Mesoamerican religious concepts: Part two

articles History & People

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, they were completely mystified by the religious practices of the Aztecs, Maya, and other indigenous peoples with whom they came in contact. Even the hardened Spanish soldiers were horrified by the Aztec practice of mass human sacrifice. The Spanish missionaries quickly went to work to root out and destroy every vestige of native Mesoamerican religion. With their extremely oppressive methods, the Franciscans and Jesuits succeeded in their mission, at least at first. But as an unintended consequence of their misguided zeal to eliminate idolatry as they saw it and chastize back-sliding Indians, they left us many descriptions of pre-Hispanic religious practices. While much was lost during the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, enough remains to enable us to reconstruct certain aspects of Mesoamerican religious concepts and practices, especially in late pre-Hispanic central Mexico.

Several problems confront us at the outset of a study of Mesoamerican religion. First, there are many gaps in our knowledge of Aztec and Maya society in general, which make translation and interpretation of the surviving documentary evidence difficult. Secondly, there is the risk of reading modern ideas and concepts into an ancient culture. Even evidence from the time of the Conquest can be misleading if we attempt to use it to interpret ancient ideology, particularly religion because of the possibility of missionary influence. Moreover, how can we be sure we are not reading our own ideas and cultural biases into ancient cultures? For example, modern chronological schemes are useful for purposes of classification but they may not reflect accurately the experience of the people themselves. Thirdly, it seems that each new generation of researchers and scholars feels the need to say something new and different about their chosen specialties, especially if it is highly controversial. Professional jealousy plays a role as well. You have to belong to the club, be it a university or a research institute, before anyone will take you seriously. However, this is sometimes justifiable in the case of wild theorists who ignore all previous research because they believe they have all the answers.

Sometimes new discoveries or reworking of old evidence reveals errors or new information that overthrows previous theories. For example, an older generation of Maya scholars had a misleading conception of the ancient Maya as a peace-loving people engaged in the philosophical contemplation of Time. Advances in the decipherment of the Maya script have changed our picture of the people. We now know that the Maya engaged in frequent inter-state wars and were far from being the philosopher-kings researchers had imagined. These conflicting views in Mesoamerican research are nothing new. Generations of Homeric scholars have argued over the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Were they composed by a single epic singer or were they compiled by a committee of Homeric rhapsodes? In Mesoamerican studies, the standard interpretation of Nahuatl literature espoused by the late A. Garibay and M. Leon-Portilla has recently been challenged by a new generation of researchers, and so forth. Who is right, or at least on the right track?

This raises the question of research methodology. What are the pros and cons of taking a more comparative approach as compared with a strictly specialist treatment of the subject? Some areas of Mesoamerican research, such as linguistics or Maya hieroglyphs, are of course so technical that only highly trained researchers can deal adequately with them. It is possible for careful researchers to make useful observations about documents in Nahuatl and Mayan languages but, without a detailed knowledge of the original languages, they are almost as handicapped as the general non-specialist reader because of their reliance on translations and secondhand interpretations. On the other hand, specialists tend to become so involved in their own particular subject they are sometimes unable to relate what they do to other work in the field or even see the whole picture. A broader approach is sometimes called for.

Let us look at the concept of deity in different religions. My purpose here is not to criticize or belittle anyone’s religion; nor do I wish to offend anyone. The religious conscience of believers is one thing, the historical or academic explanation another. What follows is simply one historical reconstruction of the development of the concept of deity or God in certain religions, with special reference to Mesoamerican religious concepts.

The major western religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – share the concept of a monotheistic deity, with certain important differences. Historically, the Christian or Anglo-Saxon form of deity or God was derived from the western Semitic creator god (the Biblical El) and the Israelite deity YHWH. Basically, this is the creator deity of the orthodox Christian church, Judaism, and Islam. Introduced to western Europe by Christian missionaries in the 5th century A.D., God is represented in earthly form by his son Jesus Christ and in spiritual form by the Holy Ghost. The Christian concept of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) stands in marked contrast to the Islamic concept of Allah as a strictly monotheistic deity.

The Biblical El, also known as el elyon (most high god), el sadday (god of the mountain), el olam (everlasting god), el betel (god of storms), was the creator god of the northern Hebrew tribes in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel modelled on the creator god of the Canaanites. According to the Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra, he was not the original creator but the offspring of an older principal deity, El ‘eb (god of the father), upon whom he was modelled. In Judaism, YHWH (“I am what I am”) or Yahweh of the Old Testament dates from about 1200 B.C. to the present. Located first in Hebron, Jerusalem, until about 587 B.C., He eventually superseded El and spread throughout the Christian world. Possibly the earliest surviving concept of a truly universal deity, YHWH, of which Jehovah is a corruption (1200-1300 B.C.), survived into the Christian religion as “Lord.”

The current slogan of Islam is “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet.” However, the original pre-Islamic creator deity was perceived as the creator of the earth and water but not as a monotheistic deity. Today Islam means submission to God. According to the Koran Allah, the creator of the universe and author of all existence, will judge human beings at the end of time. For an orthodox Muslim, the revelations from Allah through the angel Gabriel to Mohammad represent the only true message of God and all other religious teachings are either faulty (Judaism and Christianity) or completely wrong (all other religions). Allah is not represented in art or by any image but is invoked by his 99 names or attributes, the 100th name remaining a mystery.

Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, do not recognize any such monotheistic deity. Two key concepts in classical Hinduism are: Prakriti (“that which is made or placed before”) and Purusha (“man, human being”). The first is the original or natural form of anything, the passive power of creation in the material world, which manifests itself in the three “essences:” sattva (“the fine or the light”), tamas (“the coarse or the heavy”), and rajas (“the active element”). These are considered the minimum number of operations necessary to account for human action and experience in this world. Purusha represents the manifest world of Prakriti or avyakta (the “unmanifest” or “first reality”), the world of cause and effect in which we live. Other key terms are: Brahman (the unchanging reality behind the world of illusion), Atman (the individual manifestation of Brahman), and Maya (the world of illusion that prevents us from seeing that Brahman and Atman are one and the same).

In late pre-Hispanic central Mexico Ometeotl (Ome, “two,” + teotl, “god”) was the supreme principal deity who dwelt in Omeyocan (Place of Duality). The Ometeotl complex was itself part of a larger major theme in Mesoamerican religious thinking, what H. B. Nicholson called the “Celestial Creativity – Divine Paternalism” theme of pre-Hispanic central Mexican religion. No cult was attached to this deity but it was present in every ritual. Sexually dualistic, it represented the primordial generative power of the universe.

In La Filosofía Nahuatl (Mexico, 1966, p. 387) M. Leon-Portilla argues that Ometeotl was neither strictly pantheistic nor strictly monistic. However, in my opinion, a certain ambiguity remains, hardly surprising in a deity that is both male and female, subject and object all at the same time. Be that as it may, pantheism is the idea that everything that there is constitutes a unity and is divine with no essential distinction drawn between God and animals. This is the opposite of monotheistic religions in which God is separate and distinct from his/her creations. Pantheistic religions take the approach that all of existence is a single, equally divine substance, without divisions; that the divine nature is in all living creatures, as in Shamanism, an important feature of all Mesoamerican religions.

Monism is the idea that there is only one kind of substance but many manifestations of this substance. For example, if a person believes that only the material world exists but is made up of atoms, then that person is a monist with regard to the kinds of substance (i.e. material only) but a pluralist with regard to the number of individual occurrences there are of that substance (i.e. each individual atom). This is the approach taken by the monotheistic religions, that there is only one kind of divine substance (God) but that there are many different manifestations of it (human beings).

If Ometeotl was neither pantheistic or monistic, what was it? What preceded or constituted Ometeotl in the minds of the Aztecs? If it was a single substance, an unmanifested state or pre-condition leading to individual manifestations (people and creatures separate from their creator) in the “real” world of cause and effect, it would be monistic; but if it was a single divine unity without distinction between God or deity and all other creatures, it would be pantheistic. The clue to the nature of Ometeotl, as the Aztecs conceived of it, probably lies in the various names applied to this deity of duality, such as Yohualli-Ehcatl (Night-Wind, i.e. “Invisible, Impalpable”), Ipalnemohuani (“That through which all things live”), etc. One of these names, Moyocoyatzin (“He/She who thinks or invents him/herself”), provides an important clue to the meaning of Ometeotl. This abstract deity was self-created, which eliminated the need for an account of origins or first beginnings. This concept is one of the high points of achievement in Nahuatl philosophy.

If we compare the Mesoamerican concept of the prime deity or God with that of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or with the abstract first principle of Hinduism, the Aztec concept does not seem quite so strange any more. For example, Ometeotl “invents” or “thinks” itself into existence. Similarly the YHWH of the Old Testament means “I am what I am.” Like the Muslims with their 99 known names of Allah (+ the 100th mystery name), the Aztecs had many names for the different existential attributes of their prime deity. The Aztecs also believed that the priest was the god’s image or replica on earth. Ixiptla (from the verb ixiptlati, “to attend in place of another”) was a key concept in Mesoamerican religion. This means that statues of the god and the priests themselves were images or earthly stand-ins for the god. Compare this with the transubstantiation of the Catholic mass or the idea of God’s representative on earth in Christianity. Like the Allah of Islam or the abstract Prakriti of Hinduism, Ometeotl is not represented in art or iconography but is conceived of as the sole principle that engendered Ometecuhtli (“Lord of Duality”) and conceived Omecatl (“Lady of Duality”), hence the deity of duality.

There are many different pathways to Heaven or Paradise or Nirvana, if you will, at least for true believers. But even if you think you don’t believe in anything beyond what you can see, a little knowledge of what William James called The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1958) might help to promote a little more religious tolerance in the world.

Published or Updated on: November 1, 2007 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2007
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