Tezcatlipoca: How Does the Supreme God of the Aztecs Compare to Other Omnipotent Deities?

Tezcatlipoca: How Does the Supreme God of the Aztecs Compare to Other Omnipotent Deities?

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The god Tezcatlipoca was a major Aztec deity who was worshiped in east-west facing temples in many Mesoamerican city-states under the influence of the Aztecs, particularly Texcoco. He was considered the patron god of warriors. Among other things, he was also the god of the night sky and the direction north. Owing to Aztec dualism, Tezcatlipoca was associated with both good things such a beauty and effective governance, and bad things such as death and chaos.

Other Mesoamerican cultures considered Tezcatlipoca to be the supreme being and thought that all other deities were lesser manifestations of him. This reflects a pattern across several cultures including the Inca, ancient Chinese, Hindus, and others with an independent emergence of a concept of a supreme all-powerful deity. The concept of a single all-powerful, all-knowing supreme being was surprisingly common in antiquity.

An artist’s depiction of Tezcatlipoca.

An artist’s depiction of Tezcatlipoca. (Mauricio Herrera/ CC BY 3.0 )

The Four Tezcatlipoca

There were actually four beings called Tezcatlipoca in Aztec mythology who were all the divine children of Ometeotl: The White Tezcatlipoca was Quetzalcoatl, the Black Tezcatlipoca was the one identified as just Tezcatlipoca, the Blue Tezcatlipoca was the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli, and the Red Tezcatlipoca was also called Xipe Totec.

Tezcatlipoca is often depicted as black with a yellow stripe across his face and a smoking mirror for a foot. This is probably one of the reasons that another name for Tezcatlipoca is the “Smoking Mirror.” According to the Aztec creation myth, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl cooperated in creating the present world when they defeated the earth mother monster Tlatcuhtli and different parts of her body became different aspects of the universe.

For example, her hair became trees and flowers and her eyes and nose became springs and underground caves. Four worlds had already passed by this point. Tezcatlipoca had originally been the first sun. He was however struck down by Quetzalcoatl who thought that he deserved to be the sun. This began a continuous conflict between Tezcatlipoca and his rival Quetzalcoatl until they finally agreed to cooperate in creating the present world. This may reflect the fact the Tezcatlipoca was essentially a god of conflict. He is described by scholars of Aztec religion as the embodiment of violent change. 

Quetzalcoatl (left) and Tezcatlipoca (right).

Quetzalcoatl (left) and Tezcatlipoca (right). ( Public Domain )

Tezcatlipoca was a multifaceted god. He was the god of the aristocracy, feasts, and the protector of warriors. At the same time, he was the god of night, death, and sorcery. He was not considered good or evil and was in general hard to figure out even for the people who worshiped him. One thing that was certain about Tezcatlipoca, however, was that there was no escaping his influence.

Another name for Tezcatlipoca was Titlacauan meaning “we are his slaves.” Yet another name for Tezcatlipoca was “Lord of the Near and Far” indicating that Tezcatlipoca had power over everything and everyone that existed. He was omnipotent and all-seeing, nothing could escape the attention of Tezcatlipoca.

A turquoise mask representing the god Tezcatlipoca. The base for this mask is a human skull. Mixtec-Aztec (1400-1521).

A turquoise mask representing the god Tezcatlipoca. The base for this mask is a human skull. Mixtec-Aztec (1400-1521). ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

It makes sense considering the attributes of this deity that some surrounding Mesoamerican cultures took him to be the supreme all-powerful being behind all other gods. This appears to make Tezcatlipoca the Mesoamerican equivalent to similar supreme beings worshiped in other cultures and religions. Three particularly interesting parallels are the sky god of the Inca, the Hindu Brahman, and the Chinese deity Shangdi. This also has obvious parallels to the Judeo-Christian God - though there are also important differences.

Tezcatlipoca "Lord of the Night Winds."

Tezcatlipoca "Lord of the Night Winds." ( Public Domain )

Sky Gods

The Inca, for example, have typically been thought of as primarily polytheistic in their religious inclinations by scholars. However, some scholars, such as Conrad (1992), have pointed out that the Incas were not strictly polytheistic. Their sun-god Inti, for example, was believed to be a manifestation of a larger divine complex which manifested itself through a number of deities depending on the situation. It might manifest itself as a sky god, a sun god, or perhaps a water god, but all these entities were manifestations of the same being - who was originally a type of sky and weather god. This is very similar to Tezcatlipoca in Mesoamerica.

Argentina, 8 gold escudos depicting the sun-god Inti.

Argentina, 8 gold escudos depicting the sun-god Inti. ( Public Domain )

Hindu’s Brahman

In Hinduism, Brahman is the supreme deity who manifests himself through lesser deities. It is commonly thought that Hinduism is polytheistic, but there is in fact one god in Hinduism that is expressed through countless lesser deities. This is also similar to the idea of Tezcatlipoca being a supreme god of whom all other deities are a lesser manifestation. One difference though is that the entire universe itself is merely an aspect of Brahman in Hinduism, whereas this does not appear to be the case in Aztec cosmology.

Comments

(I am curious to see what comments others have, but I forgot to check the box. So I am doing so on this comment.)

Fascinating! I had not run across this concept of the Smoking Mirror being a multitude of gods and goddesses that were one - definitely an intriguing comparison. The comparison to Brahman is especially apt. The Judeo-Christian YHVH acknowledges the existence of unrelated deities of course, but forbids His followers from acknowledging them, no doubt the important difference referred to in the article.

Me personally, I probably would have speculated that human laziness is what leads to the gods merging into one omnipotent abstract concept, that and the desire of the rulers to have their patron deity be all-powerful to justify them being all-powerful. (Although in truth, the potence of any deity is really just a pale reflection of the power of its believers.)

I enjoyed this read immensely, and plan to save it for later re-reading. Thank you for sharing this!

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