You don’t have to believe recent attempts to portray Aztecs as being depressed, repressed, routine-driven folk with only a semblance of free will.
If you did your own homework, you’d know that they were vigorous people who achieved great military and economic distinction, as well as artistic, religious and philosophical preeminence.
You may call it primitive philosophical thought if you wish, but the point remains that it wasn’t primitive at the time. For example, they were not simple enough minds to just accept the world the way our priests interpreted it to them.
Aztec thought sought to understand the very existence of the universe, the earth, the gods and the people. They challenged traditional mythology, and they persisted in the pursuit of the ultimate truths.
Their stories of creation varied from nation to nation, like in most other places on earth. But despite those variations, there were common themes that we will describe.
Before we dive into the stories themselves, it’s important to understand the five fundamental concepts of Aztec thought.
As in many folk traditions (including some North American and Japanese traditions, for example), chaos was at the beginning of it all, symbolized by an endless sea, and frequently also by darkness.
In that chaos, in a place that wasn’t a place, existed the god of duality, which had dual aspects: Ometecuhtli (“Lord of Duality”), and Omecihuatl (“Lady of Duality”).
The god of duality created Four Brothers, and in so doing completed the first quintet of Aztec thought. Metaphorically, the brothers were interwoven and were reflected in a “smoking mirror” environment, which paved the way for the fundamental confusion about the Aztec pantheon. No one could be sure whether the Lord of Duality and the Creator Brothers were five different beings or merely a multi-faced one. Did Aztecs really have the dozens of gods that the Spaniards of that time proclaimed (they themselves had scores of “saints”)?
Here are the five beings that had created the Universe, as per Aztec beliefs:
- Lord of Duality: he or she was the focal point from which all directions stemmed.
- Black Smoking Mirror, or Tezcatlipoca, who took the direction of the north under his patronage.
- White Smoking Mirror, or Quetzalcoatl, who took west.
- Blue Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopochtli, who took south.
- Red Smoking Mirror, or Xipe Totec, who took east. In some accounts, the fourth god is Lord of the Chase, or Camaxtli, the chief deity of Tlaxcala.
The Four Brothers then unleashed their creativity -and very human emotions- to make a succession of worlds where they could play. In all those worlds humans played supporting roles at best, until the Toltecs, and then the Aztecs, decided to aspire for more and try to influence the events that were predestined.
In the first six hundred years of their existence, the Four Brothers set the foundations. They created fire and brought about a sun, though bleak and small.
They designed the structure of the inhabitable universe: the so called “above and below”, or “topan, mictlan”. Those were the twelve heavens, according to the Mexica -nine according to the Tlaxcalteca- and nine underworlds. They placed a thin crust of material world between those ethereal levels.
The creation of matter wasn’t an easy matter, and their first experiment ended in disaster. After making the first earth (described in the myths as Cipactli, or crocodile, which is a metaphor for firm earth floating on water), they noticed that the lump of matter they had just produced began to devour everything else they had created.
The myths describe this first material world as a sea monster, part crocodile and part toad, with a set of jaws at each joint, eating away in all directors. This was a metaphor for their understanding that everything in the world needed sustenance.
At this point, it’s worth remembering that the world of old Mexico was shaped like a long serpent resting on water. One of the Nahuatl names for it was Cem-Anáhuac, “a place encircled by water”.
Black Smoking Mirror sacrificed his foot, which he gave to the monster, and together the Four Brothers attacked and tore Cipactli apart. They used chunks of its body to create various elements of our world — mountains, forests, plains and rivers.
However, even in defeat, Cipactli demanded food, endlessly lamenting its hunger. Quetzalcoatl, the White Smoking Mirror, suggested that the blood of self-sacrifice be its new food. This was a fateful suggestion, later leading to more serious acts than drawing blood from one’s own limbs.
The Brothers created another dual being, the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, who were the reflections of the Lord and Lady of Duality placed in the regions of hell.
Then they went all the way to designing the first human couple, a man and a woman, to live in the now stable material world. The first two people were called Oxomoco and Cipactónal, and they soon produced a son who married a girl especially created for him by the gods. The gods then ordered the people to work, and never to be idle.
In Epica Nahuatl by Ángel María Garibay Kintana, the author adds an interesting detail. The first humans may have been incomplete, and they couldn’t walk. They had to skip about like sparrows. To produce their son, they indulged in a long, deep kiss. It took the gods several attempts to create the optimal body shape humans nowadays take for granted.
The Four Brothers — or four cosmic forces of earth, air, water and fire — then enjoyed a brief rest. They couldn’t rest for long, however. Just like the people they’d created, they themselves were someone else’s creations, the creations of the Lord of Duality. They felt vulnerable, and they feared annihilation. So the Brothers began a fight for supremacy, each striving to secure his own survival.
From these fights came the five ages of the universe, or Five Suns. Accounts of these five ages differ in duration, key dramatic events, and even names; below is a compilation of the more popular chronicles.
According to some accounts, these Suns were short in duration -from 312 to 676 years each. According to others, the ages were much longer, between 4,008 and 5,026 years each. There is of course a question of how long a year is. Just like everything else, a “year” in those stories is a metaphor.
We can seek an analogy in the well-documented Hindu texts, where one human year equals one day of the Devas, and one day (only the day, without the night) in the life of Brahma equals 4.32 billion human years. Of course, I’m not trying to compare Aztec and Vedic thought; while both seem to view life as a succession of eras, the Hindu cosmology is built around the idea of an infinite universe.
This Sun was called Naui Ocelotl, or Four Jaguar.
Black Smoking Mirror prevailed first, and he became a Sun shining on the first world. The Brother gods populated the earth with a race of giants who nourished themselves with acorns. The Brothers also created a few other gods to help manage the world, most notably the god of fertility, rain and falling waters Tlaloc, and his wife (or sister, according to some wise men) the goddess of love, beauty and the flowing waters Chalchiuhtlicue, or “She in a Jade Skirt”.
Maybe because of his very nature (a black obsidian mirror with a smoky surface), or because he was missing a foot, the Black Tezcatlipoca didn’t manage to shine brightly. His Brothers therefore resumed their fight, and one day Quetzalcoatl struck the Sun out of its place with a club. The world sank into darkness. Enraged, Tezcatlipoca descended upon the giant people in a disguise of many jaguars, and tore the people apart.
This Sun was called Naui Ehecatl, or Four Wind.
Having struck Tezcatlipoca from the skies, Quetzalcoatl became the Sun. The Brothers created a new race of people, who this time were of normal size and ate piñon nuts and the bean pods of the mesquite tree.
It appears the people themselves managed to bring about their downfall, by forgetting their creators and starting to venerate the world around them — the animals, trees and stones.
This time Tezcatlipoca, instead of battling with the victorious Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, went straight for the ungrateful folk, and turned them into monkeys. Disappointed and enraged, Quetzalcoatl became a hurricane and blew them all off the surface of the world.
This Sun was called Naui Quiahuitl, or Four Rain.
The young Tlaloc was chosen to be the sun, probably on the suggestion of Tezcatlipoca, as mediation between the battling Creator Brothers. He was a good sun, bringing much joy to the people who lived on seeds of wild aquatic plants such as the water lily.
All went well until Tezcatlipoca at one point lured away and married one of Tlaloc’s wives Xochiquetzal (“Flower Plume”), the goddess of sexual power, love and delight.
Unable to act while playing the role of Sun, the betrayed husband Tlaloc sulked in his grief. The abundant rains stopped. When people began praying for rain, more and more assertively over time, Tlaloc got enraged and rained fire on them. The people turned into turkeys, dogs, butterflies and birds, and eventually died amidst the volcanic inferno.
Some wise men say that the earth itself was burnt, and the Four Brothers had to rebuild it from the ashes.
Yet another version speaks of the fire coming from the continuous battle between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, which had nothing to do with Tlaloc’s rage.
This Sun was called Naui Atl, or Four Water.
Tlaloc’s first wife, the loving Chalchiuhtlicue, became the Sun. She shone on the new people with kindness, and the people lived by gathering the wild seeds that grew all around them.
However, the deviant Tezcatlipoca (and some accounts include even the kindly Quetzalcoatl) became jealous of the love she was receiving from people, and began insulting her. He challenged the sincerity of her intentions, and with that he offended her so powerfully that she began crying. She cried until the sky collapsed, drowning everyone on earth in a huge flood.
Other accounts have dealt with the situation more brutally. Instead of hurling verbal abuse at the gentle sun, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl simply struck her out of the sky with a club, following which the world drowned in her tears.
This last Sun is called Naui Ollin, or Four Movement. It began in 978 AD.
According to some accounts, the Blue Smoking Mirror, or Huitzilopochtli, became the Sun; however as it will be observed below, this version is not dominant.
The earth is becoming tired in this age, and this era is expected to end in “movement”, which is to say in wars, earthquakes and the stars attacking the sun and the earth.
On the surface, this is somewhat similar to the catastrophe talked about in the Bible: “There was a great earthquake… and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind.” However, the similarities are misleading, as the fundamental thoughts behind the events differ dramatically.
The first people in this Fifth Sun were the Toltecs. Aztecs largely ignored the Mayans, who in fact were equally ancient. The Toltecs decided they could prolong the earth’s existence by offering an abundance of human blood. Towards that goal, they began a series of wars. Wars and violence, overall, characterized this Sun.
Aztecs saw themselves as being the descendants of the Toltecs, and they took up the burden of providing the earth with rich nutrition. It may be difficult for one to imagine how it felt living in their time, surrounded by hostile worlds, at the mercy of powerful gods. Not to mention their lonely mission to keep the earth content by offering it more and more blood. It wasn’t difficult to conceive of their pessimistic vision of life.
Anyway, at this point we come to another interesting creation myth:
Just before the Fifth Sun began, the gods met in Teotihuacán to ponder the wisdom of creating another world.
Apparently, despite destroying the humans four times already, the gods did need them; the reason for this need was open to interesting interpretations. The most compelling interpretation is that they needed the energy of human lives to sustain them.
Quetzalcoatl volunteered to go down to the Underworld and search for the bones of humans from the previous age. In some accounts, he went with Tezcatlipoca, in others with his twin Xolotl, and in yet other accounts, he went accompanied only by his own double, Nahuall.
Once there, he attempted to reason with the Lord and Lady of the Underworld, but they denied him his request. This demonstrated that there was some resistance among the gods to the idea of re-populating the earth. Eventually, through many dangerous trials and tribulations, Feathered Serpent emerged the winner, and brought the bones back to Teotihuacán.
The bones were ground into a powder, and Quetzalcoatl bled his penis over them. The other gods also contributed their blood. And so, at great peril to Feathered Serpent, and through self-sacrifice of the gods, the then current generation of people came into life.
This understanding may shed some light on the Aztec indulgence in perpetual war and sacrifice. Not only did they need to keep the earth well-fed, they also had a blood debt to repay to our Creators.
This brings us to the final creation story to be covered here. This is another episode rich in meaning, which explains some of the Aztec approach to life.
There was no sun yet, and thus after the humans were created, the gods in Teotihuacán made a great fire and sat around it in primordial darkness. Someone had to jump into that fire to become the next sun.
Two gods either got selected or volunteered. One was called Tecucitzécatl (“Lord of Snails”), a rich and arrogant creature. The other was called Nanahuatzin (“Pimply One”), a sickly god.
The stronger Lord of Snails was invited to jump into the fire. In accordance with the Aztec tradition of thought, he tried four times, but every time the heat drove him back.
As Lord of Snails stood there brooding, preparing for his fifth and final attempt, Pimply One went ahead and dove into the fire. Seeing him die with such glory, and seeing the adoration on the faces of the other gods, Lord of Snails followed him into the fire.
For a long time after that, the remaining gods sat in the darkness, wondering where the new Sun would come from. Nothing happened for many hours; then the light of the new dawn came from everywhere at once.
And eventually, the new Sun appeared. Although it was blinding because of its strong spirit, it was too physically weak to move, so it got stuck in the sky, wobbling from side to side.
The gods supported the new Sun by feeding it with their blood. Then a celestial wind blew, and the Sun began its journey across the heavens.
That Sun was the Pimply One. After that, Lord of Snails appeared on the horizon, but the gods were so disgusted with his cowardice that they threw a rabbit at him and dimmed his light. Lord of Snails became the moon.
As we see here, in the Aztec world, life was only possible through sacrifice, and the world existed only as long as it was supported with the most precious substance known to humans, their blood. From this, comes the Fifth concept of Aztec thought explained here: The Debt of the Mankind.