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Ometeotl, the God that Didn’t Exist

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Ometeotl, the God that Didn’t Exist By Iztli Ehekatl

“Like the Christian god, Ometeotl is found, as members of its cult insist, everywhere; everywhere that is, except in primary sources” – Richard Haly

Ometeotl is perhaps the most widely embraced concept within the Mexicayotl community and throughout the years, its original meaning has morphed into such ideas as monotheistic god, energy, and duality. What most people don’t know is that the word Ometeotl first appeared in secondary sources written by Miguel Leon-Portilla, La Filosofia Nahuatl and Aztec Thought and Culture and appears nowhere in any of the primary sources. After examination of Leon-Portilla work, it is clear that although well-intentioned, Leon-Portilla either intentionally or unintentionally invented the word.  Although Ometeotl is grammatically correct, it is not an Indigenous Nahuatl word.  There is nothing wrong ordinarily with creating words and native speakers create words all the time.  We see examples of this with words like tepoztototl (airplane) which surely did not exist in pre-cuauhtemoc times.  However, Leon-portilla’s Ometeotl is problematic for many reasons. First, Leon-Portilla bases his entire conception of Ometeotl on five primary sources, which, upon closer inspection, do not contain the word Ometeotl at all.  Second, he cites text from sources and claims they describe Ometeotl, when in all of these sources, it is clear that the original text is describing a different teotl.  Third, the way Leon-Portilla describes Ometeotl is very similar to the nepantla aspect of teotl which has been thoroughly researched by James Maffie. Maffie has expanded Leon-Portilla’s original thesis that our ancestors did indeed develop philosophy independently from the Greeks while also successfully cross-referencing many different sources to accurately define teotl. As a result, I am proposing that we stop using ometeotl since its origin is fabricated and does not properly represent Pre-Cuauhtemoc philosophy. The native Nahuatl concepts of teotl and nepantla are much more precise and valid alternatives to Ometeotl, and they successfully encompass the way Ometeotl is used today.

In his Filosofia Nahuatl, Leon-Portilla starts off by claiming “Ometeotl is the cosmic principle by which all that exists is conceived and begotten.” The only commentary he gives on this significant creation is that “Torquemada attempts to explain this unified masculine-feminine being: ‘it might be said, that these Indians wanted the Divine Nature shared by two gods (two persons) who were men and wife.” From this point Leon-Portilla jumps to the conclusion that “thus the wise men, anxious to give greater vitality and richness to their concept of the supreme being, gave him many names, laying the foundation for a comprehensive vision of the dual and ubiquitous deity (Aztec Thought and Culture by Miguel Leon-Portilla, pages 83 and 89).” Furthermore, he explained that the true nature of Ometeotl was a “god of duality” shared by Ometeuctli, “lord of duality” and Omecihuatl, “lady of duality (Fray Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia Indiana, facsimile of the 1723 edition, ed. Miguel Leon-Portilla, 3 vols. Mexico: Editorial Porrua, 1986, 2:37).” Leon-Portilla’s interpretation of Torquemada incorrectly led him to assume the Aztec (Mexica) believed in a male/female unitary dual figure -Ometeotl (Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity by Richard Haly. History of Religions. Vol. 31, No.3, Feb., 1992, pp.269-304, page 278).

From this starting point, in both Filosofia Nahuatl and Aztec Thought and Culture, Leon-Portilla repeatedly imposes Ometeotl where it is not found in an attempt to provide evidence to his creation. On page 80 of Aztec Though and Culture, Leon-Portilla translates a poem from the Cantares Mexicanos and translates the word omeycac in the third line as god of duality when in fact it does not refer to ometeotl at all but to stand two-wise (Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity by Richard Haly. History of Religions. Vol. 31, No.3, Feb., 1992, pp.269-304, page 275). On page 85, Leon-Portilla goes on to translate line six of a song from the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca as “the god of duality is at work,” but in the original text the word is spelled ayometeotl (ayotl, juicy + metl, maguey + teotl) which is more accurately translated as “it is the teotl of the juicy maguey” which also makes more sense considering the song is about drinking (Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity by Richard Haly. History of Religions. Vol. 31, No.3, Feb., 1992, pp.269-30 page 276). The third source used is the post-Cuauhtemoc codex named the Codex Rios and is also known as Codex Vaticanus 3738. Page 1v of the Codex Rios depicts the thirteen heavens and a teotl who is said to reside in the thirteenth level, Omeyocan, whose name is written in Italian Hometeule which is translated as “lord of three.” The Italian text describes Hometeule as “the creator of all, the first cause.” Upon further examination, it turns out the image presented on page 1v is actually Tonacateuctli and not a distinct teotl named Hometeule which many people attempt to interpret as Ometeotl. The codex is therefore substantially modified by European interpretation and is clearly attempting to infuse ideas about the trinity (Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity by Richard Haly. History of Religions. Vol. 31, No.3, Feb., 1992, pages 276-277). The fourth source commonly used as a reference to Ometeotl is the sixteenth-century Historia de los Mexicanos por sus Pinturas by Andres del Olmos. In the work he talks about how Tonacateuctli and Tonacacihuatl created four sons, “the fourth and smallest they called Omiteuctli…known to the Mexica as Huitzilopochtli” Although very close to Ometeotl, Omiteuctli translates to omitl bone + teuctli lord. Folio. 52 of the Codex Tudela clearly depicts Omteuctli as a teotl with exposed bones which supports the translation (Bare Bones: Rethinking Mesoamerican Divinity by Richard Haly. History of Religions. Vol. 31, No.3, Feb., 1992, pp.278-282).

In addition to the primary source references, Leon-Portilla also unsuccessfully attempts to attach descriptions of other teteo to Ometeotl. For example, on page 102 of Aztec Thought and Culture, Leon-Portilla claims Yohualli-Ehecatl was a title designated for Ometeotl while in sources such as the Florentine Codex, it is clear that the title belongs to Tezcatlipoca (The Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube, page 164). On page 91, Leon-Portilla goes on to claim that Tloque in Nahuaque, Ipalnemohuani, and Moyocoyani are all attempts to describe the “Lord of duality.” Then on page 30, he boldy claims that Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl are in reality Ometeotl with no other explanation. It should be noted that Angel Garibay, another scholar identified to be associated with the early leaders of the Mexicayotl, has attempted to further legitimize Leon-Portilla’s work through his own writings. In Garibay’s Historia de la Literatura Nahuatl, volume 1, page 129, he also references the ayometeotl from the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca but completely drops the ay- and boldly rewrites it as Ometeotl. Garibay has gone so far as to attempt to insert Ometeotl into his 1979 translation of the Histoire Du Mechique, originally published in French by Andre Thevet in 1543. On page 144 of the original French text, we see the sentence “avoyt ung dieu nome Teotli, que vault dire ‘deux dieux’ translated by Garibay as habia un dios llamado Ometeotl que quiere decir “dos dioses.” The Teotli in the French text is replaced with Garibay’s text as Ometeotl which is clearly incorrect even to those who can’t read Spanish or French.  In addition, “deux diuex” means “two gods” and Thevet’s original text shows that it was not intended to describe two gods in one.

Many within the movement who continue to describe Ometeotl using Leon-Portilla’s interpretation as a monotheistic god of duality are routinely berated with statements such as “our ancestors didn’t have gods, that’s a Eurocentric concept.”  On the other hand, people who are proponents of Ometeotl as energy are typically berated while being described as New Agers. When we review the available evidence, it becomes clear that teotl represents both of these seemingly opposing ideas. Sixty years after Leon-Portilla first announced to the world that our ancestors did indeed have philosophy, James Maffie further developed this idea in his monumental work, Aztec Philosophy. After reviewing the sources, Maffie comes to the conclusion that Ometeotl does not fit into the philosophical framework of our ancestors. Maffie’s work is the last nail in the coffin of Ometeotl and it establishes Teotl rather than Ometeotl as the basis of everything in the universe.

In his book titled Aztec Philosophy, James Maffie’s describes teotl  as energy driven by four different interrelated processes: olin, malinalli, nepantla, and time-place. These four concepts underlie the interrelated and interpenetrating microprocesses which describe how teotl moves. Olin is defined as both motion and movement and is closely related to another meaning of olin which is rubber ball because “rubber jumps around as if it is alive.” Olin as a life energy rises and falls, swings back and forth, and pulsates doing so in a manner that is orderly, rhythmic, cyclical and predictable. Mallinalli translates to “that which has been twisted” and derives from the verb malina meaning “to twist.” This twisting transforms something disorderly into something orderly and well arranged; something weak into something strong; something useless into something useful and as a result it is the manner in which motion-change is ordered into something beneficial from the standpoint of human beings. Malinalli is thus the transformative aspect of teotl. Nepantla is the aspect of teotl that we are most familiar with because it is the one which Leon-Portilla chose to elaborate on in his discussions of Ometeotl and is the one aspect that is most closely related to his concept of duality. Nepantla is based on the idea that motion-change define the basic working of the cosmos and reality consists of a never-ending process of commingling, interweaving, intersecting, middling, unifying, and balancing. The most prominent representations of nepantla are the recurring theme that the cosmos is a grand weaving in progress and the consistent male and female teteo depicted together. While analyzing the Cihuateteo for example, it becomes immediately clear that the concepts found within teotl are constantly at play. In one account, they are described as spinners who had woven nothing and unable to fulfill themselves as weavers while alive on earth, the Cihuateteo searched the earth for the weaving instruments they had left behind at death and also for the child they never bore in hopes of fulfilling themselves after death and achieving balance as mothers thus explaining their existence through nepantla. Time-place is based upon the fundamental observation that our ancestors conceived of time and place as inseparably fused together forming a single seamless continuum. This results in the idea that all places are timed and all times are placed. Time-place is how teotl moves therefore it is both how the fabric of the cosmos weaves itself and how the woven fabric of the cosmos is woven (Aztec Philosophy, ebook version, by James Maffe, pages 1-2265).

Although teteo such as Tezcatlipoca, Cihuateteo, Quetzalcoatl, and Chalchiutlicue do indeed have god-like qualities it is important to remember they are not superior to teotl but are made of teotl and are subject to its processes. This is why they are all associated with directions and calendar dates, have a pair from the opposite sex, and transform aspects of teotl into something beneficial for humans. They are supernatural in the sense that they typically do things that humans can not do and they can access areas of the universe that humans typically can not. For example, Tlaloc resides in Tlalocan, an area of the universe not typically accessible to humans and Quetzalcoatl travelled to Mictlan to make humans out of bones he found there. Mictlan and Tlalocan are supernatural realms which are only accessible to humans after death however some humans such as the nahualli and the tlacatecolotl were perceived to share some of these supernatural abilities to access Mictlan and Tlalocan through various means. Because of the existence of such teteo with supernatural abilities, the word teotl has been consistently translated to God by both Natives and non-Natives which is problematic considering our examination of teotl above.

An examination of the Cihuateteo will provide an excellent opportunity to develop a clearer understanding of why the word teotl has historically been translated to God. The Cihuateteo along with many of the other teteo have god-like qualities in the sense that they are supernatural beings who are capable of intervening in human lives. The Cihuateteo were female warriors who died in childbirth and upon their death, they continued to live with Tonatiuh while he traveled from his zenith to sunset (The Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube, page 61). Linguistically, this is supported in the word cihuatlampa which corresponds to the western direction (Nahuatl-English English-Nahuatl by Fermin Herrera, page 70). Considering teotl encompasses time and place, it is no surprise that the Cihuateteo are firmly linked with those days associated with the west. The five days which are also trecenas assigned to the west are: 1 Mazatl, 1 Quiahuitl, 1 Ozomatli, 1 Calli, and 1 Cuauhtli. It was on these days that the Ciahuateteo were believed to return to Earth to haunt crossroads and to steal children and hurt them presumably because they didn’t have the chance to have children of their own (The Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube, page 61-62). The Pre-Cuauhtemoc evidence for the cihuateteo as god-like figures is very strong and it is clear they held a prominent place in the pantheon. In the Aubin Manuscript No . 20, we see depictions of the five cihuateteo with their associated days below them and the macuiltonaleque (fallen male warriors who accompany the sun form sunrise to zenith) opposite them. These same images are repeated in the Codex Borgia and Codex Vaticanus B.
cihuateteo

In addition to native writing, there are also numerous sculptures currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The same days we find in the Aubin are carved on the tops of each of figure’s head and were probably once placed in a shrine dedicated to the Cihuateteo in Tenochtitlan (In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000-http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/00.5.30. October 2006).
cihuateteosculpture

The shrines for them were named the cihuateocaltin and they were located in all neighborhoods at the crossroads where offerings were made during the days of their descent to earth. As the people made offerings to the Cihuateteo, they ensured that their children remained inside the house and sternly warned them, explaining what would happen to them if they happened to encounter one (Florentine Codex, book 4, page 41). To those who are tempted to argue the Cihuateteo were not revered in a god-like sense and perhaps that people only wished to remember them, keep in mind that in the Florentine they are described as atlacacemelleque which is translated to the inhuman ones which is clearly signaling that teotl in this sense is opposed to humans and is therefore supernatural. Although Pre-Cuauhtemoc people strongly opposed the works of the nahualli which translates to a sorcerer who practices witchcraft, the Cihuateteo were one of the few exceptions. Whereas people who died ordinary deaths in Pre-Cuauhtemoc times were cremated, the women who died in childbirth were not, they were buried at the crossroads, and as a result, warriors fought vigorously over their bodily remains which they kept as talismans to ensure bravery and success in battle (The Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya by Mary Miller and Karl Taube, page 61). The last plate of the Codex Ferjervary-Mayer depicts Tezcalipoca holding a severed arm to his mouth which is likely the arm of a Cihuateteotl and substantiates the evidence from the Native informants.

Those who persist in arguing against evidence supporting the existence of pantheism in Pre-Cuauhtemoc times – such as that of the Cihuateteo presented here – on the basis that it is the result of a Eurocentric perspective, and that we instead believed in Ometeotl – a single creator god of duality, are missing an important point: In all of human history, monotheism, the belief in one god, was developed only once. This means that 99% of all of the people in the world have developed religions in which there were multiple supernatural beings. Therefore, statistically speaking, there is a 1% chance that our ancestors developed monotheism and to believe otherwise would require that one ignores the varying evidence that exists that proves teotl was also used to describe supernatural beings within the pantheon that existed throughout Anahuac. All of these seemingly distinct teteo such as Cihuateteo, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Chalchiutlicue are however all unified by teotl resulting in a pantheistic view of the world. This unity resulted in a blurring of the lines between the natural and supernatural and we see this clearly in native texts whereas at one moment a person can be here on earth and in the next moment they could be in Mictlan only to return to earth (Aztec Philosophy by James Maffe, page 409). As a result of the pantheism practiced by our ancestors, it is by definition not possible that ometeotl can be a “God of Duality” that is separate from teotl which is contradictory to the way in which Leon-Portilla talks about Ometeotl as a transcendental creator god (Aztec Philosophy by James Maffe, page 858). In essence, Leon-Portilla replaced teotl with ometeotl and then successfully convinced the majority of scholars and proponents of Mexicayotl in the process.

When Leon-Portilla wrote his book La Filosofia Nahuatl in 1956 at the age of thirty years old, it was a brave undertaking and he was heavily criticized by philosophers who would not consider that our ancestors were capable of philosophizing. In their minds, philosophy had developed only once in the history of the world in Greece and it was preposterous to suggest anyone else had also independently developed philosophy. Almost sixty years later with the publication of Aztec Philosophy, James Maffie reported to have encountered similar criticisms. Leon-Portilla laid the foundation for us to fully understand the meaning of teotl and with it; the philosophy of our ancestors yet his most lasting contribution within the Mexicayotl movement is his conception of Ometeotl. Considering Leon-Portilla had ties with neoaztekah organizations in the first half of the 20th century, it is possible that he was influenced by Estanislao Ramirez’s claim that Ometecuhtzintli was the single, invisible creator of the universe (http://mexikaresistance.com/2014/06/05/a-brief-history-of-the-mexicayotl-movement/). While the evidence does support that our ancestors had philosophy, the evidence does not support the existence of the dual god/energy Ometeotl prior to Leon-Portilla. Teotl on the other hand, has been shown by James Maffie to be supported by a wide range of Pre-Cuauhtemoc, primary, linguistic and contemporary sources. Ometeotl is yet another relic of the Mexicayotl movement which is unsubstantiated and exists only in the imagination of its creator and virtually all Mexicayotl adherents. It is time to move on.

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8 Comments on Ometeotl, the God that Didn’t Exist

  1. This article is cool, but his argument about monotheism should be verified, the sikhs for example are montheistic so was (is?) zoroastrianism. I’m sure there’s more.

    • Good point Akatoxkatl. I thought of taking that part out however all of the different cultures that developed monotheism all lived in close proximity to each other and can be shown to have influenced each other. For example, it can be shown that Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, which then produced Christianity and Islam. The Jewish god can in turn be shown to have been influenced by Aten, the monotheistic god developed by Akhenaten in Egypt. Therefore, the idea of monotheism likely originated once and then spread to west Asia and north Africa.

  2. I’m a little confused about what Maffie actually says in the book regarding Ometeotl, because in the second half of the video posted above (towards the end, to be exact), he brings up Ometeotl and never mentions that it was a contrived god by Leon-Portilla. Maffie just sort brings up Ometeotl matter-of-factly as if it were a given. Does Maffie actually doubt the existence of a pre-Kuautemok belief in Ometeotl, or did I read into what Itzli’s article is actually saying?

    • Throughout the book, Maffie points out how Ometeotl does not fit into the Aztec pantheon. At one point, he uses logic to state it outright:

      1. That which is perceptible is
      ontologically distinct from that
      which is imperceptible.
      2. Ometeotl is imperceptible.
      3. Therefore Ometeotl is
      ontologically distinct from the
      perceptible world.
      4. Therefore Aztec metaphysics is
      committed to ontological
      dualism.
      5. Pantheism is committed to
      ontological monism.
      6. Therefore Aztec metaphysics
      cannot be pantheistic.

      • He follows the above with this: “Unfortunately León-Portilla’s argument is unsound. I simply see no reason to accept the first premise. The epistemological transcendence of Ometeotl does not entail Ometeotl’s nonidentity with the epistemologically immanent. One and the same reality (process or entity) may possess both perceptible and imperceptible, and occult and nonoccult aspects. The current interpretation is guilty of imposing a nonautochthonous, Judeo- Christian-style, Mediterranean monotheism upon Aztec thinking. Richard Haly, for one, contends the notion of Aztec monotheism is the post- Conquest invention of scholars such as Alfonso Caso and León-Portilla. Caso, according to Haly, misinterprets the Nahuatl appellation Tloque Nahuaque (“one who is near to everything and to whom everything is near”) as a product of the Aztec elite’s “philosophical zeal for unity.”213 León-Portilla, in turn, misconstrues Ometeotl as a transcendent, imperceptible supreme being and unifying cosmic principle.214 Because both scholars are sympathetic to the Aztecs, Haly argues Caso and León- Portilla set out to make the Aztecs more palatable to their modern audience, which means making the Aztecs more like us. And what are we like? We are monotheists according to Haly. Caso and León-Portilla consequently characterize Aztec thought favorably so as “to imply an evolution [in Aztec thought] from polytheism to monotheism.”215 But Haly denies there exists such a deity as Ometeotl and that León-Portilla confuses the deity Omitecuhtli (“Bone Lord”) as Ometecuhtli (“Two Lord”).”

    • He talks about it in his book.

  3. Haven’t read this for a while. Good thought provoking piece. There are a number of points I disagree with and of which I won’t go into at the moment but this time around it gave me a lot more food for thought than the last time I read it. Ive read Portillas works a few times over although its been some years since last I read him. Honestly tho I never interpreted (or i guess realized) Leon-portilla’s Ometeotl as you and Maffie (as per the comments section), describe it.. monotheistic?. I guess the understanding of Ometeotl that’s embedded in me is the spiritual applicative use of it that I learned from different “elders” as opposed to the impossible task of defining (Ome)Teotl or Mexica spiritual-science dynamics in academic absolutes. I know this piece was a lot of work so tlazocamati for tackling this arduous terrain of knowledge, even tho I’m not feeling some of it I do dig most of and it has helped me refine some angles on teh topic. Tlazocamati.

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