especially liked this jolly, pot-bellied fellow. There are a number of statues of Ehécatl ("wind" in Nahautl) in the National Museum of Anthropology, and most show him toying with a snake. He is often shown as a playful monkey with a strange beak-like object protruding from his mouth. This may represent a musical instrument through which he would blow to create the wind. He was sometimes called Ehécatl-Quetzacoatl by the Mexica, who viewed him as an aspect of Quetzalcoatl. This probably explains the snake. However, Ehécatl was a very ancient god in his own right. Last year, Carole and I visited a unique spiral pyramid where the Wind God was worshiped. It was located at the Pre-Classic era (800 BC-300 BC) ruin of Xochitecatl, north of Puebla. Its construction pre-dated the Mexica by at least 1500 years. Among these early cultures, Ehécatl was a considered to be a creator god and also a culture hero (a human being with special powers, like Hercules of the Greek myths). As Quetzalcoatl became more important, the two gods apparently merged. Temples to Ehécatl are usually cylindrical to imitate the circular motion of the whirlwind. Because the wind can blow from anywhere, the Wind God is associated with all four of the cardinal directions. The statue above was discovered in a cylindrical Wind God temple unearthed in Tenochtitlán's Sacred Precinct during the building of a subway. The temple still stands in the subway station in its original site. According to the Mexica creation myth, when the 5th (current) World was created, the sun and the moon did not move. Finally the Wind God blew on them and the sun began to travel across the sky, which eventually also set the moon in motion. One of Ehécatl's most important jobs was to assist Tlaloc by blowing on the rain clouds to make them move in at the start of the wet season, He thus became associated with fertility and agriculture.

Tezcatlipoca's physical manifestation was jaguar. The stone carving of a jaguar shown above is called a cuauhxicalliHuman hearts were placed in the bowl sunk in its back. Tezcatlipoca was one of the four original sons of Ometeotl, the God of Duality. Although they were collectively referred to as the "Four Tezcatlipoca," the other three (Huitzilopochlti, Xipe Totec, and Quetzalcoatl) also had their own names. In the cosmic duality of the Mexica world, Tezcatlipoca was viewed as Quetzalcoatl's dark side. Quetzalcoatl was the god of light, mercy, culture, and civilization and his color was white. Tezcatlipoca was the god of the night sky, enmity, discord and war, and his color was black. Huitzilopochtli's eagle hunted during the day, while Tezcatlipoca's jaguar hunted at night. The Jaguar God's name in Nahuatl means "Smoking Mirror", referring to the obsidian used to create mirrors. He is often depicted with his right foot replaced by an obsidian mirror. This was the result of his theft of Xochiquetzal, the beautiful first wife of Tlaloc. When Tlaloc came for revenge, Tezcatlipoca lost his foot. He also came into conflict with Quetzalcoatl, who grew jealous of the Jaguar God's position as Sun God of the 1st World. The Snake God clobbered Tezcatlipoca over the head with a stone club. In his rage the God of the Night Sky summoned his jaguars to devour all humans and that effectively extinguished the 1st World. Quetzalcoatl became Sun God of the 2nd World, but Tezcatlipoca sought revenge through sorcery and Quetzalcoatl was forced to step down as Sun God.  In the Toltec legend, Quetzalcoatl was the first ruler of their capital Tollan and opposed human sacrifice. Tezcatlipoca represented the war-like impulses of the Toltecs and advocated such sacrifices, along with military conquests. He got Quetzalcoatl drunk so that he disgraced himself and used the occasion to pull off a coup d'etat. Quetzalcoatl was forced to flee, departing with his followers on a raft of snakes into the Gulf of Mexico, but vowing to return. In the legend, Tezcatlipoca's militaristic spirit led to the creation of the Toltec Empire, with its tzompantli (skull racks), eagle and jaguar warrior cults, and obsession with death. All these features were later slavishly copied by the Mexica. At a ceremony each year, the Mexica priests of Tezcatlipoca would choose a handsome young man to impersonate the god. For the following year, the man lived lavishly, dressing in jewels and enjoying four beautiful young wives. At the ceremony following the end of his year as Tezcatlipoca, the young man would voluntarily climb the steps of the god's temple where he was sacrificed, and another young man would be chosen. The body of the sacrificed man was ritually consumed as part of the festivities.

Mictecacihuatl was Goddess of Death, and wife of the Death God Mictlantecuhtil. They lived together in a windowless house in Mictlan, the lowest of nine levels of the Underworld. (See Part 3 of this series for a photo and description of her husband) Her main functions included guarding the bones of the deceased and presiding over the annual festivals of the dead.  Mictecacihuatl, sometimes called Cihuateotl, is often depicted in a seated position, with her clawed hands raised to rake the flesh off the bones of the newly dead, and with her fleshless jaws open to devour the stars when daylight arrived. When a Mexica died, the family began a 40-day ritual that included the sacrifice of a dog called a xoloizcuintli. The person's body was wrapped in simple matting or precious clothes, depending upon social status, and a jade bead was placed in the mouth. The body was then cremated. This began a long journey through the nine levels of the underworld involving many dangers, and during which the body lost much of its flesh. The jade bead (or blue pebble for the poor) represented the heart and was used to divert monsters encountered along the way who would devour the bead instead of the deceased. Finally, the dead person reached a river called Chignahuapan. Here he encountered the xoloizcuintli sacrificed at the funeral. The dog acted as a guide to cross the stream to finally reach Mictlan, "the dark and cold place of no return." It is believed that the Mexican fiesta called the Day of the Dead may have arisen from Mictecacihuatl's festivals, after the ancient Mexica rituals became mixed with Spanish Catholic customs.

Xolotl, the dog-faced god. He was associated with both lightning and death. The xoloicuintli dog of the death ritual is a representative of Xolotl. Mexica cosmic duality again comes into play with a connection between Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl. Xolotl was connected with Venus as the Evening Star.  Quetzalcoatl also had a connection to Venus, but as the Morning Star. Therefore Xolotl was his twin. On one occasion, Xolotl acted as Quetzalcoatl's guide when he returned from a mission to Mictlan. The Plumed Serpent had gone there to recover the bones of the dead to use as the materials to repopulate the world. Xolotl's regular duties included guiding the sun as it made its way through the Underworld at night and acting as the god of fire and bad luck.

Next week I will continue my exploration of Mexica Cosmology with more fascinating gods and some examples of offerings and sacrifice rituals. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment or correction, please do so either in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Jim,

    Excellent blog...great pics and info...much appreciated!

    Do you happen to know where the stone Xolotl head(s) were originally excavated from?

    Thank you for your time and regard!

    Ken Daw

  2. Hi just want to know more about the aztec monkey clay stamp for my college homework. I want to know where (what type of building) were they typically found on?

  3. The names of the Aztec death gods are inverted: Mictlantecuhtli is the god of death, Mictlantecihuatl is his wife, the goddess of death.

    1. Aarón, I appreciate your input. However, I believe that if you re-read the text under the photo you will see that I have the god and goddess labeled correctly. Also, you might want to check your spelling of the death goddess' name, which is Mictecacihuatl.

      Best regards, Jim


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim