On Faith: Return of the pagan gods? | Perspective
Recently, a group of parents, along with the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation and the Thomas More Society, sued the state over a new model ethnic studies curriculum for public schools that requires students to interpret songs / prayers in honor of certain Aztec gods.
The developers of the program deny this and claim that they are not gods being prayed to, but rather abstract principles that relate to personal growth and community. However, this begs the question as many Aztec gods were / are personifications of abstract principles and at the same time, powerful deities in the Aztec religion. This is a common feature of polytheism.
First of all, let me be clear: I am fully aware that upon arriving in the New World European Christians did a lot of very bad things. Yes. But transforming and shutting down violent Indigenous religions and rituals was not one of those bad things. It was a good thing.
In connection with the lawsuit in California, there is a bigger problem. This issue is the laundering of polytheistic religion in general and, by extension, the laundering of the violence of tribal society. The miniature version of this is the concept of “noble savage”, introduced by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who believed that the original humans were naturally good, peaceful, free and not corrupted by negative appetites. – while “advancement” has corrupted humans and placed us “in chains”.
Until about 30 years ago, this myth of the noble savage was so powerful that it has skewed much of anthropology and history, especially in our understanding of the indigenous societies of the Americas. From more recent work of archaeologists and anthropologists, we now know, without question, that constant warfare and ritual violence, including human sacrifice, was the norm in almost all indigenous pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. .
Three examples in this area of ââresearch are âWar Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savageâ by Lawrence Kelley (Oxford University Press, 1996); âNorth American Indigenous Warfare and Ritual Violenceâ, edited by Richard Chacon (University of Arizona Press, 2007); and âRitual Violence in the Ancient Andesâ edited by Haagen Klaus and J. Marla Toyne (University of Texas Press, 2016). And it turns out that in 2019, a team of Peruvian archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of a ritual sacrifice of 250 children and 40 warriors who were killed in several ceremonies between 1200 and 1450, in a religious rite of the Chimul company to appease the gods of nature. ; they were buried near Huanchaco beach, all facing the ocean.
The brutal fact is that throughout history polytheism has regularly practiced human sacrifice. Polytheism, which always includes the gods of nature, is closely linked cause and effect to human sacrifice. This is widely recognized by 21st century anthropologists around the world.
The problems associated with money laundering are therefore serious and multifaceted. The least of these problems is that it plays out and is used to “prove” the idea that Christians heartlessly destroyed the “pristine beauty” of pre-Columbian indigenous societies, religions and rituals. This is an oversimplification. The reality was more complex.
Have you ever wondered how Hernan Cortes was able to conquer the mighty Aztec Empire with just a few hundred soldiers? I have. So I started doing research during my extended stays in Mexico. He was successful first because he obtained a large number of allies and warriors among the tribes living near the coast, who were fed up with the practice of constant warfare of the Aztec Empire and their capture of so many of captives for human sacrifice – which has been carried out on such a massive scale that it’s hard even for us to imagine, thousands upon thousands each year. We now have the archaeological findings that prove that this happened. Later in the conflict, the smallpox disease – inadvertently brought in by the Europeans – struck the Aztecs.
Still, there’s something most gringos north of the border don’t understand: The Aztecs (and the Mayans and many other peoples) were not exterminated in Mexico, not even near. The natives survived, married Europeans, and became Catholic Christians. (Mixed marriages have never been illegal in Mexico.) To this day, about 90% of Mexicans proudly identify as âmestizosâ (trades) and more than 50 indigenous languages ââare still spoken. Today, around 90% of people in Mexico identify as Christians (83% Catholics and 7% Protestants).
So what happened to the Aztec gods? Are they gone? Well, not exactly. The Catholic Church, from the start, encouraged forms of âinculturationâ. Of course, human sacrifice was immediately condemned and suppressed, but other aspects of the old religion ended up being absorbed and transformed.
The Aztec âvenerable motherâ goddess Tonantzin identified with the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe. . Another example, I have personally witnessed the transport of a life-size crucified Christ through the streets of a cathedral at an annual festival – and the figure of Jesus is made entirely of husks of corn and dough. But. The corn god âbecameâ the Christian Son of God – the ultimate form of harvest and new life. A number of other Aztec gods were absorbed and identified by crossing with Christian saints. In some native villages you will hear the sun called Jesus. However, the patron god of the Aztecs, their god of war and blood sacrifice, Huitzlopochtli, is specifically excluded from any contemporary vestige of the ancient religion. (Yet this god is mentioned in the song of the California Model Curriculum.)
The problem with a simplistic ârespectâ for the Aztec religion is that we gringos too often ignore how the Mexican people rejected and / or transformed so many aspects of the ancient religion into their own version of Christianity. The vast, overwhelming majority of indigenous and mixed-race people in Mexico do not want (and have not wanted to, for a very long time) return to the old religion with all its bloody sacrifices of animals, and even humans. To think that they are doing it is disrespectful and racist. They are not stupid. They fully realize that Christianity is a religion that teaches peace and love and rejects intertribal and religious violence. They might well want to retain some vestiges of the old ways, but only in a very selective way.
As a counter-example, there is today in Mexico a growing neo-pagan cult of Santa Muerte, the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead); this worship made many Mexicans and the Catholic Church very uncomfortable. It’s seen as too far a bridge – and it’s been taken over by criminals and drug cartels. There have even been cases of human sacrifice in Sonora and Mexico City. Pure polytheism is a dangerous substance. It’s not cute and it’s not “the good old days”.
Attempts, no matter how well-intentioned and awakened, to bring back respect for the old gods and their rituals are double-edged swords. There are many reasons why Christianity has spread across the world: one of those reasons is that it is a better religion, less bloodthirsty and made the world, despite our human tendency to shed blood, a better place. We have made progress – and it is not thanks to the old pagan gods. It is through turning away from them.
John Nassivera is a former professor who remains affiliated with the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.