A. Sutherland - AncientPages.com - In Aztec and Maya mythology, the underworld (Xibalba for the Maya and Mictlan for the Aztecs) played an important role. In beliefs of these ancient people, death was closely incorporated into the world of the living and death is evident in almost every aspect of Aztec and Maya thought, culture and tradition.
Statue of Mictlantecuhtli, El Zapotal, Veracruz, Mexique. Image via Wikipedia
The Aztec and Mayan mythologies describe what will happen to the spirit once the individual has died.
It was believed that the souls of ordinary people went to an underworld called Mictlan – the place of the dead. Each soul wandered through the layers of Mictlan until it reached the deepest level.
Both the Maya’s Xibalba and the Aztec’s Mictlan (or even the Norse place of the dead (Niflheim), symbolized a realm, in which violations of religious and moral rules were punished. These punishments included not only physical torture (often involving fire, walking upside down, eating excrement, and drink urine), but also the agony of being cut off from God.
Interesting is, how the Aztecs imagined the Mictlan.
Vision Of Mictlan
The underworld of Aztec mythology, Mictlan (or Chiconauhmictlán), has been described as "very wide place, very dark place that has no windows light". It also has other names like Ximoayan, which means a place "where are the fleshless" or Atlecalocan, "without exit to the street".
According to ancient beliefs of the Aztec people, at the time of death, the individual had to make the trip back to the maternal womb, to its place of origin. That's why, the deceased was placed in a fetal position and his/her soul had to undertake the trip to Mictlan and cross nine hazards and dangers, as it happened inside the womb during the nine lost menstrual periods and the nine-month-long pregnancy
Statue of Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the Mictlan. Image credit: Musée du Templo Mayor, Mexico.
For the Aztecs, the world of the afterlife was arranged in 13 layers of heavens and nine of the Underworld. The fate of the deceased was determined on the basis of how this person died. A belief that in in some ways reminds of the Norse Valhalla.
Most of those who died violent death entered heavenly realm; one of the layers in heaven was reserved for sacrificial victims, those who died in combat, and for women who died in childbirth (who were recognized as warriors who fell to the battling infant).
Another place was reserved for those who committed suicide. According to Aztec beliefs, yet another heavenly realm was reserved for those who drowned, became an offer of deadly decease sent by the rain gods and even those who were struck by lightning.
Many Hard Challenges To Face
Most people who died ordinary death entered Mictlan, the Underworld and there, they had to face many trials like their Maya counterparts did when they entered Xibalba.
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The journey from the first level to the ninth was four-year-long and very difficult. The dead had to face several dangerous challenges, such as crossing a path full of snakes and challenge an area with strong winds that were so sharp they sliced at the skin like a knife and the only protection from these terrible winds was a blanket buried with the dead.
Another test was to go through two mountains that collide with each other whenever a spirit passed between, in an attempt to crush the soul. Another challenge was to cross a river of blood with fearsome jaguars and especially terrifying was to encounter frightening demons that ate human hearts.
The dead were accompanied by the Xolotl, (a dog, associated with this deity). Like the Greek Charon and the Egyptian god Anubis, also Xolotl led the souls on their journey to the underworld.
After four years of passing these roads, the deceased had ended the wandering and could finally cross a large, plentiful river mounted on his dog.
The exhausting journey was over, the deceased reached the Mictlan and could approach Mictlantecutli (Lord of death) and his wife, Mictecacihuatl (Lady of death), who ruled the Land of the Dead.
Mictlantecuhtli was a terrifying figure. In his “Encyclopedia of the Rulers Evil Spirits and Geographies of the Dead”, Ernest L. Abel writes:
“Mictlantecuhtli had an insatiable hunger for human flesh and blood. He was a blood-splattered, partially de-fleshed skeleton with a menacing grin who wore a headdress with owl feathers, a necklace of human eyeballs, a human bone for an earplug, and had claws for hands in which he carried a knife or axe to remove the hearts of those he claimed. He was accompanied by animals such as the bat, centipede, owl, scorpion, and spider…”
Certain animals played an important role in the Aztec beliefs. Bats symbolize death since they live inside the caves and only come out at night. Also lizards and snakes were associated with death and the dead were accompanied by them on the way to Mictlan.
The dog had also a connection with death, but in a beneficial way; this animal helped the deceased through many dangers in the Underworld.
Written by – A. Sutherland AncientPages.com Senior Staff Writer
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Expand for references
Austin A. L. The Human Body and Ideology: Concepts of the Ancient Nahuas
Hayes B. Aztec Mythology
Xolotl - Wikipedia
Mictlan - Wikipedia