Andreas Grünschloß          -- Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature - 2002

Aztec Religion and Nature (Precolumbian)

  1. Sacred topography: from mythic origins to a new Center of the World
  2. Cosmology, divination, and calendar
  3. A pantheon of life-sustaining forces and divine beings
  4. The preservation of nature through ritual and sacrifice
  5. Earth's vegetation, plants and flowers
  6. Underworld, death and Tenochtitlan's final destruction

In accordance with other meso-American traditions, the Aztecs experienced "nature" in all its complexity not as a mere mundane entity out there, but rather as deeply connected with superhuman powers and beings, manifesting themselves in countless aspects of the surrounding world and a sacred landscape. Earth itself, for example, could be viewed as a grand living being, and in pictorial manuscripts it is often depicted as a monstrous caiman with devouring mouth(s); hills are conceived as vessels containing subterranean waters, with caves as sacred entrance. But from the beginning of creation and the origination of life, man's activity and destiny is intertwined with an unstable interplay of living cosmic forces, according to the Aztec cosmovision, and human coping had to take place through a variety of ritual forms, since nothing would grow, nothing would endure, if "our Mother, our Father, Lord of Earth and Sun" would not be nourished continuously by ritual and sacrifice.

1) Sacred topography: from mythic origins to a new Center of the World. Narrative accounts from the Precolumbian Aztec tradition trace the history of the "Mexica" back into mythic beginnings. As in other mythic records, especially of culturally and linguistically related peoples of the Uto-Aztecan language-family, the creation(s) of man - or life, generally - took place in subterranean bowels of earth: The Mexica are said to have finally "surfaced" at, or through, "seven caves" (Chicomoztoc). Other sources speak about a primordial dwelling on an island called "Aztlan" ("White Place", "Place of Dawn/Origin"), and from this mythic location, probably somewhere in Northwestern Mexico, they started a long migration (ca. 200 years) southward in the eleventh/twelfth century. Roughly echoing the traceable history and dissemination of the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs from North to South, these legendary wanderings led them via Coatepec (the mythic birth-place of the important tribal and warfare numen Huitzilopochtli, "Hummingbird of the Left" or "South") and the ancient Toltec City of Tollan finally to lake Texcoco (Tetzcoco) on the central plateau of Mexico, where they first dwelled near Chapultepec, and then in Tizapan. Upon Huitzilopochtli's divine advice, the new and final residence Tenochtitlan (the center of today's Mexico City) was established on a small island in lake Texcoco during the fourteenth century. Within a very short time, this shaky Aztec settlement expanded into a gigantic metropolis absorbing Tlatelolco on the neighboring island, with allied city-states on the shores, and manifested itself as the center of an impressive empire stretching already from coast to coast in the early sixteenth century.

Especially the culture-contact with the (remnants of the) Toltecs, generally admired as "the" grand culture-giving predecessors, had a major impact on the wandering Mexica, who would now look back on their former life-style as that of rough "Chichimecans", of pure hunters and gatherers. Now, upon their arrival at Tenochtitlan, they applied the construction of chinampas (the famous "floating gardens") for an abundant cultivation of crops on the muddy shores and lagoons, for example, and they adopted the Toltec sacred architecture in building huge pyramid-shaped temples. The natural location of Tenochtitlan in the middle of a salty lake also proved strategically safe for the originally small bond of Mexica, especially since the island had fountains for supply with fresh water. But with the fast growth in size, water supply became a problem for the "Tenochca" (another name for the Mexica): Accordingly, an impressive aquaeduct from the springs of Chapultepec was constructed. On the other hand, dikes had to be built and foundation walls had to be raised, since Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco had been subject to severe floods every now and then during the rainy season.

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2) Cosmology, divination, and calendar. The communal life of the Tenochca, as well as the construction of their society, was deeply intertwined with religious and cosmological beliefs. Similar to other Amerindian and meso-American traditions, the Mexica believed that other worlds ("suns") had existed before this "fifth sun". Complex ritual strategies on all societal levels had to safeguard life in all its forms from the lurking dangers of chaos and destruction - dangers which, obviously, had already ruined the grand city-states of the past (Teotihuacan, Tollan). Therefore, one finds a strong notion of omnipresent peril, sometimes even pessimism, in Aztec poetry, and a strong sense that the life cycle of this sun and of the rich center of power and life in Tenochtitlan might also come to an end in the near future.

Therefore, divination, astrology and the general interpretation of "frightening omens" (tetzauitl) were important means to be warned of possible imminent perils. The famous "Book XII" of Sahagún's Historia General gives an impressive account of such "bad omens" preceding the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors (cf. opening paragraphs of Broken Spears). Before the start of any important enterprise, one would consult the "counters of days" (tonalpuhque), special priests with sound knowledge of calendars and astrology. With reference to the vigesimal (based on the number twenty) system of the tonalpohualli ("day count") calendar, one had to be careful, for example, that the baptismal ritual of a newborn child would not fall into one of the "bad" days: the "sprinkling of the head with water" (nequatequilitztli) was postponed, accordingly, until a good combination of one of the twenty day-signs and numbers (1-13) was at hand.

New Fire Ceremeony

(1) New fire is drilled on a victim's chest with a firedrill
(Codex Borgia)

Based on their astronomic tradition, the Aztecs knew the solar year of 365 days (xihuitl), but the logical combination of twenty day-signs and thirteen numbers led to an artificial tonalpohualli-cycle of 260 days (perhaps an allusion to the human period of pregnancy?), which served basically as a divinatory tool as explained in the "Book of the Days". The synthesis of both, xihuitl and tonalpohualli, resulted in five "superfluous, useless" (nemontemi) days per year - which were strongly associated with misfortune (18 portions of 20 days = 360; plus 5). Shifting five days per year, the start of every new year would move only between four (out of the twenty) day-signs, resulting altogether in a logic period or "age" of fifty-two years (13 numbers x 4 day-signs = 52), before another distinct 52-year "cycle" would commence. And at the end of every such "age", it was always possible that this world might now arrive at its termination and annihilation: this was the fear during the final dark night after the last five nemontemi days of an age, when all the fires had been extinguished, and when new life-giving fire had to be "drilled" on the chest of a sacrificed human (cf. plate 1), with the trembling hope that the sun might eventually have enough power to rise again - for another age.

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3) A pantheon of life-sustaining forces and divine beings. Life is perceived as continuously endangered in the Aztec cosmos, but as a guidance for coping with the hassles, challenges and dangers of life and nature, the Mexica developed a differentiated, cumulative "way of life" or "religious tradition" (verbal nouns of "to live" and "to be", like nemilitztli or tlamanitiliztli, are used to denote the normative tradition of "culture-religion-law"). And their huge pantheon of numina, divine powers or gods (teotl) indeed covers all aspects of cosmic forces and powers of nature with its polymorphic and often overlapping hierophanies. Some of the numina have a special, prominent status - like Huitzilopochtli and the important rain-god Tlaloc, worshipped together on Tenochtitlan's huge double-pyramid "Templo Mayor". Others serve specific functions - like Yacatecutli, "Lord in front", revered almost exclusively by the wandering merchants. In some cases, the highest source of life seems to transcend the polytheistic pantheon, and it can be addressed with singular or dual names: One striking name is Ipalnemoa(ni), "(the one) through whom one is living" (Live Giver), or Tloque Nauaque, "omnipresent one". In dual form, one can speak of Ometecutli Omeciuatl ("Lord and Lady of Duality"), denoting the ultimate ground of life and growth, as well as the great celestial source of the human 'soul': "We, being subject servants, from there our soul comes forth, when it alights, when the small ones are dropping down, their souls appear from there, Ometecutli sends them down" (cf. plate 2).Such a divine source can also be addressed as "old", "true" or "sole God" (icel teotl), or as "Father and Mother" of all gods/numina: "Mother of Gods, Father of Gods, old God, inside earth you dwell, surrounded by jewels, in blue waters, between the clouds, and in the sea". A binary aspect of the divine source of being and of natural sustenance is "Lord and Lady of our flesh" (Tonacatecutli Tonacaciuatl), bringing forth corn and all life-sustaining food.

Ometecutli + human soul

(2) Ometecutli and Omeciuatl place the human soul into a still lifeless skull
(Codex Fejerwary-Mayer)

Reflecting their prominent status in veneration, some of the more concrete personal numina in the polytheistic pantheon could also be addressed with such predications, be it the Trickster Tezcatlipoca ("smoky mirror") the fire-god Xiuhtecutli or the famous Quetzalcoatl ("feather serpent"). But it is also important to note that the "borders" of the Aztec numina are often permeable, as well as the borders between divine and human nature - i.e. between a god/numen (teotl) and its living human representative, the so-called "image" (ixiptlatli) or "god-carer" (teopixqui; generally translated as "priest"). In many instances, the ixiptlatli is truly identified with the god/numen: he not only wears the attributes, but he actually "is" Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc or Xipe Totec (etc.), he "is" the numen praesens - the actual earthly impersonation of god. This so-called "nagualism" (from azt. nahualli, "disguise") implies a simultaneous existence of the human nature with the divine being, power, or person (as well as with certain mythologically important animals, like the jaguar). This becomes apparent in the mythic accounts of the Aztec wanderings under the leadership of the 'first' Huitzilopochtli, where human and divine aspects obviously merge, or in the narrations around the famous (originally Toltec) numen and priest-king Quetzalcoatl of Tollan, who had a strong impact on Maya traditions as well. But in the case of captives who were to serve as human sacrifices, it is also reported that they did in fact represent the numen as "true" and "living god" until their ritual death. This becomes most evident in the case of the Toxcatl-ritual: A captive served as living ixiptlatli for Tezcatlipoca for a full year; he was actually venerated and adored as "Lord" and living Tezcatlipoca during this time, but with the end of the year he was ritually killed and immediately replaced by a "new image" of god.

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4) The preservation of nature through ritual and sacrifice. Since the cosmic order is "shaky", according to the Aztec cosmovision, man has to preserve and safeguard this cosmos and its life-sustaining forces by continuous ritual practice. An obvious, world-wide representation of the natural forces of life is blood, and this view is very dominant and consequential in the Aztec case. As in their paradigmatic myth, when the old gods had to sacrifice themselves in the darkness of Teotihuacan, when they had to shed their own blood in order to get the fifth sun moving, in the same way it is necessary for the Mexica to keep "sun" Tonatiuh moving by a repetitive and ceaseless supply with the so-called "precious liquid" (chalchiuatl) of human blood. Likewise, several individual rituals of repentance or protection implied ritual woundings for the drawing of blood (e.g. in the ears). To be sure, blood sacrifice was not the only form of ritual; the Aztecs also used flowers, burnt offerings, copal resin (incense), dance and music, but as the term chalchiuatl already implies, human blood was supposed to be the most "precious" and efficient life-sustaining offering. The extreme numbers of ritual deaths, handed down via Spanish sources appear definitely exaggerated, but there can be no doubt that human sacrifice was an important, significant and - at least in the beginning of the 16th century - quite abundant ritual method to keep the forces of nature alive. For example, a special ritual warfare, the so-called "flower war" (xochiyaoiotl) had to be institutionalized on contractual basis between the city-states of the Aztec empire, simply to meet the increasing demand for supply with captives for sacrifice.

As in other cultures, such human sacrifices seem to be dominant in case of divine beings associated with the powers of fertility, sun, rain and vegetation. - The tribal god Huitzilopochtli clearly carries solar traits (apart from warfare), and his myth tells of a primordial sacrifice, when he killed his lunar sister Coyolxauhqui and smashed her at the bottom of "serpent hill" (Coatepec), a myth which had to be ritually performed and re-actualized on Hutzilopochtli's festival (excavations at the bottom of Templo Mayor uncovered a huge relief plate with her smashed body). - The distinct sun-god, however, was "Sun" Tonatiuh, often depicted with red face and body. Burnt offerings, flowers, and especially human sacrifices were used to keep "Sun" on course. Tonatiuh was supposed to dwell in the "house of the sun in the sky" (ichan tonatiuh ilhuicac), a paradisiacal place and a very attractive postmortal region. In Aztec faith, the form of afterlife was solely determined by the form of death, and not by any moral behavior. All warriors who died on the battlefield and all the ritually sacrificed ones would be allowed into this solar paradise - as well as all women who died during confinement, since they were looked upon as warriors "acting in the form of a woman". They accompany the sun daily, and after some time they would be transformed into various beautiful birds or butterflies: like hummingbirds, they would be sucking the flowers in the sky and on the earth. - Tlaloc is the second most important god of the Aztec pantheon, representing earth's fertility through water and rain. Accordingly, his nature - as well as that of his wife Chalchihuitlicue - was ambiguous, like the nature of water itself (fertilizing or flooding). As in the case of Tonatiuh, another distinct postmortal region was associated with this deity in the rain-cloudy hills (tlalocan): All people who died in floods or thunderstorms (e.g. by lightning), or in connection with festering wounds (i.e. liquid), would proceed into Tlaloc's paradise with permanent summer and abundant vegetation.

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Tlazolteotl + Cinteotl
(3) Tlazolteotl (with flayed skin) gives birth to Cinteotl
(Codex Borbonicus)
5) Earth's vegetation, plants and flowers. Within the agricultural context of Aztec society, the different forms of vegetation - as well as their divine representations - had a prominent status in ritual. The god Xipe Totec ("Our Lord Flayer", "Our Flayed Lord"), generically representing spring and vegetation, was mostly depicted wearing a flayed human skin - a lucid symbolic representation of earth's new "skin of vegetation" in spring, but also a clear hint to the ritual flaying of human victims related to this godhead. Such bloody rituals took place on the festival Tlacaxipeualitztli ("flaying of people"), where captives were skinned and their hearts were cut out, presented up to the sun in order to "nourish" the sun, whilst the living "images" or "impersonators" of Xipe Totec, called Xipeme, would walk around, wearing the skin of the flayed ones. - Among the female deities, those of earth, fertility, sexuality and destruction are the most important. There are Mother of Earth or "Mother of Gods" (Teteoinnan) deities, such as the old (Huaxtecan) earth deity Tlazolteotl ("Eater of Filth"), associated with procreative powers and lust, and important in rituals for repenting adultery, fornication etc., Xochiquetzal, representing love and desire, and associated with flowers and festivals, or Coatlique (Huitzilopochtli's mother), with devouring, destructive aspects. Tlazolteotl (cf. Plate 3) can also be depicted with a flayed human skin (like Xipe Totec), and her ixiptlatli was ritually flayed in the 'thanksgiving' festival of autumn, where she - after meeting with the sun - gave birth to the corn god in a ritual drama.

Several major plants were personified by special numina. The culturally important maize (cintli), for example, had male and female divine representations, like "Corn God" Cinteotl (or Centeotl) and, among others, Chicome Coatl ("Seven Snake"), a prominent goddess and generic embodiment of edibles. Goddess Mayauel represented agave and, together with other specific pulque-numina, its fermented product, pulque (octli). But as a matter of fact, the Aztecs were very rigid in allowing access to alcohol, its abundant use being restricted to elder citizens. - Apart from feathers (esp. of the beautiful Quetzal bird) or jade, flowers (xochitl) were of special aesthetic and metaphoric significance in the Aztec culture. Cultivated in rich abundance and serving as a common ritual donation, flowers were not only synonymous with "joy", but also with "songs". Hence, the flower theme appears in many lyrics (Cantares Mexicanos): especially in the "flower song" (xochi-cuicatl) and "bereavement song" (icno-cuicatl) dealing with death, impermanence and the recreation of life through music and dance.

Flower Song (xochicuicatl)

Be pleasured for a moment
with our songs, O friends.
You sing adeptly, scattering,
dispersing drum plumes,
and the flowers are golden.

The songs we lift here on earth
are fresh. The flowers are fresh.
Let them come and lie in our hands.
Let there be pleasure with these, O friends.
Let our pain and sadness
be destroyed with these. ...

Only here on earth, O friends,
do we come to do our borrowing.
We go away and and leave
these good songs.

We go away and leave these flowers.
Your songs make me sad, O Life Giver,
for we’re to go away and leave them,
these, these good songs.

Flowers are sprouting, reviving,
budding, blossoming.
Song flowers flow from within you.
You scatter them over us,
you’re spreading them, you singer!
Be pleasured, friends!
Let there be dancing
in the house of flowers,
where I sing - I, the singer.

Cantares Mexicanos, folio 33v

From Another Flower Song
(of Nezahualcoyotl)

Let there be flower-singing,
singing with my brothers!
Intoxicating flowers have arrived,
narcotic adornments come in glory.
Let there be flowers. They have arrived.
Pleasure flowers are dispersed, they
flutter down, all kinds of flowers.
The drum resounds. Let there be dancing.

I am the singer, and my heart is painted
with a plumelike narcotic.
Downfluttering flowers are taken up.
Be pleasured.
Song flowers are bursting in my heart,
and I disperse these flowers.

Cantares Mexicanos, folio 28v/29


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6) Underworld, death and Tenochtitlan's final destruction. According to Aztec cosmology, all the 'normal' dead - even the great kings - had to go to Mictlan, a subterranean place of unattractive afterlife with dark and rather frightening features. The inevitable destiny of this "mysterious land", or "land of no return", inspired many songs: "No one is to live on earth. ... Will you go with me to the Place Unknown? Ah, I am not to carry off these flowers, singer that I am. Be pleasured. You're hearing my songs. Ah, singer that I am, I weep that the songs are not taken to His Home, the good flowers are not carried down to Mictlan, there, ah there, beyond the whirled ones". In several of these songs, the vulnerable nature of life on earth and the inescapable character of death appears combined with the sense of a deep remoteness of God: "We will depart! I, Nezahualcoyotl, say: 'Be cheerful!' Do we truly 'live' on earth? Not for all time on this earth, but only for a little while. There is jade, too, but it crushes, even gold breaks, ah, Quetzal-feathers crack. Not forever on this earth. ... What does Ipalnemoa [Life Giver] say? Not any more, in this moment, is he, God, on his mat. He is gone, and he left you behind as an orphan ...".

A Song of Sorrow ( icnocuicatl)

We know it is true that we must perish,
for we are mortal men.
You, the Giver of Life, you have ordained it.

We wander here and there
in our desolate poverty.
We are mortal men.
We have seen bloodshed and pain,
where once we saw beauty and valor.

We are crushed to the ground,
we lie in ruins in Mexico and Tlatelolco,
where once we saw beauty and valor.
Have you grown weary of your servants,

are you angry with your servants,
O Giver of Life?

The Fall of Tenochtitlan/Tlatelolco

Our cries of grief rise up, and our
tears rain down - for Tlatelolco is lost.
The Aztecs are fleeing across the lake,
they are running away like women.

How can we save our homes, my people?
The Aztecs are deserting the city,
the city is in flames,
and all is darkness and destruction.

Weep my people,
Know that with these disasters
we have lost the Mexican nation.
The water has turned bitter, our food is bitter.
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.

With the final destruction of Tenochtitlan/Tlatelolco by the Spanish in 1521, the Aztec empire and "cosmos" was literally coming to an end. Sahagún's long lost document on the interreligious "dialogues" (colloquios) between twelve Franciscan brothers and several Aztec nobles and priests in 1524 contains a moving paragraph where the Mexica, before entering into a bold response, are putting their own annihilation together with the recent 'Death of God': "What is it now, what should we say now? ... Are we something? Only unimportant subjects we are, full of earth, full of excrements. ... We are perishable, mortal. Well then, let us die! Well then, let us perish - even the gods have died as well!"


    For Further Reading

  • John Bierhorst, Cantares Mexicanos. Songs of the Aztecs. Stanford Univ. Press 1985.
  • Davíd Carrasco (ed.), The Imagination of Matter. Religion and Ecology in Mesoamerican Traditions. Oxford: BAR Int'l Series 1989.
  • Walter Krickeberg/Gerdt Kutscher, Altmexikanische Kulturen. Berlin: Safari-Verlag 1975.
  • Günther Lanczkowski, G^tter und Menschen im alten Mexiko. Olten: Walter-Verlag 1984.
  • Miguel Len-Portilla, The Broken Spears. The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston/Mass.: Beacon Press, 1992 (expanded & updated ed.).
  • Mary Miller / Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames & Hudson 1993, 1997.
  • Kay Almere Read, Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington/IN: Indiana Univ. Press 1998.
  • Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Florentine Codex. 14 volumes, second printing, transl. from the Nahuatl and Spanish by Arthur J. O. Anderson & Charles E. Dibble. Santa Fe/NM: School of American Research, 1978.
  • Jacques Soustelle, Daily life of the Aztecs on the eve of the Spanish conquest. Stanford/CA: Stanford Univ. Press 1970 (French original ed. 1955).
  • Hans Wißmann, Sind doch die Götter auch gestorben. Das Religionsgespräch der Franziskaner mit den Azteken von 1524. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1981.


© Andreas Gruenschloss ///   Last Modification: Sept, 2005