Aztec: The Priesthood & Its Organization

The article that follows was authored by Albert Reville D.D., Professor of the Science of Religion a the College de France. The source material is the relaciones of the Spaniard themselves. The Spanish witness preserved the astonishing testament of the parallels between Aztec - Mexica - practice and the Western monastic tradition.

The article appears in The Hibbert Lectures, 1884 delivered at Oxford and London. The Lecture theme was The Origin and Growth of Religion as illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru. The work was translated from the original French by Philip H. Wicksteed.
— Orly

I have frequently spoken of the Mexican priests, and the time has now come for dwelling more explicitly on this priesthood.

It was very numerous, and had a strong organization reared on an aristocratic basis, into which political calculations manifestly entered. The noblest families (including that of the monarch) had the exclusive privilege of occupying the highest sacerdotal offices. The priests of Uitzilopochtli held the primacy. Their chief was sovereign pontiff, with the title of Mexicatl-Teohuatzin, "Mexican lord of sacred things," and Teotecuhtli, "divine master." Next to him came the chief priest of Quetzalcoatl, who had no authority, however, except over his own order of clergy. He lived as a recluse in his sanctuary, and the sovereign only sent to consult him on certain great occasions; whereas the primate sat on the privy council and exercised disciplinary powers over all the other priests in the empire.  Every temple and every quarter had its regular priests. No one could enter the priesthood until he had passed satisfactorily through certain tests or examinations before the directors of the Calmecac, or houses of religious education, of which we shall speak presently. The power of the clergy was very great. They instructed youth, fixed the calendar, preserved the knowledge of the annals and traditions indicated by the hieroglyphics, sang and taught the religious and national hymns, intervened with special ceremonies at birth, marriage and burial, and were richly endowed by taxes raised in kind upon the products of the soil and upon industries. Every successful aspirant to the priesthood, having passed the requisite examinations, received a kind of unction, which communicated the sacred character to him. All this indicates a civilization that had already reached a high point of development; but the indelible stain of the Mexican religion re-appears every moment even where it seems to rise highest above the primitive religions: amongst the ingredients of the fluid with which the new priest was anointed was the blood of an infant!

The priests' costume in general was black. Their mantles covered their heads and fell down their sides like a veil. They never cut their hair, and the Spaniards saw some of them whose locks descended to their knees. Probably this was a part of the solar symbolism. The rays of the Sun are compared to locks of hair, and we very often find the solar heroes or the servants of the Sun letting their hair grow freely in order that they may resemble their god. Their mode of life was austere and sombre. They were subject to the rules of a severe asceticism, slept little, rose at night to chant their canticles, often fasted, often drew their own blood, bathed every night (in imitation of the Sun again), and in many of the sacerdotal fraternities the most rigid celibacy was enforced. You will see, then, that I did not exaggerate when I spoke of the belief that the gods were animated by cruel wills and took pleasure in human pain as having launched the Mexican religion on a path of a systematic dualism and very stern asceticism.

But the surprise we experience in noting all these points of resemblance to the religious institutions of the Old World, perhaps reaches its culminating point when we learn that the Mexican religion actually had its convents. These convents were often, but not always, places of education for both sexes, to which all the free families sent their children from the age of six or nine years upwards. There the boys were taught by monks, and the girls by nuns, the meaning of the hieroglyphics, the way to reckon time, the traditions, the religious chants and the ritual. Bodily exercises likewise had a place in this course of education, which was supposed to be complete when the children had reached the age of fifteen. The majority of them were now sent back to their families, while the rest stayed behind to become priests or simple monks. For there were religious orders, under the patronage of the different gods, and convents for either sex. The monastic rule was often very severe. In many cases it involved abstinence from animal food, and the people called the monks of these severer orders Quaquacuiltin, or "herb-eaters." There were likewise associations resembling our half-secular, half-ecclesiastical fraternities. Thus we hear of the society of the "Telpochtiliztli," an association of young people who lived with their families, but met every evening at sunset to dance and sing in honour of Tezcatlipoca. And, finally, we know that ancient Mexico had its hermits and its religious mendicants. The latter, however, only took the vow of mendicancy for a fixed term. These are the details which led von Humboldt and some other writers to believe that Buddhism must have penetrated at some former period into Mexico. Not at all! What we have seen simply proves that asceticism, the war against nature, everywhere clothes itself in similar forms, suggested by the very constitution of man; and there is certainly nothing in common between the gentle insipidity of Buddha's religion and the sanguinary faith of the Aztecs.

The girls were under a rule similar to that of the boys. They led a hard enough life in the convents set apart for them, fasting often, sleeping without taking off their clothes, and (when it was their turn to be on duty) getting up several times in the night to renew the incense that burned perpetually before the gods. They learned to sew, to weave, and to embroider the garments of the idols and the priests. It was they who made the sacred cakes and the dough idols, whose place in the public festivals I have described to you. At the age of fifteen, the same selection took place among the girls as among the boys. Those who stayed in the convent became either priestesses, charged with the lower sacerdotal offices, or directresses of the convents set aside for instruction, or simple nuns, who were known as Cihuatlamacasque, "lady deaconesses," or Cihuaquaquilli, "lady herb-eaters," inasmuch as they abstained from meat. The most absolute continence was rigorously enforced, and breach of it was punished by death.

One cannot but ask whether a priesthood so firmly organized, in which was centred the whole intellectual life and all that can he called the science of Mexico, had not elaborated any higher doctrines or cosmogonic theories such as we owe to the priesthoods of the Old World, especially when we know that they regulated the calendar, which presupposes some astronomical conceptions.

But here we enter upon a region that has not yet been methodically reclaimed by the historians. We have often enough been presented with Mexican cosmogonies, but the fundamental error of all these expositions is, that they present as a fixed and established body of doctrine what was in reality a very loose and unformed mass of traditions and speculations. The sponsors of these cosmogonies agree neither as to their number nor their order of succession, and it is obvious that a mistaken zeal to bring them as near as possible to the Biblical tradition has been at work. An attempt has even been made to find a Mexican Noah, coming out of the ark, in a fish-god emerging from a kind of box floating on the waters.

One thing, however, is certain, namely, that these cosmogonies are not Aztec. The Aztec deities proper play no part in them. We may therefore suppose that they are of Central American origin, or are due to that priesthood of Quetzalcoatl which continued its silent work in the depths of its mysterious retreats. The contradictions of our authorities as to the number and order of these cosmogonies suggest the idea that their arrangement one after another is no more than a harmonizing attempt to bring various originally distinct cosmogonies into connection with each other. The fact is that others yet are known, in addition to those which have taken their place in what we may call the classical list established by Humboldt and Müller. In this classical list there are five ages of the world, separated from each other by universal cataclysms, something after the fashion of the successive creations of the school of Cuvier. Each of these ages is called a Sun, and, according to the elements that preponderate during their respective courses, they are called, 1st, the Sun of the Earth; 2nd, the Sun of Fire; 3rd, the Sun of the Air; and 4th, the Sun of Water. The fifth Sun, which is the present one, has no special name. We cannot enter upon the details concerning each of these Suns, and they are not very interesting in any case. They contain confused reminiscences of primitive life, of the ancient populations of Anahuac, of old and bygone worships, but nothing particularly characteristic or original. The only specially striking feature in this mass of cosmogonic traditions is the sense of the instability of the established order alike of nature and society which pervades them. What was it that inspired the Mexicans with this feeling? Perhaps the mighty destructive forces for which tropical countries, equatorial seas and volcanic regions, so often furnish a theatre, had shaken confidence in the permanence of the physical constitution of the world. Perhaps the numerous political and social revolutions, the frequent successions of peoples, rulers and subjects in turn, had accustomed the mind to conceive and anticipate perpetual changes, of which the successive ages of the world were but the supreme expression; and finally, perhaps that quasi-messianic expectation of the return of Quetzalcoatl, to be accompanied by a complete renewal of things, may have given an additional point of attachment to this belief in the caducity of the whole existing order. What is certain is that this sentiment itself was very widely spread. It served as a consolation to the peoples who were crushed beneath the cruel yoke of the Aztecs. They might well cherish the thought that all this would not last for ever; and even the Aztecs themselves had no unbounded confidence in the stability of their empire. The Spaniards profited greatly by this vague and all but universal distrust. After their victory they made much of pretended prodigies that had shadowed it forth, and even of prophecies that had announced it.  But the state of mind of the populations concerned being given, at whatever moment the Spaniards had arrived they would have been able to appeal to auguries of a like kind, by dint of just giving them that degree of precision and clearness which usually distinguishes predictions that are recorded after their fulfilment!

A further proof that the Mexican religion helped to spread this sense of the instability of things is furnished by the grand jubilee festival which was celebrated every fifty-two years in the city of Mexico and throughout the empire. The Mexican cycle, marking the coincidence of four times thirteen lunar and four times thirteen solar years, counted two-and-fifty years, and was called a "sheaf of years." Now whenever the dawn of the fifty-third year drew near, the question was anxiously put, whether the world would last any longer, and preparations were made for the great ceremony of the Toxilmolpilia, or "binding up of years." The day before, every fire was extinguished. All the priests of the city of Mexico marched in procession to a mountain situated at two leagues' distance. The entire population followed them. They watched the Pleiades intently. If the world was to come to an end, if the sun was never to rise again, the Pleiades would not pass the zenith; but the moment they passed it, it was known that a new era of fifty-two years had been guaranteed to men. Fire was kindled anew by the friction of wood. But the wood rested on the bosom of the handsomest of the prisoners, and the moment it was lighted the victim's body was opened, his heart torn out, and both heart and body burned upon a pile that was lit by the new fire. No sooner did the people, who had remained on the plain below, perceive the flame ascend, than they broke into delirious joy. Another fifty-two years was before the world. More victims were sacrificed in gratitude to the gods. Brands were lighted at the sacred flame on the mountain, from which the domestic fires were in their turn kindled, and swift couriers were despatched with torches, replaced continually on the route, to the very extremities of the empire. It was in the year 1507, twelve years before Cortes disembarked, that the Toxilmolpilia was celebrated for the last time. In 1559, although the mass of the natives had meanwhile been converted to Roman Catholicism, the Spanish government had to take severe measures to prevent its repetition.

We have far firmer footing, then, than is furnished by the shifting ground of the cosmogonies, when we insist upon the general prevalence of the feeling that the world might veritably come to an end as it had done before. Beyond this there was nothing fixed or generally accepted. Much the same might be said of the future life. The Mexicans believed in man's survival after death. This we see from the practice of putting a number of useful articles into the tomb by the side of the corpse, after first breaking them, so that they too might die and their spirits might accompany that of the departed to his new abodes. They even gave him some Tepitoton, or little household gods, to take with him, and as a rule they killed a dog to serve as his guide in the mysterious and painful journey which he was about to undertake. Sometimes a very rich man would go so far as to have his chaplain slaughtered, that he might not be deprived of his support in the other world. But in all this there is nothing to distinguish the Mexican religion from the beliefs that stretched over the whole of America, and there is no indication that any moral conception had as yet vivified and hallowed the prospect beyond the grave. The mass of ordinary mortals remained in the sombre, dreary, monotonous realm of Mictlan; for in Mexico, as in Polynesia, a really happy immortality was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. There were several paradises, including that of Tlaloc, and above all the "mansion of the Sun," destined to receive the kings, the nobles and the warriors. There they hunt, they dance, they accompany the sun in his course, they can change themselves into clouds or humming-birds. An exception is made, however, irrespective of social rank, in favour of warriors who fall in battle and women who die in child-bed, as well as for the victims sacrificed in honour of the celestial deities and destined to become their servants. So, too, the paradise of Tlaloc, a most beauteous garden, is opened to all who have been drowned (for the god of the waters has taken them to himself), to all who have died of the diseases caused by moisture, and to the children who have been sacrificed to him. We recognize in these exceptions an unquestionable tendency to introduce the idea of justice as qualifying the desolating doctrine of aristocratic privilege; and probably this principle of justice would have become preponderant, here as elsewhere, had not the destinies of the Mexican religion been suddenly broken off. Nor is it easy to explain the asceticism and austerities of which we have spoken, except on the supposition that those who practised them all their lives believed they were thereby acquiring higher rights in the future life. It must be admitted, however, that it is not in its doctrine of a future life that the Mexican religion reached its higher developments.

We must postpone till we have examined the Peruvian religion, which presents so many analogies to that of Mexico, while at the same time differing from it so considerably, the final considerations suggested by the strange compound of beliefs, now so barbarous and now so refined, which we have passed in review. Spanish monks, as we all know, succeeded within a few years in bringing the populations who had submitted to the hardy conquerors within the pale of their Church. It was no very difficult task. The whole past had vanished. The royal families, the nobility, the clergy, all had perished. Faith in the national gods had been broken by events. The new occupants laid a grievous yoke upon the subject peoples, whom they crushed and oppressed with hateful tyranny; but we must do the Franciscan monks, who were first on the field in the work of conversion, the justice of testifying that they did whatever in them lay to soften the fate of their converts and to plead their cause before the Court of Spain. Nor were their efforts always unsuccessful. They were rewarded by the unstinted confidence and affection of the unhappy natives, who found little pity or comfort save at the hands of the good Fathers. Let us add that many of the peoples, especially those from whom the human tithes of which we have spoken had been exacted by the Aztecs, were sensible of the humane and charitable aspects of a religion that repudiated these hideous sacrifices in horror, and raised up the hearts of the oppressed by its promises of a future bliss conditioned by neither birth nor social rank.

But the worthy monks could not give what they had not got. And the religious education which they gave their converts reflected only too faithfully their own narrow and punctilious monastic spirit, itself almost as superstitious, though in another way, as what it supplanted. Nay, more: in spite of the best dispositions on either side, it was inevitable that the ancient habits and beliefs should long maintain themselves, though more or less shrouded beneath the new orthodoxy. In 1571, the terrible Inquisition of Spain came and established itself in Mexico to put an end to this state of things; and alas! it found as many heretics as it could wish to show that it had not come for nothing. And when the natives saw the fearful tribunal at work, when the fires of the autos-da-féwere kindled on the plain of Mexico and consumed by tens or hundreds the victims condemned by the Holy Office, do you suppose that the new converts felt well assured in their own hearts that the God of the Gospel was, after all, much better than Uitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca?

But we are stepping beyond the domain of history we have marked out for ourselves. The religion of Mexico is dead, and we cannot desire a resurrection for it. But the memory it has left behind is at once mournful and instructive. It has enriched history with its confirmatory evidence as to the genesis, the power and the tragic force of religion in human nature; and he who inspects its annals, now so poetical and now so terror-laden, pauses in pensive thought before the grotesque but imposing monument which thrills him with admiration even while he recoils with horror.



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