The Aztecs were a people of migration and myth, whose development was brutally interrupted by the Spanish Conquest. They lived in what is today Mexico with powerful priests, a theocratic emperor and a well-populated pantheon of gods, many borrowed from the people they conquered. It is possible the Aztec religion would have embraced the Christ of the conquerors as yet another god in their ever-growing stable. But the exclusive nature of Christianity was part of what spelled their doom.

People of the Sun

Aztec religious belief was heliocentric and they were known as the people of the sun. They worshiped, spun sacred stories about, and sacrificed to the sun. All their gods and heroes are aspects of the sun: Quetzalcoatl is the setting sun, an old man who dwells in the west; Huitzilopochtli is the heroic midday sun, a vigorous, youthful war-god; Tonatiuh was the sun itself -- his protruding tongue referred to the hunger for blood that fed the gods. Each day, the rising and setting sun symbolized the birth, death and then rebirth of everything living and there was constant sacrifice and ritual designed to maintain that crucial order in the universe. The many gods of those conquered by the Aztecs were folded into a vast heliotheistic pantheon of deities.

Creation Myths

The legions of gods are players in complex and elaborate creation mythology -- Aztec codices that predate the disastrous arrival of Cortez and his virtual extermination of the Aztec empire depict the world as a series of sun epochs. In the first, the "four tiger" sun, the earth's creatures were devoured, after hundreds of years, by tigers, or jaguars. The next sun, "four wind" was swept away by fierce winds after more than 300 years and anyone who survived became a monkey. The "four rain" sun was extinguished by a terrible fire and the people left behind were changed into birds. The final sun. "four water," was washed away by a great flood, leaving only one man and one woman behind and all others turned into fish. Eventually, the sun and the moon became brilliant but lifeless stars and the gods agreed to sacrifice themselves so the sun would be enlivened. The sun overwhelmed the moon, just as the Aztecs persevered to defeat their enemies and emerge victorious.

By the Numbers

Numbers were extremely important to Aztec thinking and the number four had an extraordinary mythical resonance. There were four suns in early creation stories; every early sun ended on a day ending in number four; the lengths of sun times were calculated as multiples of four. The Aztec divine calendar was known as "the book of destiny" and assigned each date a god who was auspicious for all who were born on that date. The priests consulted the calendar, searching for portents in advance of significant events. The calendar contained the math by which the universe was formulated and governed the lives of both the gods and humans. It was so complicated that most of the Aztec clergy spent their lives studying and teaching it. And it reflected a basic Aztec pessimism -- at the end of each mathematical era, every 52 years, all fires were extinguished in anticipation that the world might end.

Blood Sacrifice

The Aztec sun had a voracious appetite for blood and Aztec wars were holy struggles to take prisoners who would be honored in advance of their supreme sacrifice to keep the world in place. Warrior-knights considered it their ultimate calling to capture sacrificial prisoners and then to become sacrifices themselves, transfigured in death into eagles who flew with the sun. Human sacrifice entailed death by arrows -- with the slow seepage of the victim's blood watering the ground, by flaying alive, decapitation, burning, or removing the living heart. Priests and rulers cut themselves to offer their own blood. When the Spaniards arrived, their mission to kill as many of the "savages" as they could gave them an advantage over the Aztecs, who collected prisoners, not corpses, for the purpose of feeding their gods.