Mictlantecuhtli was a god in the Aztec pantheon. Translated literally, his name means ‘ Lord of Mictlan’ , Mictlan being the Aztec underworld or land
Mictlantecuhtli was a god in the Aztec pantheon. Translated literally, his name means ‘ Lord of Mictlan’ , Mictlan being the Aztec underworld or land of the dead. The Aztecs believed that there were a number of paradises and entry into them depended on the manner of one’s death. Those who failed to gain entry to these paradises, however, would end up in Mictlan, the domain of Mictlantecuhtli.
The Aztecs believed that the cosmos was divided into three parts – Ilhuicac, (the heavens) on the top, Tlalticpac (the earth, or land of the living) in the middle, and Mictlan on the bottom. The Aztecs also believed that Mictlan was divided into different layers, nine to be exact, and that Mictlantecuhtli resided with his wife, Mictecacihuatl, in the last of these layers.
Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec god of the Dead, found in Teotihuacan. (Anagoria / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
According to Aztec belief, Mictlan was reserved for the souls of those who did not qualify for one of the several paradises in their belief system . Entry into these realms depended on the manner of one’s death. For instance, the souls of those who died violently due to water related causes (for instance drowning or lightning) were destined for Tlalocan, the realm of the water god Tlaloc.
The souls of those destined for Mictlan would need to endure a journey through the nine layers of the underworld. The Aztecs believed that this journey took four years, at the end of which the souls would arrive at Mictlantecuhtli’s abode, where they would either find rest, disappear, or continue to suffer.
Mictlantecuhtli’s power as a god is evident in the Aztec creation myth . The Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns, the current one being the fifth cycle. Each cycle ended in destruction and human beings had to be created anew each time. At the end of the fourth cycle, a great flood drowned the people of earth and human beings had to be created once more to populate the earth. In order to do so, the god Quetzalcoatl travelled to Mictlan to retrieve the bones of human beings from the previous cycles.
Quetzalcoatl needed Mictlantecuhtli’s permission to take the bones from Mictlan. After some negotiation, the Lord of Mictlan agrees to give Quetzalcoatl the bones if he could travel around the underworld four times while sounding a conch shell like a trumpet. In order to make the task impossible, however, Mictlantecuhtli gave Quetzalcoatl a shell without holes. The latter overcomes this problem by calling upon worms to drill holes in the shell. He then summoned bees to enter the shell so as to make it sound like a trumpet.
Having heard Quetzalcoatl sounding the conch trumpet, Mictlantecuhtli decided to allow the god to take the bones. It did not take long for him to change his mind, however, and Mictlantecuhtli attempted to stop Quetzalcoatl. The Lord of Mictlan failed to do so and Quetzalcoatl escaped from the underworld with the bones he wanted. Furious, Mictlantecuhtli summoned his minions to dig a pit and as the god ran towards it, a quail popped out, surprising him and causing him to fall into the pit. The bones that he carried shattered and this, according to the Aztecs, is the reason why human beings today are of different sizes.
Mictlantecuhtli, god of death, the lord of the Underworld and Quetzalcoatl, god of wisdom, life, knowledge, morning star, patron of the winds and light, the lord of the West. Together they symbolize life and death. (Gwendal Uguen / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Sacrifices to Mictlantecuhtli
As the god of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli was naturally feared by the Aztecs and human sacrifices were offered to him. One particular type of sacrifice performed in honor of Mictlantecuhtli involved a victim being dressed up as the god. The impersonator would be sacrificed at night in a temple called Tlalxicco, meaning ‘navel of the world’. When the Spanish under Cortes landed, the Aztecs thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned, and that the world was about to end. The Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II , increased the amount of sacrifices made to Mictlantecuhtli, hoping to appease the god, thus avoid suffering in the underworld.
In art, Mictlantecuhtli is usually depicted as a skeletal figure which fits his role as the god of death. For instance, at the House of the Eagles in the Templo Mayor , two life-size ceramic representations of the god were unearthed by archaeologists in 1994. Smaller statuettes of the god have also been discovered and he is also depicted in some codices.
Ceramic representation of Mictlantecuhtli recovered during excavations of the House of Eagles in the Templo Mayor, now on display at the museum of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. (NobbiP / Public Domain )
Top image: Aztec god of the underworld Mictlantecuhtli was depicted as a blood-spattered skeleton or a person wearing a toothy skull. Source: ivan / Adobe.