T H E   A Z T E C S
                   A brief overview of Mythology and Religion
                                by Jeff Huber

          Over  450 years ago the Spanish sent  men to the new world.  They
     came  to a  place we  now know  as Mexico.   There  they encountered a
     people  who  were  proud, and  ingenious.    They were  the  makers of
     beautiful  artworks,  and  the  architecture of  their  cities  was so
     magnificent  as to  stun the  Spanish (Professor  Rene Peron, personal
     communication  1987).  They considered themselves as the protectors of
     the  world. They kept the  world safe (Portilla 1963).   They were the

          In  February  of 1519,  Hernan  Cortez, and  his  Spanish troops,
     landed  at Veracruz.  By  August 13, 1521 he  and his men had captured
     Tenochtitlan,  the capitol of the Aztec  empire (Weaver 1981).  One of
     the  main reasons for  the aggressiveness of  the Spaniards toward the
     Aztecs, was the differences in their religions (Soustelle 1961).

          As  part of their religion the  Aztecs practiced various forms of
     human  sacrifice.  These included: the cutting open of a victims chest
     and removing his heart, having a victim tied to a large stone disk and
     armed with only a wooden club fight to the death against several fully
     armed warriors, decapitating women while they danced, and the drowning
     of  children (Soustelle 1961).  There was also a particularly gruesome
     form  of sacrifice  that involved the  victims skin  being removed and
     worn by a priest (Caso 1958).
          When  the Spanish  discovered that  these things  were happening,
     they were understandably shocked.  They came to believe that the Aztec
     religion  was a religion from hell.  They decided that the Aztecs gods
     were  devils or demons, and  therefore everything associated with them
     should be destroyed (Soustelle 1961).
          To  many it may seem that the  Spaniards did the right thing, and
     that there is no excuse for what the Aztecs did.  Whether this is true
     or  not, we might wonder why they did it, and how they considered this
     protecting  the world, or   keeping it  safe.  To  answer this we must
     take  a  closer look  at  the cosmology,  myths,  and religion  of the

                             Mythological History.
          The  Aztecs believed that at the beginning of the universe, there
     were  only  two  gods.   Their  names  were Ometecuhtli  "the  lord of
     duality",  and  Omecihuatl  "the lady  of  duality"  (Soustelle 1961).
     Other sources say that these two gods are just two aspects of one god,
     named  Ometeotl, although (s)he is sometimes called either Huehueteotl
     "the old god", or Tonacatecuhtli (Portilla 1963).

          This god, or gods, gave birth to four other gods.  The first born
     was  named  Tlatlauhqui  Tezcatlipoca, also  referred  to  as Camaxtli
     (Portilla 1963), or Xipe(Caso 1958).  This god was associated with the
     east,  and  the  color  red.   The  second  born  was  named Yayauhqui
     Tezcatlipoca, commonly just called Tezcatlipoca. He is associated with
     the   north,  and  the  color  black.     The  third  born  was  named
     Quetzalcoatl,  sometimes called Yoalliehecatl.  He was associated with
     the  west and the color  white.  The last  born was named Omiteotl, or
     Maquizcoatl,  but the people of Tenochtitlan almost always referred to
     him as, Huitzilopochtli (Portilla 1963)

          The  four brother gods were powerful, and one of their powers was
     that  of creation.  After six-hundred years they began the creation of
     the  world.  They began by creating fire,  and a half sun; next came a
     man  and a woman; who were  commanded to cultivate the earth,to always
     work hard, and to give birth to people.  They created: time (the days,
     months,  etc.); other gods; the multiple heavens and hells; and water,
     from  which they created  a giant alligator like  fish that became the
     earth (Portilla 1963).

          Each  of the four gods wanted  to have himself be identified with
     the  sun, so that he could be more powerful and control the destiny of
     men and earth.  So a great battle began for the sun (Portilla 1963).

          The  first god to become the sun  was Tezcatlipoca.  He ruled the
     world  as the sun until Quetzalcoatl hit him with a staff, and knocked
     him  into the  water.  After  he landed,  he turned into  a jaguar and
     devoured the people of the earth (Caso 1958).  He had ruled as sun for
     676  years, but with  his defeat Quetzalcoatl became  a new and second
     sun.  He also ruled for 676 years, until Tezcatlipoca struck him down.
     It was not he, although, who became the third sun.  The role was taken
     instead by a god called Tlalocatecli (Portilla 1963).

          This  god was also called  Tlalocatecuhtli, or more often simply,
     Tlaloc.    It  is  said  that he  was  created,  along  with  his wife
     Chalchiuhtlicue, by the four brother gods, and that they made them the
     god and goddess of water (Caso 1958).

          Tlaloc  only  remained  as the  sun  for 312  years,  after which
     Quetzalcoatl  caused  fire to  rain  down on  him  from heaven  and he
     replaced  tlaloc with his wife, or sister, Chalchiuhtlicue.  She ruled
     as  the fourth  sun for  676 years  until Tezcatlipoca  caused a great
     flood  to come, and  thus the fourth sun  was also destroyed (Portilla

          Along with each of these Four suns that had thus far been created
     and destroyed, people had been created and destroyed; although in many
     accounts  some of at least three of  the four suns people had survived
     and  been transformed into  animals, such as  birds, fish, and monkeys
     (Caso 1958).

          We  have seen that  up until this  point there had  always been a
     heated  battle amongst  the gods  to obtain  the position  of the sun.
     After the destruction of the fourth sun a god did not rush forward and
     become the new sun, as had happened before; instead, events continued,
     for  a while, in a more peaceful and cooperative way.  The water which
     is  what the  sky is made  of, first had  to be lifted  back into it's
     proper  place. This task  was done by the  old rivals Tezcatlipoca and
     Quetzalcoatl (Caso 1958).

                       Creation of the Fifth Sun and Man
          The  fifth sun is the sun under which the Aztecs lived. There are
     more  detailed accounts of how this  sun, and the Aztecs, were created
     (Portilla 1963).

          The  gods all gathered at  Teotihuacan (an ancient city northeast
     of  Tenochtitlan)  and decided  that  one of  the  gods would  have to
     sacrifice  himself, by being burned  in a large fire,  so as to become
     the  fifth sun (Caso 1958).  Two gods agreed to attempt the sacrifice.
     After  four days of  preparation,  during which  the gods did penance,
     the  time came for  the sacrifice (Sejourne 1956).   The gods gathered
     around  the divine hearth "Teotexcalli" and  at midnight they told the
     first  god to jump  into the fire.   He tried  several times, but each
     time at the last minute he became afraid and could not go through with
     it.   The gods then called the second  god to try.  He closed his eyes
     stepped  forward and jumped into the  fire (Portilla 1963).  The first
     god felt guilty about being afraid and he also jumped in.  The both of
     them  burned and  were consumed by  the sacrificial  fire (Caso 1958).
     After the gods waited for a while the sun rose followed shortly by the
     moon.  The moon was equal in brightness to the sun, so one of the gods
     threw  a rabbit at it  and by doing so caused  the shadows on the moon
     which  the Aztecs thought resembled  a rabbit (Portilla 1963; Sejourne

          There are at least four different versions of what happened next.
     They  all start in agreement  by saying that after  rising the sun did
     not  move.  The first version says  that the new sun demanded that the
     gods  sacrifice themselves to him. One of the gods attacked the sun as
     his  response, so the sun killed him,  and all of the other gods (Caso
     1958). The second version says that when the gods saw that the sun was
     still  they sacrificed themselves and offered their blood, after which
     a  wind came and blew the sun  into motion (Portilla 1963).  The third
     version  says that a  wind killed the  gods and then  put the sun into
     motion  (Sejourne 1956). The  fourth version says  that the sun needed
     blood  to  move, so  the gods  jumped into  the sacrificial  fire, and
     thereby  gave  the  sun  the  power to  move  (Soustelle  1961).   The
     differences  in  these stories  are not  what is  important.   What is
     important  is that in each of these stories it was necessary for a god
     to die to create the sun, and other gods to die before the sun moved.

          We  see more  of this  life from  sacrifice in  the myths  of the
     creation  of the Aztec people.   After the fifth  sun was created  the
     gods  nominated Quetzalcoatl to go on a  journey to Mictlan or hell to
     get the sacred bones of man. He asked the lord of the land of dead for
     the  bones. The  lord did not  want him to  have them, so  he tried to
     discourage  him by making  him first preform  the seemingly impossible
     task  of blowing  a blast  on a shell  horn that  had no  holes in it.
     Quetzalcoatl  succeeded with the help of  some worms and bees, but the
     lord of the dead still didn't want him to have the bones. Quetzalcoatl
     responded  by having his double tell the  lord that he would leave the
     bones.  He then rushed off and took the bones, but the lord had caught
     on  and had his servants dig a  deep hole which Quetzalcoatl fell into
     and thus died scattering the bones.  He came back to life and gathered
     up  the bones and took them to the  gods.  When he returned he had the
     bones  ground up, and then  he cut open his  penis and bled onto them,
     and the other gods also did penance. In this way the gods created man.
     (Portilla 1963).

          We  have seen some  important themes in  the Aztec religion, such
     as:  the concept of struggle among the gods over the domination of the
     earth,  that have  lead so  far to the  destruction of  the earth four
     times;  the  concept of    gods who  are  benevolent or  malevolent at
     different times; the concept of sacrifice to create the sun; sacrifice
     to  move  the sun;  and  sacrifice to  create  man.   I  believe these
     concepts  are of fundamental  importance as a shaping  force  on Aztec

                            Rituals and sacrifices.

          The Aztecs practiced many rituals that involved sacrifice.Not all
     of these sacrifices involved death or mutilation, in fact a great many
     were  the offering of: food, drink,  plants, etc. (Portilla 1963).  Of
     course,  as stated earlier, human sacrifice was of great importance in
     the  Aztec religion, and a central theme  in the cult of several Aztec
     gods.   We shall now take  a look at some of  these cults.  Tlaloc and
     Huitzilopochtli,  who  will  be  discussed first,  were  the  two most
     important  Aztec gods, and  it is to  them that the  "Great Temple" of
     Tenochtitlan was dedicated (Weaver 1981).

          Tlaloc was the most important god to the Aztec peasants , because
     of  his control over the rains  (Soustelle 1961).  Although Tlaloc was
     generally  a beneficent  god, he did  at times  cause terrible floods,
     devastating droughts, or hail, lightning, etc.(Caso 1958).  During the
     month  of Atl caualo, a feast was held to honor him and it was at this
     time  that the  Aztecs tried  to appease  him by  drowning children in
     sacrifice,  so that he  would only send good  rains to them (Soustelle
          The most important god in Tenochtitlan is Huitzilopochtli.  He is
     the  fifth sun,  and the god  of war. (Professor  Rene Peron, personal
     communication 1987). The main sacrifice to him was during the month of
     Panquetzaliztli.   There was a great  feast and a parade that traveled
     out  of the capitol to  visit many other towns  before returning.  The
     procession  was made up mostly of  war captives, who willingly went on
     the  journey full well knowing  that when it returned  they were to be
     sacrificed.  (Soustelle 1961).   The  Aztecs held  this sacrifice, and
     others  like it, because they  believed that just as  the sun needed a
     sacrifice to begin its movement at the time of its creation, so did it
     need  a continual supply of  chalchihuatl "the precious liquid", which
     is  human blood, so  that it could  have the strength  to continue its
     life  in the  sky and  avoid being destroyed  by other  gods who still
     coveted  the  position of  the sun  and  wished to  take the  place of
     Huitzilopochtli as a new sixth sun over a new sixth world. (Caso 1958;
     Portilla 1963; Soustelle 1961).

          This  is the god of the night sky, he is also associated with the
     moon,  death, evil, destruction, and providence. He is in many ways an
     opposite  of Huitzilopochtli, and it  is therefore not surprising that
     he was very popular in the city of Texcoco; which,although allies with
     Tenochtitlan, was still in many ways their rival.  During the month of
     Toxcatl  the priests picked  a young warrior who  had been captured in
     battle.     They  trained  him how  to act  and  dress properly,   and
     according  to his new, but temporary,  station as a  representation of
     the  god.  He was allowed to walk around as he pleased and was treated
     with  great respect by all who came  into contact with him. at the end
     of  a year great feasts, dances and ceremonies were held in his honor.
     That  night he went to  small temple, climbed the  stairs, and met the
     priests.  They took his heart, and he took the pleadings of the people
     to the god (Caso 1958; Soustelle 1961).

          Most  of  the victims  who were  sacrificed were  people captured
     during  war. It should be pointed out that the Aztecs tried to capture
     people  instead  of  killing them,  and  that the  captor  treated the
     captive  with great  kindness, considering  him a  symbolic son.   The
     captives  considered  the  fact  that  they  would  be  sacrificed  as
     expected, proper, and divinely ordained (Soustelle 1961).

          The  Aztecs  believed that  all  these types  of  sacrifices were
     necessary  and did not find  them horrible. They were  not done out of
     malice  or cruelty;  nor were  they excuses  for the  Aztecs to attack
     their  neighbors.  Now  some people may  not except this  but there is
     good  supportive evidence in what is known as xochiyaoyotl "the war of
     flowers".   This was an agreement made  in 1450 between three  cities;
     Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan; and some villages. this agreement
     was that since there was no war going on at that time, that they would
     arrange  combats so  that there could  still be enough  captives to be
     used  in the necessary sacrifices   (Soustelle 1961; Caso 1958).  They
     did  find horrible the types of  torture that the Spanish used, either
     to  gain  information,  or pleasure.    They also  found  horrible the
     Spanish  style of warfare,  which they considered  wasteful and overly
     violent (Soustelle 1961).

          If  we look at  the information presented here,  we can draw some
     interesting  conclusions.  What at first may have looked like horrible
     and  barbaric practices, we later saw  turned into practices that were
     in  response to  a complicated  world view.   They were  doing what in
     their  minds was  necessary, and yes  even morally right.  this may be
     hard to accept, but we must try to look beyond our cultural biases and
     look at what the Aztecs did from the perspective of their world view.
          There  were gods who would like to destroy the sun and the Aztecs
     with it so that they could become a new sun and rule over a new world,
     So  the  Aztecs were  compelled to  take the  only sensible  course of
     action  available to them.  They had to sacrifice people to the sun so
     that  it would have the power to fight  off the other gods for as long
     as  possible.   There were gods  who had  to be appeased  so that they
     could  be sure that the  rains would come, that  the plants would grow
     properly, etc.  In short they were doing what was necessary.  But this
     can only be seen if we look at it from their point of view, and if the
     Europeans  had been able to do the same, maybe the great civilizations
     of the new world would have had a chance at survival.


          #1   Caso, Alfonso
               1958  The Aztecs: People of the Sun, translated by
               Lowell Dunham. University of Oklahoma press, Norman.

          #2   Portilla, Miguel Leon
               1963  Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the
               Ancient Nahuatl Mind, translated by Jack Emery Davis.
               University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

          #3   Sejourne, laurette
               1956  Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient
               Mexico, translated by Irene Nicholson. Robert
               Maclehose, Glasgow.

          #4   Soustelle, Jacques
               1961  Daily Life of the Aztecs, translated by Patrick
               O`Brian Stanford University Press, Stanford.

          #5   Weaver, Murial Porter
               1981  The Aztecs, Maya, and their Predecessors.
               Academic Press, New York.

          #6   Professor Rene Peron; personal communication
               1987  Anthropology 31.
               Santa Rosa Junior College, California.