In order to better appreciate the tremendous culture clash that occurred between the Spanish invaders and the Aztec inhabitants, let us now consider one of the most salient features of Aztec society, the institution of religion, both as it was! and as the Spaniards viewed it.
In less than one century the Aztecs had progressed from being mercenaries without any roots to the mightiest people in all of Mexico. What was the driving force which led the Indians to become real masters of a large part of Central America and to develop such an advanced civilization? According to Caso in his book,
The Aztecs: People of the Sun
, it was their unique religion (xv).
The Aztec religion grew out of the recognition and due regard for the many forces in nature which acted for good or for evil, and, stated simply, it constituted an attempt to control these forces (Vaillant 169). The Aztecs personalized the forces of nature as gods or goddesses, many of whom had quite distinct and defined attributes. The religion of the Aztecs, therefore, was polytheistic. They worshiped many gods: a rain god, a fire god, a god of the harvest and numerous others. Topmost in their pantheon was the fascinating hummingbird deity, Huitzilopochtli, whose favor could be won only through the sacrifice of human hearts.
Indeed, the primary occupation of the Aztec nation could be said to have been placating the gods. In the case of Huitzilopochtli, if he became displeased with his chosen people, the Aztecs, he would sap the strength of their soldiers, causing the empire’s collapse. War, thus, became a form of worship, a means of supplying their war god with the sacrifices that he demanded.
It was this polytheistic nature of the Aztec religion, above all, which the Spaniards considered idolatrous and barbaric and which they sought to destroy. Whenever an Aztec temple was seized, the idols were always toppled and replaced with statues of the Virgin Mary and a cross.
For all its apparent ‘barbarism’, however, it must be pointed out that, in contrast, the Aztec religion was very tolerant in that its adherents willingly and readily accepted into its pantheon the deities of others. In contrasting this deeply ingrained syncretistic principle of the Aztec religion with the militant ‘monotheism’ of the Spaniards, we can begin to better appreciate the tragic misunderstanding that developed. Whereas the Aztecs recognized many deities and were quite capable of accepting new principles into their hierarchy, the Spaniards were votaries of an exclusive theology, who considered that their churches could only be built upon the ruins of former Aztec temples (Soustelle 116).
This intolerance towards other religions is exemplified by the view of Cortés ( as with many ‘enlightened’ men of his times) that the earth was essentially governed by two forces, the God of the Christians and the Satan of all non-Christians (Padden 142). This view tempered their perception of the invasion and conquest of Mexico as having been divinely ordained. According to Caso, Cortés and his men were simply disgusted by the Aztec religion, considering it “a damnable and revolting mumbo-jumbo of devil-worship” (xix). Thus did Cortés view himself as leading ‘the Last Crusade’ into Mexico, bringing heathen souls to God, and, of course, their riches to himself as a foretaste of his divine reward.
According to Aztec beliefs, the very order of the universe demanded that the rites of human sacrifice be practiced. The dualistic forces of good and evil were constantly at war with each other. The sungod fought the darkness, and without human hearts this god of light might become weak and unable to continue his struggles, resulting in the world being plunged into eternal night. Cortés and his men justified their pillage and destruction by maintaining that they were ending this custom of human sacrifice, which they viewed not only as revolting but, also, as blasphemous, considering it “an obscene parody of their own Christian rituals” (White 1295. To them, the sacrifice of a human being seems to have all-too-closely resembled Christ’s crucifixion, and the subsequent offering of the pagan victim’s blood and eating of his flesh was reminiscent of the Christian communion (
We leave our study of the conquest of Mexico and subsequent destruction of the Aztec civilization at this point, but not without adducing some important lessons for our own time. I foresee this unit concluding with a consideration of ways of preserving and appreciating the multi-cultural make-up of our own American society and a look at the dangers we fall into when we take the view that one culture is better or more viable than another.