It is interesting to note that in a culture so drenched in the specifics of human death in battle or by sacrifice, the ancient Mexica—or Aztecs—of central Mexico made woefully small provision for the souls of the average man and woman.

If a warrior died in battle, his travail was considered a boon to the community and to the gods and his soul went immediately to Tonatiuhichan, the House of the Sun, where he eternally escorted that fiery orb in its daily passage across the sky. Similarly, a woman who died in childbirth would immediately pass into the House of the Sun, as a cihuateotl, a spirit who helped carry the setting sun to the west, for she too had sacrificed herself for the good of the Mexica, that the race might continue forever.

If a man, woman, or child drowned accidentally or— even better—was sacrificed in water, then the soul journeyed to Tlalocan, the paradisiacal home of Tlaloc, the Rain God and his consort Chalchiuitlicue. Tlalocan was one of the nine levels of the Aztec Underworld which corresponded to the nine hours of night, just as the thirteen heavenly levels above earth corresponded to the thirteen hours of the day.

If you, however, as an average Mexica, a shopkeeper say, or perhaps a craftsman or a prostitute, died under less auspicious circumstances than the above—if you choked on a chicken bone, let's say, or perhaps your eldest son gave you a heart attack, or you died of venereal disease—well, things wouldn't be going so well for you in the Afterworld. No fiery treks across the sky. No picnics in Tlaloc's garden paradise.

It'd be straight to the ninth level of the Underworld for you, to Mictlan, a cold, dark, enormous cavern littered with the bones of the dead and ruled by Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead, and his consort, Mictecacihuatl. If you were a nobleman, a piece of jade would have been placed in your mouth, as an offering to the hungry jaguar at the gates of Mictlan, instead of your heart.

Straight to Aztec Hell, actually, is a bit of an overstatement. In fact, it took four years for the unlucky average soul to traverse the first eight levels of the Underworld. The soul had to pass through a pair of opposing mountains, run the gauntlet between a gigantic snake and an equally large lizard, cross eight deserts and climb eight hills. Eventually it must endure a wind teeming with obsidian knives. At the end of the four years the great river Chicunanhuapan (nine waters) had to be crossed with the aid of a red dog which had been bred for this purpose and killed at its owner's funeral by thrusting an arrow down its throat. Like Vergil's immortal ferryman Charon, the dog would carry the soul upon its back to Mictlan. The Catholic Conquistadores seized upon this intermediate journey/process as a parallel to Purgatory, and one can understand why. However, to the Aztec mind, for the common man, Mictlan was definitely the end of the line. Nothing came of or after Mictlan. Dead was dead was dead.

Perhaps this gloomy belief contributed to the disproportionate Aztec interest in war and sex. The souls of the fortunate dead—warriors, mothers, sacrificial victims and poor swimmers—returned after a time to earth as butterflies and, in the case of warriors, as hummingbirds.

In the Original Mesoamerican Myth, it was to Mictlan that Quetzalcoatl journeyed after the fifth creation of the world, in order to gather the bones of the dead of the four previous creations, sprinkle his blood upon them, and thus revitalize humankind, not in the body and soul of a new and unique individual but rather as a synthesis of all the human energies that had come and gone before.

For the Mexica, bones were like seeds: everything that died went back to the earth, to be reborn once again, after sacred sacrifice, into the eternal cycle of life and death.

Feathered Serpent, Ruth Karen, Four Winds Press, New York, 1979.
Aztec Thought and Culture, Miquel León-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, 1963.
Everyday Life of the Aztecs, Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, New York, 1987.
Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, Miguel León-Portilla, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

On Mexico and the Aztecs:

An Aztec father advises his son
Bernardino de Sahagun
Human Sacrifice and the Aztecs
Ometeotl, beyond time and space
Talk like an Aztec
Tlazolteotl, the Filth Eater
What points its finger at the sky?
Xipe Totec

Below the Line