Mythology: Heaven and Hell in the Americas

What follows is an abbreviated version of various beliefs in the abodes of the afterlife, from that of the Aztec to native beliefs throughout the Americas.

The beliefs of the Aztecs are the most documented, by way of the Spanish Chroniclers, while the theology of other cultures is more of a blank slate as a result of a missing written record.
— Orly


Various destinations awaited the dead in ancient Mexico. Warriors slain in battle repaired to the sun, where they dwelt in bliss with the deity who presided over that luminary; and sacrificed captives also fared thither. These followed the sun in his course, crying aloud and beating upon their shields. "It is also said," writes old [Bernardino de] Sahagun in his History of the Affairs of New Spain, "that in this heaven are trees and forests of diverse sorts. The offerings which the living of this world make to the dead duly arrive at their destination, and are received in this heaven. After four years of sojourn in that place the souls of the dead are changed into diverse species of birds, having rich plumage of the most brilliant colours," These were known as tzinzonme ('little bird which flies from flower to flower'), and they flitted from blossom to blossom on earth as well as in Heaven, sucking the rich fragrance from the tropical blooms of the deep valleys of Anahuac.

Tropical Bird

Tlalocan, an even more material Paradise, was that of the water-god or deity of moisture, Tlaloc. Sahagun calls this a "terrestrial Paradise" "where they feign that there is surfeit of pleasure and refreshment, void for a space of torment." In that delectable region there is plenteousness of green maize, of calabashes, pepper, tomatoes, and haricots, and it is filled with variegated blossoms. There dwell the god Tlaloc and his followers. The persons who gain admittance are those slain by lightning or thunderbolt, the leprous, and the dropsical—those whose deaths have in any way been caused through the agency of water—for Tlaloc is god of that element; and existence there is perpetual. The Paradise of Tlaloc was situated in the mountains, in a climate of eternal summer.


The Hades of the Aztec race was Mictlan, presided over by Mictlantecutli (Lord of Mictlan) and his spouse (Mictecaciuatl). The souls of the dead who ended up there were those who died of disease, chiefs, great personages, or humbler folk. On the day of death the priest harangued the deceased, telling him that he was about to fare to a region "where there is neither light nor window," but all was shadow — a veritable land of chiaroscuro, reached by a route swarming with grisly inimical forms. On arrival at the dreary court of Mictlan the dead offered gifts to its lord — coloured paper, perfumes, and torches, mantles and other apparel, provided before cremation. It was a four years' journey to the first of the nine Hells of Mictlan, over a deep and wide river, on whose shores dwelt the dogs providently buried with the dead and employed to carry them across the stream.

It was a four years’ journey to the first of the nine Hells of Mictlan, over a deep and wide river, on whose shores dwelt the dogs providently buried with the dead and employed to carry them across the stream.
— Orly

Above the nine Hells of Mictlan were thirteen Heavens, the first containing planets, the second the Tzitzimime, or demons, the third the Centzon Mimizcoa, or four hundred stars of the Northern Hemisphere. The fourth was inhabited by birds, the fifth by fire-snakes (perhaps comets); the sixth was the home of the winds; the seventh harboured dust; and in the eighth dwelt gods. The remainder were placed at the disposal of the high primal and creative gods, Tonacatecutli and his spouse Tonacaciuatl, whose particular home was in the thirteenth and highest Heaven.



The natives of North and South America generally knew no place of future reward or punishment. They regarded the future life merely as a shadowy extension of this world — more wonderful, more supernatural, perhaps more desirable because of its material delights, but still of the earth earthy. The land of the sun was for many the land of future bliss.

Roger Williams (c. 21 December 1603 – between 27 January and 15 March 1683) was a Puritan, an English Reformed theologian, and later a Reformed Baptist

Williams was the 1638 founder of the First Baptist Church in America, also known as the First Baptist Church of Providence.

Williams was also a student of Native American languages, an early advocate for fair dealings with American Indians, and one of the first abolitionists in North America, having organized the first attempt to prohibit slavery in any of the British American colonies. He is best remembered as the originator of the principle of separation of church and state.
— Orly

"Where the sun lives," they informed the earliest foreign visitors, were the villages of the deceased, and the Milky Way which nightly spans the arch of Heaven was, in their opinion, the road thither, and was called the path of souls (le chemin des âmes). To Hueyu ku, the mansion of the sun, said the Caribs, the soul passes when death overtakes the body. To the warm South-west, whence blows the wind which brings the sunny days and the ripening corn, said the New England natives to Roger Williams, will all souls go.

Our knowledge is scanty of the doctrines taught by the Incas concerning the soul, but this much we do know, that they looked to the sun, their recognised lord and protector, as he who would care for them at death, and admit them to his palaces. There — not indeed, exquisite joys — but a life of unruffled placidity, void of labour, vacant of strong emotions, a sort of material Nirvana, awaited them.

From Peru to the coast of Brazil, the millions who inhabited that great stretch of watered forest pointed to the west, to the region beyond the mountains or the blessed abode of their ancestors, where in a continual state of intoxication they whiled away the hours of bliss. The people of the Pampas and Patagonia considered the sky to be the home of the dead, where they dwelt as stars. During the night they patrol the sky, but at sunrise flock around the great luminary and are bitten by his beams.

The Hurons, Iroquois, Chippeway, Algonquins, and Dakotas all told of a deep and swift stream that the soul must cross, bridged either by an enormous snake, a slender tree, or by some other precarious means, such as a stone canoe.

It is stated in the Popol Vuh that these were more ‘devils’ than gods. “In the old times they did not have much power. They were but avengers and opposers of men, and, in truth, they were not regarded as gods.”
— Orly

In old Peru, Çupay, the shadow, ruled a land of shades in the centre of the earth. To him went all souls not destined to be the companions of the sun. But, like nearly all savage Hells, this was merely a 'place of the dead' and not a place of retribution. Xibalba, the Hades of the Kiches of Guatemala, was a grisly Underworld ruled by a veritable secret society having-rules of initiation. The name is derived from a root meaning 'to fear,' from which also comes the Maya term for 'phantom' or 'ghost,' and this derivation shows it to have been a place of the dead. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred and traditional book of the Kiches, we find nothing to indicate that Xibalba was a place of punishment. Those who entered it had to undergo tests analogous to those which a Native must endure upon his initiation into any of the numerous esoteric societies still to be found among American native societies; but torment is otherwise absent. The scenery of Xibalba is varied. It is gloomy, with a river of blood, a stream full of gourds, plantations of calabashes, courts for the ball-game, in which its lords are very expert, and stone buildings. It is ruled by grim lords, One-Death and Seven-Deaths. It is stated in the Popol Vuh that these were more 'devils' than gods. "In the old times they did not have much power. They were but avengers and opposers of men, and, in truth, they were not regarded as gods."



The Chinooks believe that after death the spirit of the deceased drinks at a large hole in the ground, after which it shrinks and passes on to the country of the ghosts, where it is fed with spirit food. After drinking of the water and partaking of the fare of spirit-land, the soul becomes the irrevocable property of the dead, and may not return to earth. But every person is possessed of two spirits, a greater and a lesser, and during sickness it is this lesser soul which is spirited away by the denizens of ghost-land. The Navahos have a similar belief. They assert that in the personal soul there is none of the vital force which animates the body, nor any of the mental power, but a third entity, a sort of spiritual body (like the ka of the ancient Egyptians), which may leave its owner and become lost, much to his danger and discomfort. Among the Mexicans a similar spirit-body ('tonal') was recognized, much the same in character, indeed, as the 'astral body' of modern spiritualism. Among them, as with the Maya of Yucatan, it came into existence with the name, and for this reason the personal name was sacred and rarely uttered. It was regarded as part of the individuality, and through it the ego might be injured. This belief is general among the aboriginal peoples of both Americas.

In the country of the ghosts we see a striking analogy to the old classical idea of Hades. It is a place of windless, soundless half-dusk, inhabited by shadows who shrink from tumult of any description, and pass a sort of shadowy extension of earthly life. It is to be sharply distinguished from the country of the 'Supernatural People,' who lead a much more satisfying existence.

There are other and still more mysterious regions in the sky, recorded in the Amerindian myth of Aqas Xenas Xena. It tells how a boy who has slain his mother mounts to the celestial sphere by a chain fastened to the end of an arrow. He first meets the Darkness, and is then accosted by the evening star, who asks if he has seen his game, and explains that he is hunting men. He reaches the house of the evening star, and finds his sons and daughter at home counting over the game-bag of the day — dead folk. The daughter is the moon. The same thing occurs in the house of the morning star, whose daughter is the sun. The sons of the one star are at war with those of the other. He marries the moon, and has children united in the middle. He returns to earth with his wife and progeny, whom Blue Jay separates, and they die, returning to the Sky with their mother and becoming the 'sun-dogs.' In this day and night myth we recognize the widespread belief in celestial regions where man exists not after death, a belief common to nearly all American mythologies.

There is a similar myth relating to the sun, which is kept in the hut of an old woman dwelling in the skies. From her an adventurous hero obtains a blanket to render him immune. The myth was probably invented to explain sunstroke.

The beliefs of the Lengua Indians of South America is said to be the following:

"The unseen world in its relation to man is naturally much more clearly defined by the Indian. He holds that the aphangak or departed souls of men in the shade world (pischischi, shadows) merely continue their present life, only of course in a disembodied state. The souls of the departed are supposed, in the ethereal state, to correspond exactly in form and characteristics with the bodies they have left. A tall man and a short man remain tall and short as spirits; a deformed man remains deformed. A kindly-natured man continues so in shade-land. A witch-doctor, or a great chief, feared and respected in the body, is feared and respected in the spirit-world. Those who were related in this world associate with each other in the next. Departed spirits continue the same tribal and clan life as when in the body. The spirit of a child remains a child and does not develop, and for this reason is not feared. Infanticide is not regarded as murder in the same degree as the murder of an adult. No punishment follows the murderer of an infant, nor is its murder attended by the ordinary superstitious fears. A murderer—that is, according to the Indian idea, a man who kills one of his own tribe—is not only executed for the crime, but his body is burnt, and the ashes scattered to the four winds. The Indian believes that after such treatment his spirit cannot take human form, and remains in the after-world shapeless and unrecognizable, and therefore unable to mingle with its kindred spirits, or to enjoy such social intercourse as exists.

"The aphangak is supposed to hunt, travel, garden, and carry on more or less his old life, but of course in spirit form, and pursuing only spiritual essences. The spirits of the dead appear to take no interest in the living, nor, beyond causing uncanny feelings when supposed to be hovering about, do they seem in the least to influence those left behind. Their very names are not mentioned, and every effort is made by the living to forget them....

"Speaking generally, three ideas seem to prevail regarding the future abode of the soul. The lower type of Indian holds that the aphangak continues to wander disconsolately about the country in company with its kindred spirits, while the more intelligent are of opinion that it moves over to the west, to the cities of the dead, already referred to in dealing with their origin. A few, however, hold a view similar to that prevailing among the Southern tribes—namely, that the dead inhabit a world beneath the earth.

"The lower creation, with the exception of fish and serpents, are supposed to share immortality with men. Birds, cattle, and the carnivora, especially of the leading types, figure largely in their beliefs of the shade-world, as also the dog, jaguar, horse, ostrich, and the thunder-bird."

[Wilfried Barbrooke Grubb, Among the Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco: A Story of Missionary Work in South America]

Our knowledge of formal theology in the Americas is greatly limited by the destruction of the books of the Maya (cf. the burning of the Maya codices by Spanish Bishop of Yucatan), who had the only known  true writing system in the Americas.  Likewise, the sacred temple records of the Aztec - who relied on a mnemonic writing system -  were all destroyed at the time of the Conquest.  

A few codex survived - from the Aztec and the Maya - of which the Florentine Codex is one such example.  The Florentine Codex  is the result of a decades-long meticulous research conducted by the Fransciscan Bernardino de Sahagún in Mexico, which is among the most important sources of information on Aztec on culture and society as they were before the Spanish conquest, and on the Nahuatl language. However, upon Sahagún's return to Europe in 1585, his original manuscripts – including the records of conversations and interviews with indigenous sources in Tlatelolco, Texcoco, and Tenochtitlan, and likely to have included much primary material which did not get into the final codex – were confiscated by the Spanish authorities, and are assumed to have been destroyed. The Florentine Codex itself was for centuries afterwards only known in heavily censored versions.  The sacred Aztec and Maya temple records, to repeat, were systematically obliterated. 

Outside of Mesoamerica, the traditions that survived are essentially recorded memory of oral traditions.



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