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Ancient Aztec Beliefs: The Afterlife

By Yona Williams    8/24/10

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While some cultures believe they will end up in a heaven or hell, others feel that varying levels of the afterlife exist. For the ancient Aztecs, they believed in a paradise and an underworld, which was the lowest level of the afterlife. In this article, you will also encounter the Tlalocan and Mictlan.

Tlalocan

The ancient Aztecs believed that the "Upper Worlds" were comprised of thirteen levels, while the Underworld had nine levels. The first level of the upper world (also known as the 'heavens') was called Tlalocan. It was believed that the way a person died played an important role in which one of the layers they would arrive at in the afterlife. This particular level was named after the deity associated with it – who was responsible for rain and lightning – Tlaloc.

In many descriptions of Tlalocan, it is referred to as a paradise, where Tlaloc rules along with his consort Chalchiuhtlicue. According to records from Post-Classic central Mexico, Tlalocan is described as a place with the springtime never ends. The surroundings are filled with a great deal of green foliage and the plants of the region are all edible.

For example, the different levels of heaven were created as a way to deal with individuals who had met a violent end. Usually, Tlalocan was reserved for people who had died by drowning or who had lost their life to some form of water, including being struck by lightning, flooding, or by a disease that had been associated with water. Tlaloc also had a soft spot for people who were born with a physical deformity and Tlalocan was the place where they ended up after death.

Tlillan-Tlapallan

The middle realm of the heaven was also known as 'middle paradise.' It is believed that this legendary place was located on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

Mictlan

The lowest level of the underworld was called Mictlan – it was the ninth. Located far in the north, this afterlife destination was where women who died in childbirth and people who died by lightning were sent. Warriors who died in battle did not go to Mictlan after their death. The journey was described as one that was complicated and full of hardships. It was said to have taken four years. However, the dead were not alone. They benefited from the assistance of a psychopomp named Xolotl.

The adventure was not easy and the dead were expected to pass numerous obstacles. For example, one challenge was to cross a mountain range where the mountains crashed into one another. Another predicament they had to overcome was to survive a river of blood with terrifying jaguars.

In order to assist the dead in accomplishing their quest to reach the place where they would be at rest, loved ones would provide the deceased with items that would be of help in the afterlife. Common objects found at burial sites included water, a jade bead to feed to the beasts that eat hearts at the seventh level, and personal possessions to serve gifts to the god of the dead (Michtlantecuhtli) and mistress of the underworld (Mictecacihuatl).

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