Open main menu




Ladies and Gentlemen,

In our last Lecture we passed in review the chief gods and goddesses of ancient Mexico, and you might see how, in spite of very characteristic differences, the Mexican mythology obeys the same law of formation that manifests itself among the peoples of the Old World, thereby proving once more that the religious development of humanity is not arbitrary, that it proceeds in every case under the direction of the inherent and inalienable principles of the human mind.

To-day we are to complete the internal study of the Mexican religion, by dealing with its sacrifices, its institutions, and its eschatological and cosmogonical doctrines. We begin with those sacrifices of which I have already spoken as so numerous and so horrible.


We have some little difficulty in our times, familiar as we are with spiritual conceptions of God and the divine purposes, in comprehending the extreme importance which sacrifices, offerings, gifts to the divine being, assumed in the eyes of peoples who were still enveloped in the darkness of polytheism and idolatry. And perhaps we may find it more difficult yet to realize the primitive object and intention of these sacrifices. There can be no doubt that they were originally suggested by the idea that the divine being, whatever it may have been—whether a natural object, an animal, or a creature analogous to man—liked what we like, was pleased with what pleases us, and had the same tastes and the same proclivities as ours. This is the fundamental idea that urged the polytheistic peoples along the path of religious anthropomorphism.

This principle once established, and the object being to secure the goodwill and the protection of the divine beings, what could be more natural than to offer them the things in which men themselves took pleasure, such as viands, drinks, perfumes, handsome ornaments, slaves and wives? We must not carry back to the origins of sacrifice the metaphysical and moral ideas which did not really appear until much later. And since the necessity of eating, and the pleasure of eating choice food, take a foremost rank in the estimation of infant peoples, it is not surprising that the food-offering was the most frequent and the most important amongst them, so as in some sort to absorb all the rest.

And here we are compelled to bow before a fact which cannot possibly be disputed, namely, that traces of the primitive sacrifice of human victims meet us everywhere. And this shows that cannibalism, which is now restricted to a few of the savage tribes who have remained closest to the animal life, was once universal to our race. For no one would ever have conceived the idea of offering to the gods a kind of food which excited nothing but disgust and horror amongst men.

This being granted, two rival tendencies must be reckoned with. In the first place, moral development, with its influence on religious ideas, worked towards the suppression of the horrible custom of human sacrifice, whilst at the same time extirpating the taste and desire for human flesh. For we must not forget that where cannibalism still reigns, human flesh is regarded as the most delicious of foods; and the Greek mythology has preserved legends and myths that are connected with the very epoch at which human sacrifices first became an object of horror to gods and men. But, in the second place, in virtue of the strange persistency of rites and usages connected with religion, human sacrifices prevailed in many places when cannibalism had completely disappeared from the habits and tastes of the population. Thus the Semites of Western Asia and the Çivaïte Hindus, the Celts, and some of the populations of Greece and Italy, long after they had renounced cannibalism, still continued to sacrifice human beings to their deities.

And this gives us the clue to a third phase, which was actually realized in Mexico before the conquest. Cannibalism, in ordinary life, was no longer practised. The city of Mexico underwent all the horrors of famine during the siege conducted by Fernando Cortes. When the Spaniards finally entered the city, they found the streets strewn with corpses, which is a sufficient proof that human flesh was not eaten even in dire extremities. And, nevertheless, the Aztecs not only pushed human sacrifices to a frantic extreme, but they were ritual cannibals, that is to say, there were certain occasions on which they ate the flesh of the human victims whom they had immolated.

This practice was connected with another religious conception, grafted upon the former one. Almost everywhere, but especially amongst the Aztecs, we find the notion that the victim devoted to a deity, and therefore destined to pass into his substance and to become by assimilation an integral part of him, is already co-substantial with him, has already become part of him; so that the worshipper in his turn, by himself assimilating a part of the victim's flesh, unites himself in substance with the divine being. And now observe that in all religions the longing, whether grossly or spiritually apprehended, to enter into the closest possible union with the adored being is fundamental. This longing is inseparable from the religious sentiment itself, and becomes imperious wherever that sentiment is warm; and this consideration is enough to convince us that it is in harmony with the most exalted tendencies of our nature, but may likewise, in times of ignorance, give rise to the most deplorable aberrations.

Note this, again, that immolation or sacrifice cannot be accomplished without suffering to the victim. Yet more: the immense importance of sacrifice in the inferior religions raises the mere rite itself to a position of unrivalled efficacy as gauged by the childlike notions that have given it birth, so that at last it acquires an intrinsic and magical virtue in the eyes of the sacrificers. They have lost all distinct idea as to how their sacrifice gives pleasure to the gods, but they retain the firm belief that as a matter of fact it is the appointed means of acting upon their dispositions and modifying their will. The civilized Greeks and Romans no longer believed that their gods ate the flesh of the sacrifices, but this did not prevent their continuing them as the indispensable means of appeasing the wrath or conciliating the favour of the deities. To such a length was this carried in India and Iran, that sacrifice finally came to be regarded as a cosmic force, a creative act. The gods themselves sacrificed as a means of creation, or of modifying the existing order of the world. This idea of the intrinsic and magical virtue of sacrifice naturally re-acted on the importance attached to the sufferings of the victim so inseparably connected with it, until the latter came to be regarded as amongst the prime conditions of an efficacious sacrifice. For the rest, I need not do more than mention the notions of substitution, of compensation, and of renunciation on the part of the sacrificer, which so readily attach themselves to the idea of sacrifice, and represent its moral aspects.

Now all these considerations will help us to understand both the fearful intensity and the special significance of the practice of human sacrifice established among the Aztecs. And here I must ask you to harden your hearts for a few moments while I conduct you through this veritable chamber of horrors.

The Mexican sacrifices were, in truth, of the most frightful description. It was an axiom amongst the Aztecs that none but human sacrifices were truly efficacious. They were continually making war in order to get a supply of victims. They regarded the victim, when once selected, as a kind of incarnation of the deity who was ultimately to consume his flesh, or at any rate his heart. They retained the practice of cannibalism as a religious rite, and, as though they had had some of the Red-skins' blood in their veins, they refined upon the tortures to which they forced those victims, whom they had almost adored the moment before, to undergo at last.

These victims were regularly selected a considerable time in advance. They were vigilantly watched, but in other respects were well cared for and fed with the choicest viands—in a word, fattened. There was not a single festival upon which at least one of these victims was not immolated, and in many cases great numbers of them were flung upon the "stone of sacrifices," where the priests laid their bosoms open, tore out their hearts, and placed them, as the epitome of the men themselves, in a vessel full of burning rezin or "copal," before the statue of the deity. Some few of these sacrifices it is my duty to describe to you.

For example: To celebrate the close of the annual rule of Tezcatlipoca, which fell at the beginning of May, they set apart a year beforehand the handsomest of the prisoners of war captured during the preceding year. They clothed him in a costume resembling that of the image of the god. He might come and go in freedom, but he was always followed by eight pages, who served at once as an escort and a guard. As he passed, I will not say that the people either knelt or did not kneel before him, for in Mexico the attitude expressive of religious adoration was that of squatting down upon the haunches. As he passed, then, the people squatted all along the streets as soon as they heard the sound of the bells that he carried on his hands and feet. Twenty days before the festival, they redoubled their care and attention. They bathed him, anointed him with perfume, and gave him four beautiful damsels as companions, each one bearing the name of a goddess, and all of them instructed to leave nothing undone to make their divine spouse as happy as possible. He then took part in splendid banquets, surrounded by the great Mexican nobles. But the day before the great festival, they placed him and his four wives on board a royal canoe and carried them to the other side of the lake. In the evening the four goddesses quitted their unhappy god, and his eight guardians conducted him to a lonely teocalli, a league distant, where he was flung upon the stone of sacrifices and his heart torn from his bosom. He must disappear and die with the god whom he represented, who must now make way for Uitzilopochtli. This latter deity likewise had his human counterpart, who had to lead a war-dance in his name before being sacrificed. He had the grotesque privilege of choosing the hour of his own immolation, but under the condition that the longer he delayed it the less would his soul be favoured in the abode of Uitzilopochtli. For we must note that in the Mexican order of ideas, though the flesh of the victims was destined to feed the gods to whom they were sacrificed, their souls became the blessed and favoured slaves or servants of these same gods.

Centeotl, or Toci, the goddess of the harvest, had her human sacrifices also, but in this case a woman figured as protagonist. She, too, was dressed like the goddess, and entrusted to the care of four midwives, priestesses of Centeotl, who were commissioned to pet and amuse her. A fortnight before the festival, they celebrated "the arm dance" before her, in which the dancers, without moving their feet, perpetually raised and lowered their arms, as a symbol of the vegetation fixed at its roots, but moving freely above. Then she had to take part in a mock combat, after which she received the title of "image of the mother of the gods." The day before her execution, she went to pay what was called her "farewell to the market," in which she was conducted to the market of Mexico, sowing maize all along the street as she went, and reverenced by the people as Toci, "our grandmother." But the following midnight she was carried to the top of a teocalli, perched upon the shoulders of a priest, and swiftly decapitated. Then they flayed her without loss of time. The skin of the trunk was chopped off, and a priest, wrapping himself in the bleeding spoil, traversed the streets in procession, and made pretence of fighting with soldiers who were interspersed in the cortége. The skin of the legs was carried to the temple of Centeotl, the son, where another priest made himself a kind of mask with it, to represent his god, and sacrificed four captives in the ordinary way. After this, the priest, accompanied by some soldiers, bore the hideous shreds to a point on the frontier, where they were buried as a talisman to protect the empire.

The festivals of Tlaloc, god of rain, were perhaps yet more horrible. At one of them they sacrificed a number of prisoners of war, one upon another, clothed like the god himself. They tore out their hearts in the usual way, and then carried them in procession, enclosed in a vase, to throw them into a whirlpool of the lake of Mexico, which they imagined to be one of the favoured residences of the aquatic deity. But it was worse still at the festival of this same Tlaloc which fell in February. On this occasion a number of young children were got together, and decked with feathers and precious stones. They put wings upon them, to enable them to fly up, and then placed them on litters, and bore them through the city in grand procession and with the sound of trumpets. The people, says Sahagun,[1] could not choose but weep to see these poor little ones led off to the sacrifice. But if the children themselves cried freely, it was all the better, for it was a sign that the rain would be abundant.[2]

I will not try your nerves by dwelling much longer on this dismal subject, though there is no lack of material. At the feast of Xipe, "the flayed," for example, whole companies of men were wrapped in the skins of sacrificed captives, and engaged in mock battles in that costume. But the only further instance I am compelled to mention is connected with the festival of the god of fire, Xiuhtecutli, which was celebrated with elaborate ceremonies. At set of sun, all who had prisoners of war or slaves to offer to the deity brought forward their victims, painted with the colours of the god, danced along by their side, and shut them up in a building attached to the teocalli of Fire. Then they mounted guard all round, singing hymns. At midnight, each owner entered and severed a lock of the hair of his slave or slaves, to be carefully preserved as a talisman. At daybreak they brought out the victims and led them to the foot of the temple stair. There the priests took them upon their shoulders and carried them up to the higher platform, where they had prepared a great brazier of burning embers. Here each priest flung his human burden upon the fire, and I leave you to imagine the indescribable scene that ensued. Nor is this all. The same priests, armed with long hooks, fished out the poor wretches before they were quite roasted to death, and despatched them in the usual fashion on the stone of sacrifices.[3]

It was after these offerings of private devotion that family and friendly gatherings were held, at which a part of the victim's flesh was eaten, under the idea that by thus sharing the food of the deity his worshippers entered into a closer union with him. We ought, however, to note that a master never ate the flesh of his own slave, inasmuch as he had been his guest, and as it were a member of his family. He waited till his friends returned his attention.


Human sacrifice, Gentlemen, appears to have been a universal practice; but wherever the human sympathies developed themselves rapidly, it was early superseded by various substituted rites which it was supposed might with advantage replace it. Such were flagellation, mutilation of some unessential part of the body, or the emission of a certain quantity of blood. This last practice, in particular, might be regarded as an act of individual devotion, a gift made to the gods by the worshipper himself out of his own very substance. The priesthood of Quetzalcoatl, who had little taste for human sacrifices, seem to have introduced this method of propitiating the gods by giving them one's own blood; and the practice of drawing it from the tongue, the lips, the nose, the ears or the bosom, came to be the chief form of expression of individual piety and penitence in Central America and in Mexico. The priests in particular owed it to their special character to draw their blood for the benefit of the gods, and nothing could be stranger than the refined methods they adopted to accomplish this end. For instance, they would pass strings or splinters through their lips or ears and so draw a little blood. But then a fresh string or a fresh splinter must be added every day, and so it might go on indefinitely, for the more there were, the more meritorious was the act; nor can we doubt that the idea of the suffering endured enhancing the merit of the deed itself, was already widely spread in Mexico. There was a system of Mexican asceticism, too, specially characterized by the long fasts which the faithful, and more particularly the priests, endured. Indeed, fasting is one of the most general and ancient forms of adoration. It rests, in the first place, on an instinctive feeling that a man is more worthy to present himself before the divine beings when fasting than when stuffed with food; and, in the second place, on the fact that fasting is shown by experience to promote dreams, hallucinations, extasies and so forth, which have always been considered as so many forms of communication with the deity.[4] It was only later that fasting became the sign and index of mourning, and therefore of sincere repentance and profound sorrow. Mexico had its solitaries or hermits, too, who sought to enter into closer communion with the gods by living in the desert under conditions of the severest asceticism. Are we not once more tempted to exclaim that there is nothing new under the sun?

But the devotees of the ancient Mexican religion had other methods of uniting themselves substantially and corporeally with their gods; and in accordance with the notions which we have seen were accredited by their religion, they had developed a kind (or kinds) of communion from which, with a little theology, a regular doctrine of transubstantiation might have been drawn.

Thus, at the third great festival in honour of Uitzilopochtli (celebrated at the time of his death), they made an image of the deity in dough, steeped it in the blood of sacrificed children, and partook of the pieces.[5] In the same way the priests of Tlaloc kneaded statuettes of their god in dough, cut them up, and gave them to eat to patients suffering from the diseases caused by the cold and wet.[6] The statuettes were first consecrated by a small sacrifice. And so, too, at the yearly festival of the god of fire, Xiuhtecutli, an image of the deity, made of dough, was fixed in the top of a great tree which had been brought into the city from the forest. At a certain moment the tree was thrown down, on which of course the idol broke to pieces, and the worshippers all scrambled for a bit of him to eat.

It has been asked how far any moral idea had penetrated this religion, the repulsive aspects of which we have been describing. The question is a legitimate one. I believe, Gentlemen, that in studying the religious origins of the different peoples of the earth, we shall come to the conclusion that the fusion of the religious and moral life—which has long been an accomplished fact for us, especially since the Gospel, so that we cannot admit the possibility of uniting immorality and piety for a single instant—is not primitive, but is due to the development of the human spirit, and to healthier, more complete and more religious ideas concerning the moral law. At the beginning of things, and in our own day amongst savages, nay, even amongst the most ignorant strata of the population in civilized countries, it is obvious that religion and morals have extremely little to do with each other. Some authors, accordingly, in the face of all the monstrous cruelty, selfishness and inhumanity of the Mexican religion, have concluded that no element of morality entered into it at all, but that all was self-seeking and fanaticism.

This is an exaggeration. We have seen that amongst the nature-gods of Mexico there was one, Tezcatlipoca, who was looked upon as the austere guardian of law and morals. If we are to believe Father Sahagun,—and even if we allow for strong suspicions as to the accuracy of his translations of the prayers and exhortations uttered under certain circumstances by parents and priests,—it is evident that the Mexicans were taught to consider a decent and virtuous life as required by the gods. Indeed, they had a system of confession, in which the priest received the statement of the penitent, laid a penance on him, and assured him of the pardon of the gods. Generally the penitents delayed their confession till they were advanced in age, for relapses were regarded as beyond the reach of pardon.[7] It would be nearer the truth to say that the religious ethics of the Mexicans had entered upon that path of dualism[8] by which alone, in almost every case, the normal synthesis or rational reconciliation of the demands of physical nature and the moral life has been ultimately reached. For inasmuch as fidelity to duty often involves a certain amount of suffering, the suffering comes to be regarded as the moral act itself, and artificial sufferings are voluntarily incurred under the idea that they are the appointed price of access to a higher and more perfect life, in closer conformity with the divine will. The cruel rites which entered into the very tissue of the Mexican religion could hardly fail to strengthen the same ascetic tendency, by encouraging the idea that pain itself was pleasant to the eyes of the gods. But the truth is that in this matter we can discern no more than tendencies. There are symptoms of men's minds being busy with the relation of the moral to the religious life, but no fixed or systematic conclusions had been reached. It might, perhaps, have been otherwise in the sequel, and these

tendencies might ultimately have taken shape in corresponding theories and doctrines, had not the Spanish conquest intervened to put an end for ever to the evolution of the Mexican religion.

I have frequently spoken of the Mexican priests, and the time has now come for dwelling more explicitly on this priesthood.

It was very numerous, and had a strong organization reared on an aristocratic basis, into which political calculations manifestly entered. The noblest families (including that of the monarch) had the exclusive privilege of occupying the highest sacerdotal offices. The priests of Uitzilopochtli held the primacy. Their chief was sovereign pontiff, with the title of Mexicatl-Teohuatzin, "Mexican lord of sacred things," and Teotecuhtli, "divine master." Next to him came the chief priest of Quetzalcoatl, who had no authority, however, except over his own order of clergy. He lived as a recluse in his sanctuary, and the sovereign only sent to consult him on certain great occasions; whereas the primate sat on the privy council and exercised disciplinary powers over all the other priests in the empire. Every temple and every quarter had its regular priests. No one could enter the priesthood until he had passed satisfactorily through certain tests or examinations before the directors of the Calmecac, or houses of religious education, of which we shall speak presently. The power of the clergy was very great. They instructed youth, fixed the calendar, preserved the knowledge of the annals and traditions indicated by the hieroglyphics, sang and taught the religious and national hymns, intervened with special ceremonies at birth, marriage and burial, and were richly endowed by taxes raised in kind upon the products of the soil and upon industries. Every successful aspirant to the priesthood, having passed the requisite examinations, received a kind of unction, which communicated the sacred character to him. All this indicates a civilization that had already reached a high point of development; but the indelible stain of the Mexican religion re-appears every moment even where it seems to rise highest above the primitive religions: amongst the ingredients of the fluid with which the new priest was anointed was the blood of an infant!

The priests' costume in general was black. Their mantles covered their heads and fell down their sides like a veil. They never cut their hair, and the Spaniards saw some of them whose locks descended to their knees. Probably this was a part of the solar symbolism. The rays of the Sun are compared to locks of hair, and we very often find the solar heroes or the servants of the Sun letting their hair grow freely in order that they may resemble their god. Their mode of life was austere and sombre. They were subject to the rules of a severe asceticism, slept little, rose at night to chant their canticles, often fasted, often drew their own blood, bathed every night (in imitation of the Sun again), and in many of the sacerdotal fraternities the most rigid celibacy was enforced. You will see, then, that I did not exaggerate when I spoke of the belief that the gods were animated by cruel wills and took pleasure in human pain as having launched the Mexican religion on a path of a systematic dualism and very stern asceticism.[9]

But the surprise we experience in noting all these points of resemblance to the religious institutions of the Old World, perhaps reaches its culminating point when we learn that the Mexican religion actually had its convents. These convents were often, but not always, places of education for both sexes, to which all the free families sent their children from the age of six or nine years upwards. There the boys were taught by monks, and the girls by nuns, the meaning of the hieroglyphics, the way to reckon time, the traditions, the religious chants and the ritual. Bodily exercises likewise had a place in this course of education, which was supposed to be complete when the children had reached the age of fifteen. The majority of them were now sent back to their families, while the rest stayed behind to become priests or simple monks. For there were religious orders, under the patronage of the different gods, and convents for either sex. The monastic rule was often very severe. In many cases it involved

abstinence from animal food, and the people called the monks of these severer orders Quaquacuiltin, or "herb-eaters." There were likewise associations resembling our half-secular, half-ecclesiastical fraternities. Thus we hear of the society of the "Telpochtiliztli," an association of young people who lived with their families, but met every evening at sunset to dance and sing in honour of Tezcatlipoca. And, finally, we know that ancient Mexico had its hermits and its religious mendicants.[10] The latter, however, only took the vow of mendicancy for a fixed term. These are the details which led von Humboldt and some other writers to believe that Buddhism must have penetrated at some former period into Mexico. Not at all! What we have seen simply proves that asceticism, the war against nature, everywhere clothes itself in similar forms, suggested by the very constitution of man; and there is certainly nothing in common between the gentle insipidity of Buddha's religion and the sanguinary faith of the Aztecs.

The girls were under a rule similar to that of the boys. They led a hard enough life in the convents set apart for them, fasting often, sleeping without taking off their clothes, and (when it was their turn to be on duty) getting up several times in the night to renew the incense that burned perpetually before the gods. They learned to sew, to weave, and to embroider the garments of the idols and the priests. It was they who made the sacred cakes and the dough idols, whose place in the public festivals I have described to you. At the age of fifteen, the same selection took place among the girls as among the boys. Those who stayed in the convent became either priestesses, charged with the lower sacerdotal offices, or directresses of the convents set aside for instruction, or simple nuns, who were known as Cihuatlamacasque, "lady deaconesses," or Cihuaquaquilli, "lady herb-eaters," inasmuch as they abstained from meat. The most absolute continence was rigorously enforced, and breach of it was punished by death.[11]

One cannot but ask whether a priesthood so firmly organized, in which was centred the whole intellectual life and all that can be called the science of Mexico, had not elaborated any higher doctrines or cosmogonic theories such as we owe to the priesthoods of the Old World, especially when we know that they regulated the calendar, which presupposes some astronomical conceptions.

But here we enter upon a region that has not yet been methodically reclaimed by the historians. We have often enough been presented with Mexican cosmogonies, but the fundamental error of all these expositions is, that they present as a fixed and established body of doctrine what was in reality a very loose and unformed mass of traditions and speculations. The sponsors of these cosmogonies agree neither as to their number nor their order of succession, and it is obvious that a mistaken zeal to bring them as near as possible to the Biblical tradition has been at work. An attempt has even been made to find a Mexican Noah, coming out of the ark, in a fish-god emerging from a kind of box floating on the waters.[12]

One thing, however, is certain, namely, that these cosmogonies are not Aztec. The Aztec deities proper play no part in them. We may therefore suppose that they are of Central American origin, or are due to that priesthood of Quetzalcoatl which continued its silent work in the depths of its mysterious retreats. The contradictions of our authorities as to the number and order of these cosmogonies suggest the idea that their arrangement one after another is no more than a harmonizing attempt to bring various originally distinct cosmogonies into connection with each other. The fact is that others yet are known, in addition to those which have taken their place in what we may call the classical list established by Humboldt and Müller.[13] In this classical list there are five ages of the world, separated from each other by universal cataclysms, something after the fashion of the successive creations of the school of Cuvier. Each of these ages is called a Sun, and, according to the elements that preponderate during their respective courses, they are called, 1st, the Sun of the Earth; 2nd, the Sun of Fire; 3rd, the Sun of the Air; and 4th, the Sun of Water. The fifth Sun, which is the present one, has no special name. We cannot enter upon the details concerning each of these Suns, and they are not very interesting in any case. They contain confused reminiscences of primitive life, of the ancient populations of Anahuac, of old and bygone worships, but nothing particularly characteristic or original. The only specially striking feature in this mass of cosmogonic traditions is the sense of the instability of the established order alike of nature and society which pervades them. What was it that inspired the Mexicans with this feeling? Perhaps the mighty destructive forces for which tropical countries, equatorial seas and volcanic regions, so often furnish a theatre, had shaken confidence in the permanence of the physical constitution of the world. Perhaps the numerous political and social revolutions, the frequent successions of peoples, rulers and subjects in turn, had accustomed the mind to conceive and anticipate perpetual changes, of which the successive ages of the world were but the supreme expression; and finally, perhaps that quasi-messianic expectation of the return of Quetzalcoatl, to be accompanied by a complete renewal of things, may have given an additional point of attachment to this belief in the caducity of the whole existing order. What is certain is that this sentiment itself was very widely spread. It served as a consolation to the peoples who were crushed beneath the cruel yoke of the Aztecs. They might well cherish the thought that all this would not last for ever; and even the Aztecs themselves had no unbounded confidence in the stability of their empire. The Spaniards profited greatly by this vague and all but universal distrust. After their victory they made much of pretended prodigies that had shadowed it forth, and even of prophecies that had announced it.[14] But the state of mind of the populations concerned being given, at whatever moment the Spaniards had arrived they would have been able to appeal to auguries of a like kind, by dint of just giving them that degree of precision and clearness which usually distinguishes predictions that are recorded after their fulfilment!

A further proof that the Mexican religion helped to spread this sense of the instability of things is furnished by the grand jubilee festival which was celebrated every fifty-two years in the city of Mexico and throughout the empire. The Mexican cycle, marking the coincidence of four times thirteen lunar and four times thirteen solar years,[15] counted two-and-fifty years, and was called a "sheaf of years." Now whenever the dawn of the fifty-third year drew near, the question was anxiously put, whether the world would last any longer, and preparations were made for the great ceremony of the Toxilmolpilia, or "binding up of years." The day before, every fire was extinguished. All the priests of the city of Mexico marched in procession to a mountain situated at two leagues' distance. The entire population followed them. They watched the Pleiades intently. If the world was to come to an end, if the sun was never to rise again, the Pleiades would not pass the zenith; but the moment they passed it, it was known that a new era of fifty-two years had been guaranteed to men. Fire was kindled anew by the friction of wood. But the wood rested on the bosom of the handsomest of the prisoners, and the moment it was lighted the victim's body was opened, his heart torn out, and both heart and body burned upon a pile that was lit by the new fire. No sooner did the people, who had remained on the plain below, perceive the flame ascend, than they broke into delirious joy. Another fifty-two years was before the world. More victims were sacrificed in gratitude to the gods. Brands were lighted at the sacred flame on the mountain, from which the domestic fires were in their turn kindled, and swift couriers were despatched with torches, replaced continually on the route, to the very extremities of the empire. It was in the year 1507, twelve years before Cortes disembarked, that the Toxilmolpilia was celebrated for the last time. In 1559, although the mass of the natives had meanwhile been converted to Roman Catholicism, the Spanish government had to take severe measures to prevent its repetition.[16]

We have far firmer footing, then, than is furnished by the shifting ground of the cosmogonies, when we insist upon the general prevalence of the feeling that the world might veritably come to an end as it had done before. Beyond this there was nothing fixed or generally accepted. Much the same might be said of the future life. The Mexicans believed in man's survival after death. This we see from the practice of putting a number of useful articles into the tomb by the side of the corpse, after first breaking them, so that they too might die and their spirits might accompany that of the departed to his new abodes. They even gave him some Tepitoton, or little household gods, to take with him, and as a rule they killed a dog to serve as his guide in the mysterious and painful journey which he was about to undertake. Sometimes a very rich man would go so far as to have his chaplain slaughtered, that he might not be deprived of his support in the other world. But in all this there is nothing to distinguish the Mexican religion from the beliefs that stretched over the whole of America, and there is no indication that any moral conception had as yet vivified and hallowed the prospect beyond the grave. The mass of ordinary mortals remained in the sombre, dreary, monotonous realm of Mictlan; for in Mexico, as in Polynesia, a really happy immortality was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. There were several paradises, including that of Tlaloc, and above all the "mansion of the Sun," destined to receive the kings, the nobles and the warriors. There they hunt, they dance, they accompany the sun in his course, they can change themselves into clouds or humming-birds. An exception is made, however, irrespective of social rank, in favour of warriors who fall in battle and women who die in child-bed, as well as for the victims sacrificed in honour of the celestial deities and destined to become their servants. So, too, the paradise of Tlaloc, a most beauteous garden, is opened to all who have been drowned (for the god of the waters has taken them to himself), to all who have died of the diseases caused by moisture, and to the children who have been sacrificed to him. We recognize in these exceptions an unquestionable tendency to introduce the idea of justice as qualifying the desolating doctrine of aristocratic privilege; and probably this principle of justice would have become preponderant, here as elsewhere, had not the destinies of the Mexican religion been suddenly broken off. Nor is it easy to explain the asceticism and austerities of which we have spoken, except on the supposition that those who practised them all their lives believed they were thereby acquiring higher rights in the future life. It must be admitted, however, that it is not in its doctrine of a future life that the Mexican religion reached its higher developments.

We must postpone till we have examined the Peruvian religion, which presents so many analogies to that of Mexico, while at the same time differing from it so considerably, the final considerations suggested by the strange compound of beliefs, now so barbarous and now so refined, which we have passed in review. Spanish monks, as we all know, succeeded within a few years in bringing the populations who had submitted to the hardy conquerors within the pale of their Church. It was no very difficult task. The whole past had vanished. The royal families, the nobility, the clergy, all had perished. Faith in the national gods had been broken by events. The new occupants laid a grievous yoke upon the subject peoples, whom they crushed and oppressed with hateful tyranny; but we must do the Franciscan monks, who were first on the field in the work of conversion, the justice of testifying that they did whatever in them lay to soften the fate of their converts and to plead their cause before the Court of Spain. Nor were their efforts always unsuccessful. They were rewarded by the unstinted confidence and affection of the unhappy natives, who found little pity or comfort save at the hands of the good Fathers. Let us add that many of the peoples, especially those from whom the human tithes of which we have spoken had been exacted by the Aztecs, were sensible of the humane and charitable aspects of a religion that repudiated these hideous sacrifices in horror, and raised up the hearts of the oppressed by its promises of a future bliss conditioned by neither birth nor social rank.[17]

But the worthy monks could not give what they had not got. And the religious education which they gave their converts reflected only too faithfully their own narrow and punctilious monastic spirit, itself almost as superstitious, though in another way, as what it supplanted. Nay, more: in spite of the best dispositions on either side, it was inevitable that the ancient habits and beliefs should long maintain themselves, though more or less shrouded beneath the new orthodoxy. In 1571, the terrible Inquisition of Spain came and established itself in Mexico to put an end to this state of things; and alas! it found as many heretics as it could wish to show that it had not come for nothing. And when the natives saw the fearful tribunal at work, when the fires of the autos-da-fé were kindled on the plain of Mexico and consumed by tens or hundreds the victims condemned by the Holy Office, do you suppose that the new converts felt well assured in their own hearts that the God of the Gospel was, after all, much better than Uitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca?[18]

But we are stepping beyond the domain of history we have marked out for ourselves. The religion of Mexico is dead, and we cannot desire a resurrection for it. But the memory it has left behind is at once mournful and instructive. It has enriched history with its confirmatory evidence as to the genesis, the power and the tragic force of religion in human nature; and he who inspects its annals, now so poetical and now so terror-laden, pauses in pensive thought before the grotesque but imposing monument which thrills him with admiration even while he recoils with horror.

  1. Sahagun, Tom. I. p. 86 (cf. p. 88), Lib. ii. cap. xx.
  2. Sahagun, Tom. I. p. 50, Lib. ii. cap. i.
  3. Compare the detailed description of the festivals of the ancient religion of Mexico in Bancroft, Vol. II. pp. 302—341, Vol. III. pp. 297—300, 330—348, 354—362, 385—396.
  4. Amongst all the indigenous races of North America, prolonged fasting is regarded as the means par excellence of securing supernatural inspiration. The Red-skin to become a sorcerer or to secure a revelation from his totem, or the Eskimo to become Angekok, will endure the most appalling fasts.
  5. Torquemada, Lib. vi. cap. xxxviii.; cf. Sahagun, Tom. I. p. 174, Lib. ii. cap. xxiv.
  6. Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 35—39, Lib. i. cap. xxi.
  7. Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 11—16, Tom. II. pp. 57—64, Lib. i. cap. xii., Lib. vi. cap. vii.
  8. Elements were not wanting for the formation of a dualistic system analogous to Mazdeism. The Tzitzimitles nearly corresponded to the Iranian Devas. They were a kind of demon servants of Mictlan, who delighted in springing upon men to devour them, and the protection of the celestial gods was needed to escape from their attacks. Sahagun, Tom. II. p. 67, Lib. vi. cap. viii. (in the middle of a prayer to Tlaloc). Cf. also Tom. II. pp. 14 sqq., Lib. v. capp. xi.—xiii.
  9. On the Mexican priesthood, see Bancroft, Vol. II. pp. 200—207, Vol. III. pp. 430—441; Clavigero, Lib. vi. §§ 13—17; cf. Lib. iv. § 4; Humboldt, pp. 98, 194, 290; Prescott, Bk. i. chap. iii.; Torquemada, Lib. ix. capp. i.—xxxiv.
  10. Camargo (in Nouv. An. d. Voy. xcix.), pp. 134-5.
  11. Bancroft, Vol. II. pp. 204—206, Vol. III. pp. 435—436; Torquemada, Lib. ix. capp. xiv. xv.; Sahagun, Tom. I. pp. 227-8 (last section of Appendix to Lib. ii.); Acosta, Lib. v. cap. xvi.; Clavigero, Lib. vi. capp. xvi. xxii.
  12. See the "Cuadro historico-geroglifico," &c., contributed by Don José Fernando Ramirez (curator of the national Museum at Mexico) to Garcia y Cubas, "Altas geographico, estadistico e historico de la Republica Mexicana," Entrega 29a (1858).
  13. On all that concerns the Mexican cosmogonies, see Müller, pp. 477 sq., 509—519; Bancroft, Vol. III. pp. 57—65; Ixtlilxochitl, "Historia Chichemeca," capp. i. ii.; Kingsborough, "Mexican Antiquities," Vol. V. pp. 164—167; Humboldt, pp. 202—211.
  14. See Sahagun, Tom. II. pp. 281—283, Lib. viii. cap. vi.
  15. The sacerdotal year was lunar. The civil year, which was doubtless of later origin, and had been adopted as better suited to the purposes of agriculture, was solar. Every thirteenth year the two coincided. The number four, which plays an important part in Mexican symbolism (cf. the Mexican cross) gave a kind of cosmic significance to 13 × 4 = 52.
  16. See Bancroft, Vol. III. pp. 393—396.
  17. Compare the Appendix to Jourdanet's translation of Bernal Diaz, pp. 912 sqq.
  18. On the conversion of the Mexicans, &c., compare the anonymous treatise at the end of Kingsborough's "Mexican Antiquities," Vol. IX. Cf. also Torquemada, Lib. xvii. cap. xx., Lib. xix. cap. xxix.