Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, , at sacred-texts.com
Of deeper interest is the moral aspect of the worship of Mexican Gods, especially the most memorable feature of all, human sacrifice. Though this, as we have seen, is primordial in religion, there can be no question that its enormous development was the work of the organised priesthood, and of the cultivated religious sentiment. The Roman War-God remained subordinate, warlike though the Romans were; the Mexican became one of the two leading deities, and received the more assiduous worship. Whence the divergence? Mainly, we must conclude, from the multiplication of the Mexican priesthood, which was primarily due to the absorption of the priest-hoods of the conquered races; and from the prior development of the rite of human sacrifice in the cult of the Gods or Goddesses of Vegetation. Among the Aztecs the tradition went that human sacrifices were of late introduction; 3 and this view would no doubt be favoured by the priests, who would represent that the latter-day power of the State was due to the sacrifices. But we have seen that they were practised on a smaller scale by the American peoples at much earlier stages of social evolution; and in the midway stages they were also common. In northern South America, the chief God of the Muyscas, Fomagata, was worshipped with many human sacrifices, as he was also under the name Fomagazdad, with his wife Zipaltonal, in Nicaragua, where he and she were held the progenitors of the human race; 4 and similar usages, often in connection with the Sun-God, sometimes with the God of Rain, were common in Yucatan, Chiapa, Tobasco, Honduras, and elsewhere. 5 The Mexican Otimias, also, who were not conquered by the Aztecs, sacrificed children and ate their flesh, carrying it with them, roasted, on their campaigns. 6
[paragraph continues] Such sacrifices then were well-established in Mexico before the Aztecs came, being found in some degree even among the relatively peaceful Toltecs. 1 What the Aztec priesthood did was to multiply them to a frightful extent. 2
The causes of expansion and restriction in such cases are no doubt complex; but when we compare those of the Aztecs and the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans, we can trace certain decisive conditions. Firstly, human sacrifices tend to multiply among peoples much given to war, by way of offerings to the Gods; but where there is only a limited priesthood the natural force of compassion leads men in time, as they grow more civilised, to abandon such sacrifices; while a priesthood tends to maintain them. Thus among the civilised peoples of the old world they lasted longest with the priest-ridden Carthaginians; and the reason that they did not continue late among the Jews was probably that these did not possess a numerous priesthood till after the Captivity, when their religion was recast in terms of the more civilised Oriental systems. On the other hand, an expanding or expanded empire, powerfully ruled by a warrior autocrat, like those of Babylon and Egypt, is led in various ways to abandon human sacrifice even if the priesthoods be numerous. Alien cults are absorbed for political reasons, and it is no part of the ruler's policy to be habitually at war with small neighbours, he having absorbed most of them: hence an irregular supply of captives. The priesthoods, too, can be conveniently provided for through other forms of sacrifice; and on those other lines they are less powerful relatively to the king. Thus in the empire of the Incas the practice of human sacrifice was well restrained. But where a warlike and priest-ridden State is established among well-armed neighbours, with cults of human sacrifice already well-established all round, the sacrificing of captives is apt to serve as a motive to war, and the priests tend to enforce it. The process is perfectly intelligible. The stronghold of all priesthoods is the principle of intercession; whether it be in the form of simple prayer and propitiatory worship, or a mixture of that with a doctrine of mystic sacrifice, as among Protestants; or in the constant repetition of a ceremony of mystic sacrifice, as among Catholics; or in actual animal sacrifice, as among ancient Jews and Pagans. In these cases we see that, the more stress is laid on the act of sacrifice, the stronger is the priesthoodor we may put it conversely. Strongest of all then must be the hold of the priesthood whose
sacrifices are most terrible. And terrible was the prestige of the priesthood of Mexico. The greater the State grew, the larger were the hecatombs of human victims. Almost every God had to be propitiated in the same way; but above all must the War-God be for ever glutted with the smoking hearts of slain captives. Scarcely any historian, says Prescott, 1 estimates the number of human beings sacrificed yearly throughout the empire at less than 20,000, and some make it 50,000. 2 Of this doomed host, Huitzilopochtli had the lion's share; and it is recorded that at the dedication of his great new temple in 1486 there were slain in his honour 70,000 prisoners of war, who had been reserved for the purpose for years throughout the empire. They formed a train two miles long, and the work of priestly butchery went on for several days.
At every festival of the God there was a new hecatomb of victims; and we may conceive how the chronic spectacle burnt itself in on the imagination of the people. The Mexican temples, as we have seen, were great pointless pyramids, sometimes of four or five stories, and the sacrifices were offered on the top. The stair was so made that it mounted successively all four sides of the pyramid, and when the train of torch-bearing priests wound their way up in the darkness, as was the rule for certain sacrifices, 3 to the topmost platform, with its ever-burning fires and its stone of sacrifice, the whole city looked on. And then the horror of the sacrificial act! In the great majority of the sacrifices the victim was laid living on the convex stone and held by the limbs, while the slayer cut open his breast with the sacred flint 4 knifethe ancient knife, used before men had the use of metals, and therefore most truly religiousand tore out the palpitating heart, which was held on high to the absent but all-seeing sun, before being set to burn in incense in front of the idol, whose lips, and the walls of whose shrines, were devoutly daubed with blood. 5
Apart from the resort to holocausts, the religious principle underlying many, if not all, of the American human sacrifices was that the victim represented the God; and on this score slaves or children were as readily sacrificed as captives. Among the Guatemalans, we are told, captives or devoted slaves were regarded as becoming
divine beings in the home of the Sun; 1 and the general principle that the victim represented the God involved such a conception. 2 And while this principle probably originates in early rites, such as those so long preserved by the Khonds, which aimed at the annual renewal of vegetation by propitiation and "sympathetic magic," the practice became fixed in the general rituals as a sacred thing in itself.
In connection with one annual festival of Tezcatlipoca, the Creator and "soul of the world," who combined the attributes of perpetual youthful beauty with the function of the God of justice and retribution, as Winter Sun, there was selected for immolation a young male captive of especial beauty, who was treated with great reverence for a whole year before being sacrificedalmost exactly like the doomed captive among the South American Tupinambos above described. He was gorgeously attired; flowers were strewn before him; he went about followed by a retinue of the king's pages; and the people prostrated themselves before him and worshipped him as a God. He was in fact, according to rule, the God's representative, and was described as his image. 3 A month before the fatal day new indulgences were heaped upon him. Four beautiful maidens, bearing the names of the principal Goddesses, were given him as concubines. At length came his death day. His honours and his joys were ended, and his fine raiment taken away. Carried on a royal barge across the lake to a particular temple, about a league from the city, whither all the people thronged, he was led up the pyramid in procession, he taking part in the ritual by throwing away his chaplets of flowers and breaking his guitar. Then, at the top, the six black-robed slayers, the sacrificial stone, and the horror of the end. And when all was over the priests piously improved the occasion, preaching that all this had been typical of human destiny, 4 while the aristocracy sacramentally ate the victim's roasted limbs.
Along with the victim for Tezcatlipoca there was one for Huitzilopochtli; and they roamed together all the year. The latter victim was not adored: but he had the privilege of choosing the hour for
his sacrifice, though not the day. He was called the "Wise Lord of Heaven," and he was slain, not on the altar, but in the arms of the priests. 1
The Goddesses, too, had their victimswomen victims; and a maiden was regularly prepared for one sacrifice to the Maize-Goddess Centeotl, the Mexican Ceres, somewhat as was the representative of Tezcatlipoca. Centeotl was the Mother-Goddess par excellence, being named Toucoyohua, "the nourisher of men," and represented, like Dêmêtêr and so many Goddesses of the same type, with a child in her arms. 2 A tradition prevailed, too, that in her cult there were anciently no human sacrifices. But this is doubtful; and the explanation is as before, that anciently single victims were sacrificed, while among the Aztecs there were many. The woman who personated the Goddess was sacrificed with other victims, 3 and the slaying was followed by a ceremonial of an indescribably revolting character, the slayers flaying the victims and donning their skins. 4 This hideous act is in all likelihood one of the oldest devices of religious symbolism; and it is a distinguished theologian who suggests to us that it is lineally connected, through the totemistic or other wearing of animal-skins, with the Biblical conception of "the robe of righteousness." 5 It is certainly akin to the practice of the Babylonian priests, who wore imitation fish-skins as identifying them with the Fish-God, 6 and to that of the Egyptian and other priests who wore the dappled skins of leopards or fawns as symbolising the starry heavens, or robes without seam as symbolising the cosmos. 7 At bottom all ritualism is the same thing, a reduction of righteousness, in all sincerity, to make-believe.
But the special and habitual atrocity of the Mexican cultus was the act of ritual cannibalism. This was strictly a matter of religion. After a captive had been sacrificially slain in ordinary course, his body was delivered to the warrior who captured him, and was by him made the special dish at a formal and decorous public banquet to his friends. It was part of the prescribed worship of the Gods. That the Mexicans were not in the least cannibals by taste is shown by the fact that in the great siege by Cortès they died of starvation by thousands. They never ate fellow-citizens; 8 only the sacrificially
slain captive. But only a great priesthood could have maintained even that usage. We have seen that such ritual cannibalism has existed at one time in all races; and obviously it must have originated in simple cannibalism, for men would never have begun to offer to the Gods food that was primordially abominable to themselves. 1 On the other hand, however, we know that cannibalism everywhere dies out naturally even among savages, apart from religion, as soon as they reach some degree of peaceful life, and even sooner. Among the native tribes of Lower California, though they are among the most degraded savages in the world, and given to various disgusting practices, the eating not only of human flesh but of that of monkeys, as resembling men, is held abominable. 2 The Tahitians, who in warfare were murderous to the last degree, and practised hideous barbarities, had yet evolved beyond the stage of public cannibal banquets, even the sacrifice of a man to the God being followed only by the pretended eating of his eye by the chief; 3 and it was the priests who instigated what human sacrifices there were. So among the similarly cruel Tongans, cannibal feasts were rare, occurring only after battles, and being execrated by the women; child sacrifices were also rare and special, and were being superseded by surrogates of amputated fingers. 4 In each of these cases the priesthoods were little organised: 5 hence the upward evolution. Among the Fijians, the Marquesans, and the Maoris, on the contrary, we find highly organised and cannibalistic priesthoods; 6 and
there we likewise find cannibalism and human sacrifices alike common. So, among the Khonds, a specially "instructed" priest was essential to the meriah sacrifice; and in China, where human scapegoat sacrifices were discredited and abolished between the third and second centuries B.C., we hear of them as being prescribed by priests and put down by wise rulers. 1 And as in Peru we shall see reason to regard the Incas as putting some check on human sacrifice, so in the whole of Central America the only case of any attempt at such reform, apart from the Toltec priesthood of Quetzalcoatl, occurs in the history of the great Acolhuan king of Tezcuco, Netzahualcoyotl, who died in 1472. Of him it is told that he was the best poet of his country, which was the most highly civilised of the New World; 2 and that he worshipped, on a great altar-pyramid of nine stages, an "unknown God" who had no image, and to whom he offered only perfume and incense, 3 resisting the priests who pressed for human sacrifice. But his example seems never to have affected his Aztec allies, who gradually won supremacy over the Tezcucans; and even in his own realm he could never suppress the human sacrifices which had there been revived before his time under Aztec influence, and multiplied under it later.
The Aztec religion, in fine, was working the ruin of the civilisation of Central America, as similar religions may have done for the far older civilisations that have left only ruins behind them. Sacerdotalism, it is clear, tended as an institution to check the progress of humanity, which even among slaughterous savages elsewhere brought anthropophagy into discredit. No amount of passion for war could have kept the civilised Aztecs complacently practising ritual cannibalism if an austere and all-powerful priesthood had not fanatically enforced it. 4 The great sanction for human sacrifice, with the Mexicans as with the Semites, was the doctrine which identified the God with the victim, and as it were sacrificed him to himself. The principle was thus in a peculiar degree priest-made and priest-preserved. 5
360:3 J. G. Müller, pp. 502, 597, 600.
360:4 Id. p. 437.
360:5 Id. pp. 476-7, 492, 502, and see above, p. 350.
360:6 Id. pp. 502-3.
361:1 Prescott, p. 41, n.; Müller, p. 664.
361:2 Müller, pp. 492, 502.
362:1 As cited, B. i, c. 3, p. 38.
362:2 The Franciscan monks computed that 2,500 victims were annually sacrificed in the town and district of Mexico alone. Bernal Diaz, Memoirs, Eng. tr. ch. 208, cited in Spencer's Descriptive Sociology, No. II, p. 20, col. 2. Cp. Herrera, as there cited; and J. H. Müller, pp. 637-9.
362:3 Bancroft, ii, 334.
362:4 Or rather, obsidian, a volcanic mineral.
362:5 This was usual in the human sacrifices of the other Central-American peoples.
363:1 J. G. Müller, p. 476.
363:2 As to the customariness of this identification, see Bancroft, iii, 342; J. G. Müller, pp. 477, 493, 501, 570, 599, 600, 604, 606, 636, 690; Gomara, as before cited, p. 444, col. 2; and cp. Spencer's Descriptive Sociology, No. II, p. 20, cols. 2 and 3, citing Duran, Herrera, and Sahagun. "Of the human sacrifices of rude peoples, those of the Mexicans are perhaps the most instructive, for in them the theanthropic character of the victim comes out most clearly" (Prof. Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, p. 347).
363:3 Sahagun, p. 97 (B. ii, c. 24). Cp. the old accounts cited by Dr. Frazer, Golden Bough, and Herrera, cited by Spencer, D.S. ii, 20, col. 3.
363:4 Sahagun, as last cited.
364:1 Clavigero, vi, § 32 (i, 302-3).
364:2 J. G. Müller, p. 493.
364:3 Id. p. 492.
364:4 Cp. Bancroft, iii, 354-7; Sahagun, pp. 134-5 (b. ii, c. 30); Spencer, D. S. ii, 21, col. 3; Müller, p. 599.
364:5 Smith, Religion of the Semites, pp. 416-18. Thus Dionysos robe of fawnskin is "holy." Euripides, Bacchæ, 138.
364:6 See the illustrations in W. Simpson's Jonah Legend, 1899.
364:7 Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. pp. 379-81.
364:8 It would perhaps be accurate to say that the eating of a slain enemy was originally part of a process of triumphing over him and appeasing one's own slain dead; and that p. 365 early abstention from the flesh of fellow-citizens meant not primary distaste for human flesh (which is negatived by the ritual practice), but obedience to a moral veto on domestic cannibalism, such as must have been set up early in all civilisations. Cp. Bancroft, ii, 358.
365:1 Réville, p. 87. See above, p. 134, note, as to the counter theory that cannibalism originated in the belief that the Gods ate men, and that men should do likewise to commune with them. This theory is of old standing. See it cited from an Italian essayist by Virey, Hist. Naturelle du genre humain, 1801, ii, 53.
365:2 Bancroft, i. 560. But it is not certain whether this veto applies to enemies. Professor Robertson Smith thinks the horror of human flesh arose in superstition as to its "sacrosanct character," but does not fully explain. Religion of the Semites, p. 348.
365:3 W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, 2nd ed. i, 309, 357; iv, 150-2; Moerenhout, Voyage aux Iles du Grand Ocean, 1837, i, 512.
365:4 Mariner, Account of the Tonga Islands, ed. 1827, i, 190. 300, ii, 22.
365:5 In Tahiti. the sorcerers were as powerful as the priests; and in the case of the great national oracle no one was specially appointed to consult the God. Priests, too, had a precarious prestige. (Ellis, i, 366, 371, 377, 379.) Of the Tonga Islands Mariner relates that "the priests live indiscriminately with the rest of the natives; are not respected on the score of their being priests, unless when actually inspired; and hold no known conferences together as an allied body" (ii, 129).
365:6 Cp. J. White, The Ancient History of the Maori, Wellington, 1887, i, 1, 2, 8-16, 17; W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, iii, 317-318; Moerenhout, Voyage cited, i, 475; T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, i, 221, 223, 227. "Cannibalism is part of Fijian religion; and the Gods are described as delighting in human flesh" (last cit. p. 231). Mariner says that when Cook visited the Tonga Islands "cannibalism was scarcely thought of among them; but the Fiji people soon taught them this, as well as the art of war; and a famine, which happened some time afterwards, rendered the expedient for a time almost necessary" (ii. 108-9. Cp. 107). Yet, as we have seen, human sacrifice was not making progress. King Finow, albeit for personal reasons, was strongly against it, though the priests stood for it (Mariner, ii, 178). So, in Fiji, where "at one time Ndengei [the Supreme God] would constantly have human bodies for sacrifices," a disgusted chief stopped them, and ordered that pigs be substituted (T. Williams, p. 231). In Tahiti, again, human sacrifices had either become p. 366 obsolete, and so forgotten, and been then revived, or else were originated, by a priest. (Ellis, i, 106. Cp. J. Williams, Narrative of Missionary Enterprises in the South Seas, 1837, pp. 550, 553). The high priest in each district was practically the sovereign sacrificer (Moerenhout, i, 477). See above, p. 112, as to the Khonds.
366:1 Above, p. 61.
366:2 Cp. Prescott, p. 81, sq., and p. 97.
366:3 Bancroft, v, 427-9; Clavigero, B. iv, §§ 4, 15; vii, § 42; Prescott, pp. 91-3.
366:4 "Cannibalism in general declined before human sacrifice: in heathenism, humanity. where it triumphed, did so often against religion: humanity came into religion, not out of it: religion withstood the benign change." J. G. Müller, p. 632.
366:5 Cp. Th. Parker, Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion, ed, 1877, pp. 34, 44, 93, note.