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

§ 7. The Mexican White Christ.

Two sets of phenomena tell of the presence among the Aztecs of that instinct of humanity or spirit of reason which elsewhere gradually delivered men from the demoralisation of human sacrifice. One was the practice, already noted, of substituting a symbol for the sacrificed victim; the other was the cultus of the relatively benign deity Quetzalcoatl, a God of the Toltecs whom the Aztecs had subdued. There is no more striking figure in American mythology.

The name appears to have meant "the feathered [or coloured] serpent," and this was one of his symbols; but he was normally represented by the red-billed sparrow-head, which in Mexican hieroglyphics stands for the air; and his third symbol, the Firestone, had the same significance. 3 As God of the Air, accordingly, he ranks in the pantheon. 4 But his mythus has a uniquely ethical stamp, and a certain wistful pathos. 5 It tells that he was once high-priest at Tula, in Anahuac, where, ever clothed in white, he founded a cultus, and gave beneficent laws to men, teaching them also the arts of agriculture, metal-work, stone-cutting, and civil government; the while a king named Huemac held with him the secular rule, and framed the law book of the nation. But the God Tezcatlipoca came to earth in the guise of a young merchant, who deceived the king's daughter, and again in the guise of an old man, who persuaded Quetzalcoatl to drink a mystic drink, whereupon he was seized with an irresistible impulse to wander away. And so he went south-eastwards, setting up his institutions in place after place, but always going further, till at length he disappeared in the east, with a promise to return. For that return his worshippers ever looked longingly, and the Aztec kings with fear, till when

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[paragraph continues] Cortès came all thought that he was the God, and at Cholula the people sacrificed a man to him, and daubed him with the blood in the regulation way. 1

But in the myth of Quetzalcoatl it is told that at Tula he had preached against human sacrifices, telling men to offer to the Gods only fruits and flowers; and that he could not endure the thought of war, closing his ears when men spoke of it. A similar doctrine is associated with the traditionary worship of the rival God Votan, the legendary founder of the Maya civilisation; 2 and it may be that in both cases there is a reversion to the memory of simpler and kindlier cults. In any case, this humane legend figures for us a late product of Toltec feeling, representing at once the aspiration for a better religion and the memory of the Toltec people, whose polity had been step by step driven to the south-east by the stronger power of the Aztecs. 3 It may have been some of the Toltec priests who remained under Aztec rule that framed the gentle mythus, 4 and so dreamed for themselves a Messiah, as so many conquered races had done before. On analysis, it appears that Huemac was really the old Toltec name of the God, and that he took that of Quetzalcoatl in one of his more southerly resting-places, when he became symbolised as the serpent. 5 Of old he had had human sacrifices like other Gods; and in the Aztec lands he had them still. 6 But some of his white-robed priests, left victimless till they recoiled from the bloody rites of their conquerors, felt that their God must have a different nature from that of the Gods of the black-robed priests of Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli, and so framed for his cult a new gospel. 7

Recognising this, Dr. Müller and Dr. Brinton and Dr. Réville agree that Quetzalcoatl is properly the God of the beneficent rain-bringing east-wind, identified with the vanquished Toltec people, so that like them he is driven away by the enmity of other deities, but, like the vanishing or slain Sun-God of all mythologies, he is to return again in power and great glory. By such a myth Christians are set vaguely surmising a debt to their own legend; but there is no such thing in the case. As Mr. Bancroft observes, following

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[paragraph continues] Dr. Müller, 1 the process is one which has occurred in many mythologies:—"It is everywhere the case among savages, with their national God, that the latter is a nature-deity, who becomes gradually transformed into a national God, then into a national King, high-priest, founder of a religion, and at last ends in being considered a human being. The older and purer the civilisation of a people is, the easier it is to recognise the original essence of its national God, in spite of all transformations and disguises. So it is here. Behind the human form of the God glimmers the nature-shape, and the national God is known by, perhaps, all his worshippers as also a nature-deity. From his powerful influence upon nature, he might also be held as creator. The pure human form of this God [Quetzalcoatl] as it appears in the fable, as well as in the image, is not the original, but the youngest. His oldest concrete forms are taken from nature, to which he originally belongs, and have maintained themselves in many attributes. All these symbolise him as the God of fertility, means of the beneficial influence of the air." 2

What is specially interesting is that, despite the inner hostility of the Quetzalcoatl cult to those of the Mexican Gods, his stood in high honour; 3 and while some of his devotees sacrificed and ate his representative once a year in the usual manner, some of his priests, of whom the chief also bore his name as representing him, 4 did as little sacrificing as they could, evidently finding some support in that course. 5 We are moved to ask, then, whether there was here a culture-force that could have countervailed the host of the priests of slaughter had the Aztecs been left to work out their own salvation. The more the problem is pondered, however, the less probable will it seem that the humaner teaching could have so triumphed. Conquest by some other American people might have served to restrain the religion of blood; but there is no sign that the humaner cult was as such making serious headway. The Aztec priesthood like every other had an economic basis; its higher offices were the perquisites of certain aristocratic families; and the habit of perpetual bloodshed had atrophied the feelings of the priestly army on that}

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side. Beyond a certain point, priesthoods are incapable of intellectual regeneration from within, even if reformative ideas be present.


370:3 Id. pp. 583-4.

370:4 Clavigero, B. vi, § 4 (p. 248).

370:5 See Dr. Tylor's Researches into the Early History of Mankind, 1865, pp. 151-4, for the various forms of the myth.

371:1 Prescott, B. ii, c. 6; B. iv, c. 5.

371:2 Nadaillac, p. 268.

371:3 Müller, p. 581.

371:4 Had they been sacrificers before, they would be partly deprived of victims by the conquest. For another case of a God who refused human sacrifices, see T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, i, 231. He is supposed to have been shrined or incarnated in a man, which for his priests made human flesh taboo.

371:5 Mahler, p. 587.

371:6 Id. pp. 589-90.

371:7 It was one of his priests, bearing his name, who shot the arrow into the dough image of Huitzilopochtli—the humanest sacrificial rite in that God's worship. Bancroft, iii, 299-300.

372:1 Id. pp. 329, 337, 583.

372:2 Native Races, iii, 279. Dr. Tylor once wrote: "I am inclined to consider Quetzalcoatl a real personage, and not a mythical one" (Anahuac, p. 278), and Mr. A. H. Buckland (Anthropological Studies, p. 90) takes the same view; but neither argues the point; and in his Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865, pp. 151-4), Dr. Tylor treats the matter as pure myth. It was this deity who was long ago identified with St. Thomas (Clavigero, B. vi, § 4, p. 250). For the myth see Dr. Brinton, American Hero Myths, pp. 73-142. In the ritual of the confessional he is called "the father and mother" of the penitent (Sahagun, p. 341; 1. vi, c. 7). He, too, is born of a virgin mother (Brinton, p. 90).

372:3 His temple at Cholula was the greatest in New Spain. Gomara, as before cited, p. 448, col. 2.

372:4 Bancroft, iii, 267.

372:5 Müller, p. 582.

Next: § 8. The Fatality of the Priesthood