The Aztec skull is a powerful and multifaceted symbol that has been an integral part of Aztec iconography and ideology for centuries. With roots that extend deep into Mesoamerican history, the skull held diverse meanings for the Aztecs, being associated with death, sacrifice, rebirth and even the divine.
The Aztec Skull as a Symbol of Death
The most overt meaning of the Aztec skull is as a representation of death. The Aztecs used stylized skulls and skeletal imagery extensively in their art and architecture to symbolize death and the transitory nature of life. Skulls were powerful reminders of human mortality and the inevitable end that faces us all.
The Aztecs viewed death as an integral, natural part of the cosmic order. As a fierce warrior culture centered around human sacrifice, they also saw death in a more positive light – as necessary for the sustenance of the gods and cosmos. The skull was therefore a multidimensional symbol for the Mexica people, representing the fine line between life and death that the Aztecs recognized as part of the eternal balance of the universe.
Tzompantli Skull Racks
Some of the most striking displays of Aztec skull imagery can be seen in the great tzompantli, or skull racks that were erected to display the crania of sacrificial victims. Rows upon rows of skulls were mounted on vertical wooden racks in front of Aztec temples and pyramids as chilling warning symbols and proof of their military might. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of victims met their end atop these skull racks.
The tzompantli skull racks sent a strong message about the power of the Aztec empire. They showed that the Aztecs could summon death at will through ritual human sacrifice. The skull became synonymous with the awe-inspiring yet terrifying power of the gods that demanded blood and life. Even after death, the skulls of sacrificial victims continued to serve the Aztec cosmic order.
Skulls in Aztec Art
Beyond the tzompantli, skulls frequently appeared in Aztec artwork, conveying diverse layers of meaning. Historian Davíd Carrasco notes that “for the Mexicas death was the primary point of departure for the creative orientation and structure of life.” Aztec art was therefore saturated with skull imagery as part of its profound connection to death.
In Aztec paintings, carvings and codices, skulls and skeletons depict the god of death Mictlantecuhtli and other deities of the underworld. Temporary or portable skull shrines were sometimes created from actual human skulls encrusted with sacred stones and employed in rituals. Stylized skulls appear in Aztec jewelry, shields, architecture and across art forms as both symbolic warnings and objects of veneration.
Masks crafted from human skulls were also worn by Aztec priests and even the revered ruler Moctezuma II to symbolize their sacred roles as guardians of the cosmic order. According to Spanish chronicler Diego Durán, Moctezuma wore a skull mask to remind him of “the forebears and ancestors from whom he descended.” Donning the skull mask allowed Moctezuma and other Aztec elites to metaphorically connect with the realm of their ancestors and the forces of death they commanded.
The Skull as a Symbol of Rebirth
While representing death, darkness and ritual power, the Aztec skull was also paradoxically associated with renewal and rebirth. This stems from the Aztec belief in the cyclical nature of time and human existence.
The Aztecs believed that life, death and rebirth were part of an endless cosmic cycle. The idea was illustrated in the deity pair of Mictlantecuhtli, god of death, and his partner Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld. Together, they symbolized the endless dance between life and death that underpinned the Aztec worldview. The skull was a vivid artistic demonstration of these core beliefs.
Xolotl and the Ritual Ballgame
The Aztec god most closely linked to the skull, rebirth and the underworld was Xolotl. He was the canine deity of lightning and death who guided the sun through the underworld each night. According to myth, the gods created mankind by sacrificing themselves and spilling their blood over the bones of the previous creation. Xolotl descended into the underworld to retrieve these original bones or skulls so that new life could flourish.
Xolotl was also associated with the ritual Aztec ballgame that held deep spiritual significance. The ballcourt symbolized the entrance to the underworld, and the game itself represented the cosmic battle between life and death. Xolotl was said to act as a ballplayer who took the sun into the underworld each night and returned it each dawn for its daily rebirth.
The associations between the Aztec skull, the underworld and the ritual ballgame underscore how skulls symbolized the concept of cosmic rebirth. Death was not final, but part of an endless continuum that connected the Aztecs to their honored ancestors and the cycles of the cosmos.
The Skull as a Divine Symbol
For the Aztecs, the skull did not just represent human death, but the pivotal role that death played in their complex theology. Aztec gods such as Mictlantecuhtli were frequently depicted as skeletal figures or wearing clothing adorned with skulls. The skull was therefore a symbol of divine forces that sustained the Aztec world through death and sacrifice.
At the ancient city of Teotihuacan, monumental skull and skeletal imagery appears on temples, pyramids and artifacts left by the mysterious civilization that predated the Aztecs. The striking 2,000-year-old Teotihuacan murals of spiders, owls and skeletons point to a “culture of death” that resonated with the Aztecs when they discovered the abandoned city. These earlier depictions of skeletons and skulls shaped the Aztec view of the symbol as sacred and spiritually potent.
Deities and Shrines
The Aztecs incorporated Teotihuacan’s skeletal motifs into their own artwork and religious practice. Gods like Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl were portrayed with fleshless skulls and bones to signify their divine dominion over death and the underworld. Actual skulls played a prominent role in Aztec religious rituals at shrines and temples.
Real human skulls coated in sacred stones and seeds were used as magical objects for divination. Crystals, obsidian and jade were inserted into eye sockets and between jaws to transform the skulls into mystical portals. Skulls symbolized sacred powers that could bridge the mundane and spiritual worlds. The strategic placement of skulls in shrines, carvings and art underscored their potent supernatural symbolism for the Aztecs.
The Enduring Legacy of the Aztec Skull
After the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s, campaigns to stamp out indigenous religious practices saw the destruction of many artifacts and images related to skull worship. However, the potent legacy of the Aztec skull has endured throughout Mexican history to the modern day.
Day of the Dead
The vibrant Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, traces its roots to Aztec rituals honoring the dead. During the holiday, stylized candied skulls are sold to symbolize death and to honor departed loved ones. These small skull amulets echo the imagery of skulls that were so central to Mexico’s ancient civilizations.
Another iconic death-related image from Mexican folk culture is the elegant skeletal figure known as La Catrina. Created by artist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s, Catrina is depicted as a well-dressed female skeleton wearing an extravagant hat. She has become a beloved national symbol of death in Mexico.
Catrina originated from Aztec depictions of deities and figures related to death such as Mictecacihuatl. Guadalupe Posada’s satirical Catrina drawings helped integrate these indigenous symbols into the identity of modern Mexico. The elegant skeleton is celebrated during Day of the Dead and represents the Aztec legacy of honoring death as part of the finite cycle of life.
Aztec Imagery in Mexican Culture
Beyond La Catrina, indigenous Aztec symbols remain widespread in Mexican visual culture. Images of skulls, skeletons and stylised designs taken from Aztec artwork and architecture are popular in Mexican handicrafts, clothing, tattoos, graphic art and celebrations of Mexicanidad or cultural identity.
These contemporary depictions draw an ancestral line back to the Aztec empire and its profound reverence for the skull as a sacred symbol of death and rebirth. The skull remains an iconic part of Mexican national identity.
The Aztec skull with its fixed grin continues to fascinate with its complex symbolism. For the Aztec civilization, the skull encapsulated core beliefs about the cosmic forces of life and death. It vividly represented human mortality and inevitable fate, while also paradoxically signaling concepts of resurrection, renewal and the timeless legacy of venerated ancestors.
Beneath its macabre exterior, the Aztec skull was a profoundly meaningful tool for contemplating the endless dance between opposites that the Aztecs saw as the essence of existence. Five hundred years after the collapse of their empire, the Aztec skull still glows with spiritual power and magic as an enduring emblem of Mexico’s indigenous heritage.