Mictlan was the Aztec underworld, ruled over by its Lord and Lady. It was a gloomy place, reached by the dead only after wandering for four years beneath the earth, accompanied by a “soul-companion”, a dog which was customarily cremated with the corpse.
Aztec myth tells how the god Quetzalcoatl journeyed to Mictlan in the Fifth Sun in order to restore humankind to life from the bones of those who had lived in previous eras. For bones are like seeds: everything that dies goes into the earth, and from the earth new life is born in the sacred cycle of existence.
Quetzalcoatl approached the Lord of Mictlan, where he sat on his throne surrounded by spiders and owls. “I’ve come for the bones, the precious bones, the jade bones,” said Quetzalcoatl. “Can I have them in order to populate the earth?”
Only unwillingly did the Lord of Mictlan gives his assent. “You may take away that which I guard so carefully on one condition – that you parade four times around my throne blowing on this trumpet.” And he handed Quetzalcoatl a conch shell that had no finger holes. But worms bored the fingerholes, and bees flew inside to make a sound.
Even so, Quetzalcoatl knew that he’d better move quickly to take the bones and leave. And sure enough the Lord of Mictlan gave orders that the bones be recovered. Quetzalcoatl thought of a trick. “Tell the Lord I’ll leave the bones behind,” he said to his nahual, his spirit twin. Accordingly the nahual, looking just like Quetzalcoatl himself, assured the Lord of Mictlan that the bones would be left. Meanwhile Quetzalcoatl began to run. Unfortunately, the Lord of Mictlan ordered that a pit be dug in the fleeing god’s path, and sure enough he fell into it, having been startled by a covey of quail. Those bones that weren’t already shattered were pecked at by the quail. Which is why humans come in all sizes.
“This has not worked out well,” said Quetzalcoatl to his spirit twin.
“What must be must be,” replied the nahual. And so Quetzalcoatl scooped up the bones and, once safely beyond the dead land, ground them up in a bowl. Together with other gods, he sprinkled them with his own blood, restoring them to life. And thus humankind was born from the pennance of the gods themselves.
There is a good outline of these ‘overworlds’ and ‘underworlds’ in Handbook of Life in the Aztec World by Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (on our Panel of Experts), which we’re happy to reproduce here. Somewhere we’ve come across the names for the levels in Náhuatl: when we find them we’ll include them…!
‘The lowest heaven was the place where the Moon traveled and from which the clouds were suspended. The second heaven was the place of stars, which were divided into two large groups: the 400 stars of the north (Centzon Mimixcoa) and the 400 (countless) stars of the south (Centzon Huitznahua). The heaven of the Sun was the third region. Tonatiuh traveled over this heaven in his journey from the region of light to his home in the west. The fourth heaven was the place where Venus could be seen. In the fifth heaven the comets or smoking stars, traveled. In the sixth and seventh of the celestial levels only the colors green and blue could be seen, or according to another version, black and blue – the heavens of day and night. The [boldeighth heaven was apparently the place of storms, and the three heavens above this – the white, yellow and red – were reserved as dwelling places for the gods. Most important of the 13 levels were the last two, which constituted Omeyocan, the dwelling place of the dual supreme deity, generator, and founder of the universe.
|The 13 ‘heavens’ and 9 underworlds,
‘Under the celestial column of the gods, forces, colors, and dualities floated the four-quartered Earth in the sacred waters. Below the terrestrial level were the nine levels of the underworld, realms that the souls of the dead had to cross: the place for crossing the water, the place where the hills are found, the obsidian mountain, the place of the obsidian wind, the place where banners are raised, the place where people are pierced with arrows, the place where people’s hearts are devoured, the obsidian place of the dead, the finally, the place where smoke has no outlet (Mictlan).’