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The Aztec calendar. Source: javier_garcia / Adobe Stock.

Sacrifice and Destruction: The Apocalyptic Aztec Creation Myths


Many ancient cultures around the world have their own creation myth to explain their origins, and how the universe came into being. But few are as vivid, or as apocalyptic as the creation myth of the Aztecs. This myth has been referred to as the “Five Suns” wherein the world is created and destroyed again and again.

As the name given to this myth suggests, the current world is the fifth one, preceded by four cycles of creation and destruction. Whilst the Aztecs believed that we are now living in the fifth cycle of creation, they also believed that destruction would ensue if they neglected their duty of nourishing the sun god.

Different Accounts

Before going into the details of the Aztec creation myth itself, it should be mentioned that there are various versions of the story. In some instances, these different versions even contradict one another. One of the reasons behind the multiple versions of the myth is the way it was transmitted. Since the creation myth was originally passed down orally, different versions emerged. Another reason for this is that the Aztecs incorporated the gods and myths of the peoples they encountered and conquered, thereby modifying the myth.

Interestingly, the Aztec creation myth shares similarities with that of the Maya, which is found in the  Popol Vuh, their foundational sacred narrative. For instance, both creation myths are cyclical in nature, though the Maya version has four, instead of five, cycles. It may be added that although both myths are cyclical, each cycle is not a mere repetition of the previous one, but rather, an improvement.

The Mayan “Hero Twins” of the Popol Vuh show clear parallels with Aztec mythology (Lacambalam / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Mayan “Hero Twins” of the Popol Vuh  show clear parallels with Aztec mythology (Lacambalam / CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is believed that the Aztec and Maya creation myths share a common source, and the former has been used to shed light on the latter. A key reason for this is that the Aztec creation myth is much more complete, whereas the Maya one has survived only in fragments.  

The Aztec Pantheon

The Aztec creation myth begins with a pair of creator gods known collectively as Ometecuhtl (meaning ‘Two Lords’ in the Aztec language of Nahuatl). Ometecuhtl consisted of Ometecuhtli, the male deity, and Omecihuatl, his female counterpart. The pair of gods are known also as Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl.

The Aztecs believed that Ometecuhtl resided in Omeyocan (meaning ‘Two Place’ or ‘Double Heaven’), the 13th and highest heaven in the belief system of the Aztecs. Incidentally, Ometecuhtl was the only Aztec deity with neither a temple dedicated to him, nor any formal cult in his name. Apparently, the Aztecs reasoned that since the deity lived so far away from them, he would never interact with them directly. In spite of Ometecuhtl’s remoteness, the Aztecs believed that he was omnipresent, being in every act of ritual, and in every rhythm of nature.

Ometecuhtl (Unknown Author / Public Domain)

Ometecuhtl (Unknown Author / Public Domain)

According to the Aztec creation myth, Ometecuhtl created themself, after which, being both male and female, the god produced four children – Huizilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec. These four gods represented, amongst other things, the four cardinal directions – south, east, west, and north, respectively.

Gods and Monsters

These four gods existed for some time, 600 years, according to one version of the myth, before they began to create the universe. They created cosmic time, the world, and all the other deities.

In one version of the myth, the four gods created a giant sea monster called Cipactli, which was part crocodile and part fish. As the children of Ometecuhtl continued to create the universe, this great monster became a source of trouble. Cipactli lived in the water, and had an insatiable appetite. For one reason or another, the creations of the gods would fall into the water, and they inevitably ended up being devoured by Cipactli.

Cipactli (Giggette / Public Domain)

Cipactli (Giggette / Public Domain)

Eventually, the four gods decided that enough was enough, and went to war with the sea monster. Cipactli was pulled in four directions, but fought back violently. In the end, however, the ferocious monster was defeated, and destroyed.

The Creation of the Universe

Subsequently, the gods used Cipactli’s corpse to create the universe. The 13 heavens were created on the monster’s head, the earth on its body, and the nine underworlds along its tail. Incidentally, this story resembles the Mesopotamian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, in which the latter was slain by the former, and her corpse used to create the universe.

The creation of the universe from the corpse of Cipactli is not only part of the Aztec creation story, but also illustrated the Aztec world view, which the Aztecs depicted in their art. The Aztecs believed that the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan occupied the centre of the universe. The Cipactli myth indicates that the earth is sandwiched in between the heavens and the underworld. On the earthly level, the Aztecs believed that universe spread out in four directions from the Temple Mayor.

Reconstruction of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, Mexico City (Wolfgang Sauberderivative / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reconstruction of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, Mexico City (Wolfgang Sauberderivative / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Aztec creation myth, however, does not end with the slaying of Cipactli. Although the universe was created from the sea monster’s corpse, it was still incomplete, and required a source of energy. For the Aztecs, this was the sun.

The sun, however, was such a powerful entity could not simply be created by the gods. Instead, a sacrifice had to be made in order for the sun to be created. Therefore, Tezcatlipoca sacrificed himself by jumping into a fire, thus creating the First Sun, also called “4 Jaguar”. For one reason or another, Tezcatlipoca was only able to produce half a sun, resulting in an incomplete creation.

Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl

Tezcatlipoca was a major Aztec deity, whose name translates to mean “Smoking Mirror”. He was regarded as the god of magic and night, as well as the patron deity of kings and young warriors. Tezcatlipoca’s arch-rival was Quetzalcoatl, and a quarrel between these two gods ultimately led to the end of the age of the First Sun.

Carving of Quetzalcoatl at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan (Janice Waltzer / CC BY 2.0)

Carving of Quetzalcoatl at the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan (Janice Waltzer / CC BY 2.0)

During this first cycle of creation, the gods made the first humans out of ash. These people, however, were giants, and the Aztecs believed that they ate only acorns.

According to the myth, the first cycle of creation lasted a total of 676 years, and came to an end when a fight broke out between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl. It seems that the latter wanted to replace the former as the sun. As a result of the fight, the sun was knocked out from the sky, which infuriated Tezcatlipoca. Therefore, the god sent jaguars, the animal most associated with Tezcatlipoca, to devour the giants.

After the destruction of the giants, Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself by leaping into a fire, and becoming the Second Sun, also called “4 Wind”. Quetzalcoatl, whose name means “Feathered / Plumed Serpent”, is arguably one of the best-known deities of the Aztec pantheon. Quetzalcoatl was a pan-Mesoamerican deity, and he was worshipped (though under different names) by other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Maya, and the Toltecs.

Quetzalcoatl was most associated with the wind, and worshipped as the patron god of the arts and knowledge. The Aztecs also believed that Quetzalcoatl was the deity who loved humans the most, and there are numerous myths about how he helped humanity.

The Creation of Man

During the age of the Second Sun, regular-sized humans were created. The people of this age subsisted on pine nuts, and according to one version of the myth, the age of the Second Sun was initially peaceful. In time, however, the humans became corrupt, and were turned into monkeys by Tezcatlipoca, perhaps as revenge for what Quetzalcoatl had done to him. This angered Quetzalcoatl, who sent a hurricane to destroy the monkeys.

According to another version of the myth, Tezcatlipoca longed to become the sun again. Therefore, he transformed himself into a jaguar, and cast Quetzalcoatl off his throne. In retaliation, Quetzalcoatl sent floods and hurricanes to destroy the world. Some humans were able to escape from this destruction by climbing to the top of trees, and these survivors were then turned into monkeys. Like the First Sun, this age also lasted 676 years.

Tlaloc and the Third Sun

The god who became the next sun was Tlaloc, the Aztec god of the rains and fertility. This god was not one of the four sons of Ometecuhtl, but a very important deity, nonetheless. Like Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc was a god worshipped throughout Mesoamerica, as rain gods are found in many cultures of this region.

Tlaloc, the Rain God (Steven Zucker / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Tlaloc, the Rain God (Steven Zucker / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Additionally, it is thought that Tlaloc is one of the most ancient Mesoamerican gods, as his origins can be traced all the way back to the Olmecs, the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilisation. Amongst the Maya, Tlaloc was known as Chaac, whilst the Zapotecs called this god Cocijo.

The Third Sun was known also as “4 Rain”, and this age was dominated by rain. The people of this age ate seeds that grew in the water. According to one version of the myth, this world ended when Quetzalcoatl caused fire and ash to rain from the sky. Like the preceding age, there were some who managed to escape from the destruction of the world, and these survivors were transformed into turkeys, butterflies, or dogs.   

Another version of the myth blames Tezcatlipoca for the destruction of the third age. This version states that Tezcatlipoca abducted Xochiquetzal, Tlaloc’s wife. The god was grief-stricken, and decided to withhold the rains. Consequently, a drought ensued, causing much suffering.

Despite the pleas of the people, Tlaloc refused to allow the rains to fall. Finally, the furious Tlaloc caused fire, instead of rain, to fall, which engulfed the earth in flames, and brought this age to an end. The age of the Third Sun only lasted for 364 years.

Chalchiuhtlicue and the Fourth Sun

The Fourth Sun, known also as “4 Water”, was created by Chalchiuhtlicue, the sister of Tlaloc, and his second wife. Chalchiuhtlicue, whose name means ‘She of the Jade Skirt’, was worshipped as the goddess of the waters that collect on the earth, i.e. rivers, lakes, oceans, etc. In addition, she was the protectress of childbirths and newborns. The age of the Fourth Sun was one dominated by water, and its people ate maize.

The age of the Fourth Sun lasted 676 years, and ended with a great flood. According to the Aztec creation myth, both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl were jealous of Chalchiuhtlicue, and struck her down. As the goddess fell from her throne, the sky opened, and the earth was flooded. All things were destroyed once again, and the people were transformed into fishes.

The Fifth Cycle and the Two Suns

The Aztecs believed that after the fourth destruction of the world, the gods met at Teotihuacan to decide who amongst them would become the next sun. Curiously, none of the gods wanted to sacrifice themselves this time round. Finally, the proud Tecuciztecatl volunteered to jump into the fire. At the last moment, however, the god hesitated, and did not sacrifice himself.

In that moment of hesitation, another god, the humble Nanahuatzin, jumped into the flames, and became the sun. Tecuciztecatl felt ashamed of his cowardice, and jumped in after Nanahuatzin, thereby becoming a second sun.

The rabbit in the Moon (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The rabbit in the Moon (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The existence of two suns simultaneously, however, presented a dilemma to the other gods, as their combined energy would overwhelm the world. They solved this problem by throwing a rabbit at Tecuciztecatl’s face to dim the light, which turned the god into the Moon. According to the Aztecs, this is the reason why there is a rabbit in the moon today.

Another problem that the gods faced was the fact that Nanahuatzin was weak, and so the sun was motionless. Therefore, the rest of the gods gave him their blood to set him in motion. In another version of the myth, the sun was set in motion by Ehecatl, the god of the wind, who blew fiercely at it.

The Age We Live In Today

The Fifth Sun is known also as “4 Movement”, and is the age that we are living in today. The Aztecs believed that this age will be destroyed by a massive earthquake, and its people will be eaten by sky monsters. According to Aztec belief, the sun will disappear if it is not nourished by blood offerings and sacrifices, thereby leading to the end of the present age. Therefore, they believed that it was their duty to ensure the sun was nourished.

The Aztec “Stone of the Five Suns,” clockwise from bottom right: 4 Jaguar, 4 Wind, 4 Rain, 4 Water; 4 Movement in the center (Art Institute of Chicago / Public Domain)

The Aztec “Stone of the Five Suns,” clockwise from bottom right: 4 Jaguar, 4 Wind, 4 Rain, 4 Water; 4 Movement in the center (Art Institute of Chicago / Public Domain)

The Aztec creation myth provides some profound insights into the beliefs that this civilization had about the origins of the universe, embedded in the world they saw around them. Additionally, the myth shows us the key pressures on their civilization, as deified in the Aztec pantheon. And finally, the dangers the Aztecs felt in their environment, and their concerns about survival, help to explain what drove them to their more extreme rituals, for example, human sacrifice.

Top image: The Aztec calendar. Source: javier_garcia / Adobe Stock.                                           .

By Wu Mingren            


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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