Ethnohistoric evidence emphasizes the role of women in ritualized Aztec household practices and religion that were concerned not only with household maintenance or fertility but also with broader cosmological processes. This chapter supplements the limited written evidence for Aztec household rituals with a review of archaeological data on ritual features and artifacts, including burials, figurines, feasting ceramics, New Fire ceremony middens, and musical instruments. Archaeological findings add a political dimension to our understanding of Aztec household ritual—demonstrating that ritual also served in political negotiations of status and identity—and suggest a complex, bidirectional relationship between state and household-level ritual practices. Finally, excavations have revealed more variation in funerary rituals than can be appreciated in the primarily elite, Tenochtitlan-authored documentary record.
Leon Garcia Garagarza
This chapter analyzes the basic features of the Aztec ritual landscape as a historical construct that legitimized the social order and provided the models of territorial legitimacy and political hegemony in Postclassic central Mexico. Based on a cosmovision that held the universe as an animated entity, the Aztecs reinterpreted real geographic features through myths and collective and individual rituals. Each town (altepetl) replicated the layout of the cosmos with an axial mountain at the center. This model was coextensive to other institutions. In turn, regular pilgrimages across several mountain peaks were enacted to assert territorial claims, making the ritual landscape an essential feature of the Aztec political economy. The chapter examines some of the most prominent Aztec rituals that served to symbolically map their environment every year, demonstrating that they literally incorporated the sacrality of the landscape in their own bodies to live a wholly meaningful existence.
Louise M. Burkhart
Under Spanish rule, Nahuas underwent evangelization by friars of the Mendicant orders. Most people accepted baptism and learned at least basic Roman Catholic doctrine. To stay in power, nobles had to present themselves as Christians. Indigenous communities built churches and participated in Christian rituals, but indigenous religious officials had considerable control over local affairs. Alphabetic literacy was linked to Christianity: large numbers of religious texts were printed in Nahuatl and many others circulated in manuscript form. Nahuas interpreted Christian teachings in their own ways, often criticized by outsiders. They were particularly receptive to Christian images and developed devotions to many local, miracle-performing images, especially of the Virgin Mary and the crucified Christ. Indigenous healers and diviners capitalized on their reputation for witchcraft to attract clients of all ethnic backgrounds. In time, the coming of the faith came to be seen as a foundational event in community histories or “primordial titles.”
Karl A. Taube
This article discusses gods and mythic origins in ancient Mesoamerican thought. In ancient Mesoamerican thought, the creation and maintenance of the ordered world was only achieved through a concerted effort by the gods, a weighty responsibility that continued through the sacrificial offerings and rituals of mortals. The myths and behavior of gods not only explained the origins of the world but also served as models for human behavior for commoners and elites alike. Given the time depth and many cultures of Mesoamerica, it is not surprising that there is an extensive and complex array of deities and myths pertaining to this region. Some myths, such as the Aztec (or Mexica) episode of the birth of Huitzilopochtli, are unique to a particular time, place, and people. However, certain cosmogonic episodes and types of deities are particularly salient, making it possible to discuss broad and basic patterns of belief. Among these, the relation of events of creation to calendrical cycles is fundamental, both in terms of ordering the world and, as such, timed moments and in socially replicating and reifying the original acts of deities in the world of mortals.
The Mexica developed a highly sophisticated religious system characterized by a large pantheon and numerous myths and rituals. Calendars and architecture expressed concepts of time and space. Myths describe human activities that had to be accompanied by the appropriate rituals Reciprocal relationships between mortals and gods had multiple aspects and functions, both in the natural realm as well as socially and politically. The practice of human sacrifice was fundamental to creation and a model of the exchange between gods and people. Different social groups, communities, or states had their own rituals for worshipping their patron gods or promoting the success of different activities. Divinatory practices were also important; far from simply revealing an immutable destiny, such activities represented a means of communication with, and intervention by, the gods, whose will could be manipulated in a positive manner for humans, thus disproving the allegedly fatalistic character of Mexica religion.
James L. Fitzsimmons
In ancient Mesoamerica, the dead remained social actors and, as such, they often continued to play significant roles in the lives of everyday people. Unlike contemporary Western views of the dead, where even deceased political figures lack true agency, the dead of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica were ever-present and were believed to be capable of making their influence tangible for the living. In addition to passively defining territorial boundaries and resource rights, for example, the dead could engage in a variety of more active exploits, ranging from “dancing” at weddings to “witnessing” royal accessions. In short, the dead were a vital part of life in Mesoamerica. Hence, the death of an individual in ancient Mesoamerica may be viewed as the beginning of a long process of social rebirth and reinvention. This article discusses ancient Mesoamerican views about the relationships between the living and the dead; the use of physical spaces in which the dead were buried in order to establish social or political positions; human remains and mortuary rituals; and ancestor veneration.
F. Kent Reilly III
Mesoamerica was unified by a commonly held, if not unified, system of religious practice. Mesoamerican religion possessed a cosmology that saw the visible world as multitiered, consisting of the Above Realm of the heavens; the middle Earthly Realm, the home of living humanity; and the watery Beneath Realm of the dead and thus of the ancestors. Within this layered cosmic model, directionality and coloration played pivotal roles. Each cosmic layer possessed its own deities, and they were linked by an axis-mundi that could take the form of a world tree or mountain, or a temple or sacred fire. At times this axis mundi could assume the personified form of a ruler or important religious practitioner. The deities and supernatural entities that inhabited these realms could and often did cross the three cosmic realms.
This article discusses sacred places and landscapes within Mesoamerica. Sacred places and landscapes are created and evolve through human acts. While these places may reflect the cosmological organizing principles of society, they are not merely cosmograms but dynamic, complex landscapes created as settings for the reenactments of mytho-historical narratives. Narrative structure unifies the sacred places within broader landscapes and reinforces the social memory of the acts performed in them. Sacred places and landscapes are also spatially liminal. Just as events in stories happen in a time before time, and are then reenacted in the present, sacred places coexist with prosaic places: a sacred place can be a plaza that both serves as the location of a market within a bustling city at one time and, at another time, is the location of the watery underworld. Finally, like creation and migration narratives, sacred landscapes are religious and philosophical touchstones, as well as powerful sociopolitical statements.
Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján
The sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan was the center par excellence of divine atonement and one of the most prominent centers of liturgy in Mesoamerican history. It articulated two basic functional complexes: the religious, derived from building a temple shrine with lavish offerings to Huitzilopochtli in the center of the universe; and the political, shaped by the growing needs of the state. The state cult was sponsored by the supreme government to promote the great divinities, to ensure the well-being of all people living under the empire as well as its agricultural and military success. Outside the regular progression of the calendrical cycles, the state hosted lavish rituals in the sacred precinct for other important events and was the stage for grand ceremonies dedicated to seeking relief from the great misfortunes used by the gods to punish humans: agricultural disasters, famines, and epidemic diseases.