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Aztec Cosmology and its Chroniclers

James Lewis Thomas Chalmers Spence (25 November 1874 – 3 March 1955) was a Scottish journalist, poet, author, folklorist and occult scholar. He was a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and Vice-President of the Scottish Anthropological and Folklore Society. His interests included the study of Atlantis, Scottish folklore, and pre-Christian British mythology.

In The Myths of Mexico & Peru, Lewis Spence explored Aztec mythology and its Chroniclers. The Aztec had a form of writing that was anchored to memory, mnemonic in nature, but limited as it was, it suffered the devastation of the Spanish fire in the name of cultural genocide. Ironically, it is from these same Spaniards that our knowledge of Aztec theology comes from.

What follows is a brief overview of Aztec cosmology and how we have come to know these ideas in the context of the destruction of the Aztec records, and suppression of the Spanish witness.


Nahua Religion

The religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. Original influences, however, were strong, and they are especially discernible in the institutions of ritualistic cannibalism and human sacrifice. Strange resemblances to Christian practice were observed in the Aztec mythology by the Spanish Conquistadors, who piously condemned the native customs of baptism, consubstantiation, and confession as frauds founded and perpetuated by diabolic agency.

A superficial examination of the Nahua religion might lead to the inference that within its scope and system no definite theological views were embraced and no ethical principles propounded, and that the entire mythology presents only the fantastic attitude of the barbarian mind toward the eternal verities. Such a conclusion would be both erroneous and unjust to a human intelligence of a type by no means debased. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement greatly superior to that of the Greeks or Romans, and quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians. Toward the period of the Spanish occupation the Mexican priesthood was undoubtedly advancing to the contemplation of the exaltation of one god, whose worship was fast excluding that of similar deities, and if our data are too imperfect to allow us to speak very fully in regard to this phase of religious advancement, we know at least that much of the Nahua ritual and many of the prayers preserved by the labors of the Spanish fathers are unquestionably genuine, and display the attainment of a high religious level.


Aztec theology postulated an eternity which, however, was not without its epochs. It was thought to be broken up into a number of eons, each of which depended upon the period of duration of a separate “sun.” No agreement is noticeable among authorities on Mexican mythology as to the number of these “suns,” but it would appear as probable that the favorite tradition stipulated for four “suns” or epochs, each of which concluded with a national disaster—flood, famine, tempest, or fire. The present eon, they feared, might conclude upon the completion of every “sheaf” of fifty-two years, the “sheaf” being a merely arbitrary portion of an eon. The period of time from the first creation to the current eon was variously computed as 15,228, 2386, or 1404 solar years, the discrepancy and doubt arising because of the equivocal nature of the numeral signs expressing the period in the pinturas or native paintings. As regards the sequence of “suns” there is no more agreement than there is regarding their number. The Codex Vaticanus states it to have been water, wind, fire, and famine. Humboldt gives it as hunger, fire, wind, and water; Boturini as water, famine, wind, and fire; and Gama as hunger, wind, fire, and water.

In all likelihood the adoption of four ages arose from the sacred nature of that number. The myth doubtless shaped itself upon the tonalamatl (Mexican native calendar), the great repository of the wisdom of the Nahua race, which the priestly class regarded as its vade mecum, and which was closely consulted by it on every occasion, civil or religious.

The Sources of Mexican Mythology

Our knowledge of the mythology of the Mexicans is chiefly gained through the works of those Spaniards, lay and cleric, who entered the country along with or immediately subsequent to the Spanish Conquistadores. From several of these we have what might be called first-hand accounts of the theogony and ritual of the Nahua people. The most valuable compendium is that of Father Bernardino Sahagun, entitled A General History of the Affairs of New Spain, which was published from manuscript only in the middle of last century, though written in the first half of the sixteenth century. Sahagun arrived in Mexico eight years after the country had been reduced by the Spaniards to a condition of servitude. He obtained a thorough mastery of the Nahuatl tongue, and conceived a warm admiration for the native mind and a deep interest in the antiquities of the conquered people. His method of collecting facts concerning their mythology and history was as effective as it was ingenious. He held daily conferences with reliable Indians, and placed questions before them, to which they replied by symbolical paintings detailing the answers which he required. These he submitted to scholars who had been trained under his own supervision, and who, after consultation among themselves, rendered him a criticism in Nahuatl of the hieroglyphic paintings he had placed at their disposal. Not content with this process, he subjected these replies to the criticism of a third body, after which the matter was included in his work. But ecclesiastical intolerance was destined to keep the work from publication for a couple of centuries. Afraid that such a volume would be successful in keeping alight the fires of paganism in Mexico, Sahagun’s brethren refused him the assistance he required for its publication. But on his appealing to the Council of the Indies in Spain he was met with encouragement, and was ordered to translate his great work into Spanish, a task he undertook when over eighty years of age. He transmitted the work to Spain, and for three hundred years nothing more was heard of it.

The Romance of the Lost “Sahagun”

For generations antiquarians interested in the lore of ancient Mexico bemoaned its loss, until at length one Muñoz, more indefatigable than the rest, chanced to visit the crumbling library of the ancient convent of Tolosi, in Navarre. There, among time-worn manuscripts and tomes relating to the early fathers and the intricacies of canon law, he discovered the lost Sahagun! It was printed separately by Bustamante at Mexico and by Lord Kingsborough in his collection in 1830, and has been translated into French by M. Jourdanet. Thus the manuscript commenced in or after 1530 was given to the public after a lapse of no less than three hundred years!

Tomás de Torquemada

Father Torquemada arrived in the New World about the middle of the sixteenth century, at which period he was still enabled to take from the lips of such of the Conquistadores as remained much curious information regarding the circumstances of their advent. His Monarchia Indiana was first published at Seville in 1615, and in it he made much use of the manuscript of Sahagun, not then published. At the same time his observations upon matters pertaining to the native religion are often illuminating and exhaustive.

In his Storia Antica del Messico the Abbé Francesco Saverio Clavigero, who published his work in 1780, did much to disperse the clouds of tradition which hung over Mexican history and mythology. The clarity of his style and the exactness of his information render his work exceedingly useful.
Antonio Gama, in his Descripcion Historica y Cronologica de las dos Piedras, poured a flood of light on Mexican antiquities. His work was published in 1832. With him may be said to have ceased the line of Mexican archaeologists of the older school. Others worthy of being mentioned among the older writers on Mexican mythology (we are not here concerned with history) are Lorenzo Boturini Benaduci who, in his Idea de una Nueva Historia General de la America Septentrional, gives a vivid picture of native life and tradition, culled from first-hand communication with the people; Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl, a half-breed, whose mendacious works, the Relaciones and Historia Chichimeca, are yet valuable repositories of tradition; José de Acosta, whose Historia Natural y Moral de las Yndias was published at Seville in 1580; and Francisco López de Gómara, who, in his Historia General de las Indias (Madrid, 1749), rested upon the authority of the Conquistadores. Fernando Alvero Tezozomoc’s Chronica Mexicana, reproduced in Lord Kingsborough’s great work, is valuable as giving unique facts regarding the Aztec mythology, as is the Teatro Mexicanaof Vetancurt, published at Mexico in 1697–98.

Source: Lewis Spence, The Myths of Mexico & Peru

Categories: Aztec Aztec Religion

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The Orly

As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.

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