Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 17

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER XVII.

LETTER XVII.

teoyaomiqui. mexican mythology.


The chief antiquities of the Mexicans which have descended to our times, are of a religious character; and their gods, their temples, their pyramids, and their funeral vases, alone remain, after every other important record of a material character has wasted before Time and the bigoted rapacity of the Spaniards. An inquiry in relation to their religion is therefore interesting, as a memorial of the past. Debase a nation as much as you may; crush out its spirit beneath the iron heel of despotism; tear from it and destroy every record of its greatness and its ancestry; yet the miserable remnant which survives the ruin, will still retain, amid changed laws, changed customs, and even a changed faith, the shadow of some of the rites, and the recollection of the gods who were adored by its ancestors. The spirit seems to cling with traditionary fervor to the belief of our fathers. Thus, in Mexico, even after three centuries of the dominion of a foreign Priesthood, the Indian worship, (as I shall have occasion hereafter to show,) still tinges the rites of the Catholic; and I have been credibly informed, that, even now, the keepers of the University sometimes find garlands and flowers which have been hung around that hideous statue, whose figure has just been exhibited in the preceding engraving.

Clavigero, who, with Veytia, is unquestionably the best writer on Mexican history, informs us, that the ancients believed there were three places assigned to their departed spirits.

The soldiers who died in battle fighting for their country, or, who perished in captivity, and the souls of women who died in childbirth, went to the House of the Sun, where they led a life of endless delight. "At morning they hailed the luminary with music and dancing, attended him in his journey to the meridian, where they met the souls of women, and with similar festivities accompanied him to his setting."

After years of these pleasures their spirits were transformed into clouds, or birds of beautiful plumage and pleasant song; but they had power to ascend again, whenever they desired, to heaven. The ridiculous notion of an aristocracy was carried by them even to the other world; and while the nobles animated gorgeous birds and dazzling clouds, and floated in the purest air, the souls of the common people were doomed to crawl in weasels, beetles, and the meaner animals.

The spirits of those who were drowned, or struck by lightning; of those who died with dropsy, tumors, wounds, or similar diseases; went, with the souls of children who had either been drowned or sacrificed in honor of Tlaloc, "the god of the Water," to a delicious place named Tlalocan, where that god resided, surrounded by everything that could contribute to pleasure and happiness.

The third place of departed spirits was Mictlan or Hell. This was a kingdom of utter darkness ruled by a god and goddess, and the gloomy blackness of the realm was the only punishment, Clavigero thinks that the Mexicans placed this hell in the centre of the earth—and it may have been but a type of utter annihilation.

They had some imperfect ideas of a Supreme God, whom they feared and adored, yet represented by no external form, because they believed him to be invisible. He was generally spoken of as teotl—God—but was known, also, by the name of ipalnemoani, "He by whom we live;" and tloque Nahuaque "He who has all in himself." They had also an Evil spirit, inimical to mankind, called Tlaleatecolototl, "the Rational Owl." This spirit was said to appear frequently to men, to terrify or injure them; but there is no distinct history of this wicked power, or of their religious system as applied to it. After Teotl—the Supreme invisible Being—there were thirteen others worshipped in Mexico as principal gods.

Tetzcatlipoca, the "Shining Mirror;" "the God of providence; the Soul of the world; the Creator of heaven and earth; the Master of all things."

Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, a god and goddess, who granted mortals their wishes. These divinities appear to have presided over new-born children, and reigned in the "celestial paradise."

Chuacohuatl, or "Woman Serpent;" also called Quilaztli or Toucacihua: "woman of our flesh;" was held to be the mother of the human race, and was venerated next to Ometeuctli and Omecihuatl.

Tonatricli and Meztli, the sun and moon deified; of whom I shall have occasion to say something in describing the pyramids of St. Juan Teotihuacan.

Quetzalcoatl, concerning whom I have already written in my letter on Cholula.

Tlaloc, "the god of Water;" the fertilizer of the soil, the protector of temporal goods. His image was painted blue and green, to represent the hues of water, and in his hand he held an undulating and pointed rod to signify his control over storms and lightning.

Xuhteuctli, "master of the year and grass;" the god of Fire. An oblation of the first morsel and the first draught at dinner, was always given him by the Mexicans; and at the close of the festival in his honor the fires in the temples and dwellings were extinguished, and rekindled from the one lighted before the idol.

Centeotl, the "goddess of the Earth and Corn;" and known, also, by another word which signifies "she who supports us." This was a goddess devotedly worshipped by the Totonacos, who believed that in the course of time she would free them from the slavery of the other gods, and abolish the horrors of human sacrifice. To her only were offered doves, quails, leverets, and such harmless animals. She was a Mexican Ceres.

Mictlteuctli, "the god of Hell," and his female companion. Sacrifices were made to him at night, and his priests were clad in black during their ministrations at the altars.

Joalteuctli, "the god of Night"; was the divinity who gave sleep to children, while Joalteuctli was the goddess of cradles, and presided over their infants in the watches of the night.

The next deity was the one most honored by the Mexicans, and regarded as their chief protector—Huitzilipotchtli, or Mexitli, "the god of War," the Mexican Mars.

This was the mighty power who became, (according to their tradition,) the protector of the Mexicans; conducted them through the years of their pilgrimage, and at length, settled them on the spot where they afterward founded the great city of Mexico.

"To him they raised that superb Temple so much celebrated by the Spaniards. His statue was of gigantic size, in the posture of a man seated on a blue-colored bench, from the corners of which issued four gigantic snakes. His forehead was blue, and his face and the back of his head were covered with golden masks. He wore a crest shaped like the beak of a bird. On his neck was a collar of ten figures of the human heart. In his right hand he bore a blue club, huge and twisted—in his left a shield, on which appeared five balls of feathers disposed in the form of a cross while from the upper part of it rose a golden flag with four arrows, which the Mexicans pretend to have been sent from heaven to perform the glorious actions of his history. His body was girt with a large golden snake, and adorned with various lesser figures of animals, made of gold and silver and precious stones, each of which ornaments had a peculiar meaning."[1]

Whenever war was contemplated by the Mexicans, this god was implored for protection, and they of offered up to him a greater number of human victims than to any of the other deities. The only figure I found in Mexico upon which the antiquarians seemed agreed as to its representation of this god, (though not with all the splendor described by Clavigero,) was the following: it is in bas-relief, and is in the collection of Don Mariano Sanchez y Mora, ex-Condé del Peñasco.

click on image to enlarge.

I cannot conclude the account of this god without referring to a tradition which is given in relation to him, by Acosta, in his Natural and Moral History, book 4th, chap, xxiv., and is repeated by Clavigero and Dr. McCulloh.

Two days before his festival, an idol representing him was made by the sacred Virgins, of grains of parched corn and seeds of beets, mixed together with honey or the blood of children. This they clothed with a splendid dress and seated on a litter.

On the morning of the festal day this figure was borne in solemn procession around the city of Mexico, and then carried to the temple, where they had prepared a great quantity of the same paste of seeds and blood, of which the priests also made an idol, called "the flesh and bones" of Huitzilopotchtli.

After certain ceremonials and consecration, the image was sacrificed as they sacrificed their human victims, "and his body was broken into small pieces, which, together with those portions called his "flesh and bones" were distributed among the people," who, according to Acosta, "received the same with tears, fear and reverence, as if it was an admirable thing, saying that they did eat the flesh and bones of God, wherewith they were grieved. Such as had any sick folks," continues Acosta, "demanded thereof for them, and carried it with great reverence and devotion" This extraordinary ceremonial was no coinage of the Spanish priests, for Acosta calls it "a communion which the devil himself, the prince of pride, ordained in Mexico, to counterfeit the Holy Sacrament !"[2]

Thus magnificent as was the god of War, he did not disdain, according to tradition, to take unto himself a very hideous partner, whose monstrous and horrible figure has been preserved to these times in the statue, drawings of which are given at the commencement of this letter.

Teoyaomiqui, the wife of Huitzilopotchtli, was the goddess who conducted the souls of the warriors, who died in defence of their altars, to the Mexican Elysium—the House of the Sun.

The figure on the opposite page represents the front of this idol—the breasts denoting the sex. At the sides of these, and beneath, are four hands, displaying the open palms, while above and between the hands are sacks, or purses in the shape of gourds, which, according to Don Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc, represented "the woven purses" of a blue color, filled with copal, that were offered to the idol containing the sacred incense used at the election and funeral ceremonies of Kings, and burned with the bodies or hearts of the captives slain to accompany the deceased sovereign on his journey to the world of spirits.

In front of the waist, a death-head is attached. The strap by which these skulls are held, will be perceived in the second figure, which exhibits the statue in profile.

The knots of serpents, the feathers, the shells, and the nails or claws forming the lower part of the figure, are said by De Gama[3] to be the insignia of other gods connected with Teoyaomiqui or her husband; while all those above the waist, both in front and behind, are symbols of that deity herself. The top of the statue is represented in the following drawing:


click on this image to enlarge it.

And the next is a picture of its lower part or bottom:


click on this image to enlarge it.


It is the opinion of all the Mexican antiquarians, from the fact of this sculpture in relief being found beneath the idol, and the additional fact of the projections at the sides of the body near the waist, (as seen in the first plate,) that the statue was suspended by them on pillars, so as to allow the worshippers or the priests to pass with ease beneath the monster. The idol represented on the base is supposed to be that of Mictlan-teuhtli, the "god of Hell."

The height of this immense mass, carved from one solid block of basalt is nine feet and its breadth about five and a half.

Such was one of the hideous gods worshipped by the ancient Mexicans. In the year 1790, on the 13th of August, it was found at a short depth below the surface of the great square. It was removed, some time afterward, to the court-yard of the University, where it was buried again to conceal it from the Indians, who might have been tempted by the devil, (as was said by the priests.) to return to its idolatrous worship. It is only since the year 1821, that it has been exposed to public view in the inclosure where I found it, and which I have described to you.

click on this image to enlarge it.

Top of Sacrifical Stone.




  1. Vide Clavigero and McCulloh.
  2. The figure of the Holy Cross has been found in Mexico, and a drawing of one discovered at Palenque, is given by Mr. Stephens in his first volume. It is known that as the symbol of matter. Among the Irish it was the symbol of knowledge, and Garcilaso de la Vega informs us that the ancient Peruvian had "a cross of white marble which they held in great veneration, but did not adore." They could give no reason for the respect they paid it.
  3. P.36 Discripcion Historica y Cronologica.