Teotl was a key religious concept of the Nahuas. Did it refer to a “god”, a source of energy or a being from the afterlife? Dr Agnieszka Brylak from the UW Faculty of Modern Languages will try to find the answer to this question during the project “The concept of teotl: a complex approach to the principal religious category of pre-Hispanic Central Mexico”, financed with the ERC Starting Grant.

Dr Agnieszka Brylak will conduct the project “The concept of teotl: a complex approach to the principal religious category of pre-Hispanic Central Mexico”. This is the first independent grant given by the European Research Council to a researcher from the UW Faculty of Modern Languages.


Various meanings

The main goal of the project is to unfold the notions of the pre-Hispanic Nahua principal religious category teotl by analysing its four crucial aspects. The first one concerns the revision and deconstruction of the “Aztec pantheon”, a complex of deities, for centuries framed in terms of Graeco-Roman models. The second studies teotl in relation to other religious categories. The third aspect concerns a philological analysis of terms and expressions in historical Nahuatl (as documented in 16th–18th century sources) which contain the stem teo. The fourth focuses on how the notion of teotl was appropriated by the colonial Christian discourse in Nahuatl.


“Colonised in the early 16th century, the Nahuas, commonly known as Aztecs, formed one of the best documented Native American cultures. The researchers interested in the topic have published many papers devoted to the Aztec “mythology” or “religion” but, paradoxically, we still don’t fully understand teotl, the key religious category of the Nahuas. Hence the question: What is teotl? The most common answer is “god”. However, when one studies historic sources, this explanation turns out to be incomplete. The term teotl is also used to describe rulers, women who died in their first childbirth, animal avatars, or even Spaniards and their horses. This is one of the fundamental questions which can be raised in my field of research and it inspired my project,” Dr Agnieszka Brylak from the Faculty of Modern Languages says.


Holistic approach

The project will be carried out by Dr Agnieszka Brylak together with an interdisciplinary group of researchers: historians, cultural anthropologists, philologists, experts in religious studies and in Mesoamerican graphic communication systems, and archaeologists. The team will study alphabetic colonial texts of different genres, pre-Hispanic indigenous books, and iconographic data from archaeological artefacts found in Central Mexico.


To answer their research questions, the scholars from TEOTL team will use a novel combination of research methods at the intersection of traditional (ethnohistory, religious studies, art history, philology, linguistics) and digital humanities (network analysis in historical sciences).


The results of the project will enable the researchers to better understand the system of beliefs of the pre-Hispanic Nahuas. There is also a plan to create a publicly accessible online database containing information on pre-Hispanic otherworldly beings referred to by the term teotl, including their names, titles and attributes.


Dr Agnieszka Brylak received for her project “The concept of teotl: a complex approach to the principal religious category of pre-Hispanic Central Mexico” the ERC Starting Grant in the amount of €1,499,925.


The project will be carried out for five years, starting from October 2023.

Dr Agnieszka Brylak works at the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies of the UW Faculty of Modern Languages. She is also a coordinator of the CEM+ (Centro de Estudios Mesoamericanos +) research team. Through the years 2013–2017 she was involved in the ERC Starting Grant project “Europe and America in Contact: A Multidisciplinary Study of Cross-Cultural Transfer in the New World Across Time” at the UW Faculty of “Artes Liberales”. She received the Scholarship of the Minister of Science and Higher Education for outstanding young scientists (2018–2021).


Dr Brylak was awarded research fellowships at the University of Seville (2014), The John Carter Brown Library (Brown University, 2016) and Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection (Harvard University, 2017).