Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec God of War. He was commonly depicted as a hummingbird, called a Colibri in Spanish. Huitzilopochtli demanded human sacrifices to lead the Aztec people to victory on the battlefield. There are many tales of Huitzilopochtli in Mesoamerican mythology.
The Aztecs were a Nahuatl-speaking group who lived in Central Mexico between 1300 and 1521. Nomadic tribes arrived in the Mexican Anahuac Valley in the early 12th Century and reigned there for over 200 years. They gathered around Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs (or Mexica) established their civilization in what is now Mexico City.
The heart of their territory was the capital city Tenochtitlan. By the early 1500s, the Aztecs had expanded their empire to reign over 5 or 6 million people. Tenochtitlan had a population of over 140,000, making it the most populated city ever in Mesoamerica. The people of Tenochtitlan revered hummingbirds in their culture.
The Aztec Deity – Huitzilopochtli
Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec God of War and the God of the Sun. He was also referred to as the Lord of Fire. His name is pronounced ‘weet·see·luh·powch·tuh·lee,’ and he played a large part in Aztec religious culture. Two shrines at the top of the Templo Mayor in the City of Tenochtitlan were dedicated to him.
His name comes from the Nahuatl words “Huitzilin,” which translates to “hummingbird,” and Opochtli, which translates to “left-hand side.” So, Huitzilopochtli means “left-handed hummingbird.” He is also known as the “Hummingbird of the South.”
This God of War could be identified by a bracelet of hummingbird feathers on his left wrist. He was also thought to be created from hummingbird feathers falling from the sky. Depictions of Huitzilopochtli show him either in the form of a hummingbird or as a warrior with a helmet of hummingbird feathers. The Aztecs believed that warriors would first join the sun after their death. After four years, they would then transform into hummingbirds and join Huitzilopochtli.
Huitzilopochtli was credited with both the victories and defeats of the Aztecs. In Aztec mythology, Huitzilopochtli is seen as the sun. His brothers, Quetzalcoatl, represent the stars. His sister, Coyolxauhqui, represents the moon. The Aztecs believed this was why the sun constantly appeared to be chasing the moon and the stars. They knew they needed to provide tributes to this God of the Sun if he were to have enough power to keep up the chase. If he weakened, his siblings would take over the earth, and an endless night would destroy the world.
The legend of Huitzilopochtli’s birth begins with his mother, Coatlicue. She was impregnated with him while she was sweeping feathers on Mount Coatepec. Her other children were angry at how their mother became pregnant and planned to kill her. Huitzilopochtli burst out of his mother’s womb, fully grown and in full armor. He defended his mother by attacking his brothers and sister. He beheaded his sister and threw her off the mountain. He chased his brothers, and to escape him, they scattered all over the sky.
Human sacrifice played a major part in Aztec culture. The Aztec people believed that Huitzilopochtli required a blood sacrifice to maintain his strength and protect the people from darkness. The Aztecs were believed to sacrifice around 250,000 people each year, amounting to about 1% of the population being sacrificed annually.
During Panquetzaliztli, between November 9 and 28, the Aztecs honored Huitzilopochtli. The Aztec people decorated their homes and held dances, ritual races, prayers, and human sacrifices. The heads of the Aztec clergy were Huitzilopochtli’s high priest, Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui, and Tlaloc’s high priest. They led these festivities and burned a huge serpent made of bark, symbolizing Huitzilopochtli’s main weapon, Xiuhcoatl, the Fire Snake. At the end of the month, the Aztecs made an image of Huitzilopochtli out of ground maize (corn) and ‘killed’ him with an arrow. All people ate a small piece of the God.
To make a sacrifice to God Huitzilopochtli, Aztec high priests donned cloaks made of hummingbird skins. It’s estimated that each adult cloak requires the skin of 8,000 hummingbirds. While the priests wore these shimmering, iridescent outfits, they would cut out the still-beating heart from a slave or captive and present it to Huitzilopochtli. They believed this sacrifice would ensure them a victory on the battlefield.
What was the role of the hummingbird in Aztec society?
To the Aztecs, the hummingbird represented the qualities a great warrior needed. Hummingbirds fly swiftly. Both male and female hummingbirds aggressively defend their territory even though they are tiny. Their brightly-colored feathers shimmer in the sun, thus connecting the hummingbird to their Patron God of War, Huitzilopochtli.
Ancient manuscripts tell how the hummingbird led the Aztec people from their mythical homeland of Aztlan to their territory around Lake Texcoco. During their journey, the people would see Huitzilopochtli in hummingbird form leading them to their new home. The hummingbird is credited with bringing the people into a new land of prosperity.
Mexican culture teaches that the Gods created everything. After creation, the Gods noticed that no creature could take messages back and forth between them and the people. Mayan culture teaches that the Gods took a jade stone and gently blew a tiny arrow through the stone. The arrow came to life and shimmered with beauty. This was how the Gods created the hummingbird.