General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Chloe Sayer

Question for September 2007

Are there any communities left in Mexico where they still follow the old religion? Asked by Tibberton CP School. Chosen and answered by Chloe Sayer.

Pic 1: Wooden mask worn by a Nahua dancer impersonating a ‘tiger’
Pic 1: Wooden mask worn by a Nahua dancer impersonating a ‘tiger’ (Click on image to enlarge)

This question is interesting because it deals with modern Mexico and with the descendants of Mexico’s ancient civilisations. Nearly 500 years have passed since the conquest of Mexico in 1521 by Spanish forces. Crusading friars, anxious to promote Christianity and to spread the teachings of the Roman Catholic
Church, tried hard to crush all native forms of worship. Human sacrifice was eradicated; the construction of temples and pyramids ceased. Today Christianity is the prevailing religion in modern Mexico. Most Mexicans, whether they live in large towns or small villages, celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas, Carnival and Holy Week.

Pic 2: Nahua ‘voladores’ photographed in Cuetzalan, Puebla
Pic 2: Nahua ‘voladores’ photographed in Cuetzalan, Puebla (Click on image to enlarge)

Christianity has not wiped out all traces of the pre-conquest religions, however. In many indigenous communities, ancient beliefs and customs co-exist with those of Christianity. This blending of religions is known as ‘syncretism’. Today the descendants of the Aztecs are referred to as the Nahua. More than one-and-a-half million Nahua live in small communities dotted across large areas of rural Mexico, earning a living as farmers and sometimes selling craft work. Most Nahua worship in the local church and take part in church festivities. Yet aspects from the distant past linger on. Many Christian saints have fused with pre-conquest deities. When they are ill or unhappy, some Nahua visit traditional healers who promise to cure their patients with herbs, incantations, offerings of incense and food, and sometimes with the blood of sacrificed chickens.

Pic 3: The ‘voladores’ begin their descent
Pic 3: The ‘voladores’ begin their descent (Click on image to enlarge)

During Christian celebrations, many of the dances performed by Nahua villagers are of ancient origin. One of the most widespread dance-cycles in Mexico centres on the tigre (tiger) and reflects the preoccupations of farming communities. Because tigers are not native to Mexico, masked dancers would once have impersonated jaguars or ocelots. Another ancient dance is the ‘danza de los voladores’ (Dance of the Aerialists). During this ancient ritual, five men climb to the top of a very high pole. While one plays a drum and a reed-pipe on a tiny
platform at the top, the other four ‘fly’ to the ground, suspended on ropes. Each volador circles the pole 13 times before reaching the ground, making a total of 52 turns. This symbolises the 52-year cycles of the ancient calendar. The central pole represents a vertical connection between the Earth, the heavens above, and the underworld below.

Pic 4: Huichol couple in the state of Jalisco
Pic 4: Huichol couple in the state of Jalisco (Click on image to enlarge)

The Nahua are just one of nearly 60 indigenous peoples still living in Mexico. Like the Nahua, the descendants of other ancient civilisations have also incorporated cultural traits from the past into their current worldview. This is especially true of the Huichol. Although some Huichol have migrated to towns, the majority still live high in the mountains of the western Sierra Madre. Thought to number around 30,000, the Huichol -- or, as they call themselves, the Wixarrika -- have their own mythological view of history.

Despite the efforts of missionaries, most Huichol remain loyal to their pre-Christian deities. Associated with the forces of nature, these include Father Sun, Grandfather Fire, Grandmother Growth, and the goddess of the Pacific Ocean. Religious belief is expressed through festivals and pilgrimages led by shamans. Huichol shamans are responsible for the physical and spiritual health of their followers. Divine goodwill is sought by means of offerings. These include gourds lined with glass beads, and colourful pictures inspired by religious customs. Before the Spanish conquest, religion permeated [influenced] every aspect of life. This is still true in many parts of rural Mexico today.

All photos by Chloe Sayer

Chloe Sayer has answered 4 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs wear winter clothes?

Are there any communities left in Mexico where they still follow the old religion?

Did the Aztecs use the pottery wheel to make their pottery?

What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession? (2)

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