Aztec, A History, Part Three

History Of The Conquest Of Mexico, The Aztecs (part three)

Book: Book I: Introduction. Preliminary View Of The Aztec Civilization.

Author: Prescott, William H.

Chapter III: Mexican Mythology, Part I.

The Sacerdotal Order. - Th0e Temples. - Human Sacrifices.

The civil polity of the Aztecs is so closely blended with their religion

that without understanding the latter it is impossible to form correct ideas

of their government or their social institutions. I shall pass over, for the

present, some remarkable traditions, bearing a singular resemblance to those

found in the Scriptures, and endeavour to give a brief sketch of their

mythology and their careful provisions for maintaining a national worship.

Mythology may be regarded as the poetry of religion, or rather as the

poetic development of the religious principle in a primitive age. It is the

effort of untutored man to explain the mysteries of existence, and the secret

agencies by which the operations of nature are conducted. Although the

growth of similar conditions of society, its character must vary with that of

the rude tribes in which it originates; and the ferocious Goth, quaffing mead

from the skulls of his slaughtered enemies, must have a very different

mythology from that of the effeminate native of Hispaniola, loitering away

his hours in idle pastimes, under the shadow of his bananas.

At a later and more refined period, we sometimes find these primitive

legends combined into a regular system under the hands of the poet, and the

rude outline moulded into forms of ideal beauty, which are the objects of

adoration in a credulous age, and the delight of all succeeding ones. Such

were the beautiful inventions of Hesiod and Homer, "who," says the Father of

History, "created the theogony of the Greeks;" an assertion not to be taken

too literally, since it is hardly possible that any man should create a

religious system for his nation. ^1 They only filled up the shadowy outlines

of tradition with the bright touches of their own imaginations, until they

had clothed them in beauty which kindled the imaginations of others. The

power of the poet, indeed, may be felt in a similar way in a much riper

period of society. To say nothing of the "Divina Com media," who is there

that rises from the perusal of "Paradise Lost" without feeling his own

conceptions of the angelic hierarchy quickened by those of the inspired

artist, and a new and sensible form, as it were, given to images which had

before floated dim and undefined before him?

[Footnote 1: Herodotus, Euterpe, sec. 53. - Heeren hazards a remark equally

strong, respecting the epic poets of India, "who," says he, "have supplied the

numerous gods that fill her Pantheon." Historical Researches, Eng. trans

(Oxford, 1833), vol. iii. p. 139.]

The last-mentioned period is succeeded by that of philosophy; which,

disclaiming alike the legends of the primitive age and the poetical

embellishments of the succeeding one, seeks to shelter itself from the charge

of impiety by giving an allegorical interpretation to the popular mythology,

and thus to reconcile the latter with the genuine deductions of science.

The Mexican religion had emerged from the first of the periods we have

been considering, and, although little affected by poetical influences, had

received a peculiar complexion from the priests, who had digested as thorough

and burdensome a ceremonial as ever existed in any nation. They had,

moreover, thrown the veil of allegory over early tradition, and invested

their deities with attributes savouring much more of the grotesque

conceptions of the Eastern nations in the Old World, than of the lighter

fictions of Greek mythology, in which the features of humanity, however

exaggerated, were never wholly abandoned. ^1

[Footnote 1: The Hon. Mountstuart Elphinstone has fallen into a similar train

of thought, in a comparison of the Hindoo and Greek Mythology, in his

"History of India," published since the remarks in the text were written.

(See Book I. ch. 4.) The same chapter of this truly philosophic work

suggests some curious points of resemblance to the Aztec religious

institutions, that may furnish pertinent illustrations to the mind bent on

tracing the affinities of the Asiatic and American races.]

In contemplating the religious system of the Aztecs, one is struck with

its apparent incongruity, as if some portion of it had emanated from a

comparatively refined people, open to gentle influences, while the rest

breathes a spirit of unmitigated ferocity. It naturally suggests the idea of

two distinct sources, and authorizes the belief that the Aztecs had inherited

from their predecessors a milder faith, on which was afterwards engrafted

their own mythology. The latter soon became dominant, and gave its dark

colouring to the creeds of the conquered nations, - which the Mexicans, like

the ancient Romans, seem willingly to have incorporated into their own,

- until the same funereal superstition settled over the farthest borders of


The Aztecs recognized the existence of a supreme Creator and Lord of the

universe. They addressed him, in their prayers, as "the God by whom we

live," "omnipresent, that knoweth all thoughts, and giveth all gifts,"

"without whom man is as nothing," "invisible, incorporeal, one God, of

perfect perfection and purity," "under whose wings we find repose and a sure

defence." These sublime attributes infer no inadequate conception of the

true God. But the idea of unity - of a being with whom volition is action,

who has no need of inferior ministers to execute his purposes - was too

simple, or too vast, for their understandings; and they sought relief, as

usual, in a plurality of deities, who presided over the elements, the changes

of the seasons, and the various occupations of man. ^2 Of these, there were

thirteen principal deities, and more than two hundred inferior; to each of

whom some special day or appropriate festival was consecrated. ^1

[Footnote 2: Ritter has well shown, by the example of the Hindoo system, how

the idea of unity suggests, of itself, that of plurality. History of Ancient

Philosophy, Eng. trans. (Oxford, 1838), book 2, ch. 1.]

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, passim. - Acosta, lib.

5, ch. 9. - Boturini, Idea, p. 8, et seq. - Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS.,

cap. 1. - Camargo, Hist. de Tlascala, MS. - The Mexicans, according to

Clavigero, believed in an evil Spirit, the enemy of the human race, whose

barbarous name signified "Rational Owl." (Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 2.)

The curate Bernaldez speaks of the Devil being embroidered on the dresses of

Columbus's Indians, in the likeness of an owl. (Historia de los Reyes

Catolicos, MS., cap. 1. 131.) This must not be confounded, however, with the

evil Spirit in the mythology of the North American Indians (see Heckewelder's

Account, ap. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society,

Philadelphia, vol. i. p. 205), still less with the evil Principle of the

Oriental nations of the Old World. It was only one among many deities, for

evil was found too liberally mingled in the natures of most of the Aztec

gods - in the same manner as with the Greeks - to admit of its

personification by any one.]

At the head of all stood the terrible Huitzilopochtli, the Mexican Mars;

although it is doing injustice to the heroic war-god of antiquity to identify

him with this sanguinary monster. This was the patron deity of the nation.

His fantastic image was loaded with costly ornaments. His temples were the

most stately and august of the public edifices; and his altars reeked with

the blood of human hecatombs in every city of the empire. Disastrous indeed

must have been the influence of such a superstition on the character of the

people. ^2

[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 3, cap. 1, et seq. - Acosta,

lib. 5, ch. 9. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 6, cap. 21. - Boturini, Idea,

pp. 27, 28. - Huitzilopochtli is compounded of two words, signifying

"humming-bird," and "left," from his image having the feathers of this bird on

its left foot (Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 17); an amiable

etymology for so ruffian a deity. - The fantastic forms of the Mexican idols

were in the highest degree symbolical. See Gama's learned exposition of the

devices on the statue of the goddess found in the great square of Mexico.

(Descripcion de las Dos Piedras (Mexico, 1832), Parte 1, pp. 34-44.) The

tradition respecting the origin of this god, or, at least, his appearance on

earth, is curious. He was born of a woman. His mother, a devout person, one

day, in her attendance on the temple, saw a ball of bright-coloured feathers

floating in the air. She took it, and deposited it in her bosom. She soon

after found herself pregnant, and the dread deity was born, coming into the

world, like Minerva, all armed, - with a spear in the right hand, a shield in

the left, and his head surmounted by a crest of green plumes. (See Clavigero,

Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 1O, et seq.) A similar notion in respect to the

incarnation of their principal deity existed among the people of India beyond

the Ganges, of China, and of Thibet. "Budh," says Milman, in his learned and

luminous work on the History of Christianity, "according to a tradition known

in the West, was born of a virgin. So were the Fohi of China, and the

Schakaof of Thibet, no doubt the same, whether a mythic or a real personage.

The Jesuits in China, says Borrow, were appalled at finding in the mythology

of that country the counterpart of the Virgo Deipara." (Vol. i. p. 99, note.)

The existence of similar religious ideas in remote regions, inhabited by

different races, is an interesting subject of study; furnishing, as it does,

one of the most important links in the great chain of communication which

binds together the distant families of nations.

Note: The name may possibly have referred to the whispered oracles and

intimations in dreams - such as "a little bird of the air" is still fabled to

convey - by which, according to the legend, the deity had guided his people in

their migrations and conquests. That it had a symbolical meaning will hardly

be doubted, and M. Brasseur de Bourbourg, who had originally explained it as

"Huitzil the Left-handed," - the proper name of a deified hero with the

addition of a descriptive epithet, - has since found one of too deep an import

to be briefly expounded or easily understood. (Quatre Lettres sur le Mexique

(Paris, 1868), p. 201, et al.) Mexitl, another name of the same deity, is

translated "the hare of the aloes." In some accounts the two are distinct

personages. Mythological science rejects the legend, and regards the Aztec

war-god as a "nature-deity," a personification of the lightning, this being a

natural type of warlike might, of which the common symbol, the serpent, was

represented among the decorations of the idol. (Myths of the New World, p.

118.) More commonly he has been identified with the sun, and Mr. Tylor, while

declining "to attempt a general solution of this inextricable compound

parthenogenetic deity," notices the association of his principal festival with

the winter's solstice, and the fact that his paste idol was then shot through

with an arrow, as tending to show that the life and death of the deity were

emblematic of the ear's, "while is functions of war-god may have been of later

addition." Primitive Culture, tom. ii. p. 279. - Ed.]

A far more interesting personage in their mythology was Quetzalcoatl,

god of the air, a divinity who, during his residence on earth, instructed the

natives in the use of metals, in agriculture, and in the arts of government.

He was one of those benefactors of their species, doubtless, who have been

deified by the gratitude of posterity. Under him, the earth teemed with

fruits and flowers, without the pains of culture. An ear of Indian corn was

as much as a single man could carry. The cotton, as it grew, took, of its

own accord, the rich dyes of human art. The air was filled with intoxicating

perfumes and the sweet melody of birds. In short, these were the halcyon

days, which find a place in the mythic systems of so many nations in the Old

World. It was the golden age of Anahuac.

From some cause, not explained, Quetzalcoatl incurred the wrath of one

of the principal gods, and was compelled to abandon the country. On his way

he stopped at the city of Cholula, where a temple was dedicated to his

worship, the massy ruins of which still form one of the most interesting

relics of antiquity in Mexico. When he reached the shores of the Mexican

Gulf, he took leave of his followers, promising that he and his descendants

would revisit them hereafter, and then, entering his wizard skiff, made of

serpents' skins, embarked on the great ocean for the fabled land of

Tlapallan. He was said to have been tall in stature, with a white skin,

long, dark hair, and a flowing beard. The Mexicans looked confidently to the

return of the benevolent deity; and this remarkable tradition, deeply

cherished in their hearts, prepared the way, as we shall see hereafter, for

the future success of the Spaniards. ^1

[Footnote 1: Codex Vaticanus, Pl. 15, and Codex Telleriano - Remensis, Part.

2, Pl. 2, ap. Antiq. of Mexico, vols. i., vi. - Sahagun, Hist. de

Nueva-Espana, lib. 3, cap. 3, 4, 13, 14. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 6,

cap. 24. - Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 1. - Gomara, Cronica de la

Nueva-Espana, cap. 222, ap. Barcia, Historiadores primitivos de las Indias

Occidentales (Madrid, 1749), tom. ii. - Quetzalcoatl signifies "feathered

serpent." The last syllable means, likewise, a "twin;" which lurnished an

argument for Dr. Siguenza, to identify this god with the apostle Thomas

(Didymus signifying also a twin), who, he supposes, came over to America to

preach the gospel. In this rather startling conjecture he is supported by

several of his devout countrymen, who appear to have as little doubt of the

fact as of the advent of St. James, for a similar purpose, in the

mother-country. See the various authorities and arguments set forth with

becoming gravity in Dr. Mier's dissertation in Bustamante's edition of Sahagun

(lib. 3, Suplem.), and Veytia (tom. i. pp. 60-200). Our ingenious countryman

McCulloh carries the Aztec god up to a still more respectable antiquity, by

identifying him with the patriarch Noah. Researches, Philosophical and

Antiquarian, concerning the Aboriginal History of America (Baltimore, 1829),

p. 233.

Note: Under the modern system of mythical interpretation, which has been

applied by Dr. Brinton with singular force and ingenuity to the traditions of

the New World, Quetzalcoatl, "the central figure of Toltec mythology," with

the corresponding figures found in the legends of the Mayas, Quiches,

Peruvians, and other races, loses all personal existence, and becomes a

creation of that primitive religious sentiment which clothed the

uncomprehended powers of nature with the attributes of divinity. His name,

"Bird-Serpent," unites the emblems of the wind and the lightning. "He is both

lord of the eastern light and the winds. As the former, he was born of a

virgin in the land of Tula or Tlapallan, in the distant Orient, and was

high-priest of that happy realm. The morning star was his symbol. . . . Like

all the dawn heroes, he too was represented as of white complexion, clothed in

long white robes, and, as most of the Aztec gods, with a full and flowing

beard. When his earthly work was done, he too returned to the east, assigning

as a reason that the sun, the ruler of Tlapallan, demanded his presence. But

the real motive was that he had been overcome by Tezcatlipoca, otherwise

called Yoalliehecatl, the wind or spirit of the night, who had descended from

heaven by a spider's web and presented his rival with a draught pretended to

confer immortality, but, in fact, producing uncontrollable longing for home.

For the wind and the light both depart when the gloaming draws near, or when

the clouds spread their dark and shadowy webs along the mountains and pour the

vivifying rain upon the fields. . . . Wherever he went, all manner of

singing-birds bore him company, emblems of the whistling breezes. When he

finally disappeared in the far east, he sent back four trusty youths, who had

ever shared his fortunes, incomparably swift and light of foot, with

directions to divide the earth between them and rule it till he should return

and resume his power." (The Myths of the New World, p. 180, et seq.) So far as

mere physical attributes are concerned, this analysis may be accepted as a

satisfactory elucidation of the class of figures to which it relates. But the

grand and distinguishing characteristic of these figures is the moral and

intellectual eminence ascribed to them. They are invested with the highest

qualities of humanity, - attributes neither drawn from the external phenomena

of nature nor born of any rude sentiment of wonder and fear. Their lives and

doctrines are in strong contrast with those of the ordinary divinities of the

same or other lands, and they are objects not of a propitiatory worship, but

of a pious veneration. Can we, then, assent to the conclusion that under this

aspect also they were "wholly mythical," "creations of the religious fancy,"

"ideals summing up in themselves the best traits, the most approved virtues,

of whole nations"? (Ibid., pp. 293, 294.) This would seem to imply that

nations may attain to lofty conceptions of moral truth and excellence by a

process of selection, without any standard or point of view furnished by

living embodiments of the ideal. But this would be as impossible as to arrive

at conceptions of the highest forms and ideas of art independently of the

special genius and actual productions of the artist. In the one case, as in

the other, the ideal is derived originally from examples shaped by finer and

deeper intuitions than those of the masses. "Im Anfang war die That." The

mere fact, therefore, that the Mexican people recognized an exalted ideal of

purity and wisdom is a sufficient proof that men had existed among them who

displayed these qualities in an eminent degree. The status of their

civilization, imperfect as it was, can be accounted for only in the same way.

Comparative mythology may resolve into its original elements a personification

of the forces of nature woven by the religious fancy of primitive races, but

it cannot sever that chain of discoverers and civilizers by which mankind has

been drawn from the abysses of savage ignorance, and by which its progress.

when uninterrupted has been always maintained. - Ed.]

We have not space for further details respecting the Mexican divinities

the attributes of many of whom were carefully defined, as they descended, in

regular gradation, to the penates or household gods, whose little images were

to be found in the humblest dwelling.

The Aztecs felt the curiosity, common to man in almost every stage of

civilization, to lift the veil which covers the mysterious past and the more

awful future. They sought relief, like the nations of the Old Continent,

from the oppressive idea of eternity, by breaking it up into distinct cycles,

or periods of time, each of several thousand years' duration. There were

four of these cycles, and at the end of each, by the agency of one of the

elements, the human family was swept from the earth, and the sun blotted out

from the heavens, to be again rekindled. ^1

[Footnote 1: Cod. Vat., Pl. 7-10, Antiq. of Mexico, vols. i., vi. -

Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 1. - M. de Humboldt has been at some

pains to trace the analogy between the Aztec cosmogony and that of Eastern

Asia. He has tried, though in vain, to find a multiple which might serve as

the key to the calculations of the former. (Vues des Cordilleres, pp.

202-212.) In truth, there seems to be a material discordance in the Mexican

statements, both in regard to the number of revolutions and their duration.

A manuscript before me, of Ixtlilxochitl, reduces them to three, before the

present state of the world, and allows only 4394 years for them (Sumaria

Relacion, MS., No. 1); Gama, on the faith of an ancient Indian MS. in

Boturini's Catalogue (viii. 13), reduces the duration still lower (Descripcion

de las Dos Piedras, Parte 1, p. 49, et seq.); while the cycles of the Vatican

paintings take up near 18,000 years. - It is interesting to observe how the

wild conjectures of an ignorant age have been confirmed by the more recent

discoveries in geology, making it probable that the earth has experienced a

number of convulsions, possibly thousands of years distant from each other,

which have swept away the races then existing, and given a new aspect to the


They imagined three separate states of existence in the future life.

The wicked, comprehending the greater part of mankind, were to expiate their

sins in a place of everlasting darkness. Another class, with no other merit

than that of having died of certain diseases capriciously selected, were to

enjoy a negative existence of indolent contentment. The highest place was

reserved, as in most warlike nations, for the heroes who fell in battle, or

in sacrifice. They passed at once into the presence of the Sun, whom they

accompanied with songs and choral dances in his bright progress through the

heavens; and, after some years, their spirits went to animate the clouds and

singing-birds of beautiful plumage, and to revel amidst the rich blossoms and

odours of the gardens of paradise. ^2 Such was the heaven of the Aztecs; more

refined in its character than that of the more polished pagan, whose elysium

reflected only the martial sports or sensual gratifications of this life. ^3

In the destiny they assigned to the wicked, we discern similar traces of

refinement; since the absence of all physical torture forms a striking

contrast to the schemes of suffering so ingeniously devised by the fancies of

the most enlightened nations. ^1 In all this, so contrary to the natural

suggestions of the ferocious Aztec, we see the evidences of a higher

civilization, ^2 inherited from their predecessors in the land.

[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 3, Apend. - Cod. Vat., ap.

Antiq. of Mexico, Pl. 1-5. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 13, cap. 48. -

The last writer assures us "that, as to what the Aztecs said of their going to

hell, they were right; for, as they died in ignorance of the true faith, they

have, without question, all gone there to suffer everlasting punishment"! Ubi


[Footnote 3: It conveys but a poor idea of these pleasures, that the shade of

Achilles can say "he had rather be the slave of the meanest man on earth, than

sovereign among the dead." (Odyss., A. 488-490.) The Mahometans believe that

the souls of martyrs pass, after death, into the bodies of birds, that haunt

the sweet waters and bowers of Paradise. (Sale's Koran (London, 1825), vol.

i. p. 106.) - The Mexican heaven may remind one of Dante's, in its material

enjoyments; which, in both, are made up of light, music, and motion. The sun,

it must also be remembered, was a spiritual conception with the Aztec: -

"He sees with other eyes than theirs; where they

Behold a sun, he spies a deity."]

[Footnote 1: It is singular that the Tuscan bard, while exhausting his

invention in devising modes of bodily torture, in his "Inferno," should have

made so little use of the moral sources of misery. That he has not done so

might be reckoned a strong proof of the rudeness of the time, did we not meet

with examples of it in a later day; in which a serious and sublime writer,

like Dr. Watts, does not disdain to employ the same coarse machinery for

moving the conscience of the reader.]

[Footnote 2: It should perhaps be regarded rather as evidence of a low

civilization, since the absence of any strict ideas of retribution is a

characteristic of the notions in regard to a future life entertained by savage

races. See Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. ii. p. 76, et seq. - Ed.]

Our limits will allow only a brief allusion to one or two of their most

interesting ceremonies. On the death of a person, his corpse was dressed in

the peculiar habiliments of his tutelar deity. It was strewed with pieces of

paper, which operated as charms against the dangers of the dark road he was

to travel. A throng of slaves, if he were rich, was sacrificed at his

obsequies. His body was burned, and the ashes, collected in a vase, were

preserved in one of the apartments of his house. Here we have successively

the usages of the Roman Catholic, the Mussulman, the Tartar, and the ancient

Greek and Roman; curious coincidences, which may show how cautious we should

be in adopting conclusions founded on analogy. ^3

[Footnote 3: Carta del Lic. Zuazo (Nov. 1521), MS. - Acosta, lib. 5 cap.

8. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 13, cap. 45. - Sahagun, Hist. de

Nueva-Espana, lib. 3, Apend. - Sometimes the body was buried entire, with

valuable treasures, if the deceased was rich. The "Anonymous Conqueror," as

he is called, saw gold to the value of 3000 castellanos drawn from one of

these tombs. Relatione d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. p. 310.]

A more extraordinary coincidence may be traced with Christian rites, in

the ceremony of naming their children. The lips and bosom of the infant were

sprinkled with water, and "the Lord was implored to permit the holy drops to

wash away the sin that was given to it before the foundation of the world; so

that the child might be born anew." ^4 We are reminded of Christian morals,

in more than one of their prayers, in which they used regular forms. "Wilt

thou blot us out, O Lord, for ever? Is this punishment intended, not for our

reformation, but for our destruction?" Again, "Impart to us, out of thy

great mercy, thy gifts, which we are not worthy to receive through our own

merits." "Keep peace with all," says another petition; "bear injuries with

humility; God, who sees, will avenge you." But the most striking parallel

with Scripture is in the remarkable declaration that "he who looks too

curiously on a woman commits adultery with his eyes." ^5 These pure and

elevated maxims, it is true, are mixed up with others of a puerile, and even

brutal character, arguing that confusion of the moral perceptions which is

natural in the twilight of civilization. One would not expect, however, to

meet, in such a state of society, with doctrines as sublime as any inculcated

by the enlightened codes of ancient philosophy. ^1

[Footnote 4: This interesting rite, usually solemnized with great formality,

in the presence of the assembled friends and relatives, is detailed with

minuteness by Sahagun (Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 37), and by Zuazo

(Carta, MS.), both of them eyewitnesses. For a version of part of Sahagun's

account, see Appendix, Part 1, note 26.

Note: A similar rite of baptism, founded on the natural symbolism of the

purifying power of water, was practised by other races in America, and had

existed in the East, as the reader need hardly be told, long anterior to

Christianity. - Ed.]

[Footnote 5: "Es posible que este azote y este castigo no se nos da para

nuestra correccion y enmienda, sino para total destruccion y asolamiento?"

(Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 6, cap. 1.) "Y esto por sola vuestra

liberalidad y magnificencia lo habeis de hacer, que ninguno es digno ni

merecedor de recibir vuestra larguezas por su dignidad y merecimiento, sino

que por vuestra benignidad." (Ibid., lib. 6, cap. 2.) "Sed sufridos y

reportados, que Dios bien os ve y respondera por vosotros, y el os vengara

(a) sed humildes con todos, y con esto os hara Dios merced y tambien honra."

(Ibid., lib. 6, cap. 17.) "Tampoco mires con curiosidad el gesto y disposicion

de la gente principal, mayormente de las mugeres, y sobre todo de las

casadas, porque dice el refran que el que curiosamente mira a la muger

adultera con la vista." (Ibid., lib. 6, cap. 22.)]

[Footnote 1: [On reviewing the remarkable coincidences shown in the above

pages with the sentiments and even the phraseology of Scripture, we cannot but

admit there is plausible ground for Mr. Gallatin's conjecture that the

Mexicans, after the Conquest, attributed to their remote ancestors ideas which

more properly belonged to a generation coeval with the Conquest, and brought

into contact with the Euroeans. "The substance," he remarks, "may be true;

but several of the prayers convey elevated and correct notions of a Supreme

Being, which appear to me altogether inconsistent with that which we know to

have been their practical religion and worship." Transactions of the American

Ethnological Society, i. 210.]

Note: It is evident that an inconsistency such as belongs to all

religions, and to human nature in general, affords no sufficient ground for

doubting the authenticity of the prayers reported by Sahagun. Similar

specimens of prayers used by the Peruvians have been preserved, and, like

those of the Aztecs, exhibit, in their recognition of spiritual as distinct

from material blessings, a contrast to the forms of petition employed by the

wholly uncivilized races of the north. They are in harmony with the purer

conceptions of morality which those nations are admitted to have possessed,

and which formed the real basis of their civilization. - Ed.]

But, although the Aztec mythology gathered nothing from the beautiful

inventions of the poet, or from the refinements of philosophy, it was much

indebted, as I have noticed, to the priests, who endeavoured to dazzle the

imagination of the people by the most formal and pompous ceremonial. The

influence of the priesthood must be greatest in an imperfect state of

civilization, where it engross all the scanty science of the time in its own

body. This is particularly the case when the science is of that spurious

kind which is less occupied with the real phenomena of nature than with the

fanciful chimeras of human superstition. Such are the sciences of astrology

and divination, in which the Aztec priests were well initiated; and, while

they seemed to hold the keys of the future in their own hands, they impressed

the ignorant people with sentiments of superstitious awe, beyond that which

has probably existed in any other country, - even in ancient Egypt.

The sacerdotal order was very numerous; as may be inferred from the

statement that five thousand priests were, in some way or other, attached to

the principal temple in the capital. The various ranks and functions of this

multitudinous body were discriminated with great exactness. Those best

instructed in music took the management of the choirs. Others arranged the

festivals conformably to the calendar. Some superintended the education of

youth, and others had charge of the hieroglyphical paintings and oral

traditions; while the dismal rites of sacrifice were reserved for the chief

dignitaries of the order. At the head of the whole establishment were two

high-priests, elected from the order, as it would seem, by the king and

principal nobles, without reference to birth, but solely for their

qualifications, as shown by their previous conduct in a subordinate station.

They were equal in dignity, and inferior only to the sovereign, who rarely

acted without their advice in weighty matters of public concern. ^2

[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, Apend.; lib. 3, cap.

9. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 8, cap. 20; lib. 9, cap. 3, 56. -

Gomara, Cron. cap. 215, ap. Barcia, tom. ii. - Toribio, Hist. de los Indios,

MS., Parte 1, cap. 4. - Clavigero says that the high-priest was necessarily a

person of rank. (Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 37.) I find no authority

for this, not even in his oracle, Torquemada, who expressly says, "There is

no warrant for the assertion, however probable the fact may be." (Mon. Ind.,

lib. 9, cap. 5.) It is contradicted by Sahagun, whom I have followed as the

highest authority in these matters. Clavigero had no other knowledge of

Sahagun's work than what was filtered through the writings of Torquemada and

later authors.]

The priests were each devoted to the service of some particular deity;

and had quarters provided within the spacious precincts of their temple, at

least, while engaged in immediate attendance there, - for they were allowed

to marry, and have families of their own. In this monastic residence they

lived in all the stern severity of conventual discipline. Thrice during the

day, and once at night, they were called to prayers. They were frequent in

their ablutions and vigils, and mortified the flesh by fasting and cruel

penance, - drawing blood from their bodies by flagellation, or by piercing

them with the thorns of the aloe; in short, by practising all those

austerities to which fanaticism (to borrow the strong language of the poet)

has resorted, in every age of the world,

"In hopes to merit heaven by making earth a hell." ^1

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, ubi supra. - Torquemada,

Monarch. Ind., lib. 9, cap. 25. - Gomara, Cron., ap. Barcia, ubi supra. -

Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 14, 17.]

The great cities were divided into districts placed under the charge of

a sort of parochial clergy, who regulated every act of religion within their

precincts. It is remarkable that they administered the rites of confession

and absolution. The secrets of the confessional were held inviolable, and

penances were imposed of much the same kind as those enjoined in the Roman

Catholic Church. There were two remarkable peculiarities in the Aztec

ceremony. The first was, that, as the repetition of an offence once atoned

for was deemed inexpiable, confession was made but once in a man's life, and

was usually deferred to a late period of it, when the penitent unburdened his

conscience and settled at once the long arrears of iniquity. Another

peculiarity was, that priestly absolution was received in place of the legal

punishment of offences, and authorized an acquittal in case of arrest. Long

after the Conquest, the simple natives, when they came under the arm of the

law, sought to escape by producing the certificate of their confession. ^2

[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 1, cap. 12; lib. 6, cap. 7.

- The address of the confessor, on these occasions, contains some things too

remarkable to be omitted. "O merciful Lord," he says, in his prayer, "thou

who knowest the secrets of all hearts, let thy forgiveness and favour

descend, like the pure waters of heaven, to wash away the stains from the

soul. Thou knowest that this poor man has sinned not from his own free-will,

but from the influence of the sign under which he was born." After a copious

exhortation to the penitent, enjoining a variety of mortifications and minute

ceremonies by way of penance, and particularly urging the necessity of

instantly procuring a slave for sacrifice to the Deity, the priest concludes

with inculcating charity to the poor. "Clothe the naked and feed the hungry,

whatever privations it may cost thee; for remember, their flesh is like

thine, and they are men like thee." Such is the strange medley of truly

Christian benevolence and heathenish abominations which pervades the Aztec

litany, - intimating sources widely different.]

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