Ancient Mysteries

Aztec Lords of the Night

The Aztec Empire dominated most of central Mexico when the Spanish arrived in the early part of the 16th Century.  This was about three centuries after the Aztecs established themselves in the Valley of Mexico as a sedentary people, arriving along with other waves of Nahua-speaking peoples from somewhere in the north.  When the Aztecs began conquering neighboring peoples and trading with other cultures even farther afield, they incorporated many elements of various cultures into their own.  The ancient Mesoamerican calendar system and certain aspects of religion were folded into Aztec civilization over time.  Later Aztec emperors began standardizing religious beliefs and practices with the goal of having a state religion.  While conquered peoples were allowed to maintain their local gods and religious freedom was granted to subjugated people throughout the empire, the Aztecs did have standard gods worshipped throughout their territories and some of those gods were intricately connected to the calendar system and to time itself.  Like the ancient Maya and other civilizations throughout pre-Hispanic Mexico, the Aztecs had Nine Lords of the Night called the Yoalteuctin

Each of the nine Lords of the Night were assigned to a day on the 260-day Aztec Calendar.  Those 9 days linked to each lord would repeat, much like the seven named days in our week.  Anthropologists and Aztec historians originally thought that the 9 Lords corresponded to the 9 levels of the Underworld and each lord became the primary ruler of the Underworld during each of the 9 hours of the nighttime.  This theory has pretty much been discarded by modern scholars, although some still believe that the lords filled this function in addition to being represented on the calendar.  Some scholars have also noticed that the 9-day cycle occurs 29 times during the 260-day calendar.  29 is also the number of days of a cycle of the moon that occurs 9 times on that same calendar.  The math aside, each Lord of the Night had certain characteristics and was associated with various omens or a certain fortune.  Thus, the Lords played an important role in the everyday lives of the Aztecs who were born and celebrated other life events on days with specific meanings.  The Maya had a similar system, so this practice of assigning certain gods or goddesses to certain days was most likely common throughout ancient Mexico.

For the Aztecs, the first Lord of the Night was the god Xiutecuhtli.  Many researchers believe that this god is one of the oldest gods of the Aztecs and had been worshipped in the Valley of Mexico long before the nomadic Aztecs settled down there, possibly back to Toltec times.  He was said to have lived in the center of the earth in a palace made of turquoise, which symbolized fire to the priestly and noble classes of ancient Mexico.  As a bringer of hope, Xiutecuhtli represented food during famine, light in darkness and life after death.  As he played many roles, Xiutecuhtli was the god of volcanoes and as the first Lord of the Night, he was also the god of time itself. As the god of fire, altars in Aztec homes dedicated to Xiutecuhtli always had a small flame burning on them. As the oldest of the gods, Xiutecuhtli was the patron or personal protector god of the Aztec emperor.  He was also the patron of the long-distance traveling merchant class called the Pochteca.  For more information about the Pochteca, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 102.

The god occupying the second night of the Aztec calendar was Tezcatlipoca, the great Smoking Mirror.  The mirror reference comes from the fact that this god was connected to obsidian, the volcanic glass that was often polished into mirrors by many ancient Mexican cultures.  He was also an old god and his yellow face with a black band around it can be found in art as far back as the Olmecs.  Tezcatlipoca had many duties and took on many different aspects.  While he was the god of hurricanes, the night sky, night winds and the north, he was also associated with bad feelings, beauty, jaguars, sorcery, temptation and the earth.  In one version of the creation story of the Nahua peoples of central Mexico, Tezcatlipoca teamed up with the grand Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl to create the earth.  During this time of creation, he lost a foot in a battle with the Earth Monster, so Tezcatlipoca is often shown in art with a bone, a mirror or a snake where his foot should be.  In some stories he is the great enemy of Quetzalcoatl.  When an emperor was crowned, the priests of Tezcatlipoca would paint the new ruler black to emulate the god and to ensure a long reign.

The Third Lord of the Night is Piltzintecuhtli. In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, his name means “the young prince.”  He is the son of the night goddess Oxomoco and the god of astrology and calendars, Cipactonal. As “The Young Prince,” he is connected to the rising sun and the planet Mercury, and he is also the protector of children.  An aspect of Piltzintecuhtli was known as “Seven Flower” and was the god of medicinal and hallucinatory plants such as peyote and certain mushrooms.  Piltzintecuhtli is also associated with visions and spiritual healing.

Together with an earth goddess named Tlazolteotl, Piltzintecuhtli had a son called Centeotl.  Centeotl was the Fourth Lord of the Night.  In some accounts Centeotl is the son of Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of beauty and love.  His name roughly translates to “Dried maize still on the cob.”  He was the god of maize, the most important staple food in ancient Mesoamerica.  Centeotl is often depicted with maize on his headdress and a black line going down his face.  The same imagery is also found on the later versions of the Maya maize god, which may indicate some connection or borrowing of religious icons.  In one Aztec legend, Centeotl was sacrificed in order to bring plants to the world.  He is seen as the primary god of food and sustenance. Those born on this day on the Aztec calendar are said to be guaranteed good health and an abundance of food.  Throughout the Aztec world Centeotl was celebrated to a great degree because of his association with maize and was considered one of the most important of the ancient gods.

Occupying the fifth spot on the Aztec calendar was Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of the Underworld and the god of death.  He is depicted as a tall man or skeleton with the face of a skull.  He wore a necklace of human eyeballs and uses human bones for earspools.  Mictlantecuhtli has counterparts in cultures throughout ancient Mexico and existed in civilizations which predated the Aztecs.  To the Zapotecs he was called Kedo.  The ancient Maya called him Yum Cimil or Ah Puch.  The Tarascans called him Tihuime.  Art and iconography of the earlier Olmec culture suggests that they, too, had a death god similar to Mictlantecuhtli, but they did not have a formal writing system, and hence his name is not known.  By the time of the consolidation of power of the Aztecs, Mictlantecuhtli’s worship had been standardized throughout the Empire and he became one of the most powerful and influential gods at the time of the Spanish Conquest.  Mictlantecuhtli is associated with spiders, owls, bats and the north.  For more information about this powerful death god, please see Mexico Unexplained episode number 170.

The Sixth Lord of the Night was a lady, the goddess Chalchiuitlicue.  Her name translates from Nahuatl as “She of the Jade Skirt.” In some parts of the Aztec Empire she was known as Chalchiuhtlatonac, “She Who Shines Like Jade” and Matlalcueye “Owner of the Blue Skirt.”  In some stories she is the sister of Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god. In other stories she is his wife.  Chalchiuitlicue protected growing crops and was also the protector of women and small children.  In the Aztec creation story, Chalchiuitlicue presided over the Fourth Sun, or the fourth creation of the world.  The fourth creation of the world was destroyed when Chalchiuitlicue caused it to rain for 52 years, drowning everything, in retaliation against Tlaloc for his mistreatment of her. She thus became the goddess of drowning victims.  While serving that role, she was also the goddess of groundwater, birth and beautiful youth.  Chalchiuitlicue is said to have once ate the sun and the moon and later became the mother of Tecciztecatl, a deity corresponding closely to what we would call “The Man in the Moon.”

The Seventh Lord of the Night was also female, the goddess Tlazoteotl.  Researchers believe that this goddess was originally Huastec and when the Aztecs conquered the Gulf Coast, they brought Tlazoteotl back to Tenochtitlán and she then became part of the Aztec pantheon.  She was also known as Ixcuina which was a corruption of her Huastec name of Ix Cuinim.  Tlazoteotl was the goddess of lust and of all the vices.  Through one of her earthly priests, she could listen to your transgressions, forgive your sins, and suggest a penance much like a priest in the Catholic Church. The forgiveness of sins often included the ritual practice of eating small amounts of dirt or purification through a steam bath.  Tlazoteotl was the patron goddess of adulterers and was also thought to cause a variety of diseases.

The Eighth Lord of the Night is the Aztec god Tepeyollotl. In Nahuatl, this god’s name combines two words, tepetl, “mountain,” and yollotl, which means, “heart” or “center.”  His name loosely translates to “Heart of the Mountains.”  As a nature god, he is the patron of jaguars, deer and mountains.  He is also the god of earthquakes and echoes.  Tepeyollotl is depicted in many illustrations as a jaguar leaping toward the sun.  The spots on his coat represent the stars in the sky and in certain illustrations constellations are recognizable.  If Tepeyollotl is represented in human form, he is often shown as cross-eyed and carrying a long staff.  He is either a friend or brother of the Second Lord of the Night, Tezcatlipoca.  Tezcatlipoca would often wear Tepeyollotl as an animal skin to trick humans and other gods so that they did not know who he really was.  Tepeyollotl is considered a minor god and one of the newer gods in the Aztec cosmology.

The Ninth Lord of the Night was the great god Tlaloc, well known as the Aztec god of rain.  Tlaloc had a long history among the Aztecs and was more than just responsible for storms.  For a lengthy exploration of this god, please see Mexico Unexplained episode 152.  To make a long story short, Tlaloc was around in central Mexico thousands of years before the Aztecs arrived. When the Aztecs got to the Valley of Mexico, they adopted this powerful local god.  Early Spanish chroniclers noticed the Aztecs’ mix of reverence and fear of the great god Tlaloc.  While the god could bless crops with rain and smile down on the people and give them an abundant harvest, Tlaloc also could be very temperamental.  He had the power to withhold rain and thus cause drought and famine.  He could also punish humans through floods, hailstorms and hurricanes.  If a specific person angered him, Tlaloc could aim with precision and strike him down with a lightning bolt.  Tlaloc was the lord of the Third Sun, or the third incarnation of our physical universe.  As with the other gods Tlaloc served other purposes.  He was the god of water and of water-dwelling creatures.  He was also the god of earthly fertility. The ninth day was considered important because the calendar cycle would repeat again, so the ninth night inhabited by Tlaloc was especially significant.  After Tlaloc, the week would start anew, and the Aztec people were given 9 more days to get it all right again.

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