Among his many accolades, Huitzilopochtli (pronounced Weet-zee-lo-pocht’-lee) was the patron god of the Mexica people, the Aztec god of war, and a key figure in the creation of the Aztec cosmogony. Huitzilopochtli led the Aztec people to Tenochtitlan and half of the Templo Mayor at the city’s center was dedicated to him.

Both fallen warriors and women who died in childbirth were thought to become a part of his retinue, although the warriors would be reborn as hummingbirds after accompanying him for four years.

Huitzilopochtli wielding his snake spear, Xiuhcoatl.Public Domain

Etymology

The literal translation of Huitzilopochtli’s name is “Hummingbird’s Left,” or “Hummingbird on the Left” and for awhile scholars suggested that this should be taken to mean “left-handed hummingbird.” Most modern scholars, however, dispute this translation and note that in Aztec cartographic tradition south was depicted to the left. Hummingbirds were thought to be reincarnated warriors, and so the implied meaning is “Reincarnated Warrior God from the South.”

Attributes

Befitting his status as a god of war Huitzilopochtli was believed to be an immensely powerful warrior. He wielded a shield, war darts, and Xiuhcoatl (a lightning-like fire serpent) as a spear. However, despite his martial prowess, the Aztecs believed he was capable of being defeated, and with his defeat would come the fall of the Aztec empire.1

Family

Like many of the Aztec gods, Huitzilopochtli has multiple origin stories. The multiplicity of kinship ties isn’t problematic because the Aztec mythology neither had nor required rigid hierarchies or family structures.2

The first story has the creator gods Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl as Huitzilopochtli’s father and mother. In this telling Huitzilopochtli was the fourth of four children. His brothers are Xipe Totec (the god of agriculture, rebirth, and goldsmiths), Tezcatlipoca (the god of the night sky, omnipresent, and knower of all thoughts), and Quetzalcoatl (the god of the wind, giver of maize to humanity, inventor of books and calendars).

The second story has Huitzilopochtli as being born to Coatlicue, a primordial earth goddess. He was conceived when his mother put a ball of hummingbird feathers underneath her breasts. Recall that the symbolism here is that hummingbirds represent reincarnated warriors. The implication seems to be that he was sired by an anonymous warrior—which seems to have been how Coatlicue’s 400 other children took it. Offended by the nature of her pregnancy they, depending on the telling of the myth, killed Huitzilopochtli’s mother, attempted to kill her, or attempted to kill the unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli’s first act was to emerge from the womb fully armed and defeat his attacking siblings.

Mythology

Huitzilopochtli’s role in the Aztec pantheon was a diverse one. The dawn of creation literally paused and waited for his arrival. He led the Mexica people to Tenochtitlan, the eventual seat of power of the Aztec Empire. He was venerated as the primary god of war, with sacrifices made in his name both in times of victory and defeat. It was foretold that he would be defeated and that with his defeat would come the fall of the Aztec Empire.

It is undeniable that Huitzilopochtli was a significant deity within the Aztec mythology—however, there are some scholars who suspect that the Spanish attributed greater significance to him than the Aztecs did pre-conquest. Bernardino de Sahagun’s (born 1499CE, died 1590CE) seminal text, Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, drew parallels between the Aztec gods and the ancient Mediterranean gods, whether or not such comparisons were appropriate.3 Huitzilopochtli’s position as god of war akin to Mars and his virgin-birth set him up perfectly to be received by the Europeans as a god of preeminent importance.4

Origin Myth: Son of Ometecuhtli & Omecihuatl

The earliest origin myth of Huitzilopochtli tells the tale of him being born the fourth and final son of Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl. Huitzilopochtli “was born without flesh (nacio sin carne), but only bones,” and remained fleshless for 600 years.5 After those 600 years had passed, Huitzilopochtli and his brothers began the process of creating the world and its laws.

Origin Myth: Son of Coatlicue

The second origin myth for Huitzilopochtli bears resemblance to Jesus’ conception—although it is unclear how much of the parallels are due to simple coincidence or are the direct result of the Spanish reading Christianity onto Aztec mythology.

This story begins with the Mexica people departing their ancestral home Aztlan in search of a prophesied city that would become the seat of a great empire. The exodus from Aztlan and subsequent journeying took many years with periodic sojourns where the Mexica would erect temples to Huitzilopochtli.

A statue of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlicue.Creative Commons

According to the Codex Ramirez, during one stopover near a place called Coatepec (serpent hill) “Quatlique [the goddess Coatlicue] who was a virgin, took a small quantity of white feathers and placed them in her bosom, from which she conceived without having known man, and there was born of her Vchilogos [an alternative name for Huitzilopochtli].”6 What followed next was that Coatlicue’s daughter Coyolxauhqui, outraged by the nature of her pregnancy, led 400 of her brothers in an attack against the pregnant Coatlicue. Huitzilopochtli emerged from his mother’s womb “in full war regalia” and destroyed his brothers and sisters in combat.7

Tenochtitlan

Prior to the founding of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, the Aztec people lived in the city from which they derived their group’s name: Aztlan. Around 1064CE the Aztecs left Aztlan, perhaps prompted by the supernova that led to the creation of the Crab Nebula. For the next 270 years the Aztec people were semi-nomadic, briefly settling at times for 25 years or so before moving along. In 1325 they came to a lake where an eagle, perched atop a cactus, was seen eating a snake, a sign which had been prophesied by Huitzilopochtli and meant that this spot would become the seat of the Aztec empire.

Some have argued that the founding story of Tenochtitlan offers insight into how Huitzilopochtli was a new member of the Aztec pantheon. Read and Gonzalez note that “one tale first describes him as an image carried in a bundle on the back of the early Mexica ancestors wandering the land. This bundle looked like the bundle dead rulers were wrapped into...this person may have been a chief named for the god, or a great chief who later died and became the god.”8

The Templo Mayor was erected at the center of Tenochtitlan and was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli as well as Tlaloc, the god of rain. Read and Gonzalez take this shared temple space as another indication of Huitzilopochtli’s relatively new origin amongst the Aztec gods. The temple served as the central site of sacrifices made to Huitzilopochtli, ranging from ceremonial sculptures to human sacrifice.

The imagery of the eagle eating a snake has remained a prominent part of Mexican cultural heritage—here depicted on the Mexican flag.Wikipedia / Public Domain

The Fall of Huitzilopochtli and the Aztec Empire

The Aztec believed that their rise to dominance in central Mexico was strongly influenced by Huitzilopochtli. It was his guidance that instructed them to leave Aztlan, his prophecy that directed them to Tenochtitlan, and as their god of war he was instrumental in their victorious conquest of neighboring groups. However, they believed that he was not incapable of defeat and that when he fell it would mean the fall of the Aztec Empire.

In Moctezuma I’s reign one of Huitzilopochtli’s temples burned down. The fire was “uncontrollable...throwing water on the flames only made them worse.”9 This was taken to be an evil omen which would soon come to be proven correct during the reign of Moctezuma II’s (the son of Moctezuma I) reign. The first Spanish attack against the Aztec occurred when Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado attacked the city of Tenochtitlan during Toxcatl, a feast day dedicated to Huitzilopochtli.

Huitzilopochtli makes an appearance in the trading card game Vampire: The Eternal Struggle as, somewhat unsurprisingly, a vampire. In the game’s lore Huitzilopochtli “used the… Aztecs as tools to drive out the werebeasts that inhabited the lands.”

References

Footnotes


  1. Kay Almere Read and Jason J. Gonzalez, Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology, (Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2000), 193-194. 

  2. John M. D. Pohl and Claire L. Lyons, The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, (Los Angeles: Getty Publishing, 2010), 32-33. 

  3. Pohl and Lyons, 31. 

  4. Read and Gonzalez, 195. 

  5. Henry Phillips, Jr., “Notes upon the Codex Ramirez, with a Translation of the Same,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 21:116 (June 1884), 617. 

  6. Phillips, 626. In other sources these feathers are described as hummingbird feathers. Also, the Ramirez Codex is inconsistent in spelling Vchilogos, occasionally presenting it as Vchilobo or Vchilobos. Phillips explains that “In the sixteenth century it was customary to express the same sound indiscriminately by Vi and Hui...the Spaniards, unable to pronounce the name usually called him Huichilobos;” Phillips, 641.  

  7. Read and Gonzalez, 193. 

  8. Read and Gonzalez, 194. 

  9. Read and Gonzalez, 193.