Aztec Symbols and Their Meanings: Decoding the Codices
To truly understand the Aztec society, we must understand Aztec symbols and their meanings. As with so many other societies throughout time, the Aztecs drew heavily from the natural world around them to create a rich tapestry of art, mythology, and symbolism.
Not only that, but Aztec civilization also drew on the cultural accomplishments of their Mesoamerican forbears, such as the Olmecs and Toltecs, adapting the symbols important to these earlier peoples. To put it into more Western terms, think of how the Romans adopted the Greek pantheon, taking the symbols and beliefs of the Greek’s ancient religions and making it their own.
Though this certainly will not be a comprehensive overview of the world of Aztec symbolism (the Aztec writing system was pictographic, after all), we hope to highlight the most important Aztec symbols and, in so doing, shed a bit of light on this amazing culture.
The Most Important Aztec Symbols and their Meaning
Let’s begin with some of the most important pictographic images in Aztec culture. The meanings of these Aztec symbols and images can give us some insight into the psychology, religion, and daily life of the Mexica people, the empire they controlled, and even the tonalpohualli calendar they created.
As you can probably imagine, the jaguar was one of the fiercest animals in the Aztec world. Just like today, they sat comfortably at the top of the food chain.
Throughout Mesoamerican history, in fact, civilizations such as the Xochicalo, Tula, and others had used the jaguar as a symbol of military might. The Aztecs, the dominant military power of their day, followed suit.
The jaguar’s natural stealth, power, and speed made them the perfect symbol for one of the Aztec’s elite warrior class. Known as the Jaguar warriors, this elite corp of fighters were made up of distinguished veterans who had proven themselves in battle. Adorning in clothing designed to mimic the natural spots of the jaguar, these fearsome warriors were one of the two most revered bodies of soldiers in the Aztec Empire – the other being the Eagle Warriors. The ferocity of the jaguar and its namesake warriors also lead the Jaguar warriors to become associated with one of the two creator gods, Tezcatlipocha.
Jaguars were so important, they even had a day named after them in the Aztec calendar.
The eagle, or cuauhtli in the Nahuatl language, was one of the most important and pervasive symbols of the Aztec world. The cuauhtli symbol was even used to denoted a day in the Aztec calendar. As a fierce bird of prey, the eagle became associated with the sky, war, and one of their principal deities, Huitzilopochtli.
In Aztec religion, it was believed that an eagle was present during the birth of the sun, that is, the beginning of everything. This proximity to the sun at the moment of creation, it was thought, is what gave the eagles of Mexico their distinctive black tipped wings. Ouch!
The Aztec belief in the martial power of eagles is evident in their creation of the Eagle warriors. This elite group of decorated veterans was on the same level as the Jaguar warriors. In battle, these elite warriors dressed in fine, eagle-themed regalia. And, just as the Jaguar warriors were associated with Tezcatlipocha, the eagle warriors became linked to Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztec also believed that it was Huitzilopochtli, in the form of an eagle, who told them were to build their capital city, Tenochtitlan. As the story goes, after wandering through central Mexico for years, the Mexica happened upon a swampy patch of land in Lake Texcoco. As they camped, an eagle, with a snake in its beak, landed atop a cactus. The Aztecs interpreted this as a divine message from Huitzilopochtli himself, telling them to build their own society on this spot. This founding story is, in fact, why there’s an eagle eating a snake in the flag of modern day Mexico.
Let’s stay on the bird motif for a second. Hummingbirds, despite their small size, were revered by Aztec culture for their ferocity in the face of larger challenges (not a bad symbol for a burgeoning empire), ability to seemingly defy gravity, speed, agility, and more.
One rather unusual trait of the hummingbird, known as torpor, caused the Aztecs to ascribe them supernatural abilities. A hummingbird’s torpor is like a mini-hibernation, where they enter a motionless, sleep-like state. Meant to preserve calories during lean times, perfectly alive hummingbirds appear dead! This ability to seemingly to die and come back to life on command led the Aztecs to believe that hummingbirds could travel back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead, and could, at times, be the reincarnation of resurrected warriors.
The Aztecs also believed that Huitzilopochtli guided them to the site of the future Tenochtitlan in the shape of a hummingbird.
The meaning behind these important Aztec symbols, then, is one of power in both life and death.
For our final creature of the air, the graceful butterfly! Though today we tend to view butterfly’s as fragile, they were one of the most important and popular Aztec symbols, and came to represent a variety of meanings in Aztec philosophy and religion.
Across Mesoamerican culture, the butterfly was a powerful symbol of fire, fertility, death, and rebirth. Which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. Every spring, larvae come out of the woodwork, then seemingly wrap themselves up in their own sarcophagi, only to re-emerge a few months later as a butterfly
This ability to seemingly conquer death also made the butterfly one of the symbols of Mesoamerican warriors. And, given that the Aztecs and their empire rose to power on the back of their military might, it makes sense that this age-old warrior symbol became popular among them.
Butterflies were so important to the Aztecs, in fact, that they were associated with the goddess Itzpapalotl, whose name translates to “Obsidian Butterfly.” A goddess of maternity, Itzpapalotl was believed to look after the well-being of pregnant women, tying into the butterfly as a symbol of fertility. But, just as the butterfly could travel between the reals of the living and the dead, Itzpapalotl also ruled over Tamaoanchan, the metaphysical world where the souls of women who died in childbirth and children who died as infants. Th
Itzpapalotl was so important to the Aztecs that dedicated a day to the goddess in their sacred calendar.
Water, or atl in Nahuatl, became a hugely important symbol to the Mexica after the founding of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. This is because, well, they literally built Tenochtitlan in the middle of a lake.
Using a fascinating technique of piling mud, silt, and other types of earthen material on top of reed netting, the Aztec reclaimed swamp land in the middle of Lake Texcoco to create their now famous capital city.
For centuries after Tenchotitlan’s founding, the Aztecs swam, boated, fished, and farmed within the water of Lake Texcoco. These experiences instilled with their society a respect for the power of water.
As noted by historian Camilla Townsend in her book Fifth Sun:
“Reeds grew everywhere, and their square adobe houses didn’t last well in swampy conditions and to be constantly rebuilt. The people, however, grew extremely practiced at building dikes, causeways and canals, and soon were able to build streets, like those of other towns.”
By both revering water and learning to harness it power, the Aztec built a city, and turned themselves from a group of wandering mercenaries into the most powerful empire in central America. The atl symbol, too, was included in the Aztec’s famous calendar.
The Cardinal Directions
The cardinal directions became one of the most important Aztec symbols, with their meanings associated with both their empire and their religion. The four, sometimes five, directions of the world represented the gods and the world they created, as well as the dual nature of empire, with peace in one direction and war in the other.
For its use as a religious symbol, four of the most important Aztec gods were associated with the four main directions: east, west, north, and south.
- East was associated with Tonatiuh, the sun god. The Aztecs revered Tonatiuh’s arduous path across the sky, rising each day in the east, then slowly marching west toward his death. To pay homage to Tonatiuh and the sun, and help the god with his daily journey across the sky, the Aztecs practiced ritual human sacrifice. For this reason, Tonatiuh is often portrayed with human hearts in his hands.
- West was associated with the god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was believed to have brought some of the finer points of civilization to man, such farming and the calendar.
- North was associated with the god Tezcatlipoca. The god’s name means “Smoking Mirror” in Nahuatl, and was seen as a creator god, responsible for brining both good and evil. Over time, Tezcatlipoca also became a principal deity of the Aztec military.
- South was associated with the god Huitzilopochtli, one of the most powerful and important gods in the Aztec pantheon.
The religious meaning given to these important Aztec symbols also helps shed light on their empire. The eastern quarter of the Aztec Empire was the most peaceful and prosperous. This peace and agricultural wealth lead it to be associated with the rising sun and rebirth. The northern and western provinces of the empire, however, were often embroiled in war, giving them symbolic ties to Aztec gods of war and death. Finally, adding a fifth direction to the compass, the Aztecs placed Tenochtitlan at the very center of this symbolic world.
The Aztec Symbols and Meanings Behind the Most Important Gods
The Aztecs had, well, a lot of gods. But this isn’t exactly uncommon in world history. It does, however, make it pretty difficult to write a blog post about Aztec symbols and their meanings! So, rather than dissect the entire Aztec pantheon, let’s examine the principle deities of the Aztec Empire.
Huitzilopochtli was the god of war and human sacrifice, and the Aztec symbols and meanings used depict the god are truly intriguing.
His name, translated from the Nahuatl language (the language of the Aztecs) means “Left-Footed like a Hummingbird.” Huitzilopochtli was thus imbued with the power of the hummingbird, as well as the power that the Actecs associated with left-handedness.
In surviving images of Huitzilopochtli, we see the god adorned in green and blue hummingbird feathers. Often shown dressed in war regalia, Huitzilopochtli acted as the patron god of the Aztec warriors, in time coming to serve as a symbol of the Aztec warrior class itself.
This association with the Hummingbird was not taken lightly. Huitzilopochtli was one of the principal deities of the Aztec Empire. Indeed, the Aztecs believed that it was Huitzilopochtli who led them from their ancestral homes in Aztlan to the central Mexico basin where they built their capital, Tenochtitlan. And the Aztec association of hummingbirds with the god of war should tell you just how much they respected the power of the bird’s gravity defying abilities.
Finally, it’s important to note that scholars also link Huitzilopochtli with the Aztec tendency toward military expansion and human sacrifice.
Often depicted as a feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important gods and symbols in Aztec culture. The Aztec symbols, and their meanings, contained within their depictions of the god are quite fascinating.
His first appearance in the historical records dates back to the ancient culture of the Olmecs, who flourished in Mesoamerica from around 1200 BCE to 400 BCE. The god went on to become one of the important religious symbols to the Mesoamerican cultures that succeed the Olmec. Indeed, archaeologists have found a plethora of feathered serpent sculptures adorning temples across the region.
Though Quetzalcoatl played important role in many Mesoamerican civilizations, for the Aztecs he was one of two creators of the world. But his accomplishments didn’t stop there. The god was credited with introducing maize, books, and calendars to man. Perhaps due to his association with crops and calendar cycles, Quetzalcoatl evolved into an Aztec symbol of death and resurrection.
Quetzalcoatl is perhaps the most intriguing Aztec god to modern readers because of his place at the heart of a false narrative. Many of us were taught in school that, when Hernán Cortés and his men landed in Mexico, the Aztec thought he was the long lost god Quetzalcoatl. The legend then continues that, disarmed by the appearance of a god, the Aztecs could not mount a proper defense of their empire. Though it’s a good story, this is completely false. There is not record of the tale, in fact, prior to 1519, despite the ancient age of Quetzalcoatl’s cult.
Sources on Aztec Symbols and Meanings
- Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2008), 498
- “The Aztec Warrior: Rank and Warrior Societies,” historyonthenet.com
- Isis Dzvis-Marks, “Archaeologists Unearth 600-Year-Old Golden Eagle Sculpture at Aztec Temple,” smithsonianmag.com
- Vanessa Hernandez Urraca, “The Hummingbird in Mexican Culture,” aav.org
- “Stamp, Butterfly,” metmuseum.org
- Stephen Krensky, The Book of Mythical Beasts and Magical Creatures: Meet Your Favourite Monsters, Fairies, Heroes, and Tricksters from All Around the World (London: DK Publishing, 2020), 96
- Camilla Townsend, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 35
- “Aztec religion,” britannica.com
- Mark Cartwright, “Tezcatlipoca,” worldhistory.org
- Robert M. Carmack, Janine L. Gasco, Gary H. Gossen, The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall: 2007), 101
- Carmack, The Legacy of Mesoamerica, 99
- Townsend, Fifth Sun, 39
- Mark Cartwright, “Olmec Civilization,” worldhistory.org
- “Quetzalcoatl,” cs.mcgill.ca