A picture depicting the Aztecs' belief of an eagle devouring a snake

Anthropology: An Overview of the Aztec Civilization’s Cultural Legacy

The Aztecs of Central Mexico were a Mesoamerican culture that thrived during the post-classical period, from 1300 to 1521. Consisting of different ethnic groups, the Aztecs dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Different ethnic groups mean there’ll be different traditions and beliefs arising within them. This blog explores the Aztec religion and mythology.

Aztec religion

The Aztecs believed in a polytheistic religion. Some of the gods that the Aztecs believed in had been in their religion since its birth, while others were adopted into their culture when they conquered different lands.

The Aztecs believed in a religion that prompted them to constantly try and win blessings from the gods. Offerings and sacrifices, which could be human or otherwise, were regularly made to win the gods’ favor.

The heavens and underworld

The Aztecs believed in the heavens and the underworld. According to the Aztec religion, there are thirteen levels of heaven, while there are nine levels in the underworld. There are also four horizontal and vertical points that correspond to the four directions of the compass. These four directions are associated with the four gods of creation. Depending on the day they are born, all human beings are assigned to one of the four points.

Ometecutli and Omeciuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality.
Ometecutli and Omeciuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality. Credit@ Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

According to the Aztecs, the earth was a huge disc that was surrounded by water at the central point where the horizontal and vertical met. This central point was believed to be ruled by the above-mentioned Lord and Lady of Duality, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl.

Death and afterlife

According to the Aztecs, it is one’s actions and the manner of death on earth that’ll decide where one will go after one dies.

The eastern paradise or the house of the sun is where the souls of the warriors who died in combat go. This paradise also serves as the home for the souls of the enemy warriors who had a special god of the enemy dead. The souls of the victims who served as sacrifices during offerings or rituals also went to the house of the sun. However, it is believed that the souls did not stay permanently in the eastern paradise. After lasting for four years there, they return to the earth, reincarnated as hummingbirds and other exotic birds.

The western paradise or the house of corn was for the women who lost their lives in childbirth. They would then return to the earth as phantoms bearing bad omens.

The southern paradise or the paradise of Tlaloc was for the people who died of leprosy, lightening, or other sicknesses. This paradise is a place with plenty of food.

The paradise of the north, called Mictlan, was the final resting place of the dead. To get there, it involved passing through nine trials, which took at least four years to accomplish.

Reaching Mictlan

According to the Aztecs, a soul must go through a number of trials before it can get to Mictlan. They are as follows-

  • Cross a deep river where dogs were buried along with their dead owners, so they have a guide during this journey
  • Pass between two mountains that were actually joined together
  • Climb atop an obsidian mountain
  • Pass through ice-cold wind that cuts like a knife
  • Pass through an area where flags are waved
  • Get pierced by arrows
  • Pass through wild beasts which have devoured human hearts
  • Walk over a narrow stone path
  • Reach this level where the soul can rest in peace
Clay sculpture of Mictantecutli, Lord of the Land of the Dead, in Mexico.
Clay sculpture of Mictantecutli, Lord of the Land of the Dead, in Mexico. Credit@ WilderUtopia

To make this trip, deceased people were buried in a squatting position. Buried along with them are a number of items that help them on their journey. These include the dog which is mentioned above and will help guide the person, water, a jade bead which acts as the dead person’s heart in the seventh level and many other personal objects to gift to Mictlantecuhtli (god of the dead) or Mictecacihuatl, who is the mistress of the underworld when they enter the ninth level.

Aztec Mythology

Creation of the World

According to the Aztecs, it took the gods four attempts to create the earth and mankind. At the fifth attempt, the gods got everything right. The first creation happened when Black Tezcatlipoca decided to transform himself into the sun. Tezcatlipoca was one of the four sons of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Duality, respectively. At the time, the earth was inhabited by giants who devoured acorns, roots and berries. One of Tezcatlipoca’s rivals and brother, Quetzalcoatl, couldn’t bear the fact that his enemy was the ruler of the universe. So he took matters into his own hands and knocked Tezcatlipoca right out of the sky. Tezcatlipoca wasn’t one to back down either. In his rage and humiliation at being knocked out of the sky, Tezcatlipoca transformed into a jaguar and destroyed the earth.

Tezcatlipoca in his jaguar form.
Tezcatlipoca in his jaguar form. credit@ Wikiwand

The second attempt at creating earth and mankind was when Quetzalcoatl ruled over the heavens. Quetzalcoatl created people on earth who devoured pine nuts. This time, it was Tezcatlipoca’s turn to overthrow his brother. He promptly did so. The earth wasn’t spared either. Tezcatlipoca destroyed the earth with a great gust of wind. The few people who were left were transformed into monkeys.

The third creation of the earth started when Tlaloc, the god of rain, transformed into the sun. Quetzalcoatl sent down torrents of rain, thus flooding the earth and wiping out almost all mankind. The very few who did survive were transformed into birds.

The fourth creation took place when Chalchiuhtlicue, the water goddess, took over the sun’s responsibilities. This time, too, the earth was destroyed by a great flood. Those who did survive were turned into fish.

The final creation

The final creation of the earth occurred when the fifth sun was created. This time, instead of just knocking each other out of the sky and flooding the earth, the gods decided to meet and talk. When doing so, they decided that one among them should be sacrificed to become the new sun. One of the gods, a poor and humble one, sacrificed himself and became the sun.

Quetzalcoatl. credit@ Wikipedia

However, the matter was far from over. The sun just hung in the sky without any movement. To make the sun move, all the gods had to sacrifice themselves. Once the sun did start moving across the sky, Quetzalcoatl took the responsibility of creating mankind. He did this by travelling to the underworld, from where he brought back the bones of the past generations to earth.

While it was easy to enter the underworld, leaving was not so. Quetzalcoatl was chased by the god of the underworld while leaving. In his attempt to flee, he slipped and fell, thus breaking the bones of the past generations. What Quetzalcoatl did was to sprinkle some of the pieces with his blood and turn them into humans. And since the pieces varied in size, the men and women created were of different sizes too.

This is just one version of how humans were created. However, in all the versions, each creation brings the people closer to the ideal humankind.

Aztec calendar

The Aztecs organized their religious life around the calendar. As did most Mesoamerican people, the Aztecs too used two calendars simultaneously. The ritual calendar, consisting of 260 days, was called the tonalpohualli. The solar calendar, made of 365 days, was called the xiuhpohualli.

In both the calendars, each day had a name and number. The tonalpohualli was mainly used for divinatory purposes. There were 20-day signs and number coefficients of 1 to 13, which cycled in a fixed order.

The Aztec calendar stone
The Aztec calendar stone. credit@ Wikimedia commons

The xiuhpohualli had 18 months, each with 20 days. Before the new xiuhpohualli cycle, there would be a remainder of 5 ‘void’ days at the end of the previous cycle. Each month was named after a specific ritual festival at the beginning of the month. Many of these festivals were connected to the agricultural cycle. Every monthly ritual involved pretty much the entire population. Each household, calpolli temples and the main sacred precinct performed the rituals. Many of the festivals involved various forms of dancing and the re-enactment of mythical stories. The re-enactment was done by deity impersonators. Sacrifices were offered in the form of food, human and animal victims.

Every 52 years, the calendars reach a common starting point upon which a new calendar cycle starts. This event was celebrated with the Xiuhmolpilli ritual or the New Fire Ceremony. The ritual comprised old pottery being broken in all the households and all the fires in the Aztec realm being extinguished. A new fire was drilled over a sacrificial victim’s breast. Runners then brought the new fire to different communities, after which it was redistributed to all the homes. In the night without fire, the Aztecs fear that the star demon, tzitzimime, might come down and devour the earth.

Human sacrifice

Agriculture was the main focus of the Aztecs’ religion. The forces of the earth and water were directly connected to agricultural fertility. Human life was seen metaphorically- rather like a flower or maize. While death was inevitable, humans did carry the seed of reproduction within them. Therefore, ceremonies and rituals dealt with life rather than the afterlife, to ensure fertility, health and to prevent natural disasters.

As mentioned earlier, the Aztecs were constantly trying to appease the gods so that they might grant the humans favours. Through their religious practices, rituals and ceremonies, the Aztecs strived to keep a balance in nature. One such way to do this was through human sacrifice.

The priest offers the heart taken from a living human victim to the Aztec sun god and god of war, Huitzilopochtli.
The priest offers the heart taken from a living human victim to the Aztec sun god and god of war, Huitzilopochtli. Credit@ HistoryExtra

Human sacrifice was seen as a way to thank the gods. Just like offering corn to Tlaloc, the rain god, to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest and for equally great harvests in the future, humans were sacrificed to ensure the continuation of humankind. Death was needed to ensure the continuation of the human race, and the Aztecs believed that both the gods and humans were responsible for keeping life alive by making sacrifices. The humans who were sacrificed weren’t considered as victims, but as messengers to the gods.

Various forms of blood sacrifice were conducted. Humans and animals were sacrificed depending on the god for whom the sacrifice was offered and the ceremony being performed. Sometimes, the priests of some of the gods were required to provide their own blood. This was done by self-mutilation.

Population decline

Like so many other ancient cultures and communities, the Aztecs passed along their stories of their gods and goddesses orally. While later on some stories were recorded in codices, the stories mostly depended on word of mouth. During ceremonies and rituals, stories were conveyed through singing and were accompanied by drums. There would be dancers in masks, stage props and pantomimes. The storytellers would coin several stories together into epics.

The Spanish and the Aztecs
The Spanish and the Aztecs. credit@ Google Sites

Stories continued to be passed on orally until the Spanish arrived. The stories were then written down by Aztec nobility (who learnt Spanish) and the missionary friars. For the Spanish missionaries, the aim of writing down the stories was not to preserve them but to refute them with Christianity. The friars believed that the more they learnt about the Aztec religion and beliefs, the more they could work against it. However, there were also few among the Spanish who were genuinely interested in the Aztec religion due to their thirst for knowledge.

The arrival of the Europeans in Mexico and their conquests spelt doom for the indigenous populations. When the colonial powers arrived, they brought with them a hoard of viruses that resulted in epidemics which the natives had no immunity against.

Conclusion: The Aztec Legacy

When the Spanish arrived, they destroyed a majority of the Aztec documents and images. According to them, the Aztec religion was nothing but devilish. However, at the same time, much of what is known today about the Aztecs is from the Spanish writers and missionaries’ accounts who were witnesses to the Aztec empire’s final days. The legacy that the Aztecs left behind has remained strong within Mexico. Aztec themes and images have influenced countless arts and public life.

The Mexican coat of arms, depicting an eagle devouring a rattlesnake
The Mexican coat of arms, depicting an eagle devouring a rattlesnake. credit@ Wikimedia

In the late 1800s, even though Mexico had gained independence from Spain, it had not established its own national identity. Cultural and civic leaders of the new country started forming a new and modern vision that combined with the cultures of the past. This included the proud and powerful civilization of the Aztecs. Ancient symbols from Aztec carvings, such as the images of the four deities of creation, began to appear on postage stamps and murals. Mexico’s coat of arms features an eagle clutching a rattlesnake in its beak. It is the mythic emblem of the founding of the capital of the Aztec empire. The design has its roots in the ancient Aztec belief- it is said that when the Aztecs saw an eagle devouring a snake, they’d know where to build their city.

In the 1920s, artists were invited by Mexico’s education minister to paint murals on public buildings. While many of the works dealt with the Mexican Revolution and the life of peasants and Indians, the artists drew inspiration from Aztec mythology. Ancient symbols and images from the Aztec civilization were connected to Mexico’s present. Today, the Aztec legacy lives on in Mexico in various forms.

Leave a Reply