[phone ringing] Hey, Dr. McT.
Oh, hey, Dr. Z. I was just wondering-- which culture do you think has the coolest-looking gods?
Ooh, that's a tough question.
I mean, a lot of cultures imagine that their gods look pretty similar to us but with more limbs and maybe a few animal parts thrown in.
I mean, who wouldn't want an extra animal part thrown in?
I would love to have wings.
That'd be tight.
But, anyway, I think it comes down to how those gods accessorize, and for me, the gods and goddesses of Nahua mythology have always stood out.
I know, right?
The bold colors, the expressive features, all those feathers.
The Nahua definitely had some cool looking gods, but I think aesthetics were far from the only interesting thing about them.
Oh, for sure.
The Nahua also have a complicated history and an even more fascinating creation mythology.
You know what?
I think we should do an episode about this.
[intro music] If the word "Nahua" sounds unfamiliar to you, it's probably because you're more used to hearing them referred to as the Aztec.
The history is complicated, but the name "Aztec" was popularized by a German explorer in the 1800s to describe the powerful Mesoamerican Empire.
It was derived from the word Aztlan, which was the name of the legendary homeland that the people migrated from centuries earlier.
But it's probably not what they would have called themselves.
Neither Aztec nor Nahua describe a single group of people, but Nahua does describe the larger community of independent city-states who traded with each other, held overlapping beliefs, and spoke the Nahuatl language.
By the time the Spanish invaded in 1521, the most powerful of these groups were the inhabitants of the empire's capital city, Tenochtitlan, in modern-day Mexico City.
They called themselves the Mexica, which is where the word "Mexico" comes from.
As their influence spread-- not always through peaceful means-- the Mexica adopted more than 100 local deities into their pantheon while also inserting their own beliefs and stories.
(Dr. Zarka) Some legends say the Mexicas began a pilgrimage from Aztlán, or "Northern Location," until they were urged to leave by Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and sacrifice.
He bid them to leave their homeland and travel until they came to a place where an eagle devoured a snake resting on a cactus.
For more than 200 years, they migrated south through land much harsher than the home they left behind.
Weeds scratched them as they walked and rocks bit them as they slept.
But Huitzilopochtli's guidance eventually led them to a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in the Anáhuac Valley around 1325.
This and most of the other stories we know from Nahua mythology come from pictographic records that describe their history, sacred rituals, and religious beliefs.
The tlatoani, or chief speaker of the empire, was said to own a whole library of these codices before most were destroyed during the conquest.
Luckily, a few were kept safe, and the surviving Nahua continued to record their history in more codices for generations afterwards.
(Dr. McTier) These codices also tell us that the universe in Nahua mythology is cyclical, so that the end of the world is really just another beginning.
In the true beginning, there was nothing but an endless void from which the dual-natured god Ometeotl formed.
You may remember from our "Gender Fluidity" episode that Ometeotl was both male and female, made of the god Ometecuhtli and the goddess Omecihautl.
There are several examples of similar male-female pairs in Nahua mythology.
In this binary form, Ometeotl produced four sons, Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and Xipe Totec.
Each of them was associated with a specific color, bird, and cardinal direction.
As Ometeotl retreated to the highest plane of heaven, these four gods created many others, including the rain god, Tlaloc.
He and Huitzilopochtli were the most venerated among the Mexica, and the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan was dedicated to them.
Together, the gods created and ruled the universe, which was split into three vertical regions.
In the middle was the Earth, made from the body of the crocodile sea monster Cipactli.
Thirteen levels of heaven stretched above Cipactli's head, and nine levels of the underworld stretched below.
The Earth was dark, so the gods created a sun to keep it warm and bright.
But making something as powerful as the sun is no easy feat, even for a god.
It requires sacrifice, which is a central theme in Nahua mythology.
Tezcatlipoca, a god of night who was adopted by the Nahua from the indigenous Toltec people, became the sun of the first creation, but was a weak, nocturnal sun and was overthrown by his brother, Quetzalcoatl, a god of wind, life, and light.
Thus started the next cycle of the Nahua universe, the one where the first humans were made.
But the humans became corrupt, and Quetzalcoatl destroyed them with terrifying hurricanes.
The few humans who survived escaped to the tops of trees and became monkeys.
(Dr. McTier) The next sun, or cycle of the universe, was ruled by Tlaloc, the god of rain and thunder.
It was a prosperous time until it ended in a barrage of fiery rain.
In some legends, Tlaloc sent the fire himself after Tezcatlipoca stole his wife away.
In others, it was the ongoing feud between Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca that ended the third sun.
The fourth god to sacrifice themself was Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlaloc's sister and the goddess of running water.
The feuding brothers struck her down, and the world ended in a great flood that collapsed the sky, and all the people were turned into fish.
In some stories, Tezcatlipoca taunts her until she cries so many tears that she floods the world.
When it came time to create the fifth sun, most of the gods were understandably hesitant to sacrifice themselves.
It was Nanahuatzin, the humble, pustulous one, who jumped into the fire first.
In doing so, he created Tonatiuh, who, in some stories, ruled over the fifth sun.
Not to be outdone, Tecciztecatl jumped in next and became the moon to Nanahuatzin's sun.
So that they didn't repeat their previous mistakes, the other gods sacrificed their blood to Nanahuatzin to keep him strong.
The world under the fifth sun needed people, so Quetzalcoatl descended to Mictlan, the underworld, to retrieve the bones of the first humans.
Mictlantecuhtli, the lord of this land of the dead, told Quetzalcoatl that he could have the bones only if he traveled through all of Mictlan four times while blowing a conch shell.
But the shell had no holes in it.
It goes to show that no matter the culture, you can't expect to get anything from a god without first completing some impossible task.
Clever Quetzalcoatl called the worms to chew holes in the shell and filled it with bees so that their buzzing would make the horn sing.
When Quetzalcoatl carried the bones up to Earth, he ground them up and mixed his blood with the powder to make a paste that was used like Play-Doh to make people.
The Nahua believed that they were some of these humans crafted for the fifth sun and that this world would one day end in a devastating earthquake.
(Dr. Zarka) Ritual sacrifice of humans, animals, and food was central to Nahua culture-- so important that priests supposedly sacrificed 20,000 people in one day to honor the completion of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan.
Some historians say all these sacrifices were meant to instill fear and obedience in the Nahua city-states that the Mexica conquered.
But according to mythology from the codices, the sacrifices were meant to empower and appease the gods.
Following the story of Nanahuatzin's sacrifice, according to Mexica state ideology, even the sun required the power that blood provided to rise each day.
In Nahua culture, like in Norse, the quality of your afterlife depended not on how morally you lived but on the manner of your death.
Those who died as sacrifices to the gods got the honor of accompanying the sun as it rose to its midpoint in the sky along with warriors who died in battle.
The souls of women who died in childbirth were honored to accompany the sun as it set to the west, where it descended to Mictlan to make its journey back to the east.
After four years of this service, the souls returned to Earth as exotic birds-- a nod to the god Huitzilopochtli whose name means "hummingbird of the south."
People who died from drowning or lightning strikes spent their afterlives in Tlalocan, a paradise in the lowest level of heaven ruled by Tlaloc and his sister-consort Chalchiuhtlicue.
Everyone else spent their afterlife traveling through the nine levels of Mictlan.
For four years, the dead faced obstacle after obstacle.
They climbed an obsidian mountain, braved winds so cold they cut the skin, and evaded ferocious beasts who feasted on human hearts.
Eventually, they reached the ninth level, the home of the lord and lady of death, where they could finally rest.
But they didn't have to make the trip alone.
The souls of the dead were guided by a white dog named Xolotl, who, by the way, is very reminiscent of Zero, the ghostly dog in "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
(Dr. McTier) The Spanish destroyed so many vestiges of Nahua culture, from documents to buildings to art, but they couldn't wipe out the culture completely.
When Mexico gained its independence in 1821 after 300 years of Spanish rule, its leaders drew inspiration from Nahua culture to establish Mexico's national identity.
You can see signs of this in murals around Mexico City, the flag that sports the legendary snake-chomping eagle prophesized by Huitzilopochtli, and--oh yeah-- the name of the country that's derived from the name of the Mexica people.
The culture isn't just alive in Mexico; references to Nahua mythology can be found in graphic novels, video games, and other media, if you know how to spot it.
Nahua culture is richly complex with stories that reflect and explain the sometimes confusing duality of nature.
Beyond mythology, the Nahua had an interesting political structure, an impressive agricultural system, and two calendars, yet most people these days don't even know them by their real name.
McT., I know neither of us got to learn much about Nahua culture as school kids, but I'm pretty excited we get to now.
Yeah, and I know those little weirdos would have loved all the bloody parts.
Oh, for sure.