Aztec Gods: Huitzilopochtli

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 w…

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