Aztec Mythology and Legends
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Aztec Mythology & Legends
Origins of an Empire
According to legend, the place of origin for the Aztecs was an island called Aztlan or Place of the Seven Caves (Chicomostoc). The exact location of Atzlan is controversial, but it is presumed to be located somewhere north of the Valley of Mexico. Stories tell us that though the civilization thrived here, the Aztecs left and went in search of a promised land. The god Huitzilopochtli (i.e. Wheet-zee-low-POCH-tlee), or “Hummingbird on the Left,” advised the Aztecs to establish their city when they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a serpent. This image of the eagle and the serpent is depicted on the modern Mexican flag.
Led by their solar warrior god Huitzilopochtli, the people traveled south through central Mexico for hundreds of years, eventually founding the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was built on Lake Texcoco starting in AD 1325. At its height, Tenochtitlan reached more than 200,000 inhabitants. The Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish and their Indigenous allies less than 200 years later.
Religion and The Templo Mayor
Aztec religion was a complex and intricate set of gods, legends, and beliefs. The Aztecs recognized more than 200 gods and goddesses, each with its own characteristics or symbols. During Aztec rule, gods were associated with specific ethnic and social groups.
Temples were built to honor specific gods and goddesses, and upon reaching the capital city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs constructed the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple which was symbolic of the mountain, Coatepec, the birthplace of the Aztecs’ patron Huitzilopochtli. According to Aztec belief, the Earth goddess Coatlicue (Co-at-lee-COO-eh) gave birth to a fully mature and armed Huitzilopochtli atop Coatepec. Upon birth, Huitzilopochtli fought with and defeated his half sister, Coyolxauhqui (Co-yol-SHAU- kee), who had plotted with her brothers and sisters to kill Coatlicue for becoming pregnant with Huitzilopochtli. Coyolxauhqui’s body fell from the mountain, breaking into pieces at the base. Her head flew into the sky and became the moon.
The Templo Mayor served as a monument to this myth. The temple contained two large staircases that lead to twin shrines, one dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the other to Tlaloc (TLA- loc), the god of rain and fertility. At the Templo Mayor, captive warriors were sacrificed so that their blood would nourish Huitzilopochtli, the sun, and enable it to prevail in its daily struggle to banish the forces of darkness and night. During sacrifices, prisoners and captives were thrown from the temple’s summit, re-enacting the victory of Huitzilopochtli over Coyoxauhqui.
The Aztecs and the Sun
The Aztecs placed great significance on the sun, and it is central to some of the principal myths within the empire. For the Aztecs, the East represented the masculine part of the Universe, while the West represented the feminine. From dawn until noon, the Sun was carried by warriors who had died in battle or through sacrifice, and from noon until dusk, the sun was guided by women who died in childbirth. The importance of the sun was recorded in both poetry and song.
The Aztecs believed in five successive creations or suns. According to legend, there were four earlier ages or “suns” where the gods attempted to create earth and mankind. Each of the four attempts was met with destruction. In the first sun, giants roamed the Earth but were eaten by jaguars that also destroyed the sun and the Earth. During the second sun, creator god Quetzalcoatl ruled Earth, where humans lived on acorns. In massive hurricanes, the sun was obliterated and the people turned into monkeys. Tlaloc, the god of rain, ruled the sun in the third attempt, but the world was devastated by fiery rain, and all the humans turned into butterflies and dogs. In the fourth creation, humans turned into fish after the Earth was destroyed by flooding. The fifth sun is the one we currently live in today. Legend states that this sun too will be destroyed. Humans will be eliminated by sky monsters and the Earth will be destroyed by earthquakes.
Principal Gods and Goddesses
Chalchiuhtlicue was goddess of rivers, lakes, and streams. Along with Tlaloc, she ruled over the weather and was responsible for the flood that destroyed the fourth world of the Aztecs. She wears a large neck fan of folded paper and a necklace of heavy jade beads that represent the green of exuberant vegetation nurtured by water.
Often referred to as the goddess of nourishment, Chicomecoatl was the Aztec goddess of mature maize. This goddess is represented in several forms, as a girl with waterflowers or as a mother who carries the sun as a shield. She is usually recognized by her towering square headdress, adorned at the corners with pleated paper rosettes. Typically, she carries double ears of mature maize in each hand.
Tlaloc was the deity of rain and lightning. He dwelt in watery caves within high mountains. Tlaloc often brought fury upon the Aztec people by using lightning bolts to make people ill. Tlaloc’s attendants made thunder by striking pots that contained rain; lightning bolts were created by breaking the pots. Tlaloc is recognized by his fanged mouth, twisted nose and round, goggle eyes. Like Chalchiuhtlicue, he wears a neck fan of pleated paper.
Coyolxauhqui (Co-yol-SHAU- kee)
Moon goddess and half sister to Huitzilopochtli, Coyolxauhqui’s name means “Golden Bells,” and she is depicted with bells on her cheeks. After an attempt by Coyolxauhqui to murder her Earth goddess mother, Huitzilopochtli decapitated her and threw her head into the sky, where it became the moon.
The god of sun, war, and fire, Huitzilopochthli was shown as covered with blue hummingbird feathers and armed the fearful xiuhcoatl lance. His mother, Earth goddess Coatlicue became pregnant with the warrior god when a feather fell from the sky and touched her. Huitzilopochthi was born as an adult fully armed and able to defend his mother, who was being attacked by her children for her mysterious pregnancy.
Depicted as a feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl was a major Aztec deity. He was the creator god, associated with wind and water and was a patron of the arts. Quetzalcoatl played a role in the creation and destruction of the four suns. He also ruled the fifth world and created the humans of that world. Legend states that he descended into the underworld, where he gathered the bones of people from previous worlds. When he returned from the underworld, Quetzazcoatl sprinkled his own blood on the bones to create these new humans.