Aztec: Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca

This review of the Aztec twin deities Uitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca is found in Lectures on the Origin and Growth in Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru. The author is Albert Reville, D.D. Professor of the Science of Religions at the College de France, translated into English by Philip H. Wicksteed. The discussion relies on the Spanish writer’s witness at the time of the conquest, and offers an excellent overview of these deities in their context.
— Orly

[After discussing the structure of Aztec central pyramid of the Sun,  the last platform is described]. Finally, there rose on the same platform a kind of chapel in which were enthroned the two chief deities of the Aztecs, Uitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. And here I will ask you to accompany Captain Bernal Diaz in the retinue of his chief, Fernando Cortes, to whom the king Montezuma himself had seen fit to do the honours of his "cathedral." For, as you are aware, Montezuma, divided between a rash confidence and certain apprehensions which I shall presently explain, received Cortes for a considerable time with the utmost distinction, lodged him in one of his palaces, and did everything in the world to please him. This, then, is the narrative of Bernal Diaz:

"Montezuma invited us to enter a little tower, where in a kind of chamber, or hall, stood what appeared like two altars covered with rich embroidery." (What Bernal Diaz compared to altars were the two Teoicpalli (or seats of the gods), which were wooden pedestals, painted azure blue and bearing a serpent's head at each corner).... "The first [idol], placed on the right, we were told represented Huichilobos, their god of war" (this was as near as Bernal Diaz could get to Uitzilopochtli), "with his face and countenance very broad, his eyes monstrous and terrible; all his body was covered with jewels, gold and pearls of various sizes.... His body was girt with things like great serpents, made with gold and precious stones, and in one hand he held a bow, and arrows in the other. And another little idol who stood by him, and, as they said, was his page, carried a short lance for him, and a very rich shield of gold and jewels. And Huichilobos had his neck hung round with faces of Indians, and what seemed to be the hearts of these same Indians, made of gold, or some of them of silver, covered with blue gems; and there stood some brasiers there, containing incense made with copal and the hearts of three Indians who had been slain that same day; and they were burning, and with the smoke and incense they had made that sacrifice to him; and all the walls of this oratory were so bathed and blackened with cakes of blood, as was the very ground itself, that the whole exhaled a very foul odour.

"Carrying our eyes to the left we perceived another great mass, as high as Huichilobos. Its face was like a bear's, and its shining eyes were made of mirrors called Tezcat. Its body was covered with rich gems like that of Huichilobos, for they said that they were brothers. And this Tescatepuca" (the mutilated form under which Bernal Diaz presents Tezcatlipoca) "was the god of hell" (this is another mistake, for Tezcatlipoca was a celestial deity).... "His body was surrounded with figures like little imps, with tails like serpents; and the walls were so caked and the ground so saturated with blood, that the slaughterhouses of Castile do not exhale such a stench; and indeed we saw the hearts of five victims who had been slaughtered that same day.... And since everything smelt of the shambles, we were impatient to escape from the foul odour and yet fouler sight."

Such was the impression made upon a Spanish soldier and a good Catholic by the sight of the two chief deities of the Mexican people. To him they were simply two abominable inventions of Satan. Let us try to go a little further below the surface.


Uitzilopochtli signifies Humming-bird to the left, from Uizilin (Humming-bird), and opochtli (to the left). The latter part of the name is probably due to the position we have just seen noticed to the left of the other great deity, Tezcatlipoca. But why Humming-bird? What can there be in common between this graceful little creature and the monstrous idol of the Aztecs? The answer is given by the American mythology, in which the Humming-bird is a divine being, the messenger of the Sun. In the Aztec language it is often called the "sunbeam" or the "sun's hair." This charming little bird, with the purple, gold and topaz sheen of its lovely plumage, as it flits amongst the flowers like a butterfly, darts out its long tongue before it to extract their juices, with a burring of its wings like the humming of bees, whence it derives its English name. Moreover, it is extremely courageous, and will engage with far larger birds than itself in defence of its nest. In the northern regions of Mexico, the humming-bird is the messenger of spring, as the swallow is with us. At the beginning of May, after a cold and dry season that has parched the soil and blighted all verdure, the atmosphere becomes pregnant with rain, the sun regains his power, and a marvellous transformation sets in. The land arrays itself, before the very eyes, with verdure and flowers, the air is filled with perfumes, the maize comes to a head, and hosts of humming-birds appear, as if to announce that the fair season has returned. We may lay it down as certain that the humming-bird was the object of a religious cultus amongst the earliest Aztecs, as the divine messenger of the Spring, like the wren amongst our own peasantry, the plover amongst the Latins, and the crow amongst many tribes of the Red-skins. It was the emissary of the Sun.

It was in this capacity, and under the law of anthropomorphism to which all the Mexican deities were subject, that the divine humming-bird, as a revealing god, the protector of the Aztec nation, took the human form more and more completely in the religious consciousness of his worshippers. And indeed the Mexican mythology gives form to this idea that the divine humming-bird (of which those on earth were but the relatives or little brothers) was a celestial man like an Aztec of the first rank, in the following legend of his incarnation.

Near to Coatepec, that is to say the Mountain of Serpents, lived the pious widow Coatlicue or Coatlantona (the ultimate meaning of which is "female serpent"). One day, as she was going to the temple to worship the Sun, she saw a little tuft of brilliantly coloured feathers fall at her feet. She picked it up and placed it in her bosom to present as an offering to the Sun. But when she was about to draw it forth, she knew not what had come upon her. Soon afterwards she perceived that she was about to become a mother. Her children were so enraged that they determined to kill her, but a voice from her womb cried out to her, "Mother, have no fear, for I will save thee, to thy great honour and my own great glory." And in fact Coatlicue's children failed in their murderous attempt. In due time Uitzilopochtli was born, grasping his shield and lance, with a plume of feathers shaped like a bird's beak on his head, with humming-birds' feathers on his left leg, and his face, arms and legs barred with blue. Endowed from his birth with extraordinary strength, while still an infant he put to death those who had attempted to slay his mother, together with all who had taken their part. He gave her everything he could take from them; and after accomplishing mighty feats on behalf of the Aztecs, whom he had taken under his protection, he re-ascended to heaven, bearing his mother with him, and making her henceforth the goddess of flowers.

You will be struck by the analogy between this myth and more than one Greek counterpart. There is the same method of reducing to the conditions of human life, and concentrating at a single point of time and space, a permanent or regularly recurrent and periodic natural phenomenon. Uitzilopochtli, the humming-bird, has come from the Sun with the purpose of making himself man, and he has therefore taken flesh in an Aztec woman, Coatlicue, the serpent, who is no other than the spring florescence, and therefore the Mexican Flora. It is not only amongst the Mexicans that the creeping progress of the spring vegetation, stretching along the ground towards the North, has suggested the idea of a divine serpent crawling over the earth. The Athenian myth of Erichthonius is a conception of the same order. The celestial humming-bird, then, offspring of the Sun, valiant and warlike from the day of his birth, champion of his mother, plundering and ever victorious, is the symbol instinctively seized on by the Aztec people; for it, too, had sprung from humble beginnings, had been despised and menaced by its neighbours, and had grown so marvellously in power and in wealth as to have become the invincible lord of Anahuac. Uitzilopochtli had grown with the Aztec people. He bears, amongst other surnames, that of Mextli, the warrior, whence the name of Mexico. He protects his people and ever extends the boundaries of its empire. And thus, in spite of his bearing the name of a little bird, his statue as an incarnate deity had become colossal. Yet the Aztecs did not lose the memory of his original minuteness of stature. Did you observe, in the account given by Bernal Diaz, that there stood at the feet of the huge idol another quite small one, that served, according to the Spanish Captain, as his page? This was the Uitziton, or "little humming-bird," called also the Paynalton, or the "little quick one," whose image was borne by a priest at the head of the soldiers as they charged the enemy. On the day of his festival, too, he was borne at full speed along the streets of the city. He was, therefore, the diminutive Uitzilopochtli, or, more correctly speaking, the Uitzilopochtli of the early days, the portable idol of the still wandering tribe; and in fidelity to those memories, as well as to preserve the warlike rite to the efficacy of which they attached so much value, the Aztecs had kept the small statue by the side of the great one.

To sum up: Uitzilopochtli was a derivative form or determination of the Sun, and specifically of the Sun of the fair season. He had three great annual festivals. The first fell in May, at the moment of the return of the flowering vegetation. The second was celebrated in August, when the favourable season unfolded all its beauty. The third coincided with our month of December. It was the beginning of the cold and dry season. On the day of this third festival they made a statue in Uitzilopochtli's likeness, out of dough concocted with the blood of sacrificed infants, and, after all kinds of ceremonies, a priest pierced the statue with an arrow. Uitzilopochtli would die with the verdure, the flowers and all the beauteous adornments of spring and summer. But, like Adonis, like Osiris, like Atys, and so many other solar deities, he only died to live and to return again.


It was now his brother Tezcatlipoca who took the direction of the world. His name signifies "Shining Mirror." As the Sun of the cold and sterile season, he turned his impassive glance upon all the world, or gazed into the mirror of polished crystal that he held in his hand, in which all the actions of men were reflected. He was a stern god of judgment, with whose being ideas of moral retribution were associated. He was therefore much dreaded. Up to a certain point he reminds us of the Vedic Varuna. His statue was made of dark obsidian rock, and his face recalled that of the bear or tapir. Suspended to his hair, which was plaited into a tail and enclosed in a golden net, there hung an ear, which was likewise made of gold, towards which there mounted flocks of smoke in the form of tongues. These were the prayers and supplications of mortals. Maladies, famines and death, were the manifestations of Tezcatlipoca's justice. Dry as the season over which he presided, he was not easily moved. And yet he was not absolutely inexorable. The ardent prayers, the sacrifices and the supplications of his priests might avert the strokes of his wrath. But in spite of all, he was pre-eminently the god of austere law. And this is why he was regarded as the civilizing and organizing deity of the Aztecs. It was he who had established the laws that governed the people and who watched over their observance. In this capacity he made frequent journeys of inspection, like an invisible prefect of police, through the city of Mexico, to see what was going on there. Stone seats had been erected in the streets for him to rest upon on these occasions, and no mortal would have dared to occupy them. At the same time a terrible and cruel subtlety in the means he employed to accomplish his ends was attributed to him; and the legend about him, which is far less brilliant than that of his brother Uitzilopochtli, led several Europeans to believe that he was simply an ancient magician who had spread terror around him by his sorceries.  ...  In any case we may define Tezcatlipoca as another determination of the Sun, and specifically of the winter Sun of the cold, dry, sterile season.


In accordance with the notions which we have seen were accredited by their religion, they had developed a kind (or kinds) of communion from which, with a little theology, a regular doctrine of transubstantiation might have been drawn.
— Orly

But the devotees of the ancient Mexican religion had other methods of uniting themselves substantially and corporeally with their gods; and in accordance with the notions which we have seen were accredited by their religion, they had developed a kind (or kinds) of communion from which, with a little theology, a regular doctrine of transubstantiation might have been drawn.

Thus, at the third great festival in honour of Huitzilopochtli (celebrated at the time of his death), they made an image of the deity in dough, steeped it in the blood of sacrificed children, and partook of the pieces.  In the same way the priests of Tlaloc kneaded statuettes of their god in dough, cut them up, and gave them to eat to patients suffering from the diseases caused by the cold and wet. The statuettes were first consecrated by a small sacrifice. And so, too, at the yearly festival of the god of fire, Xiuhtecuhtli, an image of the deity, made of dough, was fixed in the top of a great tree which had been brought into the city from the forest. At a certain moment the tree was thrown down, on which of course the idol broke to pieces, and the worshippers all scrambled for a bit of him to eat.


It is evident that the Mexicans were taught to consider a decent and virtuous life as required by the gods. Indeed, they had a system of confession, in which the priest received the statement of the penitent, laid a penance on him, and assured him of the pardon of the gods.
— Orly

We have seen that amongst the nature-gods of Mexico there was one, Tezcatlipoca, who was looked upon as the austere guardian of law and morals. If we are to believe Father Sahagun,—and even if we allow for strong suspicions as to the accuracy of his translations of the prayers and exhortations uttered under certain circumstances by parents and priests,—it is evident that the Mexicans were taught to consider a decent and virtuous life as required by the gods. Indeed, they had a system of confession, in which the priest received the statement of the penitent, laid a penance on him, and assured him of the pardon of the gods. Generally the penitents delayed their confession till they were advanced in age, for relapses were regarded as beyond the reach of pardon. It would be nearer the truth to say that the religious ethics of the Mexicans had entered upon that path of dualism by which alone, in almost every case, the normal synthesis or rational reconciliation of the demands of physical nature and the moral life has been ultimately reached. For inasmuch as fidelity to duty often involves a certain amount of suffering, the suffering comes to be regarded as the moral act itself, and artificial sufferings are voluntarily incurred under the idea that they are the appointed price of access to a higher and more perfect life, in closer conformity with the divine will. The cruel rites which entered into the very tissue of the Mexican religion could hardly fail to strengthen the same ascetic tendency, by encouraging the idea that pain itself was pleasant to the eyes of the gods. But the truth is that in this matter we can discern no more than tendencies. There are symptoms of men's minds being busy with the relation of the moral to the religious life, but no fixed or systematic conclusions had been reached. It might, perhaps, have been otherwise in the sequel, and these ten[106]dencies might ultimately have taken shape in corresponding theories and doctrines, had not the Spanish conquest intervened to put an end for ever to the evolution of the Mexican religion.


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