The worship of Tlaloc, as major deity in central America as evidenced by Teotihuacan and it successors, should not be surprising. Water after all is the essence of life. Nonetheless the Spaniards were astonished by the Mexica’s (Aztec) use of water in ritual and how it resembled the classic Catholic practice, including a ritual that involved the use of water to wash away sin.
The idea of redemption through water purification – baptism – by the Aztec was described by Bernardino de Sahagún (b. circa 1499, died February 5, 1590 in Tlateloco, New Spain), Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain (now Mexico), as follows (translation from the Spanish original):
“When everything necessary for the baptism had been made ready, all the relations of the child were assembled, and the midwife, who was the person that performed the rite of baptism, was summoned. At early dawn they met together in the court-yard of the house. When the sun had risen the midwife, taking the child in her arms, called for a little earthen vessel of water, while those about her placed the ornaments which had been prepared for the baptism in the midst of the court.
To perform the rite of baptism, she placed herself with her face towards the west, and immediately began to go through certain ceremonies…. After this she sprinkled water on the head of the infant, saying: ‘O my child! take and receive the water of the Lord of the world, which is our life, and is given for the increasing and renewing of our body. It is to wash and to purify. I pray that these heavenly drops may enter into your body and dwell there; that they may destroy and remove from you all the evil and sin which was given to you before the beginning of the world; since all of us are under its power, being all the children of Chalchiuhtlicue’ (the goddess of water).
She then washed the body of the child with water and spoke in this manner: ‘Whencesoever thou comest, thou that art hurtful to this child, leave him and depart from him, for he now liveth anew and is born anew; now he is purified and cleansed afresh, and our Mother Chalchiuhtlicue again bringeth him into the world.’
Having thus prayed, the midwife took the child in both hands, and lifting him towards heaven, said: ‘O Lord, thou seest here thy creature, whom thou hast sent into this world, this place of sorrow, suffering, and penitence. Grant him, O Lord, thy gifts and thine inspiration, for thou art the great God, and with thee is the great goddess.’
Torches of pine were kept burning during the performance of these ceremonies. When these things were ended, they gave the child the name of some one of his ancestors, in hope that he might shed a new lustre over it. The name was given by the same midwife or priestess who baptized him.”
Historia de Nueva Espana, lib. vi., cap. xxxvii.
The Aztec baptism thus occurred after a solemn invocation, with the child’s head and lips touched with water, the absolution from sin, and in the act of this re-birth, a name given to the child. In Aztec mythology, Cihuacoatl (“snake woman”; also sometimes called Quilaztli) was one of a number of motherhood and fertility goddesses; she was especially associated with midwives, and birth. The goddess Cihuacoatl was implored that the sin which was given to us before the beginning of the world might not visit the child (salvation from original sin) but that, cleansed by these waters, the child might live and be born anew, a ritual virtually identical to the Catholic practice.
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.