Albert Réville (4 November 1826, Dieppe, Seine-Maritime – 25 October 1906) was a distinguished French Protestant theologian. He was a prolific writer on the comparative history of world religions. In addition to the history of Christianity, he published on the native religions of Central America (about which he gave the 1884 Hibbert Lectures), Chinese religion and the history of the idea of the Devil. What follows is from one such Hibbert Lecture, “On the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru”.
As an expression of the Mexica (Aztec genius) it is a noble overview, although the evidence tends to the Mexica having a more artistic and cultural inclination than he gives them credit for.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Aztecs — that is to say the white flamingos or herons (from aztatl), the last comers from the North, who had long been a poor and wretched tribe, and on reaching Anahuac had been obliged to accept the suzerainty of Tezcuco — began to assume great importance. They had founded, under the name of Tenochtitlan, upon an island that is now united to the mainland, the city which was afterwards called Mexico. But originally the name of Mexico belonged to the quarter of the city which was dedicated to the god of war, Mextli. At once warlike and commercial, the Aztecs grew in numbers, wealth and military power; they saved Tezcuco from the dominion of the Tepanecs, who tried to bring the whole Chichimec confederation into subjection; presently they threw off all vassalage, and in the fifteenth century they stood at the head of the new confederation which took the place of that of the Chichimecs, and of which Mexico, Tezcuco and Tlacopan (or Tacuba), were the three capitals.
There was no Mexican empire, then, at the moment when Fernando Cortes disembarked near Vera Cruz, but there was a federation. On certain days of religious festivity a solemn public dance was celebrated in Mexico, in which the sovereign families of the three states, together with their subjects of the highest rank, took part. It began at noon before the palace of the Mexican king. They stood three and three. The king of Mexico led the dance, holding with his right hand the king of Tezcuco, and with his left the king of Tlacopan, and the three confederate sovereigns or emperors thus symbolized for several hours the union of their three states by the harmonious cadence of their movements.
The widely-spread error that makes Montezuma, the Mexican sovereign that received Fernando Cortes, the absolute master of the whole district of the present Mexico, is explained by the fact, that of the three confederate states that of the Aztecs was by far the strongest, most warlike and most dreaded. It was constantly extending its dominion by means of a numerous, disciplined and admirably organized army, and little by little the other two states were constantly approaching the condition of vassalage. The Aztecs were no more recalcitrant to civilization than the Chichimecs, but they were ruder, more matter-of-fact and more cruel. They did no sacrifices to the Toltec graces, but developed their civilization exclusively on its utilitarian and practical side. They were no artists, but essentially warriors and merchants. And even their merchants were often at the same time spies whom the kings of Mexico sent into the countries they coveted, to study their resources, their strength and their weakness. Their yoke was hard. They raised heavy tributes. Their policy was one of extreme centralization, and, without destroying the religion of the peoples conquered by their arms, they imposed upon them the worship and the supremacy of their own national deities. Their warlike expeditions bore a pronounced religious character. The priests marched at the head of the soldiers, and bore Aztec idols on their backs. On the eve of a battle they kindled fresh fire by the friction of wood; and it was they who gave the signal of attack. These wars had pillage and conquest as their object, but also and very specially the capture of victims to sacrifice to the Aztec gods. For the Aztecs pushed the superstitious practice of human sacrifice to absolute frenzy. It was to these horrible sacrifices that they attributed their successes in war and the prosperity of their empire. If they experienced a check or had suffered any disaster, they redoubled their blood-stained offerings. But note this trait, so essentially pagan and in such perfect accord with the polytheistic ideas of the ancient world — they sacrificed to the gods of the conquered country too, to show them that it was not against them they were contending, and that the new régime would not rob them of the homage to which they were accustomed. The Aztec deities were not jealous. They confined themselves to vindicating their own pre-eminence. After each fresh conquest, the Aztecs raised a temple at Mexico bearing the name of the conquered country, and thither they transported natives of the place to carry on the worship after their own customs. It seems that they did not consider even this precaution enough; for they constructed a special edifice near the great temple of Mexico, where the supreme deities of the Aztec people were enthroned, and there they shut up the idols of the conquered countries. This was to prevent their escape, should the desire come over them to return to their own peoples and help them to revolt.
All this will explain how it was that Fernando Cortes found numerous allies against Montezuma’s despotism amongst the native peoples. For it is an error, generally received indeed, but contradicted by history, that the Spanish captain decided the fate of so redoubtable an empire, and of a city so vigorously defended as Mexico, with the sole aid of his thousand Europeans.
For the rest, we are forced to acknowledge that the Aztecs had developed their civilization, in its political and material aspects, in a way that does the greatest credit to their sagacity. Property was organized on the individual and hereditary basis for the noble families, and on the collective basis for the people, divided into communities. The taxes were raised in kind, according to fixed rules. Numbers of slaves were charged with the most laborious kinds of work. The merchants, assembled in the cities, formed a veritable tiers-état which exercised a growing political influence. There were markets, the abundance and wealth of which stupefied the Spaniards. The luxury of the court and of the great families was dazzling. No one dared to address the sovereign save with lowered voice, and—strange custom in our eyes!—no one appeared before him save with naked feet and clad in sordid garments, in sign of humility. Mexico had been joined to the mainland by causeways, along which an aqueduct conveyed the pure waters of distant springs to the city. The irrigation works in the country were numerous and in good repair. The streets were cleansed by day and lighted at night, advantages in which none of the European capitals rejoiced in the sixteenth century. And finally, for we cannot dwell indefinitely upon this subject, let us note the excellent roads that stretched from Mexico to the limits of the Aztec empire and the confederated states. Along these roads the sovereigns of Mexico had established, at intervals of two leagues, courier posts for the transmission of important news to them. Montezuma heard of the disembarkment of Fernando Cortes three days after it took place.
And now imagine that this people was always averse to navigation—was ignorant of use of iron, knowing only of gold, silver and copper—had no beast of traction or burden, neither horse, nor ass, nor camel, nor elephant, nor even the llama of Peru—was without writing (for though we find a kind of hieroglyph on the monuments of Mexico and Central America, yet the system was not of the smallest avail for ordinary life)—and, finally, had no money except an inconsiderable number of silver crosses and cacao berries, the mass of exchanges being effected by barter! On the other hand, they worked in stone with admirable skill. In their knives and lance and arrow heads, made of obsidian, they achieved remarkable perfection, and they excelled in the art of supplying the place of writing by pictures, painted on a kind of aloe paper or on cotton stuffs, representing the persons or things as to which they desired to convey information.
Such, then, is the singular people that Spain was destined to conquer in the sixteenth century, and whose civilization, though modified by the special Aztec spirit, rested after all upon the same bases that had sustained the more ancient civilization of Central America.
Source: Albert Réville, The Hibbert Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru. Delivered at Oxford and London, April and May, 1884.
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.