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The Aztec myth of the unlikeliest sun god - Kay Almere Read

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Nanahuatl, weakest of the Aztec gods, sickly and covered in pimples, had been chosen to form a new world. There had already been four worlds, each set in motion by its own “Lord Sun,” and each had been destroyed. For a new world to be created, another god had to leap into the great bonfire and become the fifth sun. Will Nanahuatl complete the sacrifice? Kay A. Read recounts the myth of the sun.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Kay Almere Read
  • Director Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Translation Collaborator Jane Rosenthal
  • Animator Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
The Aztec tellers of this story are often called the Nahua (Nah-wah) because they spoke Nahuatl (Nah-waht), the language in which this tale was recorded. There were a number of Nahua groups living in the Mexican Highlands. One such group, the Mexica (Meh-shee-kah), lived in the city of Tenochtitlan (Ten-noch-teet-lahn), the center of a huge domain that maintained influence throughout the region. Tenochtitlan now lies buried beneath the current city that the Spanish built on top of it and which they named after its original inhabitants, Mexico City. The Aztecs probably founded their city, Tenochtitlan, around 1345 and it fell to the Spanish in 1521. But as the myth tells us, their gods created the Aztecs’ Fifth Sun at a different city named Teotihuacan ( “Place of the Gods”) whose archaeological remains lie just northeast of Mexico City. You can visit it today. That place of godly creation had been, at one time, the largest, most influential center ever in ancient Mesoamerica, originally rising to grandeur around 200 CE and falling into decline around 650 -750 CE. The Aztecs, of course, did not see it until it had fallen into complete ruins, although it was still being used as a ritual site, a tradition the Mexica continued to follow until their collapse at the hands of the Spanish.

Mark Cartwright has written a good historical introduction to the Aztecs, including articles on the Templo Mayor, the temple complex that centered Tenochtitlan, and on some of the deities appearing in this myth.

If you also would like to take a virtual tour of Teotihuacan and see the latest research going on there, go to Arizona State University’s website.

This myth comes from a much longer legend found in the Codex Chimalpopoca. That legend begins with the four preceding ages and, after many other tales, eventually ends with a listing of the Mexica kings, those lords who ruled over Tenochtitlan. It was recorded in Nahuatl by some unknown Spanish collector from a recitation done by an Aztec, ritual storyteller who used a book that, like today’s graphic novels, told the myth in pictures. We know this because he frequently says things like “and here” or “like so.” So many little phrases like these rhythmically appear that it becomes easy to imagine him pointing to places on the pages of a beautiful picture book as he recites the tale. Sadly, that book has disappeared and all we have left is the verbal part of his performance. Once these indigenous “graphic novels”–all of which were painted by skilled artisans and recited by ritual story tellers–could be found everywhere in Mesoamerica; but the Spanish destroyed almost every one. However, a very few preconquest books have survived and one of these is attributed to the Aztecs, the Codex Borgia. This book is very precious because all other early Aztec codices were commissioned by Spanish conquerors and show postconquest influences. Many of the images in our animation have been drawn from that book.

Here is a site at which you can see pictures of and read about the Codex Borgia and other similar codices. Dr. Helen Burgos Ellis’ article is another great resource about the Codex Borgia.

You also can see a digital copy of the original Codex Borgia in the Vatican Library here.

Establishing an Aztec code of ethics is a fairly new undertaking. Unfortunately in the past, many saw the Aztecs as nothing more than immoral, primitive barbarians. Recently, this image has been changing as we get a better idea of just how complex this civilization was. Thanks to a tremendous burst of archaeological research combined with more sophisticated approaches to both preconquest and postconquest sources, a more nuanced understanding of what life was like during Aztec times is beginning to emerge. This has sparked a small, but important interest in what Aztec ethics might have looked like. After all, it is impossible to imagine a society this large and complex as devoid of moral guidelines. However, describing what those guidelines might have been is a challenge because Nahua intellectuals expressed themselves via highly metaphoric, poetic speech and others got their messages about how to behave from mythology. Translating those sources into something understandable in Western ethical terms is not easy. Yet, if one reads a myth like this one, one can get a pretty good idea about what kinds of behavior were approved and which were not; together these can lead to a code of ethical behavior. It’s a fascinating exercise that offers yet another piece of the Aztec puzzle.

Two authors who are undertaking this ethical exploration are Dr. James Maffie and Dr. Sebastian Purcell. For some readers, they may prove a bit more challenging than desired; but if you like a challenge, they are rather fascinating for, in order to describe Aztec ethics, one must also describe a larger Aztec worldview. They can be found here (Dr. James Maffie) and here (Dr. Sebastian Purcell).

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Kay Almere Read
  • Director Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Narrator Christina Greer
  • Translation Collaborator Jane Rosenthal
  • Animator Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Joseph Isaac
  • See more