When you think of fierce, strong, noble animals…ones that would be a perfect symbol of the supreme power wielded by an all-mighty Aztec god, you would probably consider a vicious bear, dangerous alligator, or regal jaguar. But for Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of the sun and war, the most powerful god in the Aztec mythology, the fiercest, mightiest spirit animal he could attach to was a surprise contender…the diminutive hummingbird.
The name of the powerful Aztec god that lorded over war, gold, the Sun and battle was named Huitzilopochtli, which literally translates to “hummingbird of the south.” He was the patron of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec culture. Although he was the supreme deity and no other god equaled him in power and prestige, he was said to be the brother of the other great gods of Mesoamerica, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god.
The great Aztec god was often shown in images as either the personification of an actual hummingbird or as a mighty warrior garbed in a helmet of hummingbird feathers. Archeologists have discovered paintings and drawings showing Huitzilopochtli, as well as carvings and statues.
The Aztec people believed that Huitzilopochtli demanded to be honored with a blood sacrifice. The Aztec high priests would wear sacred cloaks made entirely of hummingbird skins…and estimated 8,000 tiny hummingbirds would be needed to make one adult-sized cloak. According to accounts, the cloaks were beautiful, shimmering, iridescent marvels. The priests wore them when they offered their sacrifices to the Huitzilopochtli. They cut the still-beating heart from a captive enemy or sacrificial slave and presented it to the hummingbird god to ensure victory in battle.
The Aztecs believed that hummingbirds were the reincarnation of fallen warriors. When a warrior was killed in battle, he would return to Earth as a hummingbird, which the Aztec people referred to as ‘dart hurlers.’
Don’t let the small size fool you. Hummingbirds are one of the most aggressive of all the bird species. Fighting happens frequently among hummingbirds, even one of the same species. They fight over territory, food sources, and, of course, female hummingbirds. Male hummingbirds, experts tell us, fight more often over territory. Female hummingbirds fight to defend their nests. During battle, the diminutive hummingbird will stab its opponent with its dagger-like beak and claw at him using its razor-sharp talons.
Hummingbirds are exceptional flyers and they use those skills to help them gain the upper hand in battle. Hummingbirds, unlike other species of birds, can hover in place and even fly backward. One tactic they use is to fly high in the air and then dive, beak first, at their enemy. The sleek, aerodynamic hummingbird can reach up to 60 miles per hour in a dive.
The Aztecs must have spent long hours observing the aggressive, violent nature of the hummingbirds. They noticed that many of the war-like qualities the associated with their mighty god, Huitzilopochtli, could also be seen in the tiny, jewel-like hummingbird. Once we understand just how fierce the little hummingbird can be, it is easy to see why it came to be associated with the greatest of all the Aztec deities.