Religions of Mesoamerica, the region consisting of modern-day central and southern Mexico and Central America, was the center of advanced civilizations and highly developed religious traditions long before the The Pyramid of the Sun looms over the ancient city of Teotihuacan, Mexico arrival of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans in the late 1400s and 1500s. These civilizations generally built upon each other’s accomplishments, with the earliest of them dating back to approximately 2000 B.C. Although the region was full of diverse and often very contentious tribal groups, many of them shared gods and religious customs. When Europeans arrived, they tried to convert Mesoamericans to Christianity, and in the process destroyed many monuments and other religious objects, notably the texts of the Mayans. But small groups of Mesoamericans still continue to practice aspects of their old faiths, and these have also seeped into both Mexican and Central American Catholicism. The Temples of Teotihuacan One of the prominent early civilizations of Mesoamerica was that centered on the city of Teotihuacan, whose massive ruins still stand some 100 miles (132km) north of modern Mexico City. Lying in the Valley of Mexico, an agriculturally rich region capable of supporting large populations, Teotihuacan housed a population of perhaps 200,000 people at its height in the period from A.D. 400 to A.D. 600. Its most prominent structures were two temple pyramids. At one end of a broad avenue stood the Pyramid of the Sun, larger than the largest pyramid still standing in Egypt. At the other end was the smaller Pyramid of the Moon. This layout was suggestive of the understanding of the order of the universe in Mesoamerica. The pyramids themselves, as well as other temples, were seen as connecting points between this world and the world of the gods, a common belief throughout the region. Under the center of the Pyramid of the Sun is a small shrine where the mother goddess was thought to dwell. The chief gods of Teotihuacan were two who were prominent throughout the Valley of Mexico, worshipped by many tribes. One was Tlaloc, the god of rain. His importance was great due to the necessity of rain for the purposes of growing crops, and as such he reflected fertility as well. For the purposes of ritual and storytelling, Tlaloc was often described as one of four Tlaloques, smaller figures thought to live at the peaks of tall mountains, each with his own special color and representing one of the four directions. To ensure fertility, Tlaloc was granted human sacrifices in solemn ceremonies. The other god popular in Teotihuacan was Quetzalcoatl, a feathered serpent who had many qualities: messenger between this world, the underworld, and the world of the gods; god of plant life and the earth; representative of time and the calendar; and the god of writing. Teotihuacan’s priests and scholars developed a body of writings based on images developed by an earlier Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs. But aside from a few carvings, their texts disappeared or were destroyed during a series of military attacks in the seventh and eighth centuries, after which the city was abandoned. To the south and east of the Valley of Mexico, in the rain forests and along the eastern coasts of Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization thrived for over a thousand years, with the so-called classic Maya period lasting from about A.D. 300 to A.D. 900. This advanced civilization had a complex system of religious beliefs. The Mayans built dozens of ceremonial centers whose ruins still stand, among them Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and Tikal in Guatemala. At the heart of Mayan religious belief was the cyclical relationship among the gods, nature, and humanity. According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan Creation myth, the gods created human beings out of the mixture of corn and water. To ensure that the gods maintained the growth of crops out of which humanity came, people needed to perform homages and sacrifices to them. The chief gods of the Mayans were Itzamna, creator of humankind and its arts and sciences; Yum Kaax, the god of agriculture; and Chac, the Mayan version of the rain god Tlatoc. The Mayans also revered Quetzalcoatl, whom they called Kukulcan. Also very important was the god of death, Ah Puch. Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the Mayans saw death not as a departure but as part of the cycle of life, as necessary to further growth as planting and harvesting. Beyond this pantheon of high gods were dozens of patron deities for specific purposes: farming, fishing, traveling, trade, war, even poetry and music. Sacrificial Rituals and the Mesoamerican Ball Game Reverence to these gods often involved bloodletting rituals, since the Mayans believed that blood carried the properties of the gods and was essential to life. These rituals might include the sacrifice of war captives who, before they were beheaded, might be wounded in order for their blood to flow. The Mayans did not restrict such practices to captives, however. It was common for kings and other royalty to shed their own blood in special ceremonies, although rarely to the point of death. Another reflection of the importance of these bloodletting rituals was the Mayan ball game (versions of it were played elsewhere in Mesoamerica as well). The game involved putting a ball through a ring or onto a marker without using one’s hands; some Mayan ruins contain more or less standing ball courts, where stone rings are placed perpendicular to the ground. Although the game was sometimes played simply for the sake of sport, in some contests losers were immediately sacrificed, with some ball courts containing racks for the skulls of these victims. Beyond these bloodletting rituals, Mayan religious ceremonies might also include dancing, feasting, and the drinking of an alcoholic beverage known as balche. The Mayans had a complex view of the universe and of humanity’s place within it. The heavens consisted of thirteen layers, the underworld nine layers, and the earth lay between, containing certain linking points such as the sacred core of temple pyramids, accessible only to royalty. In image they described the earth as the back of a giant reptile. In keeping with their cyclical view of the universe and of nature, the Mayans considered their world to be just one of many that had come before and would come after. They constructed elaborate calendar systems, informed by a sophisticated set of mathematics, to explain this order and to try to predict the future. The Mayans also developed the most advanced writing system of any early American civilization, with inscriptions and carvings mostly intended for religious purposes and prophecy. The great Mayan centers fell into decline after A.D. 900, and Europeans destroyed almost all Mayan texts after their arrival on the Mexican mainland in the 1500s. But Mayan people continued to populate the region, speaking their own language and, sometimes, practicing the old faith. Chichen Itza and other sacred sites remained the destination of pilgrims, and even in the modern day it is not unheard of for small groups of Mayans to continue to practice sacrificial rituals involving animals. The civilization that dominated the Valley of Mexico when Europeans arrived was that of the Aztecs. Originally a tribe from nor thern Mexico known as the Mexica, the Aztecs had migrated into the Valley of Mexico seeking work as mercenary soldiers. Unwelcomed by the settled, powerful tribes of the area such as the Toltecs and Tlaxcala, the Aztecs settled along the shores of a vast lake known as Texcoco. There, in the late 1300s, they began the construction of what was to be one of the great cities of its time: Tenochtitlan. Over the next decades their military might allowed the Aztecs to subdue many tribes and build a huge empire. Aztec Gods and Rites Aztec religion adopted many of the practices of earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. They played a version of the ball game and used the Mayan calendar. Their main gods included Tlaloc the rain god and Quetzalcoatl, who to the Aztecs was the god of death and rebirth and the protector of craftsmen in addition to his other roles. But the most prominent god among the Aztecs was Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Aztec warriors adopted him as their patron during their campaigns against other tribes, and their successes on the battlefield seemed to suggest that Huitzilopochtli approved. There were two great temple pyramids in Tenochtitlan, with the largest dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (the other was dedicated to Tlaloc). The war god’s continual demands for human sacrifices meant that the temple was an active site. In addition to human sacrifices, commonly of war captives or slaves, rites to the war god included dancing and feasts. Meanwhile, like the Mayans, Aztec priests and warriors also let their own blood flow in order to ensure the continuance of the agricultural cycle. The Aztecs believed that they lived in the fifth world, with the previous four having been destroyed by the death of the sun, who was personified as another aspect of Huitzilopochtli. Their primary religious duty was to keep the sun alive. Warriors who died in battle or were sacrificed and women who died in childbirth were thought to go to heaven to accompany the sun. Others who died from less auspicious causes might go to the heaven of Tlaloc. A proper death, such as that in battle for a warrior, was important for the Aztecs, and nothing to fear since, as in the Maya view, death was essential to the maintenance of life. Those who did not die auspicious deaths were thought to travel aimlessly for four years in the realm of the death god, characterized variously as Tezcalipotla or Mictlantecuhtli. Afterward, they disappeared forever. Tenochtitlan was conquered by Spanish invaders in the 1520s, who went on to construct modern Mexico City on the site. The Aztecs’ two great temple pyramids were only uncovered in the 1970s. Nevertheless, many Aztec religious beliefs continue to survive, particularly in small villages.
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica Photo Gallery