Mesoamerican religion

Mesoamerican religion is grouping of the indigenous religions of Mesoamerica that were prevalent in pre-Columbian era. Two of the most widely-known examples of Mesoamerican religion are the Aztec religion and the Mayan religion.


Codex Féjervary-Mayer (Lacambalam 2014)
Religious calendar from the Codex Féjervary-Mayer (Codex Pochteca). (Lacambalam 2014)

The cosmological view in Mesoamerica is strongly connected to the Mesoamerican gods and the spiritual world. The construction and division of the universe, therefore, is a visual and symbolic set up for their religious beliefs. Like the many different peoples of Mesoamerica, the detailed surface of the Mesoamerican cosmological views tends to vary greatly. These views do have some similarities, such as belief in a fundamental cosmic order, in which the elements of time and space are the most important. These two elements are seen as the center of the universe and make the center of the quadruplicity, known as the Mesoamerican world tree, quite close to the quincunx.

Space and Time

The importance of time is seen in the cycles of life, death and regeneration, which are similarly worshiped in most religions. Time is symbolized in the cycle of the sun, for Mesoamericans believed that the sun separates night and day, and that the death and regeneration of the sun is the reason for a new era.

As an expansion of quincunx, which symbolizes space, we find two axes that combine the universe with the inclusion of both the natural and the spiritual, vertically and horizontally. It is called the axis mundi, which in the case of mesoamerican cosmology, vertically consists of three worlds and horizontally of four directions and a center.

In the vertical axis we find the world that we know on the surface of earth, in the middle a world above us where the stars are seen and then a world below our surface. These three worlds are not to be confused with the Christian division of a heaven and a hell, although the Spaniards, in trying to convert the native Mesoamerican, made the two comparable by doing so.[1]


The Mesoamerican pantheon includes dozens of gods and goddesses in addition to the major deities described below.

Tlaloc (Aztec) / Chaac (Maya) / Dzahui (Mixtec) / Cocijo (Zapotec) - Chief rain god; deity of water, fertility, rain, and storms, also with mountain associations. Recognizable by his goggle-like eyes and distinctive fangs.

Quetzalcoatl (Aztec) / Kukulkan (Yucatec Maya) / Q'uq'umatz (K'iche' Maya) - Plumed Serpent; god of wind, priests, merchants, and the link between the earth and the sky.

Tezcatlipoca (Aztec) - "Smoking Mirror"; guileful omnipresent deity of cosmic struggle, feuds, rulers, sorcerers, and warriors; the jaguar is his animal counterpart.

God K (Maya) - Some similarities with Tezcatlipoca, but also connected with lightning and agriculture, and exhibits serpentine features.

Huitzilopochtli (Aztec) - Preeminent god and tutelary deity of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan, where his temple with adjoined Tlaloc's atop a great pyramid constituting the dual Templo Mayor. Deity of the sun, fire, war and the ruling lineage.[2]

Colonized Mesoamerica

When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica, they ransacked the indigenous peoples' territory, often pillaging their temples and places of worship. Beyond this, the devoutly Catholic Spaniards found the standing Mesoamerican spiritual observances deeply offensive, and sought to either cover up or eradicate their practice. This resulted in the erasure of Mayan religious institutions, especially those centered on human sacrifice and propitiation of the multi-deistic pantheon.

Martial values and human sacrifice were a ritualistic core of Mesoamerican spirituality prior to European incursion, but quickly dissolved in the early stages of Imperial rule. Pre-Hispanic warrior culture in Mesoamerica placed high value on capturing enemies on the battlefield; killing on the battlefield therefore was not encouraged and in fact considered brutish and sloppy. This emphasis on non-lethal combat is evidenced in the fact that Aztec warriors were promoted on the basis of however many captive warriors they could bring back from the battlefield, not on sheer destructive ability to kill. Prisoner capture between rival cultures provided both sides with sacrificial victims for deity propitiation, wars even being pre-arranged by both sides, the so-called Flower wars. This practice was ultimately made impossible once Spain had subjugated the Yucatan Peninsula. The deity Huitzilopochtli in particular had a devoted blood cult, as it was believed that without his continued sustenance the cosmos would be plunged into darkness. Less violent rituals were calculatedly suppressed as well, with the Spanish authorities deeming them anathema in light of their own spiritual preconceptions.

When the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalteca allies besieged Tenochtitlan after having been forced out for preemptively massacring unarmed celebrants, the Aztecs struck back and sacrificed their Iberian captives to Huitzilopochtli, but ultimately the Aztecs could not defend the city after a devastating smallpox epidemic killed many warriors and leaders including the tlatoani himself. Even though the Aztecs continued to worship some of their own gods after the conquest, worshipping in secret and even disguising deities as nominal Catholic saints, the cult of the war god was totally suppressed. Indeed, Huitzilopochtli is still much less well understood than other major deities such as Tlaloc or Quetzalcoatl, and little was written about him in what sources survive from the decades following the conquest.[3]

The early friars in colonized Mesoamerica wrote manuals describing indigenous rituals and practices, to define precisely what was acceptable and unacceptable, and to recognize the unacceptable when they saw it. From the start, authorities recognized the subversive potential of recording the details of "idolatry" and discouraged putting anything down in writing that might preserve pre-conquest religion. If tolerated at all, the recording these observations was a very subjective project, and only few of the manuals have even survived. Things considered to be "diabolical" varied depending on the reporting friar, one manuscript justifying a practice that another manuscript might condemn.[4]

Missionaries in Mesoamerica attempted to take already existing symbols and elements in the local indigenous religions and societies, and give them Christian meaning and symbolism; e.g., the Mesoamerican world tree, which they interpreted as a cross. But at the same time they also demonized other elements, which were considered to not comply with Christian beliefs. They did this to make it easier to convert the Mesoamericans to Christianity.

Before the Spanish conquest each village had a patron deity whose idol was worshipped, presented with offerings and adorned with jewelry and fine robes. After the conquest, each village got in its place a Roman Catholic patron saint whose image was adorned and worshipped like before.[5] And destinations of pilgrimage where the indigenous peoples used to worship gods before the conquest, were adapted to Catholic saints like the Señor de Chalma (Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico State) and the Virgen de los Remedios ( Virgin of Los Remedios )[6]

The Aztecs and the Maya shared many religious elements before the Spanish conquest, but reacted very differently to the same form of Spanish Catholicism. The Aztecs abandoned their rites and merged their own religious beliefs with Catholicism, whereas the relatively autonomous Maya kept their religion as the core of their beliefs and incorporated varying degrees of Catholicism.[7] The Aztec village religion was supervised by friars, mainly Franciscan. Prestige and honor in the village were achieved by holding office within the religious organizations. It was not possible for the indigenous to enter the Orders or receive sacramental ordination as secular priests.[8] From the 17th century on, Spanish clergy had very little to do with religious development in most Mexican villages and this gave free rein to Aztec religious syncretism. )[9]

Greatly aiding the early missionaries was the image known as the Virgen de Guadalupe.

See also

Mesoamerican mythology


  1. ^ Markman and Markman, The flayed god (page number?)
  2. ^ Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. 1993. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya.
  3. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. Pp 370-371
  4. ^ Burkhart, Louise M. 1997. Indian Women of Early Mexico. University of Oklahoma Press.
  5. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. P 378
  6. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. P 378
  7. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. P 370
  8. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. Pp 379-380
  9. ^ Handbook of Middle American Indians Volume 6. 1967. University of Texas Press. Pp 379-380

External links

Alfredo López Austin

Alfredo Federico López Austin (born in Ciudad Juárez, México, March 12, 1936) is a Mexican historian who has written extensively on the Aztec worldview and on Mesoamerican religion. As an academic teacher, he has inspired generations of students, but his influence extends beyond the boundaries of academic life. His son is the renowned archaeologist, Leonardo López Luján.

López Austin first attended law school and worked as a lawyer in his hometown. His academic association with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM, Mexico's autonomous national university), where he was a student, spans some fifty years, and as of 2007 he still holds a position as a researcher (emeritus) at UNAM's Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas (IIA, or Institute of Anthropological Research). López Austin lectures in the History department of UNAM's Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras (FFyL).


A baktun (properly bʼakʼtun [ɓakʼtun]) is 20 katun cycles of the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar. It contains 144,000 days, equal to 394.26 tropical years. The Classic period of Maya civilization occurred during the 8th and 9th baktuns of the current calendrical cycle. The current baktun started on — December 21, 2012 using the GMT correlation.

Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson stated that it is erroneous to say that a Long Count date of, for example, is in the “9th baktun”, analogous to describing the year 209 AD as in the “2nd century AD”. Even so, the practice is so well established among Maya epigraphers and other students of the Maya, that to change it would cause more harm than its perpetuation. The current practice of referring to the current baktun as ”baktun 13” or “thirteenth baktun” may stand, even though it is properly the fourteenth baktun. Alternatively, the first baktun could instead be referred to as the zeroeth to avoid this ambiguity.

Centzon Tōtōchtin

In Aztec mythology, the Centzon Tōtōchtin (Nahuatl pronunciation: [sent͡son toːˈtoːt͡ʃtin] "four-hundred rabbits"; also Centzontōtōchtin) are a group of divine rabbits who meet for frequent drunken parties. They include Tepoztecatl, Texcatzonatl, Colhuatzincatl, Macuiltochtli ("five-rabbit"), and Ometochtli ("two-rabbit"). Their parents are Patecatl and Mayahuel and they may be brothers of Ixtlilton.

David Carrasco

Davíd Lee Carrasco (born November 21, 1944) is a Mexican-American academic historian of religion, anthropologist, and Mesoamericanist scholar. As of 2001 he holds the inaugural appointment as Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of Latin America Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, in a joint appointment with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences' Department of Anthropology at Harvard University. Carrasco previously taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder and Princeton University and is known for his research and extensive publications on Mesoamerican religion and history, his public speaking as well as wider contributions within Latin American studies and Latino/a studies. He has made powerful critical statements about Latino contributions to US democracy in public dialogues with Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Samuel P. Huntington. His work is known primarily for his illuminating writings on the ways human societies orient themselves with sacred places.


Ehecatl (Classical Nahuatl: Ehēcatl [eʔˈeːkatɬ], modern Nahuatl pronunciation ) is a pre-Columbian deity associated with the wind, who features in Aztec mythology and the mythologies of other cultures from the central Mexico region of Mesoamerica. He is most usually interpreted as the aspect of the Feathered Serpent deity (Quetzalcoatl in Aztec and other Nahua cultures) as a god of wind, and is therefore also known as Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. Ehecatl also figures prominently as one of the creator gods and culture heroes in the mythical creation accounts documented for pre-Columbian central Mexican cultures.

Since the wind blows in all directions, Ehecatl was associated with all the cardinal directions. His temple was built as a cylinder in order to reduce the air resistance, and was sometimes portrayed with two protruding masks through which the wind blew.

Indigenous Mexican Americans

Indigenous Mexican Americans or Mexican American Indians are American citizens who are descended from the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Indigenous Mexican-Americans usually speak an Indigenous language as their first language and may not speak either Spanish or English. Indigenous Mexican-Americans may or may not identify as "Hispanic" or "Latino".


Kukulkan (/kuːkuːlˈkän/) ("Plumed Serpent", "Feathered Serpent") is the name of a Mesoamerican serpent deity. Prior to the Spanish Conquest of the Yucatán, Kukulkan was worshipped by the Yucatec Maya peoples of the Yucatán Peninsula, in what is now Mexico. The depiction of the Feathered Serpent is present in other cultures of Mesoamerica. Kukulkan is closely related to the deity Qʼuqʼumatz of the Kʼicheʼ people and to Quetzalcoatl of Aztec mythology. Little is known of the mythology of this Pre-Columbian era deity.Although heavily Mexicanised, Kukulkan has his origins among the Maya of the Classic Period, when he was known as Waxaklahun Ubah Kan (/waʃaklaˈχuːn uːˈɓaχ kän/), the War Serpent, and he has been identified as the Postclassic version of the Vision Serpent of Classic Maya art.The cult of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl was the first Mesoamerican religion to transcend the old Classic Period linguistic and ethnic divisions. This cult facilitated communication and peaceful trade among peoples of many different social and ethnic backgrounds. Although the cult was originally centred on the ancient city of Chichen Itza in the modern Mexican state of Yucatán, it spread as far as the Guatemalan Highlands.In Yucatán, references to the deity Kukulkan are confused by references to a named individual who bore the name of the god. Because of this, the distinction between the two has become blurred. This individual appears to have been a ruler or priest at Chichen Itza who first appeared around the 10th century.

Although Kukulkan was mentioned as a historical person by Maya writers of the 16th century, the earlier 9th-century texts at Chichen Itza never identified him as human and artistic representations depicted him as a Vision Serpent entwined around the figures of nobles. At Chichen Itza, Kukulkan is also depicted presiding over sacrifice scenes.Sizeable temples to Kukulkan are found at archaeological sites throughout the north of the Yucatán Peninsula, such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan.


Macuiltochtli ("Five Rabbit"; from Nahuatl, macuilli, five, tochtli, rabbit) is one of the five deities from Aztec and other central Mexican pre-Columbian mythological traditions who, known collectively as the Ahuiateteo, symbolized excess, over-indulgence and the attendant punishments and consequences thereof.Macuiltochtli and the other Ahuiateteo —Macuilxochitl ("5 flower"), Macuilcuetzpalin ("5 lizard"), Macuilcozcacuahtli ("5 vulture"), and Macuilmalinalli ("5 grass")— bore the names of specific days in the tonalpohualli (Aztec/central Mexican version of the Mesoamerican 260-day calendar), where the day coefficient (trecena) of five had overtones associated with excess and loss of control. Postclassic central Mexican traditions identified rabbits with the beverage pulque and insobriety, and by extension Macuiltochtli had a particular association with inebriation and excessive consumption.Macuiltochtli was also part of the Centzon Totochtin, the four hundred rabbits which were all gods of drunkenness.

Maya religion

The traditional Mayan variant of Mesoamerican religion. As is the case with many other contemporary Mesoamerican religions, it results from centuries of symbiosis with Roman Catholicism. When its pre-Spanish antecedents are taken into account, however, traditional Maya religion already exists for more than two millennia as a recognizably distinct phenomenon. Be in its various denominations.


Mayahuel (Nahuatl pronunciation: [maˈjawel]) is the female deity associated with the maguey plant among cultures of central Mexico in the Postclassic era of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chronology, and in particular of the Aztec cultures. As the personification of the maguey plant, Mayahuel is also part of a complex of interrelated maternal and fertility goddesses in Aztec religion and is also connected with notions of fecundity and nourishment.

Mesoamerican creation myths

Mesoamerican creation myths are the collection of creation myths attributed to, or documented for, the various cultures and civilizations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and Mesoamerican literature.

The Maya gods included Kukulkán (also known by the K'iche' name Gukumatz and the Aztec name Quetzalcoatl) and Tepeu. The two were referred to as the Creators, the Forefathers or the Makers. According to the story, the two gods decided to preserve their legacy by creating an Earth-bound species looking like them. The first attempt was man made from mud, but Tepeu and Kukulkán found that the mud crumbled. The two gods summoned the other gods, and together they decided to make man from wood. However, since these men had no soul and soon lost loyalty to the creators, the gods destroyed them by rain. Finally, man was constructed from maize, the Mayans staple and sacred food. The deity Itzamna is credited as being the creator of the calendar along with creating writing.

Mexican mythology

Mexican mythology may refer to:

Aztec mythology

Maya mythology

Mexica mythology

Olmec mythology


Mixcoatl (Nahuatl languages: Mixcōhuātl, [miʃˈkoːwaːt͡ɬ] from mixtli [ˈmiʃt͡ɬi] "cloud" and cōātl [ˈkoːaːt͡ɬ] "serpent"), or Camaztle [kaˈmaʃt͡ɬe] from camaz "deer sandal" and atle "without", or Camaxtli, was the god of the hunt and identified with the Milky Way, the stars, and the heavens in several Mesoamerican cultures. He was the patron deity of the Otomi, the Chichimecs, and several groups that claimed descent from the Chichimecs. While Mixcoatl was part of the Aztec pantheon, his role was less important than Huitzilopochtli, who was their central deity. Under the name of Camaxtli, Mixcoatl was worshipped as the central deity of Huejotzingo and Tlaxcala.Amhimitl is Mixcoatls harpoon (or dart) just like Xiuhcoatl is Huitzilopochtli's weapon.


In Aztec mythology, Ometochtli is the collective or generic name of various individual deities and supernatural figures associated with pulque (octli), an alcoholic beverage derived from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. By the Late Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology a collection of beliefs and religious practices had arisen in the context of the manufacture and ritualistic consumption of the beverage, known as the "pulque (or octli) cult" with probable origins in a mountainous region of central Mexico. In Aztec society octli rituals formed a major component of Aztec religion and observance, and there were numerous local deities and classes of sacerdotes ("priests") associated with it."Ometochtli" is a calendrical name in Classical Nahuatl, with the literal meaning of "two rabbit".

Tonal (mythology)

Tonal is a concept within the study of Mesoamerican religion, myth, folklore and anthropology. It is a belief found in many indigenous Mesoamerican cultures that a person upon being born acquires a close spiritual link to an animal, a link that lasts throughout the lives of both creatures. The person shows signs of whatever the animal's situation to include scratches and bruises if the animals get in fights, or illness if the animal is ill. It is in this way similar to the concept of Totem.


In Aztec mythology, Tonacatecuhtli was a creator and fertility god, worshiped for peopling the earth and making it fruitful. Most Colonial-era manuscripts equate him with Ōmetēuctli. His consort was Tonacacihuatl.


In Aztec mythology, Xochiquetzal (Classical Nahuatl: Xōchiquetzal [ʃoːtʃiˈketsaɬ]), also called Ichpochtli Classical Nahuatl: Ichpōchtli [itʃˈpoːtʃtɬi], meaning "maiden", was a goddess associated with concepts of fertility, beauty, and female sexual power, serving as a protector of young mothers and a patroness of pregnancy, childbirth, and the crafts practised by women such as weaving and embroidery. In pre-Hispanic Maya culture, a similar figure is Goddess I.


Ōmeteōtl (Nahuatl pronunciation: [oːmeˈteoːt͡ɬ] (listen)) ("Two Gods") is a name sometimes used to refer to the pair of Aztec deities Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, also known as Tōnacātēcuhtli and Tonacacihuatl. Ōme translates as "two" or "dual" in Nahuatl and teōtl translates as "god". The existence of such a concept and its significance is a matter of dispute among scholars of Mesoamerican religion.

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