Tezcatlipoca - Aztec God of Night and Smoking Mirrors

The Aztec God of Night, the North, Sorcery, Jaguars, and Obsidian

The Skull of the Smoking Mirror, Cult Representation of Tezcatlipoca, on display at the British Museum
The Skull of the Smoking Mirror, Cult Representation of Tezcatlipoca, on display at the British Museum. Critian Roberti

Tezcatlipoca (Tez-ca-tlee-POH-ka), whose name means “Smoking Mirror”, was the Aztec god of night and sorcery, as well as the patron deity of Aztec kings and young warriors. As with many Aztec gods, he was associated with several aspects of Aztec religion, the sky and the earth, winds and the north, 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 legitimize their right to rule.

A Supreme Deity

Recent research suggests that Tezcatlipoca was one of the most important gods in the Late Postclassic Aztec pantheon. He was an old-style pan-Mesoamerican god, considered the embodiment of the natural world, a frightening figure who was both omnipresent--on earth, in the land of the dead, and in the sky--and omnipotent. He rose to importance during the politically dangerous and unstable times of the Late Postclassic Aztec and early Colonial periods.

Tezcatlipoca was known as the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. That name is a reference to obsidian mirrors, circular flat shiny objects made of volcanic glass, as well as a symbolic reference to the smoke of battle and sacrifice.

According to ethnographic and historical sources, he was very much a god of light and shadow, of the sound and smoke of bells and battle. He was closely associated with obsidian (itzli in the Aztec language) and jaguars (ocelotl). Black obsidian is of the earth, highly reflective and a vital part of human blood sacrifices.

Jaguars were the epitome of hunting, warfare, and sacrifice to the Aztec people, and Tezcatlipoca was the familiar feline spirit of Aztec shamans, priests, and kings.

Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl

Tezcatlipoca was the son of the god Ometéotl, who was the original creator entity. One of Tezcatlipoca’s brothers was Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca joined forces to create the surface of the earth, but later became fierce enemies in the city of Tollan. For this reason, Quetzalcoatl is sometimes known as the White Tezcatlipoca to distinguish him from his brother, the Black Tezcatlipoca.

Many Aztec legends hold that Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl were the gods who originated the world, told in the myth of the Legend of the Fifth Sun. According to Aztec mythology, prior to the current times, 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. Tezcatlipoca ruled the first sun 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.

Opposing Forces

The opposition between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca is reflected in the legend of the mythical city of Tollan. The legend reports that Quetzalcoatl was a peaceful king and priest of Tollan, but he was deceived by Tezcatlipoca and his followers, who practiced human sacrifice and violence. Ultimately, Quetzalcoatl was 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’s Festivities

To Tezcatlipoca was dedicated one of the most ostentatious and imposing ceremonies of the Aztec religious calendar year. This was the Toxcatl or One Drought sacrifice, which was celebrated at the height of the dry season in May and involved the sacrifice of a boy.

A young man was chosen at the festival among the most physically perfect prisoners. For the next year, the young man personified Tezcatlipoca, traveling through the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan attended by servants, fed with delicious food, wearing the finest clothing, and being trained in music and religion. About 20 days before the final ceremony he was married to four virgins who entertained him with songs and dances; together they wandered Tenochtitlan's streets.

The final sacrifice took place at Toxcatl's May celebrations. The young man and his entourage traveled to the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, and as he walked up the stairs of the temple he played music with four flutes that represented the world's directions; he would destroy the four flutes on his way up the stairs. When he reached the top, a group of priests carried out his 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 codex images by the black stripes painted on 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.

Tezcatlipoca is sometimes illustrated as the jaguar deity Tepeyollotl ("Heart of the Mountain"). Jaguars are the patron of sorcerers and closely associated with the moon, Jupiter, and Ursa Major. In some images, a smoking mirror replaces Tezcatlipoca's lower leg or foot.

The earliest recognized representations of the pan-Mesoamerican god Tezcatlipoca are associated with Toltec architecture at the Temple of Warriors at Chichén Itzá, dated to AD 700-900. There is also at least one image of Tezcatlipoca at Tula; the Aztecs clearly associated Tezcatlipoca with the Toltecs. But images and contextual references to the god became much more abundant during the Late Postclassic period, at Tenochtitlan and Tlaxcallan sites such as Tizatlan. There are a few Late Postclassic images outside the Aztec empire including one at Tomb 7 at the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban in Oaxaca, which may represent a continuing cult. 

Sources

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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