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Spanish Conquest & Aztecs: Religion

Year 8 History | Exploring the Spanish conquest of the Americas

Page from the Book of the Life of Ancient Mexicans, Codex Magliabecci, XIII, 11, 3

Source: Page from the Book of the Life of Ancient Mexicans, Codex Magliabecci, XIII, 11, 3

Religion was a crucial part of every aspect of life for the Aztec peoples, with images of the gods appearing on everyday objects, as well as items used specifically for religious rituals. The Aztec faith shared many aspects with other Mesoamerican religions, like that of the Maya, notably including the rite of human sacrifice. In the great cities of the Aztec empire, magnificent temples, palaces, plazas and statues embodied the civilization’s unfailing devotion to the many Aztec gods. Read through the resources below to learn more about the religion and belief system of the Aztec peoples.

Aztec religion (History Crunch, 2019, September 3)

The Aztecs ruled over a powerful empire throughout much of central Mexico in the centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors during the European Age of Exploration.  An important aspect of the Aztec Empire and history was their religious beliefs and practices.  In general, the Aztecs shared many of their main religious beliefs and practices with other societies in the region.  For example, some gods and religious practices were common throughout different Mesoamerican societies, including: Toltec and Teotihuacan.  As such, when learning about Aztec religion it’s important to understand that much of it also applies to other civilizations throughout the history of the region. This article describes some of the religious beliefs and practices of the region.

Religion, gods and mythology (Ducksters, n.d.)

This website gives a short overview of some of the mythology and gods that were important to Aztec culture.

Aztec religious beliefs (DK Find Out, n.d.)

This interactive website provides some brief information about some of the beliefs of the Aztec people.

Aztec rituals and religious ceremonies (History on the Net, n.d.)

Aztec rituals and religious symbolism imbued the civilization’s life with religious meaning throughout the year. Every month had at least one major religious ceremony honoring a god or gods. Most of these ceremonies were related to the agricultural season, the sowing of corn or the harvest of fruits. This article describes some of the rituals involved with these religious ceremonies, and why they were so important to Aztec culture.

Human sacrifices: why the Aztecs performed this gory ritual (History Channel, 2018, October 11)

This article describes some of the ritual sacrifices performed by the Aztecs, and why they did them.

Aztec sacrifice: the meaning of ritual human killings (ThoughtCo, 2019, April 14)

Human sacrifices were famously a part of the Aztec culture, famous in part because of deliberate propaganda out of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, who at the time were involved in executing heretics and opponents in bloody ritual displays as part of the Spanish Inquisition. The over-emphasis on the role of human sacrifice has led to a distorted view of Aztec society: but it is also true that violence formed a regular and ritualized part of life in Tenochtitlan. Read through this article to learn more about ritual human sacrifice.

Aztec religion and the gods of an ancient Mexica (ThoughtCo, 2018, July 28)

The Aztec religion was made up of a complex set of beliefs, rituals and gods that helped the Aztec/Mexica to make sense of their world's physical reality, and the existence of life and death. The Aztecs believed in a multiple-deity universe, with different gods who reigned over different aspects of Aztec society, serving and responding to Aztec specific needs. That structure was deeply rooted in a widespread Mesoamerican tradition in which concepts of the cosmos, world, and nature were shared across most of the prehistoric societies in the southern third of North America. Read through this article to learn about the Aztec world belief and some of the gods and goddesses of their religion. There are links to further information on each of the gods and goddesses included throughout the article.

Gods and rituals (Guggenheim Museum, n.d.)

The Aztecs had hundreds of different gods and goddesses—one for every aspect of their lives. The various deities were believed to exert immense power and influence over everything people did and, as a result, were worshipped devoutly by all levels of society, both at domestic shrines and also in elaborate public rituals. This article describes the underlining beliefs of Aztec culture, and how religion played a role in everyday culture.

Double-headed serpent

A detail of the celebrated Aztec double-headed serpent. It is made from wood covered in turquoise mosaic, spondylus (red) and conch (white) shell. The eyes would have been rendered with inlay, probably of iron pyrite. The piece is believed to have been part of a ceremonial costume, worn as a pectoral. The snake was a potent image in Aztec religion and strongly associated with several deities, notably Quetzalcoatl. 15th-16th century CE. (British Museum, London)


The 3.2m diameter stone disk which depicts the decapitated and dismembered corpse of Coyolxauhqui. According to Aztec mythology the war god Huitzilopochtli chopped up the goddess when she tried to lead a rebellion against the gods. Her head then became the Moon. From the foot of the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Probably carved during the reign of Axayacatl, c 1473 CE. (Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City)

Aztec ceremonial knife

An Aztec ceremonial knife with a cedarwood handle and flint blade. The figure of the handle is covered in turquoise and shell mosiac and represents an Aztec Eagle knight. 1400-1521 CE. (British Museum, London)

Vulture Vessel

Ceramic vessels in the form of animal effigies were made in large numbers in many parts of Mexico throughout the Precolumbian era. Often used in ceremonies, the animals selected for depiction were those that played a role in myth. They served as cultural and cosmic metaphors based on their habitat and natural features.

Birds generally symbolized the celestial realm and were associated with the sun, moon, and planet Venus; they were also considered messengers between the world of the living and the supernatural sphere. The bird depicted on this handsome tripod vessel, supported by the bird's legs and tail, probably represents a king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) because of the characteristic fleshy protuberance (now missing) at the base of its beak. Although king vultures feed primarily on carrion, they will occasionally kill for food; they are therefore connected with human sacrifice in ancient Mexican thought. The rendering of the bird includes three significant human aspects: from its projecting "ear" flanges hang pendant ornaments; its talons are shown as hands with prominent thumbs; and its head is adorned with a pleated paper fan often seen on headdresses of Aztec deity figures. The contours of the vessel are well-balanced—the lines of the sloping wings echoing the angles of the legs—and the bulging chest of the bird is perfectly centered between its strong legs. The smooth, shiny dark red and black surface creates a pleasing contrast to the rough, matte texture of the head and feet.

Water Deity (Chalchiuhtlicue)

The finely carved figure belongs to a sizable group of kneeling females that display costume elements identifying them as water deities called Chalchiuhtlicue ("she of the jade skirt") in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. In Aztec religion, the water goddess was the wife of the rain god Tlaloc, an ancient deity that had long been worshipped throughout Mesoamerica. Chalchiuhtlicue symbolized the purity and preciousness of spring, river, and lake water that was used to irrigate the fields. As a fertility goddess, she portrays the Aztec ideal of fertile young womanhood. Most typical of the water goddess costume is the distinctive headdress consisting of multiple thick bands, probably cotton, wound about the head and bordered above and below by rows of balls and two large tassels attached to the sides of the head. In back, the bands are twisted and tied in a prominent knot, the tasseled ends falling over her straight hair. Her clothing is that of a noble woman with a skirt and triangular shoulder cape bordered by a tasseled fringe. The water goddess was closely related to the Aztec corn goddess, Chicomecoatl, who is often also shown wearing this headdress, while holding ears of corn in her hands.

Earth Monster (Tlaltecuhtli)

Many ancient American peoples conceived the earth to be a giant crocodile, turtle, or toadlike monster floating on the sea. The rough, scaly skins of these creatures displaying geometric designs was likened to the furrowed, uneven surface of the earth and the regular patterns of tilled fields. Because of their capability of moving on land and under water, all three animals were metaphors for both earth and water. They also had fertility connotations.

In art, the earth monster is often depicted as an anthropomorphic being with splayed arms and legs. Its posture of parturition was that assumed by Aztec women, a reference to the concept of fertility. Here the figure's hands and feet appear to be clawed. Its oversized head, shown flung back and up, has bulbous eyes and a wide-open mouth with a split tongue. A sacrificial knife is held between the teeth. Sacrificial victims were devoured by the earth monster. The sun too was believed to be swallowed by its gaping jaws at dusk. A common motif found on the torso of earth monsters is the Aztec symbol for jade and other prized green stones. It is shown here as a circle with pendant element. Metaphorically the motif meant "preciousness" and was used as a symbol for water. Earth monster depictions are often carved on the underside of important Aztec sculptures.

Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl)

Among the many female deities worshipped by the Aztecs, those responsible for agricultural fertility held a prominent place. This sculpture depicts Chicomecoátl (seven serpents), a goddess of sustenance, especially of edible plants and corn. She is shown standing on bare feet wearing a long skirt held in place with a belt, and holding in her right hand two maize ears. Her head and most of her body are covered by a towering quadrangular headdress adorned with twisted elements across the front and rosettes at the corners. Taller than the figure itself, the headdress is known as amacalli ("paper house"); it is the most typical attribute of the corn goddess. During Aztec religious rituals, actual "paper house" headdresses were elaborate constructions made of brightly colored stiff bark paper. They were worn by corn goddess impersonators.

The sculpture is carved from a narrow stone slab in a flat, angular style. The only projecting, rounded forms are the cobs and the figure's face, which peers out from the opening in the headdress as if looking through the open door of a house front.

Small fertility figures, often artistically undistinguished, were mass produced during Aztec times and probably served as household idols.

Temple Model

Aztec emperors ruled over a vast portion of what is now Central Mexico and parts of Guatemala at the time Spaniards arrived in the capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519. From humble beginnings in the fourteenth century, the Mexica (as the core cultural group is properly known) formed alliances with established kingdoms and city-states, consolidating their tribute-based empire with considerable speed. Part of their imperial strategy included the dissemination of an official religion. Aztec temple models were distributed widely, functioning as tools of empire to promote the expansion of the state religion at the household level.

Aztec temple models replicate key details of their full-size counterparts and may have acted as stand-ins for these buildings or served as earthly homes for deities. Some include a figure at the summit, perhaps representing a deity, a deity impersonator, or even a personification of the temple itself. Most of these models are square from the base through the summit. Examples with a circular base echo the rounded structures of temples dedicated to the wind god, Ehecatl. Made in considerable numbers with the use of press molds, these models, like the Aztec temples, were once painted in bright colors.

Head of a Water Deity (Chalchiuhtlicue)

The Aztecs carved thousands of images of their gods in stones ranging from much-valued greenstones to ordinary volcanic rock. Sculptures like the present example were probably set up in household shrines where they were worshipped in family settings rather than in public ceremonies. Frequently portrayed Aztec deities are fertility goddesses, which include the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue ("she of the jade skirt") depicted here. Identifying elements of the water goddess are the distinctive headdress consisting of multiple (in life probably cotton) bands wound about the head, the thick tassels attached to each side of the head, and the pleated (in life bark paper) ornament (amacuexpalli) in back of the head. Male counterparts of the water goddess, including the rain god Tlaloc, are often shown wearing the pleated bow at the neck. Shell and/or obsidian inlays in the eyes would once have lent the face a lifelike expression.


This stone sculpture depicts a seated female figure wearing a plain skirt and a simple knotted belt. Her skull-like face, with its large, circular eyes, open mouth, and exposed teeth, is framed by a mass of unkempt hair carved in swirls and twists. Leaning forward on clawed feet, her fearsome talons are raised to the sides of her chest as if prepared to seize some unseen prey.

Among the Aztecs, a woman in labor was said to "capture" the spirit of her newborn child much like a warrior captures his opponent in battle. But if a woman died while giving birth, her own soul was transformed into a terrifying demon known as a Cihuateotl, or "Divine Woman." The Cihuateteo (pl.) resided in a region in the west known as Cihuatlampa ("place of women") and accompanied the sun daily from its zenith at midday to dusk on the western horizon. As such, these malevolent spirits were regarded as the female counterparts of warriors who had perished on the battlefield and who were thought to escort the sun through the underworld to its rise each morning.

The Cihuateteo descended to the earth on five specific days in the Aztec calendar: 1 Deer, 1 Rain, 1 Monkey, 1 House, and 1 Eagle. During these times, they were known to haunt crossroads—places associated with evil and disease—in hopes of snatching the young children they were never privileged to have. The figure seen here has been inscribed on top of her head with the name "Ce Calli" (1 House), thus indicating her prescribed day of descent. Four nearly identical goddesses are housed in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City—each being differentiated only by the date glyph engraved on its head—and, along with the one seen here, may have originally formed a set. Evidence suggests these five sculptures would have been placed in a shrine dedicated to the Cihuateteo, perhaps in the main temple precinct of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Elsewhere in Postclassic art (ca. 1100–1521), the postpartum female body is depicted with pendulous breasts and a creased, flaccid stomach. Here, however, the figure’s taut belly and exposed, youthful breasts serve to underscore her unrealized potential as a mother, as she died before having the opportunity to bear and nurse her newborn child.

Examples of female supernatural figures with similar overtones of death (and eventual resurrection) are found in a number of Mesoamerican traditions, from Classic Veracruz statuary (ca. 7th–10th century) to Aztec and Mixtec codices (ca. 13th–16th century). Such a broad distribution indicates that the Cihuateteo were important, long-lasting features of indigenous religious practices.

Tizoc Stone

The Tizoc Stone which depicts on its flat upper surface a sun-disk and around its edge a continuous frieze showing the Aztec king Tizoc and other warriors capturing deities of conquered peoples. 15th century CE. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Aztec Sun Stone

The Aztec Sun Stone (also known as the Calendar Stone) is a representation of the five eras of the sun from Aztec mythology. The stone was part of the architectural complex of the Temple Mayor of Tenochtitlán and dates to c. 1427 CE. The basalt stone measures 3.58 metres in diameter, is 98 centimetres thick and weighs 25 tons. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Aztec New Fire Ceremony

The lighting of fires during the Aztec New Fire Ceremony of 1507 CE, a ritual held every 52 years to ensure the continuation of the Sun. The priests carry fire bundles and wear turquoise masks in imitation of the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, as do the women and children at the bottom right. The figure at the top centre is the Aztec ruler Montezuma II. 16th century CE, Codex Borbonicus, Sheet 34. (Palais Bourbon, Paris)

Aztec Conch Shell Trumpet (Tecciztli)

This Aztec conch shell trumpet or "Tecciztli" dates from the Post-Classic era in Aztec history (1325-1521 CE). It was used in rituals, festivals, and religious processions. (Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels)

Mictlantecuhtli, God of Death

A stone vessel depicting Mictlantecuhtli the Aztec god of death and Lord of the Underworld. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).


A ceramic incense burner lid in the form of a skeletal canine figure, probably representing the Aztec night god Xolotl. When lit the burner would produce smoke through the mouth and eyes of the figure. Mexico, 1200-1400 CE. (St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri)


A turquoise mosaic mask representing Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec god of fire, 1400-1521 CE. The mask is of cedar wood with mother-of-pearl eyes, conch shell teeth and once with gold leaf on the eyelids. (The British Museum, London).

Xolotl, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer

Drawing of the Aztec god Xolotl, playing ball. From a facsimile of the pre-Hispanic Codex Fejérváry-Mayer. Collection of the British Museum.


An architectural sculpture from Teotihuacan of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed-Serpent god of Mesoamerican religion and mythology. He was regarded as a creator god and a god of wind by such civilizations as the Maya and Aztecs.

Tezcatlipoca Turquoise Skull

A decorated human skull thought to represent the Mesoamerican god Tezcatlipoca. Mosaic of turquoise and lignite cover the skull with red thorny oyster shell used around the nasal cavity. Polished pyrite surrounded by white conch shell provide the eyes. The interior lining of the skull and straps are made with deerskin. (Date unknown, The British Museum, London).


A statue of Xochipilli (the Prince of Flowers) the Aztec god of summer, flowers and pleasure. The god wears a mask, is covered in flowers and is playing a rattle (missing) and singing. 1450-1500 CE. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Xipe Totec

Xipe Totec was the Mesoamerican god of spring and patron of planting, seeds and goldsmiths and particularly worshipped by the Aztecs. Human sacrifices were made to the god and the skins of the victims worn in imitation of the process of regeneration of seeds when they shed their husks. This image from the Codex Barbonicus clearly shows the god wearing one of the skins of his victims.

Tezcatlipoca, Codex Rios

An illustration of Tezcatlipoca, one of the most important gods in the Aztec pantheon. Codex Rios, 16th century CE.