The Aztecs had been an enlightened people during their years of expansion. They not only married Toltec nobility but also sought out knowledge of past arts and crafts. They hired teachers from the Mixtecs, who knew a great deal about Toltec customs and included many fine artisans among the tribe. The work of Aztec artists was almost entirely concerned with religion. It is possible to understand the inner meaning of many of their best works because captive Aztec nobles gave much information to Spanish missionaries after the Conquest.
When the Aztecs first settled on Cactus Rock, the religion which they described was already an ancient one, an expression of the inner spirit of Mexico. It was the result of generations of philosophical thought by American Indians who had built up a new kind of life from the discovery of agriculture right up to the evolution of great cities. Basically they believed that beyond the world and the gods of nature there must be a Supreme Creator, whom they named Ometecuhtli (Omeh-teh-koo-tli), Two Lords. As the Supreme Creator he was thought to be two persons in one, for no creation could take place without the cooperation of male and female. Ometecuhtli is shown as a pair of very old people or as a single being dressed half as a woman and half as a man.
It seems that Ometecuhtli was the product of thought by learned philosophers. Most Mexicans looked to the central fireplace in their homes as the shrine of the oldest of the gods. They called him Huehueteotl (Old Old God) and saw in him a symbol of the continuous creation of fire (equivalent to life) and the destruction of used-up things. He was a fountain of change at the heart of everything. His place in the heavens was the Pole Star, the pivot of the universe. The oldest image of this god, shown as an aged man seated with a fire-bowl balanced on his head, comes from the ruined pyramid of Cuicuilco, near Mexico City. It dates from more than 2000 years before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
The Mexicans believed that 13 domed heavens circulated around the pivot of the universe. There was one for each of the visible planets, the sun, the moon, the clouds, the lightning, the heat, and the rain; all contained within the dome of the fixed stars. Under the flat surface of the earth there were thought to be nine underworlds, the lowest of which were the lands of the dead.
As the central hearth-fire in the house was the pivot of earthly life, so the souls of the dead who eventually entered the fire in the lowest region of the universe ascended to a point where the Creator might send them back to earth. This was a philosophic idea of reincarnation. Most people appear to have expected a long stay in the underworld, which was after all a very happy place where people in the form of skeletons enjoyed a normal social life, presided over by the Lord and Lady of the Dead.
Mother Earth Legends
The Aztec legends describe Mother Earth as a strange monstrous being with the shape of a gigantic alligator. Long ago, the earth was drawn up from the great waters of creation by the black god Tezcatlipoca (Tess-kah-tli-poh-ka), Smoking Mirror, so named for his symbol, a black obsidian mirror which has a cloudy appearance and was used by the soothsayer to descry the future. As Tezcatlipoca put his foot into the waters, the monstrous alligator snapped at it, but the foot was not torn off until the terrible god of magic and youthful energy had drawn the earth monster from the waters and forced her back into the dry land. Since then the god has had but a single foot and his lonely footprint in the heavens is the constellation of the great Bear. According to another story, his foot was cut off when the doors of the underworld closed on his leg.
Tezcatlipoca was lord of the four directions on earth, East, West, South and North. He was also lord of the Nature gods, when these other gods were developed. A legend told of a cave in the universe where the Mother of the Gods gave birth to starry offspring. They were the 400 Northerners, the 400 Southerners, and the planets. Then she became pregnant again. The children were upset and planned to destroy the new child. Only the golden moon girl wanted to protect her mother.
When the new child was born, it proved to be the monstrous Tezcatlipoca armed as a warrior. He destroyed all the stars, and seeing his sister among the slain, he realized that her head might yet live, so he cut it off and cast her into the sky, where the head with golden bells on her cheeks can still be seen as the Moon. Each day when the sun emerges in our real world, we see that the stars of night are slain, but they are reborn as the moon comes among them, grows pregnant and then meets her ever-recurring end.
The Fifth Sun
Once the earth was established, the gods created men. Four times the human race became too self-opinionated and had to be destroyed, at about 2000-year intervals. They were destroyed by the ferocious beasts, fire, the waters, the winds. Now the present human race, who were made by the gods from the beloved maize plant which is still the sustenance of mankind, are being tested.
So the Aztecs believed that the end of this universe would come from a terrible earthquake. Whether after this fourth sun the earth would be re-populated by a better human race remains to be experienced in the future, but on each re-creation a new sun was made by the gods.
At the beginning of the present creation the Aztecs constructed a great offering place at Teotihuacan. There they met for four days, waiting for one of them to cast himself into the fire. Finally, from a distance there came a miserably ill and poverty-stricken god. He had no reason to continue as he was, so he voluntarily cast himself into the fire. Blazing, and blue with magic power, he flew into the heavens as Tonatiuh (Toh-nah-ti-you) the Lord of Fate, the sun. The sun appeared every day, and each day had its separate fate for people, so the count of time which the fortune tellers used was based simply on the sun.
The sun was very brave, the source of all brightness and glory. He had his special heaven for brave warriors who had been sacrificed and for women who had died in childbirth. These warriors, dressed as eagles, lifted the sun to the top of the sky every morning; the women lowered him down each evening into the underworld.
Sacrifices to the Sun God
All the time the sun was thirsting from the great internal heat. So he had to be nourished and cooled by offerings of the red cactus-fruit (which meant human hearts and blood). Only a very few had to be sacrificed to keep the sun moving in the sky, but the sacrifice must never be neglected or the human race would die from the fire caused by a motionless sun.
Of all deaths the most glorious was to be sacrificed to the sun. The sun himself sacrificed his victims in the sky as he rose and the stars died. On earth the stars were represented by the spotted quails, which were killed every morning at sunrise. Sometimes people saw, at this lucky time, the little brother of the sun, Piltzintecuhtli (Peel-sin-the-kooh-tli), the Divine Princeling, the planet Mercury. Sometimes the Great Star was visible in the form of the morning star lifting up the sun. This was a symbol of Quetzalcoatl, the god of the air and of human civilization. Sometimes in the evening they saw the Great Star as the evening star, pushing the sun down into the red sunset. This was the symbol of the evil twin, Xolotl, who was an animal creature, sometimes a dog, leading people into sin and working black witchcraft against humanity and against the other gods.
The other planets were also gods; and so were the major stars. The groups of stars through which the sun passed were the houses of 13 gods. These were very like our 12 signs of the zodiac, though the Mexicans knew that there were 13 moons in any one year, but that one of them was always incomplete. Thus there was always a relationship between earthly events and the shapes in the sky where the gods had their palaces.
Earth was the domain of the powerful and capricious Tezcatlipoca, who had four forms. He was the yellow Tezcatlipoca, as god of the sunrise in the East, of bravery and growing crops. The blue Tezcatlipoca was the fertility spirit and the patron spirit of the Aztec nation. In the West he became the red Tezcatlipoca, who died by being skinned alive so that maize could be given to mankind. In this form he was Xipe Totec, Our Lord the Flayed One. In the North he was, the black Tezcatlipoca, in the land where the sun never shone, where he became the ruler of all forms of black magic and devilry.
Sacrifices to the Maize God
This religion suited warriors and the astronomer-priests, but it had less meaning for the farmers who produced the food on which the people lived. Most Mexicans were small farmers, feeding their own families and growing cotton for their own clothing. They needed to propitiate the rain and wind, the spirits of vegetation and the Earth Mother. Probably their religion was more ancient than that of the warriors to which it became wedded in the complex Aztec theological system.
Their traditions were continuous from deep antiquity and by Aztec times the whole complex of beliefs presented a kind of unity. It was no more logical than an exciting dream; and that may well be because the gods of Mexico were really those factors within the depths of the human personality from which our dreams normally spring. Always, without any very conscious thinking about it, the Aztecs linked the world of nature with the sequence of human life, and projected their thoughts onto a very human pantheon of deities, regarded with all the affection and fear with which humans regard their neighbors, particularly of the non-human kind.
The almost passive center of the farmers’ religion was the maize plant. It had many spirits, but was basically the maize god Cinteotl (Sin-teh-ohtl). This divine power within the basic foodstuff of ancient America was nurtured by Mother Earth. He loved pretty Chalchihuitlicue (Shal-shee-wee-tli-kwu), the flirtatious mistress of the rain god Tlaloc, and was cleansed by the winds sent by Quetzalcoatl.
As soon as the first green ears appeared on the maize, young girls went to the fields dancing with their hair thrown loose, looking for a shoot which was now the pretty young goddess Xilonen. In the evening, it was brought back to the temple of Chicomecoatl, goddess of sustenance, where a girl, representing the goddess of the new maize, Xilonen, was beheaded.
This sacrifice opened the door to using the new maize profanely, for food. Later, when the maize was to be harvested, bundles of ears were made up to represent the maize spirit, and were carried ceremonially to be enshrined in the granaries for next year’s sowing. Then some of the grain was chewed by the girls so that it would ferment in water and so become a delightful kind of light brew.
Great magic was worked by the priests at the conclusion of the harvest so that each year the maize could be protected from its natural foes. There was another sacrifice, where a woman, representing the goddess Toci (Toh-see), Our Mother, was beheaded and immediately afterwards skinned. One priest arrayed himself in the skin, while a piece taken from the thigh was carried to the Temple of Cinteotl, god of the maize, where another participant made a mask out of it. This rite probably meant that Toci, once dead, was reborn in her son, the dried maize, the grain that would provide the winter’s food. Maize was life, and the rhythm of planting and reaping conditioned the whole concept of the meaning of the passage of time in Mexico.
The Tempting of Quetzalcoatl
But what would the rain do without the winds? The Aztecs said of Quetzalcoatl that as god of the wind he came to sweep the way for the rains and in this form he was a breath of life, which made the vegetation of the earth sway like a serpent covered with green feathers. But Quetzalcoatl was also the morning star and his path, first rising in the heavens and then sinking, was also linked with the fertility myth.
The divine king brought blessings to the earth, improved agriculture, made the arts flourish and covered palaces with jewels and precious feather decorations. He taught a philosophy of gentleness and austere asceticism, offering blood from his ears and limbs daily to the gods in the outer heaven. But when the revolutions of time brought the stars into a pattern which meant that his planet was setting, he was tempted.
The goddess approached him and visited his court, bringing with her many magicians and enchanters, among whom was the black Tezcatlipoca. At a festival she offered the god-king a bowl of alcoholic pulque prepared from the agave heart. Then as he became intoxicated, she offered him hallucinogenic mushrooms and induced a trance-like ecstasy in which he abandoned his austerity and raped her.
On awakening, appalled at his break with the ascetic code of priestly behavior, Quetzalcoatl left Mexico. He gave over his power to Tezcatlipoca and sailed into the sun, where his heart burnt up and ascended again as the morning star. Already there was a confusion between the god and the first king of the Toltecs. The truth is that the concept of the god Quetzalcoatl was very ancient indeed, but because it concerned an earthly king, it was a myth which could be applied to any period in the past.
In the Quetzalcoatl myth, an account of wind and rain and the passing seasons, which promoted fertility and then passed on, had expanded into a universal parable of the human condition. We all follow this path of development, which ends in loss of energy and eventual death. We also share something of all primitive religion within our own personalities, for the gods of old Mexico, and of many other places, are expressions of images which lie deep in the structure of the human personality.
These natural gods, in spite of their raw and often horrific appearance in Mexican art, inspired great devotion and trust in the populace. The religion was not just a formality but a reality which people lived. It was a representation of the natural universe of which they were part. The sense that mankind was an active part of the life of the whole universe was the driving force behind their artistic output. Whether it was a great image for a temple, or a little pot for use in the home, the work was an expression of the link between the universe and the ordinary human being.