The ancient Norse and the Aztec Empire were separated by an ocean and thousands of years of human history. No demonstrable connection exists between the two cultures, yet their respective chief gods, Odin and Tezcatlipoca share common elements. What do these commonalities teach us about the universality of religious experience?
Before comparing the gods of these two cultures, we should consider their differences. The ancient Germanic people who worshipped Odin (or Wotan or Othin) generally lived in remote farming and fishing settlements separated by oceans and forests. Agriculture produced little of their food compared to hunting, fishing, and herding cattle. Until well into the medieval era, most of Scandinavia was only nominally politically united and the highest authority most people recognized was likely a local lord who was only first among peers. Temples were almost unheard of and most religion was practiced by individuals in small forest shrines.
In ancient Mesoamerica, whether in the jungles of Guatemala and Yucatan or the highlands of Central Mexico, people generally lived very densely relying on agricultural surplus. From the very earliest days of agriculture in Mesoamerica we see evidence of highly organized polities and temple-based organized religion. The Aztecs, or Mexica, as they called themselves, were only the latest in a series of empires to dominate central Mexico.
Despite huge apparent differences between these cultures, common factors do exist. Types of religious practice correspond to a culture’s mode of adaptation to their environment. Foraging bands of hunter-gatherers tend to have very simple monotheistic or pantheistic beliefs, and the divine rarely has numerous distinct attributes of his own. Primitive farmers and herders live in a world surrounded by malevolent spirits, all personifying certain aspects of nature. These spirits must be placated with rituals and sacrifice, but they are usually considered local to specific places and not named or particularly person-like. It is only with the advent of the state and its elaborate social hierarchies that named gods with specific cult practices come into being, and it is at the beginning of state organization that we find Dark Ages Norse culture and the 15th-century Aztec Empire.
Prior to the advent of state religion, the shaman is a common figure in spiritual life. Very often he is blind, insane, or crippled, and his physical weakness and inability in the material world gives him power over the spirit world. He enters ritual trances and directly interferes with the spirit world on behalf of humanity. With the rise of the state, the magician is unecessary, and indeed, is a thread to the state’s established religion. In the Aztec empire, magicians and shamans existed, but secretly, as magic was punishable by death.
The Norse earldoms were much less organized than the Aztec empire, and shamanic practices were still widespread even as Christianity displaced the old gods. In Roman accounts of the beliefs of primitive Germanic tribes, Odin plays a very small part. The population of Scandinavia increased sharply from the fall of the Roman empire until overpopulation forced many Northmen to take to the seas in the Viking Age, which is marked at one end with the raid on Lindisfarne Abbey in 793 AD and at the other with the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, after which Norway, Denmark, and Sweden became medieval kingdoms like any other. Odin is virtually unheard of in the earliest accounts, but with the increased social stratification of the Viking Age, he becomes the dominant figure in Norse mythology.
As the very beginning of the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson is the following passage, where the skald or bard Gangleri is seeking a wise man in the hall of the king Hárr:
Gangleri began his questioning thus: “Who is foremost, or oldest, of all the gods?” Hárr answered: “He is called in our speech Allfather, but in the Elder Ásgard he had twelve names: one is Allfather; the second is Lord, or Lord of Hosts; the third is Nikarr, or Spear-Lord; the fourth is Nikudr, or Striker; the fifth is Knower of Many Things; the sixth, Fulfiller of Wishes; the seventh, Far-Speaking One; the eighth, The Shaker, or He that Putteth the Armies to Flight; the ninth, The Burner; the tenth, The Destroyer; the eleventh, The Protector; the twelfth, Gelding.”
From examining this list of names, we can begin to make an understanding of who this often enigmatic figure was to the Norse. Odin is most often referred to as the Allfather, both because he is the head of the Aesir pantheon and because he created mankind. In the Prose Edda, he and his brothers Vili and Ve shape the world from the flesh of the slain giant Ymir. Odin also created the first humans, Ask and Embla, and endowed them with wisdom and reason.
Odin and his family established their seat as Asgard (Place of the Aesir) in the center of the Earth. Thor, Freyr, Balder, Njord, and all the other Aesir are descendants of Odin. Like the Greek Titans, a secondary pantheon called the Vanir exist in Norse myth. The Eddas are somewhat blurry concerning exactly who they were, but they are most likely remnants of fertility cults that predated historical Germanic culture. References to them in the Eddas associate them with forces of nature, primal mysticism, and the ocean. Whoever the Vanir were, the Eddas say that they were defeated by the Aesir led by Odin and forced to sign a peace treaty subordinating them to the Aesir.
Odin was also known as Spear-Lord or Striker, referencing his role as god of war and the hunt. Among his many magic possessions was the spear Gungnir, which never missed a target. Odin instigates warfare between people by hurling Gungnir into their midst. It is in Odin’s interest to stir up warfare and dissent between people, and unlike the Greek gods, he tends to stay neutral in conflict, continuing it for its own sake. The valkyries, his battle maidens, collect the einherjar, souls of valiant warriors killed in battle at Odin’s drinking hall of Valhalla, where he prepares them to serve as the army that will fight behind him in the battle of Ragnarok at the end of the world, where he will ride into battle at the head of the Aesir.
From Asgard, Odin could send out his ravens Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory) to spy on the entire world, but he often wandered the Earth in various disguises in order to acquire new knowledge. Among his magical artifacts was the head of Mimir, the god of wisdom, whose head had been cut off in the war with the Vanir, which could tell him the future. Mimir’s wisdom had come from drinking daily from a magic well which lay at the root of the world-tree Yggdrasil, which was guarded by dwarves. Odin descended into the depths of creation and gave the dwarves his eye to drink from the well gain powers of prophecy. We see from this that Odin, despite being the creator of the world, was not omniscient, and had to rely upon magic and other forms of trickery to stay ahead of his enemies. His wisdom, while supernatural in extent, was similar in form to that possessed by human beings, who, indeed, had been created in his image.
Odin was also the god of poetry and inspiration. Like most of his other abilities, Odin gained the power of poetry through trickery. The dwarves had brewed a “mead of inspiration” from the blood of the primal poet Kvasir which was guarded by the giant Suttung. Odin disguised himself as a farmworker and seduced the giant’s daughter Gunnlöd, stealing the mead and bringing it back to Asgard, from where he shares it with the skalds.
The names He that Putteth the Armies to Flight, Burner, Destroyer, and Protector all refer to Odin’s already roles as god of mankind and central role in the eventual destruction of creation at Ragnarok, which we have already briefly discussed. A complete account of this myth would be outside the scope of our discussion, but a few elements stand out. The enemies of the Aesir and the einherjar at Ragnarok will be the fire and frost giants, who predated Odin and all of creation, the monstrous serpent Jormungandr who encircles the world, and the wolf Fenris, who swallows the moon and vomits it up every month. These are creatures of elemental chaos and disorder fighting against the champions of mankind and reason. At the end of the battle, the gods are dead, but the world is renewed and two new humans arise.
The last name on the list given by Gangleri is perhaps the oddest. Why would a god be called the Gelding? Odin’s greatest power was probably his knowledge of the runes, which he gained by sacrificing himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil and piercing his own side with a spear, where he hung for nine days before arising. Roman commentators described ancient Germans sacrificing animals and even humans to Odin in this manner. Runes were a symbol of secrecy and used for divination and cursing among the ancient Germans long before they were a writing system for the Norse. The use of runes for magic persisted in Scandinavia until the 19th century, and those who practiced this form of sorcery were nearly always women. In the Lokasenna, a section of the Poetic Edda, the fire giant Loki mocks Odin for practicing magic, which he says is women’s work. Besides disguising himself and sacrificing himself in many ways, Odin was not afraid to do things which might be considered shameful in his pursuit of knowledge
From all this, we see the Norse conception of Odin in the Eddas as a figure in many ways more human than divine, whose wisdom and magic opposed the primal chaos of the world.
The Mesoamerican god known to the Aztecs as Tezcatlipoca, or Smoking Mirror, was known by many names like Odin. Like all the gods worshipped by the Mexica people, there are centuries old beliefs about him from across Mesoamerica, but the Aztec beliefs are best known, though sparse compared to our understanding Old World religions.
All Mesoamerican gods have complex and often contradictory natures. Tezcatlipoca was a god of sorcery, darkness, volcanic eruption, and other evil, but was usually paired with the culture hero and god of healing Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent). The Tezcatlipoca referred to in this essay was called “Black Tezcatlipoca” and Quetzalcoatl “White Tezcatlipoca”. In some cases, Xipe Totec (The Flayed Lord), god of rebirth and renewal, and Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird on the Left), the war god and patron of the Aztec nation, were included as “Red Tezcatlipoca” and “Blue Tezcatlipoca.”
These four gods were associated with the four directions, four seasons, and the great cycles of the Mesoamerican calendar. The “five suns” myth, of which various Aztec forms exist and is also attested in the Southwestern U.S. and Central America, has each of the four major gods ruling over an age of mankind. The order of the gods and how their eras ended varied, but all ended the reign of one god in great natural disaster and violence before the god of the next age rebuilds the world. This essay will use “Tezcatlipoca” to refer to just Black Tezcatlipoca as he is known to have been worshipped by the Aztecs.
From the earliest Maya depictions, Tezcatlipoca was always shown with one foot replaced by an obsidian mirror. The best known story of how Tezcatlipoca lost his foot says that he used it as bait to trap the primal serpent Cipactli. With the monster defeated, Tezcatlipoca and his brother Quetzalcoatl then created the world from the parts of her body.
The mirrored foot gave Tezcatlipoca his name. Obsidian was especially sacred to ancient Mesoamericans, who associated it with volcanos and traded for obsidian dug up as far away as Yellowstone Park. The obsidian mirror gave Tezcatlipoca powers to see anywhere in the world or into the future. It also had the ability to reflect plague and dissent upon mankind. Not all its abilities were evil. As lord of the world, Tezcatlipoca reflected good fate and fortune onto people as well.
The temple of Tezcatlipoca in the Aztec capital of Tenochitlan was located in the center of the city across from the Great Temple of Huitzilopochtli. It was attended by a dedicated caste of priests whose responsibilities included sacrificing human victims to their god.
Like Odin, Tezcatlipoca was known by many names, including “We are his Slaves”, “Enemy of Both Sides”, “Lord of the Near and Far”, “Night Wind”, “He by whom we live”, “Two Reed”, and “Possessor of the Sky and Earth”. Most of these reflect his role as lord of creation and master of fate.
In each of these myths, we can identify a number of common elements.
First, the god in question and his brother or brothers spring from a primal deity with few distinct characteristics of its own. Each god and his brothers represent an element of this undifferentiated whole. Together, they overcome some cosmic beast, whether sea serpent or frost giant, and establish the order of the world, including the other gods.
Each is believed to rule over just the current age, which is doomed to come to an end at some point and be replaced with a new divine order. The cosmic beasts, including giant sea creatures, are enemies of both.
Tezcatlipoca seems to have held his great powers by virtue of being lord of creation, whereas Odin had to earn his through trickery. Nevertheless, the myth of self-sacrifice is central to how each gained his powers. In an era before modern medicine, a man missing an eye or a foot would be considered crippled, yet Odin and Tezcatlipoca are both more powerful than any man. Just as skills of sorcery were considered to be channeling cosmic forces that predate the divine order in Norse culture, witches and wizards in Aztec culture existed outside the religious order and only one god had the ability to use these powers, which he gained through his self-sacrifice.
A difference can be seen in the fact that Odin was more distinct from his creation than Tezcatlipoca was. However, the Eddas came after hundreds of years of belief in Odin’s cult and probably represented some innovations which came after exposure to Christianity and Greco-Roman myth. It is certainly probable that myths of Tezcatlipoca as a wandering sorcerer instead of a disembodied force of nature could have arisen had Mesoamerican culture been one of scattered settlements like Scandinavia instead of great centralized empires.
As cultures develop greater levels of complexity, we see legends of gods as organizing principles against the chaos of the natural world. Humans living close to nature are often overwhelmed by their insignificance compared to the forces of storm, ocean, and earthquakes. Shamanic magic is a means by which people channel these great forces. The shaman in primitive societies is very often a blind, crippled, or insane person whose physical and mental weakness is contrasted by his great mystic power. As the gods displace the shamans, the shaman becomes a god. The theme of the crippled magician god creating a world which is doomed to come to an end is common to people emerging from shamanism to full statehood whether on the tundras of the far north or the jungles of Mexico.
“The Poetic Edda.” Trans. Henry A. Bellows. Internet Sacred Text Archive Home. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. .
“The Prose Edda.” Trans. Arthur G. Brodeur. Internet Sacred Text Archive Home. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. .
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