Many ancient cultures around the world have their own creation myth to explain their origins, and how the universe came into being. But few are as vivid, or as apocalyptic as the creation myth of the Aztecs. This myth has been referred to as the “Five Suns” wherein the world is created and destroyed again and again.
As the name given to this myth suggests, the current world is the fifth one, preceded by four cycles of creation and destruction. Whilst the Aztecs believed that we are now living in the fifth cycle of creation, they also believed that destruction would ensue if they neglected their duty of nourishing the sun god.
Before going into the details of the Aztec creation myth itself, it should be mentioned that there are various versions of the story. In some instances, these different versions even contradict one another. One of the reasons behind the multiple versions of the myth is the way it was transmitted. Since the creation myth was originally passed down orally, different versions emerged. Another reason for this is that the Aztecs incorporated the gods and myths of the peoples they encountered and conquered, thereby modifying the myth.
Interestingly, the Aztec creation myth shares similarities with that of the Maya, which is found in the Popol Vuh , their foundational sacred narrative. For instance, both creation myths are cyclical in nature, though the Maya version has four, instead of five, cycles. It may be added that although both myths are cyclical, each cycle is not a mere repetition of the previous one, but rather, an improvement.
It is believed that the Aztec and Maya creation myths share a common source, and the former has been used to shed light on the latter. A key reason for this is that the Aztec creation myth is much more complete, whereas the Maya one has survived only in fragments.
The Aztec Pantheon
The Aztec creation myth begins with a pair of creator gods known collectively as Ometecuhtl (meaning ‘Two Lords’ in the Aztec language of Nahuatl). Ometecuhtl consisted of Ometecuhtli, the male deity, and Omecihuatl, his female counterpart. The pair of gods are known also as Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl.
The Aztecs believed that Ometecuhtl resided in Omeyocan (meaning ‘Two Place’ or ‘Double Heaven’), the 13th and highest heaven in the belief system of the Aztecs. Incidentally, Ometecuhtl was the only Aztec deity with neither a temple dedicated to him, nor any formal cult in his name. Apparently, the Aztecs reasoned that since the deity lived so far away from them, he would never interact with them directly. In spite of Ometecuhtl’s remoteness, the Aztecs believed that he was omnipresent, being in every act of ritual, and in every rhythm of nature.
According to the Aztec creation myth, Ometecuhtl created themself, after which, being both male and female, the god produced four children – Huizilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec. These four gods represented, amongst other things, the four cardinal directions – south, east, west, and north, respectively.
Gods and Monsters
These four gods existed for some time, 600 years, according to one version of the myth, before they began to create the universe. They created cosmic time, the world, and all the other deities.
In one version of the myth, the four gods created a giant sea monster called Cipactli, which was part crocodile and part fish. As the children of Ometecuhtl continued to create the universe, this great monster became a source of trouble. Cipactli lived in the water, and had an insatiable appetite. For one reason or another, the creations of the gods would fall into the water, and they inevitably ended up being devoured by Cipactli.
Eventually, the four gods decided that enough was enough, and went to war with the sea monster. Cipactli was pulled in four directions, but fought back violently. In the end, however, the ferocious monster was defeated, and destroyed.