June 01, 2010

Divinities in Aztec Pantheon

More thoughts from my excursion to see the Aztec Pantheon exhibit at the Getty Villa:

The Florentine CodexNo source is more valuable for understanding Aztec civilization than the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva EspaƱa (General History of the Things of New Spain), familiarly known as the Florentine Codex after its location in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. For this exhibition, the Florentine Codex returns to the New World for the first time in over four centuries.

The codex is illustrated with over 2,400 images describing Aztec religion, rituals, agriculture, commerce, and crafts.
The Birth of HuitzilopochtliWhen the mother goddess Coatlicue (Serpent Skirt) was magically impregnated, her daughter Coyolxauhqui led 400 brothers against her.

The god Huitzilopochtli sprang from Coatlicue's womb fully armed, defeated his siblings, and decapitated Coyolxauhqui, whose dismembered body fell to the base of Coatepec (Serpent Mountain).
Comment:  I believe the exhibit said the Aztecs had more than 150 deities. 150! Christianity barely manages three: God, Jesus, and Mary.

The Aztec religion was much more complex than Christianity, as the Huitzilopochtli story hints. Yet the Spanish demonized it as simple devil worship. How typical.

Aztec divinities vs. Greco-Roman gods

Moreover, as one exhibit panel noted, the Aztec deities weren't like the Christian or Greco-Roman gods: majestic white guys sitting on thrones in the sky. They were more like "spirit forces" that animated the living world.

So it's incorrect to even call them gods. Although the exhibit uses the term "gods" as shorthand, it alternates this with the more appropriate "divinities."

Since they were more akin to forces than beings, the Aztec divinities were more fluid in nature. They readily changed shape from human to animal to some other aspect of nature (sun, moon, storm, fire, etc.).

The exhibit has several statues and drawings of Aztec "gods" with their faces emerging from the mouths of animals (jaguar, snake, bird, etc.). This was meant to indicate the divinities changing from animal to human form.

The Europeans couldn't come close to understanding this, so they reinterpreted it based on their own myths. A "god" who appeared to be wearing a jaguar's head and Hercules wearing a lion's head...same thing! Like Hercules, the god must've slain a mighty predator to prove what a mighty man he was.

It's a good example of how the Western and indigenous worldviews diverged. Which is why I titled my posting on the subject Hercules vs. Coyote:  Native and Euro-American Beliefs. A big, brawny man vs. a small, brainy animal--that sums up the difference in a nutshell.

For more on the subject, see "Primitive" Indian Religions and Were the Aztecs Murdering "Animals"?


myk5 said...

The comment that the Aztecs have such a complex pantheon while Christians barely maintain 3 deities is pathetic. however you may evaluate for quality in a faith, complexity alone is non-sequitur.

Rob said...

Your content-free complaint is the only pathetic thing here. The number of divinities is a perfectly good measure of a religion's complexity, which is a good approximation of its depth and richness.

If you disagree, tell us how you'd assess a religion's complexity and depth. Put up or shut up.

Melissa said...

Just clarifying, Christians do not have 3 deities, they have 1. Jesus is 1 of the 3 persons of the deity. Mary is not a deity at all.
Rob is right in that Aztecs had a more complex religion than Christians, at least as evaluated from the point of view he has defended. I agree with myk5 in that complexity does not measure a religion's "depth". A comparative analysis of religions is a very complex subject that is usually tackled by academics in long papers and dissertations.
However, an argument that tries to admire a culture or belief to the detriment of another is usually both unnecessary and counter-productive. You don't need to do that, Rob, especially when you are right.

Anonymous said...

Eh? Most would call Christianity polytheism if they would call Hinduism (in which literally the entire universe is one being) polytheism. You can also consider Christians to have two deities, YHWH and Satan, similar to the Zoroastrian gods Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. (In fact, I'm sure that's where the Bible derives it. The Holy Trinity, OTOH, comes from Egypt.) Of course, Christians don't consider the devil a separate deity (although they're worried about those who worship him abusing their children), or consider the Trinity separate beings.

It's actually interesting to see how these tropes spread. The Trinity is a particularly interesting trope because many religions have some concept of it, though the number (Three? Four? Sixteen?) is quite varied.

Melissa said...

The thing is a deity refers specifically to the nature and attributes of God or gods (a god being a superhuman regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes). That rules out Satan, who according to Christianity only has the power of being a very persuasive character (he is a type of angel, actually, which would take us to a whole new set of definitions).
Certainly the Trinity could be seen as three gods, but as the most important dogma in Christianity is precisely that there is only one God with three persons it just seems that to insist on it being three gods is to obstinately change the nature of the religion to fit your definitions.
When it comes to Hinduism, I have studied only the very basics, and attended the temple only a few times, and I don't know whether Hindus consider themselves polytheists or not, but probably the wisest thing would be to ask them or have a go at their literature on the subject instead of guessing wildly.
And yes, it is quite fascinating how most religions relate to each other and stem from the same places.

Rob said...

I know what Christian dogma says, Melissa. In the real world, many people worship God and Jesus as separate but related deities.

Many others worship Mary as a mother goddess. Google "Mary goddess worship" and you'll get thousands of postings on whether Mary is a legitimate divinity.