The Aztec empire dominated central and southern Mexico from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. The Aztecs’ complex pantheon included multiple incarnations of several deities. The ancient Aztecs believed that continual human sacrifice was necessary in order for the universe to function and for the gods to survive.

The pantheon of the Aztecs can be daunting to the modern reader. The following information is a starting point for further research into this fascinating mythology.

Deities

Coatlicue, or “serpent skirt,” was both an Earth mother and a monster. She was the goddess of fertility and death, the mother of the gods and of the stars of the southern sky. She was the allgiving and all-devouring mother who was both the womb and the tomb. Coatlicue was portrayed as a woman with clawed hands and feet, a skirt of snakes, and a necklace of human hearts. Coatlicue became pregnant when she stuffed a ball of feathers that had fallen from the sky in her bosom. Her outraged children sought to slay her, but the god Huitzilopochtli emerged fully armed from his mother’s womb and slew many of his brothers and sisters.
Huitzilopochtli then became the fierce god of war and the principal god of the Aztecs. Sacrifices to him were made daily, in echo of the story of his slaying his brothers and sisters, and to reflect the endless battle between day and night.

Coyolxauhqui, or “golden bells,” was the sister of Huitzilopochtli. She led the rebellious attempt to slay Coatlicue. In the battle, Huitzilopochtli cut off Coyolxauhqui’s head and tossed it into the sky, and it became theMoon. Coyolxauhqui was then known as the Moon goddess.

Other deities filled various vital roles in the Aztec religion. One of these was Chicomecoatl, the maize goddess, the female aspect of corn and nourishment. Each year, a young girl was sacrificed to her by decapitation. This may have symbolized the cutting down of the corn stalk. The sacrifice’s blood was then poured over a statue of the goddess, possibly symbolizing life and life-giving moisture in one. The corpse was then flayed, and the skin worn by a priest, possibly symbolizing the corn’s rebirth.

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Tlaloc was the god of rain and agriculture. He took the souls of those killed by water, lightning, or contagious disease. When he became angry at humans, he would use lightning to bring disease. Some accounts say that he had four types of water at his command. The first type was life-giving, the second brought blight to plants, the third brought frost, and the fourth could destroy all. Victims were sacrificed to Tlaloc by drowning. Tlaloc actually predates the Aztecs and probably came from the Toltecs, a people who ruled Mexico before the coming of the Aztecs.

Tlaloc’s wife was Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of lakes and streams and of youthful beauty and passion. She ruled all the waters. In the days of creation, she was the one who brought a flood to destroy the wicked fourth world, the world that came before this one.
Another husband-and-wife team of deities was Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, who ruled over Mictlan and guarded the bones of the dead, and his wife, Mictecacihuatl, the goddess of death, who helped him rule and protect the bones of the dead.

Chantico, or “she who dwells in the house,” was the Aztec goddess of hearth fires and volcanic fires, as well as the protector of precious items. When she violated the ban on eating paprika on fasting day by eating roasted fish with paprika, Chantico was turned into a dog. In the Aztec religion, even the deities were punished for violating taboos.

Tlazolteotl, “the eater of filth,” was the goddess of both sex and purification. On hearing a dying man’s confession, Tlazolteotl cleansed the man’s soul by eating his sins, or his moral filth.
Ueuecoyotl, or “old, old coyote,” was the god of wildness and irresponsible sex and gaiety. He may be the same trickster figure as Coyote or Old Man Coyote known to indigenous peoples of the American Southwest.

Xochipilli, or “flower prince,” was also known as Macuilzochitl, or “five flowers.” He was the god of flowers, games, and beauty, as well as love, dance, and music. It is possible that Xochipilli was also the god of hallucinogenic plants and their use.
Ehecatl, the god of the winds, brought life to all and, since he fell in love with a mortal woman, love to humankind.

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Quetzalcoatl, “the feathered serpent,” was the deity who created humanity and gave the people various gifts, including the calendar and maize. Rituals worshipping Quetzalcoatl were among the few that did not involve human sacrifice. Quetzalcoatl’s brother was Xolotl, the god of lightning and lord of the evening star, Venus. Xolotl guided the dead safely to Mictlan. He was portrayed variously as a dog-headed man, a skeleton, or even as a dog companion.
Perhaps the most mysterious of the deities was Ometeotl (Ometecuhtli, male, and Omecihuatl, female), the androgynous creator god. The highest god of the Aztec pantheon, Ometeotl was the ruler of duality and opposites united. This deity had no formal worship, but was said to be present in all things.

Sacred Places

Aztlan was the mythical site out of which the Aztec people were believed to have emerged. This is contrary to archaeological evidence, which shows that they traveled down through North America to settle in Mexico.

Mictlan was the underworld, where every soul descended to find rest. To reach the underworld safely, the souls of the dead needed magical powers and were guided by the god Xolotl after wandering for four years beneath the earth.
Tlillan-Tlapallant was the middle of the three Aztec heavens, reserved for those who shared in the wisdom of Quetzalcoatl.
Talocan was the heavenly realm of the gods, uppermost of the three heavens.

Monsters

Ahuizotl was a half-human, half-monkey creature bearing a hand at the end of its tail. It lived near water, ate humans, and used its extra hand to catch prey.

Cipactli was a primordial sea monster, a fishlike crocodile, from whose body the gods created the earth. The god Tezcatlipoca sacrificed his foot to the creature in a mythic parallel to the Norse god Tyr sacrificing his hand to the monstrous wolf Fenrir.
Tzizimimet, or “the monsters descending from above,” were malevolent stellar beings.

Aztec mythology may seem particularly alien to many readers, but it is a rich mine for intrepid storytellers and an intriguing look into one culture’s attempts to make sense of the world.