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Nahua Religion


THE religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. Original influences, however, were strong, and they are especially discernible in the institutions of ritualistic cannibalism and human sacrifice. Strange resemblances to Christian practice were observed in the Aztec mythology by the Spanish Conquistadores, who piously condemned the native customs of baptism, consubstantiation, and confession as frauds founded and perpetuated by diabolic agency.

A superficial examination of the Nahua religion might lead to the inference that within its scope and system no definite theological views were embraced and no ethical principles propounded, and that the entire mythology presents only the fantastic attitude of the barbarian mind toward the eternal verities. Such a conclusion would be both erroneous and unjust to a human intelligence of a type by no means debased. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement greatly superior to that of the Greeks or Romans, and quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians. Toward the period of the Spanish occupation the Mexican priesthood was undoubtedly advancing to the contemplation of the exaltation of one god, whose worship was fast excluding that of similar deities, and if our data are too imperfect to allow us to speak very fully in regard to this phase of religious advancement, we know at least that much of the Nahua ritual and many of the prayers preserved by the labours of the Spanish fathers are unquestionably
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Priest making an Incantation over an Aztec Lady.

Gilbert James

genuine, and display the attainment of a high religious level.



Aztec theology postulated an eternity which, however, was not without its epochs. It was thought to be broken up into a number of æons, each of which depended upon the period of duration of a separate "sun." No agreement is noticeable among authorities on Mexican mythology as to the number of these "suns," but it would appear as probable that the favourite tradition stipulated for four "suns" or epochs, each of which concluded with a national disaster—flood, famine, tempest, or fire. The present æon, they feared, might conclude upon the completion of every "sheaf" of fifty-two years, the "sheaf" being a merely arbitrary portion of an æon. The period of time from the first creation to the current æon was variously computed as 15,228, 2386, or 1404 solar years, the discrepancy and doubt arising because of the equivocal nature of the numeral signs expressing the period in the pinturas, or native paintings. As regards the sequence of "suns" there is no more agreement than there is regarding their number. The Codex Vaticanus states it to have been water, wind, fire, and famine. Humboldt gives it as hunger, fire, wind, and water; Boturini as water, famine, wind, and fire; and Gama as hunger, wind, fire, and water.

In all likelihood the adoption of four ages arose from the sacred nature of that number. The myth doubtless shaped itself upon the tonalamatl (Mexican native calendar), the great repository of the wisdom of the Nahua race, which the priestly class regarded as its vade mecum and which was closely consulted by it on every occasion, civil or religious.


The Sources of Mexican Mythology

Our knowledge of the mythology of the Mexicans is chiefly gained through the works of those Spaniards, lay and cleric, who entered the country along with or immediately subsequent to the Spanish Conquistadores. From several of these we have what might be called first-hand accounts of the theogony and ritual of the Nahua people. The most valuable compendium is that of Father Bernardino Sahagun, entitled A General History of the Affairs of New Spain, which was published from manuscript only in the middle of last century, though written in the first half of the sixteenth century. Sahagun arrived in Mexico eight years after the country had been reduced by the Spaniards to a condition of servitude. He obtained a thorough mastery of the Nahuatl tongue, and conceived a warm admiration for the native mind and a deep interest in the antiquities of the conquered people. His method of collecting facts concerning their mythology and history was as effective as it was ingenious. He held daily conferences with reliable Indians, and placed questions before them, to which they replied by symbolical paintings detailing the answers which he required. These he submitted to scholars who had been trained under his own supervision, and who, after consultation among themselves, rendered him a criticism in Nahuatl of the hieroglyphical paintings he had placed at their disposal. Not content with this process, he subjected these replies to the criticism of a third body, after which the matter was included in his work. But ecclesiastical intolerance was destined to keep the work from publication for a couple of centuries. Afraid that such a volume would be successful in keeping alight the fires of paganism in Mexico, Sahagun's brethren refused him the assistance he required for its publication. But on his appealing to the Council of the Indies in Spain he was met with encouragement, and was ordered to translate his great work into Spanish, a task he undertook when over eighty years of age. He transmitted the work to Spain, and for three hundred years nothing more was heard of it.

The Romance of the Lost "Sahagun"

For generations antiquarians interested in the lore of ancient Mexico bemoaned its loss, until at length one Muñoz, more indefatigable than the rest, chanced to visit the crumbling library of the ancient convent of Tolosi, in Navarre. There, among time-worn manuscripts and tomes relating to the early fathers and the intricacies of canon law, he discovered the lost Sahagun! It was printed separately by Bustamante at Mexico and by Lord Kingsborough in his collection in 1830, and has been translated into French by M. Jourdanet. Thus the manuscript commenced in or after 1530 was given to the public after a lapse of no less than three hundred years!


Father Torquemada arrived in the New World about the middle of the sixteenth century, at which period he was still enabled to take from the lips of such of the Conquistadores as remained much curious information regarding the circumstances of their advent. His Monarchia Indiana was first published at Seville in 1615, and in it he made much use of the manuscript of Sahagun, not then published. At the same time his observations upon matters pertaining to the native religion are often illuminating and exhaustive.

In his Storia Antica del Messico the Abbé Clavigero, who published his work in 1780, did much to disperse the clouds of tradition which hung over Mexican history and mythology. The clarity of his style and the exactness of his information render his work exceedingly useful.

Antonio Gama, in his Descripcion Historica y Cronologica de las dos Piedras, poured a flood of light on Mexican antiquities. His work was published in 1832. With him may be said to have ceased the line of Mexican archaeologists of the older school. Others worthy of being mentioned among the older writers on Mexican mythology (we are not here concerned with history) are Boturini, who, in his Idea de una Nueva Historia General de la America Septentrional, gives a vivid picture of native life and tradition, culled from first-hand communication with the people; Ixtlilxochitl, a half-breed, whose mendacious works, the Relaciones and Historia Chichimeca, are yet valuable repositories of tradition; José de Acosta, whose Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias was published at Seville in 1580; and Gomara, who, in his Historia General de las Indias (Madrid, 1749), rested upon the authority of the Conquistadores. Tezozomoc's Chronica Mexicana, reproduced in Lord Kingsborough's great work, is valuable as giving unique facts regarding the Aztec mythology, as is the Teatro Mexicana of Vetancurt, published at Mexico in 1697—98.

The Worship of One God

The ritual of this dead faith of another hemisphere abounds in expressions concerning the unity of the deity approaching very nearly to many of those we ourselves employ regarding God's attributes. The various classes of the priesthood were in the habit of addressing the several gods to whom they ministered as "omnipotent," "endless," "invisible," "the one god complete in perfection and unity," and "the Maker and Moulder of All." These appellations they applied not to one supreme being, but to the individual deities to whose service they were attached. It may be thought that such a practice would be fatal to the evolution of a single and universal god. But there is every reason to believe that Tezcatlipoca, the great god of the air, like the Hebrew Jahveh, also an air-god, was fast gaining precedence of all other deities, when the coming of the white man put an end to his chances of sovereignty.


Tezcatlipoca (Fiery Mirror) was undoubtedly the Jupiter of the Nahua pantheon. He carried a mirror or shield, from which he took his name, and in which he was supposed to see reflected the actions and deeds of mankind. The evolution of this god from the status of a spirit of wind or air to that of the supreme deity of the Aztec people presents many points of deep interest to students of mythology. Originally the personification of the air, the source both of the breath of life and of the tempest, Tezcatlipoca possessed all the attributes of a god who presided over these phenomena. As the tribal god of the Tezcucans who had led them into the Land of Promise, and had been instrumental in the defeat of both the gods and men of the elder race they dispossessed, Tezcatlipoca naturally advanced so speedily in popularity and public honour that it was little wonder that within a comparatively short space of time he came to be regarded as a god of fate and fortune, and as inseparably connected with the national destinies. Thus, from being the peculiar deity of a small band of Nahua immigrants, the prestige accruing from the rapid conquest made under his tutelary direction and the speedily disseminated tales of the prowess of those who worshipped him seemed to render him at once the most popular and the best feared god in Anahuac, therefore the one whose cult quickly over-shadowed that of other and similar gods.

Tezcatlipoca, Overthrower of the Toltecs

We find Tezcatlipoca intimately associated with the legends which recount the overthrow of Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs. His chief adversary on the Toltec side is the god-king Quetzalcoatl, whose nature and reign we will consider later, but whom we will now merely regard as the enemy of Tczcatlipoca. The rivalry between these gods symbolises that which existed between the civilised Toltecs and the barbarian Nahua, and is well exemplified in the following myths.

Myths of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca

In the days of Quetzalcoatl there was abundance of everything necessary for subsistence. The maize was plentiful, the calabashes were as thick as one's arm, and cotton grew in all colours without having to be dyed. A variety of birds of rich plumage filled the air with their songs, and gold, silver, and precious stones were abundant. In the reign of Quetzalcoatl there was peace and plenty for all men.

But this blissful state was too fortunate, too happy to endure. Envious of the calm enjoyment of the god and his people the Toltecs, three wicked "necromancers" plotted their downfall. The reference is of course to the gods of the invading Nahua tribes, the deities Huitzilopochtli, Titlacahuan or Tezcatlipoca, and Tlacahuepan. These laid evil enchantments upon the city of Tollan, and Tezcatlipoca in particular took the lead in these envious conspiracies. Disguised as an aged man with white hair, he presented himself at the palace of Quetzalcoatl, where he said to the pages-in-waiting: "Pray present me to your master the king. I desire to speak with him."

The pages advised him to retire, as Quetzalcoatl was indisposed and could see no one. He requested them, however, to tell the god that he was waiting outside. They did so, and procured his admittance.

On entering the chamber of Quetzalcoatl the wily Tezcatlipoca simulated much sympathy with the suffering god-king. "How are you, my son?" he asked. "I have brought you a drug which you should drink, and which will put an end to the course of your malady."

"You are welcome, old man," replied Quetzalcoatl. "I have known for many days that you would come. I am exceedingly indisposed. The malady affects my entire system, and I can use neither my hands nor feet."

Tezcatlipoca assured him that if he partook of the medicine which he had brought him he would immediately experience a great improvement in health. Quetzalcoatl drank the potion, and at once felt much revived. The cunning Tezcatlipoca pressed another and still another cup of the potion upon him, and as it was nothing but pulque, the wine of the country, he speedily became intoxicated, and was as wax in the hands of his adversary.

Tezcatlipoca and the Toltecs

Tezcatlipoca, in pursuance of his policy inimical to the Toltec state, took the form of an Indian of the name of Toueyo (Toveyo), and bent his steps to the palace of Uemac, chief of the Toltecs in temporal matters. This worthy had a daughter so fair that she was desired in marriage by many of the Toltecs, but all to no purpose, as her father refused her hand to one and all. The princess, beholding the false Toueyo passing her father's palace, fell deeply in love with him, and so tumultuous was her passion that she became seriously ill because of her longing for him. Uemac, hearing of her indisposition, bent his steps to her apartments, and inquired of her women the cause of her illness. They told him that it was occasioned by the sudden passion which had seized her for the Indian who had recently come that way. Uemac at once gave orders for the arrest of Toueyo, and he was haled before the temporal chief of Tollan.

"Whence come you?" inquired Uemac of his prisoner, who was very scantily attired.

"Lord, I am a stranger, and I have come to these parts to sell green paint," replied Tezcatlipoca.

"Why are you dressed in this fashion? Why do you not wear a cloak?" asked the chief.

"My lord, I follow the custom of my country," replied Tezcatlipoca.

"You have inspired a passion in the breast of my daughter," said Uemac. "What should be done to you for thus disgracing me?"

"Slay me; I care not," said the cunning Tezcatlipoca.

"Nay," replied Uemac, "for if I slay you my daughter will perish. Go to her and say that she may wed you and be happy."

Now the marriage of Toueyo to the daughter of Uemac aroused much discontent among the Toltecs; and they murmured among themselves, and said: "Wherefore did Uemac give his daughter to this Toueyo?" Uemac, having got wind of these murmurings, resolved to distract the attention of the Toltecs by making war upon the neighbouring state of Coatepec.

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The Princess sees a strange Man before the Palace

Gilbert James


The Toltecs assembled armed for the fray, and having arrived at the country of the men of Coatepec they placed Toueyo in ambush with his body-servants, hoping that he would be slain by their adversaries. But Toueyo and his men killed a large number of the enemy and put them to flight. His triumph was celebrated by Uemac with much pomp. The knightly plumes were placed upon his head, and his body was painted with red and yellow—an honour reserved for those who distinguished themselves in battle.

Tezcatlipoca's next step was to announce a great feast in Tollan, to which all the people for miles around were invited. Great crowds assembled, and danced and sang in the city to the sound of the drum. Tezcatlipoca sang to them and forced them to accompany the rhythm of his song with their feet. Faster and faster the people danced, until the pace became so furious that they were driven to madness, lost their footing, and tumbled pell-mell down a deep ravine, where they were changed into rocks. Others in attempting to cross a stone bridge precipitated themselves into the water below, and were changed into stones.

On another occasion Tezcatlipoca presented himself as a valiant warrior named Tequiua, and invited all the inhabitants of Tollan and its environs to come to the flower-garden called Xochitla. When assembled there he attacked them with a hoe, and slew a great number, and others in panic crushed their comrades to death.

Tezcatlipoca and Tlacahuepan on another occasion repaired to the market-place of Tollan, the former displaying upon the palm of his hand a small infant whom he caused to dance and to cut the most amusing capers. This infant was in reality Huitzilopochtli, the Nahua god of war. At this sight the Toltecs crowded upon one another for the purpose of getting a better view, and their eagerness resulted in many being crushed to death. So enraged were the Toltecs at this that upon the advice of Tlacahuepan they slew both Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli. When this had been done the bodies of the slain gods gave forth such a pernicious effluvia that thousands of the Toltecs died of the pestilence. The god Tlacahuepan then advised them to cast out the bodies lest worse befell them, but on their attempting to do so they discovered their weight to be so great that they could not move them. Hundreds wound cords round the corpses, but the strands broke, and those who pulled upon them fell and died suddenly, tumbling one upon the other, and suffocating those upon whom they collapsed.


The Departure of Quetzalcoatl

The Toltecs were so tormented by the enchantments of Tezcatlipoca that it was soon apparent to them that their fortunes were on the wane and that the end of their empire was at hand. Quetzalcoatl, chagrined at the turn things had taken, resolved to quit Tollan and go to the country of Tlapallan, whence he had come on his civilising mission to Mexico. He burned all the houses which he had built, and buried his treasure of gold and precious stones in the deep valleys between the mountains. He changed the cacao-trees into mezquites, and he ordered all the birds of rich plumage and song to quit the valley of Anahuac and to follow him to a distance of more than a hundred leagues. On the road from Tollan he discovered a great tree at a point called Quauhtitlan. There he rested, and requested his pages to hand him a mirror. Regarding himself in the polished surface, he exclaimed, "I am old," and from that circumstance the spot was named HuehuequauhtitIan (Old Quauhtitlan). Proceeding on his way accompanied by musicians who played the flute, he walked until fatigue arrested his steps, and he seated himself upon a stone, on which he left the imprint of his hands. This place is called Temacpalco (The Impress of the Hands). At Coaapan he was met by the Nahua gods, who were inimical to him and to the Toltecs.

"Where do you go?" they asked him. "Why do you leave your capital?"

"I go to Tlapallan," replied Quetzalcoatl, "whence came."

"For what reason?" persisted the enchanters.

"My father the Sun has called me thence," replied Quetzalcoatl.

"Go, then, happily," they said, "but leave us the secret of your art, the secret of founding in silver, of working in precious stones and woods, of painting, and of feather-working, and other matters."

But Quetzalcoatl refused, and cast all his treasures into the fountain of Cozcaapa (Water of Precious Stones). At Cochtan he was met by another enchanter, who asked him whither he was bound, and on learning his destination proffered him a draught of wine. On tasting the vintage Quetzalcoatl was overcome with sleep. Continuing his journey in the morning, the god passed between a volcano and the Sierra Nevada (Mountain of Snow), where all the pages who accompanied him died of cold. He regretted this misfortune exceedingly, and wept, lamenting their fate with most bitter tears and mournful songs. On reaching the summit of Mount Poyauhtecatl he slid to the base. Arriving at the sea-shore, he embarked upon a raft of serpents, and was wafted away toward the land of Tlapallan.

It is obvious that these legends bear some resemblance to those of Ixtlilxochitl which recount the fall of the Toltecs. They are taken from Sahagun's work, Historia General de Nueva España, and are included as well for the sake of comparison as for their own intrinsic value.

Tezcatlipoca as Doomster

Tezcatlipoca was much more than a mere personification of wind, and if he was regarded as a life-giver he had also the power of destroying existence. In fact on occasion he appears as an inexorable death-dealer, and as such was styled Nezahualpilli (The Hungry Chief) and Yaotzin (The Enemy). Perhaps one of the names by which he was best known was Telpochtli (The Youthful Warrior), from the fact that his reserve of strength, his vital force, never diminished, and that his youthful and boisterous vigour was apparent in the tempest.

Tezcatlipoca was usually depicted as holding in his right hand a dart placed in an atlatl (spear-thrower), and his mirror-shield with four spare darts in his left. This shield is the symbol of his power as judge of mankind and upholder of human justice.

The Aztecs pictured Tezcatlipoca as rioting along the highways in search of persons on whom to wreak his vengeance, as the wind of night rushes along the deserted roads with more seeming violence than it does by day. Indeed one of his names, Yoalli Ehecatl, signifies "Night Wind." Benches of stone, shaped like those made for the dignitaries of the Mexican towns, were distributed along the highways for his especial use, that on these he might rest after his boisterous journeyings. These seats were concealed by green boughs, beneath which the god was supposed to lurk in wait for his victims. But if one of the persons he seized overcame him in the struggle he might ask whatever boon he desired, secure in the promise of the deity that it should be granted forthwith.

It was supposed that Tezcatlipoca had guided the Nahua, and especially the people of Tezcuco, from a more northerly clime to the valley of Mexico. But he was not a mere local deity of Tezcuco, his worship being widely celebrated throughout the country. His exalted position in the Mexican pantheon seems to have won for him especial reverence as a god of fate and fortune. The place he took as the head of the Nahua pantheon brought him many attributes which were quite foreign to his original character. Fear and a desire to exalt their tutelar deity will impel the devotees of a powerful god to credit him with any or every quality, so that there is nothing remarkable in the spectacle of the heaping of every possible attribute, human or divine, upon Tezcatlipoca when we recall the supreme position he occupied in Mexican mythology. His priestly caste far surpassed in power and in the breadth and activity of its propaganda the priesthoods of the other Mexican deities. To it is credited the invention of many of the usages of civilisation, and that it all but succeeded in making his worship universal is pretty clear, as has been shown. The other gods were worshipped for some special purpose, but the worship of Tezcatlipoca was regarded as compulsory, and to some extent as a safeguard against the destruction of the universe, a calamity the Nahua had been led to believe might occur through his agency. He was known as Moneneque (The Claimer of Prayer), and in some of the representations of him an ear of gold was shown suspended from his hair, toward which small tongues of gold strained upward in appeal of prayer. In times of national danger, plague, or famine universal prayer was made to Tezcatlipoca. The heads of the community repaired to his teocalli (temple) accompanied by the people en masse, and all prayed earnestly together for his speedy intervention. The prayers to Tezcatlipoca still extant prove that the ancient Mexicans fully believed that he possessed the power of life and death, and many of them are couched in the most piteous terms.

The Teotleco Festival

The supreme position occupied by Tezcatlipoca in the Mexican religion is well exemplified in the festival of the Teotleco (Coming of the Gods), which is fully described in Sahagun's account of the Mexican festivals. Another peculiarity connected with his worship was that he was one of the few Mexican deities who had any relation to the expiation of sin. Sin was symbolised by the Nahua as excrement, and in various manuscripts Tezcatlipoca is represented as a turkey-cock to which ordure is being offered up.

Of the festival of the Teotleco Sahagun says: "In the twelfth month a festival was celebrated in honour of all the gods, who were said to have gone to some country I know not where. On the last day of the month a greater one was held, because the gods had returned. On the fifteenth day of this month the young boys and the servitors decked all the altars or oratories of the gods with boughs, as well as those which were in the houses, and the images which were set up by the wayside and at the cross-roads. This work was paid for in maize. Some received a basketful, and others only a few ears. On the eighteenth day the ever-youthful god Tlamatzincatl or Titlacahuan arrived. It was said that he marched better and arrived the first because he was strong and young. Food was offered him in his temple on that night. Every one drank, ate, and made merry. The old people especially celebrated the arrival of the god by drinking wine, and it was alleged that his feet were washed by these rejoicings. The last day of the month was marked by a great festival, on account of the belief that the whole of the gods arrived at that time. On the preceding night a quantity of flour was kneaded on a carpet into the shape of a cheese, it being supposed that the gods would leave a footprint thereon as a sign of their return. The chief attendant watched all night, going to and fro to see if the impression appeared. When he at last saw it he called out, 'The master has arrived,' and at once the priests of the temple began to sound the horns, trumpets, and other musical instruments used by them. Upon hearing this noise every one set forth to offer food in all the temples." The next day the aged gods were supposed to arrive, and young men disguised as monsters hurled victims into a huge sacrificial fire.

The Toxcatl Festival

The most remarkable festival in connection with Tezcatlipoca was the Toxcatl, held in the fifth month. On the day of this festival a youth was slain who for an entire year previously had been carefully instructed in the rôle of victim. He was selected from among the best war captives of the year, and must be without spot or blemish. He assumed the name, garb, and attributes of Tezcatlipoca himself, and was regarded with awe by the entire populace, who imagined him to be the earthly representative of the deity. He rested during the day, and ventured forth at night only, armed with the dart and shield of the god, to scour the roads. This practice was, of course, symbolical of the wind-god's progress over the night-bound highways. He carried also the whistle symbolical of the deity, and made with it a noise such as the weird wind of night makes when it hurries through the streets. To his arms and legs small bells were attached. He was followed by a retinue of pages, and at intervals rested upon the stone seats which were placed upon the highways for the convenience of Tezcatlipoca. Later in the year he was mated to four beautiful maidens of high birth, with whom he passed the time in amusement of every description. He was entertained at the tables of the nobility as the earthly representative of Tezcatlipoca, and his latter days were one constant round of feasting and excitement. At last the fatal day upon which he must be sacrificed arrived. He took a tearful farewell of the maidens whom he had espoused, and was carried to the teocalli of sacrifice, upon the sides of which he broke the musical instruments with which he had beguiled the time of his captivity. When he reached the summit he was received by the high-priest, who speedily made him one with the god whom he represented by tearing his heart out on the stone of sacrifice.

Huitzilopochtli, the War-God

Huitzilopochtli occupied in the Aztec pantheon a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. His origin is obscure, but the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character. It recounts how, under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue, the mother of a tribe of Indians called Centzonuitznaua, who had a daughter called Coyolxauhqui, and who daily repaired to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit

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The Infant War-God drives his Brethren into a lake and slays them.

Gilbert James

of piety. Whilst occupied in her devotions one day she was surprised by a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers falling upon her from on high. She was pleased by the bright variety of its hues, and placed it in her bosom, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she learnt that she was to become the mother of another child. Her sons, hearing of this, rained abuse upon her, being incited to humiliate her in every possible way by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety; but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother, and took counsel with one another to slay her. They attired themselves in their war-gear, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed the perfidy of his brothers to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli, who replied to him: "O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I am fully informed of what is about to happen." With the intention of slaying their mother, the Indians went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth, and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill the luckless Coatlicue.

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to acquaint Huitzilopochtli with the news that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

"Mark well where they are at," replied the infant god. "To what place have they advanced?"

"To Tzompantitlan," responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: "Where may they be now?"

"At Coaxalco," was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

"They are now at Petlac," Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy's arrival Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and spear of a blue colour. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then gave chase to the Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. They did not attempt to defend themselves, but fled incontinently. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli signifies "Humming-bird to the left," from the circumstance that the god wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. The explanation of Huitzilopochtli's origin is a little deeper than this, however. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear, the apotheosis of warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli's mother, Coatlantona (Robe of Serpents). Huitzilopochtli's image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In American mythology the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as "Feathered Serpent," and many similar cases where the conception of bird and serpent have been unified could be adduced. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior's dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing on his head a waving panache or plume of humming-birds' feathers. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down, arranged in the form of a quincunx. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle's down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight, for in the Aztec mind Huitzilopochtli symbolised the warrior's death on the gladiatorial stone of combat. As has been said, Huitzilopochtli was war-god of the Aztecs, and was supposed to have led them to the site of Mexico from their original home in the north. The city of Mexico took its name from one of its districts, which was designated by a title of Huitzilopochtli's, Mexitli (Hare of the Aloes).

The War-God as Fertiliser

But Huitzilopochtli was not a war-god alone. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian Indians of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They alluded to it also as the symbol of life, for the serpent has a phallic significance because of its similarity to the symbol of generation and fructification. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo Indians of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with tail in mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun. The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for the fructification of their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rain-maker to exert his pluvial powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

Huitzilopochtli's principal festival was the Toxcatl, celebrated immediately after the Toxcatl festival of Tezcatlipoca, to which it bore a strong resemblance. Festivals of the god were held in May and December, at the latter of which an image of him, moulded in dough kneaded with the blood of sacrificed children, was pierced by the presiding priest with an arrow—an act significant of the death of Huitzilopochtli until his resurrection in the next year.

Strangely enough, when the absolute supremacy of Tezcatlipoca is remembered, the high-priest of Huitzilopochtli, the Mexicatl Teohuatzin, was considered to be the religious head of the Mexican priesthood. The priests of Huitzilopochtli held office by right of descent, and their primate exacted absolute obedience from the priesthoods of all the other deities, being regarded as next to the monarch himself in power and dominion.

Tlaloc, the Rain-God

Tlaloc was the god of rain and moisture. In a country such as Mexico, where the success or failure of the crops depends entirely upon the plentiful nature or otherwise of the rainfall, he was, it will be readily granted, a deity of high importance. It was believed that he made his home in the mountains which surround the valley of Mexico, as these were the source of the local rainfall, and his popularity is vouched for by the fact that sculptured representations of him occur more often than those of any other of the Mexican deities. He is generally represented in a semi-recumbent attitude, with the upper part of the body raised upon the elbows, and the knees half drawn up, probably to represent the mountainous character of the country whence comes the rain. He was espoused to Chalchihuitlicue (Emerald Lady), who bore him a numerous progeny, the Tlalocs (Clouds). Many of the figures which represented him were carved from the green stone called chalchiuitl (jadeite), to typify the colour of water, and in some of these he was shown holding a serpent of gold to typify the lightning, for water-gods are often closely identified with the thunder, which hangs over the hills and accompanies heavy rains. Tlaloc, like his prototype, the Kiche god Hurakan, manifested himself in three forms, as the lightning-flash, the thunderbolt, and the thunder. Although his image faced the east, where he was supposed to have originated, he was worshipped as inhabiting the four cardinal points and every mountain-top. The colours of the four points of the compass, yellow, green, red, and blue, whence came the rain-bearing winds, entered into the composition of his costume, which was further crossed with streaks of silver, typifying the mountain torrents. A vase containing every description of grain was usually placed before his idol, an offering of the growth which it was hoped he would fructify. He dwelt in a many-watered paradise called Tlalocan (The Country of Tlaloc), a place of plenty and fruitfulness, where those who had been drowned or struck by lightning or had died from dropsical diseases enjoyed eternal bliss. Those of the common people who did not die such deaths went to the dark abode of Mictlan, the all-devouring and gloomy Lord of Death.

In the native manuscripts Tlaloc is usually portrayed as having a dark complexion, a large round eye, a row of tusks, and over the lips an angular blue stripe curved downward and rolled up at the ends. The latter character is supposed to have been evolved originally from the coils of two snakes, their mouths with long fangs in the upper jaw meeting in the middle of the upper lip. The snake, besides being symbolised by lightning in many American mythologies, is also symbolical of water, which is well typified in its sinuous movements.

Many maidens and children were annually sacrificed to Tlaloc. If the children wept it was regarded as a
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Statue of Tlaloc, the Rain-God

In the National Museum, Mexico

It is averred without any substantial evidence that the Maya called this deity Chac-Mool

Photo C. B. Waite Mexico

happy omen for a rainy season. The Etzalqualiztli (When they eat Bean Food) was his chief festival, and was held on a day approximating to May 13, about which date the rainy season usually commenced. Another festival in his honour, the Quauitleua, commenced the Mexican year on February 2. At the former festival the priests of Tlaloc plunged into a lake, imitating the sounds and movements of frogs, which, as denizens of water, were under the special protection of the god. Chalchihuitlicue, his wife, was often symbolised by the small image of a frog.

Sacrifices to Tlaloc

Human sacrifices also took place at certain points in the mountains where artificial ponds were consecrated to Tlaloc. Cemeteries were situated in their vicinity, and offerings to the god interred near the burial-place of the bodies of the victims slain in his service. His statue was placed on the highest mountain of Tezcuco, and an old writer mentions that five or six young children were annually offered to the god at various points, their hearts torn out, and their remains interred. The mountains Popocatepetl and Teocuinani were regarded as his special high places, and on the heights of the latter was built his temple, in which stood his image carved in green stone.

The Nahua believed that the constant production of food and rain induced a condition of senility in those deities whose duty it was to provide them. This they attempted to stave off, fearing that if they failed in so doing the gods would perish. They afforded them, accordingly, a period of rest and recuperation, and once in eight years a festival called the Atamalqualiztli (Fast of Porridge-balls and Water) was held, during which every one in the Nahua community returned for the time being to the conditions of savage life. Dressed in costumes representing all forms of animal and bird life, and mimicking the sounds made by the various creatures they typified, the people danced round the teocalli of Tlaloc for the purpose of diverting and entertaining him after his labours in producing the fertilising rains of the past eight years. A lake was filled with water-snakes and frogs, and into this the people plunged, catching the reptiles in their mouths and devouring them alive. The only grain food which might be partaken during this season of rest was thin water-porridge of maize.

Should one of the more prosperous peasants or yeomen deem a rainfall necessary to the growth of his crops, or should he fear a drought, he sought out one of the professional makers of dough or paste idols, whom he desired to mould one of Tlaloc. To this image offerings of maize-porridge and pulque were made. Throughout the night the farmer and his neighbours danced, shrieking and howling round the figure for the purpose of rousing Tlaloc from his drought-bringing slumbers. Next day was spent in quaffing huge libations of pulque, and in much-needed rest from the exertions of the previous night.

In Tlaloc it is easy to trace resemblances to a mythological conception widely prevalent among the indigenous American peoples. He is similar to such deities as the Hurakan of the Kiche of Guatemala, the Pillan of the aborigines of Chile, and Con, the thunder-god of the Collao of Peru. Only his thunderous powers are not so apparent as his rain-making abilities, and in this he differs somewhat from the gods alluded to.


It is highly probable that Quetzalcoatl was a deity of the pre-Nahua people of Mexico. He was regarded by the Aztec race as a god of somewhat alien character, and had but a limited following in Mexico, the city of Huitzilopochtli. In Cholula, however, and others of the older towns his worship flourished exceedingly. He was regarded as "The Father of the Toltecs," and, legend says, was the seventh and youngest son of the Toltec Abraham, Iztacmixcohuatl. Quetzalcoatl (whose name means "Feathered Serpent" or "Feathered Staff") became, at a relatively early period, ruler of Tollan, and by his enlightened sway and his encouragement of the liberal arts did much to further the advancement of his people. His reign had lasted for a period sufficient to permit of his placing the cultivated arts upon a satisfactory basis when the country was visited by the cunning magicians Tezcatlipoca and Coyotl inaual, god of the Amantecas. Disentangled from its terms of myth, this statement may be taken to imply that bands of invading Nahua first began to appear within the Toltec territories. Tezcatlipoca, descending from the sky in the shape of a spider by way of a fine web, proffered him a draught of pulque, which so intoxicated him that the curse of lust descended upon him, and he forgot his chastity with Quetzalpetlatl. The doom pronounced upon him was the hard one of banishment, and he was compelled to forsake Anahuac. His exile wrought peculiar changes upon the face of the country. He secreted his treasures of gold and silver, burned his palaces, transformed the cacao-trees into mezquites, and banished all the birds from the neighbourhood of Tollan. The magicians, nonplussed at these unexpected happenings, begged him to return, but he refused on the ground that the sun required his presence. He proceeded to Tabasco, the fabled land of Tlapallan, and, embarking upon a raft made of serpents, floated away to the east. A slightly different version of this myth has already been given. Other accounts state that the king cast himself upon a funeral pyre and was consumed, and that the ashes arising from the conflagration flew upward, and were changed into birds of brilliant plumage. His heart also soared into the sky, and became the morning star. The Mexicans averred that Quetzalcoatl died when the star became visible, and thus they bestowed upon him the title "Lord of the Dawn." They further said that when he died he was invisible for four days, and that for eight days he wandered in the underworld, after which time the morning star appeared, when he achieved resurrection, and ascended his throne as a god.

It is the contention of some authorities that the myth of Quetzalcoatl points to his status as god of the sun. That luminary, they say, begins his diurnal journey in the east, whence Quetzalcoatl returned as to his native home. It will be recalled that Montezuma and his subjects imagined that Cortés was no other than Quetzalcoatl, returned to his dominions, as an old prophecy declared he would do. But that he stood for the sun itself is highly improbable, as will be shown. First of all, however, it will be well to pay some attention to other theories concerning his origin.

Perhaps the most important of these is that which regards Quetzalcoatl as a god of the air. He is connected, say some, with the cardinal points, and wears the insignia of the cross, which symbolises them. Dr. Seler says of him: "He has a protruding, trumpet-like mouth, for the wind-god blows. . . . His figure suggests whirls and circles. Hence his temples were built in circular form. . . . The head of the wind-god stands for the second of the twenty day signs, which was called Ehecatl (Wind)." The same authority, however, in his essay on Mexican chronology, gives to Quetzalcoatl a dual nature, "the dual nature which seems to
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The Aged Quetzalcoatl Leaves Mexico on a Raft of Serpents

Gilbert James

belong to the wind-god Quetzalcoatl, who now appears simply a wind-god, and again seems to show the true characters of the old god of fire and light."[1]

Dr. Brinton perceived in Quetzalcoatl a similar dual nature. "He is both lord of the eastern light and of the winds," he writes (Myths of the New World, p. 214). "Like all the dawn heroes, he too was represented as of white complexion, clothed in long, white robes, and, as many of the Aztec gods, with a full and flowing beard. . . . He had been overcome by Tezcatlipoca, the wind or spirit of night, who had descended from heaven by a spider's web, and presented his rival with a draught supposed to confer immortality, but in fact producing an intolerable longing for home. For the wind and the light both depart when the gloaming draws near, or when the clouds spread their dark and shadowy webs along the mountains, and pour the vivifying rain upon the fields."

The theory which derives Quetzalcoatl from a "culture-hero" who once actually existed is scarcely reconcilable with probability. It is more than likely that, as in the case of other mythical paladins, the legend of a mighty hero arose from the somewhat weakened idea of a great deity. Some of the early Spanish missionaries professed to see in Quetzalcoatl the Apostle St. Thomas, who had journeyed to America to effect its conversion!

The Man of the Sun

A more probable explanation of the origin of Quetzalcoatl and a more likely elucidation of his nature is that which would regard him as the Man of the Sun, who has quitted his abode for a season for the purpose of inculcating in mankind those arts which represent the first steps in civilisation, who fulfils his mission, and who, at a late period, is displaced by the deities of an invading race. Quetzalcoatl was represented as a traveller with staff in hand, and this is proof of his solar character, as is the statement that under his rule the fruits of the earth flourished more abundantly than at any subsequent period. The abundance of gold said to have been accumulated in his reign assists the theory, the precious metal being invariably associated with the sun by most barbarous peoples. In the native pinturas it is noticeable that the solar disc and semi-disc are almost invariably found in connection with the feathered serpent as the symbolical attributes of Quetzalcoatl. The Hopi Indians of Mexico at the present day symbolise the sun as a serpent, tail in mouth, and the ancient Mexicans introduced the solar disc in connection with small images of Quetzalcoatl, which they attached to the head-dress. In still other examples Quetzalcoatl is pictured as if emerging or stepping from the luminary, which is represented as his dwelling-place.

Several tribes tributary to the Aztecs were in the habit of imploring Quetzalcoatl in prayer to return and free them from the intolerable bondage of the conqueror. Notable among them were the Totonacs, who passionately believed that the sun, their father, would send a god who would free them from the Aztec yoke. On the coming of the Spaniards the European conquerors were hailed as the servants of Quetzalcoatl, thus in the eyes of the natives fulfilling the tradition that he would return.

Various Forms of Quetzalcoatl

Various conceptions of Quetzalcoatl are noticeable in the mythology of the territories which extended from the north of Mexico to the marshes of Nicaragua. In Guatemala the Kiches recognised him as Gucumatz, and in Yucatan proper he was worshipped as Kukulcan, both of which names are but literal translations of his Mexican title of "Feathered Serpent" into Kiche and Mayan. That the three deities are one and the same there can be no shadow of doubt. Several authorities have seen in Kukulcan a "serpent-and-rain god." He can only be such in so far as he is a solar god also. The cult of the feathered snake in Yucatan was unquestionably a branch of sun-worship. In tropical latitudes the sun draws the clouds round him at noon. The rain falls from the clouds accompanied by thunder and lightning—the symbols of the divine serpent. Therefore the manifestations of the heavenly serpent were directly associated with the sun, and no statement that Kukulcan is a mere serpent-and-water god satisfactorily elucidates his characteristics.

Quetzalcoatl's Northern Origin

It is by no means improbable that Quetzalcoatl was of northern origin, and that on his adoption by southern peoples and tribes dwelling in tropical countries his characteristics were gradually and unconsciously altered in order to meet the exigencies of his environment. The mythology of the Indians of British Columbia, whence in all likelihood the Nahua originally came, is possessed of a central figure bearing a strong resemblance to Quetzalcoatl. Thus the Thlingit tribe worship Yetl; the Quaquiutl Indians, Kanikilak; the Salish people of the coast, Kumsnöotl, Quäaqua, or Släalekam. It is noticeable that these divine beings are worshipped as the Man of the Sun, and totally apart from the luminary himself, as was Quetzalcoatl in Mexico. The Quaquiutl believe that before his settlement among them for the purpose of inculcating in the tribe the arts of life, the sun descended as a bird, and assumed a human shape. Kanikilak is his son, who, as his emissary, spreads the arts of civilisation over the world. So the Mexicans believed that Quetzalcoatl descended first of all in the form of a bird, and was ensnared in the fowler's net of the Toltec hero Hueymatzin.

The titles bestowed upon Quetzalcoatl by the Nahua show that in his solar significance he was god of the vault of the heavens, as well as merely son of the sun. He was alluded to as Ehecatl (The Air), Yolcuat (The Rattlesnake), Tohil (The Rumbler), Nanihehecatl (Lord of the Four Winds), Tlauizcalpantecutli (Lord of the Light of the Dawn). The whole heavenly vault was his, together with all its phenomena. This would seem to be in direct opposition to the theory that Tezcatlipoca was the supreme god of the Mexicans. But it must be borne in mind that Tezcatlipoca was the god of a later age, and of a fresh body of Nahua immigrants, and as such inimical to Quetzalcoatl, who was probably in a similar state of opposition to Itzamna, a Maya deity of Yucatan.

The Worship of Quetzalcoatl

The worship of Quetzalcoatl was in some degree antipathetic to that of the other Mexican deities, and his priests were a separate caste. Although human sacrifice was by no means so prevalent among his devotees, it is a mistake to aver, as some authorities have done, that it did not exist in connection with his worship. A more acceptable sacrifice to Quetzalcoatl appears to have been the blood of the celebrant or worshipper, shed by himself. When we come to consider the mythology of the Zapotecs, a people whose customs and beliefs appear to have formed a species of link between the Mexican and Mayan civilisations, we
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Ritual Mask of Quetzalcoatl
Ritual Mask of Tezcatlipoca
Sacrificial Knife

Photo Mansell & Co.

shall find that their high-priests occasionally enacted the legend of Quetzalcoatl in their own persons, and that their worship, which appears to have been based upon that of Quetzalcoatl, had as one of its most pronounced characteristics the shedding of blood. The celebrant or devotee drew blood from the vessels lying under the tongue or behind the ear by drawing across those tender parts a cord made from the thorn-covered fibres of the agave. The blood was smeared over the mouths of the idols. In this practice we can perceive an act analogous to the sacrificial substitution of the part for the whole, as obtaining in early Palestine and many other countries—a certain sign that tribal or racial opinion has contracted a disgust for human sacrifice, and has sought to evade the anger of the gods by yielding to them a portion of the blood of each worshipper, instead of sacrificing the life of one for the general weal.

The Maize-Gods of Mexico

A special group of deities called Centeotl presided over the agriculture of Mexico, each of whom personified one or other of the various aspects of the maize-plant. The chief goddess of maize, however, was Chicomecohuatl (Seven-serpent), her name being an allusion to the fertilising power of water, which element the Mexicans symbolised by the serpent. As Xilonen she typified the xilote, or green ear of the maize. But it is probable that Chicomecohuatl was the creation of an older race, and that the Nahua new-comers adopted or brought with them another growth-spirit, the "Earth-mother," Teteoinnan (Mother of the Gods), or Tocitzin (Our Grandmother). This goddess had a son, Centeotl, a male maize-spirit. Sometimes the mother was also known as Centeotl, the generic name for the entire group, and this fact has led to some confusion in the minds of Americanists. But this does not mean that Chicomecohuatl was by any means neglected. Her spring festival, held on April 5, was known as Hueytozoztli (The Great Watch), and was accompanied by a general fast, when the dwellings of the Mexicans were decorated with bulrushes which had been sprinkled with blood drawn from the extremities of the inmates. The statues of the little tepitoton (household gods) were also decorated. The worshippers then proceeded to the maize-fields, where they pulled the tender stalks of the growing maize, and, having decorated them with flowers, placed them in the calpulli (the common house of the village). A mock combat then took place before the altar of Chicomecohuatl. The girls of the village presented the goddess with bundles of maize of the previous season's harvesting, later restoring them to the granaries in order that they might be utilised for seed for the coming year. Chicomecohuatl was always represented among the household deities of the Mexicans, and on the occasion of her festival the family placed before the image a basket of provisions surmounted by a cooked frog, bearing on its back a piece of cornstalk stuffed with pounded maize and vegetables. This frog was symbolic of Chalchihuitlicue, wife of Tlaloc, the rain-god, who assisted Chicomecohuatl in providing a bountiful harvest. In order that the soil might further benefit, a frog, the symbol of water, was sacrificed, so that its vitality should recuperate that of the weary and much-burdened earth.

The Sacrifice of the Dancer

A more important festival of Chicomecohuatl, however, was the Xalaquia, which lasted from June 28 to July 14, commencing when the maize plant had attained its full growth. The women of the pueblo (village) wore their hair unbound, and shook and tossed it so that by sympathetic magic the maize might take the hint and grow correspondingly long. Chian pinolli was consumed in immense quantities, and maize-porridge was eaten. Hilarious dances were nightly performed in the teopan (temple), the central figure in which was the Xalaquia, a female captive or slave, with face painted red and yellow to represent the colours of the maize-plant. She had previously undergone a long course of training in the dancing-school, and now, all unaware of the horrible fate awaiting her, she danced and pirouetted gaily among the rest. Throughout the duration of the festival she danced, and on its expiring night she was accompanied in the dance by the women of the community, who circled round her, chanting the deeds of Chicomecohuatl. When daybreak appeared the company was joined by the chiefs and headmen, who, along with the exhausted and half-fainting victim, danced the solemn death-dance. The entire community then approached the teocalli (pyramid of sacrifice), and, its summit reached, the victim was stripped to a nude condition, the priest plunged a knife of flint into her bosom, and, tearing out the still palpitating heart, offered it up to Chicomecohuatl. In this manner the venerable goddess, weary with the labours of inducing growth in the maize-plant, was supposed to be revivified and refreshed. Hence the name Xalaquia, which signifies "She who is clothed with the Sand." Until the death of the victim it was not lawful to partake of the new corn.

The general appearance of Chicomecohuatl was none too pleasing. Her image rests in the National Museum in Mexico, and is girdled with snakes. On the underside the symbolic frog is carved. The Americanists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were unequal to the task of elucidating the origin of the figure, which they designated Teoyaominqui. The first to point out the error was Payne, in his History of the New World called America, vol. i. p. 424. The passage in which he announces his discovery is of such real interest that it is worth transcribing fully.

An Antiquarian Mare's Nest

"All the great idols of Mexico were thought to have been destroyed until this was disinterred among other relics in the course of making new drains in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico in August 1790. The discovery produced an immense sensation. The idol was dragged to the court of the University, and there set up; the Indians began to worship it and deck it with flowers; the antiquaries, with about the same degree of intelligence, to speculate about it. What most puzzled them was that the face and some other parts of the goddess are found in duplicate at the back of the figure; hence they concluded it to represent two gods in one, the principal of whom they further concluded to be a female, the other, indicated by the back, a male. The standard author on Mexican antiquities at that time was the Italian dilettante Boturini, of whom it may be said that he is better, but not much better, than nothing at all. From page 27 of his work the antiquaries learned that Huitzilopochtli was accompanied by the goddess Teoyaominqui, who was charged with collecting the souls of those slain in war and sacrifice. This was enough. The figure was at once named Teoyaominqui or Huitzilopochtli (The One plus the Other), and has been so called ever since. The antiquaries next elevated this imaginary goddess to the rank of the war-god's wife. 'A soldier,' says

The so-called Teoyaominqui

In the National Museum, Mexico

Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico


Bardolph, 'is better accommodated than with a wife': a fortiori, so is a war-god. Besides, as Torquemada (vol. ii. p. 47) says with perfect truth, the Mexicans did not think so grossly of the divinity as to have married gods or goddesses at all. The figure is undoubtedly a female. It has no vestige of any weapon about it, nor has it any limbs. It differs in every particular from the war-god Huitzilopochtli, every detail of which is perfectly well known. There never was any goddess called Teoyaominqui, This may be plausibly inferred from the fact that such a goddess is unknown not merely to Sahagun, Torquemada, Acosta, Tezozomoc, Duran, and Clavigero, but to all other writers except Boturini. The blunder of the last-named writer is easily explained. Antonio Leon y Gama, a Mexican astronomer, wrote an account of the discoveries of 1790, in which, evidently puzzled by the name of Teoyaominqui, he quotes a manuscript in Mexican, said to have been written by an Indian of Tezcuco, who was born in 1528, to the effect that Teoyaotlatohua and Teoyaominqui were spirits who presided over the fifteenth of the twenty signs of the fortune-tellers' calendar, and that those born in this sign would be brave warriors, but would soon die. (As the fifteenth sign was quauhtli, this is likely enough.) When their hour had come the former spirit scented them out, the latter killed them. The rubbish printed about Huitzilopochtli, Teoyaominqui, and Mictlantecutli in connection with this statue would fill a respectable volume. The reason why the features were duplicated is obvious. The figure was carried in the midst of a large crowd. Probably it was considered to be an evil omen if the idol turned away its face from its worshippers; this the duplicate obviated. So when the dance was performed round the figure (cf. Janus).

This duplication of the features, a characteristic of the very oldest gods, appears to be indicated when the numeral ome (two) is prefixed to the title of the deity. Thus the two ancestors and preservers of the race were called Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl (two-chief, two-woman), ancient Toltec gods, who at the conquest become less prominent in the theology of Mexico, and who are best represented in that of the Mexican colony of Nicaragua."

The Offering to Centeotl

During her last hours the victim sacrificed at the Xalaquia wore a ritual dress made from the fibres of the aloe, and with this garment the maize-god Centeotl was clothed. Robed in this he temporarily represented the earth-goddess, so that he might receive her sacrifice. The blood of victims was offered up to him in a vessel decorated with that brilliant and artistic feather-work which excited such admiration in the breasts of the connoisseurs and aesthetes of the Europe of the sixteenth century. Upon partaking of this blood-offering the deity emitted a groan so intense and terrifying that it has been left on record that such Spaniards as were present became panic-stricken. This ceremony was followed by another, the nitiçapoloa (tasting of the soil), which consisted in raising a little earth on one finger to the mouth and eating it.

As has been said, Centeotl the son has been confounded with Centeotl the mother, who is in reality the earth-mother Teteoinnan. Each of these deities had a teopan (temple) of his or her own, but they were closely allied as parent and child. But of the two, Centeotl the son was the more important. On the death of the sacrificed victim her skin was conveyed to the temple of Centeotl the son, and worn there in the
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Statue of a Male Divinity

Probably Centeotl the Son

Photo Mansell & Co.


succeeding ritual by the officiating priests. This gruesome dress is frequently depicted in the Aztec pinturas, where the skin of the hands, and in some instances the feet, of the victims can be seen dangling from the wrists and ankles of the priest.

Importance of the Food-Gods

To the Mexicans the deities of most importance to the community as a whole were undoubtedly the food-gods. In their emergence from the hunting to the agricultural state of life, when they began to exist almost solely upon the fruits of the earth, the Mexicans were quick to recognise that the old deities of the chase, such as Mixcoatl, could not now avail them or succour them in the same manner as the guardians of the crops and fertilisers of the soil. Gradually we see these gods, then, advance in power and influence until at the time of the Spanish invasion we find them paramount. Even the terrible war-god himself had an agricultural significance, as we have pointed out. A distinct bargain with the food-gods can be clearly traced, and is none the less obvious because it was never written or codified. The covenant was as binding to the native mind as any made betwixt god and man in ancient Palestine, and included mutual assistance as well as provision for mere alimentary supply. In no mythology is the understanding between god and man so clearly defined as in the Nahuan, and in none is its operation better exemplified.


Xipe (The Flayed) was widely worshipped throughout Mexico, and is usually depicted in the pinturas as being attired in a flayed human skin. At his special festival, the "Man-flaying," the skins were removed from the victims and worn by the devotees of the god for the succeeding twenty days. He is usually represented as of a red colour. In the later days of the Aztec monarchy the kings and leaders of Mexico assumed the dress or classical garments of Xipe. This dress consisted of a crown made of feathers of the roseate spoonbill, the gilt timbrel, the jacket of spoonbill feathers, and an apron of green feathers lapping over one another in a tile-like pattern. In the Cozcatzin Codex we see a picture of King Axayacatl dressed as Xipe in a feather skirt, and having a tiger-skin scabbard to his sword. The hands of a flayed human skin also dangle over the monarch's wrists, and the feet fall over his feet like gaiters.

Xipe's shield is a round target covered with the rose-coloured feathers of the spoonbill, with concentric circles of a darker hue on the surface. There are examples of it divided into an upper and lower part, the former showing an emerald on a blue field, and the latter a tiger-skin design. Xipe was imagined as possessing three forms, the first that of the roseate spoon-bill, the second that of the blue cotinga, and the last that of a tiger, the three shapes perhaps corresponding to the regions of heaven, earth, and hell, or to the three elements, fire, earth, and water. The deities of many North American Indian tribes show similar variations in form and colour, which are supposed to follow as the divinity changes his dwelling to north, south, east, or west. But Xipe is seldom depicted in the pinturas in any other form but that of the red god, the form in which the Mexicans adopted him from the Yopi tribe of the Pacific slope. He is the god of human sacrifice par excellence, and may be regarded as a Yopi equivalent of Tezcatlipoca. Nanahuatl, or Nanauatzin

Nanahuatl (Poor Leper) presided over skin diseases, such as leprosy. It was thought that persons afflicted with these complaints were set apart by the moon for his service. In the Nahua tongue the words for "leprous" and "eczematous" also mean "divine." The myth of Nanahuatl tells how before the sun was created humanity dwelt in sable and horrid gloom. Only a human sacrifice could hasten the appearance of the luminary. Metztli (The Moon) led forth Nanahuatl as a sacrifice, and he was cast upon a funeral pyre, in the flames of which he was consumed. Metztli also cast herself upon the mass of flame, and with her death the sun rose above the horizon. There can be no doubt that the myth refers to the consuming of the starry or spotted night, and incidentally to the nightly death of the moon at the flaming hour of dawn.


Xolotl is of southern, possibly Zapotec, origin. He represents either fire rushing down from the heavens or light flaming upward. It is noticeable that in the pinturas the picture of the setting sun being devoured by the earth is nearly always placed opposite his image. He is probably identical with Nanahuatl, and appears as the representative of human sacrifice. He has also affinities with Xipe. On the whole Xolotl may be best described as a sun-god of the more southerly tribes. His head (quaxolotl) was one of the most famous devices for warriors' use, as sacrifice among the Nahua was, as we have seen, closely associated with warfare.

Xolotl was a mythical figure quite foreign to the peoples of Anahuac or Mexico, who regarded him as something strange and monstrous. He is alluded to as the "God of Monstrosities," and, thinks Dr. Seler, the word "monstrosity" may suitably translate his name. He is depicted with empty eye-sockets, which circumstance is explained by the myth that when the gods determined to sacrifice themselves in order to give life and strength to the newly created sun, Xolotl withdrew, and wept so much that his eyes fell out of their sockets. This was the Mexican explanation of a Zapotec attribute. Xolotl was originally the "Lightning Beast" of the Maya

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or some other southern folk, and was represented by them as a dog, since that animal appeared to them to be the creature which he most resembled. But he was by no means a "natural" dog, hence their conception of him as unnatural. Dr. Seler is inclined to identify him with the tapir, and indeed Sahagun speaks of a strange animal-being, tlaca-xolotl, which has "a large snout, large teeth, hoofs like an ox, a thick hide, and reddish hair"—not a bad description of the tapir of Central America. Of course to the Mexicans the god Xolotl was no longer an animal, although he had evolved from one, and was imagined by them to have the form shown in the accompanying illustration.


The Fire-God

This deity was known in Mexico under various names, notably Tata (Our Father), Huehueteotl (Oldest of Gods), and Xiuhtecutli (Lord of the Year). He was represented as of the colour of fire, with a black face, a headdress of green feathers, and bearing on his back a yellow serpent, to typify the serpentine nature of fire. He also bore a mirror of gold to show his connection with the sun, from which all heat emanates. On rising in the morning all Mexican families made Xiuhtecutli an offering of a piece of bread and a drink. He was thus not only, like Vulcan, the god of thunderbolts and conflagrations, but also the milder deity of the domestic hearth. Once a year the fire in every Mexican house was extinguished, and rekindled by friction before the idol of Xiuhtecutli. When a Mexican baby was born it passed through a baptism of fire on the fourth day, up to which time a fire, lighted at the time of its birth, was kept burning in order to nourish its existence.


Mictlantecutli (Lord of Hades) was God of the Dead and of the grim and shadowy realm to which the souls of men repair after their mortal sojourn. He is represented in the pinturas as a grisly monster with capacious mouth, into which fall the spirits of the dead. His terrible abode was sometimes alluded to as Tlalxicco (Navel of the Earth), but the Mexicans in general seem to have thought that it was situated in the far north, which they regarded as a place of famine, desolation, and death. Here those who by the circumstances of their demise were unfitted to enter the paradise of Tlaloc—namely, those who had not been drowned or had not died a warrior's death, or, in the case of women, had not died in childbed—passed a dreary and meaningless existence. Mictlan was surrounded by a species of demons called tzitzimimes, and had a spouse, Mictecaciuatl. When we come to discuss the analogous deity of the Maya we shall see that in all probability Mictlan was represented by the bat, the animal typical of the underworld. In a preceding paragraph dealing with the funerary customs we have described the journey of the soul to the abode of Mictlan, and the ordeals through which the spirit of the defunct had to pass ere entering his realm (see p. 37).

Worship of the Planet Venus

The Mexicans designated the planet Venus Citlalpol (The Great Star) and Tlauizcalpantecutli (Lord of the Dawn). It seems to have been the only star worshipped by them, and was regarded with considerable veneration. Upon its rising they stopped up the chimneys of their houses, so that no harm of any kind might enter with its light. A column called Ilhuicatlan, meaning "In the Sky," stood in the court of the great temple of Mexico, and upon this a symbol of the planet was painted. On its reappearance during its usual circuit, captives were taken before this representation and sacrificed to it. It will be remembered that the myth of Quetzalcoatl states that the heart of that deity flew upward from the funeral pyre on which he was consumed and became the planet Venus. It is not easy to say whether or not this myth is anterior to the adoption of the worship of the planet by the Nahua, for it may be a tale of pre- or post-Nahuan growth. In the tonalamatl Tlauizcalpantecutli is represented as lord of the ninth division of thirteen days, beginning with Ce Coatl (the sign of "One Serpent"). In several of the pinturas he is represented as having a white body with long red stripes, while round his eyes is a deep black painting like a domino mask, bordered with small white circles. His lips are a bright vermilion. The red stripes are probably introduced to accentuate the whiteness of his body, which is understood to symbolise the peculiar half-light which emanates from the planet. The black paint on the face, surrounding the eye, typifies the dark sky of night. In Mexican and Central American symbolism the eye often represents light, and here, surrounded by blackness as it is, it is perhaps almost hieroglyphic. As the star of evening, Tlauizcalpantecutli is sometimes shown with the face of a skull, to signify his descent into the underworld, whither he follows the sun. That the Mexicans and Maya carefully and accurately observed his periods of revolution is witnessed by the pinturas.


The sun was regarded by the Nahua, and indeed by all the Mexican and Central American peoples, as the supreme deity, or rather the principal source of subsistence and life. He was always alluded to as the teotl, the god, and his worship formed as it were a background to that of all the other gods. His Mexican name, Ipalnemohuani (He by whom Men Live) shows that the Mexicans regarded him as the primal source of being, and the heart, the symbol of life, was looked upon as his special sacrifice. Those who rose at sunrise to prepare food for the day held up to him on his appearance the hearts of animals they had slain for cooking, and even the hearts of the victims to Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli were first held up to the sun, as if he had a primary right to the sacrifice, before being cast into the bowl of copal which lay at the feet of the idol. It was supposed that the luminary rejoiced in offerings of blood, and that it constituted the only food which would render him sufficiently vigorous to undertake his daily journey through the heavens. He is often depicted in the pinturas as licking up the gore of the sacrificial victims with his long tongue-like rays. The sun must fare well if he was to continue to give life, light, and heat to mankind.

The Mexicans, as we have already seen, believed that the luminary they knew had been preceded by others, each of which had been quenched by some awful cataclysm of nature. Eternity had, in fact, been broken up into epochs, marked by the destruction of successive suns. In the period preceding that in which they lived, a mighty deluge had deprived the sun of life, and some such catastrophe was apprehended at the end of every "sheaf" of fifty-two years. The old suns were dead, and the current sun was no more immortal than they. At the end of one of the "sheaves" he too would succumb.

Sustaining the Sun

It was therefore necessary to sustain the sun by the daily food of human sacrifice, for by a tithe of human life alone would he be satisfied. Naturally a people holding such a belief would look elsewhere than within their own borders for the material wherewith to placate their deity. This could be most suitably found among the inhabitants of a neighbouring state. It thus became the business of the warrior class in the Aztec state to furnish forth the altars of the gods with human victims. The most suitable district of supply was the pueblo of Tlaxcallan, or Tlascala, the people of which were of cognate origin to the Aztecs. The communities had, although related, been separated for so many
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Quauhxicalli or Solar Altar of Sacrifice

In the National Museum, Mexico

Photo C. B. Watte, Mexico


generations that they had begun to regard each other as traditional enemies, and on a given day in the year their forces met at an appointed spot for the purpose of engaging in a strife which should furnish one side or the other with a sufficiency of victims for the purpose of sacrifice. The warrior who captured the largest number of opponents alive was regarded as the champion of the day, and was awarded the chief honours of the combat. The sun was therefore the god of warriors, as he would give them victory in battle in order that they might supply him with food. The rites of this military worship of the luminary were held in the Quauhquauhtinchan (House of the Eagles), an armoury set apart for the regiment of that name. On March 17 and December 1 and 2, at the ceremonies known as Nauhollin (The Four Motions—alluding to the quivering appearance of the sun's rays), the warriors gathered in this hall for the purpose of despatching a messenger to their lord the sun. High up on the wall of the principal court was a great symbolic representation of the orb, painted upon a brightly coloured cotton hanging. Before this copal and other fragrant gums and spices were burned four times a day. The victim, a war-captive, was placed at the foot of a long staircase leading up to the Quauhxicalli (Cup of the Eagles), the name of the stone on which he was to be sacrificed. He was clothed in red striped with white and wore white plumes in his hair—colours symbolical of the sun—while he bore a staff decorated with feathers and a shield covered with tufts of cotton. He also carried a bundle of eagle's feathers and some paint on his shoulders, to enable the sun, to whom he was the emissary, to paint his face. He was then addressed by the officiating priest in the following terms: "Sir, we pray you go to our god the sun, and greet him on our behalf; tell him that his sons and warriors and chiefs and those who remain here beg of him to remember them and to favour them from that place where he is, and to receive this small offering which we send him. Give him this staff to help him on his journey, and this shield for his defence, and all the rest that you have in this bundle." The victim, having undertaken to carry the message to the sun-god, was then despatched upon his long journey.

A Quauhxicalli is preserved in the National Museum of Mexico. It consists of a basaltic mass, circular in form, on which are shown in sculpture a series of groups representing Mexican warriors receiving the submission of war-captives. The prisoner tenders a flower to his captor, symbolical of the life he is about to offer up, for lives were the "flowers" offered to the gods, and the campaign in which these "blossoms" were captured was called Xochiyayotl (The War of Flowers). The warriors who receive the submission of the captives are represented in the act of tearing the plumes from their heads. These bas-reliefs occupy the sides of the stone. The face of it is covered by a great solar disc having eight rays, and the surface is hollowed out in the middle to form a receptacle for blood—the "cup" alluded to in the name of the stone. The Quauhxicalli must not be confounded with the temalacatl(spindle stone), to which the alien warrior who received a chance of life was secured. The gladiatorial combat gave the war-captive an opportunity to escape through superior address in arms. The temalacatl was somewhat higher than a man, and was provided with a platform at the top, in the middle of which was placed a great stone with a hole in it through which a rope was passed. To this the war-captive was secured, and if he could vanquish seven of his captors he was released. If he failed to do so he was at once sacrificed.

A Mexican Valhalla

The Mexican warriors believed that they continued in the service of the sun after death, and, like the Scandinavian heroes in Valhalla, that they were admitted to the dwelling of the god, where they shared all the delights of his diurnal round. The Mexican warrior dreaded to die in his bed, and craved an end on the field of battle. This explains the desperate nature of their resistance to the Spaniards under Cortes, whose officers stated that the Mexicans seemed to desire to die fighting. After death they believed that they would partake of the cannibal feasts offered up to the sun and imbibe the juice of flowers.

The Feast of Totec

The chief of the festivals to the sun was that held in spring at the vernal equinox, before the representation of a deity known as Totec (Our Great Chief). Although Totec was a solar deity he had been adopted from the people of an alien state, the Zapotecs of Zalisco, and is therefore scarcely to be regarded as the principal sun-god. His festival was celebrated by the symbolical slaughter of all the other gods for the purpose of providing sustenance to the sun, each of the gods being figuratively slain in the person of a victim. Totec was attired in the same manner as the warrior despatched twice a year to assure the sun of the loyalty of the Mexicans. The festival appears to have been primarily a seasonal one, as bunches of dried maize were offered to Totec. But its larger meaning is obvious. It was, indeed, a commemoration of the creation of the sun. This is proved by the description of the image of Totec, which was robed and equipped as the solar traveller, by the solar disc and tables of the sun's progress carved on the altar employed in the ceremony, and by the robes of the victims, who were dressed to represent dwellers in the sun-god's halls. Perhaps Totec, although of alien origin, was the only deity possessed by the Mexicans who directly represented the sun. As a borrowed god he would have but a minor position in the Mexican pantheon, but again as the only sun-god whom it was necessary to bring into prominence during a strictly solar festival he would be for the time, of course, a very important deity indeed.


Tepeyollotl means Heart of the Mountain, and evidently alludes to a deity whom the Nahua connected with seismic disturbances and earthquakes. By the interpreter of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis he is called Tepeolotlec, an obvious distortion of his real name. The interpreter of the codex states that his name "refers to the condition of the earth after the flood. The sacrifices of these thirteen days were not good, and the literal translation of their name is 'dirt sacrifices.' They caused palsy and bad humours. . . . This Tepeolotlec was lord of these thirteen days. In them were celebrated the feast to the jaguar, and the last four preceding days were days of fasting, . . . Tepeolotlec means the 'Lord of Beasts.' The four feast days were in honour of the Suchiquezal, who was the man that remained behind on the earth upon which we now live. This Tepeolotlec was the same as the echo of the voice when it re-echoes in a valley from one mountain to another. This name 'jaguar' is given to the earth because the jaguar is the boldest animal, and the echo which the voice awakens in the mountains is a survival of the flood, it is said."

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By permission of the the Bureau of American Ethnology


From this we can see that Tepeyollotl is a deity of the earth pure and simple, a god of desert places. It is certain that he was not a Mexican god, or at least was not of Nahua origin, as he is mentioned by none of those writers who deal with Nahua traditions, and we must look for him among the Mixtecs and Zapotecs.

Macuilxochitl, or Xochipilli

This deity, whose names mean Five-Flower and Source of Flowers, was regarded as the patron of luck in gaming. He may have been adopted by the Nahua from the Zapotecs, but the converse may be equally true. The Zapotecs represented him with a design resembling a butterfly about the mouth, and a many coloured face which looks out of the open jaws of a bird with a tall and erect crest. The worship of this god appears to have been very widespread. Sahagun says of him that a fête was held in his honour, which was preceded by a rigorous fast. The people covered themselves with ornaments and jewels symbolic of the deity, as if they desired to represent him, and dancing and singing proceeded gaily to the sound of the drum. Offerings of the blood of various animals followed, and specially prepared cakes were submitted to the god. This simple fare, however, was later followed by human sacrifices, rendered by the notables, who brought certain of their slaves for immolation. This completed the festival.

Father and Mother Gods

The Nahua believed that Ometecutli and Omeciuatl were the father and mother of the human species. The names signify Lords of Duality or Lords of the Two Sexes. They were also called Tonacatecutli and Tonacaciuatl (Lord and Lady of Our Flesh, or of Subsistence). They were in fact regarded as the sexual essence of the creative deity, or perhaps more correctly of deity in general. They occupied the first place in the Nahua calendar, to signify that they had existed from the beginning, and they are usually represented as being clothed in rich attire. Ometecutli (a literal translation of his name is Two-Lord) is sometimes identified with the sky and the fire-god, the female deity representing the earth or water—conceptions similar to those respecting Kronos and Gæa. We refer again to these supreme divinities in the following chapter (see p. 118).

The Pulque-Gods

When a man was intoxicated with the native Mexican drink of pulque, a liquor made from the juice of the Agave Americana, he was believed to be under the influence of a god or spirit. The commonest form under which the drink-god was worshipped was the rabbit, that animal being considered to be utterly devoid of sense. This particular divinity was known as Ometochtli. The scale of debauchery which it was desired to reach was indicated by the number of rabbits worshipped, the highest number, four hundred, representing the most extreme degree of intoxication. The chief pulque-gods apart from these were Patecatl and Tequechmecauiani. If the drunkard desired to escape the perils of accidental hanging during intoxication, it was necessary to sacrifice to the latter, but if death by drowning was apprehended Teatlahuiani, the deity who harried drunkards to a watery grave, was placated. If the debauchee wished his punishment not to exceed a headache, Quatlapanqui (The Head-splitter) was sacrificed to, or else Papaztac (The Nerveless). Each trade or profession had its own Ometochtli, but for the aristocracy there was only one of these gods, Cohuatzincatl, a name signifying "He who has Grandparents." Several of these drink-gods had names which connected them with various localities; for example, Tepoxtecatl was the pulque-god of Tepoztlan. The calendar day Ometochtli, which means "Two-Rabbit," because of the symbol which accompanied it, was under the special protection of these gods, and the Mexicans believed that any one born on that day was almost inevitably doomed to become a drunkard. All the pulque-gods were closely associated with the soil, and with the earth-goddess. They wore the golden Huaxtec nose-ornament, the yaca-metztli, of crescent shape, which characterised the latter, and indeed this ornament was inscribed upon all articles sacred to the pulque-gods. Their faces were painted red and black, as were objects consecrated to them, their blankets and shields. After the Indians had harvested their maize they drank to intoxication, and invoked one or other of these gods. On the whole it is safe to infer that they were originally deities of local husbandry who imparted virtue to the soil as pulque imparted strength and courage to the warrior. The accompanying sketch of the god Tepoxtecatl (see p. 117) well illustrates the distinguishing characteristics of the pulque-god class. Here we can observe the face painted in two colours, the crescent-shaped nose-ornament, the bicoloured shield, the long necklace made from the malinalli herb, and the ear-pendants.

It is of course clear that the drink-gods were of the same class as the food-gods—patrons of the fruitful soil—but it is strange that they should be male whilst the food-gods are mostly female.


The Goddesses of Mexico: Metztli

Metztli, or Yohualticitl (The Lady of Night), was the Mexican goddess of the moon. She had in reality two phases, one that of a beneficent protectress of harvests and promoter of growth in general, and the other that of a bringer of dampness, cold, and miasmic airs, ghosts, mysterious shapes of the dim half-light of night and its oppressive silence.

To a people in the agricultural stage of civilisation the moon appears as the great recorder of harvests. But she has also supremacy over water, which is always connected by primitive peoples with the moon. Citatli (Moon) and Atl (Water) are constantly confounded in Nahua myth, and in many ways their characteristics were blended. It was Metztli who led forth Nanahuatl the Leprous to the pyre whereon he perished—a reference to the dawn, in which the starry sky of night is consumed in the fires of the rising sun.


Tlazolteotl (God of Ordure), or Tlaelquani (Filth-eater), was called by the Mexicans the earth-goddess because she was the eradicator of sins, to whose priests the people went to make confession so that they might be absolved from their misdeeds. Sin was symbolised by the Mexicans as excrement. Confession covered only the sins of immorality. But if Tlazolteotl was the goddess of confession, she was also the patroness of desire and luxury. It was, however, as a deity whose chief office was the eradication of human sin that she was pre-eminent. The process by which this was supposed to be effected is quaintly described by Sahagun in the twelfth chapter of his first book. The penitent addressed the confessor as follows: "Sir, I desire to
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The Penitent addressing the Fire

William Sewell


approach that most powerful god, the protector of all, that is to say, Tezcatlipoca. I desire to tell him my sins in secret." The confessor replied: "Be happy, my son: that which thou wishest to do will be to thy good and advantage." The confessor then opened the divinatory book known as the Tonalamatl (that is, the Book of the Calendar) and acquainted the applicant with the day which appeared the most suitable for his confession. The day having arrived, the penitent provided himself with a mat, copal gum to burn as incense, and wood whereon to burn it. If he was a person high in office the priest repaired to his house, but in the case of lesser people the confession took place in the dwelling of the priest. Having lighted the fire and burned the incense, the penitent addressed the fire in the following terms: "Thou, lord, who art the father and mother of the gods, and the most ancient of them all, thy servant, thy slave bows before thee. Weeping, he approaches thee in great distress. He comes plunged in grief, because he has been buried in sin, having backslidden, and partaken of those vices and evil delights which merit death. O master most compassionate, who art the upholder and defence of all, receive the penitence and anguish of thy slave and vassal."

This prayer having concluded, the confessor then turned to the penitent and thus addressed him: "My son, thou art come into the presence of that god who is the protector and upholder of all; thou art come to him to confess thy evil vices and thy hidden uncleannesses; thou art come to him to unbosom the secrets of thy heart. Take care that thou omit nothing from the catalogue of thy sins in the presence of our lord who is called Tezcatlipoca. It is certain that thou art before him who is invisible and impalpable, thou who art not worthy to be seen before him, or to speak with him. . . ."

The allusions to Tezcatlipoca are, of course, to him in the shape of Tlazolteotl. Having listened to a sermon by the confessor, the penitent then confessed his misdeeds, after which the confessor said: "My son, thou hast before our lord god confessed in his presence thy evil actions. I wish to say in his name that thou hast an obligation to make. At the time when the goddesses called Ciuapipiltin descend to earth during the celebration of the feast of the goddesses of carnal things, whom they name Ixcuiname, thou shalt fast during four days, punishing thy stomach and thy mouth. When the day of the feast of the Ixcuiname arrives thou shalt scarify thy tongue with the small thorns of the osier [called teocalcacatl or tlazotl], and if that is not sufficient thou shalt do likewise to thine ears, the whole for penitence, for the remission of thy sin, and as a meritorious act. Thou wilt apply to thy tongue the middle of a spine of maguey, and thou wilt scarify thy shoulders. . . . That done, thy sins will be pardoned."

If the sins of the penitent were not very grave the priest would enjoin upon him a fast of a more or less prolonged nature. Only old men confessed crimes in veneribus, as the punishment for such was death, and younger men had no desire to risk the penalty involved, although the priests were enjoined to strict secrecy.

Father Burgoa describes very fully a ceremony of this kind which came under his notice in 1652 in the Zapotec village of San Francisco de Cajonos. He encountered on a tour of inspection an old native cacique, or chief, of great refinement of manners and of a stately presence, who dressed in costly garments after the Spanish fashion, and who was regarded by the Indians with much veneration. This man came to the priest for the purpose of reporting upon the progress in things spiritual and temporal in his village. Burgoa recognised his urbanity and wonderful command of the Spanish language, but perceived by certain signs that he had been taught to look for by long experience that the man was a pagan. He communicated his suspicions to the vicar of the village, but met with such assurances of the cacique's soundness of faith that he believed himself to be in error for once. Shortly afterwards, however, a wandering Spaniard perceived the chief in a retired place in the mountains performing idolatrous ceremonies, and aroused the monks, two of whom accompanied him to the spot where the cacique had been seen indulging in his heathenish practices. They found on the altar "feathers of many colours, sprinkled with blood which the Indians had drawn from the veins under their tongues and behind their ears, incense spoons and remains of copal, and in the middle a horrible stone figure, which was the god to whom they had offered this sacrifice in expiation of their sins, while they made their confessions to the blasphemous priests, and cast off their sins in the following manner: they had woven a kind of dish out of a strong herb, specially gathered for this purpose, and casting this before the priest, said to him that they came to beg mercy of their god, and pardon for their sins that they had committed during that year, and that they brought them all carefully enumerated. They then drew out of a cloth pairs of thin threads made of dry maize husks, that they had tied two by two in the middle with a knot, by which they represented their sins. They laid these threads on the dishes of grass, and over them pierced their veins, and let the blood trickle upon them, and the priest took these offerings to the idol, and in a long speech he begged the god to forgive these, his sons, their sins which were brought to him, and to permit them to be joyful and hold feasts to him as their god and lord. Then the priest came back to those who had confessed, delivered a long discourse on the ceremonies they had still to perform, and told them that the god had pardoned them and that they might be glad again and sin anew."


This goddess was the wife of Tlaloc, the god of rain and moisture. The name means Lady of the Emerald Robe, in allusion to the colour of the element over which the deity partly presided. She was specially worshipped by the water-carriers of Mexico, and all those whose avocation brought them into contact with water. Her costume was peculiar and interesting. Round her neck she wore a wonderful collar of precious stones, from which hung a gold pendant. She was crowned with a coronet of blue paper, decorated with green feathers. Her eyebrows were of turquoise, set in as mosaic, and her garment was a nebulous blue-green in hue, recalling the tint of sea-water in the tropics. The resemblance was heightened by a border of sea-flowers or water-plants, one of which she also carried in her left hand, whilst in her right she bore a vase surmounted by a cross, emblematic of the four points of the compass whence comes the rain.


Mixcoatl was the Aztec god of the chase, and was probably a deity of the Otomi aborigines of Mexico. The name means Cloud Serpent, and this originated the idea that Mixcoatl was a representation of the tropical whirlwind. This is scarcely correct, however, as the hunter-god is identified with the tempest and thunder-cloud, and the lightning is supposed to
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Cloud Serpent, the Hunter-God

Gilbert James


represent his arrows. Like many other gods of the chase, he is figured as having the characteristics of a deer or rabbit. He is usually depicted as carrying a sheaf of arrows, to typify thunderbolts. It may be that Mixcoatl was an air and thunder deity of the Otomi, older in origin than either Quetzalcoatl or Tezcatlipoca, and that his inclusion in the Nahua pantheon becoming necessary in order to quieten Nahua susceptibilities, he received the status of god of the chase. But, on the other hand, the Mexicans, unlike the Peruvians, who adopted many foreign gods for political purposes, had little regard for the feelings of other races, and only accepted an alien deity into the native circle for some good reason, most probably because they noted the omission of the figure in their own divine system. Or, again, dread of a certain foreign god might force them to adopt him as their own in the hope of placating him. Their worship of Quetzalcoatl is perhaps an instance of this.


This deity was the war-god of the Tlascalans, who were constantly in opposition to the Aztecs of Mexico. He was to the warriors of Tlascala practically what Huitzilopochtli was to those of Mexico. He was closely identified with Mixcoatl, and with the god of the morning star, whose colours are depicted on his face and body. But in all probability Camaxtli was a god of the chase, who in later times was adopted as a god of war because of his possession of the lightning dart, the symbol of divine warlike prowess. In the mythologies of North America we find similar hunter-gods, who sometimes evolve into gods of war for a like reason, and again gods of the chase who have all the appearance and attributes of the creatures hunted.



Ixtlilton (The Little Black One) was the Mexican god of medicine and healing, and therefore was often alluded to as the brother of Macuilxochitl, the god of well-being or good luck. From the account of the general appearance of his temple—an edifice of painted boards—it would seem to have evolved from the primitive tent or lodge of the medicine-man, or shaman. It contained several water-jars called tlilatl (black water), the contents of which were administered to children in bad health. The parents of children who benefited from the treatment bestowed a feast on the deity, whose idol was carried to the residence of the grateful father, where ceremonial dances and oblations were made before it. It was then thought that Ixtlilton descended to the courtyard to open fresh jars of pulque liquor provided for the feasters, and the entertainment concluded by an examination by the Aztec Æsculapius of such of the pulque jars dedicated to his service as stood in the courtyard for everyday use. Should these be found in an unclean condition, it was understood that the master of the house was a man of evil life, and he was presented by the priest with a mask to hide his face from his scoffing friends.


Omacatl was the Mexican god of festivity and joy. The name signifies Two Reeds. He was worshipped chiefly by bon-vivants and the rich, who celebrated him in splendid feasts and orgies. The idol of the deity was invariably placed in the chamber where these functions were to take place, and the Aztecs were known to regard it as a heinous offence if anything derogatory to the god were performed during the convivial ceremony, or if any omission were made from the prescribed form which these gatherings usually took. It was thought that if the host had been in any way remiss Omacatl would appear to the startled guests, and in tones of great severity upbraid him who had given the feast, intimating that he would regard him no longer as a worshipper and would henceforth abandon him. A terrible malady, the symptoms of which were akin to those of falling-sickness, would shortly afterwards seize the guests; but as such symptoms are not unlike those connected with acute indigestion and other gastric troubles, it is probable that the gourmets who paid homage to the god of good cheer may have been suffering from a too strenuous instead of a lukewarm worship of him. But the idea of communion which underlay so many of the Mexican rites undoubtedly entered into the worship of Omacatl, for prior to a banquet in his honour those who took part in it formed a great bone out of maize paste, pretending that it was one of the bones of the deity whose merry rites they were about to engage in. This they devoured, washing it down with great draughts of pulque. The idol of Omacatl was provided with a recess in the region of the stomach, and into this provisions were stuffed. He was represented as a squatting figure, painted black and white, crowned with a paper coronet, and hung with coloured paper. A flower-fringed cloak and sceptre were the other symbols of royalty worn by this Mexican Dionysus.


Opochtli (The Left-handed) was the god sacred to fishers and bird-catchers. At one period of Aztec history he must have been a deity of considerable consequence, since for generations the Aztecs were marsh-dwellers and depended for their daily food on the fish netted in the lakes and the birds snared in the reeds. They credited the god with the invention of the harpoon or trident for spearing fish and the fishing-rod and bird-net. The fishermen and bird-catchers of Mexico held on occasion a special feast in honour of Opochtli, at which a certain liquor called octli was consumed. A procession was afterwards formed, in which marched old people who had dedicated themselves to the worship of the god, probably because they could obtain no other means of subsistence than that afforded by the vocation of which he was tutelar and patron. He was represented as a man painted black, his head decorated with the plumes of native wild birds, and crowned by a paper coronet in the shape of a rose. He was clad in green paper which fell to the knee, and was shod with white sandals. In his left hand he held a shield painted red, having in the centre a white flower with four petals placed crosswise, and in his right hand he held a sceptre in the form of a cup.


Yacatecutli was the patron of travellers of the merchant class, who worshipped him by piling their staves together and sprinkling on the heap blood from their noses and ears. The staff of the traveller was his symbol, to which prayer was made and offerings of flowers and incense tendered.

The Aztec Priesthood

The Aztec priesthood was a hierarchy in whose hands resided a goodly portion of the power of the upper classes, especially that connected with education and
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Mexican Goddess

Photo C. B. Waite, Mexico


endowment. The mere fact that its members possessed the power of selecting victims for sacrifice must have been sufficient to place them in an almost unassailable position, and their prophetic utterances, founded upon the art of divination—so great a feature in the life of the Aztec people, who depended upon it from the cradle to the grave—probably assisted them in maintaining their hold upon the popular imagination. But withal the evidence of unbiased Spanish ecclesiastics, such as Sahagun, tends to show that they utilised their influence for good, and soundly instructed the people under their charge in the cardinal virtues; "in short," says the venerable friar, "to perform the duties plainly pointed out by natural religion."

Priestly Revenues

The establishment of the national religion was, as in the case of the mediæval Church in Europe, based upon a land tenure from which the priestly class derived a substantial though, considering their numbers, by no means inordinate revenue. The principal temples possessed lands which sufficed for the maintenance of the priests attached to them. There was, besides, a system of first-fruits fixed by law for the priesthood, the surplusage therefrom being distributed among the poor.


Education was entirely conducted by the priesthood, which undertook the task in a manner highly creditable to it, when consideration is given to surrounding conditions. Education was, indeed, highly organised. It was divided into primary and secondary grades. Boys were instructed by priests, girls by holy women or "nuns." The secondary schools were called calmecac, and were devoted to the higher branches of education, the curriculum including the deciphering of the pinturas, or manuscripts, astrology and divination, with a wealth of religious instruction.

Orders of the Priesthood

At the head of the Aztec priesthood stood the Mexicatl Teohuatzin (Mexican Lord of Divine Matters). He had a seat on the emperor's council, and possessed power which was second only to the royal authority. Next in rank to him was the high priest of Quetzalcoatl, who dwelt in almost entire seclusion, and who had authority over his own caste only. This office was in all probability a relic from "Toltec" times. The priests of Quetzalcoatl were called by name after their tutelar deity. The lesser grades included the Tlenamacac (Ordinary Priests), who were habited in black, and wore their hair long, covering it with a kind of mantilla. The lowest order was that of the Lamacazton (Little Priests), youths who were graduating in the priestly office.

An Exacting Ritual

The priesthood enjoyed no easy existence, but led an austere life of fasting, penance, and prayer, with constant observance of an arduous and exacting ritual, which embraced sacrifice, the upkeep of perpetual fires, the chanting of holy songs to the gods, dances, and the superintendence of the ever-recurring festivals. They were required to rise during the night to render praise, and to maintain themselves in a condition of absolute cleanliness by means of constant ablutions. We have seen that blood-offering—the substitution of the part for the whole—was a common method of sacrifice, and in this the priests engaged personally on frequent occasions If the caste did not spare the people it certainly did not spare itself, and its outlook was perhaps only a shade more gloomy and fanatical than that of the Spanish hierarchy which succeeded it in the land.

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  1. Bulletin 28 of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology.