Aztec Mythology: Gods, Legends, Creatures
Exploring Tenochtitlan's founding, Aztec gods, supernatural beliefs, and the mystic-warrior ethos in ancient Mexico.
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Although the Aztecs were not the first major civilization of Mesoamerica, they went on to build a strong and wide empire that dominated much of the Postclassic period of Ancient Mexico. Alongside the Aztecs, their belief system reached much of Mesoamerica and transformed the ancient philosophical traditions of earlier peoples.
The Aztecs, or Mexica, the more appropriate term for said Nahua people, enjoyed a century of good fortune. Named the People of the Sun by famous Mexican anthropologist, Miguel Leon-Portilla, the Mexica carried with them the ancient traditions of Mesoamerica but introduced their own beliefs, amplified and spread them, often by force, through much of the Mesoamerican region.
Believed to have originated north of the Anahuac Valley, the Aztecs were a small nation of people who lacked power and greatness. Yet, according to their foundational myth, the Aztecs migrated from their native island of Aztlan, hence why they are also known as Aztecs. Historically, the Aztecs did originate somewhere north of the central valley and migrated through different parts until they reached the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.
Around the year 1325, the Aztecs reached the Lake of Texcoco and ventured into the islands within the lake. There, the Aztecs found their promised land. Aztec mythology told the story of the sun god Huitzilopochtli, who told the Aztecs to look for an eagle standing on a nopal cactus, devouring a snake. There, they would found their city in his name. For a while, the Aztecs migrated through different parts, until reaching Chapultepec, next to the Lake of Texcoco. Eventually, they made for the islands in the lake and saw the eagle, thus deciding to stay. They would then drop the name Aztec, as they were now Mexica, the people of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs had their own beliefs and myths, yet they appropriated many from other cultures, particularly the Toltecs, a preceding Nahua civilization in the city of Tollan, though the Aztecs also confused them with the earlier Classic Teotihuacans. Thus, the Aztecs had plenty of myths, including multiple creation myths. The most common, however, is the myth of the Five Suns. Four ages had preceded the time of the Aztecs, each ruled by one Sun. The fifth age commenced with the founding of Teotihuacan, the city of Gods, when the god Nanahuatzin sacrificed himself to become the fifth sun, becoming the god Tonatiuh.
The Aztec pantheon was rich and diverse. As the Aztecs combined other beliefs with their own, they brought foreign deities into their pantheon. From sun god Huitzilopochtli, the principal deity of Aztec mythology, to the god of rain and fertility, Tlaloc, the Aztec pantheon ranges in types, powers and history. Huitzilopochtli was an authentic Aztec god, unlike other inherited deities. One of the most mysterious in the creation deity Ometeotl, a dual entity responsible for all things and the highest in the skies. An ancient deity, Ometeotl wasn’t particularly popular nor greatly known among the population at large, thus there were no temples dedicated to him. Instead, Ometeotl was popular among the most privileged, appearing in the poems and songs of the educated higher classes.
A similarly popular deity to Huitzilopochtli was Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god present in most of Mesoamerica. The Mayans, for example, had their own version in Kukulkan. Quetzalcoatl was the god creator of man and lord of the winds, among many other things. One of the most notable and important deities, Quetzalcoatl was present throughout most of Mesoamerica across most periods.
Beyond the better-known gods, many other deities, some minor other not so much, define the Aztec cosmogony. The Aztec understanding of the universe was based on four cosmic quadrants, each one for a cardinal point. Thus, each cardinal point was ruled by a god: Tezcatlipoca, ruler of the North; Xipe-Totec, ruler of the East; Quetzalcoatl, ruler of the West; and Huitzilopochtli, ruler of the South. Mictlantecuhtli was the ruler of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld. His consort was Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of the dead. Meanwhile, Xolotl was the dog-headed god of misfortune, twin to Quetzalcoatl, and soul-guide for the dead.
While most of the common things known about Aztec mythology surround mainly its pantheon and some of its myths, much more about the Aztecs and their beliefs gets largely ignored. The Aztecs had a rich variety of myths and legends that shaped their vision of the world. Beyond their creation myths, the Aztecs had stories for the things close to their society and lifestyle. From the arrival of maize (corn), the building block of the Aztec diet, to the creation of mountains, the jaguars and the oceans.
Also fascinating about Aztec mythology is its diversity of supernatural creatures. Many had a close relationship to an Aztec god, but in time they became their own entities in Mexican folklore. The legendary creature known as Ahuizotl was a monster with the shape of a dog, monkey hands and a long tail with a hand at its tip. The Ahuizotl lived in the rivers and lakes, though mainly known to inhabit the Lake of Texcoco and its surroundings. It was at the service of Tlaloc, god of rain, and was believed to be a sign of misfortune.
Perhaps the most famous Aztec creature, the Nahual was a supernatural being, oftentimes a sorcerer or a shaman who had the ability of shapeshifting. The ability to shapeshift was not exclusive to Aztec mythology, many other Mesoamerican cultures believed in some form of shapeshifting, thus nahualismo refers to the practice of shapeshifting by sorcerers and gifted people. The Nahual people were gifted with abilities, but not all used them for good. Hence the reason why Nahual is also often thought of as a monster. The Nahual concept can also refer to the animal spirit that accompanies each person when born. Similarly mysterious creatures were the Chaneques, small creatures in stature that were associated with the underworld. They were charged with taking care of nature, but were very mischievous, considered to be frequent liars.
Aztec mythology was evidently influenced by many other cultures and beliefs. During the peak of the Aztec Empire, one main belief system was in place: the mystic-warrior vision. The Aztecs had acquired the old traditions and beliefs of preceding civilizations, like the Toltecs. Having been a nation without a home, the Aztecs adapted to their surroundings, hence their assimilation into the cultures of the Valley of Mexico. Yet the Aztecs differed from the other cultures in their main outlook: glory through warfare and sacrifice. The mystic-warrior vision proclaimed the Aztec people as the promised nation of Huitzilopochtli, the Sun God. To serve him, they needed to achieve greatness through bloodshed and sacrifice, warring against nearby nations and consolidating an Empire that guaranteed their place and control.
The Aztecs famously preferred to capture their enemies once they had defeated them. While other nations saw little benefit from captured enemies, the Aztecs saw sacrifices for their gods. And still, not all sacrifices were based on captured enemies, many were also Aztecs themselves who delivered themselves to the gods as an offering and saw it as a privilege. This vision of the world, where the Aztecs took the center stage and where warfare was necessary differed greatly from the ancient doctrine followed by those opposed or unconvinced by the Aztecs. The ancient doctrine, better explained as the flower and song vision.Followers of the ancient doctrine refused the militarism way of life proselytized and imposed by the Aztecs. Instead of seeking greatness through bloodshed, they sought greatness through poetry, music and the arts. Nations such as the city-state of Huexotzinco and Texcoco, the first an enemy of the Aztecs and the latter an ally, were unconvinced by the Aztecs. Nezahualcoyotl, the ruler of Texcoco, turned to the ancient codices for knowledge and wisdom, refusing to favor the mystic-warrior vision spread by the Aztecs. When the Aztecs forced Texcoco to build a statue in the name of Huitzilopochtli, their warrior god, Nezahualcoyotl built a pyramid honoring an ancient god. It was a quiet form of protest.
The term toltecayotl, or toltequidad in Spanish, is present both in history, having been used by the Nahua people, and in modern times. While the Nahua used to term to refer to the Toltec civilization that preceded them, a nation seen as highly admirable and of cultural greatness, the modern use of the term, at least academically, tends to mean the shared philosophical tradition originating in the ancient city of Teotihuacan that spread through much of Mesoamerica and that greatly influenced the cosmovision of the Nahua peoples in the Anahuac Valley.
The term toltecayotl is, at best controversial but at least largely unused. Yet the concept still paints a vivid picture. The Toltec civilization was a rich and cultured nation whose influence spread throughout much of the Valley of Mexico. But the Toltecs were not the only ones. The Aztecs, for example, confused the Toltecs with the people of Teotihuacan too, when they were actually different peoples and the first might have played an important role in the fall of the latter.
Although the term isn’t widely used nor accepted by many, the characteristics of toltecayotl laid out by historian Leon-Portilla can explain, or at the very least, provide a better understanding of the shared culture in Mesoamerica. Speaking about the toltecayotl, historian Guillermo Marin Ruiz argues that while the Old World had Taoism, Hinduism and Buddhism, the New World had toltecayotl. The great culture and knowledge birthed during the Classical Era of Mesoamerica was the cornerstone for the cultures and peoples that followed.