Aztec religion

The Aztec religion is the Mesoamerican religion of the Aztecs. Like other Mesoamerican religions, it had elements of human sacrifice in connection with a large number of religious festivals which were held according to patterns of the Aztec calendar. Polytheistic in its theology, the religion recognized a large and ever increasing pantheon of gods and goddesses; the Aztecs would often incorporate deities whose cults came from other geographic regions or peoples into their own religious practice. Aztec cosmology divides the world into thirteen heavens and nine earthly layers or netherworlds (the first heaven overlapping with the first terrestrial layer, heaven and earth meeting at the surface of the Earth) each level associated with a specific set of deities and astronomical objects. The most important celestial entities in Aztec religion were the Sun, the Moon, and the planet Venus (both as "morning star" and "evening star")—all of these bearing different symbolic and religious meanings as well as associations with certain deities and geographical places—whose worship was rooted in a significant reverence for the Sun and Moon, whose natural functions are not untruly of immense importance to life on Earth

Many leading deities of the Aztec pantheon were worshipped by previous Mesoamerican civilizations, gods such as Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, who were venerated by different names in most cultures throughout the history of Mesoamerica. For the Aztecs especially important deities were the rain god Tlaloc, the god Huitzilopochtli—patron of the Mexica tribe—as well as Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, wind god, culture hero, and god of civilization and order, and elusive Tezcatlipoca, the shrewd god of destiny and fortune, connected with war and sorcery. Each of these gods had their own shrine, side-by-side at the top of the largest pyramid in the Aztec capital Mexico-Tenochtitlan—Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were both worshipped here at this dual temple, while a third monument in the plaza before the Templo Mayor was devoted to the wind god Ehecatl.[1]


Main article: Teotl

The concept of Teotl is central to the Aztec. The term is often translated as "god", but may have held more abstract aspects of divinity or supernatural energy akin to the Polynesian concept of Mana.[2]

The nature of Teotl is a key element in the understanding of the fall of the Aztec empire, because it seems that the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and the Aztecs in general referred to Cortés and the conquistadors as "Teotl"—it has been widely believed that this means that they believed them to be gods, but a better understanding of "Teotl" might suggest that they were merely seen as "mysterious" and "inexplicable".[3]


Further information: Aztec mythology

The many gods of the Aztecs can be grouped into complexes related to different themes. The Aztecs would often adopt gods from different cultures and allow them to be worshiped as part of their pantheon – the fertility god, Xipe Totec, for example, was originally a god of the Yopi (The Nahuatl name of the Tlapanec people) but became an integrated part of the Aztec belief system; sometimes foreign gods would be identified with an already existing god. Other deities, for example Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, had roots in earlier civilizations of Mesoamerica and were worshiped by many cultures and by many names. Some gods embodied aspects of nature. A large group of gods were related to pulque, drunkenness, excess, fun and games. Other gods were associated with specific trades. Many gods had multiple aspects with different names, where each name highlighted a specific function or trait of the god. Occasionally, two distinct gods were conflated into one, and quite often deities transformed into one another within a single story. Aztec images sometimes combined attributes of several divinities.

H. B. Nicholson (1971) classed the gods into three groups according to their conceptual meaning in general Mesoamerican religion. The first group he calls the "Celestial creativity – Divine Paternalism group", the second, the earth-mother gods, the Pulque gods and Xipe Totec. The third group, the War-Sacrifice-Sanguinary Nourishment group contained such gods as Ome Tochtli, Huitzilopochtli, Mictlantecutli and Mixcoatl. Instead of Nicholson's subtle classification in the following a more impressionist classification is presented.

Tezcatlipoca depicted in the Codex Borgia.

Cultural Gods

'Nature gods'

Xipe Totec "Our flayed lord" wearing a human skin depicted in the Codex Borgia.
Xochipilli wearing a deerskin as depicted in the Codex Borgia.
Xolotl depicted in the Codex Borgia.

Gods of creation

Gods of Pulque and excess

Gods of maize and fertility

Gods of death and the underworld

Trade gods

Religion and society

Religion was part of all levels of Aztec society. On the state level, religion was controlled by the Tlatoani and the high priests governing the main temples in the ceremonial precinct of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. This level involved the large monthly festivals and a number of specific rituals centered around the ruler dynasty and attempting to stabilize both the political and cosmic systems, these rituals were the ones that involved sacrifice of humans. For example, on the feast of Huey Tozoztli, the ruler himself ascended Mt. Tlaloc and engaged in autosacrifice in order to petition the rains. Throughout society, each level had their own rituals and deities and played their part in the larger rituals of the community. For example, the class of Pochteca merchants were involved in the feast Tlaxochimaco where the merchant deity would be celebrated and slaves bought on specific slave markets by long distance traders would be sacrificed. On the feast of Ochpaniztli, all commoners participated in sweeping the streets, and they also undertook ritual bathing. The most spectacular ritual was the New Fire ceremony which took place every 52 years and involved every citizen of the Aztec realm, during this commoners would destroy house utensils, quench all fires and receive new fire from the bonfire on top of Mt. Huixachtlan, lit on the chest of a sacrificed person by the high priests.

Priests and temples

In the Nahuatl language, the word for priest was tlamacazqui meaning "giver of things"—the main responsibility of the priesthood was to make sure that the gods were given their due in the form of offerings, ceremonies and sacrifices.

The Tlatoani of Tenochtitlan was the head of the cult of Huitzilopochtli and thus of the state religion of the Aztec empire. He had special priestly duties in different rituals on the state level.

However, the Aztec religious organization was not entirely under his authority. Sahagun and Duran describe the pairs of high priests (Quetzalcoatls) who were in charge of the major pilgrimage centres (Cholula and Tenochtitlan) as enjoying immense respect from all levels of Aztec society – akin to archbishops – and a level of authority that partly transcended national boundaries. Under these religious heads were many tiers of priests, priestesses, novices, 'nuns' and 'monks' (some part-time) who ran the cults of the various gods and goddesses. Sahagun reports that the priests had a very strict training, and had to live very austere and ethical lives involving prolonged vigils, fasts and penances. For instance, they often had to bleed themselves and undertake prescribed self-mortifications in the buildup to sacrificial rites.

Additionally, Sahagun refers to classes of religious specialists not affiliated with the established priesthood. This included wandering curers, black magicians and other occultists (of which the Aztecs identified many types, most of which they feared) and hermits. Finally, the military orders, professions (e.g. traders – pochteca) and wards (calpulli) each operated their own lodge dedicated to their specific god. The heads of these lodges, although not full-time religious specialists, had some ritual and moral duties. Duran also describes lodge members as having the responsibility of raising sufficient goods to host the festivals of their specific patron deity. This included annually obtaining and training a suitable slave or captive to represent and die as the 'image' of their deity in that festival.

Aztec temples were basically offering mounds: solid pyramidal structures crammed with special soils, sacrifices, treasures and other offerings. Buildings around the base of the pyramid, and sometimes a small chamber under the pyramid, stored ritual items and provided lodgings and staging for priests, dancers and temple orchestras. The pyramids were buried under a new surface every several years (especially every 52 years – the Aztec century). Thus the pyramid-temples of important deities constantly grew in size.

In front of every major temple lay a large plaza. This sometimes held important ritual platforms such as the 'eagle stone' where some victims were slain. Plazas were where the bulk of worshippers gathered to watch rites and dances performed; to join in the songs and sacrifices (the audience often bled themselves during the rites) and to partake in any festival foods. Nobility sat on tiered seating under awnings around the plaza periphery, and some conducted part of the ceremonies on the temple.

Continual rebuilding enabled Tlatoani and other dignitaries to celebrate their achievements by dedicating new sculptures, monuments and other renovations to the temples. For festivals, temple steps and tiers were also festooned with flowers, banners and other decorations. Each pyramid had a flat top to accommodate dancers and priests performing rites. Close to the temple steps there was usually a sacrificial slab and braziers.

The temple house (calli) itself was relatively small, although the more important ones had high and ornately carved internal ceilings. To maintain the sanctity of the gods, these temple houses were kept fairly dark and mysterious – a characteristic that was further enhanced by having their interiors swirling with smoke from copal (incense) and the burning of offerings. Cortes and Diaz describe these sanctuaries as containing sacred images and relics of the gods, often bejeweled but shrouded under ritual clothes and other veils, and hidden behind curtains hung with feathers and bells. Flowers and offerings (including a great amount of blood) generally covered much of the floors and walls near these images. Each image stood on a pedestal and occupied its own sanctuary. Larger temples also featured subsidiary chambers ('little houses') accommodating lesser deities.

In the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan, the most important temple was the Great Temple which was a double pyramid with two temples on top. One was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli this temple was called Coatepetl "snake mountain", and the other temple was dedicated to Tlaloc. Below the Tlatoani were the high priests of these two temples. Both high priests were called by the title Quetzalcoatl – the high priest of Huitzilopochtli was Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui and the high priest of Tlaloc was Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui.[4] Other important temples were located in the four divisions of the town: for example the temple called Yopico in Moyotlan which was dedicated to Xipe Totec. Furthermore, all the Calpullis had special temples dedicated to the patron gods of the calpulli.[5] Priests were educated at the Calmecac if they were from noble families and in the Telpochcalli if they were commoners.

Cosmology and ritual

Aztec cosmological drawing with the god Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of fire and of the Calendar in the center and the other important gods around him each in front of a sacred tree. From the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer.

The Aztec world consisted of three main parts: the earth world on which humans lived (including Tamoanchan, the mythical origin of human beings), an underworld which belonged to the dead (called Mictlan ("place of death")), and the upper plane in the sky. The earth and the underworld were both open for humans to enter, whereas the upper plane in the sky was impenetrable to humans. Existence was envisioned as straddling the two worlds in a cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. Thus as the sun was believed to dwell in the underworld at night to rise reborn in the morning and maize kernels were interred to later sprout anew, so the human and divine existence was also envisioned as being cyclical. The upper and nether worlds were both thought to be layered. Mictlan had nine layers which were inhabited by different deities and mythical beings. The sky had thirteen layers, the highest of which was called Omeyocan ("place of duality") and served as the residence of the progenitor dual god Ometeotl. The lowest layer of the sky was a verdant spring-like place with abundant water called Tlalocan ("the place of Tlaloc").

After death the soul of the Aztec went to one of three places: the sun, Mictlan, or Tlalocan. Souls of fallen warriors and women that died in childbirth would transform into hummingbirds that followed the sun on its journey through the sky. Souls of people who died from less glorious causes would go to Mictlan. Those who drowned would go to Tlalocan.[6]

In Aztec cosmology, as in Mesoamerica in general, geographical features such as caves and mountains held symbolic value as places of crossing between the upper and nether worlds. The cardinal directions were symbolically connected to the religious layout of the world as well; each direction was associated with specific colors and Gods.


To the Aztecs, death was instrumental in the perpetuation of creation, and gods and humans alike had the responsibility of sacrificing themselves in order to allow life to continue. This worldview is best described in the myth of the five suns recorded in the Codex Chimalpopoca, which recounts how Quetzalcoatl stole the bones of the previous generation in the underworld, and how later the gods created four successive worlds or "suns" for their subjects to live in, all of which were destroyed. Then by an act of self-sacrifice one of the gods, Nanahuatzin ("the pimpled one") caused a fifth and final sun to rise where the first humans, made out of maize dough, could live thanks to his sacrifice. Humans were responsible for the sun's continued revival. Blood sacrifice in various forms were conducted. Both humans and animals were sacrificed, depending on the god to be placated and the ceremony being conducted, and priests of some gods were sometimes required to provide their own blood through self-mutilation.

Sacrificial rituals among the Aztecs and in Mesoamerica in general must be seen in the context of religious cosmology: sacrifice and death was necessary for the continued existence of the world. Likewise each part of life had one or more deities associated with it and these had to be paid their dues in order to achieve success. Gods were paid with sacrificial offerings of food, flowers, effigies, and quail. But the larger the effort required of the god, the greater the sacrifice had to be. Blood fed the gods and kept the sun from falling. For some of the most important rites, a priest would offer his own blood, by cutting his ears, arms, tongue, thighs, chest or genitals, or offer a human life, or even a god's life. The people who were sacrificed came from many segments of society, and might be a war captive, slave, or a member of Aztec society; the sacrifice might also be man or woman, adult or child, noble or commoner.

Deity impersonation

An important aspect of Aztec ritual was the impersonation of deities. Priests or otherwise specially elected individuals would be dressed up to achieve the likeness of a specific deity. A person with the honourable charge of impersonating a god was called "ixiptlatli" and was venerated as an actual physical manifestation of the god until the inevitable end when the god's likeness had to be killed as the ultimate sacrifice under great circumstance and festivities.

Reenactment of myth

As with the impersonation of gods, Aztec ritual was often a reenactment of a mythical event which at once served to remind the Aztecs of their myths but also served to perpetuate the world by repeating the important events of the creation.


Main article: Aztec calendar

The Aztec religious year was connected mostly to the natural 365-day calendar, the xiuhpohualli ("yearcount") – which followed the agricultural year. Each of the 18 twenty-day months of the religious year had its particular religious festival – most of which were connected to agricultural themes. The greatest festival was the Xiuhmolpilli or New Fire ceremony held every 52 years when the ritual and agricultural calendars coincided and a new cycle started. In the table below, the veintena festivals are shown, the deities with which they were associated and the kinds of rituals involved. The descriptions of the rites are based on the descriptions given in Sahagúns "Primeros Memoriales", and the Florentine Codex and of Fray Diego Duráns "Of the Gods and rites" – all of which provide detailed accounts of the rituals written in Nahuatl soon after the conquest. homie g

Festival Period[7] Principal Deity Theme Rituals
also called "Xilomanaliztli"
"Spreading of corn"
14 February – 5 March The Tlalocs Fertility, Sowing Cuahuitl Ehua – a ceremonial raising of a tree, sacrifice of Children to Tlaloc
"Flaying of men"
6 March – 25 March Xipe Totec Spring, sprouting, fertility Sacrifice and Flaying of Captives, mock battles, gladiatorial sacrifice, priests wear victims skin for 20 days, military ceremonies
"Little vigil"
26 March – 14 April Tlaltecuhtli
(And the Tlalocs and Xipe Totec)
Planting, sowing Bloodletting, burial of the skins of the flayed captives, offering of flowers and roasted snakes to the earth.
Huey Tozoztli
"Great vigil"
15 April – 4 May Cinteotl (and the Tlalocs and Chicomecoatl) Maize, seed, sowing Feasts to Tlaloc and the maize gods, blessing of seed corn, sacrifice of children at Mt. Tlaloc.
5 May – 22 May Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli Renewal Feasting, dancing, sacrifice of small birds, sacrifice of "Tezcatlipoca".
"Eating of Fresh Maize"
23 May – 13 June Tlaloc, Chalchiuhtlicue, Quetzalcoatl Young crops, End of dry season Sacrifice of "Tlaloc", new mats made
"Small Festival of Lords"
14 June – 3 July Xochipilli Feasts to goddess of grain, sacrifice of "Huixtocihuatl"
Huey Tecuilhuitl
"Great Festival of Lords"
4 July – 23 July Xilonen, Maize Gods The Lords, Tender Maize Feast of Xilonen, Sacrifice of "Cihuacoatl" and "Xilonen", Lords feed the commoners, Dancing
"Giving of Flowers"
(also called Miccailhuitontli – "the Small Feast of the Dead")
24 July – 12 August Huitzilopochtli Flowers, trade Small feast for the dead, feast of the Merchants, the making of the Xocotl pole
Xocotl Huetzi
"Fruits Fall"
(also called Huey Miccailhuitl – "the Great Feast of the Dead")
13 August – 1 September Huehueteotl, Xiuhtecuhtli Fruits, harvest The feasts of the Xocotl pole, bloodletting.
2 September – 21 September Tlazolteotl, Toci, Teteo Innan, Coatlicue, Cinteotl Harvest, cleansing Ritual sweeping, ritual bathing, sacrifice of "Teteo Innan"
Teteo Eco
"The Gods Arrive"
22 September – 11 October All Deities Arrival of the Gods Bloodletting, feast of Huitzilopochtli, the dance of the old men.
"Mountain Feast"
12 October – 31 October Xochiquetzal, The Tlalocs, Trade Gods Mountains Mountain feasts, sacrifice of "Xochiquetzal", Feasts of the Gods of different trades
"Roseate Spoonbill"
1 November – 20 November Mixcoatl Hunting Ritual hunts, sacrifice of slaves and captives, weaponmaking, Armories replenished
"Raising of Banners"
21 November – 10 December Huitzilopochtli Tribal festival of the Aztecs, birth of Huitzilopochtli Raising of banners, Great Huitzilopochtli festival, Sacrifices of Slaves and Captives, ritual battles, drinking of Pulque, bloodletting
"Descent of Water "
11 December – 30 December The Tlalocs Rain Waterfeasts, sacrifice of Tlaloc effigies made from maize dough
31 December 19 January Ilamatecuhtli (Cihuacoatl) Old age Feasts to old people, Dance of the "Cihuateteo", fertility rituals, Merchants sacrifice slaves
20 January – 8 February Tlaloc, Xiuhtecuhtli Fertility, Water, Sowing Eating of Amaranth Tamales
Feast for Xiuhtecuhtli every four years.
Nemontemi 9 February – 13 February Tzitzimime demons Five unlucky days at the end of the year, abstinence, no business


Main article: Aztec mythology

The main deity in the Mexica religion was the sun god and war god, Huitzilopochtli. He directed the Mexicas to found a city on the site where they would see an eagle, devouring (not all chronicles agree on what the eagle was devouring, one says it was a precious bird, and though Father Duran says it was a snake, this is not mentioned in any pre-Hispanic source) perched on a fruit bearing nopal cactus. According to legend, Huitzilopochtli had to kill his nephew, Cópil, and throw his heart on the lake. But, since Cópil was his relative, Huitzilopochtli decided to honor him, and caused cactus to grow over Cópil's heart which became a sacred place.

Legend has it that this is the site on which the Mexicas built their capital city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco where modern-day Mexico City is located. This legendary vision is pictured on the Coat of Arms of Mexico.

According to their own history, when the Mexicas arrived in the Anahuac Valley around Lake Texcoco, they were considered by the other groups as the least civilized of all. The Mexicas decided to learn, and they took all they could from other peoples, especially from the ancient Toltec (whom they seem to have partially confused with the more ancient civilization of Teotihuacan). To the Mexicas, the Toltecs were the originators of all culture; "Toltecayotl" was a synonym for culture. Mexica legends identify the Toltecs and the cult of Quetzalcoatl with the mythical city of Tollan, which they also identified with the more ancient Teotihuacan.

In the process, they adopted most of the Toltec/Nahua (code) pantheon, but they also made significant changes in their religion. As the Mexica rose in power, they adopted the Nahua gods at equal status to their own. For instance, Tlaloc was the rain god of all the Nahuatl-speaking peoples. They put their local god Huitzilopochtli at the same level as the ancient Nahua god, and also replaced the Nahua Sun god with their own. Thus, Tlaloc/Huitzilopochtli represents the duality of water and fire, as evidenced by the twin pyramids uncovered near the Zocalo in Mexico City in the late 1970s, and it reminds us of the warrior ideals of the Aztec: the Aztec glyph of war is "burning water".

Human sacrifice

Aztec sacrifice

Human sacrifice was practiced on a grand scale throughout the Aztec empire, although the exact figures are unknown. At Tenochtitlán, the principal Aztec city, according to Ross Hassing "between 10,000 and 80,400 persons" were sacrificed over the course of four days for the dedication of the Great Pyramid in 1487.[8] Excavations of the offerings in the main temple has provided some insight in the process, but the dozens of remains excavated are far short of the thousands of sacrifices recorded by eyewitnesses and other historical accounts. For millennia, the practice of human sacrifice was widespread in Mesoamerican and South American cultures. It was a theme in the Olmec religion, which thrived between 1200 BC and 400 BC and among the Maya. Human sacrifice was a very complex ritual. Every sacrifice had to be meticulously planned from the type of victim to specific ceremony needed for the god. The sacrificial victims were usually warriors but sometimes slaves, depending upon the god and needed ritual. The higher the rank of the warrior the better he is looked at as a sacrifice. The victim(s) would then take on the persona of the god he was to be sacrificed for. The victim(s) would be housed, fed, and dressed accordingly. This process could last up to a year. When the sacrificial day arrived, the victim(s) would participate in the specific ceremonies of the god. These ceremonies were used to exhaust the victim so that he would not struggle during the ceremony. Then five priests, known as the Tlenamacac, performed the sacrifice usually at the top of a pyramid. The victim would be laid upon the table, held down and then have his heart cut out.[6]

See also


  1. "Study the... WIND GOD". Mexicolore.
  2. Taube and Miller 1999, pp 89. For a lengthy treatment of the subject see Hvidtfeldt, 1958
  3. Restall 2001 pp 11.6–118
  4. Townsend, 1992, p. 192
  5. Van Zantwijk 1985
  6. 1 2 Tuerenhout, D. V. (2005). The Aztecs: New Perspectives
  7. According to Townsend (1992)
  8. Hassig (2003). "El sacrificio y las guerras floridas". Arqueología mexicana. XI: 47.


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