Aztec Religion.

Cuauhxicalli Stone

Aztec Religion

Religion permeated every echelon of Aztec society and life:

"The central part of life for any Aztec citizen, man or woman, was religion. For example, if a baby was to become a priest, immediately after birth it was painted in black and a beaded necklace placed about its neck, and certain rites were conducted. The necklace was then removed and placed in a temple until the child came of age, when the child would then proceed in some type of ecclesiastical training. It was never doubted the child would become a priest; the Aztecs believed that the child's soul was caught in the beads, and that the soul would draw the child to the temple inexorably without regard to the will of the child. Similarly, if a child was to become a great warrior, it was decided at birth and similar ceremonies were carried out. Interestingly, these decisions about a child's future were made by the parents soon after birth.

Therefore, from the moment a child was brought into the world she was surrounded by religion. The religion of the Aztecs was a complex one, but is generally characterized as polytheistic, based on the worship of a multitude of personal gods. It is interesting that the Aztecs attempted to incorporate the gods of conquered people into their religion; this was accomplished by considering the conquered peoples' gods simply as manifestations of the gods they already worshipped. Similarly, often in the lower Aztec classes people would create whole gods out of what was generally considered only a manifestation of an attribute of a single god.

There is a dual creative principle found throughout the Aztec culture, split not surprisingly between the masculine and the feminine. This dual creative principle was expressed in the form of two gods, Ometecuhtli, "two lord," and OmecÝhuatl, "two lady." Both resided in Omeyocan, meaning "the place two" (Caso 9). Aztec gods were created when Ometecuhtli and OmecÝhuatl had four sons, to whom they entrusted the creation of the other gods, the world, and man. The sons were named Red Tezcatlipoca, also called Xipe or Camaxtle; Black Tezcatlipoca, commonly called Tezcatlipoca; Quetzlcˇatl, the god of wind and life; and Huitzilopochtli, the Blue Tezcatlipoca. It is surmised that in ancient times Quetzlcˇatl was replaced by a White Tezcatlipoca.

One of the fundamental concepts in the Aztec religion was the grouping of all beings according to the four compass directions and the central direction of up and down. Ometecuhtli and OmecÝhuatl represented the central direction of up and down; this symbolizes the heavens and the earth. Their four sons were each associated with a different color and a different compass point. Black Tezcatlipoca was associated with the North, Blue Tezcatlipoca with the South, Red Tezcatlipoca with the East, and Quetzlcˇatl with the West. Animals, trees, days, and also men and women were grouped in this manner. Men, according to the day on which they were born, belonged to one of the four regions of the world. "


"When the Spanish friars called a meeting with the leading Aztec Priests to inform them that their old religion was to be renounced, the leading priest responded with words that characterised their most basic perception of these deities:

They [the ancestors] said
That it is through
The sacred spirits
That all live...
That they give us
Our daily fare
And all that we
Drink, all that
We eat,
Our sustenance,
Maize, beans,
Amaranth, chia.
They we supplicate
For water
For rain,
With which
Everything flourishes
On earth.

(Townsend 199:108)

Also evident from this quote is the inter-relationship between man and the land, and therefore the seasons, and the significant role it plays in Aztec life and religion. "The pragmatic business of obtaining food went hand in hand with a sense of periodicity, rhythym and cyclic recurrence, and with the notion of belonging to the land. To the Aztecs, this interaction of humankind with nature was of profound significance, and was affirmed through a calendar of cyclic festivals performed at a network of sacred places in cities and throughout the natural landscape. The religious status and functions of rulers were critical in these relationships, for the Aztec tlatoque and their priestly minions were obliged to ensure, by means of traditional rituals, the regularity of the seasons, the producivity of the land, and the fertility of crops and animals".(Townsend 199:108)

Gods and Deities

By the time the Chichimecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico, there was already a large and established suite of Gods and Deities. Further, as the Aztecs conquered cities and expanded their empire, so too the main deity of the town was incorporated and symbolised the aztec's success. For example, the Stone of Tizoc "portrays Aztec tlatoani Tizoc wearing the emblems of Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca and leading his minions in the capture of deities, each identified by the place-glyph of a particular town. [Further,] in Tenochtitlan, a special building in the great ceremonial precinct - the coateocalli - was assigned to house the captive cult paraphernalia and fetishes of conquered communities.">(Townsend 199:108)

The Gods and deities throughout the Valley of Mexico were therefore fairly similiar and were based primarily on nature; the land and the sky, and heros; ancestral and mythical. Further, according to Nicholson, the major groups of deities may be characterised by the following Gods:

Tezcatlipoca, "Smoking Mirror" (Obsidian); Tonatiuh, the Sun;
Huehueteotl, the 'Old,Old Deity';
Tlaloc, the Rain Deity;
Chalchiuhtlicue, 'She of the Jade Skirt';
Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent;
Tlaltecuhtli, Earth Lord or Earth Lady;

One of the most important functions of the deities was that of calendric patron. "Through their different supernatural personalities, they expressed basic and fundamental concepts in the religious system".(Nicholson:431)

The Aztec State and Aztec Religion.

"The origins and growth of the Aztec state are strongly reflected in Aztec religion. As a means of legitimization, the Aztec aggressively adopted the beliefs and iconography of earlier peoples. For instance, the site of Tula, the legendary Toltec capital, was accorded special prominence, and certain Aztec gods can be traced back to Tula and still earlier Teotihuacan. The Aztec also incorporated religious practices from contemporaries, including peoples of Puebla, the Gulf Coast Huastec and the Mixtec of Oaxaca. The conscious adoption of foreign customs both solidified conquest and offered cultural unification; the Aztec even had a special temple, the Coateocalli, which contained the captured images of foreign gods. Although Aztec mythology thus has many deities and themes derived from other Mesoamerican cultures, certain myths are wholly Aztec particularly the mythic origins of Huitzilopochtli at Mount Coatepec, which served as a sacred charter for the expansion of the Aztec state." (

The Concept of Teotl.

Also vital to Aztec religion was the concept of teotl. According to Spanish records, teotl may be described as 'God', 'Saint' or 'Demon' (from (Townsend 199:116). However, Nahuatl texts imply a wider context and deeper meaning; "Sometimes it accompanies the names of nature-deities, but it was also used in connection with human impersonators of those divinities, as well as in association with their sacred masks and related ceremonial objects including sculptured effigies of wood, stone, or dough. Such words 'mana', 'numinous' or 'sacred' have been used to suggest its significance. But the word-root teo may similiarly be used to qualify almost anything mysterious, powerful, or beyond ordinary experience, such as animals of prey, a remote and awe-inspiring snowcapped mountain, a phenomenon of terrible power such as the sun or a bolt of lightening, or the life-giving earth, water and maize, or even a greattlatoani at the time of his coronation. Nor was its application restricted to good or ethical things, for malign phenomena might also be designated by teo.

This is important in studying Aztec religion since it reflects the way in which the Aztecs, like other peoples of the 'pre-modern' world, imbued the natural world with not only religious significance, but also will power and personality. This is exemplified by the description of the inauguration of a new aqueduct by Ahuizotl which brought "water from Chapultepec to the centre of Tenochtitlan. On that occasion his priests were dressed as the female water-deity Chalchiuhtlicue, 'jade skirt'. Attired as the deity, the priests waited by the channel to welcome the first flow of water. As the water rushed in they reached down to present incense, turquoise, and sacrificed quail to the life-giving element, and spoke to the water itself as the living object of the offering. This rite illustrates the curious, inextricable equivalence of the deity, deity impersonator, priest,, and the natural element - an association utterly alien to modern Western thought."(Townsend 199:116)

Cosmology and
World View.
Myth Ritual and