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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

§ 4. The Mexican Cultus.

When we turn from this stage of religious history to that of Aztec Mexico, the first and most memorable difference that faces us is the immense expansion of the power of the priests. If we can trust the Spanish writers, 2 five thousand priests were connected with the principal temple in the city of Mexico alone, where there were in all some 600 temples, and where the total population was perhaps about 300,000; 3 and all the cities were divided into districts placed under the charge of parochial clergy, who regulated all acts of religion. In this enormous strength of the priestly class we have the secret of that frightful development of religious delusion and its attendant atrocity which marks off Mexico from the rest of the world. The system was, of course, polytheistic, and, equally of course, it exhibits the usual tendency towards pantheism or monotheism; but the overwhelming priesthood necessarily perpetuated the separate cults. There were at least thirteen principal deities, and more than two hundred inferior. 4 Indeed, some reckon as high as three thousand

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the number of the minor spirits, 1 who would answer to the genii and patron saints of Europe; and it is obvious that in Mexico as in Christendom there must have been many varieties of religious temper and attitude. 2 In many of the forms of prayer and admonition which have been preserved, 3 we see a habit of alluding reverently to "God" (Teotl) or "our Lord," without any specification of any one deity, and with a general assumption that the Lord loves right conduct. This universal God was in origin apparently the Sun, who was worshipped in the temples of all the Gods alike, being prayed to four times each day and four times each night. 4

At the first glance it is plain that the Mexican pantheon represented the myths of many tribes, myths which overlapped each other, as in the case of the ancient and widely worshipped God of Rain and his wife the Goddess of Water, and which survived separately by being adapted to the different usages of life. In connection with the rite of infant baptism, which the Mexicans practised most scrupulously, the officiating women prayed to "Our Merciful Lady," Chalchiuhtlicue or Cioacoatl, the Goddess of Water. 5 At the season when rain was wanted for the harvest, again, prayer was made to the God or Gods named Tlaloc 6—for both the singular and plural forms are used—who controlled the rain; and whereas the Goddess of Water invoked at baptism was held merciful, the Tlaloc had to be propitiated by the regular sacrifice of a number of sucking infants, bought from poor parents or extorted from superstitious ones. 7 There is no more awful illustration of the capacity of the human mind for religious delusion than the record of how the merciful people, believing in the efficacy of the sacrifice, would yet keep out of the way of the sacred procession which carried the doomed babes, because they could not bear to see them weep and think of their fate; while others, weeping themselves, would take comfort if the children wept freely, because that prognosticated plenteous rains. 8

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[paragraph continues] But even under the spell of religion men could not sacrifice infants to the very deity invoked at baptism: so the benign Water-Goddess was sundered from the child-devouring Water-God. And by the same law of adaptation to social function it came about that the most prominent of the worships of Mexico, a state periodically at war, was that of the War-God Huitzilopochtli, who figured as the patron God of the nation.

In Huitzilopochtli we have a very interesting case of mythological evolution. 1 It has been argued that he was originally a simple bird-God, the humming-bird, his early name being the diminutive Huitziton, "the little humming-bird." 2 An old legend tells that while the Aztecs still dwelt in Aztlan, a man among them named Huitziton chirped like a bird, "Tihui" = "Let us go," and that he thus persuaded them to migrate and conquer for themselves a new country. As the later God actually bears the symbol of a hummingbird on his left foot, and his name Huitzilopochtli means "hummingbird on the left," there has evidently occurred some process of assimilation; but it is not quite certain that it was in this wise. If the humming-bird were originally a totem-God, the hypothesis would seem sound; but this, I think, has not been shown; and there remains open the possibility that the symbol was not primary but secondary.

The singular fact that, even as the Mexican War-God has a humming-bird for his symbol, so Mars, the Roman War-God, has a wood-pecker for his, is in this regard worth a moment's attention. We can draw no certain conclusion in the matter; but it seems likely that the evolution in the two cases may have been similar. Now, there is no clear evidence that the wood-pecker was a totem-God; and the whole question of Mars’s name Picumnus, which he was held to have from Picus, the wood-pecker, is obscure. 3 Oddly enough, the Sabines had a legend that the wood-pecker led them to their settling-place, which they consequently called Picenum. When we note that a number of ancient communities similarly had legends of birds or animals who guided them to their settling-place, 4 and that the name of the place sometimes accords with the name of the guide and sometimes does not, we seem obliged to recognise three possibilities.

1. The animal or bird was in some cases very likely a totem-God,

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the legend of guidance being a late way of explaining its association with the community.

2. A place, however, might easily be named by newcomers because of the number of birds or animals of a given kind seen there; and the explanatory legend on that view is naught.

3. A symbolic animal, connected with the worship or image of a God, would also give rise to explanatory legends. One would prompt another.

If then the Sabines put the wood-pecker on their standard, the question arises whether it may not have been because it was the symbol of the War-God. It is noted concerning the humming-bird that he is extraordinarily brave and pugnacious; 1 and the same might readily be said of the wood-pecker, who is as it were always attacking. Supposing the symbol to be secondary, there is no difficulty in the matter: all the legends would be intelligible on the usual lines of myth-making. In regard to Huitzilopochtli, again, there is a symbolic source for his curious epithet "on the left." In one legend he sits after death at the left hand of his brother Tezcatlipoca, 2 the Creator and Supreme God; and whether or not this is the earliest form of the idea, it suggests that the placing of the symbol on the left foot of the War-God may have arisen from the previous currency of the phrase "Huitzlin on the left" in another signification, though on this view the God had been already named after his symbol.

Leaving open the problem of origins on this side, we come upon another in the fact that neither Huitzilopochtli nor Mars was primarily a War-God. The former, who was practically the national God of Mexico, was also called Mexitli; 3 and it seems likelier that this should have been his original name, and Huitzilopochtli a sobriquet, than vice versa. And so with the function. A War-God, specially known as such, is not a primary conception: what happens is that a particular God comes to be the God of War. Among the Native Americans, the "Great God" or Creator and Ruler, or else the Heaven-or Sun-God, was the War-God; 4 and we know that Mars was originally a sylvan deity, 5 concerned with vegetation and flocks and herds. How came he to preside over war? Simply because, we may take it, he was the God of the season at which war was usually 

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made. Campaigns were begun in spring; and so the God of the Spring season, who was specially invoked, became War-God. Mars was just Martius, March; and he lent himself the better to the conception, because March is a stormy and blusterous month. Mars strictly retains these characteristics, being a blusterous rather than a great or dignified God in both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But here suggests itself another possible source for the symbol of the War-God. Picus means speckled, 1 coloured; and the speckled wood-pecker might figure the coming of speckled spring, as the humming-bird would do the colour-time in Mexico. Perhaps there may be a similar natural explanation for the further striking coincidence that Huitzilopochtli is born of a virgin mother, Coatlicue, who is abnormally impregnated by being touched by a ball of bright-coloured feathers, 2 while Juno bears Mars also virginally, being impregnated by the touch of a flower. 3

In both cases, certainly, we have a sufficiently marked primary type for the myth of the Virgin-Birth, the idea in each being simply the birth of vegetation in spring. Though the mythical Coatlicue, like Mary, is a God-fearing woman, who frequents the temple and lives in a specified village, Coatepec, near Tula, the Virgin Mother is simply the ancient Mother of all, the Earth; and the concept of virginity is a verbally made one, in virtue of the mere fact that the whole is a metaphor. But if Huitzilopochtli be thus admittedly in origin a God of Vegetation, 4 there arises a stronger presumption that he too was originally symbolised by his bird because of its seasonal relation to his worship. It is denied that in his case the seasonal explanation of the choice of Mars as War-God can hold good, 5 because the spring in Mexico is a time of heavy rains, when campaigns are impossible. In his case then the selection of the War-God is presumably a result on the one hand of his symbol, which further seems to have been spontaneously made a symbol of the sun, 6 and on the other hand of his special popularity—a constant feature in the cult of the Vegetation-Gods. And when we note further that the chief God of the Caribs, Yuluca, was represented with a headdress of humming-bird feathers, and that the Toltec

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[paragraph continues] God Quetzalcoatl, also a God of fruitfulness, was figured with the head of a sparrow, which was the hieroglyph of the air, 1 we are led to surmise, not that all of these Gods were originally Bird-Gods, but that they were all originally Spring-Gods or other Nature-Gods to whom the birds were given as symbols, though the sparrow may have been originally a totem-God. Throughout the whole of Polynesia, the red feather of one small bird, and the tail feathers of the man-of-war bird, are "the ordinary medium of extending or communicating supernatural power," and are regarded as specially pleasing to the Gods. 2


355:2 Clavigero, History of Mexico, B. vi, § 14 (vol. i, p. 270).

355:3 Prescott, at cited, pp. 32, 283-4. Torquemada thought there might be 40,000 temples in all Mexico, and Clavigero held there were many more. B, vi, § 12 (p. 269).

355:4 Prescott, B. i, c. 3, p. 27. Cp. Spencer, as cited, p. 37.

356:1 J. G. Müller, as cited, p. 572.

356:2 Cp. J. G. Müller, p. 564.

356:3 Sahagun, Hist. of the Affairs of New Spain, French trans. 1880, passim.

356:4 Clavigero, B. vi, § 15 (i, 272-3); J. G. Müller, as cited, pp. 473-4; Réville, as cited, p. 46. There is reason to infer that sun-worship is the oldest and most general cult of the American races, and that it came with them from Asia. Special deities of vegetation seem in their case to be a later evolution.

356:5 Sahagun, as cited, p. 441 (l. ii, c. 32).

356:6 Possibly "the Tlalocs" were the clouds—children of the Rain-God. Cp. Réville. p. 72. But they were Gods of mountains, like the chief Tlaloc, whose throne was a mountain so named, though he had also a mountain-seat in heaven, called Tlalocan. Tlaloc was one of the oldest deities. Müller, Amerik. Urrelig. p. 500; Prescott, p. 41, n., citing Ramirez. On another view, the Tlalocs may have stood for the four quarters. Among the Mayan Zapotecs, there were four Chacs or Rain-Gods; and again five. Seler, in Bulletin 28 of Amer. Bur. of Ethn. pp. 267-8.

356:7 Sahagun, as cited, p. 84 (l. ii, c. 20), speaks of purchase only. There seem, however, to have been special dedications. In Carthage, we know, the aristocracy came to substitute bought children for their own. Diodorus, xx, 14. The same process would take place anywhere. See above, p. 353-4.

356:8 Sahagun, p. 58 (1. ii, c. 1), and pp. 84-7.

357:1 J. G. Müller, p. 591 sq.

357:2 This seems a very debatable point. "Huitzlin," the full name, seems as much of a diminutive as "Huitziton."

357:3 Preller, Römische Mythologie, ed. 1865, pp. 297-8; Cox, Mythology of the Aryan Nations, ed. 1882, pp. 523-4.

357:4 Cp. J. G. Müller, p. 595; K. O. Müller, Introd. to Mythology, Eng. trans. pp. 109, 172.

358:1 J. G. Müller, p. 592, and refs.

358:2 Id. p. 593.

358:3 Prescott, p. 9; Müller, p. 574, citing Acosta and Humboldt; Gomara, in Historiadores Primitivos de Indias, i (1852), p. 347, col. 2.

358:4 J. G. Müller, p. 141.

358:5 Cato, De re rustica, 141 (142); Virgil, Aeneid, iii, 35. Mars, too, was identified with the sun. Macrobius, Saturnalia, i, 19. So was Arês, according to Preller (Griech. Myth. ed. 1860, i, 257), who, however, only cites the Homeridian hymn, which does not bear him out. That identifies Arês with the planet Mars.

359:1 So White. Bréal derives it from a root meaning to strike. Cox, as cited.

359:2 Clavigero, B. vi, § 6 (p. 254).

359:3 Ovid, Fasti, v, 231-256.

359:4 J. G. Müller, pp. 602, 607, 608, recognises that the God is himself symbolised by the bunch of feathers. Like so many of the Egyptian and other Gods, he is thus 'the husband of his mother."

359:5 Müller (pp. 609-610) denies the explanation even for Mars, arguing that early wars were made in harvest, for plunder. For this he gives no evidence; nor does he meet the obvious answer that those plundered at harvest would want to seek revenge as soon as winter was over. Spring campaigns have in point of fact been normal in Europe; and the chief plunder sought by the early Romans was not grain but cattle.

359:6 Müller, p. 592. It was called "sun's hair" = sunbeam.

360:1 Id. pp. 583-4, 592, 594.

360:2 Ellis. Polynesian Researches, 2nd ed. i, 338; Moerenhout, Voyage aux Iles du Grand Ocean, 1837, i, 472-3.

Next: § 5. Mexican Sacrifices and Cannibal Sacraments