Tezcatlipoca

Aztec God of Night, the North and Sorcery

A stone relief featuring Tezcatlipoca
De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange / Getty Images

Tezcatlipoca (Tez-ca-tlee-PO-ka), whose name means “Smoking Mirror”, was the Aztec god of night and sorcery, as well as the patron deity of Aztec kings and of young warriors. As with many Aztec gods, he had different aspects connected with the sky, winds, the north, the earth, kingship, divination, and war. For the different aspects he embodied, Tezcatlipoca was also known as the Red Tezcatlipoca of the West, and the Black Tezcatlipoca of the North, associated with death and cold.

According to Aztec mythology, Tezcatlipoca was a vengeful god, who could see and punish any evil behavior or action happening on earth. For these qualities, Aztec kings were considered Tezcatlipoca’s representatives on earth; at their election, they had to stand in front of the god’s image and perform several ceremonies in order to legitimate their right to rule.

Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl

Tezcatlipoca was the son of the god Ometéotl, who was the original creator entity. One of Tezcatlipoca’s brothers was Quetzalcoatl, who, according to Aztec mythology, was both an enemy as well as his dualistic aspect. For this reason, Quetzalcoatl is sometimes known as the White Tezcatlipoca to distinguish him from his brother, the Black Tezcatlipoca.

The opposition between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca is reflected in the legend of the mythical city of Tollan. The legend goes that Quetzalcoatl, the peaceful king, and priest of Tollan, was deceived by Tezcatlipoca and his followers, who were more into sacrifices and violence, and forced into exile.

Some archaeologists and historians believe that the legend of the fight between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl refers to historical events such as the clash of different ethnic groups from the North and Central Mexico.

Tezcatlipoca and the Origin of the World

Many Aztec legends hold that Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl were the gods who originated the world.

According to Aztec mythology, the world had passed through a series of four cycles, or “suns”, each one represented by a specific deity, and each one ending in a turbulent way. The Aztecs believed they lived in the fifth and last epoch. The first one was the world ruled by Tezcatlipoca when the world was inhabited by giants. A fight between Tezcatlipoca and the god Quetzalcoatl, who wanted to replace him, put an end to this first world with the giants being devoured by jaguars.

Tezcatlipoca’s Festivities

To Tezcatlipoca was dedicated one of the most important ceremonies of the whole year. This was the Toxcatl, which was celebrated in May and involved the sacrifice of a boy. This young man was chosen among the most physically perfect prisoners. In the year preceding the ceremony, the young man personified the god himself and was attended by servants, fed with delicious food, wore the finest cloth and was trained in music and religion. About 20 days before the actual ceremony he was married to four virgins who entertained him with songs and dances.

The actual sacrifice took place during a solemn ceremony. The young man was accompanied to a temple outside Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and as he walked up the stairs of the temple he played music with four flutes that represented the world's directions and that he would then destroy.

When he reached the top a group of priest waited for him to carry out the sacrifice.  As soon as this happened, a new boy was chosen for the following year.

Tezcatlipoca’s Images

In his human form, Tezcatlipoca is easily recognizable in codices images by the black stripes in his face - depending on the aspect of the god that was represented - and by an obsidian mirror on his chest, through which he could see all human thoughts and actions. Symbolically, Tezcatlipoca is also often represented by an obsidian knife.

Sources

Taube, Karl A., 1993, Aztec and Maya Myths. Fourth Edition. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Van Tuerenhout Dirk R., 2005, The Aztecs. New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO Inc. Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO and Oxford, England.