What Was Aztec Religion Like?

polytheistic religion noted for worship of hundreds of deities

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Aztec, Mesoamerica’s last great civilization, arose in the 15th century. Much of its culture stood out from other Mesoamerican peoples. How was Aztec religion structured?

A drawing of Tezcatlipoca, one of the deities described in the Codex Borgia
The drawing of Tezcatlipoca portrays one of the deities described in the Codex Borgian, an Aztec manuscript. Photo by Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Aztec Empire was officially formed in 1428 with the unification of three city-states: Tlacopan, Texcoco, and Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had their own culture, which was an amalgam of original elements and those borrowed from their predecessors and neighbors. Aztec religion was no different; it overlaps with several other cultures’ religions, such as the Mayans.

A new exhibit at Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City opened recently, focusing on artifacts celebrating the Aztec lunar goddess Coyolxauhqui, who is just one of over 200 known deities in Aztec life. In his video series Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center, reveals more about the religious beliefs of the Aztecs.

Did Aztecs Believe in Heaven?

“Ancestor worship, so core to Maya religion, was apparently not an Aztec practice,” Dr. Barnhart said. “Their dead souls could go up or down. Most of them went down, to a place called Mictlan.”

According to Dr. Barnhart, Mictlan has nine levels. Souls traversed each level to get to the bottom, though they faced perilous trials along the way. They ran from jaguars, avoided lava, and crossed rivers on their journey. If and when those souls reached the bottom, they would be ruled over by Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan, and other lesser gods of the underworld.

“Aztec Heaven had 13 different levels,” Dr. Barnhart said. “Warriors who died in battle or sacrifice got to go up there and accompany the Sun through its daily route. Women who died in childbirth also got to accompany the Sun [while] drowning victims went to a special place called Tlalocan. It was a paradise.”

Additionally, none of the souls that went to the Aztec afterlife ever returned. This aspect is a notable departure from Maya religion, in which the souls of ancestors are essentially used as liaisons to the gods.

Who Are the Main Aztec Gods?

Of the many documented gods of the Aztec religion, the most famous is Quetzalcoatl, who is most commonly associated with knowledge and wisdom. Another is Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and sacrifice.

“Another is named Tezcatlipoca; Aztecs say he came from the Toltecs,” Dr. Barnhart said. “He has a strong connection to Maya’s Kahuil, because if you look at him, he’s got a mirror on his right foot, just like the snake of Kahuil. Both of them are symbols of viewing into another world.”

Tezcatlipoca is seen in many ways by many different people. Some say he is the god of night and sorcery, while to others he is associated with conflict and even hurricanes. Nevertheless, he is one of the main gods of the Aztecs, alongside Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Tlaloc—the gods of rain, earthly fertility, and water.

“Chronicles record hundreds of gods,” Dr. Barnhart said. “But there’s a concept of aspects of different gods that may be the root of our misunderstanding. Each god has many aspects. For example, there’s a god called Ehecatl, the wind god, but he’s actually an aspect of the primary god Quetzalcoatl. So, in my opinion, we probably actually have many less than those hundreds of gods.”

Dr. Barnhart said this is a mystery we may never fully unravel, but with a study of exhibits like those featured at Museo del Templo Mayor, we could get closer.

Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily