Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Religion, Gods and Goddesses

By a people's conceptions of a future state many have often presumed to judge of their advance towards, or into, civilization. The Mexicans vaguely worshipped a Supreme Being, invisible and unchangeable, whom they called Teotl, or God; him they feared, though they regarded him as a friend of mankind.

The great enemy of man they considered to be an evil spirit, whom they called Tlacatecotototl, or the "Rational Owl." Instead of regarding the owl as the symbol of wisdom, as did the Greeks, they made it the personification of evil and dark deeds. They believed the soul to be immortal. Soldiers who were killed in battle, or slain in captivity, and the spirits of women who died in childbirth, went at once to the house of the sun, whom they considered as the "Prince of Glory," where they led a life of endless delight; "where, every day, at the first appearance of the sun's rays, they hailed his birth with rejoicings, and with dancing, and the music of instruments and voices, attended him to his meridian; there they met the souls of the women, and with the same festivity accompanied him to his setting. After four years, these spirits went to animate the clouds, and birds of beautiful feathers and sweet song; but always at liberty to rise again to heaven, or to descend upon the earth to warble and suck the flowers."

The souls of the wicked departed to a place of utter darkness, called Mictlan, or hell, where it seems they underwent no other punishment than that of being deprived of light.

Had the Mexicans been content with worshipping only the great and invisible god, Teotl, and in offering him the first-fruits of their fields and gardens, all would have been well with them. But from the time that priests arose among them, so-called men of God, dated their woes and miseries. They made idols, which they pretended were images of the deities, and these the people adored—first as the representatives of God; then they lost sight of the Supreme Being, and worshipped the senseless stone.

The greatest god to whom they gave external form, and who ranked next to the invisible God, was Tezcatlipoca, the "Shining Mirror," the master of heaven and earth, the creator of all things. He meted out rewards and punishments; he was ever youthful, ever powerful. It was declared by some that he had descended from heaven by a rope of spider's webs. He it was who drove from the country the great high-priest of Tula, the benevolent Quetzalcoatl (see Chap. II). His image was carved from teotl  (divine stone), like polished black marble; it was ornamented with gold and gems. Stone seats were placed at the corners of the streets for that god to rest on when he came to earth.

Huitzilopochtli, or Mexitti, was the god of war, the "Mexican Mars." He was the deity most highly honored by the Aztecs, to whom they offered most of the terrible sacrifices spoken of in the preceding pages. By referring to the first migration of the Aztecs, you will see that he was created during that journey. He was said by some to have been born of a woman named Coatlicue, whose children prepared to kill her before this last child should be born. They were about putting her to death when Huitzilopochtli sprang at once into existence, fully armed, with a spear in his right hand, a shield on his left arm, a crest of green feathers on his head, and his legs adorned with feathers. He fell upon the would-be murderers with such fury that he soon killed them all; and after that he was known as the "terrible god." It was in his honor that the first temple of Tenochtitlan was built, at the foundation of the city, in 1325, after he had conducted his followers to the spot.

Ometeuctli  and Omecihuatl  were the names of a god and goddess who dwelt in a magnificent city in the heavens, from which they watched over the world and gave to mortals what they asked of them.

Cihuacohuatl, the woman serpent, was believed to have been the first woman in the world that had children, and she always had twins.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


Tonatricli  and Meztli  were deifications of the sun and moon. The pyramids of Teotihuacan were dedicated to them; and of this place, and the primitive people once assembled there, they relate a pretty fable. It seems that after the first great deluge there sprang sixteen hundred heroes, from a flint Hung from heaven. These were at that time the only men on earth, and they prayed their mother, Omecihuatl, to create men to serve them. She directed them to go down to Mictlan  and ask of the god of hell, Mictlanteuctli, some bones of men that had died; these they were to sprinkle with their own blood, and from them men and women would be created who would afterwards multiply. One of the heroes, Xolotl, went down to hell and begged a thigh-bone of old Mictlanteuctli, who gave it to him, but, when Xolotl turned and ran with it, pursued him in a rage. Xolotl escaped with it to his brothers, but in his haste fell and broke the bone. This is the reason why mankind are of different sizes, owing to their origin from different fragments.

There was no sun in those days, it having been extinguished in the great catastrophe. They assembled around a great fire in Teotihuacan and danced about it, and they told their servants that the one who would sacrifice himself by casting himself into the flames should become a sun. At this, an intrepid man named Nanahuatzin  threw himself into the fire. True to the prediction, at the appointed time the sun rose in the east, but he had hardly emerged above the horizon when he stopped. The heroes sent a polite message, asking that he would continue on his way up the sky, as a well-behaved sun ought to do. The sun replied that he would not stir a peg until they were all put to death. One of the heroes named Citli  then shot an arrow at the sun, which the luminary escaped by dodging; but at the third arrow he got enraged and cast it back, fixing it in the forehead of Citli, who fell dead. Then the brothers all fell upon one another and perished, the last one, dying by his own hand, being Xolotl. The god, Tezcatlpoca, seeing the men, now without masters, very sad, directed one of them to go to the house of the sun and bring music to celebrate the festival, and in order that he might do so he created a bridge of whales and tortoises, over which he crossed the sea, singing a song the god had given him.

This is related as a specimen of a Mexican fable, or tradition, and to show (as they say) whence they first derived the custom of sacrifice, whence they obtained music, songs, and dancing.

Another of the men is said to have followed the example of Nanahuatzin, and threw himself into the fire, hut the flames being less bright, he only became a moon. To him was dedicated the pyramid of the moon, at Teotihuacan, and to Nanahuatzin that of the sun.

Quetzalcoatl was "god of the air" (see pages 39 and 40 for a full description of him), highly reverenced, in portions of Mexico, and by some considered equal with Tezcatlipoca.

Then there was a "god of the water," Tlaloc  (master of paradise), "fertilizer of the earth and protector of the earthly gods." He resided on the summit of the highest mountain, probably the volcano Popocatapetl, where the clouds were formed and whence the streams descended. An image of Tlaloc, the oldest in Mexico, and supposed to have been made by the ancient Toltecs, was found on a mountain by the Chichimecs when they arrived in Anahuac. This image, which was of white stone, was taken away by King Nezahualpilli, and a black one substituted. This was soon struck by lightning, and the priests declaring this to be a punishment from heaven, the ancient white one was replaced, and worshipped till broken by a Spanish bishop, at a general destruction of the gods. Tlaloc had a companion goddess, Chalchihuitlicue, who resided in the storm-clouds.

Xiuhteuctli  was the god of fire, to whom the Mexicans burned incense and offered the first morsel of food and draught at meals by throwing them into the fire.

The great goddess of the Totonacs was Centeotl, worshipped also under the name of Tonantzin, goddess of the earth and corn, who had a temple on the top of a high mountain, and was served by a great number of priests. This goddess of grain was a true Mexican Isis, who presided over the crops, granting bountiful harvests. The Mexicans, who seem to have adopted this deity, alone stained her altars with human blood.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

Gloomiest of the gods was Mictlanteuctli, god of hell, and his awful spouse, Mictlancihuatl  who was believed to dwell in darkness in the interior of the earth.

Joalteuctli  was god of the night; Joalticitl, the goddess of cradles, who watched over children in the darkness of night.

There were several gods of war, besides the great Huitzilopochtli, sort of younger brothers, or adjutants. Every trade had its patron deity, like Jacateuctli, god of commerce and the merchants; Xipe, the god of the goldsmiths, whom no one could neglect to worship without being afflicted with itch and boils; Nappateuctli, god of the mat-weavers, a jolly, generous sort of a god, the best-hearted of the lot. Mixcoatl  was the goddess of hunting; Opochtli  the god of fishing, the inventor of nets and fish-spears. Huixtocihuatl  was the goddess of salt, who had been driven to the bottom of a lake by Tlaloc, and in whose honor the Mexicans committed a barbarous sacrifice yearly. Tzapotlatenan, goddess of physic, invented a very powerful oil called oxitl, and useful drugs. Tezcatzoncatl  was the god of wine, called also, from the effects his beverage produced, "the strangler," and "the drowner." Ixtlilton  was a god of physic; Coatlicue, the goddess of flowers, whose festival was celebrated in the spring months; while Tlazolteotl  was the pardoner of special sins.

Teotionan  was the "mother of the gods," created by the murder and deification of that unfortunate princess in the first years of Aztec national existence.

Finally, there were the little gods (Tepitoton), or house-hold images, of which the kings and great lords had six in their chambers, the nobles four, and the lower people two; besides which they also adorned the corners of the streets.

Those mentioned above are the most noted gods only, for it is believed that there was a god for every day in the year,—even as people of our day, of certain religions, have a saint for every day in the calendar.

Though the most celebrated god in Mexico was Huitzilopochtli;  in Cholula it was Quetzalcoatl;  among the Totonacs, Centeotl;  and among the Otomies it was Mixcoatl.

They were made of clay, and of stone, often of gold, and sometimes of gems. One of the first Spanish missionaries to the Miztecs found one cut from a precious emerald, which, refusing all offers for it, he ground to powder! Many thousands were destroyed by the monks and priests, after the Spanish invasion, but many were preserved and may be seen to-day. In the famous Mexican museum, in the capital of Mexico, you may find the images of Huitzilopochtli, of Tezcatlipoca, Mictlanteuctli, and a host of minor deities, in a good state of preservation. Cast down from his high position at the destruction of the teocalli, Huitzilopochtli lay buried for many years, but was finally exhumed, in the year 1790, and set up in a court of the museum, no longer an object of worship, but of curiosity.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

The Mexicans prayed upon their knees, with their faces toward the east, and performed fasts, penances, and sacrifices like other superstitious nations. We have already mentioned how it was that the Mexicans had so many gods—because they adopted  those of the people they conquered; but besides the temples they erected to them they also had a great, cage-like prison, where they confined  the idols of many conquered nations!

A portion of this chapter will now be devoted to a description of those repulsive sacrifices, without which no important feast or festival was allowed to terminate. Though the plebeian portion of the Mexicans lived upon the poorest and scantiest food, yet everybody feasted and entertained his friends once in a season. As his guests arrived he presented them with flowers and made them welcome to his house.

The Mexican year contained eighteen months of twenty days each, and each month contained at least one festival. The first month (which commenced in February) held the first feast to Tlaloc, in which children were sacrificed and gladiatorial combats ensued, upon the stone for that purpose in the temple-yard. This was previous to planting; but some of the children were reserved for the altars during the months of March and April, to insure the necessary rains for their crops. Xipe, the god of the goldsmiths, demanded the most cruel of all sacrifices, for after the prisoners had been murdered in the customary way, by having their hearts cut out, they were skinned. On this account this festival was called the "feast of the flaying of men." A second feast to Tlaloc was offered in April, at which time the filthy skins of the victims to Xipe (which some writers say had been worn by the priests  during twenty days) were carried to a temple and deposited in a cave. In the mouth of April, also, the flower-traders celebrated in a more pleasing manner the festival of Coatlicue, the goddess of flowers, by offerings of garlands of flowers. In the fourth month occurred the "great watch," when the priests, nobility and people kept strict watch throughout the nights, and did severe penance.

A festival to Centeotl, goddess of maize, also occurred in this month, in which were sacrificed human beings, quails, and other animals. Ears of corn were carried by girls to the temple, and after having been offered to the goddess, were returned to the granaries, that they might, preserve the rest from decay.

The fifth month was nearly wholly given up to festivals, but the principal one was that in honor of Tezcathpoca.  Ten days previous to its arrival, a priest wandered through the streets, sounding a clay flute. "Upon hearing the sound of this flute, all kneeled down; criminals were thrown into the utmost terror and consternation, and with tears implored the god to grant a pardon to their transgressions, and hinder them from being discovered and detected; warriors prayed to him for courage and strength, successful victories, and a multitude of prisoners for sacrifices;" and all the people, using the same ceremony of taking up and eating the dust, supplicated with fervor the clemency of the gods. The idol was newly decorated and adorned, and as the day arrived, a procession was formed, moving towards the temple; young men and girls carried wreaths of maize leaves, and bound them about the head of the idol, while the youths and virgins of the temple, as well as the nobles, carried similar wreaths. After doing penance, by lashing their backs with knotted cords, they made bountiful offerings of gold, gems, flowers, animals, and provisions, all of which finally found their way into the habitations of the priests. Then came the sacrifice of the victim. This god, Tezcatlipoca, did not require a multitude of prisoners to be killed in honor of him; only one. But the circumstances attending the murder of this one were so heartlessly cruel as to cause our sympathies to go out to him as they could not to a thousand others who were killed in a body. He was selected a year before the festival, the finest and bravest of all their prisoners. In company with another young man, selected as the victim to the god of war, he roamed the city at pleasure, but always strongly guarded. He was everywhere reverenced as the living image of that supreme divinity, Tezcatlipoca. Every pleasure of life was allowed him, and twenty days before the festival he was married to four beautiful virgins, who exerted all their arts of pleasing to divert his attention from the terrible fate so shortly to befall him. For five days previous to the festival he was feasted with everything the land produced. On the evening of the last day he dismissed his wives, took leave of everything dear to him on earth, and delivered himself up to be sacrificed. He was stretched upon the sacrificial stone, and his heart torn out by the high priest and offered to Tezcatlipoca.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

The bodies of common victims were usually thrown clown the steps of the temple, but this one was borne tenderly to the bottom of the pyramid and there beheaded, and his skull added to the many thousands adorning the Tzompantti, or temple of skulls. We are told that his arms and legs were dressed and cooked for the tables of the nobles and priests, and it has been often repeated that the children sacrificed to Tlaloc were likewise prepared for the table; but many think there is not sufficient evidence on which to accuse these Aztecs of cannibalism.

Races between the students, dances, offerings to the Idol and a general dismissal from the seminaries of all boys and girls of a marriageable age, terminated the festivities in honor of the great god, Tezcatlipoca. The god of war, Huitzilopochtli, demanded a festival in this month. The priests formed an image of him and bore it about the streets, and a great number of quails were killed and thrown at the foot of the altar. The priests and nobles: encouraged this sort of thing, because it gave them delicious food for their tables sufficient to last many days. Then was sacrificed the companion to the victim of Tezcatlipoca, the young man of perfect shape and bearing, who had been selected a twelvemonth previously. Though he had been for a year recognized as the visible presence of Huitzilopochtli, he had not been adored, as had his companion. Though doomed to die on a certain day, he had been allowed to ramble about the city as he pleased. On the last fatal morning he was dressed in a curious dress of painted paper, and his head adorned with a mitre of eagle feathers; over his shoulder he carried a small net and a bag, and in this costume he danced carelessly with the courtiers. That day was his last; his last hour was to come when he should deliver himself to the cruel priests; when he had done this, his breast was cut open in the arms of one of the priests, and his heart extracted. Dances arid offerings of incense concluded the festival.

In June, in the sixth month, the god Tlaloc had his third and last festival, when the temple was strewn with rushes from one of the lakes. If the barbarous priests met any one on their way to fetch those rushes, they plundered them of all their possessions, beating them unmercifully if they offered resistance. Attended by a great multitude of people, they went out in canoes to a certain portion of the lake, where there was a whirlpool, and there drowned two children. Either in this month, or one of the preceding, they had sacrificed other children by shutting them up in caves, leaving them to starve to death. All this was done at the bidding of the priests, that the god Tlaloc might send them plenteous rains!

The goddess of salt, Huixtocihuatl, claimed a victim in the seventh month, which began the last of June. This time it was a woman. This month was given up to rejoicings; the people went hunting in the mountains, and the nobility exercised the troops and organized flotillas of canoes upon the lakes.

The eighth month fell due upon the middle of July, when a second feast to Centeotl, called now Xilonen, or tender maize, was prepared. The kings and nobles gave away food and chink, and priests and nobles made each other presents. At sunset, on the last day of the feast, occurred a dance of the nobility and the military, with whom danced a female prisoner, who represented the goddess Centeotl, and who was sacrificed with other prisoners as the sun went dot n.

In the ninth month they held a feast to the god of commerce; and in the tenth, that of the god of fire, Xiuhteuctli, when they surpassed all former cruelties by torturing their prisoners with fire. The owners of the prisoners dyed their bodies bright red, to represent the flames, and the night before the horrid sacrifice went with their captives to the temple, where they danced till morning. As the hour arrived, each one took his victim upon his back, and danced about a great fire kindled in the court, into which they threw them, one by one, having previously partially stupefied them by the powder of a certain herb, which they shook in their faces. After the poor wretches were half roasted, they drew them out of the coals and bore them to the sacrificial stone, where the priests completed the hellish work by tearing out their hearts.

In the eleventh month was the festival devoted to Teteoinan  the "mother of the gods." A female prisoner was the principal victim, slain in memory of that princess of Colhuacan who had been elevated to the high position of mother of all the Mexican gods. She was not killed in the usual manner, upon the stone of sacrifice, but was beheaded upon the back of a priest, and then flayed, and the ghastly offering made to the god of war.

This same month was also devoted to the sweeping of the temples, the repairing of the streets, and the mustering into the army of the youth destined for war.

The twelfth month, beginning on the fourth of October, ushered in the great festival attending the coming of the gods—Teotleco. The temples and the corners of the streets were decorated with branches. At the head of the invisible procession was supposed to be Tezcatlipoca, the deity supreme, and before the door of his sanctuary they spread a palm mat, sprinkled with maize meal. During the night certain priests carefully watched this powdered mat, because when the god came he left the imprint of his foot upon it. And it is very interesting to note, that he always came and left his footprint when nobody was about except the priest on watch. Some incredulous people have affirmed that the god did not come at all, but that the mysterious footprint was made by another priest while the sentinel's back was turned. Be this as it may, it always appeared on the night expected, and then the watchman cried out: "Our great god it now arrived!"  and the rest of the priests and the people crowded about the temple to gaze upon the divine token of the god's presence, and to sing hymns of thanks-giving. During the two days following, the rest of the gods came straggling in, and the happy people celebrated their arrival in a fitting manner, by dancing about a great fire and pitching into it such prisoners as they had destined for burnt offerings.

The thirteenth month commenced on the last of October, when they celebrated the feasts of the gods of water and the mountains, making little mountains of paper, serpents of wood, and images out of paste, dancing about them and sacrificing five prisoners, four men and a woman.

On the thirteenth of November commenced the fourteenth month, and the festival of Mixcoatl, goddess of the chase, preceded by four days of fasting and self-torture, when, after making vast quantities of arrows and darts for the royal armory, they repaired to the mountains and indulged in a great hunt, sacrificing the animals they then captured.

In the fifteenth month, which began on the third of December, was the great festival to Huitzilopochtli and his brother, when the priests made two statues of a paste composed of seeds and blood, using as bones pieces of acacia wood. A grand and solemn procession followed these statues out into the suburbs of Mexico, traversing in all a distance of more than ten miles, and sacrificing on the route a great many quails and prisoners. After watching these paste statues in the temple over night, the chief priest, next day, in the presence only of the king and some high officials, threw a dart at the chief statue. It passed through its body and it was then said to be dead, and after the heart had been cut out and given to the king, the body was divided into small portions and given to the people to eat. This being for the giving of strength in time of war, only men and warriors were allowed to eat of it.

On the sixteenth month, beginning in the last of December, was another festival to the gods of the water and mountains, when little figures of the mountains were made of seeds and paste, and eaten by the people.

On the seventeenth month happened the feast of the goddess Tlamateuctli, when another female prisoner was sacrificed, after being allowed to dance to a tune the priests provided, and sing a lament over her unfortunate departure.

The feast of Mictlanteuctli, the god of hell, was celebrated in this month, by the nocturnal sacrificing of prisoners, and another feast, the second, to the god of the merchants.

The first of February finally completed this round of months and horrid festivals with another to the god of fire, when all the fires were extinguished and kindled anew from flame before the altar of that god.

The most solemn of all the festivals was that of the Teoxihuitl, or "divine years," at the commencement of their cycle (as has been explained on pp. 121-3), which fell due on the twenty-sixth of February.

These are the principal festivals, though not all, at which more or less of human blood was shed. Leaving this dark and bloody picture, let us turn to one that exhibits the Aztecs in a brighter aspect.