The Aztec Sun god and the impetus for countless human sacrifices, Huitzilopochtli left a blood-soaked mark on Mesoamerican history.
If asked to name an Aztec god, most people would probably point to the serpent god Quetzalcoatl. But the Aztec pantheon contained many other impressive — and terrifying — deities. Among them was the god of the Sun, war, and human sacrifice: Huitzilopochtli.
Huitzilopochtli, whose name translates to “Resuscitated Warrior of the South,” was often depicted with yellow-striped face paint and blue body paint, a headdress with colorful hummingbird feathers, and a flowing cape.
According to legend, the deity led the Aztec people to Tenochtitlan, where they built their capital. There, they erected a massive temple in the city center dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, where they carried out their many human sacrifices.
In the 500 years since the collapse of the Aztec civilization, Spanish chroniclers have recorded a wealth of fascinating details about Huitzilopochtli’s mythos. This is the story of the legendary Aztec Sun god.
The Fantastical Origins Of The Aztec Sun God
Aztec mythology has two conflicting origin stories for this important god.
According to the first, Huitzilopochtli was born to the creator couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl alongside Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec. He supposedly came into the world “with only bones and no flesh.”
Per Mythopedia, after 600 years, the creator gods directed Huitzilopochtli and his brothers to create the world. They made fire, a rather weak Sun, and the first humans to populate the new planet.
While this story explains the world’s origin as well, the other version of the Aztec Sun god’s birth has a bit more dramatic flair.
This legend begins with Coatlicue, the Earth Mother goddess, sweeping at Coatepec, or Snake Mountain. There, she collected a ball of feathers that had fallen from the sky and placed it in her bosom — and it miraculously impregnated her.
After hearing about the pregnancy, Coatlicue’s daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and 400 sons vowed to kill her for dishonoring the family.
As the Florentine Codex describes it, Huitzilopochtli spoke to Coatlicue from the womb: “Do not fear, I already know what I am going to do about this!”
Just as Coatlicue’s children descended on Snake Mountain, Huitzilopochtli emerged from his mother “magnificently arrayed” in a full set of armor.
Huitzilopochtli took command of a turquoise snake on the mountain and used it to attack Coyolxauhqui. With two quick movements, the hummingbird god beheaded his sister.
Then Huitzilopochtli turned to his brethren. “He chased them down and around the mountain four times [and] made them turn tail,” the Florentine Codex relates. “He destroyed them well, he completely enveloped them in clouds and thoroughly finished them off with smoke.”
After the carnage, Coatlicue remained standing, and the Aztec Sun god had cemented himself as a deity to be reckoned with.
Some versions of the myth report that Huitzilopochtli slung Coyolxauhqui’s head into the skies, where it became the Moon, while his 400 dead brothers became the stars and constellations. The Aztecs believed that this fight between Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui took place every single day, giving rise to day and night, a battle between the Sun and the Moon.
Regardless of Huitzilopochtli’s origins, he ultimately became one of the most important gods in Aztec tradition.
Huitzilopochtli Leads The Mexica To Tenochtitlan
According to Spanish chronicler Father Diego Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain, Huitzilopochtli also figured centrally in another critical myth: the story of the Mexica’s journey from Aztlán to Tenochtitlan, which would become the Aztec Empire’s center. The Mexica were one specific ethnic group among the Aztecs.
This legend starts with an unwanted guest: Malinalxochitl, Huitzilopochtli’s sister.
After the Mexica complained about Malinalxochitl’s misdeeds and supposed witchcraft, Huitzilopochtli issued an edict: “He commands that his sister be abandoned in [Aztlán], with her evil sorcery.”
By the time the Mexica had reached Chapultepec, Malinalxochitl’s son Copil had already begun a campaign against them. In response, Huitzilopochtli instructed the Mexica to “catch Copil unaware, slay him, and bring the god [Copil’s] heart.”
The Mexica did just that.
Instead of taking Copil’s heart in hand, though, the Aztec Sun god instructed the Mexica priest to throw the heart as far as he could into Lake Texcoco.
Huitzilopochtli also made a pronouncement. A prickly pear cactus would grow from Copil’s heart, becoming “so tall and luxuriant that a fine eagle [will] make his nest here.”
Once the Mexica found the eagle on the prickly pear, “We shall be fortunate, for there we shall find our rest, our comfort, and our grandeur,” the priest related.
The Mexica saw more trials and tribulations before reaching the eagle and the cactus.
After dealing with unfriendly chiefs and wandering through Lake Texcoco’s marshes, the Mexica finally found the eagle and the prickly pear. There, they would build Tenochtitlan, the capital of their empire.
Of course, it would take decades of building to make Tenochtitlan into the city that the Spaniards came upon in 1519. Initially, however, the Mexica prioritized one edifice: a temple that was built where the prickly pear stood.
“It is only just that we be grateful to our god and that we thank him for all he does for us,” the priest reportedly said. The temple “cannot yet be of stone, so let it be of earth and reeds.”
The Templo Mayor would get its start on that day.
Huitzilopochtli As The God Of Human Sacrifice
Over time, the Templo Mayor would grow beyond earth and reeds to become the most important spiritual structure in Tenochtitlan, with temples for Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain.
European chroniclers generally focused on one aspect of the Aztec Sun god’s worship: human sacrifices.
As the god associated with both the Sun and war, Huitzilopochtli required frequent human sacrifice to strengthen his efforts. “There were few” feasts or ritual occasions that did not include ritual sacrifice, Durán reported.
Durán described the sacrifices in detail. A six-member team of priests initially subdued the victim on a stone, representing Huitzilopochtli’s defeat of Coyolxauhqui. Afterward, “the high priest then opened the chest and with amazing swiftness tore out the heart… with his own hands.”
“Thus steaming, the heart was lifted toward the Sun, and the fumes were offered up,” he continued.
The most important sacrifices took place at the Festival of Toxcatl, held in May to ask for good rains for the upcoming year. Ironically, this festival played a major role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.
In 1520, Spanish commander Pedro de Alvarado had heard rumors that the Aztecs would use the Feast of Toxcatl to revolt against the Spanish. To retaliate, he ordered the massacre of thousands of worshipers. In turn, this started a chain of events that would topple the Aztec Empire.
As it seems, then, Huitzilopochtli played a role in both the beginning and the end of the Aztec Empire’s history.
After reading about the Aztec Sun god Huitzilopochtli, learn more about the Templo Mayor, where sacrifices to the deity took place. Then read about the history of human sacrifice in the pre-Columbian Americas.