Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion

Mythology Origin, Worship, and Connection to the Underworld

Statue of priest of Mictlantecuhtli, god of dead, Aztec civilization, 14th-16th century
De Agostini / Archivio J. Lange/ Getty Images

Mictlantecuhtli was the Aztec god of death and the principle god of the underworld. Throughout Mesoamerican culture, they practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism to placate this god. The worship of Miclantecuhtli was ongoing with the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Aztec associated owls with death, so Mictlantecuhtli is often depicted wearing owl feathers in his headdress. He is also depicted with a skeletal shape with knives in his headdress to represent the wind of knives which souls encounter on their way to the underworld. Sometimes Mictlantecuhtli may also be depicted as a skeleton covered with blood wearing a necklace of eyeballs or wearing clothes of paper, a common offering to the dead. Human bones are used as his ear plugs, too.

Name and Etymology

  • Mictlantecuhtli
  • Mictlantecuhtzi
  • Tzontemoc
  • Lord of Mictlan
  • Religion and Culture: Aztec, Mesoamerica
  • Family Relationships: Husband of Mictecacihuatl

Symbols, Iconography, and Attributes of Mictlantecuhtli

Mictlantecuhtli is God of these domains:

  • Death
  • South
  • Owls
  • Spiders
  • Dogs (because Aztecs believed that dogs accompanied souls to the underworld)

Story and Origin

Mictlantecuhtli is the ruler of Mictlan, the Aztec underworld, with his wife Mictecacihuatl. Aztec hoped to have a death good enough for one of the many paradises they believed in. Those who failed to gain admission to a paradise were forced to endure a four-year journey through the nine hells of Mictlan. After all the trials, they reached the abode of Mictlantecuhtli where they suffered in his Underworld.

Worship and Rituals

To honor Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec sacrificed an impersonator of Mictlantecuhtli at night and at a temple named Tlalxicco, which means "navel of the world." When Hernan Cortes landed, Aztec ruler Moctezuma II thought that it was the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, signalling the end of the world, so he stepped up human sacrifices to offer the skins of victims to Mictlantecuhtli in order to placate him and avoid suffering in Mictlan, the underworld and abode of the dead.

There were two life-size clay statues of Mictlantecuhtli at the entrances to the House of Eagles at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan.

Mythology and Legends of Mictlantecuhtli

As the god of death and the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli was naturally feared and myths portray him in a negative manner. He often takes pleasure at the suffering and death of people. In one myth, he tries to trick Quetzalcoatl into staying in Mictlan forever. At the same time, he had a positive side and could grant life as well.

In one myth, the bones of previous generations of gods were stolen from Mictlantecuhtli by Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl. Mictlantecuhtli chased them and they escaped, but first they dropped all the bones which shattered and became the current race of humans.

Equivalents in Other Cultures

Mictlantecuhtli shares similar traits and domains with these gods:

  • Ah Puch, Mayan god of death
  • Coqui Bezelao, Zapotec god of death
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Cline, Austin. "Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/mictlantecuhtli-god-aztec-of-death-248588. Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/mictlantecuhtli-god-aztec-of-death-248588 Cline, Austin. "Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/mictlantecuhtli-god-aztec-of-death-248588 (accessed June 2, 2023).