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Aztec Gods

There are many oversimplifications of Aztec mythology in the popular imagination, focused mostly on the ritual of human sacrifice. In fact, the Aztecs had a complicated cosmology that extended far beyond that.

The Aztecs believed in a variety of gods, and also in a larger supernatural force called “Te¯o¯tl,” which has been mistranslated as "god" or "demon.” This force permeated the world, and served as a driver for events that even the gods couldn’t always counteract.

The Aztecs’ elaborate mythology centered on the figure of Huitzilopochtli, their Sun God and War God. It was Huitzilopochtli who gave them the vision of the serpent clutching the snake that led the ancestors of the Aztec to the Valley of Mexico and gave them the impetus to found their great central city of Tenochtitlan.

Because the Aztecs borrowed much of their mythology from the Toltecs and were influenced by other peoples as well, there are many contradictory stories in their mythology.

According to many of their creation myths, the Original Being was Coatlique, “the Lady with the Skirt of Snakes.” She symbolized the unknown, with her skirt of snakes that represented (for the Aztecs) the four directions and the central up and down axis.

There are many legends of Coatlique and how her offspring, which included the stars and the moon goddess, Coyolxanuhqui, came to be; some say she was impregnated by emeralds, jade, or an obsidian knife. In a later story, after these children were born, Coatlique placed a ball of feathers in her bosom; later, she discovered that it was gone and that she was pregnant with Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent God who was to become so critical to later Aztec beliefs. Other stories say that the offspring of this pregnancy was Huitzilopochtli, and that he later fathered Quetzalcoatl after a protracted war for control of the heavens.

Whatever his origin, Quetzalcoatl became a central figure in the daily religious practice of the Aztecs. He was seen as the inventor of books (the Aztecs had an elaborate hieroglyphic system which they used to record stories in books now called codices) and the originator of the well-known Aztec calendar. He was also associated with the planet Venus, the morning star, and was known as the giver of maize (corn) to the people.

Quetzalcoatl’s influence permeated every segment of Aztec life, but he was not the only important deity. There were hundreds of gods, and (as in the creation myth) sometimes one god had several names. The previously mentioned Huitzilopochtli was central, but there were also rituals and rites associated with Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and waters; Chiconahui - a domestic fertility goddess and her mate Tlaloc, the god of rain; Acolmiztli, one of the gods of the underworld (called Mictlan); and Itzli, the god of sacrifice and stone knives.

An interesting aspect of the Aztec pantheon is the presence of the “Gods Of Excess.” These five gods represented over indulgence in drunkenness and other vices, and were associated with the number five. Days in the Aztec calendar which were associated with the number five were considered to be under the influence of these gods, and were thought to be days where people were particularly susceptible to their influence.

Aztec society was a highly organized and complex structure, as was their mythology. The gods the Aztecs worshipped reflected their environment and their culture.

 

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