Gilgamesh, Hercules, Aeneas, and Lancelot are instantly recognized as mythological heroes in the West, evoking visions of Persian monsters, ghastly labors, and the founding and glorification of cities, but the name Quetzalcoatl is as mysterious as its spelling. Even those who have come across his name when learning about the history of Mesoamerica - particularly the Aztec and the god’s role in the Spanish conquest of their empire - are often unaware that the Mesoamerican deity has tales that equal any of those in the repertoire of the mythological figures mentioned above, and the tale of his transmission into modern times is no less fascinating.
As archaeologists quickly learned, there are numerous temples dedicated to gods all across Mesoamerica, from the Olmec and Toltec, to the Aztec and Maya. Furthermore, thousands of people still gather in the ruins of Mesoamerican cities, even as researchers learn more about the civilizations that continue to generate interest among modern societies.
Gods and myths reflect the societies that created them. The lustrous Garden of Eden was dreamed up by those for whom such verdant plenty could only be magical when compared with their usually arid environment. Peoples who endured harsh winters sang of eternal hearth fires and those who were threatened by dangerous animals told stories of humans who could tame them. Of course, these deities also often reflected the nuanced difficulties their creators experienced in their daily lives, and this is the case with the Aztec god Tlaloc. As the great scholar of Mesoamerican history and religion Kay Almere Read put it, “Rain and water deities constitute perhaps the largest, one of the oldest, most pervasive and complex group of gods and goddesses in Mesoamerica”. The Valley of Mexico is the central elevated basin that contains Mexico City at its heart today. Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, the Valley’s lowest point is actually some 2200 meters above sea level and just like the plains of Mesopotamia or the Nile Delta, it is one of humanity’s great birthplaces of civilization. Inhabited for over 12,000 years, it was the home to such creative cultures as the Teotihuacan, the Toltec, and the Aztec. These cultures built vast empires and colored them with sophisticated art and architecture, which is invaluable for scholars who study the groups today, and symbols of Tlaloc have been pervasive across their ruins.
One of the reasons for the prevalence of Tlaloc in the Valley of Mexico is that in the semi-arid climate, water was a powerful daily symbol. Although there were no naturally occurring water connections to the sea, the high altitude of the mountains and volcanoes that surrounded it caught the rain water well and formed five important lakes: Xochimilco, Xaltocan, Zumpango, Chalco, and Texcoco. As the largest, Texcoco was where the Aztecs eventually built their capital city Tenochtitlan. Since this was not a desert culture, their god Tlaloc was not just a reflection of an opposite extreme they desired; instead, he was a complex god that reflected the duality of water as both a boon and a force for destruction. From his home in Tlalocan, Tlaloc was able to send good and bad waters to the people of the Valley of Mexico and beyond. He was the lord of the chthonic powers of Mexico even as far south as the Maya, who called him Chaac and connected him with warfare and agriculture much the same way the Aztec did.
The Aztec tell the story of Tlaloc blessing their rise to regional dominance by sending a famine to the Toltec, and his duality of good waters vs. bad waters was a product of the largely two-season system in Mexico. Tlaloc: The History of the Aztec God of Rain and Giver of Life examines the origins of the deity and his place in the pantheon of gods.