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Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl
Other names: Chicunauhmictlan (“King of Mictlan”)
Etymology: “Lord of Mictlan”
Mictlantecutli is the Aztec deity who is the Lord of the Dead and ruler of the Aztec Underworld known as Mictlan. Which is exactly what Mictlantecutli’s name translates to, “Lord of Mictlan.”
Just to get it out of the way, Mictlantecuhtli’s wife is Mictecacihuatl, who is also the ruler of the dead.
Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider
Month: Tititl (Aztec)
Patron of: Death, the Dead
Sphere of Influence: Death
Symbols: Bones, Skeletons, Paper
Time: 11th Hour
Mictlantecutli is often represented as either a skeleton or a human figure wearing a skull. His headdress will often have owl feathers on it. When shown as a skeleton, Michlantechutli’s headdress will have knives in it to represent the wind of knives that the souls of the dead must pass through on their way to Mictlan. Michlantechutli when shown as a skeleton may be shown covered or splattered in blood and wearing a necklace of eyeballs or wearing paper clothing. Paper being a common offering for the dead. As human, Michlantechutli would have human bones serving as ear plugs that he wears.
Additional depictions of Michlantechutli show him wearing sandals to symbolize his high rank as the Lord of Mictlan. Michlantechutli could also be shown with his arm held out in an aggressive pose, showing he was ready to tear apart the dead as they came into his presence and realm. There is also an Aztec Codice that shows Michlantechutli as having his skeletal jaw wide open to take in the stars into him during the day.
What’s In A Name
Mictlantecutli’s name translates to “Lord of Mictlan” in the Nahuatl language.
Parents – Not really, Mictlantecuhtli was created by Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli when they were busy creating the universe and world.
Spouse – Mictecacihuatl, the Queen and Ruler of the Dead. Another spelling I have for her is Mictlantecihuatl.
Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.
There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.
Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.
Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.
In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.
And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.
Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan
With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.
Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died, went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.
As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.
Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.
The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.
Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.
This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.
Souls Of The Dead
The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.
- People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
- People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
- People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides
While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.
In the Aztec Calendar, Mictlanteculhtli is associated with the tenth day sign Itzcuintli, a dog. There were twenty such signs in the Aztec calendar. On the day that a particular deity is associated with, that deity was were responsible for providing the souls born on that day.
In addition, Mictlanteculhtli was the source of all souls born on the sixth day of a 13-day week. That is an exceedingly long weekend to work towards.
Mictlanteculhtli presided as the second Week Deity for the tenth week of a twenty-week calendar cycle.
Of the Aztec Gods as a whole, Mictlanteculhtli is the fifth out of nine Night Deities.
As a Night God, Mictlanteculhtli would be paired up with the Sun god Tonatiuh to symbolize the duality and dichotomy of light and darkness.
He was also the secondary Week God for the tenth week of the twenty-week cycle of the calendar, joining the sun god Tonatiuh to symbolize the dichotomy of light and darkness.
Dualities – Light & Dark
While we are on this subject, where Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl represented Death; they are the complements and opposites to Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl who represented Life.
Fertility – Life & Death
By modern, Western aesthetics, Mictlanteculhtli is not the only Aztec deity to be shown with skeletal imagery or bones. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.
As they only come out at night and often from caves, bats have been associated with Mictlanteculhtli and the Underworld.
Due to the tenth day sign Itzcuintli, a dog, they are also associated with Mictlanteculhtli. It also seems fairly coincidental enough too as even in Europe, dogs as in Black Dogs are often associated with death and being psychopomps to lead the souls of the dead to the afterlife.
In Aztec beliefs, the owl is associated with death and thus one of Michlantechutli’s animals. Michlantechutli is often shown wearing owl feathers on his headdress.
Another animal associated with death and darkness; they too have been associated with Mictlanteculhtli.
A good portion of the Aztec belief system involved a lot of ritual blood sacrifices. Mictlantecuhtli was no different. Sacrifices made to Mictlantecuhtli were performed at night with a person being a stand-in or avatar, a representative of the god of death. They would be sacrificed at the Tlalxicco temple, whose name means “navel of the world.”
The flayed skins of humans would be offered up to Mictlantecuhtli and it is said that ritual cannibalism was done at the temple too.
Fun Fact – When Hernan Cortes landed on the shore of Central America, the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II thought that this was the deity Quetzalcoatl who had arrived. Thinking that this was the end of the world, Moctezuma II increased the number of human sacrifices believing that this would allow him to appease Mictlantecuhtli and avoid the torments of Mictlan.
Aztec Creation Story
In Aztec myths and beliefs, the world has been created and destroyed a few times.
In this case, the gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl had just finished restoring the sky and earth when they decide that they need to create people to populate this new fifth world. Since Michlantechutli has all the bones, Quetzalcoatl travels to him to inquire about getting some bones. Michlantechutli agrees to the condition that Quetzalcoatl travels around the Underworld four times while sounding a conch shell horn. The catch is that Michlantechutli gives Quetzalcoatl a shell that doesn’t have any holes drilled into it.
Quetzalcoatl fixes this problem by summoning some worms who drill holes into the conch shell and then having bees fly into the shell. When Michlantechutli hears Quetzalcoatl blowing the conch horn, he is obligated to fulfill his end of the agreement. However, Michlantechutli decides to go back on his word to keep the bones. Quetzalcoatl is forced to flee, taking the bones with him and Michlantechutli sends his minions, the Micteca after the other god. The Micteca dig a deep pit and as Quetzalcoatl is running, a quail jumps out, startling Quetzalcoatl so that he falls into the pit and dies with the bones all shattering. This is why people will be of different sizes.
One retelling has the quail tormenting Quetzalcoatl before he seemingly dies and then gnaws on all the bones, making that the reason why humans will be in different sizes.
Quetzalcoatl does eventually revive, being a god, and takes the bones to the goddess Cihuacoatl who grinds up the bones and puts them into a special container. The other gods now gather around this container and cut themselves to shed blood into it. From this mixture, the humans of today came forth to populate the earth.
Variation – One version of the myths I came across is that it is both Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl who come to claim bones from Mictlantecuhtli and that these were the bones of previous deities who had lived and died.
An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.
When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would then undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and need to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.
Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.
Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.
Santa Muerte – Mexico
A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity has been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection and a safe passage to the afterlife.
Ah Puch – Mayan
Also known as Yum Cimil, the Mayan god of Death, seen as similar to Mictlantecuhtli.
Coqui Bezelao – Zapotec
Another god of Death similar to Mictlantecuhtli in Central to South America.
Kedo – Zapotec
Another god of Death that Mictlantecuhtli has been equated with.
Tihuime – Tarascan
Another god of Death similar to Mictlantecuhtli in Central America.