The Purepecha: History, Religion & Gods

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

There were many tribes found in pre-colonial Mexico, but none quite so distinctive as the innovative Purepecha. In this lesson you will learn more about what makes the history and religion of the Purepecha so important to Mexican history.

The Purepecha

Inside modern day Mexico can still be found Mexicans of Purepechan descent, whose culture is distinctive from other groups inside Mexico. Populated mainly in the state of Michoacán, their native home land, the Purepechan tribe has a religion and history that is different from their more well known Aztec brethren. Among the people of Mexico, the Purepechans and their magnificent artwork contributes greatly to the spirit of the country and the fabric of what makes Mexico what it is.

Tarascan and Aztec Empires Pre-Colonial


Before the arrival of the Spanish in Central America in the early 1500s, the Tarascans also known as the Purepecha tribe thrived, in the area of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Pre-colonial Mexican tribes included the mighty Aztecs; however, the Purepecha emerged unconquered as a valuable trade partner.

In the 1470s, the Purepecha and the Aztecs did battle in a clash for expansion and raw materials like gold and silver. Despite the Aztec's fierceness in combat the Purepecha defeated the Aztec's handily, and not only kept their lands but were able to also annex Aztec territory further into Tenochtitlan.

The Purepechas maintained their own language and culture that was distinctive from their neighbors. Their language mirrored the Quechua language of the Incas, denoting that the Purepecha may have had South American origins and migrated to Central America early on in their history. Also distinctive among the Purepecha was their artwork which utilized bronze and copper, and may explain why their trade with other early Mexican tribes was especially important.

The Purepecha also had a diversified economy and society where government advisors, warriors, and craftsmen whose jewelry of silver and gold also enhanced their trade skills all pushed the tribe to a place of importance among their counterparts. Nevertheless, regardless of their immense power and skills the Purepeche would face the same unfortunate fate as their Aztec neighbors with the coming of the Spanish.

Although the Aztecs faced immediate exploitation at the hands of the Spanish starting around 1518, the Purepecha weren't under Spanish subjugation until 1530. The Aztecs sent several calls for help to the Purepecha that were ignored, and relied on their fishing industry to survive while their neighbors to the North suffered from disease and enslavement.

The Aztec's plight under the Spanish allowed the Purepecha to prepare for the coming of colonial rule. The Purepechas had things the Aztecs didn't like bronze weaponry and the towering fortress of Acambaro on high ground above the valley below. Instead of complete and total subjugation like among the Spanish with the Aztec empire, the Purepechas were allowed to keep their nation as more of a vassal state who paid their patron Spain for the right to exist.


Like their northern counterparts, the Purepechan religion relied on human sacrifice to their many gods and goddesses as a means to reap blessings and favor and to demonstrate devotion. The Purepechan religion includes a realm for the sky, the Earth, and an afterlife for the dead down below. Each realm was controlled by three deities whom were held above lesser deities inside the religion.

Traditional Purepecha Costumes

Priests of the religion were arranged in a hierarchy with a high priest supported by lower priests who all wore tobacco gourds to mark their station in the society as religious leaders. The holy place inside of the Purepechan Empire was along the Pátzcuaro basin, and pyramids were erected for all of the major deities at Tzintzúntzan and Ihuátzio.

Purepechan Priests

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