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Author Topic: Aztec Gods: Huitzilopochtli  (Read 85 times)


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Aztec Gods: Huitzilopochtli
« on: December 06, 2018, 08:32:53 pm »
Aztec Gods 3: Huitzilopochtli

So now we turn to the supreme god of the Mexica. Huitzilopochtli is somewhat different to other gods, in that he definitely originates outside of Mesoamerica. Furthermore, unlike other gods, his worship was limited to the Mexica and a few close allies. Although it was not unusual for individual gods to have a ‘home’ city where they are patron (Quetzalcoatl had Cholula and Tezcatlipoca had Texcoco), they were still generally worshipped throughout the population. Huitzilopochtli was only really worshipped in Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, and a little in Texcoco, and his shrines are absent from other regions. In addition, Huitzilopochtli is a mysterious god, although in a different way to Tezcatlipoca. While Tezcatlipoca is an elusive god, Huitzilopochtli is a controversial one. As the most prominent god of the Mexica, he is often used as an emblem for Mexica imperial and religious practises in general, ignoring what the Mexica themselves thought of him, or how he fitted into their ceremonial life.

Recognising the Gods:
Like Tezcatlipoca, there are few known sculptures of Huitzilopochtli. However, we do have a few descriptions of the god from Conquistadors who saw his idols before Tenochtitlan’s destruction. Cortés was fairly terse in his description, simply describing them as amaranth dough bound and shaped with human blood. Bernal Díaz gives a much richer, less gory description, ‘He had a very broad face and huge terrible eyes. And there were so many precious stones, so much gold, so many pearls and seed-pearls stuck to him with a paste which the natives made from a sort of a root, that his whole body and head were covered with them.’ Díaz goes on to mention a belt of gold and jewel snakes surrounding the body of the idol, and that Huitzilopochtli was equipped with a bow and arrows. It must be noted that this particular idol was in Tlatelolco. Neither Cortés nor Díaz reported seeing the image contained within the Templo Mayor.

Huitzilopochtli was depicted in several texts, such as the Codex Borboniucus, the Codex Telleriano-Remensis, and of course, the Florentine Codex. He is often recognisable by his Xiuhcoatl, a fire serpent, which he wields. I think that it is intended to represent an atlatl, a type of spear thrower. He also carries a shield to which several darts have been affixed (explaining the atlatl). Lastly, Huitzilopochtli often wears a tall headdress. Occasionally Huitzilopochtli carries the iconography of other gods, such as Tezcatlipoca’s obsidian mirror. This is not unusual for Mesoamerican gods. However, Huitzilopochtli is unique in that only he seems to be associated with hummingbirds and hummingbird symbols. This makes sense, as a relative newcomer to Central Mexico, people outside of Tenochtitlan may not have been too familiar with his specific iconography and may have avoided using it. As a consequence, Huitzilopochtli is absent from the Tonalpohualli.

The Mexica, much like other people, had the habit of mixing mythology and history. Nowhere is this more evident when discussing Huitzilopochtli. During their long migration into the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica were constantly receiving directions, instructions, and sometimes malicious interference, from Huitzilopochtli. It is of course, unclear exactly how much Huitzilopochtli was actually involved. Huitzilopochtli’s most purely mythological story is that of his birth.

The legend begins with the earth goddess Coatlicue sweeping in a temple compound. She noticed a ball of feathers had blown in, and decided to keep it, hiding the ball in her skirt. Later, she found that the ball had disappeared and that she was now pregnant. Coatlicue had many children already, but when her daughter, Coyolxauhqui discovered her mother’s condition, she became enraged. She summoned her other siblings, known as the 400 southerners, to kill Coatlicue. Coatlicue fled to the mountain Coatepec but was pursued by her children. Yet, as Coyolxauhqui began to ascend the mountain, Huitzilopochtli spoke. He told his mother that he would protect her. Then he burst forth, fully armed and wielding the Xiuhcoatl. Charging down the mountain he butchers Coyolxauhqui, and then pursues and kills all of the 400 southerners. This myth is essentially a cosmic parable. Huitzilopochtli is the sun, his mother the earth. By defeating the moon (Coyolxauhqui) and the starts (the 400 southerners), he ensures that the earth continues to live.

Huitzilopochtli’s quasi-mythic involvement in Mexica history is best described in Chimalpahin and Durán’s accounts. The Mexica originally lived in a place known as Aztlan, which was imagined as an island surrounded by water, until Huitzilopochtli instructed them to leave and head south. The Mexica attempted to settle down several times, but never stayed in one place for very long. One interesting story is Huitzilopochtli’s conflict with yet another sister, Malinalxoch. Huitzilopochtli commands his followers to abandon Malinalxoch saying: ‘what Malinalxoch practices is not my practice. I have come forth from there and been sent hither for this; I have been given the arrow and the shield, for my war is my practice.’ So, he quickly identifies himself as a war god. Later the Mexica settled at Coatepec. At first the war god is pleased, but he soon becomes annoyed, believing that the Mexica have become too comfortable at this place, still too far from their destination. He smashes the settlement, forcing them to move on.
The Mexica drift from place to place until the end up in Chapultepec, where the past catches up to Huitzilopochtli. Copil, son of Malinalxoch, tracks down the war god and challenges him. Suffice to say, Copil gets utterly slaughtered. Huitzilopochtli removes his heart, and casts it into the lake of Mexico. Eventually, after a period of vicious fighting with their neighbours (again caused by Huitzilopochtli), the Mexica were driven onto a small island in Lake Texcoco. There they spotted an eagle eating a tunal fruit from a cactus that had grown over where Copil’s heart lay. This was the sign for where the Mexica were to build their city.

It is difficult to know how much of these chronicles reflect real events. Nevertheless, it is certain that the Mexica belonged to a group of people, known as the Nahua’s, who migrated into Central Mexico after the fall of Tollan. Of course, they were probably already familiar with Mesoamerican culture, but moving into the core of the region transformed them, as well as Mesoamerica itself. The Mexica were simply the last of the major Nahua groups to enter the Valley. The chaos Huitzilopochtli seems to induce is certainly a reflection of the political struggles that the group faced during its migration, both with internal factions and rival nations.

Archaeological excavations at the Templo Mayor indicate that Huitzilopochtli was the patron of Tenochtitlan from its earliest days. This lends credence to the mythical history, making it clear that Huitzilopochtli originated outside of Mesoamerica and was brought in by the Mexica. He remained in this position as both Tenochtitlan and the Templo Mayor grew. With the formation of the Mexica Empire after 1428 he became the source of the Mexica’s spiritual justification for conquest. However, the Mexica made no attempt to introduce Huitzilopochtli to the people they conquered, and so he never became popular in the provinces.

The great feast of Huitzilopochtli was Panquetzaliztli, the Raising of Banners. This ritual involved quite a large sacrificial ritual. Captives were ceremonial bathed, had their bodies painted with blue stripes, and given reed and feather headdresses. After being involved in several dances and other ceremonial activities, the captives were sacrificed by having their hearts removed. The ceremony also involved communal feasting, as the people ate amaranth seed tamales. Mexica priests created an amaranth seed dough figure of Huitzilopochtli. Warriors fought mock battles in the streets using wooden staves and branches. Interestingly, warrior youths were permitted to accost priests they encountered, harassing and even robbing them, which would normally be illegal. Of course, the priests were allowed to retaliate, and could loot warrior houses if they were able to drive off the warriors.

The Mexica also worshipped Huitzilopochtli during Toxcatl. Although most of the celebration was dedicated by the ixiptla of Tezcatlipoca, after his death the worshippers transitioned to honouring Huitzilopochtli. The lords, began by beheading quail (who are considered to be little warriors) and offering the blood to Huitzilopochtli, and the rest of the population followed with their own quail offerings. As with most Mesoamerican ceremonies, incense was offered, though the description found in Sahagún emphasises its role. This began a period of feasting and dancing that lasted until the end of the ceremony.

Attributes and Interpretation:
Huitzilopochtli is not an easy god to interpret because he is easy to misunderstand. Because of the gods violent reputation, he has been blamed for the heavy presence of human sacrifice in Mexica imperial religion. This isn’t really accurate though. First, state-sponsored human sacrifice long predated Huitzilopochtli’s presence in Central Mexico. Second, the Mexica actually had more ceremonies dedicated to Tlaloc than to Huitzilopochtli, even though he was their patron. Lastly, it was Tezcatlipoca, not Huitzilopochtli, who had spiritual authority over the lords. So, who is Huitzilopochtli?

It is fairly obvious that Huitzilopochtli is a solar war god, but it is important to note exactly what that means, and how he differs from other Mesoamerican gods with similar portfolios. Outwardly, Huitzilopochtli bears some resemblance to Tezcatlipoca. Both are war gods and agents of chaos. However, they differ in a few key respects. Obviously, Tezcatlipoca is a shadow god, unlike the shining Huitzilopochtli. Furthermore, Tezcatlipoca is one of the most prominent gods in the Tonalpohualli, while Huitzilopochtli is absent. Tezcatlipoca’s influence is something cosmic, and the chaos a force. On the other hand, Huitzilopochtli only unleashed chaos when his will was, in his mind, being defied. For Huitzilopochtli, chaos is incidental, and is part of his nature as a secondary component of his warrior identity. War is chaotic after all.

Another element missing is any prominent connection to the nobility. Unlike both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli doesn’t seem to be connected to lordship, and he isn’t the patron of the noble class. In the migration legends, he speaks to priests, not a warrior aristocracy. Furthermore, Huitzilopochtli seems to see war as a duty, rather than a fight between an individual and outside forces. He frequently states that he has a specific task or mission to fulfil.

One intriguing aspect of Huitzilopochtli, is that he was also a provider. As a solar god, he was connected to the forces that enabled maize to grow, and his side of the Templo Mayor was found to contain seeds, and even gold replicas of maize. The amaranth dough idols were also very significant. Even his main statue was covered in amaranth seeds. Amaranth would have had an important role in sustaining the Mexica during their long migration and enabled them to survive in harsh conditions. In yet another legend, the Tepenecas, a rival faction in the Valley of Mexico imposed a heavy tribute on them. The Mexica appeal to Huitzilopochtli for help, who responds by giving them the secret of the chinampas. Armed with this form of agriculture, they can meet their tribute obligations and flourish. We must also remember the purpose behind Mexica warfare. They conquered to secure their access to agricultural land and food tribute. Thus, through warfare Huitzilopochtli provided for the people. This also explains why Huitzilopochtli was positioned next to Tlaloc, as the Mexica considered them both essential for sustaining their society, albeit through different methods.

Of course, we cannot overlook Huitzilopochtli’s most important role, as a warrior against the darkness. According to legend, Huitzilopochtli takes the souls of warriors who either died in battle, or were sacrificed to the sun, and fights with them to protect the sun as it travels through the sky. This also gave warriors a spiritual mission, and a reason to commit their lives to the Mesoamerican sacrificial complex beyond the mere material rewards.

Huitzilopochtli approaches war with the values of duty, sacrifice, suffering, and endurance. The rewards he provides are those than benefit the community. He protects the vulnerable and rewards those who give their lives in the service of others. His very first action on earth was to defend his mother from attack. He has no fear of loss and suffering, and expects his followers show the same amount of strength and dedication that he does. Dedication to Huitzilopochtli cut through class in Mexica culture. This makes sense, as the majority of the adult male population had to fight at some point, and many high-ranking military positions were open to individuals regardless of their class. Huitzilopochtli himself even stated: ‘And I shall await and meet people from the four quarters. I shall give them to drink; I shall give them food. Here I shall gather together the various peoples.’ Of course, Huitzilopochtli’s intent was to conquer them, but regardless, he certainly brought the Mexica together.

Concluding Notes:
Huitzilopochtli was more closely connected to the Mexica imperial project than any other. However, this point has been misunderstood. Far from a simple god, thirsty for human hearts, Huitzilopochtli was a provider and a protector. Force of arms was intended to secure Mexica access to agricultural land and food tributes, the goods upon which their population depended. Understanding this helps to better explain Mexica war aims and the motives behind their conquests.

Bierhorst, John:
- The Codex Chimalpopoca: History and Mythology of the Aztecs, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992)
Boon, Elizabeth H.:
   - Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79 No. 2 (1989)
Cortés, Hernan:
   - Letters from Mexico, tr. Anthony Pagden, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)
Davies, Nigel:
- The Aztec Empire: The Toltec Resurgence, (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987
Díaz, Bernal:
   - The Conquest of New Spain, tr. J.M. Cohen, (London: Penguin Books, 1963)
Durán, Diego, Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, tr. Fernando Horcasitas, and Doris Heyden, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970)
- History of the Indies of New Spain, tr. Doris Heyden, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)
Luján, Leonardo López:
   - The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, tr. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Themla Ortiz de Montellano, (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1994)
Nicholson, Henry B:
   - ‘Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico,’ in Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol X, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972)
Quauhtlehuanitzin, Don Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin:
   - Codex Chimalpahin: Volume 1, tr. Arthur O.J. Anderson, and Susan Schroeder, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997)
   - Codex Chimalpahin: Volume 2, tr. Arthur O.J. Anderson, and Susan Schroeder, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997)
   - Annals of His Time, tr. James Lockhart, Susan Schroeder, and Doris Namala, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006)
Sahagún, Bernardino de:
- General History of the things of New Spain Book 1: The Gods, tr. by Arthur O.J. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble, (Santa Fe: University of Utah, 1979)
   - General History of the things of New Spain Book 2: The Ceremonies, tr. by Arthur O.J. Anderson O.J., and Charles E. Dibble, (Santa Fe: University of Utah, 1979)
   - General History of the things of New Spain Book 3: The Origin of the Gods, tr. by Arthur O.J. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble, (Santa Fe: University of Utah, 1979)
   - General History of the things of New Spain Book 7: The Sun, Moon, and Stars, and the Binding of Years, tr. by Arthur O.J. Anderson, and Charles E. Dibble, (Santa Fe: University of Utah, 1979)


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