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Author Topic: Aztec Gods: Tezcatlipoca  (Read 151 times)


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Aztec Gods: Tezcatlipoca
« on: November 08, 2018, 04:55:33 pm »


Tezcatlipoca may have been one of the most significant gods in Mesoamerica, second in importance only to the rain god himself and the closest the Nahua pantheon gets to a supreme entity. Yet strangely, he is also one of the most ambiguous and mysterious gods about whom little is known for sure. Nevertheless, it is essential to engage with this complex entity, as Tezcatlipoca in many respects, is an emblem for the uniqueness of the Nahua pantheon. In most polytheistic religions their Trickster Gods, such as Loki and Set, are distrusted and pushed to the fringes of worship. The Nahua’s did the opposite, bringing their Trickster God to the very centre if their religious world-view, and this has quite a few implications for how they understood their relationship with the supernatural world, and even social values such as authority and morality.

Recognising the God:

Despite Tezcatlipoca’s importance, there are surprisingly few physical depictions of him. There are only a handful of potential Tezcatlipoca statues, and scholars are divided as to whether or not these statues actually represent Tezcatlipoca. Thus, the only depictions of Tezcatlipoca statues that can be confirmed come from texts. Diego Durán states that it was made from ‘shining stone, black as jet.’ This would be obsidian. Other cities used wooden idols, which were carved roughly in the shape of a man, upon which ritual garments could be mounted.

While sculptures are rare, paintings are more common and easier to recognize. The Codex Borgia contains some of the most distinctive images of Tezcatlipoca. He is identified by several distinctive features. First, he has 3 black and 2 yellow horizontal stripes across his face. One of his legs will be replaced by a snake, or an obsidian mirror. He also carries a shield with a set of darts in one of his hands.

Although Tezcatlipoca is seldom depicted, he is frequently written about, often under one of his many names. Under the name Tloqueh Nahuaqueh (Lord of the Near and Far) he is frequently mentioned in Central Mexican poetry. He is also frequently discussed in the Florentine Codex, where he is the recipient of multiple prayers. He is also associated with Tepeyollotl (Heart of the Mountain), who appears as a Jaguar, and Chalchihuihtotolin (Jewelled Bird) who is depicted as a turkey. It is unclear if they are allied deities (Nahuals) or different aspects of Tezcatlipoca himself.


Just like Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca has a major role in Nahua mythology. In the Legend of the Suns Tezcatlipoca was the first Sun. However, as a god of shadow, Tezcatlipoca was far too dim to be a good sun. Responding to this, Quetzalcoatl knocked Tezcatlipoca out of the sky and took his place as the second sun. In retribution Tezcatlipoca transformed into a giant jaguar and ate everybody.

Tezcatlipoca also played a very important role in the creation of the earth, when both he and Quetzalcoatl searched out the Cipactli (a giant monster). Tezcatlipoca used his own foot as bait, which Cipactli promptly bit off. Then both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl attacked and subdued the gigantic beast. However, after they subdued it, they felt somewhat remorseful. So, they cut a deal with the monster. They would shape her into the earth’s surface and she would bring fourth fruit and vegetation for humanity to enjoy. In return she was allowed to devour the bodies of those who died on her body.

And again, like Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca plays a major role in the Fall of Tollan. Unlike with Quetzalcoatl, who is really Topiltzin, the Tezcatlipoca is explicitly a divine being. Posing as a sorcerer he tricks Quetzalcoatl/Topiltzin into getting drunk and disgracing himself with a priestess (or his sister, depending on the source). In other versions of the legend Tezcatlipoca faces off against a Toltec lord named Huemac. First, Tezcatlipoca seduced Huemac’s daughter by posing as a well-endowed Huastec chilli seller. This allows him to marry into the nobility, where he wreaks havoc on the Toltec rulers, eventually leading to the collapse of the city. He is also responsible for casting several brutal spells on the population, which had the effect of a plague, devastating the population and scattering the survivors.


As befitting such an elusive and mysterious god, almost nothing about Tezcatlipoca’s origins are known. Historians have theories, but little proof. Some have postulated that he was worshipped by the Olmecs, as they frequently depicted jaguar and jaguar men in their art. However, there is little to connect these jaguars with Tezcatlipoca specifically. Teotihuacan may have worshipped Tezcatlipoca along with Quetzalcoatl, but again evidence is limited. Due to his prevalence in the Codex Borgia, it is possible that Tezcatlipoca worship originated in the Mixtec-Puebla region. However, Tezcatlipoca worship was wide spread throughout Central Mexico and must have long predated the creation of the Codex, which was only made at the very end of the Postclassic.

Could Tezcatlipoca come from another part of Mesoamerica? He is rarely depicted in Mixtec codices either. Michael Code suggested that the Classic Maya God K is a Maya Tezcatlipoca. However, God K has agricultural, serpentine, and lightening associations, which are absent from Tezcatlipoca, while lacking Tezcatlipoca’s relationship with fire and jaguars. The only alternative is that Tezcatlipoca came from outside Mesoamerica, specifically the northern frontier. There is some evidence for this. Tezcatlipoca was associated with the north cardinal point. Huitzilopochtli also came from the north, so it’s not an unprecedented event. This would also explain the lack of physical representations. And as a bonus, it would explain the fall of Tollan as a conflict between invading Tezcatlipoca worshippers and the Toltec followers of Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca won, and this explains why depictions of Tezcatlipoca only begin to appear in the Postclassic.

Yet, although this theory provides a few good explanations, it has some key weaknesses. By its very nature, this theory would leave little evidence to prove itself. There is no confirmed evidence of Tezcatlipoca worship in northern Mexico. Furthermore, it cannot explain Tezcatlipoca’s connection with ancient Mesoamerican beliefs and symbols, such as jaguars, lordship, mountains (as Tepeyollotl), and book keeping. Remember, the one place where Tezcatlipoca is frequently seen, is in ritual books. He also played a critical role in mythology and Nahua ritual books, which were fundamental to their society. Lastly, Tezcatlipoca’s multiplicity of names almost certainly points to an ancient god.


For Tezcatlipoca, there was one ritual that mattered: Toxcatl. The ceremony part of the ritual occurred in May, but the leadup lasted all year. A captive was chosen to be the ixiptla of the god. He played this role for an entire year. This man was always young, fit, and handsome. He was taught to dance, play the flute, and sing. He conducted ceremonies, blessed people, and even participated in government. At the beginning of the Toxcatl festival he was ceremonial married to four women who represented different goddesses. Together, they would lead processions through Tenochtitlan, dancing and playing music. Finally, at the end of the festival, Tezcatlipoca travelled to a remote temple and ascended the steps. As he went, he cast off his ritual costume and broke his flutes. At the top, he was sacrificed by five high priests. They then bore his body down the temple for cremation. Immediately afterwards, a new prisoner was chosen to be Tezcatlipoca for another year.

The death of Tezcatlipoca was followed by several more ritual acts. Like all Mexica festivals, tamales were distributed at temples and the people of the city beheaded quail as offerings. Andrés de Olmos notes that amaranth statues were made of Tezcatlipoca, to be ritually offered later in the ceremony.

According to Durán, every four years Tezcatlipoca took the form of Titlacahuan, and offered absolution to those who had transgressed against others. This occurred ten days before the feast of Toxcatl. It is unclear if Titlacahuan is the same person as the regular Tezcatlipoca ixipltla, or a separate individual representing a different form of the god.

Attributes and Interpretation:

To understand a complex deity like Tezcatlipoca it is essential to deal with his many different identities. I’ve already mentioned several. Tloque Nahuaqueh is the Lord of the Near and Far, which indicates that Tezcatlipoca, to some extent, is omnipresent. He is also known as the Night Wind, Yohualli Ehecatl, linking Tezcatlipoca to the night sky. Thus, Tezcatlipoca is associated with natural phenomenon, namely night and darkness. Perhaps the most interesting names are Titlacahuan, which means ‘we are his slaves,’ and Yaotl, which means ‘Enemy’. Even the name Tezcatlipoca is significant, as it translates to ‘Smoking Mirror.’ In Nahuatl, smoke can be a metaphor for spirit and speech, again representing Tezcatlipoca’s ability to see hidden truths. It may also have been a reference to literal smoke. Toxcatl was the time when farmers burnt the fields, and so the mirror in this case would be the surface of the Earth itself.

In civil society, a diverse array of people honoured Tezcatlipoca. First were the lords. Tezcatlipoca was the patron of the nobility and it was through him that they derived their authority. Interestingly, even Mexica nobles were sworn into positions of government with Tezcatlipoca’s approval and not Huitzilopochtli’s. Tezcatlipoca is also a warrior and a sorcerer, and so warriors and sorcerers also revered Tezcatlipoca. The Jaguar Warriors, a Central Mexican military order, may have been dedicated to Tezcatlipoca. Lastly, slaves were also under Tezcatlipoca’s protection.

The essence of Tezcatlipoca is change through chaos and transformation. Thus, by viewing the deity through this lens we can make sense of his attributes. Chance and change are omnipresent forces in our lives, and they are also invisible, explaining why Tezcatlipoca is so often associated with darkness. Tezcatlipoca is also thought of as a mocker and a ridiculer of humanity, and this fits with the way change and chaos affect our lives. Tezcatlipoca’s behaviour also marks him as a transgressor as fitting for a trickster deity.

This also explains why such different groups paid him homage. To Nahua people, chance plays a major role in life, and certain groups were more exposed than others. Lords owed their position, as the thinking went, to good fortune. Tezcatlipoca’s favour rose them up, and he could also cast them down. Warriors and sorcerers too were vulnerable to bad fortune and sought favour from Tezcatlipoca to protect themselves from the chaos of battle, or the risk involved in working magic. This also explains why slaves honoured Tezcatlipoca. In Central Mexico, slavery was not a social class, and no one could be born a slave. It was a condition that one fell into, and people expected to leave slavery at some point in their lives. Chance and the changing of fortune could send someone into bondage, and also free them from it.

The idea that Tezcatlipoca is change also explains his role in mythology, especially his relationship with Quetzalcoatl. As a god of order, it is logical that Quetzalcoatl opposes Tezcatlipoca. During the fall of Tollan, Tezcatlipoca throws the well-ordered city into total chaos, destroying it. He is also partly responsible for the destruction of several suns. However, he is also a creator god, and even helps Quetzalcoatl to subdue the earth monster. And this brings up an interesting point about Nahua metaphysics. Order and chaos were not necessarily opposed. They could work together to create a new order, and chaos can help a decaying order to be restored (remembering of course that order was not a static state). This also applied to societies. Tezcatlipoca can punish those who violate social conventions and abuse their positions of power, thus restoring the order of the world, albeit indirectly.

Concluding Notes:

Despite being an important deity, Tezcatlipoca exists in a nebulous theological space. He is both a capricious god and a benefactor of humanity who brings good fortune. He can be arbitrary, and yet paradoxically just. These contradictory attributes extend beyond the god himself and into the society that worshipped him. Tezcatlipoca was not limited to liminal spaces but lived at the very heart of pre-Columbian society. This is a reflection of the Mexica’s awareness of their relationship with chaos. Chaos was a normal, even beneficial, part of life, and rather than supress it, they chose to accept it into their lives.


Bierhorst, John, The Codex Chimalpopoca: History and Mythology of the Aztecs, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992)
Durán, Diego, Book of the Gods and Rites and The Ancient Calendar, tr. Fernando Horcasitas, and Doris Heyden, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970)
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 6: Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy, 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)
Díaz, Gisele and Rodgers, Alan, The Codex Borgia, (New York: Dover Publications, INC, 1993)
Miller, Mary and Taube, Karl, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1993)
Oliver, Guilhem, Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Smoking Mirror, tr. Michael Besson, (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008)
Phillips, Henry, History of the Mexicans as Told by their Paintings, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society XXI, 1883


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