Tezcatlipoca: How Does the Supreme God of the Aztecs Compare to Other Omnipotent Deities?
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. (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). ( 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). ( 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." ( Public Domain )
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. ( Public Domain )
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.
In Puranic mythology, Brahma emerges from a lotus risen from Vishnu's navel while he rests on the serpent Shesha. ( Public Domain )
The Chinese Deity Shangdi
Another example is the Chinese supreme deity, Shangdi, who was even identified by early Christian missionaries with the monotheistic Christian God and used by many Chinese Christians to refer to him. During the Shang dynasty in China, Shangdi was considered to be the supreme lord of the universe. It is not clear if he was considered the creator of the universe, but he does not appear to have had a beginning or end. He was considered lord over all humanity, Chinese or non-Chinese, and had control over nature. Interestingly, he was also never represented with a physical image. During the Zhou dynasty he began to be conflated with the more abstract concept of Heaven, “Tian.” The ancient Chinese were not strictly monotheistic and did believe in other gods besides Shangdi.
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Sacred altar at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Unlike these other gods though, Shangdi had no creator and appears to have been transcendent and eternal. Unlike Brahman or Shangdi, Tezcatlipoca was not considered to be eternal. He did, however, seem to be on the verge of attaining the status of a supreme deity and had Mesoamerican civilization been allowed to persist a little longer, there may have emerged something very similar to what took place in ancient India, China, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Spanish missionaries, when they attempted to convert the Mesoamerican peoples to Christianity, even identified Tezcatlipoca with the Christian God to adapt Christianity to the native culture because Tezcatlipoca, like Yahweh, was considered to be omnipotent.
Belief in a supreme being appears to have emerged independently in Mesoamerica, the Andes, India, China, the Middle East (Judaism and Zoroastrianism) and the Greco-Roman world (Christianity). The ubiquity of this concept suggests that there is something about it that resonates with human thought. It is possible that just as common moral principles of have developed across cultures, such as the ethic of reciprocity, something about human nature has led to the widespread belief in a supreme being.
Top image: Tezcatlipoca with all 20 day signs, symbolizing the divine calendar Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
“Hinduism and the Belief in one God” by Jayaram V (N.D.). Hinduwebsite.com. Available at: http://www.hinduwebsite.com/onegod.asp
“Names for ‘God’: Shang Di” by Dr. G. Wright Doyle (2014). Global China Center. Available at: http://www.globalchinacenter.org/analysis/articles/names-for-god-shang-di.php
Conrad, Geoffrey W. "Inca imperialism: the great simplification and the accident of empire." Ideology and Pre-Columbian Civilization (1992): 159-74.
Curcio-Nagy, Linda A. Faith and Morals in Colonial Mexico . na, 2000.
“Tezcatlipoca.” Aztec Calendar. Available at: https://www.azteccalendar.com/god/Tezcatlipoca.html
(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!