Aztec: Mexica Cosmologies

This brief overview of Aztec cosmology is found in Lectures on the Origin and Growth in Religion as Illustrated by the Native Religions of Mexico and Peru. The author is Albert Reville, D.D. Professor of the Science of Religions at the College de France, translated into English by Philip H. Wicksteed. The discussion relies on the Spanish writer’s witness at the time of the conquest.
— Orly

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.

Aztec Calendar

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[116] 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.


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