Tezcatlipoca – Aztec God of Conflict and Change

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As many civilizations did, the Aztecs created their own myths, filling them with stories of powerful gods that played significant roles in everyday life. This is the case of Tezcatlipoca (‘Smoking Mirror’), who was widely known for being the deity of providence, conflict, and change.

The Aztecs believed Tezcatlipoca was ever-present and that he knew what was in the heart of every man. In this article, you will find more about the attributes and ceremonies related to Tezcatlipoca.

Origins of Tezcatlipoca

Tezcatlipoca was the first-born of the primal celestial couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl; who were also adored as the primal-dual god Ometeotl. Among all Ometeotl’s sons, Tezcatlipoca seems to have been the more powerful, and as such he, along with Quetzalcoatl, had a primary role in the Aztec creation myth.

Originally, the cult of Tezcatlipoca was brought to the Mexico Valley by the Toltec, a Nahua-speaking, warrior tribe that came from the North near the end of the 10 century AD. Later on, the Toltecs were defeated by the Aztecs, and the latter assimilated Tezcatlipoca as one of their main gods. Tezcatlipoca was considered a primary deity especially among the population of the city-state of Texcoco.

Tezcatlipoca’s Attributes

Aztec God Tezcatlipoca
Tezcatlipoca as illustrated in the Tovar Codex. Public Domain.

The attributes of the Aztec gods were fluid, which means that, in many cases, a deity could be identified with conflicting concepts. This is particularly true for Tezcatlipoca, who was the god of providence, beauty, justice, and rulership, but was also associated with poverty, ill-health, discord, and war.

Moreover, Tezcatlipoca was the only creator deity whose powers were compared to those of the primal-dual god Ometeotl; something that might explain the wide array of attributes that are related to him.

But unlike his progenitor, Tezcatlipoca didn’t remain in the sky, far and unaware of human affairs. Instead, he was always prone to intervening in the lives of the Aztecs, sometimes to deliver good fortune, but mostly to punish those who neglected his cult. Escaping from the Tezcatlipoca’s scrutiny seemed impossible for the Aztecs, since they believed that the god was both invisible and omnipresent; this is why his worshippers were constantly appeasing Tezcatlipoca with offerings and ceremonies.

When he was in his ethereal form, Tezcatlipoca was mainly associated with obsidian mirrors. These were the predilect instruments of the deity, and it was believed that Tezcatlipoca used them to know what was in the heart of men.

Tezcatlipoca also had several physical manifestations.

  • Impersonating Omácalt, he was the god of feasts.
  • As Yaolt (the ‘Enemy’) he was the patron of the warriors.
  • Under the appearance of Chalciuhtecólotl (‘Precious Owl’), the god was a sorcerer, master of black magic, death and destruction.
  • Tezcatlipoca could also transform himself into a jaguar (his animal counterpart, known also as ‘nagual’).
  • He could take the form of Tepeyollotl, the jaguar god, and deity of earthquakes.
Tezcatlipoca (smoking mirror) god symbol

Tezcatlipoca’s Role in the Aztec Creation Myth

The Aztecs believed that the cosmos had gone through different ages, each of which began and ended with the creation and destruction of a sun. During each age, a major deity ascended to the sky and transformed himself (or herself) into the sun; thus becoming the main divinity and regent of that era. Among all the gods, Tezcatlipoca was the first to occupy the role of the sun.

Tezcatlipoca’s reign lasted for 676 years. During that time, the god-sun populated the world with a race of giants that could only eat acorns. The rule of Tezcatlipoca came to an end when his brother Quetzalcoatl, probably out of envy, threw him down from the sky and into the sea. When Tezcatlipoca re-emerged, he was so mad for having been dethroned, that he transformed himself into a gigantic jaguar and destroyed the world.

In another version of the myth, it wasn’t Tezcatlipoca himself who executed the cataclysm, but an endless number of jaguars, summoned by the god. These jaguars caused a great deal of destruction, eating all the giants in the process, before being wiped away by Quetzalcoatl, who then became the second Sun.

The animosity between the two brothers continued for several centuries. In turn, when the second era reached 676 years, Tezcatlipoca unleashed a blast of wind that took Quetzalcoatl away, thus ending his reign. But things changed when the age of the fourth Sun concluded with an immense flood that covered the whole world, and made life on it unsustainable; except for the fishes and a gigantic half-crocodile, half-serpent monster, called Cipactli.

This time, both Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl understood that the flood was far more relevant than their rivalry, so they put aside their differences and orchestrated a plan to rebuild the world. First, Tezcatlipoca dipped one of his feet in the waters and waited. A little while after, Cipactli, being attracted by the bait, bit the foot off. Then, the two gods transformed into snakes, fought the reptilian monster to death, and split its body in two; one part became the earth, and the other turned into the sky.

The next thing Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl did was to create the human race. Shortly after, the age of the fifth sun, the era in which the Aztecs placed themselves, began.

How was Tezcatlipoca Represented in Aztec Arts?

Obsidian Scrying Mirror
Large Obsidian Scrying Mirror by Satia Hara. See it here.

Despite the destruction of most of the Mesoamerican cultural legacy during the early Colonial era, there are still a few artistic objects portraying Tezcatlipoca that can be examined today. Among these pieces of art, the Aztec codices remain one of the primary sources to learn how the Aztecs represented their gods.

When depicting Tezcatlipoca, most codices include a set of very similar features. This representation consists mainly of horizontal yellow and black bands crossing the face of the god, the characteristic obsidian ‘smoking’ mirror, and the absence of his left foot (which Tezclatlipoca lost during his battle against Cipactli). These are the characteristics that the god displays in the Codex Borgia.

However, in other codices, significant variations from this depiction can be found. For instance, in the Codex Borbonicus Tezcatlipoca is portrayed as Tepeyollotl, the jaguar god. One of the most intriguing aspects of this representation is the presence of the ezpitzal, a stream of blood that comes right out of the god’s forehead and has a human heart inside of it.

For some scholars, the ezpitzal represents the madness and rage to which Tezcatlipoca is prompted when someone neglects his cult. However, it’s still not clear if this pictorial detail had any other religious meanings.

Other objects depict Tezcatlipoca as having turquoise and black bands on his face. Such is the case of the turquoise mask, which consists of a skull cut away at the back and decorated in the front with a mosaic made with blue turquoise and black lignite. This ritual mask, currently on display in the British Museum, is probably the most known artistic representation of Tezcatlipoca.

Toxcatl Feast

The Toxcatl feast took place during the fifth of the eighteen month ritual Aztec calendar. For this ceremony, a young warrior, commonly a war prisoner, would be chosen to impersonate the god Tezcatlipoca for one year, after which he would be sacrificed. Taking the place of the deity during this feast was considered to be a great honor.

The impersonator, known as ‘ixiptla’, would spend most of this time wearing luxurious clothes, and giving parades through Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

The ixiptla also had to learn how to play the flute, one of the ceremonial objects attributed to Tezcatlipoca. Twenty days before the sacrifice, the god’s impersonator would marry four young ladies, who were also adored as goddesses. After almost a year of abstinence, these weddings represented the renewal of land fertility.

On the last day of the Toxcalt feast, the sacrificial victim would climb the stairs of a temple consecrated to Tezcatlipoca, breaking one clay flute for every step given.

Finally, when the god’s impersonator reached the top of the shrine, several priests would seize him, while another would use an obsidian knife to murder the ixiptla and take his heart out. The next impersonator of the god was chosen the same day.

Conclusion

Tezcatlipoca was one of the main deities of the Aztec pantheon, a preeminence that the god won by participating in both the creation of the world and in that of the human race.

However, given the ambivalence of Tezcatlipoca’s character, the Aztecs considered him as the incarnation of change through conflict, and were very careful not to provoke his rage. Indeed, the personality of the god seems to have been as volatile as the smoke with which Tezcatlipoca was commonly represented.

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