The underappreciated mythological pantheon I’ll be looking at this time will be the Aztec pantheon. It seems all anybody ever wants to talk about with the Aztecs is human sacrifice, blood, hearts being pulled out, etc. There are many more intriguing elements to their forms of worship than just blood and guts, however. Here is a list of some of their major deities.
11. OMETEOTL – The primordial and hermaphroditic deity who embodied all duality and from whom all existence sprang. Ometeotl did not just personify male and female but also space and time, light and dark, order and chaos, etc.
As both male and female Ometeotl conceived and gave birth to the god Tonacatecuhtli and the goddess Tonacacihuatl, who mated and went on to produce most of the rest of the deities in the Aztec pantheon, sort of like Izanagi and Izanami in Shinto myths.
Ometeotl was considered distant and aloof and took no more active role in myths after setting the ball of creation rolling, although he/she was considered to be present in every aspect of ritual. This god sat enthroned in the thirteenth and highest heaven, Omeyocan, often considered the Mt Olympus/Asgard/Hunamoku/ Takamagahara of Aztec myths.
10. XIUHTECUHTLI – The god of fire who was also considered the god of time, which puts you in mind of the expression “time is the fire in which we are burning”. In addition Xiuhtecuhtli was also the patron deity of the nobility. In Aztec cosmogeny fire was itself the Axis Mundi (my fellow mythology geeks will get the significance of that), manifesting on the Earthly plane in hearths, in the realm of the dead as a furnace and in the heavenly realm as the forge of the fire god himself.
Xiuhtecuhtli was the psychopomp in the Aztec pantheon, assisting the souls of the deceased to their home in the afterlife. He was also a copatron of the athletic games.
9. XOCHIQUETZAL – The goddess of love, beauty, the arts, weaving and the fruitful bounty of the Earth. When she roamed the world flowers would spring from the footprints she left behind her. Xochiquetzal was often depicted wearing a flowery headband with two tufts of feathers from the quetzal bird.
Aztec brides would plait their hair to resemble the goddess’ headband. Marigolds were offered up to her during festivals in her honor. She was said to have stopped roaming the Earth after the fall of the Aztec empire. In some traditions she and her consort, the god Piltzintecuhtli, spawned the race of giants that were the inhabitants of the First World.
8. MICTLANTECUHTLI – The god who ruled over Mictlan, the tranquil and silent, yet odorous the Aztec myths say, land of the dead. When impending disasters were foretold by priests and sorcerors Aztec emperors would send the skins of flayed men to Mictlantecuhtli as tribute in hopes of averting those disasters.
After the destruction of the fourth previous world the god Quetzalcoatl journeyed to Mictlan to obtain the bones of previous generations of humanity in order to create people anew. Mictlantecuhtli subjected him to various trials first, and eventually, to circumvent Mictlantecuhtli’s continued resistance, the Big Q simply made off with the bones through trickery.
Fierce winds barred the living from entering Mictlan, winds that were strong enough to peel all the skin off the body, leaving only bones. Mictlantecuhtli and his wife, the goddess Mictecacihuatl, were the parents of the monstrous Cipactli also called Tlaltecuhtli, who was slain by Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl.
When those two deities tore the hermaphroditic creature in two, the female aspect became Coatlicue, the Earth goddess, while the male aspect became Mixcoatl, the sky god personified as the Milky Way.
7. TLAZOLTEOTL – The goddess of lust and licentiousness and all excessive sensual indulgence, which was often likened by the Aztecs to wallowing in filth, and for that reason she was said to consume human excrement at times, causing her perpetually black- tinted lips. (New fecal matter lipstick, from Mary Kay!) Tlazolteotl once helped the sorcery god Tezcatlipoca vanquish his arch-rival the wind god Quetzalcoatl by seducing the Big Q into a life of debauchery.
The Aztecs maintained a corps of prostitutes who were all devotees of the goddess (shades of Ishtar in Sumerian myths) and they were periodically unleashed en masse on the soldiers as a collective reward to help preserve the fanaticism of the warriors. After these mass orgies the ladies were all ceremonially killed. Tlazolteotl was also associated with witchcraft and the purification of sin. The gulf coast region of Huaxteca was the center of her worship.
6. TONATIUH – The sun god of this, the fifth world, and formerly a god of leprosy named Nanahuatzin, who himself suffered from the disease he was the patron of. The four previous worlds in Aztec myths all had their own separate sun gods and those previous worlds had all been destroyed, their suns with them. When the assembled deities of the Aztec pantheon were setting out to create the fifth and current world they needed a volunteer to jump into the mystic, ceremonial flames which would ignite that deity as the new sun god.
Both the humble and diseased Nanahuatzin and the haughty wealth god Tecciztecatl volunteered so they were set various tasks to see who would have the “honor” of spending the rest of their existence as a raging inferno. The meek Nanahuatzin always outdid the arrogant Tecciztecatl, who even chickened out at the thought of leaping into the sacrificial flames. Nanahuatzin stoically threw himself into them, was ignited as the new sun and was renamed Tonatiuh.
The shamed Tecciztecatl now threw himself into what few embers still burned and was ignited as the much milder moon and was not renamed. Eagles are associated with Tonatiuh as jaguars are associated with Tecciztecatl and those two animals were the symbols of the two military orders of the ancient Aztecs.
5. CHALCHIHUITLICUE – The goddess of lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean. She was also the patron goddess of birth, with the newly-born being soon after immersed in her waters to “cleanse” them. The diseased would often pray to Chalchihuitlicue for a cure before bathing in a body of water asking the goddess to wash away their illness.
She was also considered the goddess of whirlpools, which the tectonics under Mesoamerica made fairly frequent back then. At Lake Texcoco in Pantitlan there was long ago a much more active whirlpool that the Aztecs would periodically sacrifice a young woman to in honor of Chalchihuitlicue.
The goddess wore a dress adorned with water lilies and a 200 ton statue of her was unearthed in what is now Mexico City. In various versions of Aztec myths Chalchihuitlicue is depicted as either the wife, sister or mother of Tlaloc, the rain god of the Aztecs and ruler of the Earthly paradise called Tlalocan. This paradise welcomed the souls of those people who were killed by lightning, drowning, leprosy and contagious diseases. Tlaloc controlled the rains, clouds and lightning.
4. COATLICUE – The Earth goddess and mother of Huitzilopochtli, the figure who was both the god of war and the national deity of the Aztecs. Unlike most Earth deities who are depicted in fairly benign ways, Coatlicue was portrayed wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and wearing a necklace of human hearts and hands adorned with a skull pendant. Her hands and feet had sharp, long claws and her breasts were depicted as flabby. Coatlicue fed on human flesh, symbolizing the Earth as the devouring grave at the end of our lives.
The reverence the Aztecs felt for this goddess is exemplified by their rejection of the notion that anyone could “own” patches of land. Officials would designate that a particular area had been cultivated by one family for long enough and the patch would be left fallow or passed on to others. One day Coatlicue discovered a beautiful ball of feathers and tucked it into her skirt.
The feathers entered her womb and impregnated her. When her four hundred sons suspected her of being unfaithful to their father, the god Mixcoatl, they attempted to slay her. Coatlicue was saved by Huitzilopochtli springing from her womb, fully clothed and armed, and who then slew the four hundred sons, or Centzonhuitnahua.
3. HUITZILOPOCHTLI – The god of war and also the national god of the Aztecs, in the way the god Marduk was for the Babylonians. Huitzilopochtli was possibly the only purely Aztec god, since those people inherited most of their other deities from their forerunners, the Toltecs and the Olmecs.
This god’s mother, the Earth goddess Coatlicue, was impregnated by a ball of feathers, which odd story convinced her four hundred sons by the sky god Mixcoatl (personified as the Milky Way) that she had been unfaithful to their father. The sons set out to kill Coatlicue for this insult, led by their sister Coyolxauhqui, though some versions say Coyolxauhqui was instead running to warn her mother of the impending attack. Huitzilopochtli sprang from his mother’s womb fully clothed and armed and slaughtered the four hundred sons as well as Coyolxauhqui.
To honor these other children of his mother Huitzilopochtli cast the four hundred sons, who were the four hundred pulque gods of the Aztecs, into the sky as stars. He cast Coyolxauhqui into the sky with her father Mixcoatl as well, but various versions say he made her either the Big Dipper or the planet Venus, replacing that body’s previous association with Quetzalcoatl. Long-held contentions that he made her the moon have now been rejected.
Huitzilopochtli next personally led the Aztec people in a war of conquest, defeating all rival powers and absorbing them into their empire, sort of like the Shinto storm god Susanowo leading the ancient Japanese in a war against the Three Kingdoms of Korea.
At any rate, this epic task was complicated by repeated opposition from his half sister, the beautiful goddess Malinalxochi, another disgruntled child of his mother by Mixcoatl. Malinalxochi, the goddess of scorpions, bees and all other stinging arachnids and insects, did everything in her power to thwart her half-brother and slow the expansion of the Aztecs’ military and commercial influence.
2. TEZCATLIPOCA – The god of sorcery and human sacrifice as well as the patron deity of thieves and other evildoers. Tezcatlipoca was originally also a war god but his martial attributes were later taken over by Huitzilopochtli. Many myths about Tezcatlipoca involve his conflicts with the wind and culture god Quetzelcoatl, conflicts that even caused the destruction of two of the previous worlds.
The First World was peopled by giants and was ruled over by Tezcatlipoca. After centuries of intermittent warfare between the two deities Quetzalcoatl at last succeeded in overthrowing Tezcatlipoca, who chose to destroy the world rather than cede it to his archrival. He did this by creating countless giant jaguars who devoured all of the giants and other life forms and then devouring each other.
The Second World was populated by monkey-type humanoids and was ruled over by Quetzalcoatl. Eventually, Tezcatlipoca overthrew the Big Q, who likewise preferred to destroy the world rather than see it ruled by the Big T. He destroyed that world with a massive global windstorm of unprecedented proportions.
The Third World, populated by “conventional” human beings, was ruled over by the god Tlaloc until Quetzalcoatl destroyed it with a rain of volcanic ash and fire and transformed the survivors into turkeys (?). The Fourth World was similarly populated and was ruled over by the goddess Chalchihuilicue. Tezcatlipoca engineered the destruction of that world by a flood and transformed the submerged people into fish.
The Big T tried to get a head start on ruling over the world that would be created next by saving a man and a woman, Tata and Nene, from the flood by hiding them in a giant, hollow tree. (Sort of a hybrid of the Noah story and the tale of Lif and Lifthrasir in Norse myths)
Tezcatlipoca ordered the couple to stay hidden and eat only uncooked food until all the waters had receded and they could repopulate the world with a race that would worship only him. Tata and Nene disobeyed, cooking some fish they caught. The smoke drew the attention of the other gods, who caught on to the Big T’s plan, prompting him to angrily transform the couple into the first dogs.
Tezcatlipoca introduced the concept of human sacrifice into our world, the Fifth World. If you’re wondering, it was foretold that our world will be destroyed by famine and earthquakes.
1. QUETZALCOATL – This wind and culture deity also had solar aspects and was considered “the handsomest and most loved of all the gods”. Though wind deities are considered minor in some pantheons the Aztecs considered the wind the source of all movement and the breath of life, similar to the exalted status the Inuit accorded to the god Sila.
Quetzalcoatl taught the ancient inhabitants of the world about calendars, agriculture, minerology, astronomy, religious doctrines and forms of worship. At the dawn of time the Big Q and his eventual rival Tezcatlipoca worked together to destroy the immense monster Tlaltecuhtli, fashioning the Earth out of part of her corpse and the sky out of the other part (similar to Marduk creating the Earth and sky from the remains of the primordial serpent Tiamat, or Odin and his brothers creating the Earth and sky from the remains of Ymir the frost giant).
After Tonatiuh became the Fifth World’s new sun, Quetzalcoatl set it in motion with a blast of wind, but soon the scorching Tonatiuh’s thirst brought him to a stop again. Since human blood alone could quench Tonatiuh’s thirst Tezcatlipoca suggested that a new race of people be created to be the slaves of the gods (like in Sumerian myths) and to be used as large-scale sacrifices to slake the sun’s thirst and keep it moving.
To create the new race for the Fifth World the bones of the previous inhabitants were needed. Since the Big Q, as the wind god, was the only one who could overcome the winds that barred the living from Mictlan, he went to the land of the dead.
Obtaining the needed bones he ground them into powder and mixed them with his own blood to create Oxomoco and Cipactonal, which may sound like prescription drugs but were really the first man and woman of this new world.
Among Quetzalcoatl’s other deeds were stealing maize from the ants to give to humans, creating the first bats and instituting the drinking of the intoxicating drink called pulque. He did this by causing the first maguey plants to grow from the remains of his lover, the goddess Mayahuel. The fermented, milky white sap of those plants makes the sacred drink pulque.
Eventually Tezcatlipoca used the goddess Tlazolteotl to lure Quetzalcoatl into a life of debauchery, causing his downfall. The Aztecs said the god would return one day, and the story of them mistaking Cortez for the returned Big Q is too well known to need rehashing here.
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