QUERY: Ometeotl

John Schwaller's picture

Ian Mursell  <ian@mexicolore.co.uk> Asked that I post this to the list


Hello listeros,

In our workshops on the Mexica/Aztecs with young students in schools around England we have for a good number of years referred to the mysterious Ometeotl, a dual male/female creator deity ‘right at the top’.  We’ve been aware for some time, however, that the very existence of Ometeotl is in doubt, so recently I uploaded a short introductory article on the subject to the Mexicolore website for teachers and students.  It has already received some comments.  Here’s the link –



I’ve tried to give a balanced overview of the arguments for and against.  We would be grateful to know if we’re ‘out of sync’ here with current thinking, and generally what others think about what seems to be a rather vexed question.

Thanks for any contributions to this debate…

All best,




Ian Mursell

Mexicolore, London

Categories: Query

From: Magnus Pharao Hansen

Dear Ian,

I had in fact read your blog post on Ometeotl and was preparing my own in response, but I may as well take the chance to reply here.

First, I have a comment to the initial paragraph of the blogpost: Mursell writes that the skepticism towards Ometeotl is particularly widespread among Chicanos. This is incorrect in my experience. I currently study Chicano neo-aztec religious practice, and there is almost unanimous acceptance of Leon-Portilla’s idea, and almost all Chicano neo-aztec rituals include a dedication to precisely Ometeotl. There is however one group of Mexica identifying Chicanos who have recently publicly doubted whether Ometeotl is a genuine Aztec deity: this is the group Yankwik Mexikayotl, who are working to use sound and critical scholarship to reconstruct a new form of Aztec religious practice. Mursell links to a piece on the group’s blog written by Kurly Tlapoyawa, who indeed does seem to accept Haly’s argument that Ometeotl is likely to be a fiction. It seems to be members of this group who are replying to the blog post on mexicolore. I happen to collaborate with Tlapoyawa and some of the group’s main members and they sometimes use me to get critical views of their religious practices (although I am not part of the movement, nor practice Aztec religion as they do), and I have to say that it was I who initially introduced Haly’s 1992 article to the groups Facebook forum in 2014, suggesting that they might want to tone down the Ometeotl part of their worship. While Kurly Tlapoyawa, one of the main intellectuals in the movement seem to have accepted Haly’s argument, other protagonists in the group continue to think of Ometeotl as an important deity. So in short, it is not correct that doubt of Ometeotl is widespread among Chicanos, and at least in one prominent case where they do doubt the deity, I, had something to do with introducing the skepticism.

Now, since I may be at fault for introducing doubt about Ometeotl into the Mexicayotl movement, I should probably note my own reasons for doubting the existence, or at least the significance, of this proposed deity.

1. Hunab Ku - the main corresponding deity in another mesoamerican religion is almost certainly an introduction by Christian missionaries meant to ease the maya into accepting monotheism. Even Leon Portilla accepts in his most recent work on Ometeotl that Hunab Ku is probably not a genuine Maya religious figure, and William Hanks, to my mind shows conclusively that the concept was likely introduced by missionaries. This means that the parallel to other mesoamerican religions is tenuous at best, and also suggests that we should be extremely careful in approaching similar figures in the Aztec tradition.

2. I do not trust León-Portilla's or Garibay's translations of religious concepts (see e.g. Payàs, G. (2004). Translation in historiography: The Garibay/León-Portilla complex and the making of a pre-hispanic past. Meta: Journal des Traducteurs/Meta: Translators' Journal, 49(3), 544-561). Garibay and León Portilla have been instrumental in promoting interest in Aztec language, religion and ethos. But from the outset they have done so within a particular intellectual program based in Mexican nationalism and a kind of cultural apologetics. Part of this has been to make a representation of Aztec thought that is more palatable to a European tradition - including suggesting that Aztec intellectuals were moving away from human sacrifice and towards monotheism. I keep this in mind when I read León Portilla's arguments about Ometeotl. Furthermore several of his arguments are so lacking in rigour that to my mind it undermines the credibility of the entire argument - for example that the absence of references to the deity is because it was conceived as abstract and undepictable is spurious, and so is the claim that the use of diphrasisms or gender paralellism should be indirect references to Ometeotl. As Levi-Strauss has shown, dual organization of concepts is almost a semiotic imperative, and they are found to varying degrees in all cultures, to me there is little reason to consider that Aztecs or Mesoamericans were more dualistic than other of the world's peoples.

3. There are very few mentions of Ometeotl of any significance in the sources. Several examples claimed by León-Portilla to be significant mentions might just as well be mentions or epithets of other deities, e.g. the bonelords of Mictlan as suggested by Haly, or a squash-maguey deity. Certainly the total absence of Ometeotl in descriptions Aztec ritual life speaks strongly against the idea that this deity should be as central to Aztec religion as Leon-Portilla suggests. Certainly I think Haly is completely right in suggesting that bones and not duality is the central element in the Aztec view of life and vitality.

4. The creator couple of course exists as a general Mesoamerican concept, but the creator couple is not Ometeotl. The Aztec creator couple is named in several myths - but Ometeotl is not mentioned in those myths. Furthermore the idea that Aztec cosmology included the notion of a layered universe has recently been challenged by Nielsen and Reunert (2009), who demonstrates that the layered model with the creator couple on top is likely an introduction from rennaissance Europe. [Nielsen, J., & Reunert, T. S. (2009). Dante's heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe. Antiquity, 83(320), 399-413.]

So these are my thoughts on the subject. I do not exclude the possibility that there was an Ometeotl in Aztec religion, but I think it would have been a minor esoteric deity (and I agree with Boas that esoteric concepts are developments of exoteric ones, not the other way round) and not a major organizing principle.

Magnus Pharao Hansen

Piyali, Ian, Magnus,
I felt the need to chime in on this discussion as a "Chicano" (I use the term as a political identifier not as a racial, ethnic or nationalist term. I do, however, regard Chicanos as Indigenous people to the Southwestern U.S.).

Ian, I have to agree with Magnus that your post, pulling from Curly Tlapoyawa, is merely one opinion and not the general opinion of those Chicana/os that have an opinion on the matter (Not all Chicanos participate in Danza Azteca from which much of this thought originates). There seems to be an movement of some Chicanos participating in Danza away from Christian/Catholic religious dogma and therefore a reimagining of the divine. A very common phrase in danza (especially in Mexico) is "El es Dios". It could be argued that this is a poor spanish translation of Ometeotl for the verb "to be" is imbedded in Nahuatl and Ometeotl could then be translated as "S/he is god." Because Spanish is gendered in a rigid way with a tendency toward the masculine, then "He is God" (El es Dios) is the result. A Chicano movement away from the Spanish expression to a gender neutral and away from patriarchy results in the use of Ometeotl with frequency. Still, it begs the question, where does the term come from. León-Portilla (LP) uses the word frequently. In my studies of the codices and manuscripts of the sixteenth century, I have done my best to find any reference at all to the term Ometeotl with little success.

LP, in his book Filosofia Nahuatl, (p 149) translates from Nahuatl a passage from Cantares Mexicanos (folio 35, v.):
Can ompa nonyaz huiya can ompa no[n]yaz aya ome i[h]cac yohui yohui ye[h]huan Dios huiya a[hmach temochi[y]a ompa ximo[hu]aya[n] a[h]ilhtl i[h]tec i zannican i ye[h]hua yece[n] ximo[hu]aya[n] in tl[altic]p[a]c.

LP's translation reads: ¿A dónde iré? ¿a dónde iré? El camino del dios de la dualidad. ¿Por ventura es tu casa en el lugar de los descarnados? ¿acaso en el interior de cielo?, ¿o solamente aquí en la tierra es el lugar de los descarnados?
LP goes on to say "Pretenden saber los tlamaninime cuál es el camino que lleva a Ometéotl (dios de la dualidad), como aquí explícitament es designado." It is at this point that LP is pulling from old texts to assert the idea of Ometeotl. But that is not what the passage says.

It could be argued that the passaged as pulled from Cantares Mexicanos, which was penned about 100 years after the arrival of the invaders could thusly be interpreted. The question is, does “dios” mean the same thing as “teotl”? Originally, no. But after 100 years of colonization and colonialism, teotl came to mean dios, which came to mean teotl i.e., the idea of the sacred in a singular loan word. However, there is a good chance that the Nahua concept of the divine was also assigned to the new term “dios” so the idea of duality, both a masculine and feminine nature, could have also been ascribed to the newly adopted loan word “dios”. Was León-Portilla, then, justified in translating, "ome i[h]cac yohui yohui ye[h]huan Dios", as "El camino del dios de la dualidad"? I invite others, at this point, to translate the passage and comment.

From an Indigenous point of view, ideas, like everything else in the universe, are alive. Because ideas are alive they are, like everything else, in flux, constantly changing. Ometeotl may be a relatively "new" term but it is a term that is very much alive in the psyche of the Chicano and some Mexicanos who refer to themselves as Mexica. The term and idea are ever changing and growing to accommodate a need for those that have been colonized for 500 years.