Aztecs are a people and culture of ancient Central America. What is often referred to as “Aztec” should properly be understood with the much more limited referent, Tenochca. Aztec is a term constructed in the 19th century to refer to the culture of an empire ruled by an alliance of three cities in the Basin of Mexico. The Tenochca lineage, a subgroup of the Mexica, held the lead position in the Aztec Triple Alliance. Much of what we recognize today as Aztec religion, therefore, should properly be considered the religion of one ethnicity— that of the Tenochca—inflated to constitute a state religion. This entry reviews some Aztec and Tenochca religions as well as some of their ideological descendants.
During the postclassic period (900-1500 CE), the dominant lineages within the Basin of Mexico placed their origin in the mythical location of Chicomoztoc (“Seven Caves Place”). Seven distinct tribes left these caves in primordial times to populate the Basin of Mexico. One tribe, however, traced its origin to the city of Aztlan (“Place of Herons”). It is unclear whether Aztlan was a place within Chicomoztoc or whether it was a separate place entirely. Regardless, this tribe left Aztlan, following its leader Mexi to become known as the Mexica.
Mexi led his people following a teotl known as Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird of the South”). The term teotl is often translated as “god,” “deity,” or “a personification of some force of nature.” None of these is entirely accurate, but each hints at the roles of teteo (plural of teotl) in important ways. Although abstract, one should think of teteo as complex entities of power that interact with each other and with humans in multiple ways. Huitzilopochtli's mythic birth sheds light on his character as the primary teotl of the Mexica. The story begins with his mother, Coatlicue (“Serpent Skirt”), sweeping the steps of her home. A ball of feathers stirred up by her sweeping lands in her bosom and magically impregnates her. Her pregnancy causes controversy among Coatlicue's grown children, who are led by the eldest, Coyolxauhqui (“Bells on Her Face”). Coyolxauhqui plots with her brothers to kill her mother before the baby is born, but the child within, Huitzilopochtli, discovers the plan and consoles his mother. He is then born in full battle regalia and immediately attacks and disposes of his sister, Coyolxauhqui, along with their 400 brothers. Having defeated his adversaries, Huitzilopochtli becomes a teotl of war with a solar affiliation.
In historic times, Huitzilopochtli communicated with the Mexica priests through their dreams along an epic journey from Aztlan. The tribe traveled as chichimeca (“nomadic people”), killing rabbits for food and engaging cities in battle. They soon established a reputation as warriors and were from time to time brought into alliances with established cities as mercenaries.
Along their journey, the Mexica fractured into opposing lineages. The lineage that would continue on, the Tenochca, remained dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the quest for their promised land: Tenochtitlá n (“Place of Stone and Cactus”). When they finally arrived at the site of a cactus so tall that an eagle kept its nest at the top, in the early 14th century, they found the land to be virtually inhospitable. They worked tirelessly, adapting the agricultural practices of their neighbors to transform Tenochtitlán into an island city, which almost 200 years later the Spaniard Bernal Díaz del Castillo described as “rising from the water, all made of stone, seem[ing] like an enchanted vision from the tale of [Atlantis]. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream” (1984, p. 16).
Using their military prowess, the Tenochca became powerful among the cities controlling the Basin of Mexico. During the mid-15th century, they entered an alliance with the cities of Texcoco and Tlacopan, which went on to conquer much of Mesoamerica. In the process, the tribal religion of the Tenochca was transformed into a religion of the imperial government. Much of the specific adaptation was brought about under the counsel of Tlacaelel, advisor to the fifth tlatoani (“one who speaks,” “ruler”), Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (namesake of the ninth tlatoani, who would meet Hernán Cortés).
The city of Tenochtitlán itself was built to reflect a conflation of the tribe specific with the regionally universal. The dominant physical structure at the center of the city—now mostly underneath Mexico City—is known as the Templo Mayor. The Templo Mayor's large pyramidal base resembled most other temples throughout Mesoamerica, but it bucked tradition with two small temples at its top rather than one. Each of these temples was dedicated to a different deity: one to Huitzilopochtli as a teotl of war and fire and the other to Tlaloc, the regional (and quite ancient) storm teotl. Thus, “fire” and “water” sat at the top of the primary temple at Tenochtitlán. In central Mexican codices, the glyph of “burning water” represented “war;” thus, the Tenochca made it clear that their civilization was founded on and maintained by war.
Along with Tlaloc, the imperial Aztec religion honored Quetzalcoatl with a temple across the central plaza from the Templo Mayor. The concept of “quetzalcoatl” is a strong example of a teotl, used for a primordial “god,” a historic figure, and the highest order of the Aztec priesthood. The name itself is also provocative, constituted by a bird (quetzal) and a reptile (coatl, for “serpent”). This combination of creatures would have had access to all three levels of the Aztec cosmos (the upper as that above the trees, including the stars; the middle as that on the surface of the earth; and the lower as that below the surface of the earth). The human Quetzalcoatl lived at the historical place of origin for all city-dwelling members of the Basin of Mexico: Tollan (the archaeological site of Tula). Here, Quetzalcoatl reigned as a peaceful lord of the Toltecs but banished himself after he was tricked by his nemesis. Legend has it that he went east, where he boarded a raft of snakes and sailed across the ocean to become Venus, the morning star.
In ordering the empire, the Tenochca followed the practice of all of Mesoamerica in tracking time according to two primary calendric elements: the tonalpohualli and the xiuhpohualli. The tonalpohualli comprised 13 numbers and 20 day signs to produce a 260-day round. The day signs carried oracular meanings, which were often tied to specific teteo, so a child's birth date carried with it something of the fate of the child. The xiuhpohualli functioned more like a solar year, made up of 18 months of 20 days each and 1 month of 5 days. The government sponsored great celebrations at the inauguration of each month, consuming much of the tribute gathered from throughout the empire.
Many of the elements of the calendric system are captured in what today is known as the Aztec calendar stone. More properly considered a cosmogram, the stone sculpture depicts the order of the universe under Aztec rule. The central face is that of the Fifth Sun; the Aztecs recognized four previous “suns” or eras, each ending in disaster. The Fifth Sun, beginning on the Day 4 ollin (meaning “movement”) in the tonalpohualli was predicted to end with earthquakes. The inaugural dates for the previous suns are all contained within the inner cartouche of the calendar stone, which is in turn contained within a ring of the 20 day signs. Various other calendric elements make up the rest of the stone, and stellar constellations were carved around the border.
In considering Aztec religion, much is often made of the role of human sacrifice. Sixteenthcentury chroniclers provide records of tremendous sacrificial spectacles said to propitiate “the gods.” This issue leads to the central issue in describing Aztec religion: The sources are exceedingly difficult to interpret. The eyewitness accounts (of which there are only two) were recorded in documents intended to justify their own acts of unprovoked war against the Aztecs. All of the other accounts are based on retrospective hearsay or come from Western interpretations of native books (codices) recording mythological or possibly metaphoric information. This is not to suggest that human sacrifice was not practiced in Aztec society; but it is more productive to consider it as a technology of the state, just as it functioned in many ancient societies, rather than as a fundamental religious tenet.
One might be tempted to claim that the Aztec religion ended with the conquest of the Aztec Empire, but that would be to buy into the fiction of the term itself. On the other hand, to identify “Aztec” with the constellation of beliefs, rituals, and traditions common within the empire is to open up the recognition of several descendants or at least relatives of Aztec religion. For one, Spanish missionary “conversions” most often resulted in the integration of Christianity with indigenous religions. These have propagated into contemporary times and can be witnessed in rural Mexico and Central America in Catholic churches through conflations of Jesus with the Sun and through the use of copal as incense and tortillas as “the bread of Christ.” The origin of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the indigenous Tonantzin (“Our Dear Mother”) is another well-known example.
Not all indigenous communities welcomed conversion, though, and many of these maintained indigenous religious traditions resonant with those of the Aztec. Some of these traditions persisted through the colonial period and coalesced during the early 20th century around a ritual dance known as danza Azteca or danza de los concheros.The Chicano movement in California, the Southwest, and the northern Midwest then brought Danza Azteca into the United States via the 1960s civil rights movement. Chicana and Chicano activists, artists, and scholars drew and continue to draw from Danza and various sources of Aztec religion in their cultural production. It is important to recognize that, again, these are not properly “Aztec” either; modern manifestations are agglutinizations of various religious sources, brought together by survival tactics or, more recently, by economic convenience generated through globalization.
Indigenous Religions, Mesoamerican Religions, Mexican Concheros, Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe
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