“Heed in what manner there is life on earth, in what manner compassion is secured of the Lord of the Near, of the Nigh. It is only the weeper, the sorrower, who is required: he who sighs, he who is anguished. And the devout one who shows preference for, who welcomes, who gives himself wholeheartedly, and who holds vigil for the sweeping, the cleaning, the ordering of things, is the pleasure of our Lord; and he takes care of, he takes charge of the incense ladle, the offering of incense.
In this manner there is entry near, nigh unto the Lord of the Near, of the Nigh, where there is removing of secrets from His lap, from His bosom, and where He recognizes one, shows mercy to one, takes pity upon one, causes one to merit things, gives one things… There He takes, there He recognizes as His friend the one who addresses Him well, the one who prays well to Him…”
(Florentine Codex, Book VI, cap. 17)
Today I will brush on some preliminary thoughts on how the Aztecs may have viewed piety and interaction with the divine. The passage above is a modernized English version of a selection from a huehuetlatolli speech about how to live nobly that was recorded by Sahagun in the sixth volume of the Florentine Codex. This passage is from a noble father to his sons and he’s telling them to cultivate a pious, devout heart, and giving them guidance on how to do so.
“The weeper, the sorrower” is another way of saying “the devout one.” (The Aztecs were very fond of such poetic parallellism in their formal speeches and prayers.) In the context of the next line, where the devout worshipper wholeheartedly attends to the gods, I take this to mean that he “sighs” out of longing for the presence of the deity (here, it’s Tezcatlipoca, “Lord of the Near and the Nigh” is one of His many titles). He’s like a friend or a lover who’s been separated from his dearest companion, and wishes with all his heart for her return. Out of reverence and that longing for the divine, he diligently goes about his sacred duties, such as sweeping the shrine, praying, and burning incense for the gods.
The text goes on to make it clear that this deep reverence and devotion is something that pleases the gods. By expressing genuine reverence, awe, and dare I say, love, for the gods, the gods in turn are moved to respond with mercy, blessings, and wisdom. Thus, humans are brought close to the gods. A bond is formed, and we are united as friends despite our different natures.
This friendship, however, is structured by those same differences in nature and status. The Aztec gods aren’t a bunch of “Buddy Jesus” clones who are doormats for mortals to disrespect or who exist just to hand out gifts. Looking through this speech and others like it, as well as the ancient prayers that have managed to survive to the present day, we can see that the Aztecs would take care to speak to their gods with great respect, just like they would to an important dignitary. In a way, the Teteo were a type of super-nobility who were situated above even the ruler of the Empire. This view of the high status of the gods is further hinted at when we realize that a lot of the types of things that were offered to the gods, like rare feathers and jewels, were the exact same things that vassal states were required to provide to the rulers as tribute. This sensitivity to status can be kind of a hard viewpoint to adjust to for some, since very few of us live in truly aristocratic societies these days. It’s not impossible, however, and being careful to keep it in mind allows for a clearer understanding of what the sources tell us.
That’s all for the moment, and I hope these tentative interpretations help in studying this subject.
The Florentine Codex, Book VI, cap. 17, J.O. Anderson & Charles E. Dibble, ed. & trans., Santa Fe, N. Mexico: School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1950-1969. Modernized paraphrasing mine.
As I said in my previous post on the “why” of sacrifice, I’d be writing one soon on the “what.” Next time, it’ll be “how and when,” and we’ll be good to go on the basics of the cornerstone ritual in worshipping the Teteo.
The people of the Anahuac valley offered a wide variety of different goods and services to the gods. Most of them can be fit into three quick and dirty categories: blood offerings, property offerings, and services.
Blood offerings are the best known, and they come in several forms. There’s the classic heart extraction and other types of lethal human sacrifice, of course, but no one’s going to be doing any of those, so don’t even think about it. More important to modern-day practitioners, people would offer small amounts of their own blood to the gods. This is called autosacrifice, and everyone would do it, priest, king, and commoner alike. Finally, the last type of blood sacrifice is animal sacrifice. Quail were the most common choice, though I have found references to turkey hens and specific festivals where snakes, lizards, toads, and other small animals were offered. Anyway, quail offerings were mostly done by the priests and nobility, partially because meat was scarce and expensive in the days before the current style of large-scale industrial farming.
The second major category of offerings are those of property. The Aztecs gave a dazzling array of material goods to the Teteo, ranging from food and drink to clothing, incense, and art. Incense was the backbone of property offerings, and was burned for the pleasure of the gods very frequently. The particular type used was a resin made from tree sap, and is called copal. Copal comes in many different types, and has a wonderful sweet smell. I encourage you to check out one of the external links I have to an entire article on copal. Everyone would burn it, and its use wasn’t restricted to particular festivals or the like. Similarly, people would often offer flowers, and they weren’t just for the godesses. The gods like them too!
Different foods were offered, such as tortillas, tamales, amaranth dough cakes, and fresh vegetables like corn or chia. Drinks were also provided for the gods, especially a liquor called pulque or octli. Sometimes people would give well-made articles of clothing to the gods to show their devotion. Amate paper was often burned for the gods. This may sound strange to many people, as most of us in the West these days don’t exactly think of paper as sacred. Not so among the Aztecs. Paper was rare, expensive, and hard to make, so it was highly valued and reserved for religious use and the writing of sacred painted books, called Codices today. (FAMSI has a lot of them online that you can look at, check them out HERE.)
Speaking of rare, expensive goods, artwork and other related precious objects round out the list of property offerings. Excavations in the remains of the Templo Mayor (a.k.a. Huey Teocalli in Nahuatl, Grand Temple in English) in Mexico City have uncovered caches of beautiful art that were apparently given to the gods. The objects range from jewelry to statues to feathercrafts and harder to describe things. So if you have an artistic streak, this might be a wonderful way for you to make offerings. Beautiful feathers and precious stones (especially turquoise and jade) were also prized as offerings.
The last category is services, offering by doing stuff. Sweeping and cleaning was actually a devotional activity back in the day, as it was a form of clearing away chaos and decay. All sacred spaces were routinely swept, whether they were the imperial temples or the humble household shrine. Finally, music, dance, song, and poetry were often done for the enjoyment of the Teteo, and certain instruments were considered to be favored by certain deities. For example, the conch shell trumpet was linked to Quetzalcoatl, the flute was Tezcatlipoca’s preferred instrument, and I’ve seen a reference or two to the huehuetl, the big drum, being Huitzilopochtli’s instrument. Music and dance were very important ways to worship in Mesoamerica, and many of the festivals would culminate in most of the town gathering to dance and sing. Sacred dance is still done today, either as worship or for secular reasons of love of culture. Today it’s called danza in Mexico, and if you hit YouTube or GoogleVideo you can find recordings of some of the danzantes performing. Very beautiful!
That’s the end of this article exploring the kinds of things that were traditionally sacrificed. Next time, I’ll get down to discussing how and when to do some specific kinds of offerings.
This is probably the first thing that comes to many minds when someone says the words “Aztec religion,” followed immediately by Hollywood horror movie-esque pictures of hearts being ripped out of chests. I’m going to get it out of the way now: yes, they did human sacrifice. No, that’s not what I’m going to be talking about here. Instead, I’m going to talk about the philosophy behind making offerings, or nextlaoaliztli in the Nahuatl language. I’ll talk about the “what” of offerings in one of my next posts.
Nextlaoaliztli translates roughly to “the giving of what is right/proper.” It has a strong sense of duty and a concern with “doing the right thing.” The right thing to the Aztecs was making offerings to the gods (Teteo) on a regular basis, of course. It was the lynchpin of their worship rituals. But why was it the right thing to do?
Well, it was right because it was thought that the gods gave things to humankind at the very beginning. They formed the world out of the primordial chaos by reshaping the Cipactli monster into the land, and gave life to people. Both of these acts came at a cost to the gods – Tezcatlipoca lost His foot to Cipactli’s hunger, and Quetzalcoatl shed His blood to bring life to the first man and woman. Not only that, but the Aztecs believed that many good things were created for them by the gods, such as delicious foods and drink, beautiful art and music, learning, and more. Since the Teteo had generously bestowed such favors upon humankind, it was only proper that humans should give gifts back to the gods. The concept of reciprocity and “one good deed deserves another” was central to the ethics of the Aztec people. Golden Rule on a cosmic scale, anyone?
Sacrificing the right kinds of things was also the correct thing to do because the gods were thought to need some of them, like blood. Blood contained vital power, called teyolia, which was thought to strengthen the gods who received it. Since the gods not only created the world, but sustained it, sacrificing was a way of preserving the cosmos for all. Other sacred substances, like copal, were also viewed as food for the gods.
Offerings could also be payments. The Aztecs believed that the gods would answer prayers for assistance if They wished to, and They tended to expect gifts in exchange for Their help. The idea of “no free lunch” fits pretty well here. Of course, the gods could choose to help someone without asking for anything in return, but it was up to Them to make that choice. Anyway, in many of the ancient prayers we have preserved in various writings, such as in the Florentine Codex, you see people giving things to the gods when they want some divine favor, either up front or when the help was received. Sometimes blood was given, though material goods seem to have been very popular, especially sacred paper.
In closing, I think that we should all meditate carefully on the logic behind nextlaoaliztli and how this pattern of mutual gifting and obligation appears at each level of life, like the ever-dividing branches of a tree or the twisting arms of a fractal pattern.
That’s it for now for discussing the “Why?” behind sacrifice, next time I’ll talk about the “What.” Stay tuned!