Arts Curriculum

Gods and Rituals

Gods and Rituals

Dead warrior brazier. Aztec, ca. 1500. Fired clay and paint, 91 x 76 x 57.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Virreinato, INAH, Tepotzotlán 10-133646. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

The Aztecs had hundreds of different gods and goddesses—one for every aspect of their lives. The various deities were believed to exert immense power and influence over everything people did and, as a result, were worshipped devoutly by all levels of society, both at domestic shrines and also in elaborate public rituals. These ceremonies, led by priests who often “became” gods during the ceremony, were highly theatrical and dramatic affairs, integrating festive dancing in fantastic costumes with bloody human sacrifice, which was thought to be necessary to continue and keep in balance the cycle of life and death.

Underlying Aztec religious beliefs was the Legend of the Suns, the explanation of the origin of the universe. According to legend, the universe had been created and destroyed four previous times, and each creation formed an age called a “sun.” The fifth epoch began in darkness. The gods gathered at Teotihuacan, and two of them sacrificed themselves by jumping into a fire and rising as the sun and the moon. The remaining gods then sacrificed themselves, their blood setting the sun and moon in motion. From then on, the daily movement of the sun, and therefore the continuation of life itself, depended on the nourishment of the gods with human blood.

Although Aztec deities can be broadly divided into male and female, those of life and death, and those of creation and destruction, they were far more complex than being either purely good or evil. Many were dual in nature, incorporating a particular quality, gender or role, with its opposite. This duality (double nature) reflected one of the dominant principles of Aztec religion and thought: that the cosmos was organized into binary opposites, such as night and day, fire and water, cold and heat.

In many ways, Aztec gods and goddesses were just like ordinary men and women. They each had their own personality and well-defined role. Humans impersonated the gods at religious ceremonies, becoming them for that time. Because the gods could transform themselves into earthly forms, almost everything was considered divine, from the lowliest insect to the largest mountain. Among the Aztec gods and goddesses was a supreme deity called Ometeotl (“two god”), who, as both female and male, was the embodiment of the Aztec idea of duality and was responsible for creating both humans and gods.

The Aztecs had no concept of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment. Instead, they envisioned the cosmos as divided into layers, both above and below the earth, each of which received people who had died a particular death. If you had died by drowning or been struck by lightning, for example, you ended up on the celestial (heavenly) plane governed by Tlaloc, the rain god. The nine levels beneath the earth, collectively known as Mictlan (the underworld), were less welcoming and were where the majority of Aztecs went when they died. Although it wasn’t quite as grim as the Christian concept of hell, the people banished here had to brave such hazards as clashing mountains and flying knives made from obsidian, a black volcanic glass that is so hard and sharp that the Aztecs used it to make swords.

In Aztec art, deities can be identified through a standard set of accoutrements, including dress, headwear, face markings, jewelry, or ornamentation, and other accessories such as weapons. Tezcatlipoca, for example, an ancient Mexican sorcerer and the god of night and destiny, is generally depicted with a black band across his nose and face and a withered foot that ends in a mirror made of obsidian. Tezcatlipoca’s name actually means “smoking mirror” and it was said that, with this instrument, he could see and control what was happening throughout the universe.

Dead Warrior Brazier

This ceremonial brazier, or fire pot, was discovered during the construction of the Metro in Mexico City, near where the Templo Mayor had previously stood. It depicts the fiercely expressive form of a warrior crossing the threshold of death, either killed in battle or sacrificed to the gods. Such a death was honorable and the souls of dead warriors went to their own celestial plane, where they were thought to accompany the sun on its daily path across the sky. The figure wears an enormous eagle helmet with an open beak, identified with eagle warriors, one of the most distinguished military orders that could be awarded to a brave Aztec fighter. The black, red, and yellow decoration and facial paint identify him as a patron of youthful energy and military victory, while the “halo of nine feathers” around the upper part of his face evokes the planes of the underworld. Like many other Aztec sculptures (and many buildings), this brazier would have been lit during religious ceremonies.

Dead warrior brazier. Aztec, ca. 1500. Fired clay and paint, 91 x 76 x 57.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Virreinato, INAH, Tepotzotlán 10-133646. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

  • Which characteristics of this sculpture seem warrior-like? How would you depict a brave warrior who had been killed in a battle?
  • Compare this figure with the other eagle warrior pictured in this guide. In what ways do people today honor the memory of those who have been killed in war?
Dead warrior brazier. Aztec, ca. 1500. Fired clay and paint, 91 x 76 x 57.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Virreinato, INAH, Tepotzotlán 10-133646. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

The exhibition contains many examples of vessels decorated with images of gods and people. With self-hardening clay create a vessel adorned with a personage. When dry, paint can be applied. Remember that self-hardening clay can never be used as a container for food.

Visual Arts