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Article unlikely to be of interest to younger children Dr. Ele Wake, Aztecs/Mexica expert

What happened to the Aztec gods after the Conquest? (2) Conclusion

This is the conclusion to Dr. Eleanor Wake’s thought-provoking article on this intriguing subject.

Pic 1: ‘It was not just a case of abandoning the old gods and accepting the Christian god in their place’...
Pic 1: ‘It was not just a case of abandoning the old gods and accepting the Christian god in their place’... (Click on image to enlarge)

The above descriptions of the gods [see main article] and the ways in which they participated in the life of the Mexica and their contemporaries serve to emphasise just how important the gods were and how traumatic it must have been to be told to abandon them. But it was not just a case of abandoning the old gods and accepting the Christian god in their place. The gods, their actions, and their personal attributes represented the accumulated knowledge of the Indian world. In the case of food cultivation, their acknowledged presence, their interaction one with the other, and the carefully coordinated rituals that timed each stage of the maize cycle were actually part of the “science” or “technology” of growing maize. For this reason alone, these particular gods and their rituals continued to play a vital role after the conquest.

Pic 2: A plumed eagle, painted on the transept vaulting of the church of San Miguel Arcángel, Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo
Pic 2: A plumed eagle, painted on the transept vaulting of the church of San Miguel Arcángel, Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo (Click on image to enlarge)

It is difficult to know what happened to the gods in later times. It seems very possible that “parts of them” were absorbed into the Catholic faith, either through the attempts of the missionaries to facilitate the conversion by offering Christian parallels, or the efforts of the Indians to keep them as their own gods under different names. Eventually, in the syncretic [mixed] religion still practiced by many traditional communities today, they became one and the same entity. For example, the invisible and untouchable Tezcatlipoca in his role as “Life-Giver” and “He Who Is Everywhere” came to be fused with the Christian god, as can be seen in the Indians’ devotional song-poems composed after the conquest where Icelteotl (“Only Spirit”, that is the Christian god) and Tloque nahuaque are often called on together in the same sentence.

Pic 3: Tezcatlipoca as an eagle or royal vulture. Codex Borbonicus 13.
Pic 3: Tezcatlipoca as an eagle or royal vulture. Codex Borbonicus 13. (Click on image to enlarge)

What may be an early painting of Tezcatlipoca-God can be found on the ceiling of a sixteenth-century church in central Mexico, in the form of a beautifully plumed, speaking eagle with a circular object hanging from its neck (Pic 2). It is so high up (in “heaven”?) and so well camouflaged among others paintings (invisible and untouchable?) that it is very difficult to see unless you know where to look. A few scholars have noticed the similarities between this painting and an image of Tezcatlipoca in the Borbonicus screenfold (Pic 3).

Pic 4: Figure of Jesus flying with eagle’s wings; church in Zacatecas, 1998
Pic 4: Figure of Jesus flying with eagle’s wings; church in Zacatecas, 1998 (Click on image to enlarge)

The gods of the natural forces are still present, of course, for those forces will always exist. In some communities their names (or similar names) have been retained. Elsewhere, and while it is clear that they are still being called on and thanked, they are not so easy to identify. Some of them did come to be recognised in Christian concepts. For example, in the sixteenth century the tlaloque were already being identified with angels, a belief that still holds today. As noted earlier, the dates of special rituals in honour of these gods, together with the important stages of the maize cycle, were also woven into the Catholic calendar and this system is still in use today. However, this does not necessarily mean that the same gods are being worshipped. Some of their roles and powers may originally have been transferred to other Christian figures. All the saints also have their own histories, features and symbols, some of them drawn directly from the natural world, and these were widely introduced to and spread among the Indians in the sixteenth century and beyond. This would have provided an open door for making matches or associations. However, over the centuries a particular native god and a saint may have become the same entity that is now impossible to distinguish as being either one or the other.

Pic 5: Virgins [across the] Atlantic... Note the identical position of the hands
Pic 5: Virgins [across the] Atlantic... Note the identical position of the hands (Click on image to enlarge)

None of this means that Mexico’s indigenous groups still consciously cling to their old religious beliefs or are trying to hide them behind a Christian curtain. Most traditional communities who participate in this form of mixed worship today believe very firmly that they are following good Catholic practices. They would probably be very angry if somebody suggested they might still be worshipping their old gods.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Source unknown; photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Photo © private source
• Pic 3: Public domain
• Pic 4: Photo by Iain Pearson/Mexicolore
• Pic 5: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

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Mexicolore replies: Neat! Thanks for this - we’ve changed the enlarged version as you suggest...