Tlaltecuhtli: Fearsome Fertility Goddess of the Aztecs
Tlaltecuhtli was a Mesoamerican earth goddess predominantly worshiped by the Aztec people. In most religions, fertility goddesses are depicted as the culture's epitome of beauty, like Aphrodite of ancient Greece or Venus of ancient Rome. The Aztecs took a different approach, however. Tlaltecuhtli was a terrible monster that was responsible for all life, but paradoxically, could only be satiated by human sacrifice.
Tlaltecuhtli and the Aztec Creation Myth
The Aztec creation myth is not a pretty one. The creation myth featuring Tlaltecuhtli dates back to the Late Post-Classic period (13th-16th century AD). In Aztec mythology , four worlds had existed before ours, each wiped out by a great flood . It was believed that ours was the fifth and final world.
Tlaltecuhtli was a great sea monster deity that lived in the oceans created by the fourth great flood. She was described as having the skin of a crocodile, huge sharp fangs, and gaping mouths at her elbows and knees. Tlaltecuhtli floated in the ocean crying out for flesh to devour. Sadly for her, being between rounds of creation meant there were no tasty mortals to snack on.
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A massive Tlaltecuhtli monolith was discovered at the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan in 2018. Approximately 13.1 x 11.8 feet (4 x 3.6 meters) and nearly 12 tons, it is one of the largest Aztec monoliths ever discovered. This annotated image notes Tlaltecuhtli’s typical features. (Alliegiordano / CC BY SA 4.0 )
One day, the gods Quetzacoatl (a creator deity) and Tezcatlipoca (another major deity) came down from the heavens in the form of snakes. They soon came across Tlaltecuhtli and realized that the fifth cosmos would never prosper with such a terrible monster in existence. So the two gods decided to destroy her.
To coax Tlaltecuhtli out of the water, Tezcatlipoca used his foot as bait. When the goddess came out of the water and bit down on his foot, a great battle ensued. During the ensuing melee, Tezcatlipoca lost his foot and Tlaltecuhtli lost her jaw, preventing her from retreating into the waters.
Ultimately, Quetzacoatl and Tezcatlipoca prevailed, ripping Tlaltecuhtli in two. From her upper half, the sky was formed, and her lower half became the earth. It should be noted at this point that Tlaltecuhtli was not killed by her dismemberment.
The other gods were not pleased. As monstrous as she appeared, Tlaltecuhtli was still a god, and they were unhappy with how she had been treated. They decreed that none of Tlaltecuhtli would go to waste.
The features of the new world were crafted from her mutilated body parts. Her crocodile skin became grass, flowers, and herbs. Her eyes transformed into springs and wells. From her nose were created lesser mountains and valleys. Her shoulders became the tallest mountains, and cave and rivers were born from her mouth.
Being ripped in half, dismembered, and molded into a planet still wasn’t enough to kill Tlaltecuhtli. It only served to anger her. She demanded human blood as payment for her sacrifice. The Mesoamericans believed any strange sounds coming from the earth were Tlaltecuhtli either calling for blood or wailing in agony.
The Worship of Tlaltecuhtli
The Mesoamericans believed that Tlaltecuhtli’s hunger for human blood and hearts was insatiable. Despite her monstrous nature, Tlaltecuhtli was also believed to be the source of all life on earth. They feared that if Tlaltecuhtli’s hunger were not satisfied, she would withdraw her nourishment from the earth, causing mass famines.
It was also believed her limitless hunger caused her to swallow the sun every evening, before regurgitating it every morning. The Aztecs feared that if she was angered she would interrupt the cycle of day and night by refusing to swallow the sun. In Aztec mythology, any disruption of the cycle spelled doom.
To keep Tlaltecuhtli happy, the Aztecs offered her a healthy supply of human hearts . Events like solar eclipses would cause uneasiness and result in an increase in the number and frequency of sacrifices being made to Tlaltecuhtli.
Not everything to do with Tlaltecuhtli was all blood and gore. Through her role as a life-giver, she was also seen as a fertility goddess . A difficult birth was believed to be the result of an ‘infant warrior’ attempting to kill his mother during labor. Midwives would pray to Tlaltecuhtli during such births, asking for her help.
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After several years of excavation and restoration, the Tlaltectuhtli monolith can be seen on display at the Museum of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. ( Public Domain )
The Tlaltecuhtli Gender Debate
Over the years, there has been a great deal of debate as to whether Tlaltecuhtli was even female. The confusion comes from her name. Tlaltecuhtli can be broken down into two parts. Tlal- simply means earth while -tecuhtli directly translates as lord. Put the two together and the translation is “Earth Lord”, which would indicate that Tlaltecuhtli is a male name.
However, -techutli is actually an ungendered word. Lord is just a rough translation; a better translation would be ‘noble’. This means that while the name can appear masculine, it's likely just a result of rough translation and confusion resulting from how some words were gendered.
Tlaltecuhtli is generally shown with female characteristics and wearing feminine clothing. The Aztecs typically portrayed her as a female, and several sources refer to Tlaltecuhtli as a goddess. She is also frequently depicted in a position called the hocker (birth-giving squat).
Feminine anthropomorphism of Tlaltecuhtli in the Codex Tudela (circa 1540), wearing a women's huipil tunic (Pestocavatappi / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
To add to the confusion, Tlaltecuhtli was sometimes depicted as a man wearing masculine clothes. Some scholars have also claimed that the hocker squat is just a male Tlaltecuhtli squatting under the earth, waiting to feed on the dead.
Masculine anthropomorphism of Tlaltecuhtli found in Tenochtitlan (ca. 1500), wearing a male maxtlatl facemask (Pestocavatappi / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Most evidence points to Tlaltecuhtli being a female deity that occasionally had a male aspect. This has led some scholars to argue that Tlaltecuhtli was dual-gendered, like some other primordial Mesoamerican deities. We’ll probably never know, for sure but this interpretation makes sense.
Tlaltecuhtli was one of the most important deities in the Aztec pantheon . Without her, there could be no life on earth and the fifth cosmos would have never existed. This is reflected in the way the Mesoamericans made human sacrifices to her. Yet despite being responsible for all life on earth, Tlaltecuhtli was never seen as a mother figure. It seems likely the midwives' prayers to her probably fell on deaf ears.
The Aztec people had bloody relationships with their gods, and this is perfectly reflected in their worship of Tlaltecuhtli. The Greek and Roman gods demanded sacrifice as a show of love and adoration, but Tlaltecuhtli demanded human sacrifice because she was hungry.
Top Image: A modern depiction of the Aztec fertility goddess Tlaltecuhtli. Source: Public Domain
By Robbie Mitchell
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