Huitzilopochli: the Birth of a War God

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Aztec Warriors (Eagle Warrior at the left and Jaguar Warrior at the right) brandishing a macuahuitl (a wooden club with sharp obsidian blades). (Florentine Codex)

In the Aztec pantheon, Huitzilopochtli occupied a place similar to that of Mars in the Roman. In ancient Roman religon, Mars was the god of war and a guardian of agriculture – a rather strange combination, but characteristic of early Rome. Second in importance only to Jupiter, Mars was the most prominent of the military gods in the religion of the Roman army. Although origin of Huitzilopochtli is obscure, the myth relating to it is distinctly original in character.

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Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. By Luidger – Luidger, CC BY-SA 3.0

Under the shadow of the mountain of Coatepec, near the Toltec city of Tollan, there dwelt a pious widow called Coatlicue (“skirt of snakes”). She had four hundred sons and a daughter called Coyolxauhqui (“”Painted with Bells”). Every day, she went to a small hill with the intention of offering up prayers to the gods in a penitent spirit of piety. One day, while she was occupied in her devotions, a small ball of brilliantly coloured feathers fell upon her from above. Pleased by the bright variety of its hues, Coatlicue placed it in her breast, intending to offer it up to the sun-god. Some time afterwards she discovered that she was pregnant with another child. Hearing this, her sons rained abuse upon her, incited by their sister Coyolxauhqui.

Coatlicue went about in fear and anxiety, but the spirit of her unborn infant came and spoke to her and gave her words of encouragement, soothing her troubled heart. Her sons, however, were resolved to wipe out what they considered an insult to their race by the death of their mother. They put on their war-gears, and arranged their hair after the manner of warriors going to battle. But one of their number, Quauitlicac, relented, and confessed his brothers’ plan to the still unborn Huitzilopochtli. Huitzilopochtli replied to him: “O brother, hearken attentively to what I have to say to you. I know what is about to happen.” With the intention of slaying their mother, the four hundred sons went in search of her. At their head marched their sister, Coyolxauhqui. They were armed to the teeth and carried bundles of darts with which they intended to kill Coatlicue.

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Huitzilopochtli, from the recto of the folio 5 of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (16th century).

Quauitlicac climbed the mountain to tell Huitzilopochtli that his brothers were approaching to kill their mother.

“Mark well where they are,” replied the infant god. “To what place have they advanced?”

“To Tzompantitlan,” responded Quauitlicac.

Later on Huitzilopochtli asked: “Where may they be now?”

“At Coaxalco”, was the reply.

Once more Huitzilopochtli asked to what point his enemies had advanced.

“They are now at Petlac,” Quauitlicac replied.

After a little while Quauitlicac informed Huitzilopochtli that the Centzonuitznaua were at hand under the leadership of Coyolxauhqui. At the moment of the enemy’s arrival, Huitzilopochtli was born, flourishing a shield and a blue spear. He was painted, his head was surmounted by a panache, and his left leg was covered with feathers. He shattered Coyolxauhqui with a flash of serpentine lightning, and then chase Centzonuitznaua, whom he pursued four times round the mountain. Many perished in the waters of the adjoining lake, to which they had rushed in their despair. All were slain save a few who escaped to a place called Uitzlampa, where they surrendered to Huitzilopochtli and gave up their arms.

The name Huitzilopochtli means “Humming-bird to the left” as he wore the feathers of the humming-bird, or colibri, on his left leg. From this it has been inferred that he was a humming-bird totem. However, the explanation of Huitzilopochtli’s origin is a little deeper than this. Among the American tribes, especially those of the northern continent, the serpent is regarded with the deepest veneration as the symbol of wisdom and magic. From these sources come success in war. The serpent also typifies the lightning, the symbol of the divine spear and warlike might. Fragments of serpents are regarded as powerful war-physic among many tribes. Atatarho, a mythical wizard-king of the Iroquois, for example, was clothed with living serpents as with a robe, and his myth throws light on one of the names of Huitzilopochtli’s mother, Coatlantona (“Robe of Serpents”). Huitzilopochtli’s image was surrounded by serpents, and rested on serpent-shaped supporters. His sceptre was a single snake, and his great drum was of serpent-skin.

In many mythologies the serpent is closely associated with the bird. Thus the name of the god Quetzalcoatl is translatable as “Feathered Serpent”. Huitzilopochtli is undoubtedly one of these. We may regard him as a god the primary conception of whom arose from the idea of the serpent, the symbol of warlike wisdom and might, the symbol of the warrior’s dart or spear, and the humming-bird, the harbinger of summer, type of the season when the snake or lightning god has power over the crops.

Huitzilopochtli was usually represented as wearing a waving panache or plume of hummingbirds’ feathers on his head. His face and limbs were striped with bars of blue, and in his right hand he carried four spears. His left hand bore his shield, on the surface of which were displayed five tufts of down. The shield was made with reeds, covered with eagle’s down. The spear he brandished was also tipped with tufts of down instead of flint. These weapons were placed in the hands of those who as captives engaged in the sacrificial fight because Hultzilopochtli symbolised the warrior’s death on the gladiatorial stone of combat.

Huitzilopochtli was more than just a war-god. As the serpent-god of lightning he had a connection with summer, the season of lightning, and therefore had dominion to some extent over the crops and fruits of the earth. The Algonquian people of North America believed that the rattlesnake could raise ruinous storms or grant favourable breezes. They see it also as the symbol of life, because the serpent has a phallic significance due of its similarity to the symbol of fertility. With some American tribes also, notably the Pueblo people of Arizona, the serpent has a solar significance, and with its tail in its mouth symbolises the annual round of the sun.

The Nahua believed that Huitzilopochtli could grant them fair weather for their crops, and they placed an image of Tlaloc, the rain-god, near him, so that, if necessary, the war-god could compel the rainmaker to exert his powers or to abstain from the creation of floods. We must, in considering the nature of this deity, bear well in mind the connection in the Nahua consciousness between the pantheon, war, and the food-supply. If war was not waged annually the gods must go without flesh food and perish, and if the gods succumbed the crops would fail, and famine would destroy the race. So it was small wonder that Huitzilopochtli was one of the chief gods of Mexico.

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