How the structure of Aztec thought and religion underpinned human sacrifice and warfare
“Truly do we live on earth? Not forever on earth; only a little while here. Although it be jade, it will be broken, Although it be gold, it is crushed, Although it be quetzal feather, it is torn asunder. Not forever on earth; only a little while here”
King Nezahualcóyotl (1402–72)
The question of why the Aztec and other Mesoamerican cultures were so ritualistically violent has long haunted and bothered western observers and scholars. Revisionists and relativists deny that they were, while others attribute it to their pagan savagery. Early accounts of human sacrifice and racks of skulls, vigorously resisted for a long time, seem to be borne out by continuous archaeological finds. Some blame demons, the inherent instability of Central American ecology, patterns and modes of governance, or the idea that Mesoamericans were culturally behind the West, which also had older traditions of blood offerings and brutal religious rites. What I want to do here is to dive into the thought, philosophy, and metaphysics of the Aztec world, to see what the foundational principles were behind these manifestations of sacrifice and excess. The Nahautl Weltanschauung was not a mindless or unreflective cruelty, but a sophisticated body of ideas and axioms, developed over centuries of debate and discord. In this way, we can approach the Aztec ‘mindset’ on its own terms and attempt to understand the metaphysical logic behind their civilisation.
‘The People from Aztlán’
A long and rather tedious argument has raged throughout academia for decades over the issue of ‘Aztec philosophy’, whether a body of thought existed, and whether such a people were even capable of higher intellectual thought. In 1956 Miguel León-Portilla published La Filosofía Náhuatl, arguing that Aztec philosophy was the equal of any Western philosophical system, that they devoted huge energy to the questions of truth, rationality, cosmic order and origins, society, the individual and what eternal processes governed the natural world. Angry responses such as The Aztec Image in Western Thought by Benjamin Keen denounced these comparisons and dismissed Nahautl thought as the musings of an ‘Upper Stone Age people’. Personally, I don’t care very much about these academic back and forths and I’m happy to take Aztec ideas as they come and not worry too much about the precise definition of ‘real philosophy’.
The Aztecs, the ‘people from Aztlán’, formed a multiethnic empire, often difficult to demarcate. The Nahautl speaking peoples - the Mexicas, Texcocans, Cholulans, Chalcans, and Tlaxcaltecs are sometimes called the ‘Nahuas’, despite not all belonging to the Aztec empire proper. Therefore, what can loosely be called Aztec thought is more widely shared amongst the Nahua inheritors of Toltec civilisation but the term Aztec will suffice. We have an abundance of Nahautl terms for philosophical thought, including tlamatinime - ‘knowers of things’ or ‘sages’ and neltiliztli - truth, arising from nelhuáyotl - ‘base’ or ‘foundation’. The Aztecs in time produced several schools which served both commoner and noble, the Tēlpochcalli and Calmecac, along with a vigesimal mathematical system, pictograph manuscripts, legal codes and two calendars, expressing their own understanding of chronology. In their art, poetry, songs, mythology and metaphysics they display a deep concern for the nature of things, in particular change, motion, generation and regeneration, transformation and cosmic cycles. This anxiety over change informs everything about their civilisational superstructure.
That we know as much as we do about Aztec thought is due to the diligent and tireless work of many missionaries and scholars, including Toribio de Benavente Motolinia, Andrés de Olmos, Bernardino de Sahagún, Juan de Torquemada, Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl, Angel María Garibay K. and many others. Garibay’s book Historia de la Literatura Náhuatl remains a classic in the field.
Ontological Monism and the Pulse of Life - Teotl & Olin
At the root of Aztec thought is a metaphysical claim about the nature of the universe. In his superb 2013 book Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, James Maffie lays out this vision of a single, basic, unifying energy which underlies everything in the Aztec world - teotl:
At the heart of Aztec metaphysics stands the ontological thesis that there exists just one thing: continually dynamic, vivifying, self-generating and self-regenerating sacred power, force, or energy. The Aztecs referred to this energy as teotl. Teotl is identical with reality per se and hence identical with everything that exists. What’s more, teotl is the basic stuff of reality. That which is real, in other words, is both identical with teotl and consists of teotl. Aztec metaphysics thus holds that there exists numerically only one thing – energy – as well as only one kind of thing – energy. Reality consists of just one thing, teotl, and this one thing is metaphysically homogeneous. Reality consists of just one kind of stuff: power or force… What’s more, the Aztecs regarded teotl as sacred. Although everywhere and in everything, teotl presents itself most dramatically – and is accordingly sensed most vibrantly by humans – in the vivifying potency of water, sexual activity, blood, heat, sunlight, jade, the singing of birds, and the iridescent blue-green plumage of the quetzal bird. As the single, all-encompassing life force of the cosmos, teotl vivifies the cosmos and all its contents. Everything that happens does so through teotl’s perpetual energy-in-motion
This striking description helps us out here by highlighting the importance of several key aspects of the Aztec mindset. There is no dualism between a transcendental sacred space and a profane earth, there is no hierarchy of substance, no binary opposition between things and processes. Teotl has no goals, no origin, there is no order from chaos, just an eternal dynamic, creative power. To say this is animistic is obvious, but it also echoes the Chinese concept of qi, as Maffie explains later in the chapter. Teotl is the foundation for all higher metaphysical and religious beliefs. Apparent binaries between gods and humans or between appearance and reality can be collapsed into this holism. Antagonistic pairs like male-female, hot-cold, night-day, are more akin to the ying-yang concept, where they exist as complementary pairs which create a unity, rather than static divisions. Also of note is the absence of a moral dimension to teotl– it is amoral, unconcerned with what is good or bad, right or wrong.
Since teotl is a process, like all Aztec thought it operates through change and motion. In fact, change is motion, like the movement of the sun, or the walk of life a human takes from birth to death. There are three kinds of motion or change that teotl undergoes: olin, malinalli, and nepantla, and we will discuss each of them as we go on. Olin is an important concept, linked linguistically (though this is disputed) to resin, rubber balls, and blood. Blood and resin are connected, since resin is akin to blood but from a tree, and the particular type of movement that olin defines is that of a bouncing ball, something which moves in a pair - up-down, back-forth, here-there, to-from. Following scholars Eva Hunt and Lopez Austin, Massie gives us this description of olin:
The foregoing analyses suggest that olin motion-change has a specific shape: it moves up and down and to and fro; it follows an arced, rounded, or curved path; it carves out a volume; it revolves around a central axis; and it has centered. It includes the more simple rising and falling motion of an earthquake and the more complex pulsating motion of a beating heart or curving motion of stirring a liquid. Olin-defined processes of becoming and transformation are curvaceous and rounded like a ball, a cross-sectioned corncob, and a plump body. Olin-defined transformational processes unify inamic partners such as life~death, day~night, and male~female by curving, rounding, oscillating, and centering them into a single process. Indeed, this shape would seem to be an essential element of what it means to describe these processes as cyclical. Olin motion-change is also vitalizing. It is the shape of the life-sustaining energy of corn and the shape of the vitalizing energy of a fetus’s stirring and coming into life. In short, olin defines the shape of coming-into-life, of cyclical completion, of life-energy generally. Indeed, it defines the shape of life or living per se. Olin life energy rises and falls. It swings back-and-forth. It pulsates.
Olin is attached to the title Nahui Ollin, which refers to the Fifth Sun, the epoch the Aztecs believed they lived under. This time period was a delicate balance, destined to come to a catastrophic end, like the previous four suns. The Fifth Sun was called the Sun of Movement, Ollintonatiuh. A continual blood offering must be made to the gods Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl to stave off this apocalypse. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Olin is further linked to a huge number of other ol-terms, all related to the animating motion-energy of teotl. Of these, the term teyolia has great significance. It translates as ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘animating force’ or ‘vital force’. The body resonates with teyolia and can be felt in the olin-like movement of the lungs, the pulse, and importantly the heart, where the greatest concentration of teyolia resides. Removing the heart of a person transforms or mutates the teotl-olin motion of the beat to the ascending energy as it heads upwards to the sun. What appears like death in this act is in fact the transformation of power from the body to the sky as the heart beats out its last, even when separated from its owner. The olin of the heart then feeds the Fifth Sun. Other Nahuatl words link maize, blood, breath, fire, life and nourishment to olin and the olin-motion of teotl. It suffuses and animates with the vital energy we associate with life and not inert matter. This is also why rubber balls are included in the semantic web of olin-motion, they leap and bounce in a way which seems animate and alive.
But we should not think of olin as a smooth and orderly form of motion. The chaos of life intrudes into this metaphysics and olin-motion or olin-change possesses the ability to become destructive at any instant. Processes like heartbeats, childbirth contractions and ball bounces can be thrown into havoc and cause death or harm. Maffie describes it thus:
Although typically orderly, regular, and predictable, the olin-patterned movement of rubber balls is in the final instance chance-like, potentially disorderly, and unpredictable. A ball’s regular bouncing can quickly and quite unexpectedly become chaotic upon hitting an uneven surface. The ball takes “a bad bounce,” as we say. Similarly, at any given moment a regularly beating human heart can unexpectedly degenerate into chaotic fibrillating, just as the regular oscillating contractions of childbirth can unexpectedly become irregular and fatal. Analogously, at any given moment the life-sustaining, orderly olin motion-change of the Fifth Sun may quickly become disorderly and destructive. And at any moment disorderly earth-shaking motion may erupt, destroying the entire Fifth Age and with it, humankind
It is worth highlighting here that the end of the Fifth Sun will come about with violent earthquakes, a perfect encapsulation of catastrophic olin-motion. As Bernardino de Sahagún transcribed:
The Fifth Sun, is called the Sun of Movement because it moves and follows its path. And as the elders continue to say, under this Sun, there will be earthquakes and hunger, and then our end shall come.
A Twisted World of Destructive Creation - Malinalli & Nepantla
We saw that teotl has three ways of motion, three forms of change. Olin is one of these, and we now turn to the other two before seeing how they give rise to the religious and theological forms of Aztec thought. Malinalli is a word connected to the act of twisting, spiralling, and drilling. It comes from malinalli grass, a raw material vital to the economy of the Nahuas. From the grass came fibre, rope, cordage, matting, brooms, straws and thatch, the rope and cord were used for an enormous number of basic objects like child-carriers, baskets and nets. More conceptually malinalli is the act of ordering from disorder. Grass is wild and chaotic, much like vines and tendrils, but they can be given order and form through twisting and coiling into a useful shape. This conceptual process is linked to hair, creating fire, animals such as snakes and spiders, the umbilical cord of a child, the act of sex, weaving and sacrificing a person.
The foregoing also suggests twisting and spinning are transformative patterns of motion-change. They transform one kind of thing (wild grass or cotton) into another kind of thing (thread or rope); something in one condition (disorderly, wild, and peripheral) into something in another condition (well ordered and centered); and one state of being into another. Indeed, in light of the centrality of twisting and spinning in weaving, and the role of weaving as organising metaphor in Aztec metaphysics, I submit twisting-spinning plays a central role in Aztec metaphysics’ conception of how reality is ordered, how it processes, and how it is transformed.
An important term to add here– teyolia is tonalli. Tonalli is a highly animistic concept, it is the vitalising animating force associated with heat from the sun. The sun’s energy bathes the earth and everything on it, suffusing beings with power, vitality and vigour. For a person tonalli is strongly associated with the head and with hair. According to David Carrasco in Religions of Mesoamerica:
The term tonalli has a rich range of meanings referring to its vigor, warmth, solar heat, summertime, and soul. It infiltrated animals, gods, plants, humans, and objects used in rituals. The hair that covered the head, especially the fontanel area, was a major receptacle of tonalli. The hair prevented the tonalli from leaving the body and was therefore a major prize in warfare. It was believed that the fortitude and valor of a warrior resided, in part, in the hair, and we have many pictorial scenes showing Aztec warriors grabbing the hair of enemies. The hair of warriors captured in battle was kept by the captors in order to increase their tonalli. The decapitated head of enemy warriors was a supreme prize for the city, which gained more tonalli through the ceremonial use of heads
Thus, human hair links both the teotl motion-change of malinalli and the animating power of tonali. Hair was much more than decoration, disordered and tangled hair is depicted on drunkards, people who have lost their internal power and have succumbed to chaos. Keeping one’s own hair in good condition and neatly braided and arranged ensured the vital tonali energies were preserved, and conversely, to grab an enemy warrior by their hair was to steal and liberate extra tonali, which could be transferred from the captive to the captor.
Malinalli motion-change was also connected to blowing, breathing, the winds and to the female activity of sweeping, a task with profound importance to the Aztec mind. The purification of the home, the street, the plaza, was performed daily by sweeping. The Florentine Codex states: “Quetzalcoatl is “in ehecatl” (“the wind”), master of the winds, and “in tlachpancauh in tlaloque” (“road-sweeper of the rain gods”), who sweeps the earth’s surface (especially the agricultural fields and paths) by blowing or breathing upon it”. Breathing is an activity linked to song, music, the bellows for forging metals, breath of a newborn infant and to blowing fire into kindling. Life is regenerative because of these malinalli motions, the chaos of the natural world becomes ordered through generation. Fire-making was done using a hand or pump-drill, again an action which requires twisting and drilling, the active male agent working into the passive female receptacle, but together creating heat, warmth and fire. In the Aztec New Fire Ceremony, a sacrificial victim had their heart removed and the priest would use a special fire-drill and board to create embers within the chest cavity of the person, transferring the energy of the captive upwards in a vertical spiralling motion.
In contrast to the vibrating motion of olin and the twisting circles of malinalli, the final motion-change of teotl is the middle ground of nepantla. Nepantla describes the condition of ‘between’, ‘middling’ or the flowing from one thing into another. Scholars such Wayne Elzey and Frances Karttunen define it as the centre, in-between or in the middle of something. ‘tlah’ is a suffix for terms which invoke abundance and overflowing, whereas the verb ‘nepanoa’ means ‘for things to intersect, unite, join together’. Activities which are related to these words and concepts include sexual reproduction, marriage, cooking, the joining of smaller rivers and weaving. The semantic underpinnings describe destructive creation, something new coming from the combining of elements, a merging of ingredients, fluids, objects, people which yields something new and orderly
Nepantla-processes such as weaving and sexual commingling serve as root or organizing paradigms in Aztec metaphysics. The cosmos is a grand weaving in progress. Nepantla is therefore ordinary – not extraordinary. The ordinary is not interrupted by nepantla; nepantla is the ordinary. Becoming and transition are the norm – not being and stasis.
Massie ultimately sees sex, war and weaving as the three foundational activities which reflect the deepest preoccupations of Aztec metaphysics. Nepantla does not indicate peace, but rather the generative and destructive motion-change of creation, as two things unify to become something new. War, sex and weaving are the basic struggles of existence, and we now turn to look at how the three forms of motion-change lead to the visible and ordered violence of the Aztec world.
Enter The Gods
So far, we’ve examined the simple metaphysical principles of the Aztec mindset - teotl as the animistic energy which allows for life to exist and its three forms of expression: olin as the pulsing, heartbeat like motion, malinalli as the spiralling creative motion and nepantla as the unifying and generative transformation of pairs. From these concepts we can start to build a theological structure on top, which starts with a look at the gods.
In Burr Brundage’s book The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World, he describes the relationship between the Aztec gods and the monistic underlying unity of the world:
the blatant polytheism which appears to be so characteristic of ancient Mexico is simply a symbolic reference to natural phenomena. The two thousand gods were only so many manifestations of the One. In the figure of Tonacatecuhtli we find a substitute for monotheism. . . . In order to express the idea that the cosmic forces were emanations of the divine principle the gods of nature were called children of Tonacatecuhtli.
Eva Hunt, in The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacatecan Mythical Poem, gives us this further description:
Mesoamerican cultures were neither polytheistic nor monotheistic. . . . Reality, nature, and experience were nothing but multiple manifestations of a single unity of being. God was both the one and the many. Thus the deities were but his multiple personifications, his partial unfoldings into perceptible experience. The partition of this experience into discrete units such as god A or god B is an artifice of iconography and analysis, not part of the core conception of the divinity. Since the divine reality was multiple, fluid, encompassing of the whole, its aspects were changing images, dynamic, never frozen, but constantly being recreated, redefined. This fluidity was a culturally defined mystery of the nature of divinity itself. Therefore, it was expressed in the dynamic, ever-changing aspects of the multiple “deities” that embodied it. For didactic, artistic, and ritual purposes, however, these fluid images were carved in stone, painted into frescoes, described in prayer. It is here, at this reduced level of visualization, that the transient images of a sacralized universe became “gods,” with names attached to them, with anthropomorphic attributes, and so on
Brundage’s reference to Tonacatecuhtli is insightful, since Tonacatecuhtli was one of a divine pair of beings - Tonacatecuhtli and Tōnacācihuātl - also known collectively as Ōmeteōtl, on which the concept of teotl is built. The gods arise from an endless creative energy and are difficult to partition into distinct personalities. But in the mythological telling, we see many important deities: Tlaloc, Xlotl, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe-Totec and so on. They became associated with places, activities, substances, cosmic forces, natural events and the structure of the universe– each one a manifestation of the underlying properties of teotl and motion-change.
It would be beyond the scope of even a book to show how each god composes and utilises the three forms of motion-change, so we’ll look at just one example of each before moving on.
The deity most associated with olin is Xlotl. As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to fully separate out Aztec gods from one another and Xlotl forms a pair with Quetzalcoatl as well as having different reflections of his own. Xlotl is the olin-like back and forth change between life and death, the generative force of renewal, rebirth, pregnancy, the transformation of rotting earth to plant. He is often depicted as a dog and stands for the ballgame, twins, deformed and disgusting beings, dwarves, abnormal births and diseases which horrify and scar. Dogs are something like a psychopomp in Aztec thought, they accompany the dead to the underworld. Massie notes that Mesoamerican cultures were horrified by twins and often killed one at birth, thus Xlotl’s twin is Queztlcoatl, the ‘Precious Twin’ who lives above the ground. Xlotl and Queztlcoatl govern Venus, the morning and evening star. One of Xlotl’s masks or aspects is Nanahuatzin - Little Pustule Covered One - who immolates himself to become the Fifth Sun. As the Night Traveller, Xlotl helps the Sun through the underworld each night in order for it to be reborn after a battle with the female chthonic forces of darkness. Thus Xlotl reflects and enacts the violent but creative olin-motion, bringing forth life after death.
Next the festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli - Flaying of Men - which the Aztecs celebrated in honour of Xipe Totec, encapsulates the energy of malinalli. The festival was a three day event which involved the ritual sacrifice and flaying of war captives, their energies to be captured by the warriors who took them and distributed outwards. The first day involved dancing and the eating of twisted tortillas called cocolli. The warriors seized and twisted the hair of their victims, cut the hair off and burnt it, before yanking and wrenching the arms and necks of their captives around in a painful, unnatural posture. On the second day an extremely elaborate ceremony was conducted. Some victims were sacrificed by having their hearts ripped out and offered to the sun, their bodies then rolled down the stairs of the temple. They were decapitated and their bodies cooked with corn and served to the families of the warriors. Another set of victims underwent Tlahuahuanaliztli - The Striping - where five warriors, armed with obsidian clubs performed a spiralling dance around the captive. The victim was bound to a special plinth with a ceremonial cord, analogous to an umbilical cord, and was armed with rubber balls and a feather or cotton edged war club. As he whirled around trying to defend himself, the cord tightened and the warriors sliced at him, causing his blood to spin in the cardinal directions. When he fell the priests sliced open his chest and yanked out his heart, described in the manner of a hunter seizing up a rabbit. He was then skinned and these were worn by the captors for twenty days. The third day saw the skins laid out on special grasses before teams of skin-wearing warriors performed mock battles throughout the city, distributing the energy of the captives, while the women and girls performed a ceremonial spinning dance, known as the ‘serpent-dance’, throughout the night. The twisting motion-change of malinalli is so evident throughout this festival it barely needs commenting on.
Finally, nepantla can be seen in a specific aspect of the goddess Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina. This deity is concerned with a confusing jumble of traits - vice, purification, lust, steam baths and cotton. She eats filth, encourages sexual degeneracy but also forgives and cleans, reflecting the ‘unity-through-duality’ we have seen many times so far. Images of her often reflect the nepantla mixing and combining to generate life. Some depict her wearing a flayed sacrificial skin, whilst simultaneously conceiving and giving birth to a child. She ingests dirt and decay whilst weaving life into existence. Offerings to her would combine physical gold and urine, as a kind of liquid gold. Thus she imbibes both the sacred and profane in order to transform and create.
A Violent Animism?
At some point in the future I plan on writing more about how animism has been invented and received amongst Western scholars and how the recent ‘ontological turn’ in academia and art has produced a kind of ‘benevolent animism’, concerned with ecology, relationships of egalitarian mutualism and friendship between different beings. My own research into Amerindian animism, working from scholars of Amazonian shamanism, has turned up a far more violent and blood-soaked vision of animistic relationships. These are sometimes hierarchical and echo ideas of trophic webs and pyramids, but on the metaphysical plane. As we have seen, Aztec metaphysics are more pantheistic than strictly animistic, but clearly there is an acceptance that the material world is suffused with spiritual power and energy and not merely inert. The violence which emerges from the Aztec mindset could be seen as the opposite of many Western metaphysical principles. Humans under the Nahua worldview are a locus for forms of motion-change - both tonali and teyolia are specific ways in which the human body manifests forms of teotl. Humans can ‘ascend’ in a sense by becoming more powerful, more vital, more abundant with energy by engaging in the activities which promote life - sex and warfare being primary among them. Warfare allows warriors to compete and struggle, and capturing enemies gives them personal energy and prestige, but also helps the Aztec state as a whole by providing sacrificial power to the sun and the shape-shifting deities. The lack of a moral dimension to the metaphysical world means humans, while a prized manifestation of life, are also vessels for the cyclical and restless energies of the cosmos. Change, struggle, motion and flow are primary, which is why scholars often describe the Aztec mindset as anxious and preoccupied by cycles and epochs, beginnings and ends. The ultimate religious and political realities of the Aztec world are clearly far more complex and often more pragmatic than just their philosophical convictions, but their conception of the Good rests upon their concerns with change, managing that change and ultimately balancing the different cosmic forces in order to flourish in an unstable world. This is far from ‘simple savagery’, or killing for base instincts of pleasure or revenge (although these can never be discounted in any assessment of human behaviour). The Aztecs and the wider Nahua world strived to find balance and stability through a careful assessment of the forces of the world, which never left them alone. They knew their world would ultimately end in catastrophe, the violent termination of the Fifth Sun. Their lot was warfare, both physical and metaphysical, since this divine struggle was the only means of staving off this disaster. Life begins and ends, all is conflict and strife, the battle between opposing elements is eternal. In closing, Justino Fernández wrote of the Aztec mother goddess Cōātlīcue:
In summary, Coatlicue is the embodiment of the cosmic-dynamic power which bestows life and which thrives on death in the struggle of opposites, a struggle so compulsory and essential, that its fundamental and final meaning is war.
Eva Hunt, The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacatecan Mythical Poem. 1977
James Maffie, Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion. 2013
Burr Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World. 1979
David Carrasco in Religions of Mesoamerica. 2014
Miguel Leon-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. 1963
Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. 2019