Aztec religion

Aztec religion is a Mesoamerican religion combining elements of polytheism, shamanism and animism within a framework of astronomy and calendrics. Like other Mesoamerican religion, 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. It had a large and ever increasing pantheon; the Aztecs would often adopt into their own religious practice deities of other geographic regions or peoples. Aztec cosmology divided the world into upper and nether-worlds, each associated with a specific set of deities and astronomical objects. Important in Aztec religion were the sun, moon and the planet Venus--all of which held different symbolic and religious meanings and were connected to deities and geographical places. Large parts of the Aztec pantheon were inherited from previous Mesoamerican civilizations and others, such as Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, were venerated by different names in most cultures throughout the history of Mesoamerica. For the Aztecs especially important deities were Tlaloc the god of rain, Huitzilopochtli the patron god of the Mexica tribe, Quetzalcoatl the culture hero and god of civilization and order, and Tezcatlipoca the god of destiny and fortune, connected with war and sorcery. Each of these gods had their own temples within the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan--Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were both worshipped at the Templo Mayor. A common Aztec religious practice was the recreation of the divine: Mythological events would be ritually recreated and living persons would impersonate specific deities and be revered as a god--and often ritually sacrificed.


The concept of "Teotl" is central to Aztec religion. In the Nahuatl language it is often glossed as "God", but may in fact be a much wider term referring to an immaterial dynamic energy of divinity, akin to the Polynesian concept of Mana [Taube and Miller 1993, pp 89. For a lengthy treatment of the subject see Hvidtfeldt, 1958 ] The nature of "Teotl" has been an ongoing discussion between scholars for many years. It is also 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". [Restall 2001 pp 116-118]

The Pantheon

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 worshipped 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 worshipped 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.

H. B. Nicholson (1971) classed the gods into three groups according to their conceptual meaning in general Mesoamerican religion. The first groups he calls the "Celestial creativity - Divine Paternalism group", and it contains such gods as the creator couple Ometeotl and Omecihuatl, Tezcatlipoca and Xiuhtecutli. The second one is the Rain-Moisture-Agricultural fertility complex containing gods like Tlaloc, Centeotl, the earthmother 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 Nicholsons subtle classification in the following a more impressionist classification is presented.

Cultural Gods
*Tezcatlipoca - means "Smoking Mirror", a panmesoamerican shaman God, omnipotent universal power.
*Quetzalcoatl - means "Feathered Serpent", a panmesoamerican god of life, the wind and the morningstar
*Tlaloc - a panmesoamerican god of rain, storm, water and thunder
*Mixcoatl - means "Cloud Serpent", the tribal God of many of the Nahua people such as the Tlaxcalteca, god of war, sacrifice and hunting
*Huitzilopochtli - means "Left handed Hummingbird", the tribal God of the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, god of war and sacrifice

Nature gods
*Tonatiuh - The Sun
*Metztli - The Moon
*Tlaltecuhtli - means "Earth Lord", Goddess of the Earth
*Chalchiuhtlicue - means "Jade Her Skirt", Goddess of springs
*Centzon Huitznahua - means "The 400 Southerners", Gods of the stars
*Ehecatl the Wind, often conflated with Quetzalcoatl and called "Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl"

Gods of creation
*Ometeotl/Ometecutli/Omecihuatl/Tonacatecutli/Tonacacihuatl - The doublegendered creator god
*Huehueteotl/Xiuhtecutli - means "Old God" and "Turquoise Lord", god of origin, time, fire and old age
*Coatlicue/Toci/Teteo Innan/Tonantzin - female progenitor goddesses

Gods of Pulque and excess
*Tlazolteotl - Goddess of filth and guilt and of cleansing
*Tepoztecatl - God of Pulque worshipped at Tepoztlan
*Xochiquetzal - Goddess of pleasure and indulgence, and sex
*Mayahuel - Goddess of Pulque and Maguey
*The Auiateteo:
*Centzon Totochtin - "the 400 Rabbits", god of drunkenness
**Ometocthli - means "Two Rabbit", leader of the Centzon Totochtin, god of fertility, and drunkenness

Gods of Maize and fertility
*Xipe Totec - means "Our Flayed Lord", Fertility god associated with spring, patron god of goldsmiths
*Cinteotl - God of Maize
*Xilonen/Chicomecoatl - Goddess of tender maize
*Xochipilli means "Flower Prince", God of happiness, flowers, pleasure and fertility

Gods of death and the underworld
*Mictlantecutli - Lord of the underworld
*Mictlancihuatl - Queen of the underworld

*Yacatecutli - means "Nose Lord", god of merchants
*Patecatl - god of doctors and medicine

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 inolved 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 slavemarkets 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 Tenochtitlan

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. 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 highpriests of these two temples. Both high priests were called by the title Quetzalcoatl - the highpriest of Huitzilopochtli was "Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui" and the high priest of Tlaloc was "Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui" [Townsend, 1992, p. 192] . 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 [Van Zantwijk 1985] . Priests were educated at the Calmecac if they were from noble families and in the Telpochcalli if they were commoners.

Cosmovision and Ritual

The Aztec world consisted of three main parts: the earth world on which humans lived, an underworld which belonged to the dead and the upper plane in the sky. The earth and the nether world were both open for humans to enter, whereas the upper plane in the sky was impenetrable to humans. The Aztec underworld was called Mictlan ("place of death"). 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 the maize kernels were entered later to sprout anew, so the human and divine existence was envisioned as being cyclical. The upper and nether worlds were both thought to be layered. Mictlan had 9 layers which were inhabited by different deities and mythical beings. The sky had 13 layers, the highest of which was called Omeyocan "place of duality" and which held the progenitor dual god Ometeotl. Other mythical places were Tlalocan, "The place of Tlaloc", a verdant spring like place with abundant water where people who drowned had their afterlife and Tamoanchan, a mythical place of the origin of the gods.

After death the soul of the Aztec went to one of three places: Tlalocan, Mictlan, and the sun. The Aztec idea of the afterlife for fallen warriors and women who died in childbirth was that their souls would be transformed into hummingbirds that would follow the sun on its journey through the sky. Souls of people who died from less glorious causes would go to Mictlan - place of the dead. Those who drowned would go to Tlalocan.Tuerenhout, D. V. (2005). The Aztecs: New Perspectives [Electronic version] . Accessed January 16, 2008, from ]

In Aztec cosmovision, as in Mesoamerica in general, geographical features such as caves and mountains held symbolical value as places of crossing between the upper and nether worlds. Also the cardinal directions were symbolically connected to the religious layout of the world, each direction was associated with specific colours 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 which is recorded in the Codex Chimalpopoca - here it is recounted 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 and the first humans, made out of maize dough could live, thanks to his sacrifice - and they, the humans, were responsible for its continued revival. Human sacrifice among the Aztecs and in Mesoamerica in general must be seen in this context - sacrifice and death is 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- often offerings of food, flowers, effigies, and animals namely quail. But the larger the thing required from the God the larger the sacrifice had to be, and for the most important rites one would offer one's own blood; by cutting his ears, arms, tongue, thighs, chest or genitals, a human life; either warrior or slave, or even a god's life.


The Aztecs practiced a type of confession. One would confess a sin and immediately be forgiven as if it never happened. The catch with Aztec confession is that once you confess a sin, you can never do that same type of sin again. Forgiveness is not granted to those who commit the same sin multiple times.

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 honorable 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 which also served to perpetuate the world by repeating the important events of the creation. For example the ritual at the feast of Huitzilopochtli would reenact legend of the birth of Huitzilopochtli and his fight against his sister Coyolxauhqui and the Centzon Huitznahua. The ritual at the New Fire Ceremony was a reenactment of the creation of the fifth sun.

The 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.


:"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, Huitzilpochtli had to kill his nephew, Cópil, and throw his heart on the lake. But, since Cópil was his relative, Huitzilpochtli 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".

Another significant Mexica deity was the earth mother goddess, Tonantzin. It was her shrine in the northern section of today's Mexico City which was later transformed into the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a central icon in Mexican Catholic belief, and dances of pre-Hispanic origins are still performed there to this day. This was an incarnation of Coatlicoe, the goddess of the snake skirt and mother of Huitzilopochtli.

Human sacrifice

:"Main article: Human sacrifice in Aztec culture"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. [cite journal
last = Hassigtitle = El sacrificio y las guerras floridas
journal = Arqueología mexicana
volume = XI
pages = 47
date = 2003
] 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.

External links

* [ Aztecs at Mexicolore] : constantly updated educational site specifically on the Aztecs, for serious students of all ages



:cite book |author=aut|Hvidtfeldt, Arild |year=1958 |title=Teotl and Ixiptlatli: some central conceptions in ancient Mexican religion: with a general introduction on cult and myth|publisher=Munksgaard|location=Copenhagen

:cite book |author=aut|Miller, Mary |authorlink=Mary Miller |coauthors=and aut|Karl Taube |year=1993 |title=The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya |publisher=Thames and Hudson |location=London |isbn=0-500-05068-6

:cite book |author=aut|Nicholson, H.B. |year=1971. |chapter=Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico|title= Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volume 10 |editor=G. Ekholm and I. Bernal (eds)|publisher=University of Texas Press|pages=395-446|location=Austin|isbn=0-292-77593-8

:cite book |author=aut|Townsend, Richard F. |year=2000 |title=The Aztecs |edition=revised ed. |publisher=Thames and Hudson|location=New York

:cite book |author=aut|van Zantwijk, Rudolph |title=The Aztec Arrangement: The Social History of Pre-Spanish Mexico |publisher=Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, |year=1985

:cite book |author=aut|van Tuerenhout, Dirk |title=The Aztecs: New Perspectives |publisher=Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, |year=2005 |isbn=157607921X (hardback : alk. paper)
isbn=1576079244 (ebook)

For Further Reading

:cite book |author=aut|Burland, C. A |title=The Aztecs: gods and fate in ancient Mexico |publisher=London: Orbis, |year=1985.

:cite book |author=aut|Brundage, Burr Cartwright |title=The Fifth Sun: Aztec gods, Aztec world |publisher=Austin: University of Texas Press, |year=c1979

:cite book |author=aut|Markman, Roberta H |title=The Flayed God: the mesoamerican mythological tradition: sacred texts and images from pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America |publisher=Harper San Francisco, |year=c1992

:cite book |author=aut|Carrasco, David |title=Daily Life of the Azecs: People of the Sun and Earth |publisher=Greenwood Press,Connecticut |year=1998

:cite book |author=aut|Smith, Michael E. |title=the Aztecs 2nd Ed.|publisher=Blackwell Publishing,UK |year=2003

:cite book |author=aut|Aguilar- Moreno, Manuel |title=Handbook to Life n the Aztec World|publisher=Facts On File, California State University University, Los Angeles |year=2006

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Aztec Religion —    It is rarely in the history of the religions of the world that one is encountered which is quite so cruel and sanguinary as that of the Aztecs. To the original festivals of the agricultural deities was grafted on a superstructure of bloody… …   Who’s Who in non-classical mythology

  • Aztec philosophy — was the school of philosophy developed by the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs had a well developed school of philosophy, perhaps the most developed in the Americas and in many ways comparable to Greek philosophy, even amassing more texts than the… …   Wikipedia

  • Religion azteque — Religion aztèque Monde aztèque Société aztèque Nahuatl Mythologie aztèque Religion aztèque Astrolog …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Aztec — For other uses, see Aztec (disambiguation). The Aztec Pyramid at St. Cecilia Acatitlan, Mexico State …   Wikipedia

  • Aztec Triple Alliance — This article is about the Aztec Empire as a country. For Aztec society and culture, see Aztec. Aztec Triple Alliance 1428–1521 …   Wikipedia

  • Aztec — Aztecan, adj. /az tek/, n. 1. a member of a Nahuatl speaking state in central Mexico that was conquered by Cortés in 1521. 2. Also called classical Nahuatl. the variety of Nahuatl that served as the medium of Aztec civilization, aboriginally… …   Universalium

  • Religion — This article is about a general set of beliefs about life, purpose, etc.. For other uses, see Religion (disambiguation). Religious redirects here. For a member of a Catholic religious order, see Religious (Catholicism) …   Wikipedia

  • Aztec (book) — Infobox Book | name = Aztec title orig = translator = image caption = Cover of 1980 First Edition author = Gary Jennings illustrator = cover artist = country = United States language = English series = subject = genre = Historical novel publisher …   Wikipedia

  • Aztec Creation Legends —    The myths of the Aztecs as to the Creation tell that the ‘first earth’ with its inhabitants was destroyed by a great flood caused by Atonatiuh, the water sun, who was subsequently equated with Tlaloc. The human beings who survived this… …   Who’s Who in non-classical mythology

  • Religion aztèque — La religion aztèque était le culte que rendaient les Aztèques aux divinités de leur mythologie. L importance sociale de ses rites et de son Église était particulièrement marquée. Comme d autres religions mésoaméricaines, elle a eu recours aux… …   Wikipédia en Français

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”