Excavating Ometéotl

A Non-Specialist’s Review of Miguel León-Portilla’s Aztec Thought and Culture

Nathan Smith
Dec 7, 2019 · 8 min read
Image: Statue of Coatlicue. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons: “Esta representación de la diosa madre, se encuentra exhibida en el Museo Nacional de Antropología, en la Ciudad de México. Representa una de las más importantes personajes en el panteón Mexica, donde estaba representada su cósmovision y su relación con la sociedad.” // “This representation of the mother goddess is exhibited in the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City. It represents one of the most important characters in the Aztec pantheon, where its cosmology and its relationship with society were represented.”

Under the Castilian crown, Christopher Columbus and his successors made contact with and began a conquest of the indigenous peoples of Central America and beyond. Among numerous other means, certain religious figures (missionaries, for instance) began a religious takeover of the Native Americans of this region. Most methods were deliberate, such as conversion and the destruction of temples and texts, but other means were less so. For example, certain European commentators, having lived in and attempted to explore Central America, wrote accounts of their findings; additionally, Nahuatl texts, initially written in pictographic glyphs, were transliterated into the Latin alphabet and translated into European languages. Moreover, these texts were sifted through layers of Eurocentric and Christian lenses of interpretation. European commentators provide the lion’s share of surviving sources on the pre-Columbian thought and culture of these indigenous peoples, even if in fragmented or warped form. As a result, what one has is not a clear image of pre-Columbian Central America per se, but an approximation through the eyes of their conquerors. In this vein, in Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, anthropologist and historian Miguel León-Portilla attempts to mine extant textual sources and archaeological data to reconstruct a more likely representation of the worldview of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples in the sixteenth century and prior.

León-Portilla prefaces the second edition of his book by noting that “some recent writers questioned the validity of some, if not all, of the native sources on which I, as well as other colleagues, have drawn in our respective researches” (vii), citing many of the criticisms already mentioned above (eg, influence of Christian missionaries, texts removed from contexts, etc.). Sensitive to this issue, León-Portilla spends the majority of this preface going through each of his sources in detail, weighing their varying levels of authoritativeness by exploring how they were produced, whether they were translations of transliterated Nahuatl texts, and under what circumstances their information was acquired if they were the reminiscences of European commentators who had traveled to Central America. Though primary sources on Nahuatl thought and culture (that is, produced by Nahuatl-speaking indigenous peoples) are no longer extant, León-Portilla argues that his are the closest one can come to primary sources, being either direct linear-script transliterations of Nahuatl texts or acquired through natives reports to European commentators. Whether León-Portilla’s “apologia fontium” holds water is difficult to assess, especially without specialization in the relevant field; however, one can easily see the concerns of his critics, who warn of a priori Euro-Christian influence and thus distortion of the sources. Even so, because primary sources are essentially absent, the best a researcher can do, it would seem, is begin as close to the original sources as possible and work from there. León-Portilla seems to do as much, preferring to stay close to at least the transliterated versions of Nahuatl texts rather than simply relying upon their general recollection by European commentators. In lieu of primary sources, though León-Portilla may exercise an overly optimistic valuation of his sources, one may say that he has at least gone as far as he can in this regard. This will make judging his theses, which are contested — though not necessarily on the academic fringe — a matter for scholars well-trained in Mesoamerican studies.

León-Portilla begins by positing that the Nahuas had a social class similar to that of the philosopher in Greece, known as the tlamatini. These “ones who know” brought intellectual rigor to the general religious concepts and practices among the Aztecs. Adopting “the legendary symbol of Nahuatl knowledge — the great figure of Quetzalcóatl” — as their representative, “the Nahuatl sage or philosopho [taught] men ‘to have and develop in themselves a face [identity, personality],’ voic[ing] their interest in eliminating human anonymity, graphically expressed as man’s ‘lack of face.’ The wise men also put ‘a mirror before their fellow-men,’ so that self-knowledge might cause each individual to be prudent and careful” (24). Seeing a kind of fundamental divide between philosophy and religion in the worldview and purpose of the tlamatinime, León-Portilla describes these Nahuatl sages as teachers of cosmic contemplation and meditative introspection.

This role of the Nahuatl philosopher springs naturally from their cosmology, which is rooted in the conscious person, as symbolized by Quetzalcóatl. León-Portilla notes that “the truth, wrapped in the vestments of myth and considered to be the product of wisdom, is symbolically attributed to Quetzalcóatl, the personification of wisdom” (29). Quetzalcóatl embodies wisdom for the tlamatinime because of his visceral knowledge of what León-Portilla refers to as the supreme god of the Nahua: Ometéotl, a quasi-pantheist deity who is both father and mother, male and female; who lives at the “navel” of the world and in Omeyocan, the “place of duality” or highest heaven from which all existence springs. Ometéotl has four sons, including Quetzalcóatl, who represent the fundamental elements of the world as well as the ages of cosmic history, each symbolized by a sun which dies at the end of its age, replaced by a newborn one. In the Aztec ritual complex, according to León-Portilla, human sacrifice provided life blood to sustain the sun (symbolized by Quetzalcóatl), which would maintain the age of the Aztecs; otherwise the sun would eventually die, and with it the Aztec civilization (31–45). In this general cosmology, León-Portilla sees evidence “of five cosmological categories: (1) the logical urgency for a universal foundation; (2) the temporalization of the world into ages or cycles; (3) the idea of primordial elements; (4) the division of space in the universe into quadrants or directions; and, (5) the concept of perpetual struggle for supremacy as a framework in which the occurrence of cosmic events can be understood” (48).

Quoting from Alfonso Caso’s La Religión de los Aztecas (1936, 1945), León-Portilla suggests that this cosmology “would suggest ‘a very ancient philosophical school (one dating from at least Toltec times) [which] held that the origin of all things is one single principle — masculine and feminine — which has begotten the gods, the world and men’” (80). Seeing “an ambivalent being, an active generating principle which was at the same time a passive receptor capable of conceiving” (83), at the very root of existence, León-Portilla demonstrates how the Nahuas derived from Ometéotl an anthropology of humans born “faceless” (103), or as blank slates, free to shape themselves and their lives. However, in this dynamic universe of constant flux and development, including human freedom, León-Portilla notes that the tlamatini was also after a reliable philosophical foundation upon which the people may base their lives. The tlamatinime called this metaphysical bedrock “truth (neltiliztli) [which] meant originally support or foundation” (105), thus bringing them back to philosophical speculations on Ometéotl, the Lord/Lady of Duality and Giver of Life.

León-Portilla’s theses begin with (though are not necessarily wholly reliant upon) a singular claim: that the Nahuas believed in and contemplated at length a substantially monotheistic (despite its dual nature) deity at the root and foundation of existence, which cascaded the universe into being and sustains its dynamic nature. Ometéotl sits at the center of León-Portilla’s arguments as readily as he says the Lord/Lady of Duality sits at the base of those of the tlamatinime. Though he is unsure whether the four sons of the Lord/Lady of Duality are closer to emanations and aspects of Ometéotl, or if they are meaningfully distinct from one another, he cautions against casually comparing this cosmology to Western ideas of pantheism, such as in the work of Hermann Beyer. He notes that “the term pantheism, philosophically speaking, conveys such widely diverse meanings that its use clouds rather than clarifies the nature of Nahuatl theological thought. For this reason, rather than speaking explicitly of pantheism, it is best to outline a specific interpretation of Nahuatl thought” (95–96). However, as already noted, León-Portilla’s starting axiom — the existence of anything like a concept of Ometéotl in Nahuatl thought and culture — has not gone uncontested. Most notably, Richard Haly has suggested that León-Portilla derived his image of Ometéotl in part from erroneous translations of his sources, such as from the Franciscan monk Fray Juan de Torquemada’s version of the Cantares Mexicanos (Haly 275) and the Codex Ríos (Haly 277), among others. Indeed, were one to raise a word of caution as far as León-Portilla’s Aztec Thought and Culture and overall theory of Ometéotl is concerned, it would be that he runs the risk of reading monotheism too far into his sources. Though he resists the temptation to default to pantheism, he is nonetheless not immune to the tendency to read foreign worldviews in familiar terms — similar to the respective work of E.J. Michael Witzel (World’s), Wilhelm Schmidt (Growth), or Karen Armstrong (History), who attempt to totalize the world’s mythologies into an overarching monotheism.

As noted, without training in this field it is difficult to assess the merit of León-Portilla’s theory or Haly’s critiques. However, regardless of the existence of Ometéotl, León-Portilla’s book may nonetheless serve as a helpful introduction to the general worldview of the Nahuas. For instance, one may see intimations of his explanations of the Aztec practice of human sacrifice in the Aztec sun disk or “calendar stone” (about which I’ve written before). Similar to the Mayan calendar, the Aztec sun disk “functioned not as an actual calendar, but as a symbol of the Aztec cosmos,” and thus as a useful indicator of the Aztec — and by extension Nahuatl — worldview:

“Central to the stone is the face of the sun god, whose tongue is a sacrificial knife; his outstretched claws hold severed human heads. The four square panels that surround the face of the god represent the four previous creations of the world. Arranged around these panels are the twenty signs of the days of the month in the eighteen-month Aztec year, and embracing the entire cosmic configuration are two giant serpents that bear the sun on its daily journey. The stone is the pictographic counterpart of Aztec legends that bind human beings to the gods who govern the irreversible wheel of time” (Humanistic 465).

Though much of his thinking derives from the presumption of the existence of this Lord/Lady of Duality, León-Portilla’s work may nonetheless survive without it. He has unarguably contributed to Mesoamerican studies through his research and writing, including through Aztec Thought and Culture, and has accrued well-earned accolades and awards through his career (for instance, the Living Legend Award from the US Library of Congress in 2013). Despite its possible and sure shortcomings, Aztec Thought and Culture may serve as a critical jumping-off point for non-specialist readers who are looking for an introduction to a worldview which has historically been cannibalized and warped by conquest, colonialism, and apathy. For this reason, it deserves careful, though not uncritical study.

Works Cited

Originally published at https://www.nathansmithbooks.com on December 7, 2019.

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion.

Nathan Smith

Written by

Independent writer from Austin, TX; doing a BS in psychology; writing on psychology, philosophy, literature, religion. www.nathansmithbooks.com @NateSmithSNF

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion to bridge gaps, expand perspectives, and unify humanity.

Nathan Smith

Written by

Independent writer from Austin, TX; doing a BS in psychology; writing on psychology, philosophy, literature, religion. www.nathansmithbooks.com @NateSmithSNF

Interfaith Now

Stories about faith, spirituality, and religion to bridge gaps, expand perspectives, and unify humanity.

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