The Major Aztec Gods, Part I

David Bowles
7 min readJan 25, 2020

Because of the work I do sharing information about Nahuatl lexicon and grammar, I (very occasionally) get into debates on Twitter about the niceties of this word or that. A recent disagreement about the meaning of “Tlaloc” got me thinking.

I should write about the origins of the names of major Aztec gods.

Now here we are. If you’ll strap yourselves in, we’ll ride up and down the World Tree, taking a look at major Mesoamerican deities from a linguistic perspective.

It makes sense to go in alphabetical. But there are no major gods in the As, so let’s skip to the Cs.

Centzonhuītznāhuah. The Four Hundred Gods of the South, representing the stars of the southern hemisphere. How does that name break down?

“Centzon-” is the number “four hundred” (literally “one bunch of hair”), metaphorically “uncountable.”

To understand the other half of the name, you need to know that “huitznāhuac” means “beside the thorns” (from “huitztli.” thorn, and “nāhuac,” beside).

This was also a word for “South” in Classical Nahuatl. A “huitztnāhuatl” = “Southerner.” Its plural is “huitznāhuah.”

So the gods were literally the “Four Hundred Southerners.”

Now, these bros had one older sister.


Her name consists of “coyolli” (bells made from shells) and the verb “[mo]xāhua” (to have one’s face painted), which has “xauhqui” as one participle (a form that can function as a noun/adjective).

So “[she] who has bells painted on [her] face.”

The Coyolxāuhqui. From Wikipedia.

She led her brothers in a rebellion against their mother, Cōātlīcue. This name is more properly written as two words: Cōātl īcue.

“Cōātl” means snake in this case, and “īcue” is a possessed form of “cuēitl” (skirt) — the possessive prefix “ī-” means “its/her/his” (or singular their).

Tricky. This is just the way possession works in Nahuatl grammar. You just have to add that prefix. But then you must read it correctly. The name isn’t “her skirt of snakes” but “snake skirt” (literally “snake its-skirt,” which can be read “snakes their-skirt”).

David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.