Religion of the Aztecs: Keeping the Balance in an Unpredictable and Terrifying World
The Aztec Empire was the largest and most successful Mesoamerican empire in terms of size and demographics. It stretched across highlands, coastal plains, valleys, and forests. It is not surprising, as a result, that the Aztec religion was also very influential.
The Aztecs and Mesoamerican Civilization
The Aztec religion did not emerge in a vacuum. It emerged in the context of thousands of years of successive Mesoamerican civilizations including the Zapotecs of Monte Alban , Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Mixtecs.
Many Aztec religious beliefs were shared by the surrounding cultures. For example, the Feathered Serpent had already been worshiped for a millennium by cultures such as the people of Teotihuacan and the Toltecs. Most gods of the Aztec pantheon were also worshiped by other Mesoamerican cultures .
The Aztec Gods
The Aztecs, like other Mesoamerican cultures, were polytheistic. They believed that all aspects of nature, such as wind and rain, and all human activities, such as agriculture and warfare, had a patron deity.
Scholars of Aztec religion have divided the Aztec gods into three different categories. There were the cosmic or creator gods, the gods of agriculture, water, and fertility, and the gods of war and sacrifice.
The cosmic gods were responsible for the creation and maintenance of the major forces governing the universe. One of the main cosmic gods was Huehueteotl-Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire and seasons.
Seated stone figure of Huehueteotl-Xiuhtecuhtli, Aztec god of fire and seasons. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Huehueteotl-Xiuhtecuhtli represented the ability of the world to change and regenerate. He also was in charge of the seasons and other natural cycles responsible for regenerating and renewing the land.
Another important role that Huehueteotl-Xiuhtecuhtli had was creator of the sun. He was very important in ancient Mesoamerican religious traditions and representations of him first appear in the pre-Classic period of Mesoamerican history at archaeological sites, such as Cuicuilco.
Another important cosmic deity was Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror”, was said to be the god of night as well as the god of sorcery. He was believed by the Aztecs to be a god of justice who would punish evildoers.
Aztec Kings were considered to be his agents in this respect and would have to perform ceremonies in front of his image to establish their right to govern. In some Mesoamerican traditions, he was considered to be a supreme deity who was omnipotent and omniscient. He was a frightening figure who was the embodiment of nature itself.
Quetzalcoatl was another important god who was associated with the planet Venus. His name translates to “Feathered Serpent”. The Aztecs believed that he was the creator of humanity as well as the most human-friendly deity.
Aztec Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Xochicalco, adorned with a fully zoomorphic feathered serpent. (Giovanirvp / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
He was also considered to be the god of the arts and knowledge. Furthermore, he saved humanity at the beginning of the age of the fifth sun when he recovered their bones from the realm of the dead so that life could be restored to them.
The gods of war and sacrifice included Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun. Huitzilopochtli was the national god of the Aztecs. His name means “Hummingbird on the Left”.
Cosmology and the Aztecs
The Aztecs believed that the universe consisted of three levels connected by a central axis represented by the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. They believed that this central axis, or axis mundi , connected the underworld, the earth, and the heavens.
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Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. (Josué González / Public Domain )
The world known to humanity was called Tlaltipac. It was considered to be a disk in the middle of the universe. The underworld consisted of 9 levels. The heavenly realm consisted of 13 levels.
The Aztecs believed that the world consisted of relationships of opposites, the balance of which was necessary for the world to continue to function. These opposites included hot and cold, dry and wet, male and female, and light and dark.
This dualism was at the heart of the Aztec worldview. The Aztecs believed that that humans were responsible for maintaining a balance in the universe through their rituals and sacrifices.
Cosmogony and the Aztecs
The most common form of the Aztec creation myth says that, in the beginning, there was a void. The creator god was both male and female, light and dark, malevolent and benevolent. This god had four children, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec , and Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztecs believed that four ages had already passed and that they were currently living in the fifth age of the sun. In each age, a different god played the role of the sun and each age was associated with a different element.
During the first age of the sun, Tezcatlipoca was the sun. Tezcatlipoca was, however, unable to attain a certain level of brilliance and was only a half-sun.
Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was the sun during the first age. (Arquen / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
During this age, the world was inhabited by giants. There was a feud between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl and the giants were destroyed by a plague of jaguars. The element of this age was earth.
During the age of second sun, Quetzalcoatl was the sun and humans looked like the humans of today. These humans, however, grew corrupt and were eventually turned into monkeys as a curse.
Modern monkeys were believed to be their descendants. The second age of the sun came to an end with hurricanes being sent by Quetzalcoatl to destroy most of the monkeys. The ruling element of this age was air.
Sculpture of Aztec god Tlaloc in Mexico. (Rene G EG / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In revenge, Tlaloc turned the human inhabitants of the world into turkeys, dogs, and butterflies. This age of the world ended with fire reigning down from the skies at the command of Quetzalcoatl.
During the age of the fourth sun, Tlaloc’s sister, Calchiuhtlicue, was the ruling deity. The ruling element of this age was water.
During this age, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca became jealous and caused the sun to fall from the sky. This world ended with a flood and the humans of this age were turned into fish.
The fifth age of the sun is the current time, and the current sun is the god Nanahuatzin. At the beginning of the present age, the gods sacrificed themselves to make life possible.
Blood of the Gods and Human Sacrifice
The Aztecs believed that the gods had shed their blood to give the universe and humanity life. They believed that, as a result, humanity was indebted to the gods and had to repay the gods by shedding their own blood.
It was believed that if they did not shed their own blood that the universe would fall apart. Aztec warriors were exhorted to imitate the self-sacrifice of the gods by giving their own lives to keep the universe running.
The most effective way to provide fresh blood to keep the universe running and in balance was believed to be the sacrifice of a living human heart. For this reason, the hearts of warriors and other victims would be sacrificed at regular times throughout the year.
Aztec Ritual Calendar
The Aztecs, like many other Mesoamerican cultures, were very keen astronomers. The knowledge of astronomical cycles was important for telling time for the purposes of agriculture as well as civic and religious events.
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Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire and of the calendar in the center and the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree. (Giggette / Public Domain )
The Aztec calendar consisted of a 260-day ritual cycle and a 365-day calendrical cycle. The pattern of 260 days comes from the observation by ancient Mesoamerican astronomer-priests that the sun reached a zenith point over the Mayan city of Copan once every 260 days.
The ritual calendar consisted of 20 periods of 13 days. Rituals and festivals to each of the major gods were spread throughout the 260-day period.
The 365-day calendar was based on the solar year. It was primarily used for agriculture since it more closely followed the seasons. It was divided into 18 periods of 20 days each, making 360 days.
The last 5 days of the year were considered to be a transitional period which was used for religious festivals. Every 52 years, the solar calendar and the ritual calendar aligned. At this time, a 12-day festival would take place. At the beginning of the 12-day festival all fires would be extinguished.
The next 12 days would be a period of fasting in the city. At the end of the fasting period, a prisoner would be sacrificed, and the ceremonial fire would be re-lit. This ceremony was used to signify that the sun would continue to rise for the next 52 years.
The Mesoamerican temple complex usually consisted of a raised platform or pyramid with a temple located on the highest level of the platform. At the base of the platform or pyramid would be plazas, esplanades, and an alter platform.
These open spaces would be adjacent to a staircase that would lead up to the entrance to the temple. The earliest examples of this architectural style date to the Olmec period around 1200 to 900 BC.
After 600 BC, the style was exported across Mesoamerica and remained the standard architectural style for temples until the arrival of the Spanish. Worship was typically conducted outdoors and the temple itself could be rather small which apparently did not take away from its sacred character.
The Aztecs normally used prisoners of war for human sacrifice . The victims were told that they were very brave if they cooperated.
The Aztecs believed that the destruction of the world by earthquakes was just around the corner. Blood sacrifices kept it going just a little longer. If they did not continue to offer sacrifices to the gods, the sun would not rise, and the world would end.
Typically, victims would be brought to the altar where they would be held down by four priests. An official would then rip out the victim’s heart from his chest and the heart would be sacrificed on the altar. The victim’s body would then be pushed or carried down the steps of the temple, depending on the bravery and nobility of the victim.
The number of victims sacrificed depended on the occasion and the severity of the sacrifice. Sometimes only one victim was sacrificed. In other cases, however, thousands might be sacrificed.
Because of the constant need for sacrifices, the Aztecs engaged in ritual battles with the specific intention of capturing victims for human sacrifice. These wars were referred to as flower wars . One group which they regularly waged flower wars against was the Tlaxcala.
Aztec Religion - More Than Just Sacrifices
The Aztec religion is typically remembered for human sacrifice . Other aspects of Mesoamerican religion, such as the deep connection to natural cycles, tend to get left out in discussions of the topic. The reason that these blood sacrifices were performed is because they were believed to keep the opposing forces governing the universe balanced.
The Aztecs also valued learning and the arts. One of the most important gods of the Mesoamerican pantheon out of those previously mentioned was Quetzalcoatl. He taught humanity how to use the natural world to improve their situation through technology. Being able to use nature for art and agriculture requires knowing something about the natural world. In this way, Quetzalcoatl was similar to Prometheus in Greek mythology.
It is possible that had Mesoamerican culture been allowed to continue for a few more centuries, ideas about Quetzalcoatl may have led to a Mesoamerican version of the scientific awakening that happened in Ionia on the eastern shores of the Aegean and around 500-400 BC, when the pre-Socratic philosophers became the first westerners to think about science and the material origins of the world.
There are certainly many aspects of the ancient Aztec religion which are not compatible with the modern world, such as human sacrifice, but there are other aspects of the Aztec religion which could enrich the modern world. It seems that Aztec philosophy and religion were more complex and sophisticated than they are often portrayed.
Top image: Man invokes the gods on top of Aztec pyramid. PauDelacó / Adobe Stock
By Caleb Strom
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