In the Aztec pantheon, Ometecuhtli was the male half of the binary creator god Ōmeteōtl; his wife Omecihuatl represented the other half. The Aztecs believed that prior to Ometecuhtli creating himself the universe was unknowable and for all intents and purposes did not exist.

Residing in the thirteenth and highest heaven, Ometecuhtli existed outside of human influence and only rarely had any interactions with other gods.

There is debate amongst scholars about the nature of Ometecuhtli with some arguing that he represents a dual god, while others contend that this is a misinterpretation foisted upon the Aztec by Spaniards reading a deific multiplicity, similar to the Holy Trinity, onto translated texts.

This image from the Borgia Codex depicts Tonacatecuhtli (an alternative spelling of Ometecuhtli).Wikimedia Commons

Etymology

In some interpretations, Ometecuhtli represents half of Ōmeteōtl, the binary god of creation. In Nahuatl (the Aztec language) “Ome Teotle” literally means dual god or “Lord of Duality.”

Like many of the gods of the Aztecs, Ometecuhtli has more than one name, and his alternative appellation was Tonacatecuhtli. Tonacatecuhtli can be interpreted to mean “Lord of Our Food,” “Lord of Our Existence,” “Lord of Our Flesh,” “Lord of Our Sustenance” or “Lord of Abundance.” All of these titles refer to Tonacatecuhtli’s role as progenitor of the rest of the Aztec pantheon and thus of all things.

An alternative translation switches dual (Ome) for bone (Omi) rendering Ōmeteōtl as Bone Lord. This would overturn the dual god interpretation in favor of a god whose creations are crafted from dead bone.

Family

Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl have no parentage having each created themselves. With his wife, Ometecuhtli bore four sons who would all be central figures of the Aztec pantheon:

  • Xipe Totec (the god of agriculture, rebirth, and goldsmiths)

  • Tezcatlipoca (the god of the night sky, omnipresent, and knower of all thoughts)

  • Quetzalcoatl (the god of the wind, giver of maize to humanity, inventor of books and calendars)

  • Huītzilōpōchtli (the god of warfare, protector against the infinite night)

Mythology

Ometecuhtli is unique amongst the Aztec gods in that no temples were ever erected for him. After creating himself and then bearing children with his wife, his role in Aztec mythology is minimal. His children were four of the most significant of the Aztec gods but operated entirely independent of his influence. While the Aztec believed Ometecuhtli to be immensely important as the literal creator of their mythology, they thought him to be beyond the influence of human affairs and thus did not require temples or sacrifices.

An excerpt from the Ramirez Codex. Sometimes known as the Tovar Codex, this manuscript consists of 51 pages of watercolor paintings with accompanying descriptive texts.Wikimedia Commons

Origin Myth

According to the Ramirez Codex, a Spanish compilation based on Nahuatl works from the 16th century, Ometecuhtli and his wife “created themselves, and were perpetual inhabitants of the thirteenth heaven; of whose creation and beginning likewise there is nothing known except the fact that it also originated in the thirteenth heaven.”1 The thirteenth heaven, or Ilhuicatl-Omeyocan, was the highest level of heaven and only Ometecuhtli and his wife were capable of going there—hence its inscrutable nature.

Ometecuhtli’s first action of note was to bear four children with his wife Omecihuatl. While his first three children were born complete, his final son Huītzilōpōchtli “was born without flesh (nacio sin carne), but only bones” and would remain in this state for 600 years.2 During this time none of the gods would take any actions, instead they waited until that time had elapsed. After this point, Ometecuhtli’s children gathered and began to establish laws, but Ometecuhtli himself took no part in the process nor had any other role until 2028 years later.

The Five Suns

In the interceding millennia, Ometecuhtli’s sons had each taken a turn being the sun. Over time, each fell and was replaced by the next. When the final sun fell it resulted in a torrential deluge that brought the heavens down with it.

In order to put heaven back, Ometecuhtli’s sons created four people (some myths claim that they were Quetzacoatl’s followers who he resurrected from bones stolen from the underworld) and with their help managed to return the heavens to their lofty abode. In a rare act of involvement, Ometecuhtli proceeded to reward them by making them “lords of heaven and the stars.”3

Ultimately, a fifth and final sun was created and the Aztecs believed that it must be sustained and preserved against evil beings called Tzitzimimeh via human sacrifices.

A depiction of a Tzitzimitl from the mid 16th-century Codex Magliabechiano.Wikimedia Commons

The Origin of Tzitzimimeh

Interestingly, while Ometecuhtli is most notable for doing very little that would come to influence human affairs, the Codex Ramirez says that Ometecuhtli created the Tzitzimimeh as “guardians of the skies, and she [the Tzitzimimeh] never is seen because she is on the road that the heavens make.”4 This reference to being unseen makes sense when one considers that Tzitzimimeh are associated with the stars that can only be seen around the sun during solar eclipses.

The Aztecs believed that these stars were attacking the sun and that without human sacrifices there was a chance that the sun would “never more be rekindled, but on that very night the human race would come to an end, and darkness eternal would reign over all; no sun should ever appear again, but the Tzitzimimes, [sic] fearful demons, would descend and eat up all mankind.”5 Whether the Aztecs thought that Ometecuhtli’s creation defied his whims or simply regarded his actions as inscrutable isn’t entirely clear.

References

Footnotes

  1. 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. 

  2. Phillips, 617. 

  3. Phillips, 621. 

  4. Phillips, 638. 

  5. Phillips, 651.