The Legend Behind Teotihuacán

Sun pyramid in Teotihuacan | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of the mighty Aztec empire laid the capital Tenochtitlan, the Venice of the new world. No other civilization at the time could hope to compare to the city’s impressive pyramids, glamorous temples, and advanced aqueducts. At one point in history, Tenochtitlan was so populous that it contained around 200,000 inhabitants. But Tenochtitlan wasn’t always such a powerful urban site. When the Aztecs were immigrants looking for a new home, they were captivated by a mysterious ancient city. To this day, no one really knows who built it or what happened to its inhabitants. But to the Aztecs, they believed that out of this city emerged the whole of human society and order. This once glorious city was known as Teotihuacán.

An aerial view of Teotihuacán | Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is only a minuscule amount of knowledge about Teotihuacán because a sufficient written record of the city does not exist. In fact, no one knows what the people of Teotihuacán called themselves or what the actual name of the city was. Indeed, it wasn’t until much later that the Aztecs named it Teotihuacán, which means “city of the gods.”1 To an extent, the Aztecs were not exaggerating, because Teotihuacán was once an electrifying center for religion, trade, and culture. At one point, the city contained over 2,000 apartment buildings, 600 pyramids, around 500 workshops, and countless temples, plazas, and palaces.2 But how, exactly, did Teotihuacán become such a powerful metropolis? Once again, let us look at what the Aztecs themselves have to say about it.

According to an Aztec legend, the world was created and destroyed four times before the creation of our current world. Each time the world was destroyed, the sun quickly perished alongside it, and a new sun, presided by a god, was required to create another world.3 The first world was under the dominion of Tezcatlipoca–the god of the night. During his era as the sun, there were no humans, but rather a race of vegetarian giants that roamed the Earth. Tezcatlipoca’s reign lasted for 676 years, but it was cut short when Quetzalcoatl, the god of the wind, grew displeased as he saw the other deity ruling above the land. So he used his staff to knock down Tezcatlipoca into the seas at the farthest corners of the earth. Angered by this, Tezcatlipoca gathered his strength and emerged from the water as a powerful jaguar, running through the Mesoamerican plains and mountains. Soon, many jaguars appeared alongside him, and they eventually hunted and killed every giant on Earth–thus bringing an end to the first world.4

Quetzalcoatl then presided over the second world and, under his rule, human-like beings began to appear. His reign was only 364 years long, however, for Tezcatlipoca wanted revenge on his cosmic rival. Using his dark powers to overwhelm the wind god, he launched a massive hurricane that swept away the sun and the people. Darkness then covered the world and the survivors hid in the trees, eventually turning into monkeys.5

Artifact from Teotihuacán known as “Disco de la Muerte” | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tlaloc, the rain god, found opportunity in the darkness, and quickly took charge over the new third world. Much to Tlaloc’s dismay, Quetzalcoatl was displeased with his rule, and he sent a rain of fire that again destroyed the sun and earth. The survivors who hid from the fire became the ancestors of the dogs, turkeys, and butterflies of today. The goddess of the lakes and oceans, known as Chalchiúhtlicue, then presided over the fourth sun and world. Although her reign lasted much longer than the previous two, tragedy was no stranger to the gods. Although no one knows exactly how the fourth world ended, Aztec accounts seem to tell the story of a great flood covering the Earth, turning the inhabitants of that world into fish, whales, and other creatures of the deep ocean.6

After some time, all the gods gathered at Teotihuacán. The earth was filled with darkness and a new sun was needed. The gods also decided that a moon should provide light when the sun did not. The rich god Tecuciztécatl proudly stepped forth to be the new sun. But a small, humbler god, Nanahuatzin also volunteered. After agreeing to share the Earth, the two made preparations to renew the world.7 For four days, Tecuciztécatl and Nanahuatzin prayed and fasted.8 When they finished, the other gods lit a great fire on the hard earth of Teotihuacán. In his lavish robes, Tecuciztécatl threw valuable quetzal feathers, stone flints, and incense into the fire as sacrifices. Nanahuatzin, having no riches to sacrifice, humbly offered weeds drenched in his own blood. The two slowly then approached the menacing flames of the fire. Tecuciztécatl intended to go first but he was ultimately driven back by the heat of the inferno. He approached it again for the second time… the third… the fourth. No matter what he did, the rich god was being held back by his fear. Then Nanahuatzin stepped forward. With his eyes closed and mind stilled, Nanahuatzin leapt into the great fire. Having been awestruck by his rival, Tecuciztécatl quickly rushed into the flames. Nanahuatzin then became the new sun, while Tecuciztécatl became the moon.9

A popular photograph of the Moon Pyramid | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The gods then waited for the new world to develop. However, after a while, the gods noticed that nothing was happening. Why wasn’t the new sun in motion? Why hadn’t the world been fully restored? After a discussion with Nanahuatzin, the rest of the gods then threw themselves into the fire, one by one, to restart the world. After all the gods sacrificed themselves, the age of the fifth sun began, and the world was now in motion. It was then, that out of Teotihuacán human society was born. The city flourished under the leaders and priests of Teotihuacán and it is said that after their deaths the pyramids of the sun and moon were built by giants.10

Though we may never know how this city actually came to be, it is no mystery that Teotihuacán was once a revered city in Mesoamerica. To this day, many visit the ruins of Teotihuacán and observe its sites, such as the “Avenue of the Dead,” a two-mile road that connects the Pyramid of the Moon to a large market. Other wonders include the towering Pyramid of the Sun, which was once a revered ritual site because it was built over a cave that many once believed was the place where humans emerged into the world.11 Some of the palaces and temples still stand today, such as the famed temple of Quetzalcoatl. While Teotihuacán may have a murky history, its name continues to stand against the sands of time, eternally offering its mysterious beauty to curious observers everywhere who yearn to learn more of humanity’s past.

  1. Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library, 2005, s.v. “Teotihuacán,” by Sonia G. Benson.
  2. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 55.
  3. Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library, 2005, s.v. “Teotihuacán,” by Sonia G. Benson.
  4. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 160.
  5. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 160.
  6. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 161.
  7. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 161.
  8. Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library, 2005, s.v. “Teotihuacán,” by Sonia G. Benson.
  9. Charles Phillips, Aztec and Maya: The Complete Illustrated History: The Greatest Civilizations of Ancient Central America with 1000 Photographs, Paintings and Maps (New York: Metro Books, 2008), 162.
  10. Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library, 2005, s.v. “Teotihuacán,” by Sonia G. Benson.
  11. World History Encyclopedia, 2011, s.v. “The Teotihuacan Empire, 300–650 CE,” by Alfred J. Andrea.

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98 Responses

  1. Your article on Tenochtitlan and its people is very interesting. the article captured the mystery and wonder of the land. I remember when a few years ago I visited the sun and moon pyramids but never gave much thought to the story behind them. I learned so much, especially when you mentioned the gods and how they decided to have a new moon and sun to prevent the darkness of the earth. The sources that were used were very insightful which shows that you did the proper research for this topic.

  2. Alexander,

    I thought your article on the Tenochititlan people was very fascinating. You were able to tell the mystery of the land might have become a legend. Like you expressed there is no way of really knowing, because there is no accurate written record, but to think that there were these gods who fought among themselves and every time they thought they had the perfect setup one of the other gods did not like it and destroyed it. It was not until they finally realized that they all need each other to keep the world in balance that they all sacrificed themselves to make a great land that the people were successful and were able to build their lives up and thrive.

  3. Alexander,

    I thought your article on the Tenochititlan people was very fascinating. You were able to tell the mystery of the land might have become a legend. Like you expressed there is no way of really knowing, because there is no accurate written record, but to think that there were these gods who fought among themselves and every time they thought they had the perfect setup one of the other gods did not like it and destroyed it. It was not until they finally realized that they all need each other to keep the world in balance that they all sacrificed themselves to make a great land that the people were successful and were able to build their lives up and thrive.

  4. It was extremely intriguing to read about the legends of Teotihuacan, and it is fascinating to learn about the way that these peoples viewed the world. It is really unfortunate that there aren’t sufficient collections of written records, but that makes the attraction to uncovering the truth about the fallen city that much more captivating. This article was extremely well written and it was fascinating to read about recollections of the legends in the depth that you provided with your explanations!

  5. This article was very interesting! I remember learning about this city in one of my classes and I always wondered what could have happened for it and the citizens to mysteriously disappear. It is also fascinating to see many of the gods and myths that the city had to offer, I am also surprised how it still has no records about the city.

  6. I have enjoyed the story of Tenochtitlan because of the way you are explaining it. The article was well written and inflow. I like the way you explained the restoration of the earth four times. When all gods gathered in Tenochtitlan and decided to have a new moon and sun to prevent the darkness of the earth, I felt that such a legend should be taught even though we have no sufficient written record. This article has opened my eyes to a new era that I am excited to search deeper into it.

    1. Alexander,

      I thought your article on the Tenochititlan people was very fascinating. You were able to tell the mystery of the land might have become a legend. Like you expressed there is no way of really knowing, because there is no accurate written record, but to think that there were these gods who fought among themselves and every time they thought they had the perfect setup one of the other gods did not like it and destroyed it. It was not until they finally realized that they all need each other to keep the world in balance that they all sacrificed themselves to make a great land that the people were successful and were able to build their lives up and thrive.

  7. This article was well-written and had me intrigued! I had never even heard of the city of Tenochtitlan, so reading about the gods and myths that align with what was happening historically was especially interesting. It’s crazy that there isn’t much written information about the city, despite it being a center of religion, trade, and culture, as you’d think we’d have more evidence of what the city/people were like.

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