The only deity of purely Aztec origin, Huitzilopochtli, ‘blue humming-bird on the left’, was a god of war. At the outset of their conquest of the Mexican plateau, Huitzilopochtli addressed his fellow Aztec chiefs thus: ‘My mission and my task is war…. I have to watch and join issue with all manner of nations, and that without mercy.’ After the foundation of Tenochtitlan in 1325, the greatest temple of this island city was dedicated to this wilful war god.
Huitzilopochtli was believed to be the sun, the young warrior who was born each day, who defeated the stars of the night, and who was aided in his western death and resurrection by the souls of warriors. Moreover, his symbols of authority—the humming bird and fire—correspond with the attributes of Xochipilli, the lord of flowers and the guardian of souls. Both deities are intimately linked with notions of rebirth. In the sixteenth century, too, the Franciscan historian Bernardino de Sahagun noted that on the feast of Huitzilopochtli ‘the priests offered to the idol flowers, incense, and food, and adorned it with wreaths and garlands of flowers’. But on other occasions the war god received offerings of a more bloody nature. Along with the flayed god Xipetotec, continues Sahagun, he was given sacrifices of all prisoners—‘men, women, and children. The owners of prisoners handed them over to the priests at the foot of the temple, and they dragged them by the hair, each one his own, up the steps.’ Having killed them, extracted their hearts, flayed the corpses, and dismembered their limbs, the priests sent portions of the flesh to the ruler and the nobility to eat. The native historian Ixtililxochitl explains the continuous military activities of the Aztecs as a method of obtaining prisoners for sacrifice to their voracious gods. These ritual killings, of course, fermented the political antagonism that they were intended to prevent.