In this article:
- The Aztecs of modern-day Mexico believed that the world had gone through five cycles (or “Suns”), which were brought on whenever a god threw itself into the fire.
- Accompanying each of the five Suns was a race of humans that was eradicated due to the mischief and rivalries between the gods.
- The Aztecs believed that they were living in the Fifth Sun cycle and that they were the People of the Sun.
- This legend of the five suns and the belief that the Aztecs were the People of the Sun motivated them to wage war on their neighbors and perform thousands of human sacrifices every year to appease the gods and avoid their wrath.
Have you ever considered that the world we inhabit today may not be the first and only world? What if, before our current world was born, there were other worlds, other Suns, and other societies?
Well, this concept was a fundamental tenet of the Aztec worldview. And it largely served as a way for them to justify their warmongering and human sacrifice.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Aztecs, it is an exonym describing a Nahuatl-speaking group of people believed to come from a mythical place known as Aztlan. While this group of people did not refer to themselves as Aztecs, the name was given to them by the Mexica people who traveled through their lands.
The society known as the Aztecs was centered in the city of Tenochtitlan (in modern-day Mexico City), which is situated on Lake Texcoco.
The conquest of the Aztecs flourished from around 1300 to about 1521. During this period, they were able to expand their reach from a modest community to a full-fledged empire by conquering and colonizing neighboring city-states, both through trade and war.
Eventually, their conquest was ended by the arrival of Spanish conquistadors who brought both advanced weapons and disease with them over from Europe.
At the height of their empire, however, the Aztecs were the most powerful and revered society in modern-day Mexico. They viewed their conquest as a way of enlightening the societies around them, who were thought to be living in darkness.
While other societies of the time were content to live within their own territory, the Aztecs felt that it was their divine right to take control over the lands around them. And the reason they thought that comes down to the Aztec legend of the Five Suns.
The Origin of the Legend of the Five Suns
The interlinked ideas of destruction and creation were very important to the Aztec ideology. In order for something new to be created, the old must be destroyed. In order to usher in a new era of the world (or a new “Sun”), the old one had to be destroyed, typically through some sort of sacrifice.
However, similar to the creation myth in the Book of Genesis, the Aztecs believed that the first world was created from nothing. In their belief system, the universe was one giant void with the exception of Ometeotl, the first god.
Ometeotl, the god of duality who was believed to be both male and female, was able to become pregnant and give birth to four children, the cardinal gods known as the Tezcatlipocas. Each one of the Tezcatlipocas presided over one of the four cardinal directions.
Quetzalcoatl, the god of light, mercy, and wind, presided over the West. Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, presided over the South. Xipe Totec, the god of gold and farming, presided over the East. And Tezcatlipoca (yes, just like their collective name), the god of judgment, night, deceit, and sorcery, presided over the North. Together, these four gods created the universe and everything in it.
Finally, the gods created a race of giants and other gods (the most important of which were the water gods Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue). However, in order for these giants and gods to survive, they had to bring light to the world. And, in order to do this, one of the four cardinal gods would have to sacrifice themself into a fire, thus creating a Sun.
The First Sun
According to the legend of the Five Suns, the first god that was elected to be thrown into the fire was Tezcatlipoca, the god of the North. Certain myths claim that Tezcatlipoca was chosen because he was the god of night while others say it was because he lost a leg.
Either way, Tezcatlipoca jumped into the fire and created the First Sun. This allowed the race of giants to survive (even though it is believed that they ate only acorns).
However, being that Tezcatlipoca was the god of night, he only managed to become half of a Sun, meaning that the giants were forced to live in relative darkness. Soon, Tezcatlipoca’s wily brother Quetzalcoatl became dissatisfied with Tezcatlipoca and decided that it was time to replace him. Quetzalcoatl knocked Tezcatlipoca out of the sky with a stone club and, thus, there was again no Sun.
In his outrage, Tezcatlipoca decided to command the jaguars to eat all of the giants on Earth. This was the end of the First Sun. This period was believed to have lasted 676 years (or 13 cycles of the Aztec calendar).
The Second Sun
With the giants all gone, the gods created another race of people to inhabit the Earth. This time they were normal-sized and only ate piñon nuts.
Quetzalcoatl jumped into the fire and became the Second Sun. However, Tezcatlipoca was still angry about being dethroned and believed that these new humans were not showing proper respect to the gods.
So, Tezcatlipoca turned himself into a tiger and pounced upon Quetzalcoatl, knocking him out of the sky. He then turned all of the humans on Earth into monkeys.
Quetzalcoatl, who had loved his race of humans how they were, was angered by this and decided to wipe all of the monkeys from the face of the Earth with floods and hurricanes. This was the end of the Second Sun. This period is believed to have lasted 676 years (or 13 cycles of the Aztec calendar).
The Third Sun
The Third Sun was created when Tlaloc (one of the water gods created during the First Sun) jumped into the fire. The Earth was dominated by water and a race of humans was created who only ate seeds. However, Tezcatlipoca seduced and stole Tlaloc’s wife Xochiquetzal, the goddess of sex, flowers, and corn.
Aggrieved over losing his wife, Tlaloc refused to provide for the people of the Earth and a great drought ensued. He ignored all of the people’s prayers for rain until, one day, he became overly annoyed and rained fire down on the Earth, scorching away every human living on it.
This was the end of the Third Sun. This period is believed to have lasted just 364 years (or 7 cycles of the Aztec calendar).
The Fourth Sun
Chalchiuhtlicue, Tlaloc’s new wife, became the Fourth Sun when she jumped into the fire. A new race of people was created that only ate maize and Chalchiuhtlicue loved them very much. However, Tezcatlipoca, ever the villain, began telling the people of the Earth that Chalchiuhtlicue was only faking her love to gain their trust.
Chalchiuhtlicue was so devastated by these accusations that she cried blood for 52 years. The Earth was entirely flooded with blood and the humans that lived there were forced to transform into fish to survive. This was the end of the Fourth Sun. This period is believed to have lasted 676 years (or 13 cycles of the Aztec calendar).
The Fifth Sun
When the Fourth Sun had ended, the gods all gathered at Teotihuacan to decide who would sacrifice themself to become the next Sun. None of the central gods wanted to throw themselves into the fire, so two of the lesser gods jumped into the fire instead.
Worried that two Suns might overwhelm the Earth, the other gods decided to change one of the Suns to the Moon.
Meanwhile, Quetzalcoatl was still annoyed that his people of the Second Sun had been destroyed. So, he went down to the underworld and stole their bones and dipped them in his own blood. His race of people emerged living once again on the Earth under a new Sun.
The Aztecs believed that they were the “People of the Sun” and that it was their job to aid the Sun in reign over the Earth. They believed that every night the stars and the Moon would wage war against the Sun. And so, the Aztecs would have to offer blood sacrifices to the Sun in order to nourish it for the next night’s battle.
On top of that, the Aztecs would also draw blood for their own bodies in order to please the god Quetzalcoatl and thank him for giving up his own blood. Human sacrifices to Tezcatlipoca were also used as a way to escape his judgment.
For these reasons, the Aztecs were one of the most violent societies to ever exist on Earth. They would cut out the still-beating hearts of their victims, behead them, and roll their heads down the stairs of the Templo Mayor (parts of which still stand in Mexico City). Some estimates say they sacrificed as many as 20,000 people per year.