The Gods of the Ancient Mexicans


Mesoamerican Religion

At first glance, the religion of the Indians of Mexico - the ancient Aztecs, Toltecs, Mayas, and so on - is so confusing as to appear incoherent, especially to those of us used to thinking in terms of the well-defined Greek and Roman gods. There are several reasons for this. First, we are seeing the religion of ancient Mexico not only from a distance in time, but almost solely through the eyes of such suspect sources as Catholic missionaries, Conquistadors, and early christianized Indians eager to impress the friars with their advocacy of their new faith; it cannot be forgotten that backsliders could face the Inquisition! Still, some of these constitute our best sources, particularly the friars Sahagun and Duran. Nevertheless, many aspects of the religion - particularly the erotic aspects - have been neglected or intentionally hidden.

The names as given here are in Nahuatl, which was the language spoken by the Aztecs and Toltecs, and which is still spoken by more than a million Indians in modern Mexico. It should be realized that some of these names are "date names" - that is, the name and number of the day on which a specific person was born, just as if a person in today's society was given a name such as, "12 August". These are noted in the following charts with an asterisk (*). Additionally, many of the Teotl have numerous names, only a few of which are mentioned; often there is a different name for each aspect - Quetzalcoatl/Ehecatl/Tlahuizcalpantecuhlti (see below) is a good example.

Here we shall not go into details of concept - these are scattered through the stories. Rather, we will confine ourselves to a definition of the Teotl (the word usually translated as "god") in relation to the characters. The reader should remember that the Aztec gods were not static like those of Rome; they were very fluid, appearing in many guises and avatars, changing into one another.

The Gods:

1. Quetzalcoatl (The Plumed Serpent): John Goss. Patron of wisdom, patron of the priesthood. As Ehecatl, god of the wind; as Tlahuizcalpantechtli, god of Venus as the morning star. As Ce Acatl* (One Reed), a warrior. Special friend and patron of mankind, inventor of writing and the calendar. Reputed to have opposed human sacrifice, but this was likely an invention to please the Catholic priests.

2. Tezcatlipoca (The Smoking Mirror): Herbert North, Jr. Patron of war and warriors, sower of discord, rewarder of the valiant; highly capricious, unpredictable. Often seen as a dual opposite of Quetzalcoatl. He had many synonyms; Itzli (knife), Itzlacoliuhqui (curved flint knife), Yaotl (enemy), and many more.

3. Xipe Totec (Our Lord the Flayed?): David Hallsten. Perhaps the most mysterious of the Teotl; usually assumed to be the patron of springtime and planting, he also probably has sexual/fertility connotations. In the story he is identified as synonymous with the plant god group including Cinteotl (corn god), Xochipilli (Flower Prince) and Macuilxochitl* (Five-flower).

4. Tlaloc (Land-lier): Frank Wasserman. The God of Rain, purely and simply. The source of the name is obscure. Always pictured with fangs and eye-rings, he has no common synonyms.

5. Huehueteotl (Old, old God): the Old Man, Old One of the Fire, Eduardo Arias. Also known as Xiuhtecuhtli (Precious Lord), he is the ancient fire god, sometimes identified with the creator-diety Ometeotl (Dual God).

6. Xolotl (Monster): the phantom. Sorceror, dog-face god, twin to Quetzalcoatl; he is identified with Venus as the evening star, and as Quetzalcoatl's Nagual. In the story, he is also considered a dualistic twin to Tezcatlipoca.

7. Patecatl (He from the Medicine-Land): Patecatl. Patron of medicines, pulque god.

8. Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent): Sam Cloud. Patron of hunters, Quetzalcoatl's father in his incarnation as Ce Acatl*.

9. Xiuhnel and Mimich (True Turquoise and Arrow Fish): Shownell and Mims. Sacrificial gods, followers of Mixcoatl.

10. Tonatiuh (Heat-giver): Tonatiuh. The sun-god, originally the "scabby" god Nanahuatzin, who sacrificed himself in fire to become the Fifth Sun. Many authors identify Nanahuatzin with Xolotl, and a few of the old sources say he was Quetzalcoatl's son, but these identifications are not used in the stories. His "date name" is Nahua Ollin* (four movement).

11. Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird From the Left?): Huitzilopochtli. God of War and personal deity of the Aztecs; he was probably unknown before their dynasty began.

12. Mictlantecuhtli (Dead-Land Lord): Mictlantecuhtli. God of the dead, nearly identical to the Roman Pluto.

13. Yohualltecuhtli (Night-Lord): Yohualltecuhlti. Lord of Night, or of the "Temple of the Night"; usually considered a personification of the night sun, that is, the sun below the horizon. In the stories, he takes Mictlantecuhlti's place as the possessor of the bones of mankind.

14. Tecciztecatl (He from the Innermost Twist of the Conch Shell): Tecciztecatl. Lunar deity, personification of the moon; an upstart sun, his face was darkened when a rabbit was thrown into it.

The Goddesses:

1. Chalchihuitlicue (Jade Skirts): Evelyn Wasserman. Goddess of terrestrial water, rivers, lakes, oceans. In Tlaxcala, she was called Matlalcueyeh (Green Skirt). Spence identifies her as Chimalma (Shield Hand), the mother of Quetzalcoatl in his incarnation as Ce Acatl*.

2. Xochiquetzal (Flower Feather): Susan Hallsten. Goddess of love, beauty, and flowers. Patroness of marriages and perhaps surprisingly, of prostitutes.

3. Tlazolteotl (Lust-Goddess): Kathryn Phillips. Goddess of sex, with earth and lunar attributes. She was the "eater of sins" to whom the Aztecs confessed their transgressions. Also known as Toci (grandmother), Teteo Innan (mother of the gods), Ixcuina (Four-face), and many other names. She was consistently seen as the mother of Cinteotl, the corn god.

4. Mayauel (translation ?): Mayauel. Goddess of the Maguey (Agave americana), pulque, and all intoxicants thereby. Original bringer of love to mankind (with Quetzalcoatl).

5. Xilonen (Young corn mother): Xilonen. Corn goddess, in her aspect as the young and tender corn; as adult, she was known as Chicomecoatl* (Seven serpent) or as Chalchiuhcihuatl (Precious Woman). In old age, as Ilamatecuhtli (Old Princess). Female sacrifices in old Mexico were often called Xilonen.

6. Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman): Cihuacoatl, Selinde Llorona. Earth mother, variously identified with Coaticue (Serpent Skirt), Tonantzin (Our Mother), and very possibly with the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose shrine stands on the ancient ground sacred to Tonantzin. Some writers say she is to be identified as Toci and Teteo Innan (see Tlazolteotl, above). She is also Quilaztli, who with Quetzalcoatl formed the new men and women after the birth of the Fifth Sun.

7. Itzpapalotl (Obsidian Butterfly): Liz Cloud. Chichimec goddess (the Chichimecs where the hunting tribes ancestral to the Aztecs and probably to the Toltecs), with fire, celestial, and definitely hunting aspects.

8. Mictlancihuatl (Dead-land Woman): Mictlancihuatl. Goddess of the dead, wife of Mictlantecuhtli.

9. Tzitzimitl (Air Demon): Tzitzimitl. Celestial demon goddess, whose origin was in the stars; a peculiar goddess of inertia, the only Aztec deity lacking a beneficent aspect. She is either multiple in or has minions known as Tzitzimeme, who are prevented by an ancient spell of Tlazolteotl's from devouring mankind; they are still percieved as dangerous during eclipses.

Indian Prophecy and the Ancient Calendar

That the civilizations of ancient Mexico produced and used highly accurate calendars is well known. One of the primary functions of these calendars was the prediction of future events; and obviously, an event of great interest was the projected end of the Fifth Sun, which was expected to be accompanied by earthquakes of such magnitude as to destroy all life on earth.

A note about these calendars is in order here, though the reader is referred to Valliant and Waters for fuller discussions. The late Maya cultures and the Aztec cultures used only a "short count" of years, starting each group of fifty-two - known as a "bundle" of years - as a new unit. But they left us no distinction between units. For example, 1987 was a Ce Acatl (One Reed) year; if the Aztec used our notation, they might refer to this year simply as '87, and we would not know whether they meant 1087, 1587, or 1987.

For the Classic Maya, however, the situation was quite different. Their "long count" extended tens of thousands of years into the past and future. It is from this - from the date correlation developed by Thompson and others, and now generally accepted - that the commonly quoted date of Dec. 24, 2011 is derived. This date, according to Maya prophecy, represents the End of the World.

But relating this precisely to Aztec myth and prophecy presents a few problems. The Aztec believed that the end of the world would be heralded - or would occur, we can't be sure from the old sources - at the close of a "bundle" of years. The new bundle was always started with a year Ome Acatl (Two reed); the last of these was 1975, the next will be 2027. On New Year's eve of the years preceding Ome Acatl years (The Aztec New Year fell on Feb. 2 according to Sahagun, though others disagree - Duran says Mar. 1, for example), the priests watched the skies for a sign that man had been granted another fifty-two year "bundle". The sign was the meridian transit of the star group known to us as the Pleiades, in the constellation Taurus. If it happened, "new fire" was drilled in the chest cavity of a sacrificial victim slain especially for the purpose, and there was general celebrating.

But the myth of the Fifth Sun states specifically that Tonatiuh will die on a day Nahui Ollin (Four movement). This cannot be on a new fire day, since that is always Ome Acatl. There is at least one Nahui Ollin day each year - the one nearest the Maya count (using Sahagun's new year) is Dec. 13, 2011.

These discrepancies may represent errors in the old records or correlations - for example, an 11-day error in the Thompson correlation, or a new year's day of Feb. 13 instead of the second (Valliant believes it was in fact the fourteenth, putting the two projections only a single day apart). Or, these could represent stages in the process of the death of a Sun. All we can say with certainty is that the significant years are 1975, 1987, and 2011.