Ancient Mysteries

Some Lesser-Known Gods of the Aztecs

Even those who are just mildly interested in ancient Mexico have heard of some of the famous gods like Quetzalcoatl or even the mighty rain god Tlaloc.  There are hundreds of gods, goddesses, aspects, enhanced spirits and other supernatural beings that are part of the ancient Aztec belief system.  Their pantheon of gods was not like the Greek or Roman gods at all, although the Spanish tried to make it that way.  The gods and goddesses of the ancient Mexicans were not strictly defined as we would think of gods and goddesses today.  They took on different forms and served different purposes depending on location, time of year, group of people involved, need, or specific situation.  Recent scholars have described the gods of the Aztecs, as more like avatars of ideas and beliefs personified, serving various uses as per tradition. For these reasons often there are conflicting roles of these gods and stories that seem to contradict each other or overlap. In this episode of Mexico Unexplained we will look at three lesser-known Aztec deities.

  1. Huehueteotl: The Old Man God of Mesoamerica

Huehueteotl is a revered figure in Mesoamerican mythology, prominently featured in the belief systems of various pre-Columbian cultures, particularly among the Aztecs and other indigenous groups of Central Mexico. This ancient deity holds a significant place in the pantheon, symbolizing enduring wisdom and the passage of time. The name “Huehueteotl” derives from the Nahuatl words “huēhueh,” meaning “old,” and “teōtl,” signifying “god.” This moniker not only emphasizes the deity’s age but also underscores his association with certain Mayan deities referred to as “Mam,” meaning “the grandfather gods.” Despite being primarily revered in Central Mexico, archaeological discoveries have revealed images and iconography of Huehueteotl across various regions in Mexico, including the Gulf coast and western Mexico. The god has also been seen on carvings and other illustrations in the Guatemalan highlands, specifically at a site called Kaminaljuyú, or “Hill of the Dead,” which is considered by some as a far eastern trading outpost of the central Mexican powerhouse of Teotihuacán. Thus, the appropriately named “Old Man God,” most likely predates the Aztecs’ arrival in central Mexico by well over a thousands years, and like the god Tlaloc, discussed in Mexico Unexplained episode number 152: , the Aztecs most likely incorporated Huehueteotl into their galaxy of gods from a conquered people or from neighbors in the Valley of Mexico who were living there when the Aztecs arrived.

Huehueteotl is often regarded as overlapping with or representing another aspect of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire. While both deities are associated with fire, they are distinguished by their appearances and attributes. Huehueteotl is typically depicted as aged or decrepit, often with a beard, symbolizing wisdom and the passage of time. In contrast, Xiuhtecuhtli embodies youthful vigor and strength, reflecting his association with rulership and warriors.

Aztec religious observances dedicated to Huehueteotl were elaborate and multifaceted, emphasizing the importance of fire in the Aztec cosmology. During the monthly feast of Izcalli, dedicated to Xiuhtecuhtli and Tlaloc, young boys were tasked with hunting water-related animals in the swamps, such as snakes, lizards, and frogs, to offer them to the guardians of the fire deity. In return for these offerings, the priests rewarded them with a special sanctified religious treat of steamed corn dough stuffed with amaranth greens. Huehueteotl was depicted differently during this feast, appearing as a vibrant young deity adorned with ceremonial feathers. However, as the month progressed, his portrayal shifted to that of an aged and weary figure, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and transformation.

According to the oral traditions passed down a few generations after the Spanish Conquest and according to what early Europeans witnessed themselves, one of the most dramatic and infamous rituals associated with Huehueteotl involved human sacrifices, where the hearts of victims were cut out and burned on coal. This ritual was believed to appease the deity and restore balance to the world, ensuring the continued favor of Huehueteotl through the elements of fire and blood.

Huehueteotl occupied a unique and revered position in Mesoamerican mythology, symbolizing the eternal cycle of life and the importance of fire in Aztec religious practices. Through rituals and offerings, the Aztecs sought to honor and appease this aged deity, believing that their actions would ensure prosperity and divine favor in their lives.

  1. Centeōtl: An Aztec Maize Deity

Centeōtl, also known as Cinteotl, holds a significant place in Aztec mythology as one of the handful of deities associated with maize or corn, embodying sustenance, fertility, and abundance. The name “Cinteōtl” originates from the Nahuatl words “cintli,” signifying “dried maize still on the cob,” and “teōtl,” meaning “deity.” Revered by the Aztecs and other peoples throughout the Aztec Empire, Centeōtl was associated with the vital crop of maize, symbolizing the interconnectedness between humanity and nature.

According to Aztec mythology documented in sources like the Florentine Codex, Centeōtl is believed to be the offspring of the earth goddess, Tlazolteotl, and the solar deity, Piltzintecuhtli, who is also associated with the planet Mercury. Some accounts also suggest a lineage connecting Centeōtl to the goddess Xochiquetzal the powerful feminine deity of love and fertility discussed in Mexico Unexplained episode 229: . Depicted as a youthful figure with yellow body coloration, Centeōtl is often portrayed adorned with corn, symbolizing his role as a maize deity. Noteworthy features include facial markings, such as a black line running from his eyebrow to his jawline, reminiscent of depictions of the main maize god of the Maya.

Centeōtl held a prominent place in Aztec religious ceremonies and agricultural rituals. In the Aztec sacred calendar, known as the Tonalpohualli, Centeōtl presided over days with the number seven and served as the fourth Lord of the Night. Maize, known as “cintli” in the Aztec language, was considered a divine gift brought to humanity by Quetzalcoatl and was linked to the Pleiades, a star cluster also known as the Seven Sisters located in the constellation Taurus.

During agricultural festivals, particularly at the onset of the planting season around February, Aztec communities performed rituals to honor Centeōtl and expressed gratitude to Mother Earth for her bounty. Ritual dances, symbolizing the fertility of the land, were accompanied by offerings of maize and prayers for a prosperous harvest. These festivities often mirrored the renewal of life in nature, marked by the sprouting of maize stalks and the blossoming of flowers.

Centeōtl’s association with Chicomecōātl, the goddess of agriculture, has sparked scholarly debate. Some historians argue that Chicomecōātl and Centeōtl may represent different aspects of the same deity, reflecting the multifaceted nature of agricultural fertility. Chicomecōātl, is often depicted with fresh maize, symbolizing the abundance of the harvest and the nourishment provided by the earth.

Maize held immense cultural and spiritual significance for the Aztecs, representing not only a staple food source but also a sacred symbol of life and sustenance. Centeōtl’s worship underscores the Aztec reverence for the natural world and the cyclical rhythms of agricultural life. The rituals honoring Centeōtl reflected the Aztec belief in reciprocity with the earth, emphasizing the interconnectedness between human communities and the natural environment.

  1. Nanahuatzin: A Sun God of Humble Sacrifice

In the vast tapestry of Aztec mythology, Nanahuatzin stands out as a figure of profound humility and sacrifice, whose selfless act ultimately transforms him into the radiant sun god. Known as Nanahuatl or Nanauatzin, his name translates to “full of sores,” symbolizing not only his physical appearance but also his humble nature and his willingness to endure suffering for the greater good.

At the heart of Aztec tradition lies the belief in cyclical creation, where the universe undergoes repeated cycles of death and rebirth. Nanahuatzin’s story is intricately woven into the fabric of this mythos, particularly in the “Legend of the Fifth Sun” as recounted by Spanish chronicler Bernardino de Sahagún. This legend serves as a foundational narrative for understanding the Aztec worldview and the role of sacrifice in cosmic renewal.

The “Legend of the Fifth Sun” begins with the recognition that previous creations had ended in dissatisfaction, necessitating the emergence of a new age. To bring about this renewal, the gods decreed that a fifth sun must offer his life in sacrifice. Two gods were chosen for this solemn task: Tecciztecatl and Nanahuatzin. Tecciztecatl, proud and ambitious, viewed the sacrifice as an opportunity for glory and immortality. In contrast, Nanahuatzin, humble and self-effacing, accepted his fate without hesitation.

As the appointed day arrived, both gods prepared for the sacrifice. Tecciztecatl, consumed by fear and doubt, hesitated to leap into the flames, while Nanahuatzin, with quiet resolve, embraced his destiny and plunged into the fire without thinking twice. Witnessing Nanahuatzin’s courage, Tecciztecatl finally followed suit, but not before losing his brilliance and becoming the moon, marked by the imprint of a rabbit.

The sacrifice of Nanahuatzin and Tecciztecatl gave rise to two suns in the sky, but only one retained its radiant power. The gods, realizing the necessity of sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, offered themselves to the god Ehecatl, who transformed them into celestial bodies that nourish the earth with their warmth and light. Thus, Nanahuatzin ascended to become the radiant sun god, illuminating the world with his eternal light and warmth.

In the Codex Borgia, Nanahuatzin is often depicted alongside Xolotl, another prominent deity in Aztec mythology. This close association suggests a deeper cosmic connection between the two figures. Xolotl, often portrayed as a canine deity, is believed to embody aspects of death, transformation, and the underworld. Some scholars theorize that Nanahuatzin may be an aspect of Xolotl, representing the transformative power of sacrifice and renewal.

Another story of Nanahuatzin appears in the legends of Nahua-speaking peoples hundreds of miles to the east of the Aztec heartland. Nanahuatzin was the youngest among three boys and a girl who were trapped in the fruit of the gourd-tree, which grew from the head of a woman who flew into the night while her body slept. The head attached itself to a startled deer, and the deer leapt into a canyon, planting the head in the ground. Nanahuatzin and his siblings grew out of the planted gourd and were cared for by Tlantepozilamatl, an elderly woman with metal teeth. The siblings killed the elderly Tlantepozilamatl’s lover and fed his body to her, disguising it as venison, before killing her. They later discovered that the world’s maize supply was hidden within a mountain, known only to a bird that fed on this secret stockpile of maize. While his siblings failed, Nanahuatzin successfully opened the mountain to share the corn with the rest of the world but became trapped within the mountain in the process and later died.

Nanahuatzin’s stories resonate across generations, serving as a powerful metaphor for the virtues of humility, selflessness, and duty. His willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good embodies the highest ideals of Aztec culture, inspiring reverence and awe in the hearts of believers. Through his humble sacrifice, Nanahuatzin made an epic journey from obscurity to divinity and not only became the radiant sun god but also left an indelible mark on Aztec mythology showing the boundless potential of the human spirit.

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