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5-08-2015, 20:49


Almost all aspects of the Aztecs’ culture revolved around pleasing their gods and following rituals to assure good health, harvest, and prosperity. The Aztecs developed a world of myths, symbols, and signs that followed a strict schedule of feasts, sacrifices,

Masks of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, decorate the side of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in Teotihuacan.

pilgrimages, and ceremonies. It became their rhythm of life, marking the changing seasons and the passage of time.


The Aztecs practiced polytheism, meaning they worshiped many gods. Some gods belonged to certain communities. After conquering new cities, the Aztecs adopted these different gods into their main religion and ceremonial cycle. This was one way to link the peoples of the Aztec empire. All gods had ties to nature, from the waters and rain to fire and the sun. The Aztecs believed the gods controlled every part of their lives.

Although the Aztecs had many gods, some gods held a higher status within their mythology. Tezcatlipoca, or Smoking Mirror, was a very powerful god linked with the powers of destiny and fate, war, and sorcery. Quetzalcoatl, or Plumed Serpent, was the patron of priests and the god of life and who created humans. Another very important god was Huitzilopochtli, or Turquoise Prince, the sun and war god who was often shown as a hummingbird. The Aztecs believed this god needed to be nourished each day with human blood. Tlaloc was the rain god, who could make droughts and famine happen or provide the people with rain for bountiful harvests.

The Aztecs also believed in a layered system of heavens and underworlds. Thirteen layers made up the heavens, with the god Ometeotl ruling over the universe. The sun, moon, stars, comets, and winds occupied lower heavens. The earth sat in between the heavens and underworlds. Below the earth were nine underworlds. Souls had to pass through the layers to reach their final resting place.


Since religion was so important to the Aztecs’ culture, Aztec priests held positions of power with great responsibility.

A massive statue of Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, is on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Priests came from all social classes, but the highest priests had noble blood. They directed all religious ceremonies and festivals, influenced the arts and literature, and governed the schools. They also vowed to be celibate and kept their hair long and matted with blood. Their skin was marked with cuts made in offerings to the gods.

The Five Suns

The Aztecs believed Earth experienced five ages of destruction and rebirth. They called each age a “sun.” The myth of the five ages was recorded on the Stone of the Five Suns and in the Codex Chimalpopoca.

The first age was called four jaguar. This was a time when giants walked the earth. They did not farm or grow maize but ate fruits and roots. The age ended when a jaguar killed and ate all of the giants. The second age was called four wind. The imperfect humans of the time turned into monkeys when a fierce wind swept over the earth. The third age, called

four rain, ended with a rain of fire, and its people died or were changed into birds. Rain dominated the fourth age, called four water, and its people were turned into fish. The fifth age is the current age, called four movements. The sun, moon, and humans came into existence at the beginning of this age. Aztec prophecy predicts this fifth age will end with earthquakes.

To create humans, Quetzalcoatl descended to the underworlds. He found the bones of different imperfect humans and crushed them. Then the god sprinkled his blood on the crushed bones. This act created the perfect human beings of the Aztec culture.

Venus and Astronomy

To make their intricate and accurate calendars, Aztec priests studied the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Venus was the most important planet to the Aztecs. They believed it was a symbol of Quetzalcoatl. When it was shining at night, Aztecs feared its rays, believing they projected illness or death upon those who watched it.

There were also priest-warriors, who carried religious icons into battle. Some lower priests served as codex painters and scribes. They studied astronomy and interpreted Aztec almanacs. Other priests predicted the future or interpreted visions caused by certain hallucinogenic plants. Some priests served as wise men and teachers who read and owned books and were leaders. Although the Aztec priesthood was mostly male dominated, there were some female priests who served in the earth goddess cults and performed duties related to maize goddesses.


Blood and human sacrifice was an integral part of Aztec religion, and almost every important ritual involved a human sacrifice. The Aztecs believed the gods needed to be nourished and repaid for creating the earth and the sun with offerings of blood and the life energy of humans. They thought this gave the gods the energy to continue the natural cycles on which the Aztecs depended, such as the seasonal cycles and the sunrise each morning.

An alternative to sacrifice was bloodletting. Aztecs would cut their ears or legs to offer their blood to the gods.

Scholars believe between several hundred and several thousand men were sacrificed in Tenochtitlan each year.1 The need for these sacrifices drove the military into battle, which expanded the empire as well. Captured enemy warriors became the ideal sacrifices for upcoming rituals. Other

sacrificial victims were chosen and trained to impersonate certain gods as part of a ritual. They lived as the gods for a time and were later sacrificed. Sometimes babies, children, and women were also sacrificed for specific rituals, although mostly warriors were killed. After the sacrifice, the skulls of the victims were publicly displayed on skull racks near the temples.


The Aztec calendar organized time and dictated the rituals of Aztec life. Daily life, festivals, and large-scale events all followed the calendar. An important ceremony marked each month, and citizens had duties to prepare for each one.

A young, handsome captured warrior was chosen each year to be the sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca during the month of Toxcatl, the dry season. The man was trained to play the flute, sing, arrange flowers, and speak and act as the deity. He lived in luxury for a year and was treated as if he were a god. During the last 20 days of his life, the young man was given four wives. The wives symbolized the

goddesses of love, corn, salt, and water. Together they represented the five parts of the universe.

On the day of the sacrifice, the man climbed to the top of the temple dedicated to this ceremony. The priests cut out his heart and raised it up in an offering to the sun. Then they cut off his head, removed its contents, and hung the skull on a skull rack for public display.

The Aztecs had two calendar systems. One was the tonalpohualli, which marked a 260-day cycle. This calendar, which was separated into 20 groups with named and numbered days, was used as a sacred and divine almanac. One part of the cycle had names, such as rabbit or jaguar, while a second part of this cycle was numbered from one to thirteen. Both calendars were marked on rotating disks, which aligned to show the corresponding name and number for each day. Priests used pictographs to record the counts of these days and their corresponding ceremonies and rituals.

Aztec Calendar Stone

Buried by the Spanish after the fall of the Aztec Empire, an Aztec calendar stone was uncovered in 1790 in Mexico City. The images on the stone depict the Aztec calendar. At the middle of the stone is the face of the Aztec sun god. Four panels around the god’s face show the four previous ages of the Aztec world, part of the culture’s creation myth. Around the four panels is a circle of symbols that represent the 20 days of the Aztec month.

The tonalpohualli calendar was recorded on amatl screen-fold books, called tonalamatl.

The second calendar was called the xiuhpohualli.

It had 365 days per year and was divided into 18 months of 20 days each. This calendar recorded annual festivals and events. There was also a five-day period called nemontemi at the end of each year Aztecs believed to be a very dangerous and unlucky time. These five days did not belong to a month. The Aztecs stayed in their homes and did not cook over fires in order to stay hidden from the attention of bad spirits. Each xiuhpohualli year took its name from the tonalpohualli day on which it began and a number from one to thirteen. Because of the way the calendars intersect, there were four possible names: rabbit, reed, flint knife, or house.

The years had a 52-year cycle before the year-number names were repeated. The end of an old and beginning of a new cycle was a very important event in Aztec society.

Each month was dedicated to a ritual. These rituals fell into three main categories. One type focused on mountains and water and ensured the rains fell. Another type was for fertility and abundant harvests. These ceremonies were done for the sun, earth, and maize. The third type celebrated and honored certain gods. Other rituals did not follow the calendar. They were performed for certain life events, such as death, marriage, and birth. These rituals were celebrated with feasts, dancing, music, and pageantry.


The sites where many Aztec rituals took place were of great importance. In addition to providing a main place of worship, temples were the hearts of Aztec cities. They sat on pyramids that rose high above the cities, like mountains, inspiring awe and

The Aztecs gathered in temples, such as the Temple of the Sun, to worship their gods.

reverence. Long, steep staircases lined the sides, and sacrifices were often performed at their summits.

Many sacred places existed outside of cities as well. Mountains and hills were sacred places because they provided water. Caves were also considered to be sacred sites. The Aztecs believed caves were the entrances to the underworlds. Temples and shrines were often built for worship and ceremonies at these sacred Aztec sites.

Mountains of Life

Two mountains were sacred places for rainmaking rituals in the ancient Aztec world—Mount Tlaloc and the Hill of Tetzcotzingo. Both mountains rise near the city of Texcoco. The temple atop Mount Tlaloc’s summit sits at 13,000 feet (4,000 m).2 A long corridor leads to a rectangular temple, both with walls that once stood 10 feet (3 m) tall. Spanish texts explain the temple was a place of pilgrimage. Aztecs visited the temple in April or May of each year to perform a ceremony that was meant to

summon the rains. Inside the temple was a thatched wooden structure with different stone idols.

The ritual Hill of Tetzcotzingo was designed to align with the cosmos. A walkway below the summit leads to four ritual baths cut into the rock at northern, southern, eastern, and western points. Aqueducts supplied the baths with water, which was used to purify visitors. Shrines were placed around the hill. At the summit is the Tlaloc mask—a carved boulder showing the image of the rain god Tlaloc.