Mythology and Legends of the Nahua People:
Essays on Ancient Mexico
- Part 1: “The Creation of the Universe”
- Part 2: “Legend of the Fifth Sun”
- Part 3: “Creation of the Fifth Sun at Teotihuacan”
In the mythology of ancient Mexico the world began not with a Genesis overseen by one almighty god, but with a creation resulting from a group effort of many gods and the courageous efforts of two in particular. One of these deities, a deformed god with a humble spirit, became the sun, and the other, the moon. Among the oldest recordings of this creation is the version of Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun (1500-1590).
Born in Spain by the name of Bernardino Ribera, Sahagun arrived at the Spanish colony of New Spain (Mexico) in 1529. Among many other accomplishments, Sahagun worked as a professor at the College of Tlaltelolco from the time of its founding in 1536. He organized dialogues and discussions between the first Franciscan friars and surviving Aztec priests, from which he developed his most famous work, The General History of the Things of New Spain.
This voluminous undertaking was originally written in the Nahuatl language and was completed around 1566. However, it was not published until 1829. It contains an abundance of historical, ethnographic and archeological data, but most pertinently, the legend of the creation of the Fifth Sun at Teotihuacan.
“Creation of the Fifth Sun at Teotihuacan”
The ancient ones tell us that the Age we live in today, the Fifth Sun, was created in Teotihuacan. The ancient ones tell us that before there was Day in the world, all the gods gathered together in that place called Teotihuacan, and the gods said to one another: “Who will take on the charge of illuminating the One World?” Then to those words, one god named Tecucistécatl responded and said, “I will take charge of illuminating the world.”
Then another time the gods spoke and they said, “Who will be the other?”
The gods all looked among themselves, and asked who would be the other, and not one of them came forth to offer this service. All were afraid and they made many excuses. One of the gods, who had not been taken into account, a sickly god covered in tumors, pustules and boils did not speak, but only listened to what the other gods had to say. And they spoke to him, and said to him, “You shall be the one who gives light, pustulate and tumorous one.” And the little god, in good will, obeyed what they had ordered, and responded, “In mercy I receive your commands. So it shall be.”
The two chosen gods began their penitence for four days, and then they lit a fire at the hearth, which was made at the foot of a cliff now called Teotexcalli.
Everything that the god Tecucistécatl offered in ritual was precious. In place of a cluster of fertile branches he offered a bouquet of splendid feathers called quetzalli. In place of balls of hay he offered balls of gold. In place of maguey thorns, he offered thorns made of precious stones. And in place of thorns stained the red with the blood of self-sacrifice, he offered thorns made of blood red coral. The copal incense that he offered was of the finest known.
Unlike the proud Tecucistécatl, the tumorous and sickly god, whose name was Nanahuatzin, offered only green cane grass in place of a cluster of fertile branches. And he offered balls of hay and maguey thorns: he stained them red with his own sacrificial blood. And in place of copal incense, he humbly burned the pustules from his body’s own tumorous sores.
Each god constructed a great pyramidal mound there at Teotihuacan, and upon these mountains, they did penitence for four nights. After they finished the four nights of penitence they threw about the clusters they had made, and everything else they had used in their ritual of self-sacrifice. This signified the end of their penitence, and the following midnight they would initiate their service.
A short while before midnight the gods adorned themselves in finery and jewels. Then they arranged themselves, some on one side of the great burning fire, some on the other. Next Tecucistécatl and Nanahuatzin were placed in front of the fire, surrounded by all the other gods. The gods then spoke, and said to Tecucistécatl, ” Ea, Tecucistécatl, enter you into the fire.” And the adorned god undertook throwing himself into the fire, but as it was so enormous and so ablaze with bursting flames, he felt a great heat and was overcome with fear. He did not throw himself into the flames, but turned back. Another time he returned to throw himself with all his might into the flames, but at the flame’s edge he halted. He dared not throw himself in. Four times he tried, but he never dared to enter.
It was then decided that he should not try more than four times, and as he had attempted four times the gods turned and spoke to Nanahuatzin and they said, ” Ea, Nanahuatzin, now try you.” And as the gods had spoken, he gathered up all his might, and closing his eyes, he threw his modest and sickly body into the fire. He then began to sputter and crackle as flesh does when it is aflame. On seeing how the humble little god had thrown himself into the burning fire, Tecucistécatl gathered up all his strength and he too threw himself into the burning fire. Then, from the sky there came a great eagle, and it too entered the fire and burned. For this reason the eagle’s feathers now appear singed. And, after the eagle, a jaguar leapt out of nowhere and it too entered the flames. It did not burn, but rather scorched, and this is why the jaguar has black spots.
After both gods had thrown themselves into the fire, and after both had burned, the other gods waited in the darkness to see where Nanahuatzin would come about, where he would appear. After they waited a great while, the sky began to fill with colors and a gentle but bright light appeared everywhere. It is said that after this the gods fell to their knees, waiting to see where Nanahuatzin, now the sun, would appear. They looked everywhere, turning here and there, unsure as they were of where Nanahuatzin would come out. And when the sun did finally appear, it was full of radiant color. It glistened and gleamed, and the gods could look at it, for it took the sight from their eyes. It shone and cast its rays upon them greatly, and its rays spread out everywhere.
And then, after that, the moon appeared, also in the east, as had the sun. First the sun appeared, and then the moon. The order by which the two gods had entered the fire was the same in which they appeared as the sun and the moon. Thus, light was given to our world and the Age of the Fifth Sun began.