The Aztecs shared the divine world with other Mesoamerican civilizations. In common, there was only one god, Ometeotl, in the beginning, but this god was both male and female, who were called Tonacatecli and Tonacaçiguatl, ie. a duality.
The two aspects of the deity had created themselves and had given birth to four gods: Tlaclau Queteztzatlipoca, Yayanque Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl and Omitecilt. However, Yayanque Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, was considered the most important, as he could see into all people and know all their thoughts.
The fourth and youngest god was called Omitecilt. The Aztecs, however, called this god Huitzilopochtli, perhaps after one of their own chiefs, and then they regarded Huitzilopochtli as the most important one, for he was more a god of warfare than the other gods.
The Aztecs not only promoted their god to be the most important, but made him a god of war. The Aztecs were breaking up after the Toltec collapse that had led to a powervaccum. As the last, the Aztecs had left Aztlán, so they had to fight harder for survival, and then it was appropriate to be led by a god of war.
According to the Aztec priests, Huitzilopochtli had ordered the tribe to establish where an eagle sat in a cactus eating a snake. Such a divine commandment had to be obeyed.
On their migration the Aztecs built many temples for Huitzilopochtli, but they also told that the god Quetzalcoatl was very important to them; according to them, Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl had been responsible for the creation of The First Sun and of a man and a woman. An Aztec said shortly after the Spanish conquest:
The man they called Vxumuco, and the woman Çipastonal, and to them they gave command that they should till the ground, and that the woman should spin and weave, and that of them should be born the Maçeguales, and that they should find no pleasure, but should always be obliged to work; to the woman the gods gave certain grains of maiz, so that with them she should work cures, and should use divination and witchcraft, and so it is the custom of women to do to this very day.
Then they created the days which they divided into months, giving to each month twenty days, of which they had eighteen, and three hundred and sixty days in the year, of which will be spoken subsequently. Then they created Mitlitlatteclet and Michitecaçiglat, husband and wife, and these were the gods of the lower regions, in which they were placed; then the gods created the heavens below the thirteenth, and then they made the water and created in it a great fish similar to an alligator which they named Çipaqli, and from this fish they made the earth as shall be told.
On two occasions the war god Huitzilopochtli and the spring god Quetzalcoatl had created a man and a woman. The two gods were close to the Aztecs, and there was no contradiction between war and creation. Both war and creation were the cyclical work of the gods, and humans were part of the creation of the gods.
However, the relationship between the two gods changed character.
Common to Indian civilizations – yes, civilizations throughout the world – was that for millennia they had lived dependent on nature and that they had followed sun and stars. Observing the repetitions of nature convinced humans that gods controlled the cosmos. Based on their observations, priests set up calendars to follow the deeds of the gods; the priests insisted that the gods ruled and that men should work and that their destiny was tied to the days of the calendar system.
The notion of predestination became crucial to the Aztecs. Each day in the calendar system was given a name and attributed to certain divine attributes, so that priests could predict the future: the one born on a given day would have the features of the day and the associated destiny, while the one born another awaited another fate.
The Aztecs idea that destiny was predetermined was accepted and made humans feeling confirmed in interaction with the gods, but it were the gods who acted and the people who were objects of the gods action. Aztecs did not believe that humans had a free will; the predestination provided people with a sense of security, because once destiny was determined, they did not have to fight and could not escape it.
The Aztecs thought that humans were part of nature. Just as corn kernels could fall to the ground and sprout and become new corn plants, humans could be sacrificed and become new humans.
The god Xipe-Totec was worshipped as an agricultural god but also as a god of life and death, ie. rebirth. The god could peel off its skin to give life to humans, which could be compared to a snake that cast off slough, or nails to be cut. In the 15th century, the Aztecs began to peel the skin of human sacrifices and use it as clothing for the priests of this god.
The Aztec calendar system had a length of 52 years, after which a new bundle began with the same names.
One particular year of this cycle was especially related to the god Quetzalcoatl, who was merged with a Toltec king of the same name and who alledgedly was both born and dead – 52 years later – in the year called Ce Acatl, 1 Reed.
The Aztecs believed that when Quetzalcoatl appeared in the year 1 Reed, it would shoot its arrows at nobles; also the Aztecs Tlatoani would be hit and it would trigger total change. The reason for this prediction could be the Aztecs collective memory that they had taken power at Lake Texcoco.
The year 1 Reed could correspond to the year we call 1467,1519 or 1571. In that year, the Aztec ruler would die and the current era, The Fifth Sun, would end. But the Aztecs did not regard this as a punishment but as part of the predestination: The Tlatoani would be led to the divine world and The Sixth Sun would follow – with gods but without Aztecs.
The Aztecs faith was not based on eschatology, the doctrine of the fall of the world, but quite contrary on a cyclic conception that went from one creation to another, just like the cycle of nature. The Fifth Sun and the fate of the Aztecs were part of the cosmos movement.
When an Aztec caught sight of an eagle in a cactus that ate a snake – Huitzilopochtlis sign – this cactus grew in a lake with mosquitoes! Not tempting, but according to the priests, Huitzilo-pochtli had promised the Aztecs to become the GREAT tribe, and that promise forced the Aztecs to wage war against the neighbors to follow the predestination, the tribes fulfillment of the divine promise. Sometimes the Aztecs threats of war were sufficient to force other tribes to deliver up what they wanted; other times it was necessary for the Aztecs to use weapons.
Around 1427, great upheavals occurred at Lake Texcoco. The ruler of the great power Atzcapotzalco died and that triggered a war of succession that the Aztecs Tlatoani Chimalpopoca would interfere with. He decided to sacrifice himself to the gods on the temple top, so as to get closer to the gods, thereby changing the course of history.
This is the first time we hear that a Tlatoani did this, but the Aztecs must have perceived the Tlatoanis sacrificial death as a special encounter with the divine and not just a cunning, military tactic. Something EXTREMELY GREAT! However, the sacrifice did not go as planned. The self-sacrifice was interrupted by special forces from Atzcapotzalco who took captive the Tlatoani.
The Aztecs chose a new Tlatoani, Itzcoatl, who in a short time changed the power relations in the area and made the Aztecs the strongest power in a new alliance, the Triple Alliance. Its conquests had to be a fulfillment of Huitzilopochtlis promise of making the Aztecs the ruling tribe, and the wars brought a tremendous wealth to the Tlatoani and the warriors but also to the state, ie. was used for further wars. Huitzilopochtli was worshipped even more as a god of war.
The Aztecs believed they better could follow Huitzilopochtlis determination to make them the most powerful by increasing human sacrifices, which also previously had been regarded as a worldly and thus socially necessary necessity. By attaching a greater importance to human sacrifice, humans became actually even greater importance in relation to cosmos.
Not only prisoners of war were sacrificed. Also Aztecs, consecrated in shape of gods, could be sacrificed by Aztecs for preserving the cosmos. Human sacrifice was not just considered a greatest, painful sacrifice; the sacrifice was also considered the greatest honor: to merge with the gods.
For worshipping Huitzilopochtli as a god of war, to give the gods more and more human hearts, the Aztecs had to turn back to the war path. New victories provided additional wealth to the warriors; if the warrior himself lost his life in war or battle, he was assured of an elevated place in the afterlife. The notion gave the warriors some kind of confidence.
As the Aztec Empire grew in size, the war had to be waged still further away. The fight for sacrificial hearts had become the driving force of the Aztecs, but also the straitjacket of the Aztec empire.
(pp. 435-440 in volume 2, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
476 pages + 540 pages. Richly illustrated in colors
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