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Personification of Death in Aztec Culture
Posted In: Information and Theories  1/29/07
By: Yona WIlliams

When exploring the personification of death as it pertains to the Aztec belief system, you will find a character named Mictlantecuhtli (which stands for “lord of Mictlan”) at the forefront. In this article, we will investigate the piece of Aztec mythology concerning the dead and death.


Throughout Aztec mythology, Mictlantecuhtli served as a god of the dead, as well as the King of Mictlan (also known as Chicunauhmictlan). His realm represents the lowest and the northernmost region of the underworld. As one of the main gods throughout Aztec lore, he stood as one of the most recognizable of the gods and goddesses associated with death and the underworld. When followers paid homage to Mictlantecuhtli, rituals involving cannibalism were observed. Often times, the flesh of humans was eaten both inside and about the temples of worship.


The appearance of Mictlantecuhtli has been described as a skeleton with blood covering his body. Sometimes the god is depicted as a person who is seen displaying a toothy skull. The god showcases a headdress that is decorated with owl feathers, as well as paper banners. An eerie necklace of human eyeballs serves as an ornamental display. Although he was not the only Aztec god to exhibit such a fashion statement, he was certainly one of the most memorable of the sort that wore skulls and bones.


While in this day and age, the sight of bones and skulls may seem pretty strange and close to morbid, throughout the Aztec culture, visions of skeletons serve as a symbol of fertility, health, as well as abundance. When it comes to the subject of death and life, the imagery provides a look at the closely related link between to two.


Within private circles, Mictlantecuhtli had a wife, who lived with him inside a house with no windows. An array of associations is also connected to this god, who is one of the few deities to hold court over the three main types of souls. When one from the past thought of Mictlantecuhtli, visions of bats, owls, spiders, and the eleventh hour may have come to the mind. The northern compass direction is also associated with the god.


Out of all the 20 signs on the calendar, Mictlantecuhtli is known as the god of the day sign (meaning Itzcuintli/dog). For people born on that day, Mictlantecuhtli held the responsibility of supplying the souls for that day. When dealing with a 13-day week, he brought about the souls that were born on the sixth day. He also served as the fifth of the nine Night Gods of the Aztecs, also belonging to the secondary Week God for the tenth week of a 20-week calendar cycle. He shared the duties with the sun god named Tonatiuh, who signified light and darkness.


The Aztecs packaged the different souls into categories that dealt with normal deaths (brought on by disease or old age); heroic deaths (associated with battle, sacrifice, and during a hard childbirth); and non-heroic deaths (such as suicide).


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