Of all the many unique layers of history that religion has risen from throughout the world-- the violent and bloody, the peaceful, the outspoken-- the Aztec religion is among some of the most unique religions ever created. It started out of the Mesoamerican religion, and with that, some elements such as human sacrifice came with it.
The Aztec religion is polytheistic, meaning it practices in the worship of many deities, or gods. The Aztecs have a particularly abundant set of gods and goddesses that they worshiped. Some of these gods and goddesses had even come from other religions.
Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Aztecs created their own unique mythology that is central to their religion. Delving at least a little in the Aztec mythology is a good first step to take to understand the Aztec religion as a whole.
As already mentioned, the Aztec religion is a Mesoamerican religion. Aztec mythology shares similar characteristics as the mythology in other Mesoamerican cultures. Although, there isn't much said about where the actual origin of the Aztecs is.
The legend has it that various groups came from the north into the Anahauc valley around Lake Texcoco, where part of Mexico City now stands. It is said the Mexica/Aztec people built their city called Tehochtitlan, after they had received a vision telling them to do so in that location.
In the Aztec mythology, the world divides into thirteen heavens and nine earthly layers, or netherworlds. Each of these layers associates with different gods and goddesses, and celestial objects. The most important of these celestial objects were the Sun, the Moon, and the planet Venus. These objects represented something deeper, associated with different deities.
Some of the gods in Aztec mythology were Tlaloc, god of rain and water, Quetzalcoatl, a "feathered serpent", and Tezcatipoca, a central god associated with a wide range of natural occurrences. Each of these gods had their own shrine that set beside one another on top of the largest pyramid in their capitol, Tenochtitlan.
© Greg Schechter - Carving of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan
Aztec people took elements from other traditions and customs, and blended them with their own, and a lot of creation myths developed in the process. One of these myths, the Five Suns, describes the great ages preceding the present world, each ending in catastrophe.
The Aztec goddess Coatlicue, was the mother of Centzon Huitznahua, the evil gods of the southern stars, and Coyolxauhqui, the leader of her brothers. Coatlicue found a ball filled with feathers and placed it in her waistband, becoming pregnant with the god Huitzilopchitli, god of war and human sacrifice. Her other children became suspicious that the baby wasn't their father's, and vowed to kill their mother.
Still, she gave birth to Huitzilopochtli on Mount Coatepec, her children beside her. As soon as Huitzilopochtli was born, he defeated his brothers and they became the stars. He then proceeded to kill his sister by tearing out her heart with a snake, and threw her off of the mountain. This said to inspire the Aztec people to rip the hearts out of their victims and throw them off of the temple dedicated to this god.
Our age, considered the fifth creation according to the myth, is the new age that all the gods had gathered to sacrifice themselves to create. Only through their sacrifice would the sun be set to motion and time and history could begin. Nanahouatl was the first god who sacrificed himself, becoming the sun.
The Aztec calendar is one of several similar Mesoamerican calendars. Each of the eighteen 20-day months of the religious year had its own religious festival. Most of these were associated with agricultural themes.
One of the greatest Aztec festivals, called the Xiuhmolpili, or "New Fire" celebration, took place every 52 years to help delay the end of the world and begin a new cycle. Every festival had a different god or goddess, and a specific ritual that included feasting and sacrifices.
© Paul K - Aztec Calendar Symbol Depictions
The Aztecs looked at existence as a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. They thought this cycle followed the cycle the Sun went through. The Sun would dwell in the underworld at night only to rise anew again in the morning.
Like most other religions, the Aztec religion believed the world encompassed different planes of existence. The Earth was the place meant for humans to dwell, while the underworld was for the souls of the dead, and the upper plane in the sky was impenetrable to humans.
Each of these main layers of existence divided into even smaller layers. Nine of these layers inhabited by gods and mythical creatures, a layer called Mictlan. The sky had thirteen layers, the highest being Omeyocan, while the lower layer called Tlalocan.
When the Aztec people died, their souls were to go to one of the three places: the Sun, Mictlan, or Tlalocan. The souls of fallen warriors or women who died in child birth, would turn into a hummingbird and join the Sun on a journey through the sky. People dying of less glorious causes would either go to Mictlan or Tlatocan.
The Aztecs used death, almost like an instrument or tool. To be able to continue creation and survive, both the gods and humans had to sometimes sacrifice themselves. As the myth has it, Nahuatl, the god who first sacrificed himself to give humans life, made the humans responsible for the Suns continued revival. Blood-sacrifices were necessary to keep the gods fed and to prevent the Sun from falling.
Essentially, Aztec temples were used for offerings. They were solid, pyramid-like structures that held a variety of objects such as, special soils, sacrifices, and treasures. They also contained sacred relics and images of the gods, hidden behind veils and curtains hung with bells and feathers.
There were also buildings around the base of the pyramid, or a chamber underneath of it. In this chamber, the Aztecs would often store ritual items and provide lodging for priests, dancers, and temple orchestras.
In front of every major temple was a large plaza that occasionally was the place for rituals, but it also served for worshippers and dancers. Nobility either sat on an elevated platform under the plazas awnings, or they conducted part of the ceremonies on the temple.
The temples were decorated for festivals. There was a flat surface to accommodate dancers, while another slab was for sacrificial purposes.
© haRee - Temple at Teotihuacan
The Aztec priests held many responsibilities, yet they did not have full authority within the Aztec religious organization. The priests main task was to make sure they gifted the gods with what they were due.
The high priests, or Quetzalcoatls, were in charge of major centers like the capitol. Society respected them, and they had a level of authority that sometimes spanned to national levels.
Under the high priests, there were many lower levels of priesthood: priests, priestesses, 'nuns', and 'monks'. They underwent strict training, involving fasts and penances, and they even had to bleed themselves.