Mexican Mythology Before Columbus

Mexican Mythology

Preliminary View Of The Aztec Civilization.
Author: Prescott, William H.

One of the most important duties of the priesthood was that of education,
to which certain buildings were appropriated within the enclosure of the
principal temple. Here the youth of both sexes, of the higher and middling
orders, were placed at a very tender age. The girls were entrusted to the
care of priestesses; for women were allowed to exercise sacerdotal functions,
except those of sacrifice. ^1 In these institutions the boys were drilled in
the routine of monastic discipline; they decorated the shrines of the gods
with flowers, fed the sacred fires, and took part in the religious chants and
festivals. Those in the higher school - the Calmecac, as it was called
- were initiated in their traditionary lore, the mysteries of hieroglyphics,
the principles of government, and such branches of astronomical and natural
science as were within the compass of the priesthood. The girls learned
various feminine employments, especially to weave and embroider rich coverings
for the altars of the gods. Great attention was paid to the moral discipline
of both sexes. The most perfect decorum prevailed; and offences were punished
with extreme rigour, in some instances with death itself. Terror, not love,
was the spring of education with the Aztecs. ^2

[Footnote 1: The Egyptian gods were also served by priestesses. (See
Herodotus, Euterpe, sec. 54.) Tales of scandal similar to those which
the Greeks circulated respecting them, have been told of the Aztec virgins.
(See Le Noir's dissertation, ap. Antiquites Mexicaines (Paris, 1834), tom.
ii. p. 7, note.) The early missionaries, credulous enough, certainly, give
no countenance to such reports; and Father Acosta, on the contrary,
exclaims, "In truth, it is very strange to see that this false opinion of
religion hath so great force among these young men and maidens of Mexico,
that they will serve the Divell with so great rigor and austerity, which
many of us doe not in the service of the most high God; the which is a
great shame and confusion." Eng. trans., lib. 5, cap. 16.]

[Footnote 2: Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 1, cap. 9. - Sahagun,
Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, Apend.; lib. 3, cap. 4-8. - Zurita, Rapport,
pp. 123-126. - Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 15, 16. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind.,
lib. 9, cap. 11-14, 30, 31. - "They were taught," says the good father last
cited, "to eschew vice, and cleave to virtue, - according to their notions
of them; namely, to abstain from wrath, to offer violence and do wrong to
no man, - in short, to perform the duties plainly pointed out by natural

At a suitable age for marrying, or for entering into the world, the
pupils were dismissed, with much ceremony, from the convent, and the
recommendation of the principal often introduced those most competent to
responsible situations in public life. Such was the crafty policy of the
Mexican priests, who, by reserving to themselves the business of instruction,
were enabled to mould the young and plastic mind according to their own
wills, and to train it early to implicit reverence for religion and its
ministers; a reverence which still maintained its hold on the iron nature of
the warrior, long after every other vestige of education had been effaced by
the rough trade to which he was devoted.

To each of the principal temples, lands were annexed for the maintenance
of the priests. These estates were augmented by the policy or devotion of
successive princes, until, under the last Montezuma, they had swollen to an
enormous extent, and covered every district of the empire. The priests took
the management of their property into their own hands; and they seem to have
treated their tenants with the liberality and indulgence characteristic of
monastic corporations. Besides the large supplies drawn from this source,
the religious order was enriched with the first-fruits, and such other
offerings as piety or superstition dictated. The surplus beyond what was
required for the support of the national worship was distributed in alms
among the poor; a duty strenuously prescribed by their moral code. Thus we
find the same religion inculcating lessons of pure philanthropy, on the one
hand, and of merciless extermination, as we shall soon see, on the other.
The inconsistency will not appear incredible to those who are familiar with
the history of the Roman Catholic Church, in the early ages of the
Inquisition. ^1

[Footnote 1: Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 8, cap. 20, 21. - Camargo,
Hist. de Tlascala, MS. - It is impossible not to be struck with the great
resemblance, not merely in a few empty forms, but in the whole way of life,
of the Mexican and Egyptian priesthood. Compare Herodotus (Euterpe, passim)
and Diodorus (lib. 1, sec. 73, 81). The English reader may consult, for the
same purpose, Heeren (Hist. Res., vol. v. chap. 2), Wilkinson (Manners and
Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (London, 1837), vol. i. pp. 257-279), the
last writer especially, - who has contributed, more than all others, towards
opening to us the interior of the social life of this interesting people.]

The Mexican temples - teocallis, "houses of God," as they were called ^2
- were very numerous. There were several hundreds in each of the principal
cities, many of them, doubtless, very humble edifices. They were solid
masses of earth, cased with brick or stone, and in their form somewhat
resembled the pyramidal structures of ancient Egypt. The bases of many of
them were more than a hundred feet square, and they towered to a still
greater height. They were distributed into four or five stories, each of
smaller dimensions than that below. The ascent was by a flight of steps, at
an angle of the pyramid, on the outside. This led to a sort of terrace or
gallery, at the base of the second story, which passed quite round the
building to another flight of stairs, commencing also at the same angle as
the preceding and directly over it, and leading to a similar terrace; so that
one had to make the circuit of the temple several times before reaching the
summit. In some instances the stairway led directly up the centre of the
western face of the building. The top was a broad area, on which were
erected one or two towers, forty or fifty feet high, the sanctuaries in which
stood the sacred images of the presiding deities. Before these towers stood
the dreadful stone of sacrifice, and two lofty altars, on which fires were
kept, as inextinguishable as those in the temple of Vesta. There were said
to be six hundred of these altars, on smaller buildings within the enclosure
of the great temple of Mexico, which, with those on the sacred edifices in
other parts of the city, shed a brilliant illumination over its streets,
through the darkest night. ^3

[Footnote 2: Humboldt has noticed the curious similarity of the word teocalli
with the Greek compound - actual or possible; and Buschmann observes, "Die
Uebereinstimmung des mex. teotl und arithmetisch sehr hoch anzuschlagen wegen
des Doppelvocals, zeigt wie weit es der Zufall in Wortahnlichkeiten zwischen
ganz verschiedenen Sprachen bringen kann." Ueber die aztekischen Ortsnamen, S.
627. - Ed.]

[Footnote 3: Rel. d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tem. iii. fol. 307.
- Camargo, Hist. de Tlascala, MS. - Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 13. - Gomara, Cron.,
cap. 80, ap. Barcia, tom. ii. - Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS., Parte 1,
cap. 4. - Carta del Lic. Zuazo, MS. - This last writer, who visited Mexico
immediately after the Conquest, in 1521, assures us that some of the smaller
temples, or pyramids, were filled with earth impregnated with odoriferous
gums and gold dust; the latter sometimes in such quantities as probably to be
worth a million of castellanos! (Ubi supra.) These were the temples of
Mammon, indeed! But I find no confirmation of such golden reports.]

From the construction of their temples, all religious services were
public. The long processions of priests winding round their massive sides,
as they rose higher and higher towards the summit, and the dismal rites of
sacrifice performed there, were all visible from the remotest corners of the
capital, impressing on the spectator's mind a superstitious veneration for
the mysteries of his religion, and for the dread ministers by whom they were

This impression was kept in full force by their numerous festivals.
Every month was consecrated to some protecting deity; and every week, nay,
almost every day, was set down in their calendar for some appropriate
celebration; so that it is difficult to undertand how the ordinary business
of life could have been compatible with the exactions of religion. Many of
their ceremonies were of a light and cheerful complexion, consisting of the
national songs and dances, in which both sexes joined. Processions were made
of women and children crowned with garlands and bearing offerings of fruits,
the ripened maize, or the sweet incense of copal and other odoriferous gums,
while the altars of the deity were stained with no blood save that of
animals. ^1 These were the peaceful rites derived from their Toltec
predecessors, on which the fierce Aztecs engrafted a superstition too
loathsome to be exhibited in all its nakedness, and one over which I would
gladly draw a veil altogether, but that it would leave the reader in
ignorance of their most striking institution, and one that had the greatest
influence in forming the national character.

[Footnote 1: Cod. Tel.-Rem., Pl. 1, and Cod. Vat., passim, ap. Antiq. of
Mexico, vols. i., vi. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 10, cap. 10, et seq.
- Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, passim. - Among the offerings,
quails may be particularly noticed, for the incredible quantities of them
sacrificed and consumed at many of the festivals.]

Human sacrifices were adopted by the Aztecs early in the fourteenth
century, about two hundred years before the Conquest. ^2 Rare at first, they
became more frequent with the wider extent of their empire; till, at length,
almost every festival was closed with this cruel abomination. These
religious ceremonials were generally arranged in such a manner as to afford a
type of the most prominent circumstances in the character or history of the
deity who was the object of them. A single example will suffice.

[Footnote 2: The traditions of their origin have somewhat of a fabulous
tinge. But, whether true or false, they are equally indicative of
unparalleled ferocity in the people who could be the subject of them.
Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. i. p. 167, et seq.; also Humboldt (who
does not appear to doubt them) Vues des Cordilleres, p. 95.]

One of their most important festivals was that in honour of the god
Tezcatlipoca, whose rank was inferior only to that of the Supreme Being. He
was called "the soul of the world," and supposed to have been its creator.
He was depicted as a handsome man, endowed with perpetual youth. A year
before the intended sacrifice, a captive, distinguished for his personal
beauty, and without a blemish on his body, was selected to represent this
deity. Certain tutors took charge of him, and instructed him how to perform
his new part with becoming grace and dignity. He was arrayed in a splendid
dress, regaled with incense and with a profusion of sweet-scented flowers, of
which the ancient Mexicans were as fond as their descendants at the present
day. When he went abroad, he was attended by a train of the royal pages, and
as he halted in the streets to play some favourite melody, the crowd
prostrated themselves before him, and did him homage as the representative of
their good deity. In this way he led an easy, luxurious life, till within a
month of his sacrifice. Four beautiful girls, bearing the names of the
principal goddesses, were then selected to share the honours of his bed; and
with them he continued to live in idle dalliance, feasted at the banquets of
the principal nobles, who paid him all the honours of a divinity.

At length the fatal day of sacrifice arrived. The term of his
short lived glories was at an end. He was stripped of his gaudy apparel, and
bade adieu to the fair partners of his revelries. One of the royal barges
transported him across the lake to a temple which rose on its margin, about a
league from the city. Hither the inhabitants of the capital flocked, to
witness the consummation of the ceremony. As the sad procession wound up the
sides of the pyramid, the unhappy victim threw away his gay chaplets of
flowers, and broke in pieces the musical instruments with which he had
solaced the hours of captivity. On the summit he was received by six
priests, whose long and matted locks flowed disorderly over their sable
robes, covered with hieroglyphic scrolls of mystic import. They led him to
the sacrificial stone, a huge block of jasper, with its upper surface
somewhat convex. On this the prisoner was stretched. Five priests secured
his head and his limbs; while the sixth, clad in a scarlet mantle, emblematic
of his bloody office, dexterously opened the breast of the wretched victim
with a sharp razor of itztli, - a volcanic substance, hard as flint, - and,
inserting his hand in the wound, tore out the palpitating heart. The
minister of death, first holding this up towards the sun, an object of
worship throughout Anahuac, cast it at the feet of the deity to whom the
temple was devoted, while the multitudes below prostrated themselves in
humble adoration. The tragic story of this prisoner was expounded by the
priests as the type of human destiny, which, brilliant in its commencement,
too often closes in sorrow and disaster. ^1

[Footnote 1: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, cap. 2, 5, 24, et
alibi. - Herrera, Hist. general, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 16. - Torquemada,
Monarch. Ind., lib. 7, cap. 19; lib. 10, cap. 14. - Rel. d'un gentil' huomo,
ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 307. - Acosta, lib. 5, cap. 9-21. - Carta del
Lic. Zuazo, MS. - Relacion por el Regimiento de Vera Cruz (Julio, 1519),
MS. - Few readers, probably, will sympathize with the sentence of Torquemada,
who concludes his tale of woe by coolly dismissing "the soul of the victim,
to sleep with those of his false gods, in hell!" Lib. 10, cap. 23.]

Such was the form of human sacrifice usually practised by the Aztecs.
It was the same that often met the indignant eyes of the Europeans in their
progress through the country, and from the dreadful doom of which they
themselves were not exempted. There were, indeed, some occasions when
preliminary tortures, of the most exquisite kind, - with which it is
unnecessary to shock the reader, - were inflicted, but they always terminated
with the bloody ceremony above described. It should be remarked, however,
that such tortures were not the spontaneous suggestions of cruelty, as with
the North American Indians, but were all rigorously prescribed in the Aztec
ritual, and doubtless were often inflicted with the same compunctious
visitings which a devout familiar of the Holy Office might at times
experience in executing its stern decrees. ^2 Women, as well as the other
sex, were sometimes reserved for sacrifice. On some occasions, particularly
in seasons of drought, at the festival of the insatiable Tlaloc, the god of
rain, children, for the most part infants, were offered up. As they were
borne along in open litters, dressed in their festal robes, and decked with
the fresh blossoms of spring, they moved the hardest heart to pity, though
their cries were drowned in the wild chant of the priests, who read in their
tears a favourable augury for their petition. These innocent victims were
generally bought by the priests of parents who were poor, but who stifled the
voice of nature, probably less at the suggestions of poverty than of a
wretched superstition. ^3

[Footnote 2: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, cap 10, 29. - Gomara,
Cron., cap. 219, ap. Barcia, tom ii. - Toribio, Hist. de los Indios, MS.,
Parte 1, cap. 6-11. - The reader will find a tolerably exact picture of the
nature of these tortures in the twenty-first canto of the "Inferno." The
fantastic creations of the Florentine poet were nearly realized, at the very
time he was writing, by the barbarians of an unknown world. One sacrifice,
of a less revolting character, deserves to be mentioned. The Spaniards
called it the "gladiatorial sacrifice," and it may remind one of the bloody
games of antiquity. A captive of distinction was sometimes furnished with
arms, and brought against a number of Mexicans in succession. If he defeated
them all, as did occasionally happen, he was allowed to escape. If
vanquished, he was dragged to the block and sacrificed in the usual manner.
The combat was fought on a huge circular stone, before the assembled capital.
Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, cap. 21. - Rel. d'un gentil' huomo,
ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 305.]

[Footnote 3: Sahagun, Hist. de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, cap. 1, 4, 21, et alibi.
- Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 10, cap. 10. - Clavigero, Stor. del Messico,
tom. ii. pp. 76, 82.]

The most loathsome part of the story - the manner in which the body of
the sacrificed captive was disposed of - remains yet to be told. It was
delivered to the warrior who had taken him in battle, and by him, after being
dressed, was served up in an entertainment to his friends. This was not the
coarse repast of famished cannibals, but a banquet teeming with delicious
beverages and delicate viands, prepared with art, and attended by both sexes,
who, as we shall see hereafter, conducted themselves with all the decorum of
civilized life. Surely, never were refinement and the extreme of barbarism
brought so closely in contact with each other. ^2

[Footnote 2: Carta del Lic. Zuazo, MS. - Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib. 7,
cap. 19. - Herrera, Hist. general, dec. 3, lib. 2, cap. 17. - Sahagun, Hist.
de Nueva-Espana, lib. 2, cap. 21, et alibi. - Toribio, Hist. de los Indios,
MS., Parte 1, cap. 2.]

Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not excepting the
most polished nations of antiquity; ^3 but never by any, on a scale to be
compared with those in Anahuac. The amount of victims immolated on its
accursed altars would stagger the faith of the least scrupulous believer.
Scarcely any author pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifices throughout the
empire at less than twenty thousand, and some carry the number as high as
fifty thousand! ^4

[Footnote 3: To say nothing of Egypt, where, notwithstanding the indications
on the monuments, there is strong reason for doubting it. (Comp. Herodotus,
Euterpe, sec. 45.) It was of frequent occurrence among the Greeks, as every
schoolboy knows. In Rome, it was so common as to require to be interdicted
by an express law, less than a hundred years before the Christian era, - a
law recorded in a very honest strain of exultation by Pliny (Hist. Nat., lib.
30, sec. 3, 4); notwithstanding which, traces of the existence of the
practice may be discerned to a much later period. See, among others, Horace,
Epod., In Canidiam.]

[Footnote 4: See Clavigero, Stor. del Messico, tom. ii. p. 49. - Bishop
Zumarraga, in a letter written a few years after the Conquest, states that
20,000 victims were yearly slaughtered in the capital. Torquemada turns this
into 20,000 infants. (Monarch. Ind., lib. 7, cap. 21.) Herrera, following
Acosta, says 20,000 victims on a specified day of the year throughout the
kingdom. (Hist. general, dec. 2, lib. 2, cap. 16.) Clavigero, more cautious,
infers that this number may have been sacrificed annually throughout Anahuac.
(Ubi supra.) Las Casas, however, in his reply to Sepulveda's assertion, that
no one who had visited the New World put the number of yearly sacrifices at
less than 20,000, declares that "this is the estimate of brigands, who wish
to find an apology for their own atrocities, and that the real number was not
above 50"! (Euvres, ed. Llorente (Paris, 1822), tom. i. pp. 365, 386.)
Probably the good Bishop's arithmetic here, as in most other instances, came
more from his heart than his head. With such loose and contradictory data,
it is clear that any specific number is mere conjecture, undeserving the
name of calculation.]

On great occasions, as the coronation of a king or the consecration of a
temple, the number becomes still more appalling. At the dedication of the
great temple of Huitzilopochtli, in 1486, the prisoners, who for some years
had been reserved for the purpose, were drawn from all quarters to the
capital. They were ranged in files, forming a procession nearly two miles
long. The ceremony consumed several days, and seventy thou and captives are
said to have perished at the shrine of this terrible deity! But who can
believe that so numerous a body would have suffered themselves to be led
unresistingly like sheep to the slaughter? Or how could their remains, too
great for consumption in the ordinary way, be disposed of, without breeding a
pestilence in the capital? Yet the event was of recent date, and is
unequivocally attested by the best-informed historians. ^1 One fact may be
considered certain. It was customary to preserve the skulls of the
sacrificed in buildings appropriated to the purpose. The companions of
Cortes counted one hundred and thirty-six thousand in one of these
edifices! ^2 Without attempting a precise calculation, therefore, it is safe
to conclude that thousands were yearly offered up, in the different cities of
Anahuac, on the bloody altars of the Mexican divinities. ^3

[Footnote 1: I am within bounds. Torquemada states the number, most
precisely, at 72,344 (Monarch. Ind., lib. 2, cap. 63); Ixtlilxochitl, with
equal precision, at 80,400. (Hist. Chich., MS.) Quien sabe? The latter
adds that the captives massacred in the capital, in the course of that
memorable year, exceeded 100,000! (Loc. cit.) One, however, has to read but
a little way, to find out that the science of numbers - at least where the
party was not an eye-witness - is anything but an exact science with these
ancient chroniclers. The Codex Telleriano - Remensis, written some fifty
years after the Conquest, reduces the amount to 20,000. (Antiq. of Mexico,
vol. i. Pl. 19; vol. vi. p. 141, Eng. note.) Even this hardly warrants the
Spanish interpreter in calling king Ahuitzotl a man "of a mild and moderate
disposition," templada y benigna condicion! Ibid., vol. v. p. 49.]

[Footnote 2: Gomara states the number on the authority of two soldiers, whose
names he gives, who took the trouble to count the grinning horrors in one of
these Golgothas, where they were so arranged as to produce the most hideous
effect. The existence of these conservatories is attested by every writer of
the time.]

[Footnote 3: The "Anonymous Conqueror" assures us, as a fact beyond dispute,
that the Devil introduced himself into the bodies of the idols, and persuaded
the silly priests that his only diet was human hearts! It furnishes a very
satisfactory solution, to his mind, of the frequency of sacrifices in Mexico.
Rel. d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 307.]

Indeed, the great object of war, with the Aztecs, was quite as much to
gather victims for their sacrifices as to extend their empire. Hence it was
that an enemy was never slain in battle, if there were a chance of taking him
alive. To this circumstance the Spaniards repeatedly owed their
preservation. When Montezuma was asked "why he had suffered the republic of
Tlascala to maintain her independence on his borders," he replied, "that she
might furnish him with victims for his gods"! As the supply began to fail,
the priests, the Dominicans of the New World, bellowed aloud for more, and
urged on their superstitious sovereign by the denunciations of celestial
wrath. Like the militant churchmen of Christendom in the Middle Ages, they
mingled themselves in the ranks, and were conspicuous in the thickest of the
fight, by their hideous aspect and frantic gestures. Strange, that, in every
country, the most fiendish passions of the human heart have been those
kindled in the name of religion! ^4

[Footnote 4: The Tezcucan priests would fain have persuaded the good king
Nezahualcoyotl, on occasion of a pestilence, to appease the gods by the
sacrifice of some of his own subjects, instead of his enemies; on the ground
that they would not only be obtained more easily, but would be fresher
victims, and more acceptable. (Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 41.)
This writer mentions a cool arrangement entered into by the allied monarchs
with the republic of Tlascala and her confederates. A battlefield was marked
out, on which the troops of the hostile nations were to engage at stated
seasons, and thus supply themselves with subjects for sacrifice. The
victorious party was not to pursue his advantage by invading the other's
territory, and they were to continue, in all other respects, on the most
amicable footing. (Ubi supra.) The historian, who follows in the track of
the Tezcucan Chronicler, may often find occasion to shelter himself, like
Ariosto, with

"Mettendolo Turpin, lo metto anch' io."]

The influence of these practices on the Aztec character was as
disastrous as might have been expected. Familiarity with the bloody rites of
sacrifice steeled the heart against human sympathy, and begat a thirst for
carnage, like that excited in the Romans by the exhibitions of the circus.
The perpetual recurrence of ceremonies, in which the people took part,
associated religion with their most intimate concerns, and spread the gloom
of superstition over the domestic hearth, until the character of the nation
wore a grave and even melancholy aspect, which belongs to their descendants
at the present day. The influence of the priesthood, of course, became
unbounded. The sovereign thought himself honoured by being permitted to
assist in the services of the temple. Far from limiting the authority of the
priests to spiritual matters, he often surrendered his opinion to theirs,
where they were least competent to give it. It was their opposition that
prevented the final capitulation which would have saved the capital. The
whole nation, from the peasant to the prince, bowed their necks to the worst
kind of tyranny, that of a blind fanaticism.

In reflecting on the revolting usages recorded in the preceding pages,
one finds it difficult to reconcile their existence with anything like a
regular form of government, or an advance in civilization. ^1 Yet the
Mexicans had many claims to the character of a civilized community. One may,
perhaps, better understand the anomaly, by reflecting on the condition of
some of the most polished countries in Europe, in the sixteenth century,
after the establishment of the modern Inquisition, - an institution which
yearly destroyed its thousands, by a death more painful than the Aztec
sacrifices; which armed the hand of brother against brother, and, setting its
burning seal upon the lip, did more to stay the march of improvement than any
other scheme ever devised by human cunning.

[Footnote 1: Don Jose F. Ramirez, the distinguished Mexican scholar, has
made this sentence the text for a disquisition of fifty pages or more, one
object of which is to show that the existence of human sacrifices is not
irreconcilable with an advance in civilization. This leads him into an
argument of much length, covering a broad range of historical inquiry, and
displaying much learning as well as a careful consideration of the subject.
In one respect, however, he has been led into an important error by
misunderstanding the drift of my remarks, where, speaking of cannibalism, I
say, "It is impossible the people who practise it should make any great
progress in moral or intellectual culture" (p. 41). This observation,
referring solely to cannibalism, the critic cites as if applied by me to
human sacrifices. Whatever force, therefore, his reasoning may have in
respect to the latter, it cannot be admitted to apply to the former. The
distance is wide between human sacrifices and cannibalism; though Senor
Ramirez diminishes this distance by regarding both one and the other simply
as religious exercises, springing from the devotional principle in our
nature. He enforces his views by a multitude of examples from history,
which show how extensively these revolting usages of the Aztecs - on a much
less gigantic scale indeed - have been practised by the primitive races of
the Old World, some of whom, at a later period, made high advances in
civilization. Ramirez, Notas y Esclarecimientos a la Historia del Conquista
de Mexico del Senor W. Prescott, appended to Navarro's translation.

Note: The practice of eating, or tasting, the victim has been generally
associated with sacrifice, from the idea either of the sacredness of the
offering or of the deity's accepting the soul, the immaterial part, or the
blood as containing the principle of life, and leaving the flesh to his
worshippers. - Ed.]

Human sacrifice, however cruel, has nothing in it degrading to its
victim. It may be rather said to ennoble him by devoting him to the gods.
Although so terrible with the Aztecs, it was sometimes voluntarily embraced
by them, as the most glorious death, and one that opened a sure passage into
paradise. ^2 The Inquisition, on the other hand, branded its victims with
infamy in this word, and consigned them to everlasting perdition in the next.

[Footnote 2: Rel. d'un gentil' huomo, ap. Ramusio, tom. iii. fol. 307.
- Among other instances is that of Chimalpopoca, third king of Mexico, who
doomed himself, with a number of his lords, to this death, to wipe off an
indignity offered him by a brother monarch. (Torquemada, Monarch. Ind., lib.
2, cap. 28.) This was the law of honour with the Aztecs.]

One detestable feature of the Aztec superstition, however, sunk it far
below the Christian. This was its cannibalism; though, in truth, the
Mexicans were not cannibals in the coarsest acceptation of the term. They
did not feed on human flesh merely to gratify a brutish appetite, but in
obedience to their religion. Their repasts were made of the victims whose
blood had been poured out on the altar of sacrifice. This is a distinction
worthy of notice. ^1 Still, cannibalism, under any form or whatever sanction,
cannot but have a fatal influence on the nation addicted to it. It suggests
ideas so loathsome, so degrading to man, to his spiritual and immortal
nature, that it is impossible the people who practise it should make any
great progress in moral or intellectual culture. The Mexicans furnish no
exception to this remark. The civilization which they possessed descended
from the Toltecs, a race who never stained their altars, still less their
banquets, with the blood of man. ^2 All that deserved the name of science in
Mexico came from this source; and the crumbling ruins of edifices attributed
to them, still extant in various parts of New Spain, show a decided
superiority in their architecture over that of the later races of Anahuac.
It is true, the Mexicans made great proficiency in many of the social and
mechanic arts, in that material culture, - if I may so call it, - the natural
growth of increasing opulence, which ministers to the gratification of the
senses. In purely intellectual progress they were behind the Tezcucans,
whose wise sovereigns came into the abominable rites of their neighbours with
reluctance and practised them on a much more moderate scale. ^3

[Footnote 1: Voltaire, doubtless, intends this, when he says, "Ils n'etaient
point anthropophages, comme un tres-petit nombre de peuplades Americaines."
(Essai sur les Moeurs, chap. 147.)]

[Footnote 2: The remark in the text admits of some qualification. According
to an ancient Tezcucan chronicler, quoted by Senor Ramirez, the Toltecs
celebrated occasionally the worship of the god Tlaloc with human sacrifices.
The most important of these was the offering up once a year of five or six
maidens, who were immolated in the usual horrid way of tearing out their
hearts. It does not appear that the Toltecs consummated the sacrifice by
devouring the flesh of the victim. This seems to have been the only exception
to the blameless character of the Toltec rites. Tlaloc was the oldest deity
in the Aztec mythology in which he found a suitable place. Yet, as the
knowledge of him was originally derived from the Toltecs, it cannot be denied
that this people, as Ramirez says, possessed in their peculiar civilization
the germs of those sanguinary institutions which existed on so appalling a
scale in Mexico. See Ramirez, Notas y Esclarecimientos, ubi supra.]

[Footnote 3: Ixtlilxochitl, Hist. Chich., MS., cap. 45, et alibi.]

In this state of things, it was beneficently ordered by Providence that
the land should be delivered over to another race, who would rescue it from
the brutish superstitions that daily extended wider and wider with extent of
empire. ^4 The debasing institutions of the Aztecs furnish the best apology
for their conquest. It is true, the conquerors brought along with them the
Inquisition. But they also brought Christianity, whose benign radiance would
still survive when the fierce flames of fanaticism should be extinguished;
dispelling those dark forms of horror which had so long brooded over the fair
regions of Anahuac.

[Footnote 4: No doubt the ferocity of character engendered by their
sanguinary rites greatly facilitated their conquests. Machiavelli attributes
to a similar cause, in part, the military successes of the Romans. Discorsi
sopra T. Livio, lib. 2, cap. 2.) The same chapter contains some ingenious
reflections - much more ingenious than candid - on the opposite tendencies of

The most important authority in the preceding chapter, and, indeed,
wherever the Aztec religion is concerned, is Bernardino de Sahagun, a
Franciscan friar, contemporary with the Conquest. His great work, Historia
universal de Nueva-Espana, has been recently printed for the first time. The
circumstances attending its compilation and subsequent fate form one of the
most remarkable passages in literary history.

Sahagun was born in a place of the same name, in old Spain. He was
educated at Salamanca, and, having taken the vows of St. Francis, came over
as a missionary to Mexico in the year 1529. Here he distinguished himself by
his zeal, the purity of his life, and his unwearied exertions to spread the
great truths of religion among the natives. He was the guardian of several
conventual houses, successively, until he relinquished these cares, that he
might devote himself more unreservedly to the business of preaching, and of
compiling various works designed to illustrate the antiquities of the Aztecs.
For these literary labours he found some facilities in the situation which he
continued to occupy, of reader, or lecturer, in the College of Santa Cruz, in
the capital.

The "Universal History" was concocted in a singular manner. In order to
secure to it the greatest possible authority, he passed some years in a
Tezcucan town, where he conferred daily with a number of respectable natives
unacquainted with Castilian. He propounded to them queries, which they,
after deliberation, answered in their usual method of writing, by
hieroglyphical paintings. These he submitted to other natives, who had been
educated under his own eye in the College of Santa Cruz; and the latter,
after a consultation among themselves, gave a written version, in the Mexican
tongue, of the hieroglyphics. This process he repeated in another place, in
some part of Mexico, and subjected the whole to a still further revision by a
third body in another quarter. He finally arranged the combined results into
a regular history, in the form it now bears; composing it in the Mexican
language, which he could both write and speak with great accuracy and
elegance, - greater, indeed, than any Spaniard of the time.

The work presented a mass of curious information, that attracted much
attention among his brethren. But they feared its influence in keeping alive
in the natives a too vivid reminiscence of the very superstitions which it
was the great object of the Christian clergy to eradicate. Sahagun had views
more liberal than those of his order, whose blind zeal would willingly have
annihilated every monument of art and human ingenuity which had not been
produced under the influence of Christianity. They refused to allow him the
necessary aid to transcribe his papers, which he had been so many years in
preparing, under the pretext that the expense was too great for their order
to incur. This occasioned a further delay of several years. What was worse,
his provincial got possession of his manuscripts, which were soon scattered
among the different religious houses in the country.

In this forlorn state of his affairs, Sahagun drew up a brief statement
of the nature and contents of his work, and forwarded it to Madrid. It fell
into the hands of Don Juan de Ovando, president of the Council for the
Indies, who was so much interested in it that he ordered the manuscripts to
be restored to their author, with the request that he would at once set about
translating them into Castilian. This was accordingly done. His papers were
recovered, though not without the menace of ecclesiastical censures; and the
octogenarian author began the work of translation from the Mexican, in which
they had been originally written by him thirty years before. He had the
satisfaction to complete the task, arranging the Spanish version in a
parallel column with the original, and adding a vocabulary, explaining the
difficult Aztec terms and phrases; while the text was supported by the
numerous paintings on which it was founded. In this form, making two bulky
volumes in folio, it was sent to Madrid. There seemed now to be no further
reason for postponing its publication, the importance of which could not be
doubted. But from this moment it disappears; and we hear nothing further of
it, for more than two centuries, except only as a valuable work, which had
once existed, and was probably buried in some one of the numerous cemeteries
of learning in which Spain abounds.

At length, towards the close of the last century, the indefatigable
Munoz succeeded in sinterring the long-lost manuscript from the place
tradition had assigned to it, - the library of a convent at Tolosa, in
Navarre, the northern extremity of Spain. With his usual ardour, he
transcribed the whole work with his own hands, and added it to the
inestimable collection, of which, alas! he was destined not to reap the full
benefit himself. From this transcript Lord Kingsborough was enabled to
procure the copy which was published in 1830, in the sixth volume of his
magnificent compilation. In it he expresses an honest satisfaction at being
the first to give Sahagun's work to the world. But in this supposition he
was mistaken. The very year preceding, an edition of it, with annotations,
appeared in Mexico, in three volumes octavo. It was prepared by Bustamante,
- a scholar to whose editorial activity his country is largely indebted, -
from a copy of the Munoz manuscript which came into his possession. Thus
this remarkable work, which was denied the honours of the press during the
author's lifetime, after passing into oblivion, reappeared, at the distance
of nearly three centuries, not in his own country, but in foreign lands
widely remote from each other, and that almost simultaneously. The story is
extraordinary, though unhappily not so extraordinary in Spain as it would be

Sahagun divided his history into twelve books. The first eleven are
occupied with the social institutions of Mexico, and the last with the
Conquest. On the religion of the country he is particularly full. His great
object evidently was, to give a clear view of its my hology, and of the
burdensome ritual which belonged to it. Religion entered so intimately into
the most private concerns and usages of the Aztecs, that Sahagun's work must
be a text-book for every student of their antiquities. Torquemada availed
himself of a manuscript copy, which fell into his hands before it was sent to
Spain, to enrich his own pages, - a circumstance more fortunate for his
readers than for Sahagun's reputation, whose work, now that it is published,
loses much of the originality and interest which would otherwise attach to
it. In one respect it is invaluable; as presenting a complete collection of
the various forms of prayer, accommodated to every possible emergency, in use
by the Mexicans. They are often clothed in dignified and beautiful language,
showing that sublime speculative tenets are quite compatible with the most
degrading practices of superstition. It is much to be regretted that we have
not the eighteen hymns inserted by the author in his book, which would have
particular interest, as the only specimen of devotional poetry preserved of
the Aztecs. The hieroglyphical paintings, which accompanied the text, are
also missing. If they have escaped the hands of fanaticism, both may
reappear at some future day.

Sahagun produced several other works of a religious or philological
character. Some of these were voluminous, but none have been printed. He
live to a very advanced age, closing a life of activity and usefulness, in
1590, in the capital of Mexico. His remains were followed to the tomb by a
numerous concourse of his own countrymen, and of the natives, who lamented in
him the loss of unaffected piety, benevolence, and learning.

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