A painting describing the the Aztec myth of the Eagle devouring the Serpent which explains the origin of the search for the site where they built their city.
"It is easy to lament the massive destruction of screenfold books, sculpture and other native works at the time of the Spanish conquest, but a far more profound cultural loss was the destruction of indigenous customs and beliefs by death and disease, slavery and mass conversion. However, much of the mythology survives to this day in the beliefs and speech of the living descendants of the Aztecs, Maya and other native peoples of Mexico and Central America."
Myths are an intrinsic part of the world view of people all over the world. They are heavily imbued with sacred messages, symbols and meanings and are used primarily to explain a peoples origins and beliefs. "The function of myth, briefly, is to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of ancient events."(Davies 1987:11) Aztec mythology certainly displays these attributes and will be discussed here in greater detail.
Cultural myths have been subject to both structural and functional interpretations. According to the functionalist approach,"myths are of at least two types. The first are drawn from authentic events and actions and are presented in more or less stylised fashion, duly embellished and set forth as an example to emulate. In marked contrast to them, the second are literary fictions designed to stress basic concepts and translated into concrete form by the actions of certain imaginary beings. They adorn a remote past or future, taking place in inaccessible zones where gods, giants, monsters and demons have their sport.(Davies 1987:11)
The myths of the Aztecs fall into both of these categories. For example, Tolpin-Quetzalcoatl was a real historical figure in Mesoamerica, and the myths pertaining to him are based on this fact and embellished 'in order to emulate'. Conversely, others belong in the second of Dumezil's categories. For example, Huitzilopochtli is known as both a historical figure and a god, what Davies call a 'divinised god'. "Thus, a historical personage can later come to be credited with a standardised mythical biography; the same process is present inMesoamerica, even if the details are harder to trace. Myth is the last, not the first, stage in the development of a hero." (Davies 1987:11) This is important in the context of Aztec myth and it is pertinent to an interpretation of them, and the role the gods play in them. However. since the work of Claude levi-Strauss and other structuralists, the concept of myth has been revised and sometimes changed. This approach may be useful in parts to the study of Aztec, and indeed, Mesoamerican myths.
Structuralism encompasses the idea that cultural expression has a structural basis in the human mind, and further, that the study of myths is really a study of opposites, and is a means to decode the inherent contradictions. "The most general point is that symbols occur in sets, and that the meaning of particular symbols is to be found in the contrast with other symbols, rather in the symbols as such."(Davies 1987;12) An example of the usefulness of the structuralist approach has been in the study of the 'older' and more 'confusing' of the Aztec myths; those that came from the Toltecs and the fall of Tula. Here "the fall of Tula might be viewed as a straightforward lesson - in functionalist terms - about the dangers that beset a city displaying every sign of decrepitude, moral decadence and vanity. But on closer study, the story of Topiltzin's precipitous flight from Tula, after an overdose of pulque, scarcely offers to future generations an example to be emulated of such virtues as sobriety and courage."(Davies 1987;12) As such, the structuralists have studied this incongruency and the 'pairs of opposites' in this story in order to understand it more fully. However, as is exemplified by this myth, often both approaches may be used, and indeed needed in order to interpret and gain a deeper understanding of these myths.
Aztec mythology primarily describes and explains the creation of the world, the gods and man. Most important of all are the cosmogenic myths which "describe the primordial beginning of the world and the ensuing sequence of eras whose transformations led to the present earth and its animal and human habitations. An understanding of the myths helped to explain the origin of the earth and the regularity of such phenomenon as the sun, the moon, the rainy season, as well as the cycle of vegetation and human beginnings. It also provided a way of learning sacred history and the principles governing cosmic and social existence. On many transmutable levels of meaning, the myths established themes by which the Aztecs created and maintained relationships based on the integration of man and nature."(Townsend 199:116)
Perhaps the most famous of all the Aztec Myths, beside the cosmogenic myths, is the birth of Huitzilopochtli. This has been traditionally interpreted as a solar myth is understood to symbolise the sun (Huitzilopochtli), the moon (Coyolxauhqui), and the stars of the southern hemisphere (Centzon Huitznahua). This myth is also part of the semi-historical Mexican migration myth:
"Huitzilopochtli was thought to have been born on the Coatepec Mountain, near the city of Tula. His mother Coatlicue, an earth goddess, conceived him after having kept in her bosom a ball of hummingbird feathers (i.e. the soul of a warrior) that fell from the sky. His brothers, the Centzon Huitznaua (Four Hundred Southerners), stars of the southern sky, and his sister Coyolxauhqui, a night goddess decided to kill him, but he exterminated them with his weapon, the xiuhcoatl ("turquoise snake").
Other myths presented Huitzilopochtli as the divine leader of the tribe during the long migration that brought the Aztecs from Aztlan, their traditional home, to the Valley of Mexico. His image, in the form of a hummingbird, was carried upon the shoulders of the priests, and at night his voice was heard giving orders. Thus, according to Huitzilopochtli's command, Tenochtitlan the Aztec capital, was founded in AD 1325 on a small rocky island in the lake of the Valley of Mexico. The god's first shrine was built on a spot where priests found an eagle poised upon a rock and devouring a snake." (http://www.spots.ab.ca/~atiera/aztec.htm)
Also of interest, recounted from a sixteenth century Aztec Chronicle, is the myth explaing the appearance of man on earth.
"Cuilalicue, the sky goddess, gave birth to a flint knife, which so shocked her other children, the stars, that they threw it out of the heavens. The knife fell to the earth and broe into thousands of pieces, each one turning into a god. Needing someone to serve them, the gods asked their mother for permission to create man. Cuilalicue instructed them to get bones from the underworld and to give them life by letting blood upon them. But in stealing the bones, one of the gods fell and broke all the bones into pieces of many sizes. This is why some men were created tall, some short."