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Mesoamerican Mythology 101: The Ultimate Guide

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Hi there! I’m excited to take you on a journey into the world of Mesoamerican mythology. 

This is a fascinating area of study, filled with complex and varied myths, legends, and religious beliefs. 

The Mesoamerican region includes present-day Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America, and the cultures that flourished there developed their own unique pantheon of gods and goddesses, as well as their own creation myths and stories about the gods.

In this guide, we’ll explore the common elements of Mesoamerican mythology and how each culture developed its own variation of these themes. 

We’ll also take a look at the primary written sources for these myths, important characters, creatures, and more. 

Whether you’re a student of mythology, an avid reader of ancient texts, or simply someone with a curious mind, I hope you’ll find this guide informative and engaging. 

So, let’s dive into the world of Mesoamerican mythology!

Don’t forget to check out my World Mythology 101 article for a complete overview of myth in cultures around the world.

What is Mesoamerican Mythology?

Mesoamerican mythology is the collection of myths, legends, and religious beliefs of the various cultures that lived in the Mesoamerican region. 

This region includes modern-day Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America. 

The mythology of the different cultures in this region have many similarities, but each culture also has its own unique pantheon of gods and goddesses, as well as its own creation myths and stories about the gods.

In Mesoamerican mythology, the gods and heroes often have many different names and appearances. The stories about them were passed down in different forms, which can sometimes make the mythology appear confusing. 

However, the Mesoamerican people believed that the universe was an orderly and structured place, and that proper behavior towards the gods was essential for maintaining its balance and harmony.

What We Know

In many cases, the primary written sources for these myths have only survived in fragments. 

Ethnographic material collected by anthropologists provides additional information about the myths of the present-day Mesoamerican peoples.

Common Themes

Mesoamerican myths often focus on the origins of the world, humanity, staple foods, and supernatural beings. 

In many cases, the primary written sources for these myths have only survived in fragments. 

Ethnographic material collected by anthropologists provides additional information about the myths of the present-day Mesoamerican peoples.

Mesoamerica is characterized by the concept of duality, and many of the myths revolve around this idea.

 The supreme god, Ometeotl, represents the unity of opposites and is believed to live in a place called Omeyocan. 

When Ometeotl unfolds, he becomes two deities, Omecihuatl and Ometecuhtli, who together create four gods responsible for the creation of the rest of the gods and the world.

Types of Mesoamerican Mythology

Mesoamerican mythology includes a wide variety of myths, legends, and religious beliefs from the cultures that inhabited the Mesoamerican region. These cultures include (but are not limited to):

  • Aztec: Aztec mythology is the collection of myths and legends of the Aztec civilization of Central Mexico. The Aztecs were Nahuatl-speaking groups and their mythology is similar to other Mesoamerican cultures. 
  • Maya: Mayan mythology is a part of Mesoamerican mythology and includes tales featuring deities and heroes interacting with personified forces of nature.
  • Mixtec: The Mixtecs worshiped the sun and other natural forces like life and death, and had gods for war, fertility, rain, and other elements, with no hierarchy among them.
  • Olmec: The Olmecs, the first Mesoamerican civilization, worshiped the sun and other natural forces, and their religious beliefs influenced the social development and mythological world view of later cultures in the region. However, there are no surviving direct accounts of Olmec religion, so scholars have relied on other techniques, such as analyzing iconography and art, to reconstruct their beliefs.
  • Zapotec: The Zapotec civilization was an indigenous pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mesoamerica. The Zapotec archaeological site at Monte Albán includes monumental buildings and tombs, and was one of the first major cities in Mesoamerica. It was the center of a Zapotec state that dominated much of present-day Oaxaca.
  • Lencan: Lenca mythology is the set of religious and mythological beliefs of the Lenca people of Honduras and El Salvador, before and after the conquest of the Americas. Although pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas developed a diverse range of mythology, little has been preserved for the Lenca people due to their obscurity during colonization and the adoption of Catholicism in the 16th century.

Prominent Mesoamerican Myths

Among the many tales of Mayan and Aztec mythology, some of the major ones are:

  • Creation Myth: The Mayans believed that the universe was created and destroyed in a cyclical manner, with each destruction followed by a new creation. In this process, the gods created humans to serve and worship them, and these humans evolved over the course of four ages or “suns” until they reached the present world. The modern Mayan groups continue to believe in these cosmic ages, but have expanded their beliefs to include Adam, Eve, Jesus, and Mary.
  • The Hero Twins: This tale tells the story of the twin brothers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who are tasked with defeating the evil lords of the underworld. The twins, aided by the power of their father, the sun god, succeed in defeating the lords and establishing order in the world.
  • The Great Flood: The Mayans believed that the last creation was destroyed by water and that a couple, Tata and Nene, were saved by a god who turned them into dogs. In other versions of the myth, humans were created from the bones of people from previous ages. These creation myths have been explained as the generic creation of human beings against the differentiated birth of human groups.
  • The Origin of Maize: Maize, maguey, and other plants were central to Mexican ritual life and were the subject of many myths. In pre-Hispanic versions, maize came from the body of the god Cinteotl and maguey came from the bones of a goddess named Mayahuel, both of whom were important to the production of the intoxicating drink pulque.

Mesoamerican Mythology Characters

Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in Mayan or Aztec Mythology:

  • Quetzalcoatl: The god of wind, wisdom, and learning, Quetzalcoatl was an exceptionally important character in Mayan and Aztec mythology. He was the creator of the world, and he was often depicted as a plumed serpent.
  • Tezcatlipoca: Tezcatlipoca was a major god in the Aztec pantheon and was associated with the Great Bear constellation and the night sky. He was also known as a creator god and was believed to have ruled over the first of the four worlds that were created and destroyed before the present universe. 
  • Xipe Tótec: The god of spring and renewal, Xipe Tótec was associated with death and rebirth. He was often depicted wearing the flayed skin of a sacrificial victim.
  • Tláloc: The god of rain and storms, Tláloc was one of the most important gods in Mayan and Aztec mythology. He was also associated with fertility and agriculture.
  • Tlazolteotl: The goddess of filth and vice, Tlazolteotl was associated with sexual desire and temptation. She was also the goddess of purification, and was sometimes called upon to help people confess their sins.
  • Huitzilopochtli: The god of the Sun and war, Huitzilopochtli was one of the most important gods in Aztec mythology. He was the patron god of the city of Tenochtitlan, and he was often depicted as a hummingbird.
  • Coyolxāuhqui: Coyolxāuhqui was a daughter of the Aztec priestess Cōātlīcue and the leader of her brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua. She led her brothers in an attack against their mother when she became pregnant, but the attack was thwarted by her brother Huitzilopochtli, the national deity of the Mexicas.

Mesoamerican Mythology Sources

There are many texts that mention Mayan and Aztec mythology, but here are a few of the most important ones:

  • The Popol Vuh: This is a Mayan religious text that tells the story of the creation of the world, the hero twins, and the early history of the Mayan people. It is considered one of the most important sources of information on Mayan mythology.
  • The Annals of the Cakchiquels: The Annals of the Cakchiquels is a manuscript written in Kaqchikel by Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá in 1571 and completed by his grandson in 1604. The manuscript, which includes both historical and mythological elements, is considered an important historical document on post-classic Maya civilization in the highlands of Guatemala.
  • The Florentine Codex: The Florentine Codex is a 16th-century ethnographic study of Mesoamerica by the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún. It consists of 2,400 pages organized into twelve books and includes over 2,000 illustrations drawn by native artists. It documents the culture, religious beliefs, society, economics, and natural history of the Aztec people.

Mesoamerican Mythology Artifacts and Weapons

Mayan and Aztec mythology is rich with stories of various artifacts and weapons. Here are some of the most famous:

  • Mesoamerican World Tree: The world tree is a prevalent motif in the cosmologies, creation accounts, and iconographies of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which also represented the fourfold nature of a central world tree, a symbolic axis mundi that connects the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial realm.
  • Teonanácatl: in Nahuatl, literally means “god mushroom.” The word is a compound of teo(tl) (god) and nanácatl (mushroom). It refers to a type of mushroom that was sacred to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures. These mushrooms were often used in religious ceremonies and were believed to have mystical properties.

Mesoamerican Mythology Creatures

Mayan and Aztec mythology feature a variety of creatures, each with their own unique characteristics and stories. Here are a few:

  • Alux: The Alux are spirits in Maya mythology that are associated with natural features and are invisible but able to assume physical form for the purpose of communicating with humans. They are thought to be small, resembling miniature traditionally dressed Maya people, and are associated with forests, caves, stones, and fields. Some contemporary Maya consider shrines to be “houses of the alux”.
  • Huay Chivo: The Huay Chivo is a mythical half-man, half-beast creature with burning red eyes specific to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. It is often described as an evil sorcerer who can transform into a supernatural animal, usually a goat, dog, or deer, to prey on livestock. It is a local variation of the Mesoamerican Nahual. And speaking of which…
  • Nagual: The nagual is a personal guardian spirit believed by some Mesoamerican natives to reside in an animal, such as a deer or jaguar. In some areas, the nagual is the animal that certain powerful men can become evil, and the word derives from the Nahuatl word for “disguise”. 

Common Elements in Mesoamerican Mythology

Mesoamerican mythology, like all mythologies, has a rich and complex history with many common elements shared among the various cultures of the region. Some of these common elements include:

  • Autosacrifice: Autosacrifice was the practice of drawing blood from oneself as part of a ritual, and was commonly performed by ruling elites in highly ritualized ceremonies. Both men and women performed this practice, which involved the use of obsidian blades and stingray spines. Blood was collected in a bowl, and was typically drawn from the tongue, earlobes, and genitals.
  • Human sacrifice: Sacrifice was an important part of Mesoamerican culture, as it was believed to show death transformed into the divine. The practice was also tied to the justification of war and the control of power by ruling classes. Sacrifices were believed to be chosen by the gods, and being struck by lightning was seen as a sign that someone had been chosen to be sacrificed.
  • Ballgame: The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations that was played for over 3000 years by nearly all pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica. It was played in different versions in different places, and a modern version of the game is still played in a few places. The ballgame featured important ritual aspects and was sometimes associated with human sacrifice.
  • Astronomy: Mesoamerican astronomy involved a broad understanding of the cycles of celestial bodies, with a particular emphasis on the sun, moon, and Venus. Observatories were built at some sites, and the architecture of many Mesoamerican sites was based on astronomical observations. The earliest documented observatory in Mesoamerica is thought to be that of the Monte Alto culture.
  • Space/Time Symbology: It has been argued that among Mesoamerican societies the concepts of space and time were associated with the four cardinal compass points and linked together by the calendar. Dates or events were always tied to a compass direction, and the calendar specified the symbolic geographical characteristic peculiar to that period. The cardinal directions were also associated with specific colors and deities. Among the Aztec, the name of each day was associated with a cardinal point, and each direction was associated with a group of symbols.
  • Political/Religious Art: Mesoamerican art was largely focused on themes of religion and politics, and was often used to visually legitimize the sociocultural and political position of rulers. The majority of artwork created during this time was in relation to religion and politics, and was often used to relay religious and political messages.
  • Music: Archaeological studies have not discovered any written music from the pre-Columbian era in Mesoamerica, but musical instruments and depictions show that music played a central role in Mayan religious and societal structures. Some Mesoamerican civilizations, like the Maya, commonly played various instruments such as drums, flutes, and whistles.
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Jason is a Mythic Fantasy Author and creator of MythBank. He loves mythology, history, and geek culture. When he's not writing, his favorite hobbies include hiking, chilling with his wife, spouting nonsense words at his baby daughter, and developing this (and other) websites.

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