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Fire, Blood and Feathers

An exami nat ion of common cross -cultural, aspects: social organization, defensive postures and
religious perspectives within Nahuatl, and other indigenous cultures.
The study of any ancient indigenous culture is, of itself, a daunting task. When such a task is
compounded by the lack of first hand empirical evidence, the challenges may seem
insurmountable. Luckily there always seem to be a handful of dedicated and enthusiastic
researchers seeking after the missing links. They have dedicated their existence to the expansion
of collective knowledge, by skillfully and meticulously unraveling the secrets of the past,
shedding light upon these deep, dark and hidden mysteries


Written Assignment
Fire, Blood and Feathers
An examination of common cross-cultural, aspects: of religious and mythological perspectives
and symbolism within Nahuatl, and other indigenous cultures.
James P. Welch
IDR CAS 5960-067

The University of Oklahoma
Master Degree Program in International Area Studies
Professor: Karl Offen, Ph.D.

August 29, 2012


Fire, Blood and Feathers
The study of any ancient indigenous culture is, of itself, a daunting task. When such a study is
compounded by the lack of first hand empirical evidence, the challenges may seem
insurmountable. Luckily there always seem to be a handful of dedicated and enthusiastic
researchers eager to seek out the vital missing links. They have dedicated their existence to the
expansion of collective knowledge, by skillfully and meticulously unraveling the secrets of the
past, shedding light upon these deep, dark and hidden mysteries. The focus of this particular
research is primarily upon the Aztecs culture in general and the Mexica in particular. The three
most noteworthy sources providing information about this ancient civilization are: a vast oral
tradition; colonial period (and limited pre-colonial) codices, modern archeological research.
Their fundamental conceptions in the areas of religion, mythology and symbolism are examined
in the light of other highly developed civilizations, notably the Egyptians, the Celts and the
When comparing the cultures of Mesoamerica with those of other advanced ancient
civilizations, the existence of an oral tradition for the transmission, the challenges of tracing such
history becomes readily apparent. This sense of passing history, more or less exclusively,
through an oral tradition is a common ancient practice and evidenced in several other cultures
notably: The Greeks, the Celts, the North American Indian, the Inuit, as well as certain Hindu,
Islamic and African cultures. Interestingly, a modern occurrence of oral transmission is related to
political oppression of expression, evidenced in former communist countries. The downside of
oral transmission can be associated with: faults of transmission, and errors of transcription and

Figure 1
memory. These phenomena can easily lead to manipulation, confusion, exaggeration and false
speculation. In the case of the Aztecs, the Spanish retransmission was often distorted from the
eyes of the conqueror, to depict themselves in a favorable light. Other manipulation was meant
to glorify the heroic Spanish image while demonizing the Aztecs and depicting them as a
ruthless, yet inefficient barbaric people. In this way the Spanish could justify their excesses in
the conquest of the new world. Finally, analyzing specific aspects of any single, given
civilization is an arduous enough task. The complexity of Aztec society magnifies this problem
proportionally. Such difficulty is compounded, further, when attempting to draw parallels across
diverse cultural frameworks. Serious, dedicated scholarship, archeological and geological
evidence, however, can help to broach some of these shortcomings.
When considering the development of any culture, passing from the phase of hunter gatherer
to that of a more sedentary agricultural society, there are, obviously, similar patterns to such
development, which are well worth bearing in mind (see Fig 1 below).


The Nahuatl Culture Historical Overview
There are many unknowns concerning the true origins of the actual migrations from the north
which led the future Aztec people to the valley of Mexico. More recently there has been
increased research and several archeological findings, have helped improve knowledge and cast
light upon many of these mysteries. Even the name Aztec remains, somewhat, a mystery as
Peterson indicates,
These barbarians, who later became highly sophisticated, are called by many names
Aztec, Mexica, Culhua-Mexica, Tenocha, and Teo-Chichimeca. The name Aztec is
now popularly misapplied to almost all Mexican Indians, because of the persistent
glorification of it by writers since William Hickling Prescott. The people living where
Mexico City is now called themselves Mexica, and their capital city Tenochtitlan or
Mexico. The name Mexico probably means in the navel of the Moon. The name
Aztec will be used here for the people of Tenochtitlan [as it I has been for this research

Despite the confusion and inconsistencies several important facts remain, nonetheless,
indisputable. The Aztecs, (an ethnologically diverse group of Nahuatl speakers) and more
particularly the descendants of the 7
and last tribe of the Chichimec (the Mexica), adopted the
gods and traditions of the previous Toltecs whom they admired. They were, also, as previously
noted, Nahua speakers, a language pertaining to the Uto-Aztecan dialect. As Peterson points out
in his estimation, North-western Mexico seems to be a probable place of origin for the Aztecs,
who spoke Nahua, one of the large Uto-Aztecan family of languages that extends north into the
United States.
This would seem to make sense since the ancient capital of Tula, the center of
Toltec culture, is located directly northwest of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had also traced their
ancestry back to that city. Interestingly Michael Smith seems to confirm this assumption when he

Peterson, Frederick. Ancient Mexico. 10th. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962. 86


writes, The Toltec peoples, whose capital was Tula, maintained trading relationships with
distant areas of Mesoamerica, although they did not dominate central Mexico as their
Teotihuacan ancestors had. The collapse of Tula coincided with the arrival of the Nahuatl-
speaking Aztec immigrants in central Mexico during the twelfth century.
Most importantly
Smith states that, The Aztecs adopted many characteristics from these earlier civilizations,
including gods, rituals, economic institutions and principles of kingship and city planning.

According to their own pictographic descriptions the Aztecs claimed to have originated from
a currently unknown place known as Aztlan. Smith lists this first wave of immigration as the
onset of the Early Aztec period, 1150 1530 CE. The Aztecs were sub-divided into several
different ethnic groups, living in distinctive regions and all practicing Nahuatl language and
social customs. This may well have be the initial framework for the establishment of the calpolli,
the single most important framework within their complex social structure. The Aztec system
was, in fact, so efficient and highly evolved that the Spanish left it, more or less, intact instead of
imposing their foreign and unknown system instead. Regardless, the Aztecs were a migrant
warrior people who eventually settled in the valley of the region known today as Mexico City,
and established their capital Tenochtitlan.
The Aztecs rapidly grew in both strength and numbers. They were fierce warriors and ardent
conquerors and practiced a system of indirect empire. This refers to a practice of conquering
vassal states and receiving tribute, but not exercising direct sovereignty. During the late Aztec
period (1350-1520 CE) the population exploded from approximately 500,000 to 3,000,000
million persons (Smith 2006, 2).

Smith, Michael E. Aztec Culture an Overview. Essay, Tempe: Arizona State University, 2006, 2

Ibid., 2

Much of their imperial conquest was seen with a jaded eye from their subjects and this was a
boon to the Spanish who found ready allies during the period of the conquest.
Magic, Myth and Religion: Consistent themes
The Aztec mythological and religious system of belief was highly developed and extremely
complex. Part of this complexity lies in their past habit of adopting and incorporating gods, rites
and rituals of conquered vassal states, while, at the same time, maintaining their own. A feature,
relative to most primitive and ancient cultures, is an attempt to understand and explain their
existence, in relation to their surrounding environment and the forces of nature. Religion
permeated every aspect of the Aztec daily life. It shaped and controlled society, warfare, politics
and agriculture. This is usually done through the creation of a cosmological myth; often one of
the first stages of social development. The creation stories surrounding the founding of the
Aztecs were surprisingly flexible and quite adaptable to their nomadic life style. Peterson writing
on the creation myths and Teotihuacan states, Teotihuacan is Aztec for The place of the gods;
but the place was in ruins long before the Aztecs came. According to ancient legends the gods
lived at Teotihuacan, and the Sun and the Moon were created there.

The Moon and Sun figure frequently in the theme of creation myths. The creation of the
pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, in Teotihuacan, coincide in Aztec mythology with the
creation of the 5th Sun, the Earthquake Sun, and ends in a struggle between 2 gods; Tecuciztecatl
and his humble rival Nanahuatzin. Basically, the cowardly Tecuciztecatl receives a rabbit in the
face and becomes the Moon, while the humble and courageous Nanahuatzin, remains in place as
the Sun. This was the beginning of humanity, and is widely spread throughout Mesoamerican

Peterson, Frederick. Ancient Mexico. 10th. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962, 60.


Figure 2
culture. The actual Aztec story itself, however, relates only to the Aztecs and their leader
Huitzilopochtli. This particular tale relates, in part, to the primordial dismemberment cycle of
creation myths. According to the Aztec myth Huitzilopochtli, is born of
Coatlique (see Fig 1). Coatlique is seen as having become unjustifiably
pregnant (adultery was punishable by death with the Aztecs). Her
daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and her 400 brothers (Centzon-huitznahuas)
climbed the serpent mountain (Coatepec) and slayed their mother.
Huitzilopochtli was born completely attired and slew both his sister (who
became a lunar goddess) and each of his 400 brothers in turn.
Some interesting allegories present themselves here. There is, of course the concept of
Immaculate Conception (rightly or wrongly). It appears Coatlique became pregnant after stuffing
a ball of feathers in her breast (some accounts record her belt. Feathers perhaps link the
hummingbird association with Huitzilopochtli??). Further, the idea of the son revenging the
parent is a very widespread theme throughout ancient mythology. For instance, one might
consider the Egyptian myth of Horus avenging his father Osiris by slaying Seth. An essential
theme that underlies these mythic tales is the ultimate importance of the
correlation between the moon and the sun. An eclipse seemed to herald the
possible end of sunshine, and hence life. This aspect shall be discussed in
greater detail in the following section.
Perception of Duality: Different yet the same.
This important concept requires a separate explanation, and could easily serve as the subject of a
title all on its own. In the cosmological cycle, where the world is often created out of chaos, there
Figure 1 Coatlique

is often either a single god, with a dual male/female personae, or alternatively seen as a separate
male and female entity. While they are often seen as opposites, they are also part and parcel of
the same integral unit. The very first fertility gods/goddesses can be recognized in the votive
figures as funerary offerings in early burials. Peterson notes, The first fetish figurines, of baked
clay, are female and probably represent fertility goddesses as symbolic of the generative
principles of reproduction, birth and growth.
This precept is based upon the simple elementary
composition of the world around us. This can be elemental, physical or spiritual. For instance,
the most visible evidence of direct contrasts can be seen in; sun/moon; water/fire; day/night;
earth/sky; life/death; dark/light; chaos/harmony; old/young; weak/strong; mountain/valley, etc.
Professor Peterson reaffirms this point when he writes,
Another characteristic of most Mexican religions was dualism. All things were
based on male and female elements that gave birth to the gods, to the world, and to
man. Celestial and natural phenomena were attributed to eternal struggles between
hostile deities. This accounted for night and day, light and dark, life and death
growth and decay good and evil, sickness and health. The Mexican ball game may
be symbolic the eternal struggle between light and dark as represented by
Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

These are also reflected within the belief of social hierarchy
thus, where there are poor and uneducated masses, there
are also a few well educated nobles (c.f. the inverse).
Duality can, therefore, also be seen in its ultimate
manifestation in the various gods of ancient civilizations.
Shiva of the Hindu pantheon is known as having both a masculine and feminine
aspect (refer to fig 3). As can be seen, not only are the male and female aspects

Peterson, Frederick. Ancient Mexico. 10th. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962, 123.

Ibid, 126.

Figure 3 Shiva Elephanta Island

represented, but if the viewer regards from a right or left angle at one half of the
face, there is a distinctly masculine or feminine characteristic as well. Another
symbol of the inherent importance of the concept of duality among the ancients can
be seen in the bi-compositional nature of the Hindu goddess Mahadevi. There are
also many manifestations of this duality of purpose in Ancient Egypt where, the
kingdoms were divided into upper and lower halves and the desert on either side of
the Nile, into red and black sides. Sekhmet incorporates the seemingly opposite
virtues of the lady of terror and the lady of life, simultaneously. J. Hill notes
that, Sekhmet (Fig 4), was mentioned a number of times in the spells of The Book
of the Dead, as both a creative and destructive force. Above
all else, she is the protector of Ma'at (balance or justice)
named "The One Who Loves Ma'at and Who Detests Evil".

Note the concept of balance between two opposing forces. The
fact that there is no judgment made between right or wrong,
merely the weighing of inverse characteristics. Ironically Celtic mythology and
religious belief, is based upon the concept of three or the triad. Still, as previously
explained, this could also be a question of the duality being combined in a separate
and hence third aspect as well. Duality was not merely encompassed within the
anthropomorphic manifestations of the various deities, but a part of everyday life
and a constant reminder of the precariousness on mans life on earth. Finally, there
are numerous instances where the concept of duality plays a major role in the

Hill, J. Ancientegyptonline. 2010.

Figure 4 Sekhmet

cosmology and mythical beliefs of the North American Indian.; for instance, the
story of The Good twin and the Evil Twin among the Yuma.

Aztec mythology is varied; it changes over time and has many political nuances. There are,
however, similarities with various other belief systems. There is the Egyptian, Osiris/Isis saga, or
that of the Hindu version of the Sati/Vishnu saga, for instance. These are often dismemberment
tales where the parts of the dismembered god are scattered to become either people or places.
Strong correlations exist notably in the following myths:
Osiris is slain and his body parts are recuperated by Isis. He is then revenged by his son
Horus, who was incidentally also dismembered according to Egyptian mythology. Thus,
Budge, renowned Egyptologist, writes, Now as the deceased is identified with Osiris, it
is clear from the above passages that the head of Osiris was cut off, that his body was
broken up and its internal organs separated, and that his bones were scattered.

Huitzilopochtli, springs from his dead mother, in full battle array, and slays his 400
brothers and his evil sister (see text).

Devi is a Hindu goddess which encompasses the concept of duality (see below). That is,
the goddess contains two opposing personifications simultaneously. She can be, Kali, a
goddess of carnage and destruction or a supreme protector in her form of Parvati. Related
to the dismemberment cycle, Vishnu was forced to cut Shivas wife,
Sati (another manifestation of Mahadevi), into 50 pieces.

The Sun: the moon and the stars.
It would be remiss not to emphasize the importance of the solar deity within
nearly every single known ancient civilization. Often the Sun plays the
primordial role in any religious pantheon. Surya was the Hindu sun god,

Budge, E.A. Wallis. Osiris & the Egyptian Resurrection. Vol. 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1973, 70.

Figure 5 Mahadevi as

Amaterasu in Japan, Lugh of the Celts, Re, of course that of the Egyptians, and Tezcatlipoca that
of the Aztecs. These deities were, further, often associated with the harvest and agricultural
production and, not unsurprisingly, human sacrifice. In pure and simple logic, the Sun nourishes
the people and therefore the people are responsible to nourish the sun as well. In the
cosmological cycle of the Aztecs, the earth had been created five times with five different suns.
The fifth renewal, prophesized during the calendar year 1 Ce Acatl (one reed), foretold the return
of Quetzalcoatl. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, this coincided with the arrival of Hernando Cortes
and his band of Spanish Marauders, in 1519. The eclipse, which took place in 1519, was seen as
an ominous portent to the Aztecs. The struggle between Quetzalcoatl and that of Tezcatlipoca
was representative of this struggle between the Sun and the Moon, between light and dark.
Serpents Crocodiles and Other Beasts
The serpent has long been a dual symbol of fertility,
treachery and death. Nearly all ancient civilizations have
the image of the serpent, or its stylized form-the dragon,
in their belief systems. The serpent is often symbolically
represented as the struggle between the day and night and
life and death. Of course a long standing reminder of the role of the serpent in fertility can be
seen in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve. Crocodiles figure prominently in both Aztec
and Egyptian myths and legends. If there are so serpents or crocodiles, then dragons can also
fulfill the function, such as in the case of China and Japan. There are specific qualities which are
related to the serpent/crocodile images, or deities, such as: power, fertility, cunning, treachery,
childbirth, and general fertility. Huitzilopochtli, himself, is born holding a serpent in one hand,
while many of the Hindu and Egyptian gods are literally ensconced by cobras. The ancient
Figure 6 Celtic God Cernunnos with serpent

Egyptians made extensive use of both beasts, in animistic and zoomorphic idealizations. Thus,
Sobek, the crocodile god, associated with the all-important Nile the heartbeat of ancient
Egyptian existence, saw himself enshrined for all eternity through the mummification of his
living representation. The Cobra was the divine protector of the Pharaoh, and can be seen on the
crown represented by Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Buto, with her fire spitting tongue. Wadjet is
accompanied by the protective wings of Nekhebet, the vulture goddess, recalling the principle of
dualism mentioned previously. Thus, duality combined in a single, sacred entity becomes, once
again, abundantly clear since Nekhebet of Upper Egypt and Wadjet of Lower Egypt, are
combined symbolically upon the Uraeus crown of the Pharaoh, divine ruler of both lands. If
further proof were needed to emphasize the importance of the concept of duality in ancient belief
systems, this is provided by J.E. Manchip White when he writes, The crook and flail
symbolized simultaneously the wooing and coercive nature of the Pharaohs power.

Colors, Directions, Celestial Symbolism and the Magic Number 4
The significance of the concept of duality, to the Aztecs, was important yet it pales in
comparison with the importance of the number 4. The number four and the concept of four items
or segments are a reflection of the importance that the Aztecs attached to the four directions.
According to the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, The north was the dwelling place
of Tezcatlipoca, the south that of Huitzilopochtli, the east that of Tonatiuh, and the west that of
According to the readings it became readily apparent, to this author, that there
was actually a fifth direction, never really mentioned yet always present. It is either physically

White, J.E. Manchip. Ancient Egypt: Its Culture and History. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1970, 13

"Mythology of the Two Americas." In New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, edited by Felix Guirand,
translated by Richard Aldington, & Delano Ames, i - 500. Twickenham: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1987,436.


or spiritually the direction or state of center. The center represents the heart of any being,
object entity or structure. Thus, while Tenochtitlan was divided into four major Calpolli or
sectors, there was also a very important central section. The importance of the number four and
its relationship to harmony, organization, directions and colors were not lost on other
civilizations either. The Japanese and subsequently the Chinese also attached great importance
to the directions and their anthropomorphic representation (See Table 1 in Appendix B). The
number four is symbolic of perfect harmony as evidenced in the earliest Egypt ian hieroglyph
that, of Pi, represented by a simple square and standing for house or dwelling. Hence that
most basic tenet of society, shelter, is also based upon the harmonious concept of four.
Another important symbol representing the cosmic connections between man and spirit is
represented by the wheel or cross. This symbol is often combined to represent a cross within a
circle, thus evoking the idea, once again of the four cardinal points of the universe. Yet, the
wheel itself is, a symbol of movement and regeneration.
The number 4 (as well as the numbers 13 and 20) had great mystical significance within the
Aztec belief system. Four is seen in the construction of their palaces and pyramids. Note that, as
previously hypothesized, the fifth unspoken direction can be seen in the pyramids. The fact that
they rose several hundred feet from the center, was representative of the desire to physically
approach the realm of the gods. Furthermore, it might be logical to postulate that the four priests
holding the limbs of the sacrificial victims would be representative of the cardinal points and that
the sacrificial priest performing the duty, would represent the center and thus the communion of
the beating heart and the living god.

Other significant manifestations of the number four, persist in several different cultural myths
including, unsurprisingly those of the North American Indians. Consider this telling excerpt from
the Jicarilla [Apache] genesis myth: They played a fourth time [the thimble and button game],
and again the people won. The sun came up in the east, and it was day and the owl [traditionally
a dark omen] flew away and hid.
Sacrifice: When is a sacrifice not really a sacrifice?
In todays society most individuals would normally consider the sacrifice of humans as abhorrent
and repugnant as a practice. However, it is not possible for a social scientist to be jaded by such
social constraints when researching cultures of the past. Additionally, the sacrifices of the past,
often, made no distinction between young and old, male or female, thus, there is even evidence
of child sacrifice. Sacrifice was seen consciously, as a necessary tribute to placate the gods and
avoid incurring their wrath. Unconsciously, sacrifice represented the cycle of life, death and
renewal. This was a sort of ancient utilitarian view of the world.
Sacrificing a few would save the lives and prosperity of the many.
Peterson writes, The divine mission of the Aztecs was to feed the
gods, and the most precious food available was human blood.
sacrifices were carried out atop the large temple dedicated to
Huitzilopochtli, where the victim would have his beating heart ripped
from his chest, while laying splayed across the techatl-stone while held
by four priests.

Peterson, Frederick. Ancient Mexico. 10th. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962, 152-153.

Figure 7 Aztec Sacrifice and
the number 4.

Human sacrifice, like other aspects of mythological worship and religious rites, were also
wide spread in the ancient world. Julius Caesar, in his conquest of Gaul, writes of Celtic
sacrifices where slaves are burnt alive along with their deceased master, as well as the practice of
the infamous wicker man. Of course, most readers will be well familiar with ritual retainer
sacrifice as practiced in early dynastic Egypt. This practice, however, was not as wide spread, as
might be imagined and disappeared, according to most accounts, probably by around the end of
the first Dynasty in 2890 BCE.
The jury is still out on the question of both human sacrifice and
that of the closely related phenomenon of cannibalism, and a definitive verdict does not look
probable in any immediate future. Scholars argue on both sides of the aisle. Anwaar Abdalla,
writing for the Washington Times cites Reisner, Scholars continue to debate whether the
sacrifices took place. George Reisener, the famous Egyptologist, says the early tombs of Abydos
and Sakkara like the tombs of King Aha (c.3100 B.C.) and King Djer record human sacrifice.
Reisener says the different architecture of the tombs suggested that the servants were buried alive
with their tools and vessels. Reisener also believed that King Djers queen was buried alive along
side[sic] her husband. He believes that in Abydos, there are at least 162 sacrificial tombs.

Aztec sacrifice, as mentioned previously, cannot be judged by present day values.
Unfortunately, perhaps the most well-known aspect concerning this important ancient
civilization, resides in the collective memory of their human sacrifice rituals. Human sacrifice,
however, most certainly existed prior to the arrival of the Aztecs as evidenced by archeological
research and findings. The Aztecs merely brought the practice to unprecedented new heights.
The sacrificial ritual, however, was not a mere reflection of savage blood thirstiness, but rather

Gavin, John. "Abydos: Egyptian Afterlife." National Geographic, 2005.

Abdalla, Anwaar. "Human sacrifice in Ancient Egypt." Washington Times, February 2012.


was based upon rather practical considerations of the epoch. The three principal functions
served by ritual human sacrifice by the Aztecs were:
Obtain food for the gods in order to appease and placate them and receive their
blessing and protection in return.

The large volume of sacrificial victims served to remind wayward or reluctant vassal
states of the consequences of rebellion or for failure to respect the obligations of tribute
and obedience.

The sacrifices served as an opportunity for the warrior class to boast and display its
prowess in the often arranged gladiatorial type events which were held.
Each of the gods required a different sort of sacrifice for appeasement, which was related to his
or her cosmic nature. Thus, David Leeming writes, Tlalocs sunlit, song-filled court, was to
acquire a sinister aspect, and his obsequies were to become the most horrific of all, as suckling
infants and small children were sacrificed to a ravening rain-godon the theory that their tears
would encourage spring showers.
This took place as a regular occurrence on the first months
of the Aztec Calendar to assure plentiful rain and bountiful harvest. Xipe Totecs victims would
be tied to a stake, their heart region painted white and then shot full of arrows. The belief was
that their flowing blood would nourish the earth. The victim was then flayed and a priest would
wear the victims skin. This is of course a ritual representation of the earth shedding its skin,
and the renewal of the seasons. The flaying portion of the ceremony was dedicated to the Earth
mother goddess Teteoinnan. The Aztecs were not the only culture to sacrifice victims to various
gods. As mentioned earlier, Julius Caesar made note of Celtic sacrifice. Other forms of Celtic
sacrifice, for example, were the hanging of Victims for Esus and the burning alive of victims for
Taranis. The ritual of Esus mirrors that of the Aztecs Xipe Totec. Victims would be hung from

Leeming, David. Mythology. New York: Newsweek Books, 1970, 132.


trees and ritually wounded; the patterns of their blood loss would serve as an oracle.
unfortunate victims dedicated to Taranis, the god of the sky, were immolated. The sacrificial
victims of Teutates, a tribal protective god, were drowned, by being immersed head first into a
vat. Finally, other examples of early Celtic sacrifice are evidenced with the remains of the
Lindow man. The 1
Century Roman poet Lucan mentions all three of these deities, Esus,
Teutates [also written Toutatis] and Taranis.
There was an aggressive campaign by the Catholic Church to stomp out what they saw as
barbarous pagan rituals. Despite these efforts, there is some evidence according to Lockhart and
others that preconquest rituals and practices endured, particularly in rural areas, even after the
advent of Christianity. Thus Lockhart writes, Where ever Christianity left a niche unfilled, it
appears, there preconquest beliefs and practices tended to persist in their original form. The
remarkable thing is how unchanged and untouched these practices remained.

Related to the practice of human sacrifice, was a ritual practice of cannibalism.
Up until recently, many scholars have assumed that this practice was wide
spread and based upon population pressure and famine. One proponent of such
a hypothesis is Michael Harner. Harner, however bases much of his theoretical
perspective upon the writings of Cortez and other chroniclers of the period, as
well as upon speculative hypothesis. The author does make some interesting
observations, based upon recorded data. Harner indicates, for instance the

MacKillop, James. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lockhart, James. The Nahuas After the Conquest. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, 258.

Figure 8 Florentine Codex
image Franciscan friar
Bernardino de Sahagn

need for protein and the lack of domesticated mammals as a food source. In this same vein he
writes, Unfortunately, their ingenuity [land reclamation via the chiampa system] could not
correct their lack of a suitable domesticable herbivore that could provide animal protein and
The fundamental hypothesis as laid out by Harner is that, the Aztec sacrifices, and the
cultural patterns surrounding them, were a natural result of distinctive ecological
The premise, can of course be made, that if the large number of sacrifices
performed by the Aztecs were seen as normal and acceptable behavior, then why not
cannibalism as well? According to Harner, the evidence has been overlooked or largely ignored
by researchers, due to various factors such as personal conscious or unconscious distaste,
concerning the subject itself and Mexican researchers, for preservation of the national image.
Harner does make a provocative inquiry when asking the obvious question; what did the Aztecs
do with the enormous amount of bodies resulting from their sacrificial rituals? Actual empirical
evidence, such as that presented by Archeological digs (such as the Tlatelolco section of Mexico
City during the period of 1960 and 1969), is rather scarce. Here Harner runs into difficulty and
is obliged to support his hypothesis through the use of 16th century literature of questionable
reliability. His final argument in support of his hypothesis is based upon the human need for the
8 essential amino acids. Some researchers have argued that these amino acids could be obtained
through a steady diet of maize and beans [two of the staple crops]. Harner argues however that,
the Aztec commoners would have to consume large quantities of maize and beans
simultaneously or nearly simultaneously year-round.
He underscores the possibility of such a
solution by pointing out the frequent periods of famine and extensive crop failures. Harner sums

Harner, Michael. "The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice." Natural History 86, no. 4 (April 1977): 47.

Ibid, 47.
Harner, Michael. "The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice." Natural History 86, no. 4 (April 1977): 49.


up his position by proposing, A materialist ecological approach reveals the Aztecs to be neither
irrational nor mentally ill, but merely human beings who, faced with unusual survival problems,
responded with unusual behavior.

Montellano, in direct opposition to Harner, questions these assumptions and presents a well-
documented and scientifically sound counter argument. His research compares protein intake of
the Aztec agricultural cycle to that of the possible protein contribution of cannibalism.
According to Montellano, the ritual cannibalism, of the Aztecs, was practiced only by a small
minority of nobles [25%] and that only the limbs were consumed. This would seem to argue
against the perception of the cannibalism as a source of population sustenance. Further,
Montellano argues that the cannibalism was not motivated by starvation but by a belief that this
was a way to commune with the gods.

The field of study dedicated to any single civilization has both advantages and disadvantages.
Researchers devote great time and effort, often entire lifetimes,
to the elucidation of various mysteries enshrouded within those
civilizations. Such specialized knowledge helps to provide
invaluable insight into the past and to clarify areas of
uncertainty. One of the seemingly counterintuitive ironies, is the
fact that by becoming so specialized, they can often become blinded to the larger intra-cultural
anthropologically based belief systems, which influence the general beliefs and behavior of man

Ibid, 51.
Montellano, Bernard R. Ortiz de. "Aztec Cannibalism: An Ecological Necessity?" Science 200, no. 4342 (May
1978): 611-617.

Figure 9: 4 day signs: Flint knife; Flower;
Rain; Crocodile

as a species. One must bear in mind the possibility of distortion, while maintaining an immense
respect for the knowledge and dedication of those involved in translating, understanding and
transcribing these ancient tales into modern terms. For instance, Peterson speaking of the Aztecs
system of courts and justice in totally modern terms, at times, distorts understanding of that
ancient reality. There is also a possibility of becoming too close to a subject and not entirely
objective. Thus, it is important to take a step back. When an enigma is presented, there may be a
possibility to draw parallels through the cross-cultural examination of another indigenous people
and their belief system. It might be a good idea to consider this aspect when forming future
teams of archeologists. It would be a worthwhile endeavor to have cultural anthropologists and
ethnologists participate in research, in order to bring in added dimensions and unforeseen
perspectives to such a study.
Another significant problem as mentioned in the introduction, has been the tendency, in the
past, of researchers to rely too heavily and be influenced by second hand accounts, such as those
provided by the Spanish, in the case of the Aztecs. Research of ancient cultures is fraught with
obstacles, such as conflicting accounts, missing clues and destroyed evidence. There are,
additionally, as often noted in various texts, severe problems of funding and a lack of resources
in order to carry out the necessary research. In todays fast paced, high-tech world, it might
appear, to some, that the immediate past, history, has little or no bearing on the present, or that
the distant past, archeology, ethnology, anthropology, etc., has even less relevance. In such light
it is useless to even speak of the importance of the prehistoric sciences such as, paleontology or
geology. But this would be a short sighted view of humanity; as if to say the tree has nothing to
do with the seed. Ultimately the achievements of modern society are the result of a long
process of development, and can only be measured by the past. To understand any society today,

it is imperative to understand how that society developed, what its roots are and from whence it
Researchers such as Lockhart, Peterson and Soustelle, to mention but a few, perpetuate the
great traditions of their predecessors such as Champollion. In a spirit of healthy curiosity and
academic inquiry, they dedicate their time and knowledge, to the meaning and understanding of
who we are and where we came from. They are often hardly recognized or rarely supported
for their contributions. However, their ultimate mission supersedes such base concerns. In many
ways, they too, like the Aztecs and the other ancients, find a divine mission in seeking out the
past and shedding light upon these ancient mysteries.


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Photos and images:

All images are either from the Authors own collection or printed under USC 17 fair usage
clause for educational purposes.

Cover image 1:
Cover image 2: Artist rendition of Sun God Tonatuih
Figure 1 : Coatlique
Figure 2: Creator gods Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl :
Figure 3: Shiva from Elephanta Island Authors collection.
Figure 4: Sekhemet
Figure 5 : MahaDevi:
Figure 6: Cernunnos with serpent:
Figure 7: Sacrifice from the Mendoza Codex
Figure 8: Cannibalism from the Florentine Codex:
Figure 9: Reverse of folio 11 of the Codex Magliabechiano, showing the day signs Flint (knife),
Rain, Flower, and Crocodile.From source:



Cross-Cultural Comparison of Deities







Dis Pater/Anu
Dia Cead-Lon

Supreme or 1st



(Hummingbird of the


Lugh/ Cadros




Surya (Vishnu)

Dia Sul/

Amun/Shu Vayu (Pavana) Vintius Wind
Tlaloc (growth
Indra Rain
Mictlantecuhtli Apophis/Osiris Yama/Mara Cernunnos/Balor/
Death/Under or



Mixcoatl/Opochtli Neith/Pakhet Nodens Hunting
Xipe Totec




Coatlicue (lady of
the Serpent skirt)









* Alternate Appellations.

Cross-Cultural Comparison of Deities





Tezcatlipoca (lord
of the smoking



Epos Olloatir/

Tezcatlipoca (lord
of the smoking










Tonantzin Tlalli


Durga/ Bhmi

Danu (Anu)*

Child Birth/
Mother Goddess












Dia Tuan





Xipe Totec




Human Sacrifice
* Alternate Appellations Originated with Aryan culture gave name to rivers such as
Danube and Don.

Note the association between birth, fertility and serpents.








North Black Smoking Mirror Evil Power Tezcatlipoca
South/Left Blue Hummingbird Warfare Huitzilopochtli
East Red rebirth Xipe Totec
West White Winged Serpent Wind Quetzalcoatl

Hindu Lokaplas














God of Devas







Daoism human names
Japanese and Chinese




Zhi Ming
Genbu/ Xunw




Ling Guang
Suzaku/ Zhqu




Meng Zhang
Seiry Qnglng




Jian Bing
Byakko/ Bih



ry/ Hunglng