Major Aztec Temples:

While many temples are associated with the Aztecs, it is important to remember that the Aztecs were comprised of a Triple Alliance with the Texcoco and Tlacopan who banded together for conquest in creating this "Aztec Empire". Much of the groundwork had already been laid as one of the high tribes, the Atzcapotzalco had "succeeded in subjugating other tribes" through conquest as early as the 14th century, and even more groundwork before that. The Triple Alliance as we knew it formed and took over in 1430 and continued their conquests, taking over Atzcapotzalco regions and beyond. In my Gods and Myth page I chronicle the story of how the Aztecs came to build their city at the cite of Tenochtitlan. The historical chronicles and archaeological evidence suggests that they came to the valley of Mexico after enduring immense hardships. They "found the different city-states engaged in intense military struggles for control of the valley and its resources. The Mexica eventually submitted to the Tepanec lord of Azcapotzalco who extracted tribute from them in exchange to settle..[on the] marshy island in the middle of the lake" (2). If you take a look at the list of places throughout the empire where other temples are found, many of them existed before the Aztecs, and were taken over when the empire expanded.

The "Aztecs" arrived comparatively late in relation to other "high civilizations" in Mesoamerica who were there earlier including the Olmecs on the East coast of Mexico, the Maya in the South, the religious culture at Teotihuacan, and the Toltecs from the north. The original ancestors of the "Aztecs" had roots as conquerors from the north who took part in the destruction of Tulla and the fall of the Toltecs (1) (although many of the Toltec beliefs are roots for Aztec gods/rutuals/beliefs). In fact, because they banded together in taking over large vast areas, many of their beliefs were melded together, hence why some of the Gods were named a little differently, and why there was so many of them. While many sites or temples were used during the Aztec reign, many of them were in use before the rise of the particular Aztec empire, for example Teotihuacan. While the history of the rise of the empire is important in understanding their beliefs as it lays a foundation, I am choosing to focus on those specifically associated with the Aztecs. Take a look at John Robertson's Page on Maya Religion for more info about the religion of the Maya.

Tenochtitlan: Great City and Ceremonial Center

The ceremonial center at Tenochtitlan has been recorded to be about 400 meters on each side, with 78 temples, and entryways or roads into the center that were in alignment with the four directions.
For more information on the story of how the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan and decided upon where to build the great temple, see the section in my Gods and Myth page.

The Great Temple: The Templo Mayor

The Templo Mayor stood at the center of Tenochtitlan. It has a pyramid-style base with temples of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli situated on the top. According to archaeologist Eduardo Moctezuma, "The Templo Mayor is a precise example of the Mexica views of the cosmos, consisting of sacred mountains which constitute the fundamental symbolic center of the vertical and horizontal cosmos of the Aztec universe" (2). Atop this massive structure, in front of the sanctuaries built for Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, was the site where human sacrifice rituals took place.This temple has seven phases of construction, one on top of an expanding the other (5).

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The Aztecs depended on agriculture, with rain making that possible, and on the tribute collected by the conquest of the region. So naturally their main resources would be the main reasons to pay special attention to the 'needs' of the gods Tlaloc (god of rain and agriculture) and mainly Huitzilopochtli (patron of the people, and god of war/conquest and tribute). This was a place of power, where these gods reigned over the Aztecs most important resources. Huitzilopochtli was the one who guided them there, to their promised land in the first place back in the mid 13th century (2).
At the foot of the temple on the side corresponding with Huitzilopochtli lies a great stone depicting his sister Coyolxauhqui. She is decapitated and dismembered, on a platform, conquered. (2) What a powerful message when approaching the temple stairs! The placement of this great stone carving that measures 3.5 meters wide was also symbolic of the fight between Coyolxauhqui and Huitzilopochtli and the great temple as representative of Mt.Coatepec, the site this battle occurred (5). See my Gods and Myth page for more information on the relationship and conflict between Huitzilopochtli and Coyolxauhqui.

On top of the pyramid, there was a stone-like block (called techcatl) for sacrifice. Sahagun describes it as "a stone three hands in height or a little more and two in width, or almost, and they threw them on their backs." Near these blocks a pool of blood from sacrificial victims was said to exist, and all temples faced west (2).
Many offerings were made at the Great Temple, buried there or close by...
Balance among the universe, and among the dualistic nature of deities was balanced in Aztec religion and society through sacrifice (3). This temple was built "as a symbol of the cosmic process in motion since the creation of time. It was the cosmic symbol and embodiment of a mythical event, a symbol and memorial of achievements and rulers that provided an explanation of the land and history, thereby giving the Aztec a sense of identity in the natural world. In essence, they conducted almost all aspects of their lives in step with the cyclic rhythms of the seasons, which gave them a sense of rightness and conviction of how to live their lives" (5). Opposite the Templo Mayor, not surprisingly, was the Temple of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl facing the east (2).

Other Sites

Many other temples were used in rites throughout the year at other cities, From Aguilar-Moreno's book Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (5):
-Tenayuca, the "place where walls were made" was northwest of Tenochtitlan has a pyramid with a wall of serpents or coatepantli.
-Santa Cecilia Acatitlan (Acatitlan meaning "between the canes or reeds" is north of Tenochtitlan and has a dual-temple pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.
-Teopanzolco, in the northeast part of the city of Cuernavaca, possessed a dual-temple pyramid dedicated to Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, and well as a circular temple for Quetzalcoatl in Ehecatl form.
-Tlatelolco, in Xaltelolco northeast of Tenochtitlan on Lake Tetzcoco. This site was formed separately and over the same time period as Tenochtitlan, and was absorbed into the Aztec empire after they conquered the natives there. The most important temple here was the "Temple of the Calendar" decorated with elements of the ritual calendar, or tonalpohualli. Tlateloco also housed a temple of Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, a sacred well, and was famous for its enormous Aztec marketplace.
-Tetzcotzinco, east of Tetzcoco in the foothills of Mt. Tlaloc. This site had an impressive aqueduct system and a plaza with monuments and shrines.
-Tepoztlan, the "place of copper/split stones/axes" was south of Tenochtitlan and houses a pyrimidal complex for Tepoztecatl/Ometochtli.
-Huexotla, the "place of the willows" was just south of Tetzoco and believed to contain a main pyramid (now covered by a church) and has a great wall that served as a structure of defense.
-Calixtlahuaca, the "place of houses on the plain" was southwest of Tenochtitlan in the valley of Toluca and housed a temple for Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, a cluster of structured dedicated to Tlaloc, a ball court, and elite schools called calmecac.
-Coatetelco housed a plaza in the center of a main temple, a palace, and a ball court, as well as some smaller platforms. It is known for being a site that was not destroyed by the Spanish during the conquest.
-Malinalco was a fortress city with rock-cut temples carved out of hills and was located toward the eastern part of the center of the empire

Major Rituals
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The top priests in the religious hierarchy were the priests of Huitzilopochtli, Tlaloc, and Quetzalcoatl. Religious rites were associated with the seasons and agriculture,and the calendar's cycle of festivals. All of the rituals were done to appease the Gods so that they may act toward the people favorably and for the maintenance of life in the universe. This includes rituals containing human sacrifice, and most of them had this element (5).

There were 18 major rituals performed, one each month of the Aztec ritual calendar or tonalpohualli (they also had a civil calendar called xiuhpohualli) (5). Sacrifices were made to particular gods depending on the month. There were also large rituals/festivals performed after a set number of years.
From Aguilar-Moreno's book Handbook to Life in the Aztec World these are the 18 monthly rituals, corresponding deities, and places performed if known (5):
1. Atlcahualo: for Tlaloc and Ehecatl, sacrifice of captives and children, performed in the mountains Epcoatl, Pantitlan, Netotiloyan, and Chililico.
2. Tlacazipehualiztli: for Xipe Totec, Huitzilopochtli, and Tequizin-Mayahuel. Sacrifice of warrior captives or god impersonators (ixiptla), performed during the day at the Temple of Yopico by heart extraction and flaying (removal of skin).
3. Tozoztontli: for Tlaloc-Chalchiuhtlicue and Coatlicue, sacrifice through heart extraction.
4. Huey Tozoztli: for Cinteotl, Chicomecoatl, Quetzalcoatl, and Tlaloc. Sacrifice of boys and girls and ixiptla during the day.
5. Toxcatl: for Huitzilopochtli, Tlacahuepan, Tezcatlipoca, and Cuexcotzin. Sacrifice of warrior captives through heart extraction, ritual held in Tlacochcalco.
6. Etzalcualitztli: for Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, sacrifice at midnight at the Tlaloc temple atop the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan.
7. Tecuilhuitontli: for Huixtocihuatl and Xochipilli, sacrifice during the day at the Tlaloc temple atop the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan.
8. Huey Tecuilhuitl: for Xilonen, Quilaztli-Cihuacoatl, Chicomecoatl, and Ethecatl. Four sacrifices for these deities, by extraction of the heart, one hour before sunrise and through the morning.
9. Tlaxochimaco: for Huitzilopochtli, Tezcatlipoca, Mictlantecuhtli, and others. Sacrifice of elderly.
10. Xocotl Huetzi: for Ixcozauhqui, Xiuhtecuhtli, Chalmecacihuatl, Yacatecuhtli, and others. Performed in the Tlacacouan Temple.
11. Ochpaniztli: for Chicomecoatl, Toci, Tetoinnan, and Chiconquiahuitl. Sacrifice of captives and ixiplta through heart extraction and decapitation.
12. Teotleco: for all the gods, especially Xochiquetzal. Sacrificed captives through heart extraction in Teccalco.
13. Tepeilhuitl: for Matlalcueye, Milnahuatl, and Tlaloc-Napatecuhtli. Sacrifice of boys and two royal women by heart extraction at night and during the day in Centzontotochtiniteopan.
14. Quecholli: for Mixcoatl-Tlamatzincatl, Izquitecatl, Coatlicue. Sacrifice by decapitation and heart extraction during the day in Coatlan, Mixcoatepan, and Tlamatzinco.
15. Panquetzaliztli: for Huitzilopochtli, ritual offerings and sacrifice of slaves and captives by heart extraction at Huitzilopochtli's temple atop the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan.
16. Atemoztli: for the Tlaloques, sacrifice by decapitation.
17. Tititl: for Yacatecuhtli, Ilamatecuhtli, and Tona-Cozcamiauh. Sacrifice by heart extraction then decapitation at the Templo Mayor, Yacatecuhtli-Iteopan, Huitzilincuatec-Iteopan, and Tlaxico.
18. Izcalli: for Ixcozauhqui-Xiuhtecuhtli, Nancotlaceuhqui, and Cihuatontli. Sacrifice of ixipltas of Xiuhtecuhtli, and women every four years, performed at night at Tzonmolco.

Click this link to take you to my Human Sacrifice page, for more information on this aspect of religious ritual.

The Rituals of Daily Aztec Life

Many rituals were performed on a smaller scale in courtyards outside homes. Many of these courtyards contained smaller replicas of great temples, and were a sacrifice may not have occurred in someone's home courtyard, Aztec people were able to perform self-sacrifice or bloodletting to the gods (6).
Although pre-dating the Aztec empire, this is an example of a courtyard temple replica (6)

The Role of the Tlatoani in Rituals

The Aztec ruler, or Tlatoani ("one who speaks") was present at all major rituals, and offered copal (an incense-like resin) to the Gods. He was responsible for the maintenace of all the city's temples, and was in charge of making sure all rituals were conducted in the proper way. There was a tlatoani in each of the provinces, but one Huy Tlatoani as the Aztec supreme ruler. The Huy Tlatoani was thought to be the person through which Huitzilopochtli speaks and sponsored and led most of the state rituals. When a new Huey Tlatoani (supreme ruler) was chosen, a series of rituals took place in his inauguration. When the tlatoani was absent, the cihuacoatl (a male "woman serpent" named after the Goddess Cihuacoatl, meaning prime-minister or second in command) stood in for him. Religion and state were not separate in Aztec society and tlatoani were the top priests on the top rung of society (5). The Huy Tlatoani had many important roles in the Aztec State as head of the Aztec government, but that is a whole other paper that unfortunately no one picked for this class.

Works Cited:
1. Katz, Friedrich. Apr.,1958. The Evolution of Aztec Society: Past & Present, No. 13, pp. 14-25 Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society. Stable URL:
2. Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. Dec 1985. Archaeology & Symbolism in Aztec Mexico: The Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53(4):797-813, 75th Anniversary Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Oxford University Press Stable URL:
3. Read, Kay A. The Fleeting Moment: Cosmogony, Eschatology, and Ethics in Aztec Religion and Society The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 113-138 Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc Stable URL:
4. Burland, C. A., and Werner Forman. 1985. The Aztecs: gods and fate in Ancient Mexico. Echoes of the ancient world. London: Orbis.
5. Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. 2006. Handbook to life in the Aztec world. New York: Facts on File.
6. Gonlin, Nancy, and Jon C. Lohse. 2007. Commoner ritual and ideology in ancient Mesoamerica. Mesoamerican worlds. Boulder, Colo: University Press of Colorado.