Tezcatlipoca: The Smoking Mirror
Tezcatlipoca’s (pronounced Tez-kat-lee-po’-ka) name means the “smoking mirror” in Nahuatl. This is the language of the Aztecs. In Aztec mythology, he was the god of night, death, the sky, night winds, and much more.
He was a god of many names and faces and this article covers why he was one of the most important gods in the pantheon.
Who is Tezcatlipoca in Aztec Mythology?
That is, unfortunately, a difficult question to answer. He existed before Aztec mythology, featuring in the Olmec and Maya religions as well. Like other gods, he had a strange mixture of origin tales and mythological tales about him. But his name shows up many times in many stories, and sometimes for different gods. He was a powerful god, omnipotent, omnipresent, and some believe, invisible.
But this could be only our interpretation because of a lack of a great number of artistic images of the god. He was one of the four creator gods and thus instrumental at the beginning of the world. Even though he was the second son, he was most likely the most powerful god in the pantheon.
The translation of his name is connected with obsidian, the black volcanic glass. The Aztecs called this glass a smoking mirror, and it was used as actual mirrors. The Aztecs also used the material for ritualistic purposes. They used obsidian especially in the blades for ritual sacrifice.
Tezcatlipoca was one of the Aztec gods who was worshipped through human sacrifice. Tezcatlipoca had many symbols attributed to him, such as the jaguar. But the use of a mirror as an image is interesting.
Perhaps through the mirror, one could see the god. Or the god could see one if a believer stood before it. Either way, Tezcatlipoca’s power was well-recorded. He went by many names and epithets, each more powerful sounding than the last.
According to stories and records, the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca wasn’t exactly a kind god. He was all-powerful and all-seeing. At the same time, he had a reputation for being combative, violent, and competitive. He seemed to enjoy battling with his brother Quetzalcoatl. Due to this competition, he was also called the Aztec jaguar god, jaguar deity, or Aztec panther god.
As can be assumed, the jaguar is associated with power, violence, stealth, blood, and battle. And all these things fell under Tezcatlipoca’s domain. This powerful god was a force to be reckoned with. So they celebrated his power in one of the grandest rituals in Aztec culture. He is also considered to be the god of the fifth world, which is the world we inhabit today.
Tezcatlipoca: The Beginnings of a Creator God
Most myths claim that Tezcatlipoca was born of the god of duality, Ometeotl. This god was both male and female and so were the “parents” of four sons. Their names were Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Xipe Totec, and Huitzilopochtli.
They existed before the world. Yet because their youngest brother was born without flesh, they had to wait. According to the legends, it took Huitzilopochtli 600 years to develop his flesh. After that, the brothers could begin their creation of all life.
The myths focus on Tezcatlipoca’s and Quetzalcoatl’s contributions to world-building. While many stories center on their enmity against one another, some describe their cooperation. One of the most common myths states that these brothers worked together to kill Cipactli. This was a female, crocodile-like monster who was roaming the empty oceans of the world.
They needed flesh to begin creation, and so the two brothers lured her to them to attack her. Tezcatlipoca used his left foot as bait, which she took, snapping it off at the ankle. This is why the Aztec god is often shown without a left foot in many of his depictions. Once she succumbed to their trap, they tore her apart. The brothers used her body to create the heavens and the earth and new life.
Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl
But the relationship between Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl seemed to go downhill after that. The gods set about creating the world with a god in place as the sun for each of them. Each time they created one, it was destroyed after a matter of years. The gods took the place of the sun. The Aztecs believed it was the gods who controlled the movement of celestial beings.
There are so many stories about which god controlled which sun and which world. But generally, most codices state that Tezcatlipoca ruled the first world. Gods sacrificed themselves to bring life to the new worlds. But in later myths, they still continued to exist.
Giants populated Tezcatlipoca’s world. They roamed around, eating only plants. The world existed for 676 years before it fell into destruction. The Aztecs cut down these years into 52-year segments. That’s how long they believed a god could complete a “cycle” of controlling the sun’s movements.
After each set of 52 years, priests held a ceremony to keep the world going for another 52 years. However, in Tezcatlipoca’s case, his world didn’t get beyond 676 years. Quetzalcoatl thought that Tezcatlipoca couldn’t be a complete sun since he didn’t have a foot.
So, he hit him and cast him away, thus destroying this world. Either Tezcatlipoca or Quetzalcoatl sent jaguars to devour all the giants that remained. Thus, the second world began under Quetzalcoatl’s rule, and that one was also later destroyed. The brothers’ competition and enmity continued. Finally, the world ended with the creation of the fifth sun which is the one we still inhabit.
Many myths state that it is Tezcatlipoca who rules this world. During the time of the Aztecs, they feared Quetzalcoatl was biding his time until he could return. Then he would destroy the fifth world, thus beating his brother again.
The Many Names of the Aztec God Tezcatlipoca
Because he was so powerful, Tezcatlipoca went by many names and epithets. He had many facets to his god personality. But he also has many names because he moved from culture to culture.
- Black Tezcatlipoca
- God II in the Maya tradition
- Tepeyolohtli, a jaguar god who lived inside of a mountain. (This might have been the shapeshifted form of Tezcatlipoca)
- Precious Owl, Chalchiuhtecólotl
- Precious Turkey, Chalchiuhtotolin
- Yaotl, meaning enemy (patron of warriors)
- Titlacauan, meaning ‘we are his slaves’
- Ipalnemoani, meaning ‘he by whom we live’
Some records state that the Aztecs believed Tezcatlipoca could shapeshift into various things. These might have been animals or other gods/facets of his personality. He could be magnanimous one moment and then brutal the next.
For example, while he might have been a patron of warriors, he didn’t always protect them. Some tales elaborate on how he would wait for them at forks in the road under the cover of darkness. He was looking for a mighty challenge.
It is not completely unusual for a god to have dual or opposing characteristics. Even Tezcatlipoca’s parents were one god, both male and female. Like a human, Tezcatlipoca was both good and bad, dark and light, anger and love, animal and human. The list goes on.
The Other Tales: Stories about Tezcatlipoca
Xolotl is the god associated with dogs, even bearing a dog head. Yet Tezcatlipoca might have been the start of the first dogs. Some stories discuss how the dogs made their beginning in the world. So, a flood destroyed the fourth world or sun. Chalchihuitlicue, the water goddess, controlled that world.
Tezcatlipoca, to destroy the world, teased her that she didn’t really care about the people. So she cried until the world flooded and collapsed. Now, some did survive this flood but only the most righteous. Two people in particular survived, and they were a couple named Tata and Nene.
They had traveled by boat through the flood until they reached land. There, they decided to cook fish over a fire. But the fire disturbed the stars, two stars in particular. These stars complained to Tezcatlipoca who avenged them. The story goes that he beheaded the two people and attached their heads to their bottoms. Thus, dogs began.
Tezcatlipoca and His Love of Music
Another story discusses Tezcatlipoca and music. Apparently, he was a great lover of it and encouraged it among his people. It featured in the rituals which worshipped him. One day, Tezcatlipoca asked the wind god to go to the sun to bring music down to earth. At the time, the sun was where all the musicians resided.
The wind god went, but he also took with him a turtle, a whale, and a mermaid. These were all assistants to Tezcatlipoca. Once they arrived, the sun barred them from entry. He told his musicians not to talk to the wind god or else he would throw them to earth.
The wind god began to sing. One of the musicians was so touched that he didn’t listen to the sun’s instructions. He followed the wind god and was punished by being sent to earth. That was the arrival of music to the Aztec people. In their Tóxcatl festival, the god impersonator would break a flute on each step as he walked to the altar.
Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, the Battle Between Brothers
The stories of this brotherly competition fill the mythology ‘library’ of the Aztecs. The battle began in the first world with Quetzalcoatl removing Tezcatlipoca from his place. Then, once Quetzalcoatl became the second sun of the world, Tezcatlipoca removed him. He turned himself into a jaguar/tiger/panther and threw Quetzalcoatl from his place. It was good revenge, for it was just as Quetzalcoatl had done to him.
There is another story about the brothers, but it is a little mixed with reality. There lived (or possibly not) a ruler named Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl. According to myth, this man might have been the inspiration for Quetzalcoatl as a god figure. The story states that Tezcatlipoca, still angry about the past, convinced him to get drunk.
In the culture, it was not good to be very drunk, especially not in public. Topiltzin consumed pulque, which is the alcohol the Aztecs consumed. He got so drunk that he slept with his own sister. Not only that, but she was a priestess who had taken a vow of celibacy. Once his mind cleared, Topiltizin-Quetzalcoatl was so ashamed that he fled. He left his throne empty.
Tezcatlipoca took his place, and now he is in charge of the fifth world. He and Quetzalcoatl, for some reason, banded together to make this world and its new humans. It might have even been Tezcatlipoca who accompanied his brother to the underworld. This was where they gathered bones to make the next people.
However, the Aztecs believed that Tezcatlipoca’s end would one day come. Quetzalcoatl would return to take his vengeance on his brother. Some legends say the Aztecs thought that Cortes was the embodiment of Quetzalcoatl. But this is most likely a rumor only.
The Smoking Mirror and His Priests: Rituals, Worship, & More
The temple devoted to Tezcatlipoca resided in Tenochtitlan. This was the main temple, but there were still other smaller temples that resided in the city. The god was also worshipped in other Aztec cities. In each temple, there was always incense burning.
Tezcatlipoca was a heavily-worshipped god, for he had power over rulership and divination. His priests were most likely brought to the temple as children to be brought up under the god’s rule. New kinds would pray and offer sacrifices to Tezcatlipoca, to honor their rule.
Tezcatlipoca was celebrated and honored during the 9th month. One of his festivals was Miccailhuitontli or “Little Feast of the Dead”. His other festival was during the 15th month. It was called Panquetzaliztli, or “Raising of the Banners.”
Toxcatl, the Biggest Festival for Tezcatlipoca
His main festival month was in the Toxcatl. It was the fifth month of the 18-month Aztec calendar. During this time, there was a major festival, one of the most long-lasting and extensive. Preparations were made a year in advance. The priests selected a young man to play the role of ixiptia or “deity impersonator”. Sometimes the man was chosen from their people or from the slaves or warriors they had.
Sometimes they also chose women, if they were celebrating a female goddess, but this was not as common. The priests washed the chosen men and then for a year, he was treated like the embodiment of Tezcatlipoca. He was honored, worshipped, fed, clothed, and put on a pedestal.
Then, twenty days before the sacrifice was to take place, the man returned to the state of a warrior. He was also given four wives. These represented the four goddess wives of Tezcatlipoca. These women had been carefully selected and treated as goddesses for a whole year.
Then, the time came for the ceremony. There would be feasting and dancing. The god impersonator was again worshipped and revered. But then, it was time for the holy sacrifice. The warrior made his way up the steps of the temple. A different flute was broken on each step. At the top, the priests seized him and cut out his heart with an obsidian blade. They might also have beheaded or flayed him. The priests or others might have also eaten the remaining flesh.
This was a great honor to be chosen for such a glorious sacrifice. They selected the next victim after the first one was dead. The skulls were kept in the temple, and the next victim might have been given the former victim’s skin to wear.
Representations of the Aztec Jaguar God
While there aren’t as many images of Tezcatlipoca as historians would like, there are still some. This lack of images could be due to the destruction of many codices on Aztec culture. In art, Tezcatlipoca usually has black streaks across his face. He is often depicted with a feather headdress, often made from turkey feathers. He carries a shield and a spear.
Because he lost his foot when making the world, he will be portrayed as such. But a snake, bone, or obsidian/smoking mirror would be in its place. The mirror, if not on the foot, might be on the chest. Sometimes, he was even shown as a jaguar.
In the British Museum, there is a Tezcatlipoca statue or more like a skull. It is turquoise made of various colored stones. While the object is fearsome, it is also quite beautiful. This might have been the gift that Moctezuma II gave to Cortes upon his arrival.
Check out the sum up of the article about “the Smoking Mirror”:
- Tezcatlipoca is the “Smoking Mirror” in Aztec mythology. He is the god of night, death, divination, rulership, obsidian, war, conflict, and so much more. He was omnipresent and often considered invisible.
- He is one of the most powerful gods in the Aztec pantheon and one of the creator gods.
- He is one of four sons born to Ometeotl at the beginning of time.
- He gave up his foot to lure Cipactli and begin the building of the world.
- He and his brother Quetzalcoatl were often in competition. There are many stories of their battles.
- Tezcatlipoca went by many names and faces. Some of the Aztecs believed that he could shapeshift, especially into a jaguar.
- Priests would prepare a god impersonator each year. After a year, they would sacrifice them with an obsidian blade.
- Tezcatlipoca is often shown with black streaks on his face and other body parts. He has an obsidian mirror on his chest or in place of his foot.
- He is in control of the fifth world, but the Aztecs believed that his time would end one day. Perhaps it would be Quetzalcoatl who came to end it.
Tezcatlipoca is one of the most powerful gods in Aztec mythology, yet he also seems one of the most fluid. He moves from aspect to aspect. He changed over time, through cultures, and depending on the circumstance.
He could be representative of the constant change that occurs in life. He was always searching for power and gain. Yet he also represented loss and the conflict that goes with that. Even though this god was seen as omnipresent and all-powerful, his time would have to come to an end. If the Aztecs were alive today, would they consider him still the god of this world? Or has his time already passed on with the arrival of the Spanish? We’ll never know.