Huitzilopochtli: Origins, Myths, Symbols, & Powers

Aztec gods

Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

Huitzilopochtli was one of the most revered and feared gods in the Aztec pantheon. Although there were many Aztec gods associated with war and warfare, Huitzilopochtli was the primary god of war. A tribal god of the Mexicas, Huitzilopochtli was beseeched to grant the people victory over their enemies.

He was also a sun deity to whom the Mexica people (Nahuatl-speaking people of the Valley of Mexico) made human sacrifices in order to keep the darkness, diseases and chaos from engulfing the land. His power was so immense that offending him could spell doom for the entire tribe. It was believed that he held in his hand a powerful weapon known as Xiuhcoatl, a fire serpent (i.e. spirit of the Aztec fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli). The Aztecs honored him with a festival known as the Feast of Panquetzaliztli (Banner Raising) on the 15th month of the Aztec calendar.

What else was Huitzilopochtli most famous for? And how did his myth come to influence the design of the coat of arms of Mexico?

World History Edu provide an in-depth look at the origin story, family, symbols, depictions, and significance of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, sun, and the patron deity of the city of Tenochtitlan.

Myths and Facts about Huitzilopochtli

God of: the sun, war, human sacrifice

Parents: Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl, or Mixcoatl and Coatlicue

Siblings: Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe-Totec, Coyolxauhqui, Huitznhuac, Centzon Mimixcoa, Malinalxochitl

Also known as: Mexi, Huitzi, Huitzilton, Tezcatlipoca, Tzintzuni, Opochtli

Dwelling place: the South, Ilhuicatl-Teteocan (the Twelfth Heaven), Ilhuicatl-Xoxoauhco (Seventh Heaven)

Symbol: Hummingbird (huitzilin)

Weapons: shield (teueuelli), darts and dart thrower (xinatlati), a fire serpent (Xiuhcoatl, the spirit of the fire deity Xiuhtecuhtli)

Festival: Panquetzaliztli

Patron: the city of Tenochtitlan

 

Meaning

Huitzilopochtli

Huitzilopochtli, also known as the “Left-handed Hummingbird”, was the patron god of the Mexica people. It was believed that he was born on the sacred mountain of Coatepec. The same mountain were Huitzilopochtli slayed Coyolxauhqui. | Image: Huitzilopochtli, as depicted in the Tovar Codex

Huitzilopochtli’s name when translated into English comes out as “hummingbird of the South” or “hummingbird on the left hand side”. Huītzilin and ōpōchtli mean “hummingbird” and “left hand side” respectively.  The first meaning is more likely as the Mexica people revered Huitzilopochtli as the Lord of the South.

Birth story

As it was common with many origin stories of deities of antiquity, there are a number of origin stories of the god Huitzilopochtli.

In one account, he is the son of the earth and fertility goddess Tōnacācihuātl and the fertility god Tōnacātēcuhtli. In this account, he said to be the youngest of his siblings that includes deities such as Quetzalcōātl (“Precious Serpent” or “Quetzal-Feathered Serpent”), Tezcatlipōca (“Smoking Mirror”), and Xīpe Tōtec (“Our Lord Flayed”).

In a different account, he is regarded as the son of Coatlicue, the goddess of fertility, death and the patroness of life. In this account, his mother also gave birth to the stars and the moon. Coatlicue is said to have gotten pregnant with Huitzilopochtli after a ball of feathers fell on her while she was cleaning a temple on Mount Coatepec. Coatlicue’s pregnancy was not well received by Coatlicue’s other children, particularly her eldest daughter Coyolxauhqui who, along with her brothers, the four hundred male Centzon Huitznahuas, plotted to kill Coatlicue.

How Huitzilopochtli saved his mother, the earth goddess Coatlicue

Aztec goddess Coatlicue

Supreme earth and fertility goddess Coatlicue was believed to be the mother of Huitzilopochtli. | Statue of Coatlicue displayed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

After receiving a tip off from one of the Centzon Huitznahuas, Huitzilopochtli is believed to have come out of his mother’s womb as fully grown god wearing battle attire and armed to teeth. He went on to strike down everyone that was involved in the plan to kill his mother, including his sister Coyolxauhqui.

According to the myths, he beheaded Coyolxāuhqui before disposing her mother down the Coatepec Mountain (also known as the “Serpent Mountain”).

In order to prevent them from ever cooking up another plot, Huitzilopochtli made sure that his four hundred brothers, the Centzon Huitxnahaus, were scattered across the cosmos. Some of his brothers fled to the south to avoid his wrath. The Aztec people believed that those that fled to south ended up becoming the Southern Star deities.

Huitzilopochtli was born on the sacred mountain of Coatepec. The same mountain were Coyolxauhqui died. | Quote from the Huitzilopochtli codex

Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxāuhqui

In another account, Huitzilopochtli decapitated Coyolxāuhqui and then threw head up into the sky, where it transformed into the Moon. And every time his mother looked up into the sky, she got some bit of comfort knowing that her daughter was up above shinning every night.

Depiction and symbols

Huitzilopochtli

Huitzilopochtli as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus

The hummingbird (huitzilin) was the symbol of Huitzilopochtli. The Aztec people believed that spirits of the dead had to transform into a hummingbird in order to arrive at the palace of Huitzilopochtli in the south.

The use of hummingbird as a symbol of Huitzilopochtli can be interpreted as the arrival of spring and rebirth.

There are depictions of Huitzilopochtli as a hummingbird, or in some cases an anthropomorphic figure. On his head can be seen some feathers. His face is often times painted black while his body is painted blue.

The Aztecs believed that he wielded a fire serpent called Xiuhcoatl, which he used as powerful spear thrower.

He holds a mirror and a scepter, which is shaped like a snake. His head gear is a blue-green hummingbird helmet. His shield has balls of eagle feathers, a symbolic reference to his mother and his birth story.

Human sacrifices to Huitzilopochtli

The Coatlicue narrative explains how Huitzilopochtli came to be seen as the sun god, while his sister and four hundred brothers became the Moon and stars respectively. Therefore, the Aztecs believed that offerings, prayers and human sacrifices were absolutely essential in giving Huitzilopochtli the strength to fight against his evil siblings. The Aztecs believed that those human sacrifices prevented chaos and darkness (i.e. Coyolxauhqui and her brothers Huitznahuas) from blanketing the world.

The Feast of Panquetzaliztli (Banner Raising)

The Aztecs had 18 sacred days in their calendar. Huitzilopochtli was honored on one of those days, which fell in the 15th month of the Aztec calendar.

There was a steady flow of sacrificial victims whose blood the Aztecs believed nourished their patron god Huitzilopochtli. The sacrifices were offered to keep Huitzilopochtli strong enough to keep the world safe for another 52 years. The Aztecs believed that the world was placed on a knife edge every 52 years; hence it was absolutely important that gods like Huitzilopochtli to be fed with human blood in order to avoid the world from getting destroyed.

Often times, the Aztecs used captives and slaves as human sacrifices to their gods. They believed that human blood nourished Huitzilopochtli.

The Aztecs celebrated the Panquetzaliztli in honor of Huitzilopochtli.

The festival in honor of Huitzilopochtli occurred on the last day of the Nahuatl month Panquetzaliztli. The entire month was devoted to celebrating the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli on top of Coatepec (Snake Hill). In the Julian calendar Panquetzaliztli falls on December 9. In the Gregorian calendar, Huitzilopochtli festival falls on December 19.

In addition to the paper flags decorations, dancing and singer, and prayers and human sacrifices, a statue of Huitzilopochtli was made with seeds (amaranth) and honey. The ensure that the everyone received the protection of the god, the statue would be cut into small pieces and shared among the people.

The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

The Templo Mayor, the temple of Huitzilopochtli, was the most important building in Tenochtitlan. The site where the temple sits upon was believed by the Aztecs as the birth place of Huitzilopochtli. It was also the spot where Huitzilopochtli dismembered his sister Coyolxauhqui.

Another point worth mentioning is that the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan was dedicated to both Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc. Those two deities were considered companions. On the south side of the temple lay Huitzilopochtli’s shrine, while Tlaloc’s shrine was found on the north. The blue color used on Tlaloc’s shrine represented rain and the summer solstice, while the red color on Huitzilopochtli’s represented blood, war and sacrifice.

Aztec gods

Tlaloc was the god responsible for showering crops with rain. When angered, he is said to send hail, lightning, and thunder to the people who offended him. Image: Tlaloc as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano

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