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Mexicolore contributor Professor Jaime Lara

Syncretism: Aztec Christians

We are indebted to Jaime Lara, Senior Research Professor, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Hispanic Research Center, Arizona State University, Phoenix (USA), for this most enlightening article, specially written for us, on the coming together of two very different religious traditions in Mexico after the Conquest.

Pic 1: Early evangelization: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City
Pic 1: Early evangelization: detail of mural by Antonio González Orozco, Hospital de Jesús Nazareno, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

How did the Mexica (better known as the Aztecs) become Christians in the sixteenth century? And how did they understand, accept and perform the new religion that came with the Spanish invaders? These are important questions because, if we can say anything about the Aztecs, we know that they were a very religious people. Unlike us today, every aspect of their lives was ruled by gods, goddesses, rituals, sacred objects, calendars, places and events.
Elsewhere on this website you will find excellent essays on Aztec philosophy and religious concepts; and I would remind you that historians give the title of “teoyoism” (from teotl = divinity) to the collection of religious beliefs and practices of the Mexica. Therefore I will not repeat that information. Rather, I am interested in the process of culture contact and religious conversion. I am fascinated by the way in which Aztec men and women, boys and girls, accepted Christianity and made it their own, on their own terms, and with what they saw of value in it. Anthropologists and theologians call this process one of “syncretism,” a coming-together or convergence of two very different (but in some ways similar) religious traditions.

Pic 2: The arrival of the twelve Franciscan apostles (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala’, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 239v (detail)
Pic 2: The arrival of the twelve Franciscan apostles (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala’, Glasgow University Library, MS Hunter 242, folio 239v (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

First, some facts. The initial missionaries who came to central Mexico were Catholic friars: the Franciscans in 1524, the Dominicans in 1526, and the Augustinians in 1533. They arrived yearly in groups of twelve (pic 2), like the original twelve apostles of the New Testament, so in the early days the ratio of missionaries to potential converts was probably something like one to five million!

CHILD LINGUISTS
It took them several years for the clergy to learn the language(s) and to compose dictionaries and grammar books. Remember that Nahuatl was a spoken language and that their writing system was one of pictographs. So the laborious process of converting spoken Nahuatl and picture-signs into our A, B, C alphabet had to be the first step, and in this, children played a big role. It seems that one of the first things that the friars did was to play games with the Aztec boys. (Probably something more like soccer than rugby or cricket.) In so doing, they gained their confidence and, with a lot of body-language, had the boys begin to pronounce the names of objects like “ball,” “hand,” “eye,” etc. In this way, the youngsters became teachers to the missionaries.

Pic 3: Destruction of native religious images (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción’, folio 242r)
Pic 3: Destruction of native religious images (Diego Muñoz Camargo, ‘Descripción’, folio 242r) (Click on image to enlarge)

The friars were interested in instructing the Aztecs in the basics of the Christian faith and in baptizing them into the Catholic Church. By Church law they were prohibited from forcibly baptizing anyone; but the missionaries felt that they could use social pressure to encourage converts, especially because they believed that the signs of the times indicated that the end of the world was approaching and that christianizing native peoples was an urgent necessity for their eternal salvation. Aztecs were henceforth forbidden to perform human sacrifices, were forced to attend sermons, and were ostracized if they did not visibly accept the new religion. The visible signs for their former religion of teoyoism were destroyed: wooden images and codices were burned (pic 3), stones images were buried beneath crosses; and the teocalli pyramids were dismantled, the stone being reused for building churches, chapels and friaries. These new edifices were hubs of religious practice as well as “entertainment centers” where religious dramas and colourful pageants attracted the crowds to fill the liturgical vacuum. We call this “ritual substitution.”

Pic 4: Scale model of the conversion center at Huejotzingo
Pic 4: Scale model of the conversion center at Huejotzingo (Click on image to enlarge)

There soon developed around the friars groups of native specialists who sought to participate in the new social order and economic opportunities: Aztec architects, stonecutters, lumbermen, painters, metalworkers, costume-makers, musicians, translators, scribes and instructors.

CONVERSION BY ARCHITECTURE
Architecture had a lot to do with the conversion process. In days of old the Aztecs had always worshipped outdoors under the sun or moon in walled patios in front of raised platforms on which human sacrifices took place and where the myths were reenacted by costumed and choreographed actor-priests. The friars’ conversion centers continued the same sense of outdoor worship by placing an altar table for Holy Communion in an outdoor apse and affixing a raised pulpit to the façade of the church, which was only used on weekdays when the crowds were smaller (pix 4 and 5).

Pic 5: The author standing in the pulpit of the conversion center at Tochimilco, Puebla. The open-air chapel with altar is to the right
Pic 5: The author standing in the pulpit of the conversion center at Tochimilco, Puebla. The open-air chapel with altar is to the right (Click on image to enlarge)

Today we believe that the model for the missionaries’ centers was actually the Temple of Jerusalem, where Jesus and his twelve disciples had worshipped. Drawings of the Temple were commonly found in late medieval Bibles brought to the New World, and they provided a simple ground plan of patio and temple-house for the builders (pic 6).

Pic 6: Drawing of Temple plan from Nicholas of Lyra’s bible commentary (1498)
Pic 6: Drawing of Temple plan from Nicholas of Lyra’s bible commentary (1498) (Click on image to enlarge)

Therefore, a biblical model of outdoor Christian worship was projected upon the new believers whom the friars believed to be the Lost Tribes of Israel.
Even more interesting is that fact that many of the conversion centers were constructed on top of Aztec religious sites, reusing the same “holy ground” of the old religion but reorienting the congregation in a different way. Remember that most of the teocallis had faced a sacred mountain or hill on the horizon. Indeed, the teocalli was itself a miniature man-made mountain replicating the sacred topography nearby. Gathered for rituals like human sacrifice, the assembled people faced not only the teocalli platform and its actors, but also the sacred mountain beyond the structure.

Pic 7: Google Earth image (top); the extinct volcano Iztaccíhuatl as seen from the roof of the church at Huejotzingo (bottom)
Pic 7: Google Earth image (top); the extinct volcano Iztaccíhuatl as seen from the roof of the church at Huejotzingo (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

The friars reversed the equation: they built their conversions centers in such a way that the people gathered in the patio in front of the church gave their backs to the mountains when facing the outdoor pulpit and altar. Aerial photos from Google Earth show this to be true (pic 7, top); and as we can see (pic 7, bottom), the façade of the church at Huejotzingo aligns with the snow-covered peak of the extinct volcano Iztaccíhuatl. Of course, to “turn around 180 degrees” or to “turn your back” is the literal meaning of the word “con-version.” Therefore, the first step in the conversion process to Christianity was actually a physical one of re-orienting potential converts in space.

Pic 8: Brother Pedro de Gante instructing Indians on the use of European tools (from Diego Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’)
Pic 8: Brother Pedro de Gante instructing Indians on the use of European tools (from Diego Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’) (Click on image to enlarge)

TEENAGE PREACHERS
One of the first Franciscans to arrive in Mexico was Pedro de Gante (Peter of Ghent), a Fleming. In spite of being a relative of the Emperor Charles V, he was a humble friar who never sought to be ordained a priest (much less a bishop) but was content to be a lay brother pic 8). His talents were varied: he drew and painted, played several musical instruments, worked with all sorts of European tools, was a schoolmaster, choirmaster, and something of a theatre director.

Pic 9: Pedro de Gante (top L), pictorial catechism (Biblioteca Nacional de España) (bottom); facsimile edition (top and R)
Pic 9: Pedro de Gante (top L), pictorial catechism (Biblioteca Nacional de España) (bottom); facsimile edition (top and R) (Click on image to enlarge)

He created a pocket catechism of Christian doctrine entirely in pictographs (pic 9) in the style of the Aztec scribes. In spite of speaking with a lisp, Pedro was the first to master Nahuatl, and he gathered around him a devoted group of adolescents, the cream of the Aztec youth.
In addition to teaching them Spanish and Latin, Pedro instructed them in Christian doctrine and church music. He was so confident of their knowledge of the new faith that he soon sent the older teens out on weekends, two-by-two, into the hamlets and remote towns to teach the Christian faith, and to conduct services like the singing of Matins and Vespers of the Virgin Mary which had been translated into the native language. An engraving of 1579 shows teenage boys accompanying a traveling Franciscan missionary among the nomadic Chichimechas of northern Mexico (pic 10), but Friar Pedro’s boys went out without any clergymen accompanying them. They were on their own.

Pic 10: Friar with teenage assistants on mission to the chichimecas (Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’)
Pic 10: Friar with teenage assistants on mission to the chichimecas (Valadés, ‘Rhetorica Christiana’) (Click on image to enlarge)

Now we have to ask ourselves what might have happened when the young men arrived at a village. They gathered the people and spoke to them in perfect Nahuatl about the Christian God, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints, the Mass and sacraments, etc., trying to explain as best they could both the differences and similarities to teoyoism. Like any of us who attempt to elucidate the unknown, they resorted to the principle of analogy to the known with use of the words “like” and “as” and “in a similar way” - in other words, comparisons and similes. One can only wonder what comparisons they invented because the Aztecs gods were not necessarily the nicest supernaturals, so to speak. Although the gods granted favors, they were also frightening and temperamental and demanded blood. You wouldn’t want to meet any of them at night in a dark alley!

Pic 11: Aztec washing ritual (Codex Mendoza, folio 57r [detail]; Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 11: Aztec washing ritual (Codex Mendoza, folio 57r [detail]; Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

METAPHORIC BRIDGES
Anyway, how would a fifteen-year-old native schoolboy explain the Trinity in his native language to first-time listeners? How did he explain eternal life, or reward and punishment in a heaven or hell - concepts that had never been part of teoyoism? The boys may have found that they were stymied, or that it was easier for them to speak about the material objects and liturgical performances of the Christians instead. After all, the Aztecs had a washing ritual that took place shortly after a baby’s birth, at which time the name was also given (pic 11). So the precocious teens might have drawn an analogy to Christian baptism and christening.

Pic 12: Aztec ‘copilli’ mitre (Codex Mendoza, folio 16r [detail]; Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Pic 12: Aztec ‘copilli’ mitre (Codex Mendoza, folio 16r [detail]; Bodleian Library, Oxford) (Click on image to enlarge)

Again, the Aztecs had the practice of eating a cornbread human-looking cookie, a sort of gingerbread man made of seeds, corn flour and human blood. So the boy preachers might very well have made a comparison to the Holy Communion of the Mass in which Catholics believe that Christ is present in the bread wafer and his blood is present in the wine. Other material objects or ritual practices were certainly drawn into the conversation because we know that the friars were doing the same thing: looking for points of similarly that acted as imaginative bridges between teoyoism and Catholicism, moving from the known to the unknown, and thinking out-loud in the recipient culture. We call this “dynamic equivalence.” A few examples will suffice.

Pic 13: Bishop confirming a young man who wears the ‘crismale’ headband; Tira de Tepechpan, fol. 16-17 (detail), Bibliotheque Nationale de France
Pic 13: Bishop confirming a young man who wears the ‘crismale’ headband; Tira de Tepechpan, fol. 16-17 (detail), Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Click on image to enlarge)

Anyone who lives in the United Kingdom knows that what people wear on the heads says something about them. Queens and kings wear crowns; and in the New World, chiefs, elders and shamans wore feathers. The Aztec tlatoani (speaker, noble) was distinguished by a cotton headband known as the copilli or Aztec mitre (pic 12). Emperor Montezuma, as the chief tlatoani of the nation, wore a turquoise version; the elite warrior knights also wore the distinctive headgear.
By coincidence, it resembled a cloth headband that Christian children received at the moment of anointing in Confirmation. (The crismale, as it was known, was common in medieval England.) When the friars introduced the practice of the sacramental headband in Mexico it became extremely popular and a status symbol (pic 13). Confirmed adolescents were informed that they now became “knights and soldiers of Christ, gifted with spiritual weapons.” An Aztec-Christian teenager couldn’t ask for anything more!

Pic 14: Aztec mirror made of obsidian (British Museum)
Pic 14: Aztec mirror made of obsidian (British Museum) (Click on image to enlarge)

Another symbolic object which found resonance in Mexica and Christian cultures was the mirror. Aztecs has used dark obsidian (volcanic glass) mirrors through which their priests foretold the future (pic 14). The dark mirror was an attribute of the god Tezcatlipoca; his statue had obsidian eyes through which he supposedly peered into human hearts; the mirror was also a symbol of the blood of the solar god Huitzilopochtli, thereby linking reflected sunlight and blood. Obsidian knives were used in human sacrifice and some Aztec altars had an obsidian top.

Pic 15: Outdoor stone cross with obsidian mirror insert (Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán)
Pic 15: Outdoor stone cross with obsidian mirror insert (Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán) (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems ingenious then that the friars and their native assistants would mount obsidian mirrors on outdoor stone crosses (pic 15). Few remain, but they suggest that sunlight and bleeding were the primary ways in which Jesus Christ was presented to the Mexica converts; that is, as the (sun)light of the world, and as a human-divine sacrifice whose blood would keep the world from falling into chaos and annihilation. Mirrors, with their quasi-magical properties, could bridge difficult Christian and Mexica concepts.

Pic 16: Outdoor stone cross with ‘cuauhxicalli’ receptacle inserted at the base (Cuernavaca, Morelos)
Pic 16: Outdoor stone cross with ‘cuauhxicalli’ receptacle inserted at the base (Cuernavaca, Morelos) (Click on image to enlarge)

A similar reuse occurred with the cuauhxicalli, the Aztec stone bowls or vessels for holding disembodied human hearts. Several were reemployed for Christian baptismal fonts or embedded at the foot of the outdoors crosses, probably for the same reason of connecting the sacred liquids of sacrificial blood and sacramental water (pic 16).

Pic 17: A flower tops the glyph for song, stressing its ‘precious’ quality (Codex Borbonicus, fol. 4 [detail]; Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris)
Pic 17: A flower tops the glyph for song, stressing its ‘precious’ quality (Codex Borbonicus, fol. 4 [detail]; Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) (Click on image to enlarge)

Other material objects enlisted in the conversion process were feathers, jewelry and flowers, all of which were also metaphors in Nahuatl speech for the concepts of “precious,” “sacred,” “godly,” “worthwhile,” etc. (pic 17). The same metaphors were incorporated into the new faith and its rhetoric. In Christian prayers and instruction, baptism became “precious green jade water,” while the Virgin Mary became God’s “feathered and jade bracelet.” The outdoor crosses, around which Aztec Christians danced in costume, were hailed in Nahuatl as tonacaquáhuitl, the “cosmic tree that sustains our life.”

Pic 18: Pictorial symbols for “Amen” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: an open hand, meaning “let” or “permit it”, and a flower, meaning something good or beautiful (British Museum, MS Egerton 2898, fol. 3, detail)
Pic 18: Pictorial symbols for “Amen” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: an open hand, meaning “let” or “permit it”, and a flower, meaning something good or beautiful (British Museum, MS Egerton 2898, fol. 3, detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Heaven was said to be a city-garden of aromatic flowers and tasty fruits, its streets paved with turquoise and amethysts. And when Nahuatl-speaking Christians wanted to say “Amen” they invented a beautiful pictograph to express it: “Let there be flowers” (pic 18).
It seems that syncretism between Aztec polytheistic teoyoism and Christian monotheism, even though at times it led to confusion, could also produce some of the most beautiful, imaginative, and creative combinations of the two. The native scholars and translators, it appears, were more than mere assistants. They were co-partners with the friars in this labour, and imagineers in their own right in the production of a Christianity with a distinctively Aztec look and taste.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Photo by Eva Sánchez Fernández/Mexicolore
• Pix 2 & 3: Images courtesy and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
• Pix 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 15, 16 courtesy of and supplied by Jaime Lara
• Pic 9: Images of Pedro de Gante from Wikipedia; photos of 1992 facsimile edition from the website of Testimonio Compañía Editorial, Madrid, Spain
• Pix 11 & 12: Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Pic 13: Image courtesy of and © Bibliothèque Nationale de France
• Pix 14 & 18: Photos courtesy of and © The Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 17: Image from the Codex Borbonicus scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 13th 2013

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