Mictlāntēcutli – The Aztec God of Death

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Mictlantecuhtli is one of the principal gods of the Aztecs and one of the strangest characters in the world’s many mythologies. As a god of death, Mictlantecuhtli ruled over the Aztec version of Hell and was typically portrayed either with a skull for a head or as an entire skeleton.

Mictlantecuhtli played a significant role in Aztec myths, most notably their creation stories.  This article outlines the main myths about Mictlantecuhtli below, and his symbolism and relevance today.

Aztec god of death facts

Who is Mictlāntēcutli?

Mictlantecuhtli was husband to Mictecacíhuatl and lord of Mictlan/Chicunauhmictlan – the land of the death in Aztec mythology. In fact, Mictlantecuhtli’s name means exactly that – Lord of Mictlan or Lord of the Land of the Death.

Other names for this god included Nextepehua (Scatterer of Ashes), Ixpuztec (Broken Face), and Tzontemoc (He Who Lowers His Head). In most of his depictions or visual representations, he is shown as a bloodied skeleton or a man with a skull for a head. However, he is also always covered with royal garments such as a crown, sandals, and others. That is meant to show his high status as not just a deity but as a lord.

Mictlantecuhtli is also associated with spiders, bats, and owls, as well as the 11th hour of the day.

Lord of (some of) the Dead

Aztec god of death
Wearable sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli. See it here.

Mictlantecuhtli may have been a Lord of Death but he wasn’t actively involved in killing people or even waging or inciting wars. Mictlantecuhtli was perfectly content sitting in his kingdom and waiting for people to die on their own.

In fact, Mictlantecuhtli wasn’t even the god of all people who died in Aztec mythology. Instead, the Aztecs differentiated between three types of death which determined who goes where in the afterlife:

  • Warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth joined the Sun and War God Huitzilopochtli in his bright solar palace in the south and their souls turned into hummingbirds.
  • People who died of drowning, from diseases connected to rain and floods, and people who were killed by lightning went to Tlālōcān – the Aztec paradise ruled over by the rain deity Tlaloc.
  • People who died of all other causes had to go through a four-year journey through the Nine Hells of Aztec mythology until they reached Mictlan. Once there, their souls disappeared forever and they found rest.

Essentially, Mictlan is the worst option for an Aztec to end up in. At the same time, it’s hardly comparable to hells in other mythologies.

Mictlan – The Land of the Dead

According to Aztec myths, the Land of the Dead is located “to the right” or north of Tenochtitlan and the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs associated the right direction with the north and the left direction with the south. This puts Mictlan in direct opposition to Huitzilopochtli and his palace which are said to be in the south.

It’s also worth noting that the Aztec tribes (Acolhua, Chichimecs, Mexica, and Tepanecs) migrated to central Mexico from the northern land called Aztlan. They are also said to have escaped the unfavorable ruling elite called Azteca Chicomoztoca. The Mexica myths also say that when Huitzilopochtli led the Aztecs south he told them to rename themselves to Mexica as a way to put their past behind.

This origin myth of the Aztec empire doesn’t directly reference Mictlan and Mictlantecuhtli but it’s unlikely a coincidence that the Aztecs viewed north as “The land of the Dead” and the opposite of Huitzilopochtli.

As for Mictlan itself, the myths describe it as a dark and desolate place full of human bones with Mictlantecuhtli’s palace in the middle. His palace is said to be a windowless house that he shared with his wife Mictecacíhuatl. While people’s souls vanished once reaching this final realm of hell, their remains were apparently left behind.

In fact, people’s mortal remains were able to outlast the universe itself in Mictlan, given how Aztec cosmology works. According to the Aztecs, the world has been created and has ended four times before its current iteration. This cycle is usually related to the sun god Huitzilopochtli and whether or not he’ll manage to prevent the moon and the star gods from destroying the Earth. However, it’s curious that Mictlan has outlasted all of those four destructions of the universe and its five recreations.

Mictlantecuhtli and the Creation Myth

Mictlantecuhtli sculpture
Clay sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli by Teyolia 13. See it here.

The Aztecs have several different creation myths but the most prominent one includes Mictlantecuhtli. According to it, the universe was created (once again) by the gods Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, the givers of life.

Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl are viewed as polar opposites to Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl. However, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl were also father and mother to the famous gods Quetzalcoatl (The Feathered Serpent), Huitzilopochtli (Sun God and Hummingbird of the South), Xipe Totec (Our Lord Flayed), and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror).

This is important because, after creating the universe, Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl charged two of their sons with bringing order to it and creating life. In some myths, those two sons are Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, in others – Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. In still other myths, it was Quetzalcoatl and his twin Xolotl – the god of fire. Regardless, the duo created the Earth and the Sun, as well as life on the Earth. And they did so by visiting Mictlantecuhtli.

According to most accepted versions of the Aztec created myth, Quetzalcoatl was the one who had to travel to Mictlan and steal bones from the Land of the Dead. This was before the Feathered Serpent had created life on Earth, so the bones were of people who had died in the previous universe. Quetzalcoatl needed the bones of the dead precisely in order to create the new people of the world from them. He was supposed to bring the bones to Tamoanchan, a mythical place in Central Mexico where other gods would imbue the bones with life and create humanity.

Quetzalcoatl’s trip to Mictlan wasn’t uneventful, however. There, the Feathered Serpent gathered as many bones as he could carry but was confronted by Mictlantecuhtli before he could leave Mictlan. Mictlantecuhtli tried to block Quetzalcoatl’s escape but the Feathered Serpent managed to escape him just barely.

Mictlantecuhtli succeeded in tripping Quetzalcoatl for a moment, forcing the god to drop the bones and break some of them. However, Quetzalcoatl gathered as many of them as possible and retreated to Tamoanchan. The fact that some of the bones were broken is cited as the reason why some people are shorter and others – taller.

However, this is just one version of the myth.

A Battle of Wits

In another, arguably more popular variant, Mictlantecuhtli doesn’t try to block or fight Quetzalcoatl but tries to trick him instead. Mictlantecuhtli promises to let Quetzalcoatl leave Mictlan with as many bones as he wants if he first performs a simple test – travel through Mictlan four times, carrying a conch shell trumpet.

Quetzalcoatl happily agrees to the simple task, but Mictlantecuhtli gives him a normal conch-shell with no holes in it. Determined to complete the task, Quetzalcoatl calls upon worms to drill holes in the shell and bees to get inside and make it sound like a trumpet. With the assistance of the insects, the Feathered Serpent runs four times around Mictlan to complete Mictlantecuhtli’s quest.

In a last attempt to stop him, Mictlantecuhtli orders his servants, the Mictera, to dig a pit near where Quetzalcoatl was supposed to finish his last trip around Mictlan. The Mictera did so and, unfortunately, Quetzalcoatl got distracted by a quail just as he was approaching the pit. Not looking where he was going, he fell down, scattered the bones, and was left unable to leave the pit or Mictlan.

Eventually, however, Quetzalcoatl managed to rouse himself, gather many of the bones, and escape. He then delivered the bones to the goddess Cihuacóatl in Tamoanchan. The goddess mixed the bones with drops of Quetzalcoatl’s blood and created the first men and women from the mixture.

Symbols and Symbolism of Mictlāntēcutli  

As a lord of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli’s symbolism is clear – he represents death and the afterlife. Yet, it’s curious that Mictlantecuhtli isn’t really viewed as a malevolent force or as a god the Aztecs feared.

Mictlantecuhtli may have tried to stop the creation of life at first, but he doesn’t pester the world of the living once it’s created.

There were statues of Mictlantecuhtli erected on the north side of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan. There were ceremonies and rituals devoted to Mictlantecuhtli as well, with some reportedly including cannibalism.

Mictlantecuhtli is the god of the day sign Itzcuintli (dog), and was believed to give those born on that day their energy and souls.

Importance of Mictlāntēcutli in Modern Culture

Mictlantecuhtli may not be as popular today as Quetzalcoatl is, but he can still be seen in quite a few pieces of media. Some interesting mentions include the 2018 animated series Constantine: City of Demons, the Mexican animated series Victor and Valentino, Aliette de Bodard’s 2010 book Servant of the Underworld, the Mexican animation Onyx Equinox, and others.

Wrapping Up

One of the prominent deities of the Aztecs, Mictlantecuhtli had an important role to play in Aztec society. Unlike many other death deities in other cultures, he was respected but not feared as a negative force.

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