Huitzilopochtli - Aztec God of the Sun, War and Sacrifice

The Legend of Huitzilopochtli, Founding Deity of the Aztecs

The Coyolxauhqui Stone, Templo Mayor, Mexico City
The Coyolxauhqui Stone, Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Dennis Jarvis

Huitzilopochtli (pronounced Weetz-ee-loh-POSHT-lee and meaning "Hummingbird on the Left") was one of the most important of the Aztec gods, the god of the sun, warfare, military conquest and sacrifice, who according to tradition, led the Mexica people from Aztlan, their mythical homeland, into Central Mexico. According to some scholars, Huitzilopochtli could have been a historical figure, probably a priest, who was transformed into a god after his death.

Huitzilopochtli is known as "the portentous one", the god who indicated to the Aztecs/Mexica where they should build their great capital city, Tenochtitlan. He appeared in dreams to the priests and told them to settle on an island, in the middle of lake Texcoco, where they would see an eagle perching on a cactus. This was the divine sign.

Birth of Huitzilopochtli

According to a Mexica legend, Huitzilopochtli was born on Coatepec or Snake Hill. His mother was the goddess Coatlicue, whose name means “She of the Serpent Skirt”; and she was the goddess of Venus, the morning star. Coatlicue was attending the temple on Coatepec and sweeping its floors when a ball of feathers fell on the floor and impregnated her.

According to the origin myth, when Coatlicue's daughter Coyolxauhqui (goddess of the moon) and Coyolxauhqui's four hundred brothers (Centzon Huitznahua, the gods of the stars) discovered she was pregnant, they plotted to kill their mother.

As the 400 stars reached Coatlicue, decapitating her, Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun) suddenly emerged fully armed from his mother’s womb and, attended by a fire serpent (xiuhcoatl), killed Coyolxauhqui by dismembering her. Then, he threw her body down the hill and proceeded to kill his 400 siblings.

Thus, the history of the Mexica is replayed every dawn, when the sun rises victoriously over the horizon after conquering the moon and stars.

Huitzilopochtli’s Temple

While Huitzilopochtli's first appearance in Mexica legend was as a minor hunting god, he became elevated to a major deity after the Mexica settled in Tenochtitlán and formed the Triple Alliance. The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan (or Templo Mayor) is the most important shrine dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, and its shape symbolized a replica of Coatepec. At the foot of the temple, on the Huitzilopochtli side, lay a massive sculpture portraying the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, found during excavations for electric utility works in 1978.

The Great Temple was actually a twin shrine dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc, and it was among the first structures to be built after the founding of the capital. Dedicated to both gods, the temple symbolized the economic basis of the empire: both war/tribute and agriculture. It was also the center of the crossing of the four main causeways that connected the Tenochtitlán to the mainland.

Images of Huitzilopochtli

Huitzilopochtli is typically portrayed with a dark face, fully armed and holding a snake-shaped scepter and a "smoking mirror", a disc from which emerges one or more wisps of smoke.

His face and body is painted in yellow and blue stripes, with a black, star-bordered eye mask and a turquoise nose rod.

Hummingbird feathers covered the body of his statue at the great temple, along with cloth and jewels. IN painted images, Huitzilopochtli wears the head of a hummingbird attached to the back of his head or as a helmet; and he carries a shield of turquoise mosaic, or clusters of white eagle feathers.

As a representative symbol of Huitzilopochtli (and others of the Aztec pantheon), feathers were an important symbol in Mexica culture. Wearing them was the prerogative of the nobility who adorned themselves with brilliant plumes, and went into battle wearing feathered cloaks. Feathered cloaks and feathers were wagered in games of chance and skill and were traded among allied nobles.

Aztec rulers kept aviaries and tribute stores for feather-workers, specifically employed to produce ornate objects.

Huitzilopochtli's Festivities

December was the month dedicated to Huitzilopochtli celebrations. During these festivities, called Panquetzalitzli, the Aztec people decorated their homes held ceremonies with dances, processions, and sacrifices. A huge statue of the god was made out of amaranth and a priest impersonated the god for the duration of the ceremonies.

Three other ceremonies during the year were dedicated at least in part to Huitzilopochtli. Between July 23 and August 11, for example, was Tlaxochimaco, the Offering of Flowers, a festival dedicated to war and sacrifice, celestial creativity and divine paternalism, when singing, dancing and human sacrifices honored the dead and Huitzilopochtli.

Sources

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

  • Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Boone EH. 1989. Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 79(2):1-107.
  • Taube KA. 1993. Aztec and Maya Myths. Fourth Edition. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
  • Van Tuerenhout DR. 2005. The Aztecs: New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Sanata Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.