Mythology Of The Aztec Civilization
The Popol Vuh is a mythological history of the world. The first part tells about the creation of the earth, the animals, and the first people. The second follows the adventures of the mythical Hero Twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque; and the third tells about the creation of the four founding fathers of the Quiche lineages from corn and lists 14 generations of their descendants until the mid-1500s.
The Hero Twins lived in a time of darkness under the rule of the monstrous bird Vucub Caquix, the false sun. They shot him down with their blowguns, clearing the way for the true sun to rise. Vucub Caqvix is thought to be the Principal Bird Deity, a god represented in Maya carvings as early as 300 B.C.
The second great exploit of the Hero Twins is their descent to the underworld, where they overcame the Lords of Xibalba, the lords of death. The story begins with a sacred ball game, which was played all over Central America and prehispanic Mexico. This game was connected to ideas about human sacrifice, which was required by the gods in return for the gift of fire.
The Hero Twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque were challenged by the dreadful Lords of Xibalha, the underworld, to a game of tlachtli, a Mayan ritual ball game. When they won, they were thrown into the House of Lances, where they were stabbed by demons. They escaped but were imprisoned in turn in the Houses of Cold, Jaguars, Fire, and Bats. The Hero Twins survived all of these tortures and, boasting that they were immortal, had themselves sacrificed and their bones ground into flour. Then the Hero Twins came back to life. The Lords of Xibalba were so impressed that they wanted to die and be reborn themselves. "Do it to us!" begged the Lords of Xibalba. So the Hero Twins killed the lords of death; but they did not revive them.
The Wacah Chan (or Whac Chan, a.k.a. Mayan Sacred Tree, Mayan World Tree or Mayan Tree of Life) represented the three levels of the Mayan universe. It was believed that all three universes were joined by a central tree. The roots of the tree plunged into the Maya underworld and its branches reached into the Overworld or the Heavens. The central tree was associated with the color green and the four trees in the Middle World were white, red, yellow, and black. The white tree represented the ancestral dead and the North, the red represented the rising sun and the East, the yellow represented the South and right hand of the sun, the black represented the West and the Underworld.
The Vision Serpent is an important creature in Pre-Columbian Maya mythology. The serpent was a very important social and religious symbol, revered by the Maya. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal. They were so revered, that one of the main Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl, was represented as a feathered serpent. The name means "quetzal serpent".
The Vision Serpent is thought to be the most important of the Maya serpents. "It was usually bearded and had a rounded snout. It was also often depicted as having two heads or with the spirit of a god or ancestor emerging from its jaws". During Maya bloodletting rituals, participants would experience visions in which they communicated with the ancestors or gods. These visions took the form of a giant serpent "which served as a gateway to the spirit realm". The ancestor or god who was being contacted was depicted as emerging from the serpent-šs mouth. The vision serpent thus came to be the method in which ancestors or Gods manifested themselves to the Maya. Thus for them, the Vision Serpent was direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world.
The Vision Serpent goes back to earlier Maya conceptions, and lies at the center of the world as they conceived it. "It is in the center axis atop the World Tree. Essentially the World Tree and the Vision Serpent, representing the king, created the center axis which communicates between the spiritual and the earthly worlds or planes. It is through ritual that the king could bring the center axis into existence in the temples and create a doorway to the spiritual world, and with it power". The Vision Serpent is prevalent in Bloodletting ceremonies, in Maya religious practices, Maya jewelry, pottery and their architecture.
That Pizarro and a force of 180 men could overthrow a military empire of several millions is one of history's most extraordinary stories, and it is one that can only be explained by reference to mythology. The Iast Inca emperor, Atahuallpa (c. 1502-1533)-wluo had just fought and won a bloody civil war against his half-brother Huascar (d. 1533) - was anticipating the prophesied return across the sea of the creator god Viracocha. When he heard about the Spaniards' landing, he assumed that this was in fact Viracocha and his sons. By the time he understood his mistake Atahuallpa was Pizarro's prisoner, and the Spaniards had taken over Cuzco, the city that controlled the Inca empire.
Viracocha was the creator of earth and time. He emerged from Lake Titicaca in the primeval darkness and created a race of giants. But they angered him, and he created a flood that drowned them and turned them into stone; their statues can still he seen in Tiahuanaco near the lake. Next Viracocha summoned the sun, the moon, and the stars to come forth from the Island of the Sun in the center of the lake. Then he took stones that were lying along the shore and molded them into the shape of human beings. He painted these models with the clothes they were to wear and gave each group its own language, songs, and seeds to plant for food. Viracocha and his sons walked amongy the people, instructing them how to live, and then set off across the Pacific Ocean, walking on the waves, leaving the people to wait for their promised return.
Local Andean mythology - which varied from place to place - recognized Viracocha as the creator. But the Hatunruna, the common people, also believed that the whole landscape was alive with spirits living in natural or man-made features, Each ayllu, the family or clan attached to a particular territory, worshipped the mummified body of its mythical founder. Many of these mummies have survived, and the modern-day Quechua - the descendants of the Inca - believe that the mummies are the first beings, "the ancient ones."
Inheriting a rich mythology from this past, the Aztecs gave it a brutal twist by, insisting on the worship of' the sun god Huitzilopochtli, who demanded the regular sacrifice of still-beating human hearts.
After the flood that ended the fourth sun (or fourth age) Quetzalcoatl and his brother, Tezcatlipoca, created the new heaven and earth. Then Quetzalcoatl descended to Mictlan, the underworld, to steal the bones of humankind from his father, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death. Quetzalcoatl persuaded his father to give up the bones, but Mictlantecuhtli did not really want to let them go, so he asked the ghosts of the underworld to dig a hole into which Quetzalcoatl fell, scattering the bones all around.
A quail nibbled on the bones where they rested, and because of this, the new race that Quetzalcoatl created was doomed to die again. Quetzalcoatl then ground the bones like corn into a fine flour into which he spilled his own blood, thus creating the present race of human beings.
The Aztecs worshipped many gods and goddesses, but one of the most important was Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent. He was half rattlesnake and half quetzal bird. Quetzalcoatl predated the Aztecs and seems to have been worshipped by earlier civilizations from around 1200 B.C.
According to an Aztec myth, it was Quetzalcoatl who gave the gift of corn to men and also taught them many arts and sciences. He had one great rival - his own brother, Tezcatlipoca, a god of war and sorcery. Tezcatlipoca tricked Quetzalcoatl into getting drunk. Ashamed of himself, Quetzalcoatl sailed away on a raft of serpents, promising to return to the Aztecs one day. Quetzalcoatl was a god, but he also had a human incarnation as king of the legendary city of Tollan. All Aztec kings modeled themselves after Quetzalcoatl and awaited his return.
One of the most distinguishing features of Quetzalcoatl was his conical hat, which was echoed in the conical roof of his temple in Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. Hernan Cortes (1485-1547), leader of the Spanish army, also wore a high-crowned hat. When Cortes landed in 1519, the Aztecs made the mistake of assuming him to be the returning god.
The mythology of the Aztec civilization, which dominated central Mexico in the 1400s and early 1500s, described a universe of grandeur and dread. Worlds were created and destroyed in the myths, and splendid gods warred among themselves. Everyday items—colors, numbers, directions, days of the calendar—took on special meaning because each was associated with a deity. Aztec religious life ranged from keeping small pottery statues of the gods in homes to attending elaborate public ceremonies involving human sacrifice.
The Aztecs migrated to central Mexico from the north in the 1200s. According to their legends, they came from a land called Aztlan, the source of their name. The Aztecs were not a single people but several groups, including the Colhua-Mexica, the Mexica, and the Tenocha. In the early 1300s, these groups formed an alliance and together founded a city-state called Tenochtitlán on the site where Mexico City stands today. The people of Tenochtitlán rose to power and conquered a large empire during the 1400s.
The Aztecs were newcomers in a region long occupied by earlier civilizations such as those of the Olmecs and the Toltecs, who had developed a pantheon of gods and a body of myths and legends. The Aztecs absorbed deities, stories, and beliefs from these earlier peoples and from the Maya of southern Mexico. As a result, Aztec mythology contained religious and mythological traditions that many groups in Mexico and Central America shared. However, under the Aztecs certain aspects of the religion, notably human sacrifice, came to the forefront.
In the Aztec view of the universe, human life was small and insignificant. An individual's fate was shaped by forces beyond his or her control. The gods created people to work and fight for them. They did not offer favors or grant direct protection, although failure to serve the gods properly could lead to doom and destruction. The idea that people were servants of the gods was a theme that ran through Aztec mythology. Humans had the responsibility of keeping the gods fed—otherwise, disaster could strike at any time. The food of the gods was a precious substance found in human blood. The need to satisfy the gods, especially the sun god, gave rise to a related theme: human sacrifice.
According to Aztec myth, at the beginning of this world, darkness covered the earth. The gods gathered at a sacred place and made a fire. Nanahuatzin, one of the gods, leaped into the fire and came out as the sun. However, before he could begin to move through the sky, the other gods had to give the sun their blood. This was one of several myths relating how the gods sacrificed themselves to set the world in motion. Through bloodletting and human sacrifice people imitated the sacrifices made by the gods—and kept the sun alive by feeding it with blood.
Priests conducted ceremonies at the temples, often with crowds in attendance. With song and dance, masked performers acted out myths, and the priests offered sacrifices. To prepare for the ceremonies, the priests performed a ritual called bloodletting, which involved pulling barbed cords across their tongues or other body parts to draw blood. Bloodletting was similar to a Mayan ceremony known as the Vision Quest. Peoples before the Aztecs had practiced human sacrifice, but the Aztecs made it the centerpiece of their rituals. Spanish explorers reported witnessing ceremonies in which hundreds of people met their deaths on sacrificial altars. The need for prisoners to sacrifice was one reason for the Aztecs's drive to conquer other Indians, although it was certainly not the only reason.
Sacrifice was linked to another theme, that of death and rebirth. The Aztecs believed that the world had died and been reborn several times and that the gods also died and were reborn. Sometimes the gods even sacrificed themselves for the good of the world. Though death loomed large in Aztec mythology, it was always balanced by fertility and the celebration of life and growth.
Another important idea in Aztec mythology was that a predetermined fate shaped human lives. The Aztec ball game, about which historians know little, may have been related to this theme. Aztec temples, like those of other peoples throughout Mexico and Central America, had walled courts where teams of players struck a rubber ball with their hips, elbows, and knees, trying to drive it through a stone ring. Some historians believe that the game represented the human struggle to control destiny. It was a religious ritual, not simply a sport, and players may have been sacrificed after the game.
The theme of fate was also reflected in the Aztecs' use of the calendar. Both the Aztecs and the Maya developed elaborate systems of recording dates with two calendars: a 365-day solar calendar, based on the position of the sun, and a 260-day ritual calendar used for divination. Each day of the ritual calendar was influenced by a unique combination of gods and goddesses. Divination involved interpreting the positive or negative meanings of these influences, which determined an individual's fate. Priests also used the ritual calendar to choose the most favorable days for such activities as erecting buildings, planting crops, and waging war. The 365-day and 260-day cycles meshed, like a smaller wheel within a larger one, to create a 52-year cycle called the Calendar Round. At the end of a Calendar Round, the Aztecs put out all their fires. To begin a new Calendar Round, priests oversaw a ceremony in which new fires were lit from flames burning in a sacrificial victim's chest.
A third key theme of Aztec myth was that of duality, a balance between two equal and opposing forces. Many of the Aztec gods and goddesses were dualistic, which meant that they had two sides or roles. Deities often functioned in pairs or opposites. In addition, the same god could appear under multiple names or identities, perhaps because the Aztecs had blended elements of their myths from a variety of sources. Duality was the basic element of the primal deity Ometecuhtli, who had a male side called Ometeotl and a female side known as Omecihuatl. The other gods and goddesses were their offspring. Their first four children were Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Xipe Totec, the creator gods of Aztec mythology.
Originally a Toltec god, Tezcatlipoca (Lord of the Smoking Mirror) was god of the night sky. The color black and the direction north were associated with him. He possessed a magical mirror that allowed him to see inside people's hearts, and the Aztecs considered themselves his slaves. In his animal form, he appeared as a jaguar. His dual nature caused him to bring good fortune sometimes and misery at other times.
Tezcatlipoca's great rival and opponent in cosmic battles, as well as his partner in acts of creation, was Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), an ancient Mexican and Central American deity associated in Aztec mythology with the color white and the direction west. Some stories about Quetzalcoatl refer to him as an earthly priest-king, suggesting that there may have been a Toltec king by that name whose legend became mixed with mythology.
As a god, Quetzalcoatl had many different aspects. He was the planet Venus (both a morning and an evening star), the god of twins, and the god of learning. The Aztecs credited him with inventing the calendar. A peaceful god, Quetzalcoatl accepted sacrifices of animals and jade but not of human blood. When he was defeated by Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean on a raft of serpents. The legend arose that he would return over the sea from the east at the end of one of the Aztec 52-year calendar cycles. When the white-skinned Spanish invader Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico in 1519, some Aztecs thought he was Quetzalcoatl come again—a belief Cortés encouraged.
Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird of the South), a deity that originated with the Aztecs, was the sun and war god. The souls of warriors who died in battle were said to become hummingbirds and follow him across the sky. Blue was his color and south his direction. The Aztecs claimed that an idol of Huitzilopochtli had led them south during their long migration and told them to build their capital on the site where an eagle was seen eating a snake. The cult of Huitzilopochtli was especially strong in Tenochtitlán, which regarded him as the city's founding god.
Xipe Totec (Flayed Lord) had a dual nature as well. He was a god of vegetation, of life-giving spring growth, and at the same time, a fearsome god of torture and sacrifice. His double meaning reflected the Aztec vision of a universal balance in which new life had to be paid for in blood. Xipe Totec's color was red, his direction east. The Aztecs took up in addition the worship of Tlaloc, an important god of rain and fertility long known under various names in Mexico and Central America. He governed a host of lesser gods called Tlaloques, who made thunder and rain by smashing their water jars. Other deities, such as Huitzilopochtli's mother, the earth goddess Coatlicue (Lady of the Serpent Skirt), probably played key parts in the religion of the common people, who were mainly farmers. Many deities were associated with flowers, summer, fertility, and corn.
Many Aztec myths tell all or part of the story of the five suns. The Aztecs believed that four suns, or worlds, had existed before theirs. In each case, catastrophic events had destroyed everything, and the world had come to an end. Tezcatlipoca created the first sun, known as Nahui-Ocelotl, or Four-Jaguar. It came to an end when Quetzalcoatl struck down Tezcatlipoca, who became a jaguar and destroyed all the people. Quetzalcoatl was the ruler of the second sun, Nahui-Ehécatl, or Four-Wind. However, Tezcatlipoca threw Quetzalcoatl off his throne, and together the fallen god and the sun were carried off by a hurricane of wind. People turned into monkeys and fled into the forest. The third sun, Nahuiquiahuitl or Four-Rain, belonged to the rain god Tlaloc. Quetzalcoatl destroyed it with fire that fell from the heavens. The water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue ruled the fourth sun, called Nahui-Atl or Four-Water. A 52-year flood destroyed that sun, and the people turned into fish.
Many stories told of the Loss of the Ancients, the mythic event in which the first people disappeared from the earth. One version says that Tezcatlipoca stole the sun, but Quetzalcoatl chased him and knocked him back down to earth with a stick. Tezcatlipoca then changed into a jaguar and devoured the people who lived in that world. The Aztecs combined versions of this story to explain the disappearance of people at the end of each of the four worlds that had existed before theirs. Carvings on a stone calendar found in 1790 tell how jaguars, wind, fire, and flood in turn destroyed the Ancients.
The Aztecs lived in the world of Nahui-Ollin (Four-Movement), the fifth sun. They believed that the earth was a flat disk divided into north, east, south, and west quarters, each associated with a color, special gods, and certain days. At the center was Huehueteotl, god of fire. Above the earth were 13 heavens; below it were 9 underworlds, where the dead dwelled, making 9 an extremely unlucky number. A myth about Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl tells how the world was quartered. They made the earth by seizing a woman from the sky and pulling her into the shape of a cross. Her body became the earth, which, angered by their rough treatment, devoured the dead.
Another myth tells of Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl working together to raise the sky. After the flood that ended the fourth sun, the sky collapsed onto the earth. The two gods became trees, and as they grew, they pushed the sky up. Leaving the trees supporting the sky, one at each end of the earth, they climbed onto the sky and met in the Milky Way. Quetzalcoatl gave life to the people of the fifth sun by gathering the bones of the only man and woman who had survived the long flood and sprinkling them with his own blood. The gods created the world with blood and required the sacrifice of human blood to keep it intact. One day, however, the fifth sun would meet its end in an all-destroying earthquake.
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