Mesoamerican religion  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel



The cosmological view in Mesoamerica is strongly connected to the Mesoamerican gods and the spiritual world. You may say that the construction and division of the universe, therefore is a kind of visual and symbolic set up for their religious beliefs. Like the many different peoples of Mesoamerica, the detailed surface of the cosmological views tends to be many. They all come together though, in the belief of a fundamental cosmic order, in which the two elements of time and space are the most important. These two elements are seen as the center of the universe and make the center of the quadriplicity, known as the Mesoamerican world tree quite close to the quincunx.

Time and space

The importance of time is seen in the cycles of life, death and regeneration, which are something worshiped in almost everything existing. Time itself, is symbolised in the cycle of the sun, both because the sun separates night and day, and also because the death and regeneration of the sun itself is the reason for a new era.

As an expansion of quincunx, which then symbolises space, we find two axes that combine the universe with the inclusion of both the natural and the spiritual, vertically and horizontally. It is the so called ’axis mundi’, which in the case of mesoamerican cosmology, vertically consists of three worlds and horizontally of four directions and a center.

In the vertical axis we find the world that we know on the surface of earth, in the middle a world above us where the stars are seen and then a world below our surface. These three worlds are not to be confused with the Christian division of a heaven and a hell, although the Spaniards, in trying to convert the native Mesoamerican, made the two comparable by doing so.


Tlaloc (Aztec) / Chaac (Maya) - Deity of water, fertility and storm.

Quetzalcoatl (Aztec) / Kukulkan (Yucatec Maya) / Q'uq'umatz (K'iche' Maya) - Deity of priests, merchants, the wind and transgressions between the earth and the sky.

Tezcatlipoca (Aztec) - Omnipotent deity of rulers, sorceres and warriors. Jaguar, the animal counterpart.

God K (Maya) - Some similarities with Tezcatlipoca, but also connected with lightning and agriculture. Serpentine features.

Huitzilopochtli (Aztec) - Supreme deity of the Aztecs in Tenochtitlan. Deity of sun, fire, war and the ruling lineage.

Colonized Mesoamerica

When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica, they ransacked the indigenous peoples' territory, often pillaging their temples and places of worship. Beyond this, the devoutly Catholic Spaniards found the standing Mesoamerican spiritual observances deeply offensive, and sought to either cover up or eradicate their practice. This resulted in the erasure of Mayan religious institutions, especially those centered on human sacrifice and propitiation of the multi-deistic pantheon.

Warrior values and human sacrifice were a ritualistic core of Mesoamerican spirituality prior to European incursion, and quickly dissolved in the early stages of Imperial rule. Prisoner capture between rival cultures provided sacrificial victims for deity propitiation, and this practice was unsustainable once Spain had subjugated the Yucatan Peninsula. The deity Huitzilopochtli in particular had a devoted blood cult, as it was believed that without his continued sustenance the cosmos would be plunged into darkness. Less violent rituals were calculatedly suppressed as well, with the Spanish authorities deeming them anathema in light of their own spiritual preconceptions.

When the Spanish besieged Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs fought back and sacrificed their white captives to Huitzilopochtli, but in spite of this the god of war failed to defeat the Spanish. And even though the Aztecs continued to worship some of their own gods after the conquest, the cult of the war god was dead. The belief in the protection of Huitzilopochtli had been destroyed by the Spanish.

The early friars in the colonized Mesoamerica wrote manuals describing indigenous rituals and practices, to define what was acceptable and unacceptable, and to recognize the unacceptable when they saw it. But these observations were very subjective. And the things considered to be connected to the Devil varied depending on the person who wrote the manual.

Missionaries in Mesoamerica attempted to take already existing symbols and elements in the local indigenous religions and societies, and give them Christian meaning and symbolism; e.g., the Mesoamerican world tree, which they interpreted as a cross. But at the same time they also demonized other elements, which were considered to not comply with Christian beliefs. They did this to make it easier to convert the Mesoamericans to Christianity.

Before the Spanish conquest each village had a patron deity whose idol was worshipped, presented with offerings and adorned with jewelry and fine robes. After the conquest, each village got in its place a Roman Catholic patron saint whose image was adorned and worshipped like before.

And destinations of pilgrimage where the indigenous peoples used to worship gods before the conquest, were adapted to Catholic saints like the Señor de Chalma (Chalma, Malinalco, Mexico State) and the Virgen de los Remedios ( Virgin of Los Remedios )

The Aztecs and the Maya shared many religious elements before the Spanish conquest, but reacted very differently to the same form of Spanish Catholicism. The Aztecs abandoned their rites and merged their own religious beliefs with Catholicism, whereas the Maya kept their religion as the core of their beliefs and incorporated varying degrees of Catholicism.

The Aztec village religion was supervised by friars, mainly Franciscan. Prestige and honor in the village were achieved by holding office within the religious organizations. It was not possible for the indigenous to enter the Orders or receive sacramental ordination as secular priests.

Greatly aiding the early missionaries was the image known as the Virgen de Guadalupe

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