Mesoamerican Culture, History, and Religion


“Respect the unfortunate old men, the unfortunate women, the miserable, the poor; take pity upon them. Give one somewhere perchance a poor, worn, breech clout, a miserable netted maguey cape; tie, wrap them about him; give him something to drink. For he is the representative of the master, our lord. For this thou shalt be given life on earth…”

The Florentine Codex, Book 9, Chapter 12, p.56-57

(Dibble & Anderson translation, copyright University of Utah, used without permission)

The above lines are from a speech given by the elder merchants to a younger one during the festival month of Panquetzaliztli.  I’ve chosen to share this segment of one of the huehuetlatolli, or moral speeches as part of a discussion on Aztec virtues and ethics.  This article will focus on the virtue of charity, with an analysis of the speech above used to sound out what the Mexica thought about this moral precept.

I’ve decided to bring up charity at this time for several reasons.  The first and most obvious —  information on traditional ethics and its intersection with religion is of eminently practical use.  Second I live in the USA, so the majority of the population here is getting ready to celebrate Christmas, and the issue of charitable giving is at the forefront.  The final reason ties into the second — with religion in the air at the moment, I’ve been seeing a lot of bigotry and outright slander of non-Christian ethics lately. I’m sick of it, and decided it’s time for me to respond to that foolishness by setting the record straight.  So, let’s begin!


The context of the lines I quoted from the Florentine Codex is in the veintana of Panquetzaliztli.  A young merchant has thrown a banquet for his elders, complete with gifts of food, tobacco, and clothing.  At one point he explains to his guests why he’s done this — he’s received the wealth of “the master, the lord,” as the fruits of his labor.  He acknowledges this wealth is actually a blessing of the gods, specifically Huitzilopochtli.  (Page 55 makes it clear that “the master, the lord” here is Huitzilopochtli, and not Tezcatlipoca, despite the similarity of the title to some commonly used for the Smoking Mirror.)  Because he realizes this wealth is a blessing, he wishes to seek the presence of Huitzilopochtli.

Seeking The Face Of God: Charity As A Duty

The young merchant shows the reader that one way to find this Teotl’s presence is through the wisdom of his elders.  He pleads with them to “reveal the secrets of the master, our lord, the portent, Huitzilopochtli” (Sahagun, 55).  His elders proceed to unveil these secrets — they are actually various ethical precepts, in addition to the ritual banquets specifically prepared by the merchants to honor the god and share their prosperity.  Particularly emphasized among these precepts is charity.

The language in this speech is especially interesting, given how closely it parallels one of the most beautiful parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 25:34-46.  These are the verses where Jesus tells his disciples “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In these huehuetlatolli lines, we see a striking parallel, right down to the injunction to give the needy food, clothing, and drink, and the revelation that the poor are actually humble representatives of the god.  In both, the reward of loving charity is life.  Finally, Matthew indicates that the reason for this duty is because the good things being given were first granted to the donor as divine blessings.  A blessing carries with it a responsibility.

I find a similar responsibility in the words of the young merchant and his elders in the Florentine Codex.  On page 55, the youth acknowledges his wealth is really that of Huitzilopochtli, and the god is described as “showing” the riches to him.  This is a common way of describing prosperity — it’s not truly self-earned by the person, but is actually on loan from the gods, a blessing.  The young merchant expresses a desire to use it well, to return a portion of it as offerings, and the elders indicate that the right course of action is to share it with the poor as well.  It doesn’t take much effort to realize that the same kind of responsibility attaches to the gifts Huitzilopochtli gives as well as those Jesus speaks of in the book of Matthew.  In a nutshell, the god says to the wise man, “I give so that you shall give.”  It’s only the foolish man who disobeys.

Jesus’ parable continues to indicate that those who shirk their duty of charity insult the deity and will be punished.  The Aztecs held similar views.  If because the merchant gives generously he will be “given life on earth,” there’s clearly an unspoken corollary of if he doesn’t, he’ll lose his life.  Though left unsaid here, in Book 6 of the Florentine Codex, it’s made explicit.  In some of the speeches there, the elders and priests admonish a newly-elected ruler to humility, not to be proud of the wealth and status he’s received.  This wealth and status really belongs to Tezcatlipoca, and if he offends the god, Tezcatlipoca will surely take it back and destroy him for his arrogance.  Huitzilopochtli seems to have a similar sense of propriety.

Christian Influence?

Due to the similarities between this passage and the one in Matthew, some might think that it’s a piece of Christian doctrine absorbed by the Aztecs after the Conquest from the Spanish friars.  “Surely these heathens couldn’t have such good morals and a concern for the poor!” people like that might think to themselves, convinced in their ignorance that only Christianity is a source of loving ethics.  To them, I say you’re dead wrong, and should repent of your arrogance.

Though I’m not a professional anthropologist, I doubt this passage is an example of Post-Conquest syncretism for two main reasons.  One, Sahagun is generally one of the more reliable Post-Conquest sources, and Book 9 in particular contains detailed ritual information that would’ve been prime candidates for being censored, yet he didn’t.  Not censoring such explicitly pagan religious practices makes it harder for me to believe that this one has been tampered with.

Two, the passage identifies Huitzilopochtli as the key player involved in these moral precepts.  Why is that so significant to me?  It’s because Huitzilopochtli has to be one of the most intensely villified and suppressed of the Teteo after the Conquest.  Elizabeth Hill Boone in her monograph, Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: The Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe , discusses the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Him by the Spaniards and how they worked damn hard to try to erase Him from the memory of His people.  Not too surprising, for if you want to subdue a proud, martial people, you’re going to want to eliminate their tutelary god, the high god that exhorts them to feats of heroic strength and military prowess.

Thus, Sahagun had every incentive to scrub this passage for its positive portrayal of this maligned deity, and I can’t imagine he could’ve missed the similarity to Matthew 25, something at least some of his bosses would surely have found to be blasphemous.  (I.e., the old “the Devil counterfeiting Christianity to deceive” argument that dates back to Justin Martyr, if I recall correctly.)  Yet… he didn’t do this, strengthening my thought that this is a genuine Precolumbian practice.

Those are just a couple of reasons why I trust the passage is genuine, without taking a lengthy detour into textual criticism that’s better left to the experts to write.

Practical Implications

So, we’ve established that traditional Aztec morality holds up charity as a noble practice, and has a religious basis underlying this ethical precept.  This has implications that are immediate and plain.  Playing Captain Obvious, we’re clearly to be generous to those in need, not to be greedy with the gifts we’ve been given by the gods, but to share them with others.  I’d been somewhat working under the concept before that the gods weren’t necessarily moral lawgivers, but, having read this very blunt chapter linking Huitzilopochtli with charity trashes that idea pretty thoroughly.  I’ll admit it, I stand corrected on this one.  Whoever you guys were who were recorded by Sahagun, 450 years later this American thanks you for the clarification, your counsel is still educating people.  I’ll have to chew some things over in my mind some more.

8 responses

  1. Shock

    Great post!

    The distribution of wealth and greed seems to be governed by several Teteo. Tezcatlipoca seems to distribute it. Huitzilopochtli appears to lead one to it. Tlaloc and the Tlaloque smite those who do whatever to get it (ie. “those who covet green stone” from Sahagun). It’s also one of Quetzalcoatl’s faults at Tollan, as well as Huemac’s. Having money required that you pay special attention to specific social aspects of wealth as well as honoring specific Teteo in charge of that distribution. And if you want another mythological example of this, think of it this way: Often, Tlaloc’s rain and/or corn is described as being “His riches”. When He’s stingy everybody suffers.

    As for Teteo who govern morality, the Gods of Excess are a good example of this. They both inspire the act and punish for overindulgence. Back in the day, it was apparently a common thing to get drunk and accidentally drown. There’s mention in the Florentine that an Aztec who might get drunk would first pray to one of the 400 Rabbits so that his ass wouldn’t end up in Tlalocan the next morning.

    The idea of divine moderation of human morality interests me greatly, because I tend to be a pusher of boundaries and I’d rather not get my ass kicked. The Teotl who really strikes my fancy in all of this is Quetzalcoatl. So, you’ve got this deity, in charge of all these “ivory tower” type things; math, science, healing, the priesthood, etc.. He was/is supposed to be the archetype priest with His chastity and all that. He was invoked by bonesetters and other healers as well as by merchants and travelers to keep highwaymen away… And yet it’s alluded to that He’s committed rape, He’s clearly the thief of Mictlantechutli’s bones, He was invoked by thieves for pillaging households and the “criminal element” of Aztec society would steal shit to offer to Him on the day 9-Wind.

    December 3, 2008 at 5:06 PM

  2. Shock

    I got done cut off… So let me continue.

    The point is, humans can and will get their asses kicked for doing certain things, and the ability to do some things (ie. sitting around all day writing poetry and song) requires that the proper parties be thanked, as well as doing something not self-serving with that ability. Charity is a big part of it. During the big drought, it was the nobility’s job to keep everyone from starving, both through ritual AND by giving up what they can to help the problem. Similarly, priests and warriors who weren’t fulfilling their normal jobs participated in civil building projects. It’s all about being a constructive member of society.

    December 3, 2008 at 5:13 PM

  3. Xuchilpaba

    Cehualli, I think this is one of your most hopeful blog posts. I wish i had Fl. book 9. (is it the one on morality?) I might go ahead and buy this. I wondered about charity in Aztec thought and religion, but I had not seen any sources on it as of yet. It’s nice to see that they were a lot more thoughtful than I expected. I love giving myself, so this helps me a lot.

    I know you talked about Chinese religion and Buddhism a bit, but Cehualli did you by any chance take theology? You sound extremely well versed in many religions.

    December 3, 2008 at 8:35 PM

  4. cehualli

    Hi Xuchil,

    Aw, thanks very much for the kind words, I’m touched:-)

    Nope, Book 9 is actually about the merchants. Book 6 is the one on morality. I was quite surprised to find so much crucial material in that one that I would’ve expected to see in 2 or 6. It’s got several of the clearest and most thorough moral speeches, and also has some of the most detailed description of some religious rituals. Anyone who is particularly devoted to Xiuhtecuhtli would consider that book worth its weight in gold. Incidentally, it brings up a lot of stuff regarding white copal that I’m in the process of mulling over, I’m seeing now why it always seems to be specifically pointed out when it appears.

    Er, back on topic. If you’re particularly interested in Aztec ethics, I especially recommend starting to put together a set of the Florentine with Books 6 and 9. I’d also keep an eye out for poetry, you can glean more there as well.

    RE: myself — I’ve never had any official, formal theology classes. (That would be my partner — he’s a UU in his second year at seminary.) I was just raised in an extremely religious household, like to read a lot, including formal theology, and have had a very odd religious trajectory over the years.

    Ehh… I just can’t find a way of summarizing my religious and philosophical curriculum vitae in public that doesn’t make me sound like a ragingly pompous ass. I’ll email you privately with the story if you would like to know.

    Much more importantly, I’m glad you found this post to be inspiring and useful. I was hoping people might find it to be of some value in a practical moral sense, and it’s not something that really gets talked about much. 🙂

    December 4, 2008 at 2:32 AM

  5. cehualli

    Hi Shock,

    Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it:-)

    Excellent comments, I think a lot of people will find your “Who’s Who of Moral Lawgivers” to be extremely helpful! The part about Tlaloc’s attacks of miserliness causing society to suffer struck a chord — seems like an apt parallel to what happens when the wealthy refuse to share with the weak in human society.

    And I spotted the 9-Wind business as well… that was so odd. I wonder what’s up with Quetzalcoatl’s Jekyll & Hyde ethical split personalities. I wonder if it’s a natural consequence of His efforts to go so far in one extreme, that it blows up in the other direction sometime. I wonder if that danger is one of the reasons why Tezcatlipoca seems so offended by His saintliness in the Tollan myths? He’s pointing out in a rather scorched earth manner how far out of balance Q had gotten? Hey… in some of the variants… it *is* after He flees Tollan that Q snaps and returns as Venus and begins smiting people indiscriminately with His rays on certain daysigns… Gods gone wild? (Just kidding, Sir Topiltzin… no harm meant…)

    It’s that responsibility to do something decent with ones gifts that the Teteo promote that I really like. It’s a no-nonsense bit of duty that I think our oft-criticised consumer culture is dying for.

    Definintely something I’ll have to think more about. At least, so far I don’t think this confirmation of the Teteo as moral lawgivers invalidates my partial answer to the Problem of Evil, at least not as far as I can tell yet. Hrm.

    Thanks for continuing to poke the brain, Shock, I can always count on you for that.

    December 4, 2008 at 2:54 AM

  6. Shock

    Oh! The white copal bit!!! What have you been thinking?!?! I’ve been mulling this over for awhile, especially sine it’s white copal (“White Woman”) used in a majority of the magical rituals in Heathen Superstitions. The best that I’ve been able to come up with, when it comes to white copal, is that it’s considered a “higher” form of copal. To this day it’s more expensive and has always tended to be higher priced than it’s other resinous counterparts from the same tree. Certain deities seem to expect the high priced stuff in specific contexts, both from the primary source material and my own UPG. Basically, it’s always looked to me, from the texts, that if you can afford it, it’s sort of your duty.

    Do specific deities always demand the high priced stuff? No. An example of this from archaeology and the Florentine: The copal figures of Tlaloc that they find are of the really high quality stuff. The stuff that’s still gummy and sticky so that you can form it into shapes. Tlaloc is the “Lord of Copal” after all. But, at the same time, a common thing found in relation to Tlaloc offering stuff is tagetes lucidia residue. And while this is a key component in Water Deity worship for the Aztecs, Tlaloc is also the “Lord of the Sweet Scented Marigold” (this particular plant). BUT, get this, the Florentine says that people too poor to burn copal would burn this plant instead, because it was cheaper.

    I’ll shut up about that for now.

    Yes, the Merchants book of the Florentine I think is really useful to Recons in general, since, sort of like the Pochteca, we’re on our lonesome without a large group of people. Very useful stuff, especially for those of us who travel a lot. I’ve been meaning to go through the book in detail and pull useful tidbits and throw them up on Black and Red, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Yeah, I know, bad me.

    As for the Big Q, I couldn’t have used a better comparison than Jeckyll & Hyde. I actually brought up that comparison once in a dream I had a long time ago. I got congratulated on my astute observation only to get a good taste of that Hyde personality along with it.

    I do think it’s a matter of Him going too far one way so having to go back to the other. Good observation with the Tollan myth and the Lord of the Dawn deal, by the way. You figure the Teteo were pissed off at Him for a number of reasons and that probably played heavily into it. His piety and good leadership would eventually lead to the exact opposite, with rampant militarism typical of Mesoamerican cultures but probably taken to a new level the Aztecs couldn’t have even dreamed of if Quetzalcoatl’s war associations at various sites (including Tenochtitlan) are taken into consideration. People laugh at me all day when I say the Feathered Serpent scares me the most. Take a super genius human scientist who thrives on creation and imagination, remove all of their humanity, give them phenomenal cosmic power, and replace a majority of the emotion with logic and order and tell me that’s not a scary concept.

    December 4, 2008 at 8:54 PM

  7. cehualli

    Hehehe haven’t quite pulled my thoughts on white copal into anything worth reading yet, especially as I still don’t feel like I have enough info. Haven’t picked up Heathen Superstitions yet (it and “Tamoanchan, Tlalocan” are tied for next on my To Read list).

    Still.. yeah, I was noticing too that, for certain deities, whenever copal comes up, Sahagun’s informants are careful to always note it’s WHITE copal. Xiuhtecuhtli and Huitzilopochtli both are in this category.

    The irony being… the copal I bought a while back when I first started offering it was labeled “golden copal.” But… after comparing photos of the unburned nuggets of gold and white with what I have, I’m about 90% sure what I have is actually white copal that the merchant screwed up identifying, and let go a BIG bag of for cheap. Since the white stuff seems to be Huitzil’s favorite, I’m kind of not surprised this happened.

    Ooh, I’d forgotten about that particular title of Tlaloc’s… Y’know, the sweet marigold being a fallback for the poor actually makes sense for me, regarding Tlaloc. The impoverished farmers were/are the ones most dependent upon Tlaloc, but least able to afford the white copal. Rather kind of Him to set aside a cheaper alternative for the poor, I think.

    Agreed regarding the Merchants book. I was really, really surprised when I hit that one. That would be one of my highest recommended ones for Recons. And ha, don’t beat yourself up, I just took almost 3 weeks off from posting myself…

    Q is… odd, and I can completely see your description of Him. Good to know I’m on the right track in assessing Him, though;-) He’s quite the fascinating guy, a Teotl I can’t help but look at and think “We’re both somewhat antisocial intellectual nerds with coldblooded tendencies, it just seems like we should get along!” Still, I haven’t had any luck in getting close to Him yet. Granted, after my incense stove caught fire in 30 sec and I nearly burned my fingers the one time I mentioned back on B&R, I haven’t tried dialing His number since. Somewhat at a loss as to what to try at this point, as if He wants me to do something 100% traditional He’s kind of out of luck. Plus, knowing what I know about how priests were trained/chosen and the rigors of their duties, I don’t feel at all comfortable even looking in the direction of that role. I’d feel like a poser. Sigh.

    I’d like to know more about these war associations you mention with Q, that’s not something that tends to get highlighted about Him.

    December 24, 2008 at 5:08 AM

  8. Shock

    Quetzalcoatl war associations are all over the place. Outside of codex depictions, there were a LOT of war related offerings found at His joint in the Templo Mayor complex. I’ll find you a good source so that you can read up on that if you’d like. It might take me a bit, though, since I’m fixing to leave town in a few days.

    January 1, 2009 at 11:04 AM

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