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The Myths of Mexico and Peru

The Myths of Mexico and Peru

von: Lewis Spence

Charles River Editors, 2018

ISBN: 9781614308539 , 100 Seiten

Format: ePUB

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The Myths of Mexico and Peru


CHAPTER II: Mexican Mythology

Nahua Religion

THE religion of the ancient Mexicans was a polytheism or worship of a pantheon of deities, the general aspect of which presented similarities to the systems of Greece and Egypt. Original influences, however, were strong, and they are especially discernible in the institutions of ritualistic cannibalism and human sacrifice. Strange resemblances to Christian practice were observed in the Aztec mythology by the Spanish Conquistadores, who piously condemned the native customs of baptism, consubstantiation, and confession as frauds founded and perpetuated by diabolic agency.

A superficial examination of the Nahua religion might lead to the inference that within its scope and system no definite theological views were embraced and no ethical principles propounded, and that the entire mythology presents only the fantastic attitude of the barbarian mind toward the eternal verities. Such a conclusion would be both erroneous and unjust to a human intelligence of a type by no means debased. As a matter of fact, the Nahua displayed a theological advancement greatly superior to that of the Greeks or Romans, and quite on a level with that expressed by the Egyptians and Assyrians. Toward the period or the Spanish occupation the Mexican priesthood was undoubtedly advancing to the contemplation of the exaltation of one god, whose worship was fast excluding that of similar deities, and if our data are too imperfect to allow us to speak very fully in regard to this phase of religious advancement, we know at least that much of the Nahua ritual and many of the prayers preserved by the labours of the Spanish fathers are unquestionably genuine, and display the attainment of a high religious level.


Aztec theology postulated an eternity which, however, was not without its epochs. It was thought to be broken up into a number of aeons, each of which depended upon the period of duration of a separate “sun.” No agreement is noticeable among authorities on Mexican mythology as to the number of these “suns,” but it would appear as probable that the favourite tradition stipulated for four “suns “ or epochs, each of which concluded with a national disaster-flood, famine, tempest, or fire. The present veon, they feared, might conclude upon the completion of every “ sheaf “ of fifty-two years, the “ sheaf “ being a merely arbitrary portion of an veon. The period of time from the first creation to the current aeon was variously computed as 15,228, 2386, or 1404 solar years, the discrepancy and doubt arising because of the equivocal nature of the numeral signs expressing the period in the pinturas or native paintings. As regards the sequence of “suns” there is no more agreement than there is regarding their number. The Codex Vaticanus states it to have been water, wind, fire, and famine. Humboldt gives it as hunger, fire, wind, and water; Boturini as water, famine, wind, and fire; and Gama as hunger, wind, fire, and water.

In all likelihood the adoption of tour ages arose from the sacred nature of that number. The myth doubtless shaped itself upon the tonalamatl (Mexican native calendar), the great repository of the wisdom of the Nahua race, which the priestly class regarded as its vade mecum, and which was closely consulted by it on every occasion. civil or religious.

The Sources of Mexican Mythology

Our knowledge of the mythology of the Mexicans is chiefly gained through the works of those Spaniards, lay and cleric, who entered the country along with or immediately subsequent to the Spanish Conquistadores. From several of these we have what might be called first-hand accounts of the theogony and ritual of the Nahua people. The most valuable compendium is that of Father Bernardino Sahagun, entitled A General History of the Afairs of New Spain, which was published from manuscript only in the middle of last century, though written in the first half of the sixteenth century. Sahagun arrived in Mexico eight years after the country had been reduced by the Spaniards to a condition of servitude. He obtained a thorough mastery of the Nahuatl tongue, and conceived a warm admiration for the native mind and a deep interest in the antiquities of the conquered people. His method of collecting facts concerning their mythology and history was as effective as it was ingenious. He held daily conferences with reliable Indians, and placed questions before them, to which they replied by symbolical paintings detailing the answers which he required. These he submitted to scholars who had been trained under his own supervision, and who, after consultation among), themselves, rendered him a criticism in Nahuatl of the hieroglyphical paintings he had placed at their disposal. Not content with this process, he subjected these replies to the criticism of a third body, after which the matter was included in his work. But ecclesiastical intolerance was destined to keep the work from publication for a couple of centuries. Afraid that such a volume would be successful in keeping alight the fires of paganism in Mexico, Sahagun’s brethren refused him the assistance he required for its publication. But on his appealing to the Council of the Indies in Spain he was met with encouragement, and was ordered to translate his great work into Spanish, a task he undertook when over eighty years of age. He transmitted the work to Spain, and for three hundred years nothing more was heard of it.

The Romance of the Lost “Sahagun”

For generations antiquarians interested in the lore or ancient Mexico bemoaned its loss, until at length one Mufloz, more indefatigable than the rest, chanced to visit the crumbling library of the ancient convent of Tolosi, in Navarre. There, among time-worn manuscripts and tomes relating to the early fathers and the intricacies of canon law, he discovered the lost Sahagun! It was printed separately by Bustamante at Mexico and by Lord Kingsborough in his collection in 1830, and has been translated into French by M. Jourdanet. Thus the manuscript commenced in or after 1530 was given to the public after a lapse of no less than three hundred years!


Father Torquemada arrived in the New World about the middle of the sixteenth century, at which period he was still enabled to take from the lips of such of the Conquistadores as remained much curious information regarding the circumstances of their advent. His Monarchia Indiana was first published at Seville in 1615, and in it he made much use of the manuscript of Sahagun, not then published. At the same time his observations upon matters pertaining to the native religion are often illuminating and exhaustive.

In his Storia Antica del Messico the Abbé Clavigero, who published his work in 1780, did much to disperse the clouds of tradition which hung over Mexican history and mythology. The clarity of his style and the exactness of his information render his work exceedingly useful.

Antonio Gama, in his Descripcion Historica y Cronologica de las dos Piedras, poured a flood of light on Mexican antiquities. His work was published in 1832. With him maybe said to have ceased the line of Mexican archxologists of the older school. Others worthy of being mentioned among the older writers on Mexican mythology (we are not here concerned with history) are Boturini, who, in his Idea de una Nueva Historia General de la America Septentrional, gives a vivid picture of native life and tradition, culled from first-hand communication with the people; Ixdilxochitl, a half-breed, whose mendacious works, the Relaciones and Historia Chichimeca, are yet valuable repositories of tradition; José de Acosta, whose Historia Natural y Moral de las Yndias was published at Seville in 1580; and Gomara, who, in his Historia General de las Indias (Madrid, 1749), rested upon the authority of the Conquistadores. Tezozomoc’s Chronica Mexicana, reproduced in Lord Kingsborough’s great work, is valuable as giving unique facts regarding the Aztec mythology, as is the Teatro Mexicana of Vetancurt, published at Mexico in 1697-98.

The Worship of One God

The ritual of this dead faith of another hemisphere abounds in expressions concerning the unity of the deity approaching very nearly to many of those we ourselves employ regarding God’s attributes. The various classes of the priesthood were in the habit of addressing the several gods to whom they ministered as “omnipotent,” “endless,” “invisible,” “the one god complete in perfection and unity,” and “the Maker and Moulder of All.” These appellations they applied not to one supreme being, but to the individual deities to whose service they were attached. It may be thought that such a practice would be fatal to the evolution of a single and universal god. But there is every reason to believe that Tezcatlipoca, the great god of the air, like the Hebrew Jahveh, also an air-god, was fast gaining precedence of all other deities, when the coming of the white man put in end to his chances of sovereignty.


Tezcatlipoca (Fiery Mirror) was undoubtedly the Jupiter of the Nahua pantheon. He carried a mirror or shield, from which he took his name, and in which he was supposed to see reflected the actions and deeds of mankind. The evolution of this god from the status of a spirit of wind or air to that of the supreme...