Mesoamerican or Aztec Beliefs About Creation and the First People
Mosaic Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli
Fire god Xiuhtecuhtli - Close up of The Codex Fejervary-Mayer, 15th century.
What Did the Aztec People Believe about Creation?
The ancient Aztecs are no different than so many other people groups that long ago, wondered about their own origins. For these people, they made sense of things by looking at the four cardinal directions. They thought there was a central anchoring point. This point was likely the Great Pyramid in Tenochtitlan, which they thought was the center of the Earth. From that point, they believed the four directions spread out in a vast and flat expanse. The four directions are of course the north, south, east, and west and each one was associated with an "age." Thus, they believed in four "suns" or ages.
The creator of this world, and thus the four directions, or ages, was named Ometeotl. This god was both male and female and gave birth to the Tezcatlipocas, or North, South, East, and West. From this same god, came all the rest of the world and all other deities. At some point, light was to be given to humans. In order to do this, each god in the different age, had to sacrifice themselves. The first one, did so with fire.
Tezcatlipoca - The North
The first age for the Aztecs was associated with Tezcatlipoca, or the north. According to one account, the world at this time was inhabited by giants. This world came to an end when the giants were devoured by jaguars.
Quetzalcoatl - The West
This age was controlled by Quetzalcoatl, and linked to the west. The earth was populated with humans at this time, and the world once again came to an end. It ended because of hurricanes and floods. As the story goes, the survivors of these catastrophes fled to the tops of trees and were then transformed into other creatures, perhaps monkeys.
Tlaloc - The South
Tlaloc was a rain god, and he governed the south. The people who lived in this world or during this time frame ate what is called "aquatic seeds." The world or time for this age came to an end when Quetzalcoatl caused it to rain both fire and ashes. Many people died, but the survivors transformed into birds. The others were supposedly replaced by other animals.
Chalchiuhtlicue - The East
Chalchiuhtlicue was connected to the east. Chalchiutlicue was Tlaloc's consort. A similar account says that Chalchiuhtlicue was sister and wife to Tlaloc. What marked the end of this world, was a great flood and people were then transformed into fish.
There is a further version of how this part of mythological story ends. Evidently many gods gathered at Teotihuacan, and the topic for discussion was who would sacrifice himself or herself in order for a new world to begin. There was an old fire god named Huehueteotl, and he was happy to start the sacrificial bonfire, but not to be the sacrifice. Evidently, the god named Nanahuatzin did have enough courage to jump into the sacrificial flames, and upon doing so, became the new sun.
Xiuhtecuhtli - The Fifth "Sun" or Age
This was the contemporary age, and was linked to the center. The number of the center is five. This area was under the control of the fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli. This is the one depicted in the photos here, both the mask, and the images on the codex.
I came across a different version of this "age", and also wanted to share it here. It agreed that it was the current age, the age in which the Aztecs lived. It said it was ruled however, by Tonatiuh. Tonatiuh was the ruling god. I am less sure of this however, as the codex shows the god, Xiuhtecuhtli in the center of the fifth age.
It is said that the Aztecs considered themselves the people of the sun. They believed it was their duty, in part, to nourish this sun god through blood offerings and sacrifices. Some believed that to fail to do this, would cause the end of the world, the end of the sun. There are some that say this world is characterized also by a sign called Ollin. Ollin means movement, and it was indicated somewhere along the way that this world would end through earthquakes. I thought that to be rather interesting as well.
The earth was flat, in ancient Aztec cosmology. This flat earth had thirteen layers rising up out of it. It was thirteen layers of heaven. It was here, that Ometeotl lived. The Aztecs thought Ometeotl was the supreme creator of all.
Beneath this same flat earth, there are nine layers of the underworld. They called this Mictlan, which was presided over by Mictlantecuhtli. He was the god of that realm. He had a consort, or Mictecacihuatl.
There are some accounts, where water encircled everything. In fact, the waters encircled the whole earth, even the farthest reaches in each direction, north, south, east, and west. Then it curved up above the land itself, to make the sky. They believed the gods could decree that the sky waters could fall down, or come down to wipe out all men and all their achievements in one huge flood. I found that to be rather interesting.
The Four Pillars, or Trees
In this Mesoamerican universe, there stood four pillars or trees. These trees both supported and connected the three different levels of the cosmos, the flat earth, the heavens, and the underworld. Of interest also, is that there is a fifth tree in the middle. It was said that the roots reached deep down into the underworld. At the same time, the uppermost branches reached high into the heavens.
It is not uncommon when looking at the history of these different people groups, to see how much trees meant to them. There were depictions of world trees found in many different cultures actually. They are filled with meaning in directional and central aspects as we saw here. The cultures this occurs with include the Maya, Olmec, Aztec, Izapan, and Mixtec. There are more as well and can be seen in their art and mythological traditions. They date to at least the middle to late formative periods of Mesoamerican chronology.
I find learning about other cultures to be fascinating. They didn't have much to go with, but their beliefs were very strong. Their understanding helped them to make sense of their world as they knew it. For them, it was enough, and what had been revealed to them at that time. I think its wonderful that we able to learn about these far distant cultures, even though it can sometimes be a bit strange or even sad at times. To them, I am sure it wasn't so awful, but a way of life and survival.