Chicomoztoc - The Mythical Place of Origins of the Aztecs

Pan-Mesoamerican Beliefs About the Origins of People on Earth

Chicomoztoc, Place of the Seven Caves (Chichemec version)
A Chichemec version of Chicomoztoc, drawn ca 1550. Michel Wal

Chicomoztoc (“The Place of the Seven Caves” or “The Cave of the Seven Niches”) is the mythological cave of emergence for the Aztec/Mexica, the Toltecs, and other groups of Central Mexico and northern Mesoamerica. It is frequently depicted in Central Mexican codices, maps, and other written documents known as lienzos, as a subterranean hall surrounded by seven chambers.

In the surviving depictions of Chicomoztoc, each chamber is labeled with a pictograph that names and illustrates a different Nahua lineage that emerged from that particular place in the cave.

As with other caves illustrated in Mesoamerican art, the cave has some animal-like characteristics, such as teeth or fangs and eyes. More intricate renderings show the cave as a lion-like monster out of whose gaping mouth the original people emerge.

A Shared Pan-Mesoamerican Mythology

Emergence from a cave is a common thread found throughout ancient Mesoamerica and among groups living in the area today. Forms of this myth can be found as far north as the American Southwest among cultural groups such as the ​Ancestral Puebloan or Anasazi people. They and their modern descendants built sacred rooms in their communities known as kivas, where the entrance to the sipapu, the Puebloan place of origin, was marked in the center of the floor.

One famous example of a pre-Aztec emergence place is the human-made cave under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. This cave differs from the Aztec account of emergence because it has only four chambers.

Another constructed Chicomoztoc-like emergence shrine is found at the site of Acatzingo Viejo, in the State of Puebla, central Mexico. It more closely parallels the Aztec account due to its having seven chambers carved into the walls of a circular rock outcropping. Unfortunately, a modern road was cut directly through this feature, destroying one of the caves.

Mythical Reality

Many other places have been proposed as possible Chicomoztoc shrines, among which is the site of La Quemada, in Northwest Mexico. Most experts believe that Chicomoztoc was not necessarily a specific, physical place but, like Aztalan, a widespread idea among many Mesoamerican people of a mythical cave as ​a place of emergence for both humans and gods, from which each group materialized and identified itself within their own sacred landscape.

Sources and Further Readings

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Aztec Empire, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Aguilar, Manuel, Miguel Medina Jaen, Tim M. Tucker, and James E. Brady, 2005, Constructing Mythic Space: The Significance of a Chicomoztoc Complex at Acatzingo Viejo. In the Maw of the Earth Monster: Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use, edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer, 69-87. University of Texas Press, Austin

Boone, Elizabeth Hill, 1991, Migration Histories As Ritual Performance. In To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes, edited by David Carrasco, pp. 121-151. University of Colorado Press, Boulder

Boone, Elizabeth Hill, 1997, Prominent Scenes and Pivotal Events in the Mexican Pictorial Histories.

In Códices y Documentos sobre México: Segundo Simposio, edited by Salvador Rueda Smithers, Constanza Vega Sosa, and Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, pp. 407-424. vol. I. Instituto Nacional de Antropología E Historia, Mexico, D.F.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill, 2000, Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. University of Texas, Austin.

Carrasco, David, and Scott Sessions, 2007, Cave, City, and Eagle's Next: An Interpretative Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Durán, Fray Diego, 1994, The Histories of The Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Hers, Marie-Areti, 2002, Chicomoztoc. A Myth Reviewed, in Arqueología Mexicana, vol 10, Num.56, pp: 88-89.

Heyden, Doris, 1975, An Interpretation of the Cave Underneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico.

American Antiquity 40:131-147.

Heyden, Doris, 1981, The Eagle, The Cactus, The Rock: The Roots of Mexico-Tenochtitlan's Foundation Myth and Symbol. BAR International Series No. 484. B.A.R., Oxford.

Monaghan, John, 1994, The Covenants with Earth and Rain: Exchange, Sacrifice, and Revelation In Mixtec Sociality. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Taube, Karl A., 1986, The Teotihuacan Cave of Origin: The Iconography and Architecture of Emergence Mythology in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. RES 12:51-82.

Taube, Karl A., 1993, Aztec and Maya Myths. The Legendary Past. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Weigland, Phil C., 2002, Creation Northern Style, in Arqueología Mexicana, vol 10, Num.56, pp: 86-87.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Chicomoztoc - The Mythical Place of Origins of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/mythical-place-of-origins-of-aztecs-169339. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, August 9). Chicomoztoc - The Mythical Place of Origins of the Aztecs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mythical-place-of-origins-of-aztecs-169339 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Chicomoztoc - The Mythical Place of Origins of the Aztecs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mythical-place-of-origins-of-aztecs-169339 (accessed January 20, 2018).