Mesoamerican culture, as a whole, is often poorly understood among the general populace. Part of it is the fact that the names of the gods are long and hard to pronounce note . Part of it is that it’s a very complex and, to European sensibilities, insane belief system. Indeed, the whole notion that deities are both good and bad and that all that is created is created as a duality is a very important aspect of pre- Colombian ideology, and something the conquistadors had a hard time wrapping their heads around (as do, to this day, several movie directors). Most importantly, however, it’s the sacrifices. Their rich culture and mythological tradition is usually boiled down to “They’d sacrifice folks.” And, yes, they did practice human sacrifice to a scale and creativity previously unseen by humanity. But this wasn’t the only defining feature of the folklore, and, indeed, there was a damn good reason for it.
First of all, let it be known that the Aztecs were never called “Aztecs” in their time. They were known as the Mexica. The various ethnic groups of Central Mexico were generally known as the Nahuanote , and their language is called Nahuatlnote meaning “Clear Speech”. The Mexicanote that dominated the valley of Central Mexico at the time of European contact only migrated there sometime in the mid 1200s, from an unknown northern area that they referred to as Aztlánnote . Much of their culture was adopted from the surrounding civilizations, or descended from older ones like the Toltecs.
When they first arrived in the Central Valleynote , a number of city-states had been established, and the Mexica wandered around, staying in each city-state earning their keep as mercenaries until they inevitably offended their hosts in some way. In one notable legend, the Mexica asked the ruler of the city-state of Culhuacannote , who they were vassals of at the time, for one of his daughters. The king granted it thinking it was a political marriage he was accepting, but when he got invited to a festivity, which he thought was said marriage, he was met with the high priest of the Mexica wearing the flayed skin of his daughter; they had actually asked for her to be a sacrifice. Following this incredible faux pas, the Mexica were banished to a swampy area of Lake Texcoconote , with the belief that they’d starve there. According to Mexica myth, their patron god told them to build a new city on a spot where they’ll find an eagle eating a serpent while perched on a prickly pear cactus. They saw this happen on top of a small island way out in the middle of the lake. Undaunted, they began to build the city of Cuauhmixtitlánnote , Place of the Eagle Between the Clouds, later renamed Tenochtitlánnote , the Place of the Prickly Pear Cactus (in honor to their first high priest Tenochnote ), and its twin city Tlatelolconote
Place of the Mound of Sand, home of the largest market in the Americas. And thus began the rise of the Mexica, forming later the Triple Alliance with neighboring city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan, beginning what is now known as the Aztec Empire. Mexico City is there today.
36According to the Aztecs, the world was first created by Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatlnote or “Oemeteotl” note in the singular form, a dual god that was both male and female. Shklee thought the world into existence and gave birth to the first group of major gods.
The most important two gods for the Aztec myths are Quetzalcoatlnote , the Plumed Serpent, and Tezcatlipocanote , the Smoking Mirror. These brothers were two archenemies and most of the Aztec myth revolves around the two of them fighting each other. Quetzalcoatl was the god of wind, dawn, the morning star (aka Venus), knowledge, arts, and crafts, and one of the oldest gods, dating back to the Olmec. Tezcatlipoca was the trickster god of night, magic, slaves, earth, war, discord, rulership, and a host of others. On different versions they are either the two first brother gods, the elder of the first four brother gods or even the same being in antonym aspects battling with himself, indeed “Black Quetzalcoatl” is a name sometimes given to Tezcatlipoca, and “White Tezcatlipoca” is another name for Quetzalcoatl. Once the Spanish arrived, they marked the two as “good and evil” respectively, but to the Aztec sensibilities, neither of them was necessarily “better” than the other, they were just different and on opposite sides. Most famously, Quetzalcoatl became a human and ruled as a king of Tula, the home of the Toltec people. He was a wise and peaceful ruler who ushered in a golden age… and as a result, none of the other gods were being given tribute. Outraged, Tezcatlipoca came to earth, wormed his way into Quetzalcoatl’s council by smooth-talking the right people, winning unwinnable battles, and seducing noblewomen. He managed to get Quetzalcoatl rip-roaring drunk, and as a result, he ended up sleeping with his sister, Quetzalpetlatlnote . Ashamed, Quetzalcoatl went into self-imposed exile, then killed himself on a funeral pyre, came back to life, and finally sailed east on a raft of snakes, promising to return someday.
Other important gods include the rain god Tlalocnote , a monstrous blue creature with goggle eyes, a cleft lip, and jaguar fangs. Tlaloc was one of the oldest gods in Mesoamerica, with analogues dating back to the Olmec civilizations, and he’s mostly famous for his child sacrifices. Another was Xipe Totecnote , the Flayed Lord, the god of fertility, spring, and renewal, also being Red Tezcatlipoca. He represented the maize plant, a golden food wrapped in a husk, so Xipe Totec was a golden god… wrapped in human skin. A tradition that his priests would emulate, killing a sacrificial victim and wearing their skin. Nowhere near last, and certainly not least, was Huitzilopochtlinote , Left-Handed Hummingbird, the majordomo war god and Blue Tezcatlipoca. Unlike almost every other god listed here, who were venerated throughout Nahua culture, Huitzilopochtli seems to have originated with the Mexica and been brought south with them. And Huitzilopochtli loved his heartburgers. You know the classic image of hundreds of prisoners being brought up an enormous step-pyramid where a high priest would methodically tear their hearts out and raise them to the sky? That was Huitzilopochtli’s festival day.
The Nahua Creation myth tells that four worlds existed before the current one:
- The first world, known as the Jaguar Sun, was ruled by Tezcatlipoca, and was populated by a race of gian These giants were stupid and ate acorns. Tezcatlipoca’s sun was black, giving off only half as much light as the others. Quetzalcoatl, enraged, knocked down Tezcatlipoca with a club. Upon falling to the ground, Tezcatlipoca turned into a giant jaguar and ate the world and everyone on it.
- The second world, known as Wind Sun, was ruled by Quetzalcoatl, and was populated by human Tezcatlipoca, still enraged, knocked down Quetzalcoatl with a massive jaguar paw. As he fell, the world was destroyed in a massive hurricane. The few humans who survived turned into monkeys.
- The third world, known as Rain Sun, was ruled by Tlalo He reigned until Tezcatlipoca stole his first wife, the beautiful flower goddess Xochiquetzalnote . Furious, Tlaloc gave the people no rain. Drought occurred until Quetzalcoatl overthrew Tlaloc and told him to make it rain. Out of spite, Tlaloc made it rain fire, destroying the world. The humans who survived turned into birds.
- The fourth world, known as Water Sun, was ruled by Chalchiuhtlicuenote , She of the Jade Skirt, the water goddess and Tlaloc’s second Both Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were jealous of her, and so they both overthrew her, ending the world in a massive flood. The surviving humans turned into fish.
After the fourth sun was destroyed, the world was completely covered in water. As such, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca decided to put aside their grudge to make a new world. However, all the land was on the back of Cipactlinote , a giant caiman-fish monster, who was chillaxing at the bottom of the ocean. So, to lure it up, Tezcatlipoca lowered his foot to lure it to the surface. After getting it bit clean off, the two gods turned into snakes and strangled Cipactli, thus forming the North American continent.
Now, there was the issue of people. The Aztecs believed that, much like corn seeds grew into new corn plants, human bones would give birth to new humans. So, Quetzalcoatl journeyed into Mictlánnote , the Aztec underworld alongside Xolotlnote , a dog-headed lightning god who was Quetzalcoatl’s spirit twin. He beseeched Mictlantecuhtlinote , the Lord of the Dead, to see the bones. Mictlantecuhtli agreed, if Quetzalcoatl could play an acceptable tune on a trumpet, then gave him a conch shell with no holes in it. Quetzalcoatl used worms to bore holes in the shell, then went to see the bones on a strict “look, but don’t touch” condition. Quetzalcoatl had Xolotl cause a ruckus while he absconded with the bones. He succeeded, but the deformed Xolotl was unable to escape with him, and thus took the role of psychopomp, bringing the souls of the dead to their final resting place. Quetzalcoatl ground up the bones and mixed them with his blood, then taking the mix, shaping them into people, and burying them in the ground, cultivating humanity like a crop.
Now, there was the matter of who would be the fifth sun. The gods met on the city of Teotihuacánnote to decide who would be The Chosen One. Two gods volunteered to become the fifth sun. One was the poor, crippled Nanahuatzinnote , the other was the rich, beautiful Tecciztecatlnote . To become the sun, they would have to jump into a fire. Tecciztecatl tried several times, but hesitated each time. Nanahuatzin leapt in without fear and, wanting to save face, Tecciztecatl followed. The two became suns, but the gods decided that because Nanahuatzin showed greater bravery, Tecciztecatl’s sun should be dimmer than his. The gods threw a rabbit at Tecciztecatl to diminish his size and his light, turning him into the moon. Nanahuatzin became Tonatiuhnote , the solar disk, but the strength of the sun was too great, and as such he had no ability to move across the heavens. The other gods realized that a greater power was needed to move Tonatiuh across the sky. Another version of the myth is that Huitzilopochtli became the fifth sun in order to oppose his sister Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, and her army of Tzitzimimeh, star-demons intent on devouring the world and everything on it. Since Huitzilopochtli was the patron god of the Mexica and the Fifth Sun, the Mexica claimed superiority to the surrounding nations.
They needed to sacrifice their blood to empower the sun. So, the gods must continuously, to the point of constantly dying and returning to life, give their blood and their hearts to power Quetzalcoatl, in his aspect as Ehecatlnote , the wind, to send Tonatiuh on his daily path from dawn to dusk. As such, the Aztecs owed an enormous debt to their gods. Quetzalcoatl gave his blood to give humanity new life. The other gods are always giving their blood to allow the sun to rise each morning. They sacrificed many gifts to their gods: incense, chocolate, animals ranging from snakes to eagles to jaguars… but the greatest gift they could give their gods was human blood and human hearts.
Then, a bunch of Spaniards came, following a couple of bad omens (such as a comet, Moctezuma’s dream of white people mounted on deer, and the Temple of Huitzilopochtli catching fire). By extreme coincidence, this was around the time that Quetzalcoatl said he would return. Being that they arrived from the east, where Quetzalcoatl went in exile, and that Quetzalcoatl was often envisioned with a beard, Moctezuma was incredibly spooked, and sent the Spaniards gold in hopes they would be satisfied and leave, rather than sending troops to outright kill him. This ambivalence, combined with the fact that the Mexica had a bad reputation among their conquered foes, allowed Cortez to amass an army of natives and enter Tenochtitlan as guests. Things went downhill for the Aztecs from there.
Popocateptl and Iztaccíhuatl
The view that adorns the world’s largest city – Mexico City – is enhanced by the majesty of two of the highest volcanoes in the hemisphere: Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
The presence of these enormous millennial volcanoes has been of great significance for the different societies that have admired and revered them, being a source of inspiration for the many legends about their origin and creation. Among these, the best known are two that we will relate below.
Thousands of years ago, when the Aztec Empire was in its heyday and dominated the Valley of Mexico, it was common practice to subject neighboring towns, and to require a mandatory tax. It was then that the chief of the Tlaxcaltecas, bitter enemies of the Aztecs, weary of this terrible oppression, decided to fight for his people’s freedom.
The chief had a daughter named Iztaccihuatl: the most beautiful of all the princesses, who had professed her love for young Popocatepetl, one of her father’s people and the most handsome warrior.
Both professed a deep love for each other, so before leaving for war, Popocatepetl asked the chief for the hand of Princess Iztaccihuatl.
The father gladly agreed and promised to welcome him back with a big celebration to give him his daughter’s hand if he returned victorious from the battle.
The brave warrior accepted, prepared everything and departed keeping in his heart the promise that the princess would be waiting for him to consummate their love.
Soon afterward, a love rival of Popocatepetl, jealous of the love they professed to each other, told Princess Iztaccihuatl that her beloved had died in combat.
Crushed by such tragedy and overwhelmed by sadness the princess died, without even imagining it could be a lie.
Popocatepetl returned victorious to his people, hoping to find his beloved princess. Upon arrival, he received the terrible news of the death of Iztaccihuatl.
Devastated by the news, he wandered about the streets for several days and nights, until he decided he had to do something to honor her love and to assure that the princess would not ever be forgotten.
He ordered a great tomb built under the sun, piling up ten hills together to form a huge mountain.
He carried the dead Princess in his arms, took her to the summit and laid her on the great mountain. The young warrior lovingly kissed her cold lips, took a smoking torch and knelt in front of his beloved to watch over her eternal sleep.
From then on, they continue together, facing each other. Eventually the snow covered their bodies, forming two majestic volcanoes that would remain joined till the end of time.
The legend goes on to say that when the warrior Popocatepetl remembers his beloved, his heart – that preserves the fire of eternal passion – shakes and his torch smokes.
That’s why, even today; the Popocatepetl volcano continues spewing fumaroles.
As for the coward, Tlaxcala, who lied to Iztaccihuatl, overcome with repentance for the tragedy that ensued, he went off to die very near his land. He also became a mountain, Pico de Orizaba, another of the region’s volcanoes and now, from afar, watches the eternal dream of the two lovers, never again to be separated.
In Aztec mythology, the god Xolotl is associated with dogs, twins, lightning, fire, and guiding souls into the underworld when people die. Xolotl is frequently paired with Quetzalcoatl in various myths, whether as his twin or as his canine companion.
Name and Etymology
- Xolotl Huetzi
- “The Animal”
- “The Dog”
Religion and Culture of Xolotl
Aztec art usually portrays the Aztec god Xolotl with ragged ears and other deformities like reversed feet.
When depicted as a dwarf jester, his eyes are missing because he is supposed to have cried his eyes out when the other gods died as part of a sacrifice of themselves to create humanity. Sometimes, he also appears as a skeleton, or even as a man with the head of a dog. The official name of the Mexican Hairless Dog, a breed that dates back to before Columbus, is Xoloitzcuintle.
Twins were themselves considered a type of deformity, treating as both tricksters and heroes, and a connection between twins and dogs can be found in Mesoamerican art at least as far back as the beginning of the Common Era.
Xolotl was the Aztec God of
- Bad Luck
- Guiding Souls
- Ball Games
Story and Origin of Xolotl
Dogs were considered filthy and immoral in Mesoameican cultures and Xolotl, the canine god, embodies all the worst characteristics ascribed to dogs. Xolotl was responsible for accompanying the dead to Mictlan, their final journey after death.
Xolotl also guarded the sun as it made its way through the underworld every night. Family Tree and Relationships of Xolotl
- Canine companion of Quetzalcoatl
- Brother of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Lord of Venus as the Morning Star
- Twin brother of Quetzalcoatl
- Son of Coatlicue
Mythology and Legends of Xolotl
In one creation myth, Xolotl brought a bone to the gods who sprinkled it with some of their blood. The bone then transformed into the first human boy and girl, giving rise to the human race.
In another myth, the Aztec primordial god Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl executed Xolotl. The latter was acting as executioner, killing all of the rest of the gods as they sacrificed themselves as part of the creation of humanity. In some stories he killed himself last as he was supposed to do, but in others he refused by changing himself into other forms: first the maize-plant xolotl, then the agave mexolotl, and finally the larval salamander axolotl. Eventually, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl caught up to him and executed him.
In yet another creation myth, Xolotl was responsible for repopulating the planet after humanity had died out (sometimes alone, sometimes by helping Quetzalcoatl). He traveled as a dog into the underworld and removed a bone from one of the earlier humans. He dropped and broke it when pursued by the Aztec god of the underworld, but he kept what he could and added some of his own blood to repair it. After four days, a human boy was born; after seven, a human girl was born.