Who Was Tlaloc in Aztec Mythology?
The Aztec pantheon consisted of hundreds of gods, many of which are still not fully understood today. Among these, however, some were obviously more prominent than others.
One of the most important gods was Tlaloc. He was the god of rain and water and, as such, responsible for the fertility of the earth.
Tlaloc’s rain was not guaranteed, however. He required frequent sacrifices and rituals to send the right amount of the right type of rain that would allow crops to grow.
Because he was so vital to human survival and required their devotion, Tlaloc was one of the most widely-revered gods of the Aztec Empire.
But historians are torn on whether Tlaloc was quite as broadly worshiped as they once thought. While they know he was a central figure in the religion, the images used to identify him may not be as clear as they once seemed.
In Mesoamerican mythology, Tlaloc was the supreme god of rain, weather, and the element of water.
Many deities shared some of his domains, but Tlaloc was supreme over all of them. While others controlled one type of rain or one body of water, Tlaloc was associated with them all.
This made him one of the most important and widely-revered gods in the pantheon.
Virtually all ancient cultures made a connection between rain gods and their own livelihoods. Because crops would not grow without the right amount of rainfall, the gods who controlled rainfall were incredibly important world-wide.
This was especially true in much of the region controlled by the Aztec Empire. The often hot and dry contrition’s of Central Mexico made the goodwill of the rain god vital for survival.
The Aztec people also recognized that not all rain was beneficial. Tlaloc could also send loud thunder, dangerous lightning, and hail that would damage crops and buildings.
To maintain the water god’s favor, the Aztecs ensured that he was worshipped appropriately. He was one of the two gods who had shrines within the Great Temple pyramid in the city of Tenochtitlan and had a major pilgrimage site forty-four miles to the east on Mount Tlaloc.
A long, straight road connected the two sites. Tlaloc was believed to live in mountain caves, so the site in the city was an auxiliary to the one seen as his home.
The mountain was so important that the Aztec ruler would make the journey to its peak at least once per year to conduct festivals. Pilgrims would come from throughout the region, and those who died on the journey were afforded special burial practices.
These festivals included particularly brutal rituals. Both children and adults were given as sacrifices to Tlaloc and priests were said to wear the skins of victims as coats.
While the people sacrificed to many of the other gods were expected to be stoic or even joyful, Tlaloc’s victims were encouraged to show their emotions. Their tears, it was thought were an indication of the rain that would follow the sacrifice.
Non-living sacrifices and offerings were also given at these sacred sites. In addition to precious and semi-precious gems, items connected to the sea such as shells, pearls, and jade were also given in large numbers.
The mountain temple also had four jugs of water, which were believed to correspond to different types of rain. Only one of these would be beneficial to crops, however.
In Aztec mythology, Tlaloc could make several different elements and materials rain down from the sky. In the creation story, for example, he was the third god to take the place of the sun and destroyed the world by raining fire down upon it.
Only one type of rain would make crops grow, which means that the Aztecs believed there was a greater likelihood of disaster than bounty. Prayers and sacrifices to Tlaloc were the only way to ensure that the rain was sweet water rather than, for example, flint or fire.
Tlaloc was also a god of the dead. He ruled over a level of the heavens that was characterized by eternal springtime and vibrant green plants.
Those who drowned or had otherwise violent deaths found their way to this heaven. This included those who died from diseases that were believed to be carried by water such as leprosy, gout, and venereal diseases.
Tlaloc was one of the most widely-venerated gods of Mesoamerica, not only among the Aztecs. He was a popular god among the Mayans, as well. Historians have an interesting theory for how Tlaloc became so widespread, but they also have questions about how prevalent his cult truly was in some areas.
In many cases, the full breadth of a god’s influence is inferred from the iconography and ritual artifacts found at the site. This is often how Tlaloc’s importance outside of his major temple areas has been determined.
A more recent examination of the archaeological evidence, however, has suggested that Tlaloc may not have been as powerful as once thought.
Like other characters in the Aztec and Mesoamerican culture, Tlaloc was generally shown with a specific iconography. His attributes, however, varied based on time and location.
Tlaloc was usually shown with fangs and bulging, goggle-like eyes. He wore a headdress of heron feathers and a distinctive curving blue mask.
His body and face were usually in shades of blue and green. He was often shown with items that showed his power over rain and fertility such as corn, drops of rain, a water jug, or lightening.
These items were not consistent, however, nor were Tlaloc’s sacred animals. Almost any water-dwelling animal could be associated with Tlaloc so he could be pictured with herons, frogs, snails, or shellfish.
Sometimes, he was even associated with land-based animals. Because jaguars were a lavish sacrificial animal, Tlaloc was often shown with an association with them in the city of Teotihuacan.
Because his imagery was so diverse, scholars in the past were sometimes uncertain as to whether or not a figure could be identified as Tlaloc. When some attributes were present but not others, they usually determined that it was Tlaloc because of his importance.
Some of these images also included elements that were not typically associated with Tlaloc. Because his known iconography is so diverse, however, it was assumed that these were otherwise unknown attributes.
Scholars are now questioning some of these earlier associations. Some of the images traditionally identified as Tlaloc are now thought to be of other gods, meaning that Tlaloc’s cult may not have been as ubiquitous as once thought.
This is further confused by the fact that there may have been multiple versions of Tlaloc even within the same location and time.
Tlaloc was sometimes depicted with four or five forms that corresponded to the types of rain that were believed to fall to earth. Each of these forms had its own attributes, coloration, and ornamentation.
This was not unusual in Aztec iconography, but it leads to confusion as to whether these gods can all be identified as aspects of Tlaloc himself or whether they were understood to be more minor deities working within his domain.
Images once identified as a red aspect of Tlaloc, for example, are now believed to be of an unknown god instead. While their ornaments have some resemblance to Tlaloc, there are no references to water, fertility, or plants that would be typical for Tlaloc.
Despite the difficulty in identifying some images, archaeologists believe they have a good understanding of how Tlaloc’s cult spread.
The Mayan culture, which existed to the south of the Aztec Empire, was closely related. Their gods were not identical but obviously came from the same archetypes.
Their iconography, however, contains a god that is strikingly similar to the Aztec representations of Tlaloc. This god seems to be a much closer match to its northern counterpart than is the norm.
Statues found at they Mayan site Chichén Itzá, for example, are virtually identical to those found at Tlaloc’s shrine in Tenochtitlan. These statues were associated with sacrifice, leading historians to believe that the rites practiced at Chichén Itzá were similarly close to those of Aztec pyramid.
The Mayan version of the god also seems to have been closely linked to war. He is found on the shields and masks of warriors.
Archaeologists believe that this link to warfare is the reason that the Mayan god, Chaac, so closely resembled his Aztec counterpart.
Many Mesoamerican cultures used warfare to provide the human sacrifices necessary to appease their gods. While some locals were chosen as well, enemy warriors who had been taken captive were usually sacrificed to one of the religion’s gods.
Because Tlaloc was widely-revered and recieved many sacrifices, fighters from the Maya and other groups were often killed at his shrines. They came to associate the Aztec god with warfare because so many of their own people were taken captive to be his sacrifices.
Historians believe that Tlaloc likely originated in the Aztec Empire, specifically in the city of Teotihuacan. When the Mayans adopted him, they associated him with warfare and a very specific type of sacrifice because they had witnessed captive warriors killed in that way so many times.
In the Aztec religion, Tlaloc was the god of rain and water. Because he sent the rain that made the soil fertile, he was also a god of vegetation and agriculture.
The Aztecs believed that Tlaloc could sent many types of rain, most of which were harmful to the land. As the god of the third sun, he had once destroyed the world with a rain of fire.
To keep Tlaloc happy, sacrifices were given to him at multiple sites. Half of the largest pyramid in the region was devoted to him and he had a major shrine on Mount Tlaloc as well.
Like other Mesoamerican gods, Tlaloc is usually identified by set aspects of his iconography. These include a distinctive mask, bulging eyes, aquatic animals, and maize.
There was a great deal of variation in Tlaloc’s attributes, however, so it is sometimes unclear whether he or another god is depicted. Scholars now believe that many images once said to be of Tlaloc do not have enough of his major attributes to be representations of the rain god.
His image is much clearer, however, in the Mayan culture. There, it is almost identical to the way he was portrayed in his major Aztec cult center but is more often associated with war.
Archaeologists believe that this may be because the Aztecs used captive warriors in their sacrifices. The spread of Tlaloc’s imagery to the neighboring culture is an indication of how well-known and widely-revered the god was.