Among the Aztec/Mexica the fire god was associated with another ancient deity, the old god. For this reason these figures are often considered different aspects of the same deity: Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli (Pronounced: Way-ue-TEE-ottle, and Shee-u-teh-COO-tleh). As with many polytheist cultures, ancient Mesoamerican people worshipped many gods who represented the different forces and manifestations of nature. Among these elements, fire was one of the first to be deified.
The names under which we know these gods are Nahuatl terms, which is the language spoken by the Aztec/Mexica, so we don’t known how these deities were known by earlier cultures. Huehuetéotl is the “Old God”, from huehue, old, and teotl, god, whereas Xiuhtecuhtli means “The lord of Turquoise”, from the suffix xiuh, turquoise, or precious, and tecuhtli, lord, and he was considered the progenitor of all gods, as well as the patron of fire and the year.
Origins of Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli
Huehueteotl-Xiuhtecuhtli was an extremely important god beginning in very early times in Central Mexico. In the Formative (Preclassic) site of Cuicuilco, south of Mexico City, statues portraying an old man sitting and holding a brazier on his head or his back, have been interpreted as images of the old god and the fire god.
At Teotihuacan, the most important metropolis of the Classic period, Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli is one of the most often represented deities. Again, his images portray an old man, with wrinkles on his face and no teeth, sitting with his legs crossed, holding a brazier on his head. The brazier is often decorated with rhomboid figures and cross-like signs symbolizing the four world directions with the god sitting in the middle.
The period for which we have more information about this god is the Postclassic period, thanks to the importance that this god had among the Aztec/Mexica.
According to the Aztec religion, Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli was associated with ideas of purification, transformation and regeneration of the world through fire. As god of the year, he was associated with the cycle of the seasons and nature which regenerate the earth. He was also considered one of the founding deities of the world, since he was the responsible for the creation of the sun.
According to colonial sources, the fire god had his own temple in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, in a place called tzonmolco.
Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli is also related to the ceremony of the New Fire, one of the most important Aztec ceremonies, which took place at the end of each cycle of 52 years, and represented the regeneration of the cosmos through the lighting of a new fire.
Two major festivities were dedicated to Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli: the Xocotl Huetzi ceremony, in August, associated to the underworld, the night, and the dead, and a second one which took place in the month of Izcalli, at beginning of February, related to light, warmness and the dry season.
- Xocotl Huetzi: this ceremony was related to the collection of the fruits of the earth and the ritual death of plants. It involved cutting a tree and placing an image of the god on the top. Copal and food were then offered to the tree. Young men were encouraged to climb the tree to get the image and gain a reward. Four captives were sacrificed by being thrown into a fire and by having their hearts extracted.
- Izcalli: this second festival was dedicated to regrowth and regeneration, and the beginning of the new year. All lights were shut down at night, except for one light placed in front of the god's image, including a turquoise mask. People brought game, such as birds, lizards, and snakes, to cook and eat. Every four years, the ceremony included the sacrifice of four slaves or captives, who were dressed like the god and whose bodies were painted in white, yellow, red and green, the colors associated with the world's directions.
Since early times, Huehuetéotl-Hiuhtecuhtli was portrayed, mainly in statues, as an old man, with his legs crossed, his arms resting on his legs, and holding a lit brazier on his head or back. His face shows the signs of age, quite wrinkled and without teeth. This type of sculpture is the most widespread and recognizable image of the god, and has been found in many offerings in sites such as Cuicuilco, Capilco, Teotihuacan, Cerro de las Mesas, and the Templo Mayor of Mexico City.
However, as Xiuhtecuhtli, the god is often represented in pre-Hispanic as well as Colonial codices without these characteristics. In these cases, his body is yellow and his face has black stripes, his mouth is surrounded by a red circle and he has blue ear plugs hanging from his ears. He often has arrows emerging from his headdress and holds sticks used to light fire.
Limón Silvia, 2001, El Dios del fuego y la regeneración del mundo, en Estudios de Cultura Náhuatl, N. 32, UNAM, Mexico, pp. 51-68.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, 2002, Huehuetéotl-Xiuhtecuhtli en el Centro de México, Arqueología Mexicana Vol. 10, N. 56, pp 58-63.
Sahagún, Bernardino de, Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, Alfredo López Austin y Josefina García Quintana (eds.), Consejo Nacional para las Culturas y las Artes, Mexico 2000.