Aztec religion was a polytheistic system of beliefs which had elements of human sacrifice and rich culture of festivals and ceremonies.
In the Aztec pantheon, there were many gods who has specific powers and thus different temples were reserved for different gods. With the expansion of the Aztec Empire, as more and more city-states were included in the empire, the deities of other regions were also included in the Aztec system of beliefs.
Aztec priests and religion played a central role in Aztec Peoples lives. Aztec priests were highly regarded and headed the religious ceremonies and festivals which were very common in Aztec society. Read more about the Aztec Priests >>
Religion was of supreme importance in Aztec society and thus a variety of large and small temples were built throughout the empire. Larger temples were mostly built on the top of the pyramids. Read more about the Aztec Temples >>
Aztec Religion Origins & History
The origins and history of the Aztec religion, just like Aztec culture and civilisation itself, can be traced back to earlier Mesoamerican cultures.
In addition to that, various deities and religious beliefs were incorporated into the system of Aztec religion with the expansion of the empire as more city-states came into its fold.
According to Aztec religion, the universe was created by four major gods called Tezcatlipoca, Nanauatl, Ehecatl, and Quetzalcoatl.
Aztec Religious People
While there were many high priests in Aztec religion who performed the religious ceremonies and rituals, the supreme head of the state religion of the Aztec Empire was the emperor himself.
Thus, unlike Europe at the time, the king was not just the political figurehead but also the supreme religious leader. He was known as Tlatoani which literally means “speaker”. Thus it was necessary for him to participate in the religious ceremonies.
Religious Buildings and Worship
Temples and places of worship in Aztec religion were built atop pyramids which varied in their size. A few of these pyramids were truly colossal while there were many smaller ones.
The most famous pyramid was Templo Mayor which had a height of 60m. It had two temples dedicated to gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. Other temples included the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the Great Pyramid of Teopanzolco, and others.
Aztec Human Sacrifice and Rituals
One of the most important rituals of Aztec religion was human sacrifice for which prisoners of war were used. The sacrifice took place during each religious ceremony which was held at the end of each 20-day Aztec month.
During this ceremony, the victim was taken to the top of the pyramid where the priests cut out his or her heart and the body was thrown down the stairs of the pyramids where it was dismembered and eaten as another ritual.
Aztec Religion: Directions and Colours
In Aztec cosmology, features of the natural world such as caves and mountains held symbolic value and were thought to be passages between the terrestrial and the heavenly worlds.
Similarly, the cardinal directions had religious symbolism associated with them according to which each direction signified specific colours and gods.
Five Major Gods
While there were dozens of gods in Aztec pantheon, five of them were of supreme importance.
These included Tlaloc who was the god of rain, Huitzilopochtli who was the patron god of the Mexica people, Quetzalcoatl the god of civilisation and order, Tezcatlipoca the god of destiny and fortune and also the god of war and sorcery, and Ehecatl the god of wind. Different temples were built for each of these major gods.
Calendar and the Sun
Aztecs had two different calendars one of which was specifically related to Aztec religion and was meant to calculate the religious festivals. The other calendar was for ordinary calculation of days and years.
Both these calendars were designed based on the movement of the sun. After each 52 years, both these calendars coincided at which time the Aztecs offered human sacrifice the absence of which they thought could result in disaster.
Aztec Religion: Balance of Nature
The concept of balance of nature was very important in Aztec religion. They believed that all the forces of nature were kept in balance by different gods and their worship, along with offering in the form of sacrifices, was need to ensure that the balance of nature was retained.
In Aztec religion, the sky was a constant battle between light and darkness and blood sacrifice was demanded by god Huitzilopochtli in order to win the battle against darkness.
Aztec Beliefs, End of the World
The concept of the end of the world in Aztec religion was also related to the concept of the balance between the forces of nature.
According to Aztec religion, the constant battle between light and darkness would eventually be lost by the forces of light and when this happens, the world could come to an end. In order to delay this cataclysmic event, they constantly offered human sacrifice.
Layers of Heavens and Underworld
In Aztec religion, upper and nether worlds were thought to have multiple layers.
The underworld called Mictlan had nine layers which were inhabited by different gods and mythical creatures.
The sky, on the other hand, had thirteen layers with the highest one called Omeyocan and housed the progenitor dual god Ometeotl.
Aztec Religion Prophecies
Just like other religions, there were certain prophecies about the future and the end of the world in Aztec religion.
For instance, when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes arrived in Aztec, he was thought to be the god Quetzalcoatl who their prophecies said would return.
Similarly, there were prophecies about the end of the world which they thought would occur at the end of one of the 52-years cycle of the Aztec calendar.
The Aztecs had a unique concept of afterlife in which different people went to different places after death depending on their social status.
For instance, warriors who died on the battleground were thought to become butterflies or hummingbirds and live with gods. The people who died natural death were thought to serve the Lord of Dead under the earth.
The afterlife of the women who died during childbirth was to assist the sun god in pushing the sun to bring about days and nights.
Aztec Religion Summary
Aztec religion was a sophisticated polytheistic system of beliefs which borrowed several elements from the previous Mesoamerican civilisations.
There were five major gods who were responsible for the creation of the universe in addition to dozens of other gods with specific powers.
The Aztec religion was rich in rituals and ceremonies and human sacrifice was offered during the religious ceremony held at the end of each 20-day Aztec month.