Religious Systems of Mexico and Peru

Religious Systems of Mexico and Peru

This short article provides a balanced overview of the religious systems of Mexico and Peru before the conquest. The view is rather sweeping but touches upon important points of universal archetypes and is balanced in its overall presentation. The social systems of the Aztec did indeed include formal schooling for the upper and middle classes (a virtue not found in Europe at that time), and a temple based hospital system. Tenochtitlan at the time of Cortes boasted of a system of complex engineering, daily cleaning of all roads, and an advanced system of food distribution. All of this complex social engineering was not lost on the intelligentsia of the Spanish who retrospectively sought to correct the historical record.

This account of the religious systems of Mexico and Peru is found in History of Freethought Ancient and Modern, Volume 1 of 2 Third edition, Revised and Expanded, in two volumes. The author John Mackinnon Robertson PC (14 November 1856 – 5 January 1933) was a prolific journalist, advocate of rationalism and secularism, and Liberal Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom for Tyneside from 1906 to 1918. His interest varied widely and he is credited with discovering the economics concept of the paradox of thrift, along with his writings touching upon the history of religion.
— Orly

In the religions of pre-Christian Mexico and Peru we have peculiarly interesting examples of “early” religious systems, flourishing at some such culture-level as the ancient Akkadian, in full play at the time of the European Renaissance. In Mexico a partly “high” ethical code, as the phrase goes, went concurrently with the most frightful indulgence in human sacrifice, sustained by the continuous practice of indecisive war for the securing of captives, and by the interest of a vast priesthood. In this system had been developed all the leading features of those of the Old World—the identification of all the Gods with the Sun; the worship of fire, and the annual renewal of it by special means; the conception of God-sacrifice and of communion with the God by the act of eating his slain representative; the belief in a Virgin-Mother-Goddess; the connection of humanitarian ethic with the divine command; the opinion that celibacy, as a state of superior virtue, is incumbent on most priests and on all would-be saints; the substitution of a sacramental bread for the “body and blood” of the God-Man; the idea of an interceding Mother-Goddess; the hope of a coming Saviour; the regular practice of prayer; exorcism, special indulgences, confession, absolution, fasting, and so on.199 In Peru, also, many of those conceptions were in force; but the limitation of the power and numbers of the priesthood by the imperial system of the Incas, and the state of peace normal in their dominions, prevented the Mexican development of human sacrifice.

It seems probable that the Toltecs, who either fled before or were for the most part subdued or destroyed by the barbarian Chichimecs (in turn subdued by the Aztecs) a few centuries before Cortes, were on the whole a less warlike and more civilized people, with a less bloody worship. Their God, Quetzalcoatl, retained through fear by the Aztecs, was a comparatively benign deity opposed to human sacrifice, apparently rather a late purification or partial rationalization of an earlier God-type than a primitively harmless conception. Insofar as they were sundered by quarrels between the sectaries of the God Quetzalcoatl and the God Votan, though their religious wars seem to have been as cruel as those of the early Christians of North Africa, there appears to have been at work among them a movement towards unbloody religion. In any case their overthrow seems to stand for the military inferiority of the higher and more rational civilization203 to the lower and more religious, which in turn, however, was latterly being destroyed by its enormously burdensome military and priestly system, and may even be held to have been ruined by its own superstitious fears.

Tenochtitlán is the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, founded c.1320. In 1521, the Spanish conquistador Cortés destroyed it and established Mexico City on its site.
— Orly

Among the recognizable signs of normal progress in the ordinary Aztec religion were (1) the general recognition of the Sun as the God really worshipped in all the temples of the deities with special names; (2) the substitution in some cults of baked bread-images for a crucified human victim. The question arises whether the Aztecs, but for their overwhelming priesthood, might conceivably have risen above their system of human sacrifices, as the Aryan Hindus had done in an earlier age. Their material civilization, which carried on that of the kindred Toltecs, was at several points superior to that which the Spaniards put in its place; and their priesthood, being a leisured and wealthy class, might have developed intellectually as did the Brahmans, if its economic basis had been changed. But only a conquest or other great political convulsion could conceivably have overturned the vast cultus of human sacrifice, which overran all life, and cherished war as a means of procuring victims.

In the kindred State of Tezcuco, civilization seems to have gone further than in Aztec Anahuac; and about the middle of the fifteenth century one Tezcucan king, the conqueror Netzahualcoyotl, who has left writings in both prose and verse, is seen attaining to something like a philosophic creed, of a monotheistic stamp. He is said to have rejected all idol-worship, and erected, as aforesaid, an altar “to the Unknown God,” forbidding all sacrifices of blood in that worship. But among the Tezcucans these never ceased; three hundred slaves were sacrificed at the obsequies of the conqueror’s son, Netzahualpilli; and the Aztec influence over the superior civilization was finally complete.

In Peru, again, we find civilization advancing in respect of the innovation of substituting statuettes for wives and slaves in the tombs of the rich; and we have already noted the remarkable records of the avowed unbelief of several Incas in the divinity of the nationally worshipped Sun. For the rest, there was the dubious quasi-monotheistic cult of the Creator-God, Pachacamac, concerning whom every fresh discussion raises fresh doubt.

Mr. [Andrew] Lang, as usual, leans to the view that Pachacamac stands for a primordial and “elevated” monotheism (Making of Religion, pp. 263–70), while admitting the slightness of the evidence. Garcilasso [de la Vega], the most eminent authority, who, however, is contradicted by others, represents that the conception of Pachacamac as Creator, needing no temple or sacrifice, was “philosophically” reached by the Incas and their wise men (Lang, p. 262). The historical fact seems to be that a race subdued by the Incas, the Yuncas, had one temple to this deity; and that the Incas adopted the cult. Garcilasso says the Yuncas had human sacrifices and idols, which the Incas abolished, setting up their monotheistic cult in that one temple. This is sufficiently unlikely; and it may very well have been the fact that the Yuncas had offered no sacrifices. But if they did not, it was because their material conditions, like those of the Australians and Fuegians, had not facilitated the practice; and in that case their “monotheism” likewise would merely represent the ignorant simplicity of a clan-cult. (Compare [Edward Burnett] Tylor, Primitive Culture, ii, 335 sq.; [Daniel G.] Brinton, Myths of the New World, p. 52.) On the other hand, if the Incas had set up a cult without sacrifices to a so-called One God, their idea would be philosophical, as taking into account the multitude of clan-cults as well as their own national worships, and transcending these.

But the outstanding sociological fact in Incarial Peru was the absolute subjection of the mass of the people; and though its material development and political organization were comparable to those of ancient Persia under the Akhamenidæ, so that the Spanish Conquest stood here for mere destruction, there is no reason to think that at the best its intellectual life could have risen higher than that of pre-Alexandrian Egypt, to which it offers so many resemblances. The Incas’ schools were for the nobility only.  Rationalistic Incas and high priests might have ruled over a docile, unlettered multitude, gradually softening their moral code, in connection with their rather highly-developed doctrine (resembling the Egyptian) of a future state. But these seem the natural limits, in the absence of contact with another civilization not too disparate for a fruitful union.

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – October 23, 1590) was a Franciscan friar, missionary priest and pioneering ethnographer who participated in the Catholic evangelization of colonial New Spain (now Mexico). Born in Sahagún, Spain, in 1499, he journeyed to New Spain in 1529. He learned Nahuatl and spent more than 50 years in the study of Aztec beliefs, culture and history. Though he was primarily devoted to his missionary task, his extraordinary work documenting indigenous worldview and culture has earned him the title as “the first anthropologist.” He also contributed to the description of the Aztec language Nahuatl. He translated the Psalms, the Gospels, and a catechism into Nahuatl.
— Orly

In Mexico, on the other hand, an interaction of native cultures had already occurred to some purpose; and the strange humanitarianism of the man-slaying priests, who made free public hospitals of part of their blood-stained temples,suggests a possibility of esoteric mental culture among them. They had certainly gone relatively far in their moral code, as apart from their atrocious creed of sacrifice, even if we discount the testimony of the benevolent priest [Bernardino de] Sahagun; and they had the beginnings of a system of education for the middle classes. But unless one of the States which habitually warred for captives should have conquered the others—in which case a strong ruler might have put an end to the wholesale religious slaughter of his own subjects, as appears to have been done anciently in Mesopotamia—the priests in all likelihood would never have transcended their hideous hallucination of sacrifice. Their murdered civilization is thus the “great perhaps” of sociology; organized religion being the most sinister factor in the problem.

Spanish Conquest of Yucatan

Spanish Conquest of Yucatan

Confucian Analects