The Creation of Light
It is told that when yet all was in darkness, when yet no sun had shone and no dawn had broken – it is said – the gods gathered themselves together, they took counsel, there at Teotihuacan. They spoke, they said among themselves:
“Come hither, O gods! Who will carry the burden? Who will take upon himself to be the sun, to bring in the dawn?”
Two gods stepped forward; they both volunteered. One was ugly with pimples, dressed poorly. The other was handsome, elegant; dressed in the finest robes.
The pimply-faced god threw himself into the flames of the pyre which had been lighted by the gods. He rose into the heavens as a bright sun.
The elegant god hesitated; the other gods goaded him on. Reluctantly he threw himself into the fire, and also rose to the heavens.
But with two suns, there was no rest, there was no dark. The gods ordered that a rabbit be caught. The rabbit was thrown up into the heavens, and came to rest on the face of the elegant god, thus diminishing his light. Even today when we look at the moon, we see the rabbit on his face.
The gods then performed self-sacrifice to feed the sun, to cause him to move through the heavens.
(Adapted from the Florentine Codex, Book 7)
Lessons to Aztec Young People
1. Do not sleep too long. Awaken yourself. Stay awake for important things. Do not let people think that you are lazy, someone who sleeps the whole day.
2. Be prudent in travel. Move yourself peacefully, tranquilly, and deliberately. Do not throw your feet; be purposeful in your step. Do not drag your feet, so that people will call you a fool or shameless.
3. Speak slowly and deliberately. Do not rush your words. Do not pant or squeak when you speak, or people will think you are a groaner, a growler, a squeaker. Do not cry out or they will think you uneducated. Improve your voice, soften yours words.
4. Do not fret about things that have been done. Stay away from evil. Do not stare at people; do not look directly into their faces.
5. Be careful of what you hear. Do not gossip; let what is said remain. Do not repeat idle talk, ignore it; pretend you do not understand the words. If you cannot ignore it, do not respond, do not repeat it.
6. When you are called, go instantly; do not have to be called twice. When you are called, arise quickly and go. If you are asked to do something, do it promptly, diligently. If you have to be called twice, people will think that you are lazy, negligent, or even haughty.
7. As you dress yourself, as you put on your clothes, do not dress fantastically. Do not put on gaudy clothes. At the same time do not put on old rags, dirty clothes. Be prudent in your dress.
8. Be prudent in food and drink. Do not eat too much food. Do not eat your food rapidly. Do not play with your food. Do not gulp your food like a dog, or people will think that you are foolish.
The elders say: We live as if we are on a mountain peak. On one side is a cliff, on the other side there is a cliff. Whenever you get off of the path, whenever you go astray, you will fall down and down; you plunge into the deep. You need to always act properly in all that you do, in all that you say, in all that you see, in all that you hear, and in all that you think.
(Adapted from the Florentine Codex, Book 8)
The people we know as the Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish in 1521. Franciscan missionaries arrived in the region immediately after the conquest. In fact, much of what we know about the Aztecs we owe to a few brilliant friars who studied the history and culture of the Aztecs to a degree frankly unknown for that period. It is truly remarkable that it was the Franciscans who first attempted the Christianization of the Aztecs, because many of the deepest Franciscan philosophies about the created world were not that distant from the thoughts of the Aztecs. I also need to disclose that while I learned the Aztec language in graduate school, I subsequently have worked for the Franciscan Order for nearly a dozen years. I offer for your meditation the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon written by St. Francis:
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, and the honour and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, do they belong
and no human is worthy to mention Your name.
Praised be you, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun,
who is the day, and through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour;
and bears a likeness of You, Most High one.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
And through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather,
Through whom You give sustenance to Your creatures.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister water,
who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.
Praised be You, my lord, through Brother fire,
through whom You light the night,
and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and governs us,
and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no one living can escape.
Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility.
(St. Francis, Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon)
Mexica Religion and Philosophy
Before all time, the gods created the world. They created the world four times. We live in the fifth creation of the world. This much is certain about the way the Aztecs viewed the elements of our existence. Much of their religion developed from this starting point.
First of all, the term Aztec is a misnomer. The native peoples of central Mexico at the time of the arrival of the Spanish did not call themselves the Aztecs. They called themselves the Mexica. The name Mexico itself means the place of the Mexica. More generally they were members of a larger cultural and language family that we call the Nahua, taken from the name of the language, Nahuatl. There were many groups, or tribes if you will, who spoke Nahuatl, the Mexica were among the best known and most powerful. Properly the people we call the Aztecs are the Mexica.
Mexica religion exhibited two great faces: one was the large public and institutional rituals; the other were the personal, daily, and household rituals. The imperial rituals have gained notoriety because of the extensive practice of human sacrifice. The large scale human sacrifice was both a religious and a political act. The spectacles helped to maintain Mexica power, since most of the victims were enemy warriors captured in war as well as slaves purchased for sacrifice. Yet while human sacrifice was an important feature of the ritual life of the state, there were hundreds of other religious celebrations which did not involve the death of a victim.
As I noted, the Mexica believed that the world had been created four times and that we are living in the fifth creation. Before the first creation, there was the God of Duality (Ometeotl) who embodied all of the duality of existence, male and female, light and dark, etc. From that god sprang forth the primordial couple. They turn engendered four sons, who were central to the religious thought of the Mexica. Their sons were Smoking Mirror (Tezcatlipoca), His is Flayed Our Lord (Xipe Totec), Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), and Hummingbird on the Left (Huitzilopochtli). In particular Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli were given the charge to create the world, including other deities and human beings.
Each of the four previous creations of the world, designated by the sun who ruled over them, proved to be defective and was destroyed by a catastrophe. The current age began when the gods gathered at Teotihuacan, the large ceremonial center north of modern Mexico City, built a bonfire, and two gods hurled themselves into it, becoming the sun and moon.
Once the two heavenly orbs had taken their positions in the sky, the assembled gods performed self-sacrifice, making blood offerings, thus nourishing the sun and moon and causing them to move in their courses. The gods then set to creating humanity. Quetzalcoatl was sent to recover the bones of the ancient people who had lived in the previous epochs. The god went to the underworld, and recovered the bones, after several trials. The ancient bones were then ground up and Quetzalcoatl performed self-sacrifice, sprinkling his own blood on them to give them life. From these two examples, one can see that blood sacrifice was at the core of the Mexica religious beliefs.
Blood played an important role in Mexica religious thought, not entirely dissimilar to that of the ancient Judeans. For the earliest Jews blood was a sacred substance reserved to the deity. In a vaguely similar manner, for the Mexica blood was a precious fluid, a vital fluid, closely related to the gods. Just as the gods had given their life fluid, their blood, to start the cosmos in movement and to give life to mankind, so mankind needed to propitiate the gods with their own blood. This was the heart of the Mexica concept called tlaxtlahua, payment of a debt. The offering of blood sacrifice was the repayment of a debt to the gods for the vital life force. The most common forms of blood sacrifice were personal acts of penance. Drops of blood would be given from the ear, finger, tongue, or genitals. The blood would be absorbed by a piece of paper and then burned, or the blood dropped directly onto burning coals along with incense. A logical, if extreme, outcome of this thinking regarding blood sacrifice was the practice of human sacrifice.
Public religious rituals were performed in the great sacred precinct in the heart of the city. Each neighborhood also had its own collection of temples were offerings were made, with housing for the priests of the various cults. Scattered throughout the cities one could also find smaller temples, oratories, and mini-pyramids which were sites of regular ceremonies.
The current sun, our current epoch is called the Sun of Movement (Ollin). Just as every preceding epoch ended in destruction, we know that the current sun will also end, specifically through cataclysmic earthquakes. The Mexica used a fairly sophisticated calendrical system. Rather than relying solely on a solar calendar of 365 days, the Mexica, like most of the civilizations of what is now Mexico and Central America, used a combination of a 260 day divinatory calendar and a 365 day solar calendar. The 260 day calendar, known as the tonalpohualli (day count), consisted of thirteen numbers and twenty signs which combined like two cogged wheels. At the same time the solar calendar (xiuhpohualli or year count) was very similar to ours except it had 18 months each with 20 days, followed by 5 unnamed days, to make a total of 365. So any given day had two dates, one from each calendar. Today, for example, is One Flint (from the tonalpohualli) and 6 Hueytozoztli (Great Vigil) (from the xiuhpohualli). These two calendars coincided once every 52 years. So that same combination of 1 Flint and 6 Great Vigil will not occur again until 2061. At the end of one of these major cycles the world will come to an end.
Mexica religion was focused on the propitiation of the scores of gods in the pantheon. These gods governed the natural reality. Their interaction with humans kept the world in balance, provided for the life-giving cycles of nature. Scholars have categorized the Mexica pantheon as containing four great classes of deities. In no particular order these are deities of celestial creativity or divine paternalism; deities of rain, moisture, or agriculture; deities of war, sacrifice, blood and death; and specialized deities.
Among the deities of celestial creativity we have already seen is the Lord of Duality (Ometeotl). Also of central importance as a celestial deity was Smoking Mirror (Tezcatlipoca). Smoking Mirror was a trickster god and master of the hidden. Many legends have him engaged in an eternal battle with another god, the Plumed Serpent, since the gods were brothers. Because of his importance in Mexica religious thought, he carried several epithets: “Him through whom all exists” (Ipalnemoani) and “The Near, the Surrounding” (Tloque Nahuaque), to name but two. These epithets described a deity which in the eyes of the Christian missionaries had too many similarities with their God. As a result this made him a prime target for eradication.
The Deities of rain and agriculture were critical to the sustenance of man. None is more important than, nor perhaps as ancient as, Tlaloc, the God of Rain. Tlaloc controls the clouds and high mountain peaks. He causes rain to fall and water to flow from springs. He is depicted with goggled eyes, a large open, fanged mouth, and frequently with an elephantine nose. His color is blue. Although he is the rain god, his name actually translates to something approximating “Earth-like.” He ruled an other-worldly kingdom of moisture and luxurious growth. People who died by water, drowning, or lightening, went to the realm of Tlaloc. The least attractive of the Mexica gods is He is Flayed Our Lord (Xipe Totec) one of the primordial four divine brothers. He was the god of spring and regeneration. The ceremony to honor him consisted of the sacrifice of a person who was then flayed. The skin of the sacrificial victim was then worn by the priest of the cult. The covering with the skin of another was symbolic for the regeneration that occurs to the earth with the coming of spring.
The deities of war and sacrifice were particularly unique to the Mexica. Prime among these is the Mexica tribal god, Hummingbird on the Left (Huitzilopochtli). Hummingbird told the Mexica to leave their ancestral home in Aztlan, somewhere in northwestern Mexico, and guided them on their way. The principal temple in the heart of ancient Mexico City was dedicated jointly to Hummingbird and to Tlaloc, the God of Rain.
There were two important specialized gods. The most famous was the Feathered Serpent. He was an ancient god, depicted iconographically in the region many centuries before the Common Era. He was one of the four original gods, continually embattled with Smoking Mirror. He was associated with the wind, through his alter-ego Ehecatl (Wind). He was the patron of the arts of poetry and higher learning. Many legends abound of his adventures as a hero god.
The solar calendar, the xiuhpohualli, dictated ritual celebrations for nearly every day. For example, today we are in the month of the Great Vigil. It was dedicated to celebrations linked to the Corn Goddess (Cinteotl), also known as Seven Snake (Chicome Coatl). The month began with four days of fasting, followed by ritual bloodletting by young men from their ears or shins into balls made of pine needles or grass, which were then burned. The women would clean the beaten earth floors of their homes and then pour corn gruel on newly them. They would watch as the water was absorbed and the patterns made by the gruel. On subsequent days special offerings of food, such as corn cakes in the image of the goddess, were taken to the neighborhood clan house and to the central temple of the goddess. All of these offerings were to ensure a good corn crop. They would sing this song:
Now wake up
It is our mother
You are going to leave us bereft
You are going to your home with Tlaloc
The celebrations continued throughout the 20 day month. In addition to month-long festivals, a deity supervised each day of the ritual calendar, the tonalpohualli, and was celebrated on that day. For example today, One Flint is a day to honor Huitzilopochtli, Hummingbird on the Left. He also had the whole of the ninth solar month dedicated to him. Although Huitzilopochtli was a god of fire and war, many of his celebrations involved floral offerings. On this day the various small altars to him scattered around the city, mini-pyramids, would be decorated with flower garlands.
The daily life of a Mexica commoner was filled with small rituals. Upon rising he would bless his sleeping mat and ask that evil remain far from it. There were prayers uttered upon eating, scores of prayers to help with various medical cures, and prayers used to assure that the crops would grow well.
A lovely example is this one said upon sowing corn:
Pay attention sister seed, who is sustenance. Pay attention, princess earth, for I now entrust into your hands my sister, the one who gives us, or the one who is, our sustenance. Do not bring shame upon yourself. You will not begin by grumbling. You will not ruin things by grumbling. Will it be later tomorrow, will it be later the day after tomorrow that I look upon the face, upon the top of the head of my sister? It is immediately, quickly, that she will come above the ground, that I will honor, that I will greet my older sister.
Within the home, women performed continual religious rituals. The house was swept daily, with special prayers to ensure that it was truly cleaned and remained pure for the inhabitants. Women’s work began very early in the day with grinding of corn for tortillas. There were special prayers associated with each step in the preparation of the corn, from shelling, to soaking in calcium-rich water, to the grinding, to the forming of the tortillas, and their cooking on the griddle. Many household rituals also involved small bloodletting, with paper, as noted. We believe that every household had a small altar with clay images of the gods and an incense burner.
Mexica religion did include notions of life after death, but very few people entered into one of the various afterlifes. As noted, people who died by drowning went to the afterlife of the Rain God. Warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth went to the heaven of the setting sun. Infants who died while still breastfeeding went to the Orchard of the Gods where they nursed from a milk-giving tree. None of these afterlifes had any moral connotations. A person’s destiny after death was a result of the circumstances of one’s death, not the quality of one’s life.
One of the most important features of Mexica culture, which played a large role in the religion, was philosophy. We have ample, first-hand testimony of the Spanish regarding the Mexica philosophers, the tlamatini, “those who know things.” They were deeply respected by the Christian missionaries. The missionaries, on the other hand, held the native priests in either high or low regard, with little middle ground. The philosophers were especially adept in poetry, which was used to express their deepest thoughts. Fortunately, we have two very large collections of Mexica poetry, copied down in Nahuatl in the middle of the sixteenth century. While we can see that some Christian aspects have already entered, the bulk of the works are native. One of my favorite passages from a much longer poem is this:
My heart hears a song, I cry
Already I know something of myself
We go among flowers
Already we will leave this earth
We are loaned to one another!
We will go to His house.
Put it on me a necklace of flowers.
They are in my hand,
The garland flowers.
Already we will leave this earth
We are loaned to one another!
We will go to His house.
This poem is attributed to Nezahualcoyotl the poet-king of the city of Texcoco. In it we can see the Mexica love for flowers. Flowers are symbols of the beauty and transitory nature of existence. Just as flowers bloom and then perish, so our lives bloom and we perish. But what is central to existence is the effect that we have on others, the effect of the flowers on the beholder. The sentiments are summarized in the refrain, “We are loaned to one another.”
The brief period of time that I have to share with you all is far too little to begin to understand the complexity and nuance of Mexica philosophy and religion. While it is tainted with the spectre of human sacrifice, it is also very precious, sophisticated, and elegant. The Mexica envisioned themselves as walking along a ridge with cliffs on either side. One misstep, one error in judgment, would make a person fall and die. We live a life on the slippery earth. One of our obligations as moral people is to keep the universe in balance. The Mexica followed a personal philosophy that emphasized moderation and respect, respect for elders, respect for nature, and respect for the forces of nature which they envisioned as deities.
Over the years I have come to deeply appreciate some features of Mexica religious and moral thought. The idea of mutual support, of being loaned to one another is very powerful. The sense of the middle path is also very powerful in Mexica thought. Continually the elders counseled the youth to seek the middle way. Excess in any form could lead to imbalance, and the whole of existence is delicately balances in the midst of chaos. Lastly, I simply love Nahuatl. It is a delightful language, subtle, filled with nuance. The structural grammar is what my professor describes as “divinely inspired.”
As we say in Nahuatl:
Ye ixquich (That is all)
Oh, Giver of Life, you create
All those who live on Earth out of flowers,
You color them with song,
You shade them with song.
Then you destroy the warriors.
We only exist in your picture book
Here on the Earth.
You blot out what is left of the brotherhood, sisterhood,
The community, the nobility
With black ink.
You shade all those who live on Earth.
Now, oh friends,
Listen to the word, the true dream:
Each spring gives us life,
The golden ear of corn replenishes us,
The young ear of corn becomes our necklace.
We know the hearts of our friends are true.
Song of Nezahualcoyotl, Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets, p. 83
Song of Tecayehuatzin of Huejotzinco, Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets, p. 212-13