Before I begin this post, I need to include a few disclaimers:
First, the Spanish Conquistadors were very effective in destroying Meso-American culture. Now, there were sympathetic Spaniards, often times clergy, who helped preserve the handful of codices (manuscripts) that have survived. However, far more was lost than was retained, which makes understanding Olmec, Mayan, Aztec and other pre-Columbian cultures as much an act of reconstruction as it is one of recovery. In other words, there’s a lot of educated guess work, and filling in of blanks.
This means that finding the original, definitive story, or what is sometimes called the ur-myth, is a difficult task at best. What scholars have found is often contradictory; my attempt here is tell an engaging story, based on the most prevalent versions of these myths. Any faults of omission or commission are mine.
The other disclaimer is that this tale is unapologetic in its ritual demands: the Fifth Sun needs blood to wage his eternal battle against the Stars and the Moon. If human sacrifice makes you uneasy, this is probably not the right post for you. While our retellings often involve violence, it’s typically not presented in a positive light; in this tale, sacrifice beats at the heart of the story, mythically and ritually.
You have been duly warned…
In the beginning, there was only the Void.
From the Void came the First God, Ometeotl. As is often the case with an emerging, self created deity, Ometeotl embodied (and cancelled out) all dualities; this was not the case for the next generation of Gods. These were the Four Brothers, born of the genderless Ometoetol. Their personalities were as distinct as their cosmic stations.
Holding up the Northern firmament was the Black Brother, Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was a sorcerer God, who also was the God of the Night. He also had only one leg, which we’ll get to in a bit.
Holding up the West was the White Brother, Quetzalcoatl. Also known as the Feathered Serpent, Qutzalcoatl was in many ways the antithesis of his Black Brother, being a God of light and mercy, as well as the winds.
In the South was the Blue Brother, Huitzilopochtli, the God of War and Sacrifice. Considered the patron deity of the Mexicas, for the Aztecs success and defeat in warfare was related to his pleasure and patronage.
Finally, the East was the domain of the Red Brother, Xipe Totec, the God of Gold, agriculture and the Spring. Also known as the self-flayed God for his continued self sacrifice – a nod to the vegetation patterns of plants, especially Maize, he is a minor character in the story of the Five Suns.
[Note: I’m referring to them as Brothers, which is technically accurate, but not the term used by practitioners and academics. That term would be Tezcatlipoca; however, since the Black Tezcatlipoca is also simply called Tezcatlipoca, I chose to refer to them by their colors and the word Brothers to simplify things].
There are a few more beings we need to look at:
One is a chthonic, giant crocodile beast named Cipacatli. This fearsome monster had gaping jaws at every one of his/her joints, and was the Brother’s first creation.
Another is the Rain/Fertility God Tlaloc, who was created by the Brothers during the First Sun. Also important to our story are Tlaloc’s first and second sister-wives, Xochiquetzal and Chalchihtlicue.
Before the First Sun:
Much like the Babylonian Dragon Tiamat (slayed by Marduk) and the Giant Ymir in Norse Mythology (dismembered by Odin and his brothers), in this myth a chthonic beast had to be battled to make the Earth, allowing creation to commence. Our beast was named Cipactli, who dwelt in the depths and consumed everything else the Brothers attempted to create.
The Brothers took on Cipactli, and were victorious. However, in the battle that ensued, the Black Brother Tezcatlipoca, lord of the North, God of Deceit and Sorcery, lost his leg, which may have led to some of his subsequent bitterness (though in some variants he intentionally used it as bait).
Cipactli’s body was used to create the Earth. The Brothers created a race of giants, as well as a new generation of Gods, including the Rain God Tlaloc, along with his sister-wife, Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of the Terrestrial Waters and Beauty.
There was just one catch…there was no light in the Heavens, just the eternal darkness of the Void.
The Brothers decided on a solution…
[Note: Cipactli wasn’t dead, just twisted into the shape of the Earth. For this reason, the giants made blood sacrifices to supplicate her pain].
The First Sun: The Battle Between Quetzacoatl and Tezcatlipoca Begins (The Jaguar Sun)
One of the Brothers would ascend to the Heavens, and shine down on the Earth.
The Black Brother Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the North, was chosen.
But there was a problem; after being maimed by the beast Cipactli, he could only produce a dim light; the First Sun was barely half a Sun.
After a while, Quetzacoatl grew impatient with his Brother’s inadequacy. Eventually, he lost his temper, setting in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the remaining Four Suns.
He angrily tossed a stone club at Tezcatlipoca, casting the world into darkness.
Tezcatlipoca responded in kind; he transformed himself into a Jaguar and hunted down the entire race of giants, an act of genocide that Quetzacoatl was not going to forgive…
Not that Tezcatlipoca was in a forgiving mood, either.
The Second Sun: The Battle Continues (The Wind Sun)
This time, it was Quetzacoatl who became the Sun.
The Gods created a new race of humans. Unlike those who lived under the First Sun, these humans were our size.
Unfortunately, they were far too human. As their civilizations grew, they became more violent. Worse yet, they stopped praying to the Gods.
Still, Quetzalcoatl loved his subjects, a fact not lost on Tezcatlpoca.
Using his sorcery, he turned the humans of the Second Sun into monkeys.
Incensed and determined to start a new with a Third Sun, Quetzalcoatl created a mighty hurricane which swept the monkeys away.
With this done, Quetzalcoatl stepped down, ending the era of the Second Sun.
The Third Sun: Tezcatlipoca Seduces Xoxhiquetzal (The Rain Sun)
Tlaloc was not a Brother, but one of the first Gods created, along with his wife, Xochiquetzal, the Goddess of Beauty, Fertility and Female Sexual power. It was Tlaloc who was elected to be the Third Sun.
A new race of humans was created, and for a while, all was good.
Meanwhile, Tezcatlipoca was hatching a plan of his own.
He managed to seduce and steal Xochiquetzal.
Tlaloc was heart broken. Besides being the Third Sun, he was still the God of the Rains, but in his grief, he stopped listening to the prayers of his people. The rains stopped coming, the crops started dying, and the laments of humanity fell on Tlaloc’s deaf ears.
But they wouldn’t stop praying, and soon Tlaloc grew annoyed.
If it was rain they wanted, it would be rain they would receive.
However, what he gave them was a rainstorm of fire. He scourged the world of all living things, and retired from being the Third Sun.
In the aftermath of Tlaloc’s actions, the Gods had to gather the ashes of the Earth, and rebuild a new one.
The Fourth Sun: Tezcatlipoca Plays on Chalchiuhtlicue’s Insecurities (The Water Sun)
With his first wife seduced and stolen by Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc remarried. This time it was to the Water Goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, who was appointed as the Fourth Sun.
Of all the Suns, it was the Fourth Sun who loved humanity the most.
This time, Tezcatlipoca took a different approach. Instead of seduction, he played on her innermost fears:
He told her that he didn’t really believe she loved the people, but instead just faked her emotions so they would love her back. He accused her of what, in modern parlance, we might call being a Diva.
This crushed her. She spent the next fifty-two years weeping tears of blood; however, unlike her husband, whose grief had ended in rage, there are few indications that she intended to wipe out humanity (there is a variant, however). Still, fifty-two years of crying blood was enough to inundate the world. The humans who did survive did so by transforming into fish…
[note: a fifty-two year cycle was a standard calendar cycle in Aztec time-keeping, similar to our 100 year century. See the Codex Borgia for more].
The Fifth Sun: Quetzalcoatl Descends Into the Underworld, and a New Day Begins (The Earthquake Sun)
Quetzalcoatl was determined to restore humanity. To this end, he descended to Xibalba, the underworld ruled by Mictēcacihuātl (She Who Swallows the Stars) and her husband, the very skeletal Mictlantecuhtli.
There, Quetzalcoatl succeeded in stealing the bones of the dead. He offered up his own blood to resurrect the bones, bringing humanity back to life in the process.
This time, there would be yet another Sun: the Blue Brother, Huitzilopochtli, Lord of the South, God of War.
However, not every God was pleased. The Stars joined forces with the Moon Goddess to wage a ceaseless war against Huitzilopochtli over their jealousy of his brightness.
It was to this end that the Aztecs offered the Fifth Sun human sacrifices; blood feeds the God, and gives him the strength to fend of the Stars and the Moon.
Should he lose, his light will go black, and the world will end in a cataclysmic earthquake.
The Stars and the Moon will rejoice, but probably not as much as Tezcatlipoca, who has been waiting for that day since his brother, Quetzalcoatl, ended his reign as the First Sun…
Of course, there are variants, including the tale of the Fifth Sun, which sometimes features the sons of Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue, not Huitzilopochtli; they become the Sun and the Moon. Another variant has the God Tonatiuh becoming the Fifth Sun.
In some stories, Chalchiuhtlicue isn’t tricked by Tezcatlipoca, but acts to end the age of her own free will.
Pick the version you like…either way, watch out for earthquakes; it could mark the end of world as we know it…
A few academic references for those interested:
- Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs 2nd Ed. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Dr. Michael Smith is an archaeologist specializing in the Aztecs of central Mexico. He is Professor of Anthropology in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.
- Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in The Aztec World. California State University, Los Angeles, 2006
Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is Associate Professor of Art History at California State University in Los Angeles. His research areas include the art and history of Pre-Columbian and Colonial Latin America with an emphasis in Mexico, specifically Aztec Art and Ulama (a direct descendant of the Mesoamerican Ballgame).