The Aztecs believed in a complex and diverse pantheon of gods and goddesses. In fact, scholars have identified more than 200 deities within Aztec religion.
In 1325 AD, the Aztec people moved to an island in Lake Texcoco to set up their capital, Tenochtitlán. The story goes that they saw an eagle holding a rattlesnake in its talons, perched on a cactus. Believing this vision was a prophesy sent by the god Huitzilopochtli, they decided to build their new home on that exact site. And so the city of Tenochtitlán was founded.
To this day, this story of their great migration from their legendary home of Aztalan is pictured on the coat of arms of Mexico. It is clear, then, that mythology and religion played a key role in Aztec culture.
The Aztec gods were divided into three groups, each supervising one aspect of the universe: weather, agriculture and warfare. Here are 8 of the most important Aztec gods and goddesses.
1. Huitzilopochtli – ‘The Hummingbird of the South’
Huitzilopochtli was the father of the Aztecs and the supreme god for the Méxica. His nagual or animal spirit was the eagle. Unlike many other Aztec deities, Huitzilopochtli was intrinsically a Mexica deity with no clear equivalent in earlier Mesoamerican cultures.
He was also the Aztec god of war and the Aztec sun god, and of Tenochtitlán. This intrinsically tied up the “hunger” of gods with the Aztec penchant for ritual war. His shrine sat on top of the pyramid of Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital, and was decorated with skulls and painted red to represent blood.
In Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli was engaged in a sibling rivalry with his sister and the goddess of the moon, Coyolxauhqui. And so the sun and the moon were in a constant battle for control of the sky. Huitzilopochtli was believed to be accompanied by the spirits of fallen warrior, whose spirits would return to earth as hummingbirds, and the spirits of women who died during childbirth.
2. Tezcatlipoca – ‘The Smoking Mirror’
Huitzilopochtli’s rival as the most important Aztec god was Tezcatlipoca: god of the nocturnal sky, of ancestral memory, and of time. His nagual was the jaguar. Tezcatlipoca was one of the most important gods in post-classic Mesoamerican culture and the supreme deity for the Toltecs – Nahua-speaking warriors from the north.
Aztecs believed that Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca together created the world. However Tezcatlipoca represented an evil power, often associated with death and cold. The eternal antithesis of his brother Quetzalcóatl, the lord of the night carries with him an obsidian mirror. In Nahuatl, his name translates to “smoking mirror”.
3. Quetzalcoatl – ‘The Feathered Serpent’
Tezcatlipoca’s brother Quetzalcoatl was the god of winds and rain, intelligence and self-reflection. He plays a key role in other Mesoamerican cultures such as Teotihuacan and the Maya.
His nagual was a mix of bird and rattlesnake, his name combining the Nahuatl words for quetzal (“the emerald plumed bird”) and coatl (“serpent”). As the patron of science and learning, Quetzalcoatl invented the calendar and books. He was also identified with the planet Venus.
With his dog-headed companion Xolotl, Quetzalcoatl was said to have descended to the land of death to gather the bones of the ancient dead. He then infused the bones with his own blood, regenerating mankind.
4. Coatlicue – ‘The Serpent Skirt’
Venerated as the “mother of gods and mortals”, Coatlicue was the feminine god who gave birth to the stars and moon. Her face was made up of two fanged serpents, her skirt of interwoven snakes and she wore a necklace of hands, hearts and a skull.
Coatlicue was as feared as she was beloved, symbolising the antiquity of earth worship and of childbirth. She was also associated with warfare, governance and agriculture.
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue was a priestess who was sweeping a shrine on the legendary sacred mountain Coatepec, when a ball of feathers fell from the sky and impregnated her. The resulting child was Huitzilopochtli, god of war.
5. Tonatiuh – ‘The Turquoise Lord’
Tonatiuh was the sun god, depicted as a symbolic sun disk, or sometimes as a squatting man with a disk on his back. Tonatiuh was a nourishing deity who required sacrificial blood to provide warmth to the people. He was also the patron of warriors.
In many post-classic Mesoamerican cultures, the hearts of sacrificial victims were seen as symbolic nourishment for the sun. Tonatiuh was the god most associated with ritual sacrifice; he needed the nourishment to defeat darkness on a daily basis.
Soldiers would be tasked with defeating and rounding up prisoners of war, many of which would be chosen as sacrificial victims for him.
6. Tlaloc – ‘He Who Makes Things Sprout’
The enigmatic god of rain, Tlaloc was represented wearing a mask with large round eyes and long fangs. He bore a striking familiarity to Chac, the Maya rain god. Tlaloc was seen both as a benevolent deity, providing life-giving rain to crops, but also as an unforgiving and destructive being who sent storms and drought.
He was associated with any rain-related meteorological events, such as storms, floods, lightning, ice and snow. He also ruled the other-worldly paradise of Thalocan, which hosted the victims of floods, storms and diseases such as leprosy.
Tlaloc’s main shrine was the second shrine after Huitzilopochtli’s, on top of the Templo Mayor, the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.
7. Chalchiuhtlicue – ‘She Who Wears a Green Skirt’
The wife (or sometimes sister) of Tlaloc, Chalchiuhtlicue was the Aztec goddess of running water and all aquatic elements. Like other water deities, Chalchiuhtlicue was often associated with serpents. She was mostly depicted wearing a green or blue skirt from which flows a stream of water.
Chalchiuhtlicue was also the patroness of childbirth and a protector of newborn babies. In Aztec mythology, she played a key role in the Mexica version of the deluge myth. However, despite bringing forth a cataclysmic flood, she transformed humans into fish – thereby saving them.
The festival of Chalchiuhtlicue usually involved rituals such as fasting, feasting, bloodletting and brutal human sacrifice – sometimes even including that of women and children.
8. Xipe Totec – ‘Our Lord the Flayed One’
The Aztec god of agricultural fertility, Xipe Totec was usually represented wearing a flayed human skin symbolising the death of the old and the growth of new vegetation. The gruesome-sounding Nahuatl moniker originated from the legend where the Aztec god flayed his own skin to feed humanity.
Xipe Totec was usually venerated with human sacrifice, carried out during the March festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli – which literally translates as “flaying of men”. A prisoner would be tied to a stone and given a macuahuitl – a wooden club with obsidian blades – made of feathers instead of knives – and made to ‘fight’ an Aztec warrior.
His skin would then be ritually flayed and worn by reenactors of Xipe Totec who were then worshipped and treated as gods. These reenactors would then be killed and have their hearts cut out, their skins worn by Aztec priests for 20 days and then shed to represent the rebirth aspect of Xipe Totec.