taken from Mexicolore
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology
Indiana University-Purdue University
Fort Wayne, Indiana (USA)
This is a wonderful question that is not easy to answer briefly. Most people think of the Aztecs as the people who created the magnificent civilization in Mexico that was brought down by the Spaniards and their Native American allies in the early 1500s. Most assume that the Aztecs as a people ceased to exist following the conquest. But this is not the case. There are between 1.5 and 2 million people today who continue to speak Nahuatl, the Aztec language, and many are directly descended from the Aztecs themselves. The conquest destroyed cities but left most rural communities intact and many small villages continue to be inhabited by Aztecs to the present day.
Contemporary Aztec (Nahua) villages vary enormously in the degree to which they continue to practice the ancient religion and follow the old gods. Some have lost their Aztec beliefs and practice forms of Catholicism or Protestantism that are very similar to religions practiced in Europe or North America. Others follow traditions that are firmly rooted in the ancient Aztec past and hold beliefs in the same gods worshiped by their ancestors. Most contemporary Aztec communities fall somewhere between these two extremes of religious belief and practice.
It is important to remember that the Spaniards and literate Aztecs who chronicled the ancient civilization wrote about people in the cities. They neglected to document village life and religious traditions in smaller communities. The result is that we know little about the people who lived at the edges of the Aztec empire and even less about their gods and rituals. However, Aztec villagers must have shared many features of their culture with people in the cities, and so we can assume that the gods worshiped in the rural areas must have been similar to those worshiped in urban centers.
It is also important to remember that the Spanish conquerors did everything they could to destroy the Aztec religion, which they believed was created by the devil. The Aztecs under Spanish rule were not allowed to practice their old religion and were expected, under penalty of law, to adopt the dominant Spanish Catholic religion.
So what happened to the Aztec gods after the conquest? Some apparently have disappeared completely or their identities blended with other deities so that today they are unrecognizable as separate deities. One of the major gods of the Aztecs at the time of the conquest was Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird-Left”), the god of war and sacrifice who, along with many other deities associated with warfare, is no longer worshiped by people today.
Many of the remaining gods continue to be venerated but they may in fact be blends of different Aztec deities, or ancient gods combined with sacred figures from Spanish Catholicism. The Aztec creator high god was Ometeotl (“Two-God”), whose wife was called Omecihuatl (“Two-Lady”). Contemporary Aztecs in northern Veracruz have a god they call Ometotiotsij who also has a wife (or female aspect). Ometotiotsij may be translated as “Two-Our Honored God,” but the name can also be interpreted as “Lord and Lady of the Duality.” The name and beliefs surrounding this sacred being reveal that it is a direct descendant of the ancient deity. Today, this god is sometimes simply called Totiotsij (“Our Honored God”) or in Spanish Dios (“God”).
The sun was also an important god for the Aztecs who they called Tonatiuh (“Sun”), and it continues to be worshiped by the contemporary Aztecs under the name variation Tonatij (“Sun”) [see photograph 9]. When speaking Spanish, the people call the sun Jesús (Jesus), providing an example of how ancient ideas are combined with Spanish sacred figures in the contemporary religion. The sun was sacred to the ancient Aztecs, and over the years they simply combined this idea with the new sacred figure of Jesus brought by the Europeans. Writers sometimes call this blended god the Sun-Christ.
The ancient Aztecs believed that rain was controlled by Tlaloc (personal name) who was assisted by small, dwarf-like figures called Tlaloque that were associated with thunder and lightning. Water itself was the domain of a goddess called Chalchiuhtlicue (“Jade-Her Skirt”). These different gods exist in many forms today and continue to be worshiped in Native American communities throughout Mexico. Today, Aztecs in northern Veracruz refer to Chalchiutlicue as Apanchanej (“Water Dweller”). They conceive of her as a woman with long hair and a fish tail in place of her legs and she resembles a mermaid. For the contemporary Aztecs, Sahua (“San Juan” or “Saint John the Baptist”) has replaced Tlaloc. He is believed to have a ferocious temper and lives at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
People say that when angered he sends violent storms that can destroy the maize crop. Apparently it is Saint John the Baptist’s association with water in Christian belief that has led the contemporary Aztecs to see him as equivalent to the ancient Tlaloc. He sends his dwarf-like assistants called Pilhuehuentsitsij (“Little Old Ones”), the equivalent of the Tlaloque, to carry water to caves at the peaks of a sacred mountains. From there, Apanchanej sprinkles the water on the fields in the form of rain. They have rubber sleeves and as they move through the sky, they strike their walking sticks causing thunder and lightning.
Many contemporary Aztecs continue to worship and make offerings to the ancient earth gods that they address as “Grandfather” and “Grandmother” [see photographs 14-15]. Earth gods under many different names and forms were important deities for the ancient Aztecs. This fact is not surprising because the Aztecs were farming people and so the fertility of the earth is one of their key concerns. One earth-related god among the ancients was Tonantzin (“Our Sacred Mother”), and she continues to be one of the most powerful deities among present-day Aztecs.
Ten years after the Aztec defeat in the year 1531, she appeared to a poor Aztec man named Juan Diego and promised to watch over his people. She has come down to us as the Virgin of Guadalupe and many consider her to be the patron saint of all Mexico. Aztecs today know her as Tonantsij and they celebrate her feast day on the 12th of December. Once again, we can see that an ancient Aztec deity, combined with European religious ideas, continues to be worshiped by fervent followers in a new form.
Another significant god for the ancients was Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl (“Wind-Quetzal Feathered Serpent”). Both ancient and contemporary Aztecs love to use words with more than one meaning and the name Quetzalcoatl is a good example of this practice. The popular name of this god is Feathered Serpent, but it can also be translated as “Precious Twin.” This deity was related to a number of elements including maize, the good wind that brings rain, the creation of human beings, and the development of civilization. It seems likely that the god was created by Aztec priests in the cities out of many smaller gods that existed in the villages during the pre-Hispanic period. In contemporary Aztec villages, this deity still exists in its original, but fragmentary, form. Wind spirits are found widely throughout Mexico, often divided into good and bad varieties. Good winds bring the life-giving rain, while dangerous bad winds cause disease among people. These latter are called malos aires (“bad airs”) in Spanish, and each of the many types of wind spirits is called ejecatl in the modern Nahuatl spelling.
Many people living in Aztec villages today venerate spirits of the seeds and, not surprisingly considering its importance in the diet, maize seeds are usually considered to be the most important. Among the contemporary Aztecs in the Huasteca region of Mexico, the maize spirit is called Seven-Flower and he has a twin sister called Five-Flower. There are many myths told about this pair and they are associated with bringing maize to human beings and to fighting off malevolent forces that threaten civilization. They are truly precious twins. The maize spirit is a modern form of Quetzalcoatl that lives in the minds and religious beliefs of the Aztecs today.
A key god among the ancient Aztecs was the all-powerful, ever-changing, and mysterious Tezcatlipoca (“Mirror-Smoking”). The god existed in many forms and, much like Quetzalcoatl, probably represents a combination of several lesser deities that were venerated in the villages. The deity is associated with darkness, night, and the nahualli, a sorcerer who transforms into an animal to attack his victims. Tezcatlipoca does not exist in his ancient form among today’s Aztecs but there is evidence that, at least in some villages, he has been combined with another pre-Hispanic figure named Tlacatecolotl (“Owl-Man”).
Among contemporary Aztecs, Tlacatecolotl and his wife Tlacatecolotl Sihuatl (“Owl-Man Woman”) are frightening creatures who sometimes lead the souls of the dead in Mictlan (“Place of the Dead”) [see photographs 20-21]. They are dangerous to human health and well-being and the pair must be placated in curing rituals. The supreme leader of Mictlan in ancient times was Mictlantecuhtli (“Lord of the Place of the Dead”) who finds his contemporary counterpart in the figure of Miquilistli (“Death”) represented in cut paper as a human skeleton.
Among contemporary Aztecs, there are many terrifying spirits who threaten human beings and who trace directly back to their ancient ancestors. The transformed sorcerer, or nahualli mentioned above, flies about at night and sucks the blood from unsuspecting victims while they sleep. A kind of hag, called a tsitsimitl, is a fearsome female monster who may devour human beings. The tetlachihuijquetl is a sorcerer who performs rituals to send disease and death to unsuspecting victims. Tlahuelilo (“Wrath”), portrayed today in cut-paper images as a fearsome figure with the tail of an animal, stalks all those who fail to keep their tempers in check.
Dangerous ejecatl wind spirits mentioned above in connection with Quetzalcoatl, are believed by contemporary Aztecs to be the wandering spirts of people who died premature or particularly unpleasant deaths. They are much feared by people today and curing specialists spend a majority of their professional time removing them from people’s bodies and surroundings. The idea of malevolent, disease-causing winds is undoubtedly pre-Hispanic in origin.
In sum, what can we conclude about the fate of the Aztec gods? We can say that, under pressure from Spanish missionaries and political authorities, some of them have disappeared along with the ancient cities and temples where they were venerated. We can also say that a significant number of them live on and continue to be worshiped by people today. There are many more gods that anthropologists have documented among people today that are not mentioned here, including gods of the moon, stars, comets, crops, mountains, caves, clouds, fire, house, hearth, year, earth’s surface, and hummingbirds. Beliefs in these spirit entities can be traced to the ancient Aztecs.
In some cases they have remained remarkably intact while in others they have been combined with other pre-Hispanic deities or with sacred Christian figures brought to Mexico by the Spaniards. The process of blending two or more traditions to form a new one is called syncretism. Syncretism is not unique to the Aztecs but is characteristic of all religions in the world.
For further reading:-
• Caso, Alfonso. 1958. The Aztecs: People of the Sun. Lowell Dunham, trans. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Gómez Martínez, Arturo. 2002. Tlaneltokilli: La espiritualidad de los nahuas chicontepecanos. México, D.F.: Conaculta, Programa de Desarrollo Cultural de la Huasteca.
• Nicholson, Henry B. 1971. “Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10. Robert Wauchope, gen. ed. Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, part 1. Gordon F. Ekholm and Ignacio Bernal, eds., pp. 395-446. Austin: University of Texas Press.
• Sandstrom, Alan R. [in press, due to be published in 2010]. “Water and the Sacred in Mesoamerica.” In History of Water and Civilization, vol. 7, Fekri A. Hassan, editor-in-chief. Water and Humanity: Historical Overview, Yoshinori Yasuda and Vernon Scarborough, volume eds. Under contract with UNESCO and Cambridge University Press [68-page manuscript available].
• Sandstrom, Alan R. 1991. Corn is Our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
• Sandstrom, Alan R., and Pamela E. Sandstrom. 1986. Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Dr. Eleanor Wake
Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies,
Department of Spanish,
University of London.
This is a challenging question, especially as it assumes that the gods survived the conquest. Many of them did, but in different ways, some of which are also very difficult to define. There is, therefore, no straightforward answer but you might like to think about the ideas included in the response.
At the time of the Spanish arrival, religion and the gods dominated every aspect of native life, in urban and rural areas alike. Despite their political, economic, and religious power, the Aztecs (or the Mexica, as they called themselves) were no different and understood that they had to worship the gods with the same fervour as everybody else.
Apart from recognising the role of the gods in the creation of the Fifth Sun, or the world age in which the Mexica and their contemporaries lived, all knowledge and cultural advancements, such as astronomy and the workings of the calendar, the cultivation of food crops (especially maize), literature, music, the crafts, medicinal cures, etc., were also believed to be gifts from the gods to humans. In addition to the great religious festivals in honour of the gods to thank them for their gifts and to ask for continuing favours, everything people did, from lighting the fire in the morning, working in the fields, going to war, or even writing books, was therefore also understood to have been made possible and still watched over by one or more of the gods. As a result, the pantheon of the gods was large and very complex.
The Christian evangelisers [missionaries] believed the native religion to be nothing but superstitious mumbo-jumbo, focused mainly on hideous and bloodthirsty images, or idols, in stone or other materials, which the natives worshipped as gods (Pic 1). The missionaries therefore thought the religion could be eradicated very easily by destroying the gods and everything that appeared to be related to them. They smashed the idols, demolished the temples, burnt the sacred books (in fact, because they couldn’t read them they burnt all the books), and killed off or banished the old priests (Pic 2). These they replaced with Christian equivalents: statues and images of the Holy Family and the saints, bibles and prayer books, and their own clergy. They also ordered crosses and/or churches to be erected on the sites of the demolished temples, on the tops of pyramid platforms that proved too difficult to pull down, or over other sacred spots on the landscape where they knew the gods had been worshipped (Pic 3). The broken idols were often used as rubble to lay foundations or build walls (Pic 4). This was done so that the Indians could see how their false gods were now obliged to physically support the true Christian god. Whether the Indians understood this type of symbolism is open to question, for it depends on how they perceived the carved and painted gods in the first place.
It soon became clear to the missionaries that the images of the gods were only representations. The real gods were elsewhere and the native peoples were still worshipping them in secret. This usually involved carrying out rituals on mountain tops and in caves, in the fields where they cultivated their crops, or in private houses. In these places, often very large groups of “idolaters”, as the missionaries called them, would eat and drink, sing and dance, sacrifice chickens, and draw their own blood, invoking the gods by name and honouring them just as they had done in the pre-Christian era. While human sacrifice disappeared almost completely, occasionally statues of the gods that had escaped the destruction were brought along to the gatherings, or surviving ritual books consulted. But even the discovery and subsequent destruction of these items did not deter the Indians. They continued to worship their gods without them.
The evangelisers were baffled. The gods were obviously still very much alive, but the means of identifying them was a mystery. They also realised that the native religion was rather more complex than they had originally thought. Writing in the middle of the sixteenth century, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas summed up the situation as follows: “concerning the native peoples’ religion and its characteristics we [the evangelisers] have not understood even one of its thousand or ten thousand parts.” As a result, some amongst them, such as Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the compiler of the Florentine Codex, initiated a series of investigations into the prehispanic world in order to properly understand the old religion and the gods and get rid of them once and for all. These produced some early results, principally the connections they were able to make between the native calendar and the gods, who not only presided over its divisions, but also the timing of the rituals. So they prohibited the use of the tonalpohualli, or 260-day ritual count, and insisted that the 365-day year count (xiuhpohualli) should follow the European system. Broken down into 18 “months” of 20 days, it was also a cue for the celebration of the old religious festivals that followed the solar year. But the rituals did not cease for the Indians found other ways to maintain the counts of the days. As scholars are now beginning to confirm, one of these was to correlate them with the Catholic calendar of saints’ days. This system is still used today in some places.
By the end of the century further progress had been made but it was still not enough to rectify the problem. As another religious chronicler wrote in 1629, according to the Indians the gods lived in all parts of the land, on mountains, in valleys, ravines, lakes and springs. However, the task of finding them or understanding why they were still being worshipped was “like trying to catch smoke or wind in one’s fist”. Even worse, by this time the idolaters were also penetrating Christian space with their rituals. Sometimes (usually at night) they used the churchyard or the inside of the church itself. This did not mean that they rejected Christianity, however, for they would offer half of the ritual foodstuffs, feathers, flowers and other paraphernalia to Christian images. The other half, it was noted, was given to the old gods – wherever they were.
Many of the gods did therefore immediately survive the conquest, and the seventeenth-century chronicler’s observations might give us a clue as to what the Indians believed them to be. To understand this and why they were still being worshipped we should first take a brief look at what the native religion system was all about.
We refer to the religion that the native peoples of Mexico followed as a “system” because it was made up of many differing and changing beliefs and forms of worship which all settled peoples nevertheless practiced collectively. Creations myths were not all the same, for example, or the levels of importance of individual gods. Ritual activities and artefacts also varied considerably. For everybody however, the main purpose behind the system was to ensure the perpetuity of the world that human beings lived in (a gift from the gods that could be taken away at any time), and the survival of humankind itself across generations. For this reason, the production of food as the most basic element needed for survival became one of the most important focus points of religious thought and activities.
In a historical context, the religious system was very ancient, for it was born out of the gradual move over thousands of years from a nomadic [wandering] to a sedentary [settled] lifestyle that was dependent on agriculture. Over that time, the system changed in accordance with the evolution of the different ethnic groups and societies that gradually adopted agriculture as a way of life, including the Mexica after they arrived and established themselves in the Valley of Mexico. Despite the changes the Mexica made to certain beliefs and the pantheon of the gods they inherited or added to (or even captured!), they still adhered to the same basic system. To see which gods were of primary importance to them, we only have to read the speech made by the Mexica priests to the first Christian missionaries who arrived in 1524: “the gods give us our sustenance, our food, everything we drink and eat, that which is our flesh, maize, beans, amaranth, chía [an edible seed that can be used to make oil for cooking or a tea]. It is they whom we ask for water, for rain, with which the things of the earth are produced. The gods… possess all things; they are the lords of all.”
The Mexica and their contemporaries worshipped what we might call “types” of gods although it is never possible to categorise these in a clear-cut way. Because the gods did “possess all things” and were “the lords of all”, they interacted together across native society. As a result, some overlap, with each other but also as different manifestations of themselves within another role type.
There were, for example, certain gods who were recognised as creators, such as Ometeotl (“Two-god”) who lived in the highest level of the sky. As the name suggests, he/she was a double god who represented the male and female aspects of the world. Quetzalcoatl (“Feathered Serpent”) was also a creator god and especially venerated as a giver of knowledge and a great “civiliser” in the sense that he had taught humans how to live in an organised way within their new agricultural communities (Pic 9). His main shrine was at Cholula where he was also recognised locally as the patron of merchants, but nationally as the god who endorsed the legitimacy of rulership.
Another important creator god was Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”) who, depending on his mood, was an adversary or collaborator of Quetzalcoatl (Pic 10). Tezacatlipoca probably had more avatars, or manifestations, than any other god. As Ipalnemoani (“Life-giver”), Tloque nahuaque (“He who is near to things/is everywhere”), or Titlacahua (“We are his servants”) he was an all-powerful entity, described as “invisible and untouchable like the night and the wind”. Nevertheless, he could see everything and everybody through his special mirror and thus control the world. The Mexica believed that he was the god who chose their kings among those eligible to rule.
Probably one of the largest and most important groups of gods, however, represented the forces of nature or especially sacred features of the natural world. Therefore they certainly did live in, or were the mountains and valleys, lakes and springs. In fact, together they made up the cosmos, and the landscape of the terrestrial plain. All nevertheless interacted with one another in order to keep the cycles of time, and of life and death, in constant motion.
Because of their direct associations with water, earth, and sun, this group of gods were of primary importance in the cultivation of maize. As a result, they were the gods who were most worshipped in secret after the conquest.
Although the Spaniards introduced wheat and other European foodstuffs into the colony, these served principally to satisfy their own alimentary preferences. For the greater part of the native population maize remained the staple and because it was unknown in Europe its mode of cultivation did not change. Neither, of course, did the climate and the type of terrain needed to cultivate it.
The species of maize traditionally grown in Mexico is dependent on a series of important stages of cultivation that have to be timed perfectly in order to take advantage of Mexico’s usually predictable climate of dry and rainy seasons. An ideal cycle would see the seeds sown at the end of the dry season when the early, light rains offer enough moisture to germinate them without the soil becoming waterlogged. Once the young plants are established, the rainy season proper provides them with enough daily water and periods of sunshine in between to grow into mature plants, at which point the young maize cobs are born and begin to swell.
As the rainy season starts to draw to a close, the fully grown cobs are able to ripen in the considerably warmer sunshine of the incoming dry season, until they are ready to be harvested. Although other considerations are made to protect the maize fields (from rodents and birds, for example), a successful harvest depends mainly on the regularity of weather conditions, from the beginning of the cycle to its end. If the rainy season is late, the young plants might dry up and die. If the rainy season continues into the period of ripening, the cobs will rot. Sudden frosts are another constant hazard.
Translated into the religious belief system of Mexico’s traditional communities at the time of the conquest and after, this means that a successful harvest depended on the benevolence of the gods. Together they were the earth, the rain, and the sunshine. A successful crop also depended on the calendar (another gift of the gods) so that each stage of the cycle could be coordinated properly, in terms of work in the fields and rituals to the gods to ask and thank them for favourable outcomes.
Among the many gods directly concerned with the maize cycle, we find, for example, Cihuacoatl (“woman-serpent”), an earth goddess who, among other things, presided over the dry, barren months before the rainy season opened (Pic 12). She was an old goddess, with a skull-like face that symbolised death in the sense that her body could no longer give birth to new life in the form of food. However, with the coming of the spring rains she was replaced by a younger earth goddess who would oversee the renewed fertility of the earth so that the young maize seeds could start to grow.
Tlaloc, the supreme rain deity, was especially venerated because nothing can live or grow without water. In addition to his strange face, he was usually depicted in the codices carrying a staff in the form of a winding serpent (see Pic 1). This represented lightning, a natural element closely associated with rain and which Tlaloc also took command of. The god employed a large group of messengers, called tlaloque (“tlalocs”) who guarded the rainwater as it soaked into the mountains, releasing it into rivers, pools, or springs when it was requested, for domestic or irrigation purposes. But the tlaloque also flew over the fields watering the plants at the right stages of growth, with rain of the right type and in the right quantities (Pic 13). Tlaloc’s consort [wife] was Chalchiuhtlicue (“Jade Skirts”), the goddess of terrestrial waters such as rivers, pools and lakes. It was she who “gave birth” to the water accumulated inside mountains and was therefore also a mountain.
However, if the rain and water deities were not prayed to properly — or not prayed to at all — by their human subjects, they could become angry and call out the destructive forces of rain: a violent storm, for example, or no rain at all. In the Fejérváry screenfold (one of the very few “ritual manuals” to have survived the conquest) we see Tlaloc gently supporting a humanised maize plant growing from a turquoise soil with black grains (Pic 14). This means that the earth is moist but firm and the maize plant will prosper. In front of both figures is a recipient containing burning incense. Tlaloc is obviously pleased with the offering. However, in another panel from the same codex we see Chalchiuhtlicue roughly pushing over another humanised maize plant in a field that she has flooded (Pic 15). From the goddess’s head extends a third hand which she uses to extinguish the incense offering!
The reason there were so many rain gods is because each of them represented a different type of watery precipitation or watery deposit. The same is true of the earth and sun gods. How many kinds of rain, water deposits, soil types, and sunshine can you think of, and if you were a maize farmer which of them would you prefer to visit your fields?
Tlaloc’s name, which roughly translates as “extended over earth”, indicates that he was also associated with the earth deities. Descriptions of the representation of Tlaloc at Tenochtitlan state that it was filled with all the seeds of the land because he was the god of the sown fields. This reminds us of the mythical mountain of sustenance that was broken open by the gods after the creation, which also contained all the seeds of all the foods humans needed to survive. It was subsequently guarded by the tlaloque who distributed them as and when needed. In fact, from a description of a special shrine to Tlaloc located on top of a mountain named after him, we understand that he and his messengers were also understood to be mountains. In short, all the tlalocs together were rain gods and agrarian gods, possibly the general overseers of the cultivation process from germination of the seeds to harvest. They were also a part of an unchanging landscape, taking the form of sacred mountains that are still worshipped today and specially thanked at harvest time.
The creator gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca also intervened in the cultivation of crops and in the examples that follow we can see how they were understood to interact with the other gods. One of Quetzalcoatl’s very important manifestations [roles] was as Ehecatl, god of the Wind. He is always recognisable in this role for he wears a, usually red, elongated mask rather like a beak over his mouth and nose. Sometimes a small curved fang appears at the corner of the mouth; in other depictions, the “beak” is seen to be full of sharp teeth. We are not sure what the mask represents but it is Ehecatl’s personal trademark. Another of his characteristics, which he shares with Quetzalcoatl the civiliser, is a conical hat made of jaguar skin. Ehecatl represented the wind that precedes the rain, and therefore worked with Tlaloc.
In another of his many manifestations, Tezcatlipoca took the form of a mountain god by name of Tepeyollotl (“Mountain Heart”) (Pic 18). He was likened to the jaguar, a creature of the dark (like the inside of mountains) whose roar was the thunder as it echoed around the mountains and valleys. As such, he was also related to Tlaloc who, in addition to his serpent lightning staff, also often wears a jaguar-head helmet (see Pic 1). As a herald of the rain, most specifically a thunderstorm, Tepeyollotl was also related to Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl, as reflected in the Wind deity’s jaguar skin hat.
Due to its importance as the basic foodstuff of the native peoples, the maize plant was a god in its own right, but was divided up into a series of different deities that embodied the main parts of the plant and its stages of growth. Important examples might be Xilonen, the young maize goddess who was present in the plant as the tiny cobs (in Nahuatl, xilotl) started to sprout (Pic 19). As the cobs swelled and started to ripen, the older maize goddess Chicomecoatl (“Seven Serpent”) took over (Pic 20). Her name echoes the positive and negative sides of her nature. A maize plant carrying seven cobs was considered to be the sign of an abundant harvest. However, she could also allow the ripened cobs to be “bitten” by her serpents, that is, attacked by frost. In some images of goddess she is seen holding a pointed object with jagged sides that may well represent frost. Finally, when harvest time arrived, Cinteotl (“Maize Cob God”) would appear. As his name indicates he was the maize cob itself, the source of human survival.
The above descriptions of the gods [see main article] and the ways in which they participated in the life of the Mexica and their contemporaries serve to emphasise just how important the gods were and how traumatic it must have been to be told to abandon them. But it was not just a case of abandoning the old gods and accepting the Christian god in their place. The gods, their actions, and their personal attributes represented the accumulated knowledge of the Indian world. In the case of food cultivation, their acknowledged presence, their interaction one with the other, and the carefully coordinated rituals that timed each stage of the maize cycle were actually part of the “science” or “technology” of growing maize. For this reason alone, these particular gods and their rituals continued to play a vital role after the conquest.
It is difficult to know what happened to the gods in later times. It seems very possible that “parts of them” were absorbed into the Catholic faith, either through the attempts of the missionaries to facilitate the conversion by offering Christian parallels, or the efforts of the Indians to keep them as their own gods under different names. Eventually, in the syncretic [mixed] religion still practiced by many traditional communities today, they became one and the same entity. For example, the invisible and untouchable Tezcatlipoca in his role as “Life-Giver” and “He Who Is Everywhere” came to be fused with the Christian god, as can be seen in the Indians’ devotional song-poems composed after the conquest where Icelteotl (“Only Spirit”, that is the Christian god) and Tloque nahuaque are often called on together in the same sentence.
What may be an early painting of Tezcatlipoca-God can be found on the ceiling of a sixteenth-century church in central Mexico, in the form of a beautifully plumed, speaking eagle with a circular object hanging from its neck (Pic 2). It is so high up (in “heaven”?) and so well camouflaged among others paintings (invisible and untouchable?) that it is very difficult to see unless you know where to look. A few scholars have noticed the similarities between this painting and an image of Tezcatlipoca in the Borbonicus screenfold.
The gods of the natural forces are still present, of course, for those forces will always exist. In some communities their names (or similar names) have been retained. Elsewhere, and while it is clear that they are still being called on and thanked, they are not so easy to identify. Some of them did come to be recognised in Christian concepts. For example, in the sixteenth century the tlaloque were already being identified with angels, a belief that still holds today. As noted earlier, the dates of special rituals in honour of these gods, together with the important stages of the maize cycle, were also woven into the Catholic calendar and this system is still in use today. However, this does not necessarily mean that the same gods are being worshipped. Some of their roles and powers may originally have been transferred to other Christian figures. All the saints also have their own histories, features and symbols, some of them drawn directly from the natural world, and these were widely introduced to and spread among the Indians in the sixteenth century and beyond. This would have provided an open door for making matches or associations. However, over the centuries a particular native god and a saint may have become the same entity that is now impossible to distinguish as being either one or the other.
None of this means that Mexico’s indigenous groups still consciously cling to their old religious beliefs or are trying to hide them behind a Christian curtain. Most traditional communities who participate in this form of mixed worship today believe very firmly that they are following good Catholic practices. They would probably be very angry if somebody suggested they might still be worshipping their old gods.