The Aztec Gods

The Rituals, the Sacrifices, and the Myths

No study of Mexican history is complete without taking a look at Aztec Gods. Long before the Spanish conquistadors brought their beliefs and customs across the Atlantic Ocean, the Aztecs people created sophisticated societies that still influence the art and lore of modern Mexico. Their empire dominated Central Mexico until the 1500s. Like many great cultures, religion provided a foundation that guided the daily lives of the Aztecs.

The Aztec gods and goddesses were divided into three categories, each of which reigned over a different part of their civilization. One group ruled heaven and the universe, another fertility and agriculture, and the third controlled war and sacrifice. Although there were more than 200 gods and goddesses in the Aztec pantheon, a handful of Aztec deities had the biggest influence.

The Creator Gods of Heaven and Earth

Quetzalcoatl (Keh-tzal-coh-atl), the Feathered Serpent and Ruler of the West, is probably the most famous Aztec god, closely related to the creator gods in other cultures. He was the patron of creativity, knowledge, and education.

Quetzalcoatl Head Carving

© Carlos Bustamante Restrepo - Quetzalcoatl

His most famous association is with the Mayan serpent god, Kukulcan. They were similar in appearance and ruled over many of the same aspects of their respective civilizations. Kukulcan was part of the Mayan trilogy of gods who created Earth, and he taught the Mayans about agriculture, medicine, and organizing a society.

Quetzalcoatl was the light side of his brother, Tezcatlipoca (Tez-cat-ley-poke-ah), the Smoking Mirror. Tezcatlipoca was known as the God of Universal Power, the patron of the night and beauty. According to Aztec mythology, it was Tezcatlipoca who created the sun and earth, and the jealous Quetzalcoatl turned him into a jaguar. He can be recognized in Aztec art by the black stripes on his face and mirror made from obsidian.

Tezcatlipoca Representation

Representation of Tezcatlipoca

The Gods of Agriculture and Fertility

The gods and goddesses in this group were thought to control the rains, rivers, and other aspects of nature related to growing food and sustaining life.

In fact, one goddess named Chalchiuhtlicue (Tchal-chee-uh-tlee-ku-eh) was believed to be in love with the rain and rivers. She regulated running waters and protected women in childbirth, as well as newborns. The goddess, also known as "She of the Jade Skirt", was the twin sister of Tlaloc (Tláh-lock), god of storms and thunder. She was sometimes depicted as his wife or female representation.

Tlaloc was mainly tied to caves, mountains, and springs, and was thought to live in a sacred mountain in the ancient city of Teotihuacan. When he was angry, he brought thunderstorms and hail, but it was his sister who caused the flood that ended the World of the Fourth Sun. She saved humanity by transferring their spirits into fish.

Tlaloc Head Carving

© Carlos Bustamante Restrepo - Tlaloc

Centeotl (Cen-teh-otl), the God of Maize, is also tied to Mayan religions. You can recognize him by his head dress of corn cobs. He's is tied to Tlaloc, and his female counterpart is Chicomecoatl [Tiko-meh-ko-atl), goddess of corn, nourishment, and farming. She is either depicted carrying flowers or with a sun shield, and her name means "seven snakes".

Another goddess of agriculture is Mayahuel (My-ya-whale). She is the patron of the maguey plant, and the honey-like sap is thought to be her blood. She is depicted as a woman with 400 breasts to feed all of her Aztec children.

Xipe Totec is a major deity in Aztec culture. This god is the Ruler of the East and overseer of fertility, sacrifice, and rebirth. His name means "Lord with the flayed skin", and he's usually pictured wearing a human skin. As grotesque as that may sound, it merely represents how old plants die to make way for the new ones that sustain life and the Earth.

Xipe Totec Stone Mask

© Emma Nibaru - Xipe Totec Stone Mask

The Sun God and Earth Goddess

The main natural object worshiped by Aztecs was the sun. They even called themselves "People of the Sun". It was believed that daily sacrifice and worship gave the sun the strength necessary to provide all the good things in life like food, warmth, and health.

This makes Tonatiuh (Toh-nah-tee-uh), the Sun God, one of the most important deities. His face is at the center of the Aztec Sun in art on temples and other monuments. Also known as "The Turquoise God", he's responsible for warmth, fertility, and life.

Representation of Tonatiuh

Representation of Tonatiuh

Tonatiuh governed Mexico during the time of the Fifth Sun, which was reborn after Chalchiuhtlicue destroyed the Fourth Sun, and which corresponds to the time of the Aztec people. He is the patron of warriors, who were responsible for rounding up conquered people for sacrifice, and he walks with the spirits of conquered warriors into the afterlife.

One dreaded goddess in Aztec mythology is Tlaltechutli (Tlal-teh-koo-tlee), the Earth Goddess. She needed many sacrifices - mostly human - to sustain her appetite. Because the sun disappears at the edge of the earth when night falls, it was also believed that Tlaltechutli would devour the sun to bring darkness to the world. Daily sacrifices to the sun god Tonatiuh were necessary to bring it back.

The Gods of War and Sacrifice

Every culture is started by someone. The Aztecs had Huitzilopochtli (Weetz-ee-loh-POSHT-lee), father of the Aztec people, whose name means "Hummingbird of the Left (South)". He's always pictured dressed in feathers and carrying a snake scepter.

Depiction of Huitzilopochtli as human

Depiction of Huitzilopochtli as human

It was Huitzilopochtli who led the Aztec people away to build their capital city, Tenochtitlan. He's the patron of war and sacrifice whose red shrine sits atop the Templo Mayor surrounded by skulls.

There are many myths and legends around the rivalry between Huitzilopochtli and his sister, Coyolxauhqui (Koy-ol-shauw-kee), who was the goddess of the moon.

One story tells that Huitzilopochtli butchered her and threw her pieces down the mountain Coatepec after she insisted the people remain there.

This freed the Aztecs to follow him to their new home in Tenochtitlan. The story is captured on a stone at the base of Templo Mayor.

While many gods ruled over parts of life, two ruled over the afterlife: Mictlantecuhtli (Mik-tlan-tek-ooht-lee) and his wife, Mictecacihuatl (Mik-te-cah-see-wah-tl), were the Lord and Goddess of Death. Together, they ruled Mictlan, which is the lowest portion of the underworld where the souls of the dead spend eternity.

The most famous myth about Mictecacihuatl is that she was sacrificed as a baby and became the wife of Mictlantecuhtli. He guards the bones of the dead, and his worship was incorporated into the traditional Day of the Dead festivals.

Fun Fact About Aztec Deities

  • Aztec gods were sometimes pictured with two faces to reflect the good and bad side of their personalities.
  • Unlike Egyptian pyramids, which were used as tombs for royalty, Aztec pyramids were used for sacrifice and worship.
  • The Aztec priests performed more human sacrifice than any other religion in recorded history.
  • About two-thirds of the Aztec deities were male.
  • The sacrifice scene of Mola Ram from Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom was inspired by the rites of the cult of Tezcatlipoca.
  • The sun god, Huitzilopochtli, can be found on the Mexican flag. He's the eagle.
  • Ometecuhtli is the only Aztec god who didn't have his own temple.
  • The Aztec people had their own Adam and Eve in the persons of Cipactonal and Oxomoco. Oxomoco was later promoted to Goddess, ruling calendars, night, and astrology.
  • The oldest god was Huehueteotl, god of fire and blood. Every Aztec household had a miniature statue of him. Aztecs adopted the gods of other cultures after conquering them.
  • Aztec gods were mortal. They would sometimes sacrifice themselves and be reborn in order to reset certain aspects of society.
  • The largest Aztec festival was Xiuhmolpilli, which means "New Fire". It was celebrated every 52 years to prevent the end of the world.
  • When Europeans first came to Mexico, the Aztecs thought they were human representations of their gods.