Huehueteotl, the God of Fire of The Earth

Huehuetéotl is a sculpture of the old god of fire represented in the manner shown in the Central Highlands, where it originated. In the head it sustains a brazier that takes carved designs in crosses with a circle inside it, alluding to the four directions of the universe.

Huehueteotl, the God of Fire of The Earth
Sculpture of the God Huehuetéotl. Image: INAH

Mexico has been defined as a land of volcanoes, and indeed, the country is inscribed in the so-called "belt of fire" of our planet. In pre-Hispanic times, when the first ceremonial centers arose, at the end of the Preclassic horizon (600 years before our era), the proximity of active volcanoes to these localities, whose most significant example is Cuicuilco, propitiated one of the oldest religious cults in the Mesoamerican territory: that of Huehuetéotl, the old god of fire. His beneficial and destructive action was associated, in its beginnings, with the sacralization of volcanoes characterized by heat, fire, and ultimately, the destructive force of nature.

During the archaeological excavations that took place in the first decades of the twentieth century in the Cuicuilco pyramid, with a circular floor plan and bodies that resemble truncated cones, two peculiar images of the god Huehuetéotl were discovered. In them, we recognize an old man, seated with his legs crossed and in a stooped position, as corresponds to senile age; holding on his back a large container where we know embers were placed.

Cuicuilco was the largest ceremonial center of its time, covering a large area south of the Basin of Mexico where today stands the Loreto and Peña Pobre paper mill (which today has been transformed into a commercial center) and the Villa Olimpica housing complex.

From the archaeological studies carried out during the construction of this apartment complex, we know that Cuicuilco was one of the earliest cities of ancient Mexico, with an urban layout characterized by roads, specific areas for artisan work, and spaces dedicated to living quarters.

The most prominent building was the great circular pyramid mentioned above. It is commonly accepted that this ceremonial and residential center owed its wealth to the abundance of natural resources it had, especially agricultural production, which was very abundant due to the remarkable fertility of this southern section of the lake basin, where we even know there were chinampas.

Huehuetéotl. Preclassic from the Central Highlands. Provenance Cuicuilco, Mexico City. Basalt.
Huehuetéotl. Preclassic from the Central Highlands. Provenance Cuicuilco, Mexico City. Basalt. Image: INAH

For several centuries, volcanic energy characterized the Ajusco mountain range, and in Cuicuilco times, the Xitle volcano, like today's Popocatepetl, showed humans that the earth is in constant activity. Even today, after so much time, its volcanic cone is still visible, which in times of eruption must have been much more prominent.

If we consider that at that time it emitted fiery ashes, large fumaroles, and finally the boiling lava, we can understand why those who lived there symbolized the earth as the old man and the volcanic cone as the vessel on his back, where heat and fire are concentrated.

Huehuetéotl. Teotihuacan. Basalt.
Huehuetéotl. Teotihuacan. Basalt. Image: INAH

At a time close to the birth of Christ, one of the most tremendous ecological catastrophes of which we are aware occurred in the Ajusco mountain range; The Xitle volcano erupted, and thousands of tons of boiling lava spilled over the entire area, destroying its path the forests, the fields, the section of the lake that reached there, and the thriving city of Cuicuilco, leaving only the upper part of the pyramid as an island surrounded by an immense sea of black rock.

The inhabitants of the destroyed city fled to other regions of the basin where they were in less danger, settling mainly in the valley of Teotihuacan, contributing to the development and flourishing of this city. Naturally, the memory of the strength and power of the volcanoes was never erased from their memory, so the veneration of Huehuetéotl continued with great vigor, becoming one of the most important religious cults of this city of the gods.

Huehueteotl found in the Templo Mayor, shares iconographic elements of Tlalaloc.
Huehueteotl found in the Templo Mayor, shares iconographic elements of Tlalaloc, Coyolxauhqui and Tlaltecuhtli. Image: INAH

The image of Huehuetéotl continued to be the same, the bent old man, with the vessel on his back, only now the sculptors carved it in gray rocks. As it becomes official worship, its iconography is standardized: the face is covered with wrinkles, and only two fangs are visible, indicating that he has lost his incisors due to his advanced age; the walls of the vessel have an engraving in symbolic language, composed of four parallel bars and four diamonds with a circle inside that resemble eyes.

We realize that the religious apparatus of Teotihuacan now unifies the heat of the volcanoes with the heat of the earth that is required for the growth of plants and that is the engine of life. The four bars indicate that in the times of the flourishing of this city, the conception of the Universe as a plane with four directions, where the center is the space inhabited by Huehuetéotl, has already been confirmed.

Anthropomorphic standard-bearer sculpture, featuring an individual adorned with elements associated with Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire).
Anthropomorphic standard-bearer sculpture, featuring an individual adorned with elements associated with Xiuhtecuhtli (god of fire). He is standing with his right arm bent upwards, while the left arm and hand are close to the trunk (hands cupped) and legs slightly apart. Attired with Xiuhuitzolli headdress, circular earrings, and earflaps, dressed in a vest, maxtlatl, and sandals with straps. Remains of red pigment are preserved. Image: INAH

The heat of the day, which we can appreciate when the sun is at the zenith and the sky has a beautiful blue hue, for the Indians took the name of the god Xiutecuhtli, the lord of turquoise (because it has this color). For the Toltecs, and especially for the Mexica, it will be associated with the old god Huehuetéotl. For this reason, one of the invocations of the Sun as a young god of war, will be integrated to Xiutecuhtli and therefore to Huehuetéotl, in such a way that the ancestral deified volcano, for the inhabitants of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, will be like a young and brave conqueror of the Universe.

It is certain that since the times of Teotihuacan (100 B.C. - 650 A.D.) the cult of the feminine force of nature, identified as the earth itself, was consolidated. We preserve a very ancient myth bequeathed to us by the Mexica, in which it is mentioned that the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca took the goddess Tlaltecuhtli, who walked on the universal water, and pulled her each with such force that they tore her apart, thus forming with one half the sky and with the other half the earth, and from her body, head, skin and hair the mountains, valleys, and vegetation were formed.

Xiutecuhtli from Coxcatlán, Tehuacán, Puebla. Basalt.
Anthropomorphic sculpture of a standard-bearer, representing an adult male personage. He is erect with his arm bent forward with his hand in a holding position. He wears short hair and has a perforation in the chest with a plug, and some perforations in the head to place hair. He is dressed in earflaps, maxtlatl, sandals, necklace, cloak, and apron. It presents remains of black, red, and blue pigment.

For the Mexica, mountains, and volcanoes could have a feminine or masculine character, depending on their participation in the cosmogonic stories. In the feast of the month Tepeílhuitl, they elaborated figures of these volcanoes and mountains with seed paste to worship them. At that time, the Popocatepetl volcano, of masculine character, constantly showed its activity, hence its name "smoking mountain", who as a sentinel, together with the Iztaccihuatl, a feminine volcano, characterized the Mexican landscape, and at a time they could be appreciated daily when the valley of Mexico was "the most transparent region".

Source: Correo del Maestro. Núm. 27, Author: Felipe Solis