Mesoamerican Religions: History of Study

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A number of diverse primary sources exist for the study of the religious systems of ancient Mesoamerica, foremost among them being archaeological remains. The investigation of these remains provides the only means of obtaining information about Mesoamerican cultures from the Preclassic period (beginning c. 1500 bce) to the period shortly before the early sixteenth century ce, when the Aztec empire was destroyed by the Spanish. Most of the archaeological remains are structures that were devoted to religious purposes.

Early Texts

Eighteen pre-Hispanic pictorial documents were saved from the religious zeal of the Spanish conquerors. A number of these are tonalamatls, or "books of destiny," which deal with the ritual divinatory calendar of 260 days. They are of special importance for the study of pre-Hispanic religion because they contain in their screenfold pages illustrations of the religious aspects of the calendar, as well as other esoteric paintings that deal with Mesoamerican astronomical conceptions. Some of these books have not been completely deciphered or interpreted.

The most important tonalamatls are six of the Borgia group (originally from the Mixteca-Puebla region), the Dresden Codex (from the Maya area), and the Codex Borbonicus from the Mexican Plateau. Besides these pre-Hispanic manuscripts are others that the Spanish priests and rulers commissioned for their own purposes; these were usually executed in a Spanish pictorial style. Among these commissioned works, the Codex Magliabecchiano and the Florentine Codex, both of which contain important religious data, deserve special mention.

During the century following the Conquest a number of manuscripts were written by priests whose special interest in the religious beliefs and practices of the Indians was dictated by their desire to suppress the indigenous religious systems. Toribio Motolinía was one of the first twelve Franciscan friars to travel, in 1524, to the recently conquered "New Spain" to evangelize the Indians. His work is one of the earliest testimonies on native Mesoamerican culture; unfortunately, only a portion of his writing survives. A reconstruction by Edmundo O'Gorman of the original work has been published under the title Memoriales, o Libro de las cosas de la Nueva España y de los naturales de ella (1971).

Without any doubt, the most important work about the customs of the ancient Mexicans is that compiled by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. His informants were native elders who dictated in Nahuatl to young Indians who had been trained by Sahagún. They produced several manuscripts that have been named after the places where they are now kept: the Florentine Codex and the Matritense Codex. The former is the more celebrated; it is also known under the title given it by Sahagún, Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España. Produced in twelve volumes between 1569 and 1582, it was first published in 1820. It has been translated into English by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble and published as Florentine Codex (13 vols., 19501982). The first five books of Sahagún's work, which deal with the gods, myths, calendar, temples, and priests of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, constitute the most important source for the study of the religion of the ancient Mexicans.

Fray Diego Durán, a Dominican, arrived in New Spain as a child and learned Nahuatl and some of the old traditions from the native people of the Valley of Mexico. He also had access to old manuscripts. He devoted the second volume of his Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme (concluded 1581) to descriptions of the gods, rites, and calendar of ancient Mexico. Fray Diego de Landa, who was responsible for the burning of massive numbers of precious ancient Maya manuscripts in the city of Mani in 1562, was also the author of the most important early book about Maya culture and religion, Relación de las cosas de Yucatan (first published in 1864). Fray Juan de Torquemada, a Franciscan, was the first person to write a "comparative" history of the peoples of New Spain. He was deeply interested in historiography, and many of the long digressions in his book Monarquia indiana (1615), which utilize biblical and classical references, were designed to show that the aboriginal Indian cultures followed universal laws of history. Four chapters of his book contrast native religion with the "true" religion, Christianity. Also of interest to the study of religion are the Códice Chimalpopoca, Anales de Cuauhtitlan, and Leyenda de los soles, three manuscripts written in the second half of the sixteen century, two anonymous in Nahuatl and one in Spanish by Pedro Ponce and the Historia de Tlaxcala, written in the sixteenth century in Spanish by the mestizo Diego Muñoz Camargo.

The Eighteenth Century

The Jesuit priest Francisco Javier Clavigero was fluent in Nahuatl and had some knowledge of other Indian languages. He was the first to write a work devoted solely to the history of Mexico, his Storia antica del Messico (17801781), written and published in Italy during his exile there. The work contains an excellent chapter on religion. Although in his writings Clavigero tends, as might be expected given the time during which he wrote, to use Christian scripture and theology as norms of judgment, this tendency hardly colors his description of native religion. Indeed, it surfaces only in one passage within which he characterizes the ancestral religion of the Indians as a jumble of mistaken, cruel, and childish practicesthe knowledge of which might help the ancient Indians' descendants to see the great advantages of Christianity. Clavigero shared the belief, widespread among his contemporaries, that the ancient Mexicans displayed knowledge of biblically recorded events, and he reiterates the belief, then common, that Quetzalcoatl was none other than Thomas, the disciple of Jesus, who had traveled to America to evangelize its inhabitants. Clavigero's book was widely read, and it helped to further a growing interest in the history and culture of ancient Mexico. It also fostered the spirit of nationalism among New Spain's mestizo population.

Mexico after Independence

Shortly after Mexican independence in 1821, the Museo Nacional was established to house pre-Conquest antiquities. In conjunction with the museum's founding, a number of studies of Mexico's ancient culture were carried out. Influenced by current liberal, positivistic ideas, a group of Mexican scholars began to study the ancient Mexican civilizations. Manuel Orozco y Berra, Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, Cecilio A. Robelo, and Alfredo Chavero were the first to investigate Mesoamerican religions in this new manner. The first volume of Orozco y Berra's Historia antigua y de la conquista de México (4 vols., 18801881), is devoted to a study of native myths and thought, which he compares to Pythagorean and Hindu philosophies, doubtless with the purpose of demonstrating the universal value of Nahuatl ideas. Among other works of scholarship produced were Paso y Troncoso's erudite and well-documented commentary, Codex Borbonicus: Descripción historia y exposición del códice pictórico de los antiguos náuas (1898). Robelo compiled a Diccionario de mitología nahuatl (2d ed., 1911), which contains source material and scholarly interpretation about ancient Mexican religion in general. Chavero wrote several works on ancient Mexican religion, including Historia antigua y de la conquista (1888), the first volume of an ambitious publication project directed by D. V. Riva Palacio and titled México a través de los siglos (Mexico through the Ages). In this volume, Chavero espouses the belief that religious ideas provide a means of measuring the degree of advancement of the Mexican people and of determining their social tendencies. He maintains the thesis that native Mexican religion was materialistic inasmuch as it did not include a belief in a spirit or a soul. Later scholars have dismissed Chavero's interpretations as sheer fantasy.

The commencement of the publication of the periodical Anales del Museo Nacional de México in 1877 marked the transformation of research from a private endeavor into an academic pursuit in Mexico. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Mexican contribution to the reconstruction of the Indian past was greater than that of any other national group.

Other National Schools of Thought

The German traveler, naturalist, and man of letters Alexander von Humboldt visited New Spain in 18031804 and brought back to Europe a vision of the New World that had up until then eluded the attention of European scholars. Humboldt was so impressed by the vestiges he saw of the ancient pre-Columbian cultures that he proclaimed these civilizations comparable to that of ancient Egypt. He published his most important books on the Americas in French. In one of them, Vue des Cordillères, et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique (1810), which contains paintings and images that captured interest, he deals extensively with the pre-Hispanic calendars, myths, and rituals. By the second half of the nineteenth century, waves of European travelers were visiting Mexico. They made drawings and took photographs of the pre-Hispanic ruins and carried off ancient manuscripts and objects, thus broadening interest in the ancient Mesoamerican cultures.


In 1858, a group in France founded the Société des Américainistes de France and started a specialized journal. As an outgrowth of this, the first Americanist congress was held in Nancy in 1874. Some of the first French scholars to write about Mesoamerican religion were Albert Réville (Les religions du Mexique de l'Amérique Centrale et du Pérou, 1855), Hyacinthe de Charency (Le mythe du Votan, 1871), and Léon de Rosny (L'interprétation des anciens textes Mayas, 1875, among dozens of other works). Much later, the ethnologist Jacques Soustelle, of the French sociological school, worked in the field of Mesoamerican religion. In his book La pensée cosmologique des anciens Mexicaines (1940), Soustelle claimed that the Mexican image of the universe reflected the people who created it, and he asserted that the gods Huitzilopochtli and Quetzalcoatl corresponded to the ideals of a distinct faction of the dominant class of Aztec society.


From von Humboldt's time up to the present, German scholars have been producing studies on the subject of Mesoamerican religion, either as parts of works about religion in general (e.g., Friedrich Majer's Mythologische Taschebuch oder Darstellung und Schilderung der Mythen: Religiösen Ideen und Gebrauche aller Völker, 2 vols., 18111813) or in the form of monographs specifically focusing on Mesoamerica (e.g., J. G. Müller's Geschichte der amerikanischen Urreligionen, 2d ed., 1867; and Konrad Haebler's Die Religionen mittleren Amerika, 1899). From the analysis of the Mayan Codex Paul Schellhas extracted the first classification of the Mayan gods (Die Götter festallen der Maya Handschriften. Ein Mythologisches Kulturbild aus dem Alten Amerika 1897).

Perhaps the most eminent scholar of Mesoamerican religion that Germany produced was Eduard Seler. He was influenced in his interpretations of the origin of myths by his contemporary F. Max Müller (18231900), and even more by Ernst Siecke's ideas concerning lunar mythology. Seler's most important work was his commentary on Codex Borgia: Eine altamerikanische Bilderschrift der Bibliothek der Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (3 vols., 19041909). The first part of volume 4 of Seler's collected works (Gessamelte Abhandlung zur amerikanischen Sprach- und Altertumskunde, 5 vols., 19021915) is devoted to the mythology and religion of the ancient Mexicans. Hermann Beyer, one of Seler's followers, published more than forty articles (19081924) relating to pre-Hispanic religion and symbolism which were published in 1965 in vol. X of El Mexico antiguo. Beyer tried to prove that the Aztec's vision of the cosmos was monistic and pantheistic.

Another of Seler's disciples, Konrad T. Preuss, was the first to use pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican religion as the basis for ethnographic studies. His most important work was Die Nayarit-Expedition, volume 1, Die Religion der Cora-Indianer (1912). Walter Krickeberg in 1928 published a compilation of American myths, Märchen der Azteken und Inkaperuaner, Maya und Muisca; in 1956 he brought out Altmexikanische Kulturen, in which he emphasized the strong connection between religion and art in Mexican thought.


The interest in American antiquities was stimulated in England by E. K. Kingsborough's project, Antiquities of Mexico, which eventually produced nine huge volumes (18301848). For the most part, British scholars specialized in Maya archaeology. Among them was J. Eric S. Thompson, who from 1927 to 1972 published a number of books and articles and contributed to the deciphering of Maya hieroglyphic writing. In Maya History and Religion (1970), Thompson summarized all his research. In his last years, he expressed doubts about the possibility that Maya religion will ever be thoroughly understood, especially given the kind of data that are available to scholars.

Lewis T. Spence, the British historian and mythologist, took quite a different approach; he was one of the few students of Mesoamerica who were primarily specialists in religion. Besides his books on the Americas (e.g., The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru, 1907; The Civilization of Ancient Mexico, 1912; The Myths of Mexico and Peru, 1913; The Gods of Mexico, 1923; and The Magic and Mysteries of Mexico, 1930), he wrote about the legendary continents of Atlantis and Lemuria and about the mysteries of ancient Britain and Spain and those of Egypt, Rome, Babylonia, and Assyria. Spence is noted for introducing some ideas that retain importance for contemporary scholars. For instance, he claims that Quetzalcoatl's cult was a "wisdom"-type religion that taught a highly developed form of mysticism and that was similar to the mystery religions that flourished in ancient times in Britain, Greece, and Egypt. The differences between Old and New World systems were superficial, he said, and they arose from a variance in magical practices. The Mesoamerican mystery religion was basically a complex rain cult upon which the solar cult and, later, the Quetzalcoatl rain cult had been superimposed.

United States

Another important researcher in the field of Mesoamerican mythology was Daniel Garrison Brinton. His most important works were The Myths of the New World: A Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Race of America (1868) and Nagualism: A Study in Native American Folklore and History (1894). Brinton claimed to be using modern methods of scholarship and, in contrast to prevailing scholarly consensus, maintained that the gods of the American tribes had their origins in the observation of natural phenomena rather than in historical chiefs or heroes. He tried to prove that the gods of Mesoamerica were human and benign, that they were loved rather than feared, and that their worship carried within it the seeds of benevolent emotion and sound ethical principles.

One of the great scholars of Maya ritual and religion was Alfred Tozzer who did important archaeological work in Tikal and Chichén Itzá and who developed a meticulous method for organizing his field work. Tozzer looked for contemporary survivals of the prehispanic Maya ritual. In his 1907 Comparative studies of the Maya and the Lacandon he dedicated more than half the book to the description of rites and ceremonies, which the author had the opportunity to witness.

The Norwegian scholar Carl Lumholz led a Mexican expedition that was sponsored by American Institutions during the last decade of the nineteenth century, which uncovered vivid examples of religiosity and daily life among tribes of the western Sierra Madre. He was allowed to photograph places and ritual practices as well as interview and collect oral traditions and myths. His Symbolism of the Huichol Indians (1900) and El México desconocido (1904) provide important data about the world view and ritual life of the Huichol and the Tarahumara peoples.

Contemporary Perspectives

During the 1930s and 1940s there was some pioneer ethnographic and historical research done, like Alfonso Villa Rojas's Dioses y espíritus paganos de los mayas de Quintana Roo (1941), George Foster's Nagualism in Mexico and Guatemala (1944), and Robert M. Zingg's The Huichol, Primitive Artists (1938). In 1949 the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología started organizing their Round Tables in which important Mesoamerican themes were discussed.

During the 1950s several important books on the subject of Prehispanic Mesoamerican religions appeared. One of these, El pueblo del Sol (1953), by the Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso, was the first book written on a popular level to give a general overview of Aztec religion. Caso distinguished three levels of religiosity in Aztec culture: the popular and polytheistic, the priestly, and the philosophical, which, according to Caso, almost attained monotheism. He stressed that the Aztec's actions and, indeed, their very sense of life were derived from the belief that they were a people with a mission. The Aztec conceived of themselves as a people favored by the Sun, allied to the forces of goodness and engaged in a moral struggle against the forces of evil.

One of the most articulate voices on Mesoamerican philosophy and religion is Miguel Léon-Portilla, whose many books and articles have set a standard for writing about worldview, metaphor and poetry. His first book, La filosofía náhuatl (1956; Aztec Thought and Culture, in English, 1956), attempted to demonstrate that among the ancient Mexicans there was a group of genuine philosophers distinct from the class of priests. He argued that there existed among the ancient Mesoamericans two opposite points of view regarding life and the universe. One was mystic-militaristic, oriented toward war and bloody sacrifice (the main purpose of which was to preserve the life of the sun, which was menaced by the threat of final cataclysm). The other worldview, represented by the Nahuatl symbol for knowledge, Quetzalcoatl, was philosophical and attempted to find the meaning of life through intellectual means. Léon-Portilla, in his Tiempo y realidad en el pensamiento Maya (1968; Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya, in English, 1973), provides us with a useful overview of how time and the passage of time was understood to permeate every level of daily life and reality among the Maya. He later wrote other books, including La religión de los nicaraos (1972) and Mexico Tenochtitlan, su espacio y tiempo sagrados (1978). Appended to Tiempo y realidad was included Villa Roja's important essay "Los conceptos de espacio y tiempo entre los grupos mayences contemporaneos."

Corona Núñez wrote two books on the Tarascan: La religión de los tarascos (1957) and Mitología tarasca (1962). Pedro Carrasco (1950) wrote an ethnohistorical study on the Otomí, and Barbro Dahlgren (1954) on La Mixteca with very important sections on the religion of these ethnic groups.

French archaeologist Laurette Séjourné's Burning Water: Thought and Religion in Ancient Mexico, (1957) synthesizes her interpretations of Mexican religion. According to her, the myth of Quetzalcoatl constitutes the paradigmatic revelation at the heart of Aztec tradition, and can be compared to some of the world's great religions. For Sejourne, the chief difference from other great religions was to be found in the distinctive symbolic language of the Quetzalcoatl tradition, which reveals that the human soul passes thorough different stages and ordeals until it reaches a liberated consciousness.

From the 1950s and especially in the 1960s there was an increase in the ethnographic research with an emphasis in indigenous cosmologies and religious practices, including beliefs related to medicine, Indian and Spanish syncretic religion. Most of these studies were made under research projects of the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Many themes are still relevant, including: fertility associated with death; the importance of agricultural mythsespecially the ones associated with the rain cycle; the concepts of cold and hot, of the soul, of tona and nagual; diseases related to the spiritual sphere; and the ritual specialists who had as their main task curing people. While much of this research was synthetized in articles published in the Handbook of Middle American Indians, one article in particular constitutes a watershed in the study of Mesoamerican religions, H. B. Nicholson's classic study "Religion in Prehispanic Central Mexico" which appeared in Vol. X (1971) provides us with a thorough account of prehispanic Central Mexican religion. This essay gives special atttention to cosmogony, cosmology, major cult themes, deities, and ritualism based on the archaeological, documentary and pictorial sources, and on the authors who had dealt with the themes up to his publication.

In volumes VII and VIII devoted to Ethnology, specialists wrote about the different ethnic groups, each with a section on religion. Volume VI on Social Anthropology (1967) included several articles related to religion: William Madsens' "Religious syncretism," Frank Canciani's "Religious and Political organization," and Michael E. Mendelson's "Ritual and Cosmology," based on his own investigations and the ethnographic studies published so far by several authors. He directs his attention to Indian and Spanish acculturation, giving priority to the Mayan people, to the distribution of ritual personnel, and to the general study of the forms of ritual and the contents of myth.

Other important books written during these years were Guiteras Holmes's Perils of the soul (1961); Holland's, Medicina maya en los Altos de Chiapas (1963); Aguirre Beltrán's Medicina y magia, el proceso de aculturación en la estructura colonial (1963); and Alain Ichon's La religion des totonaques (1969).

In 1972 the twelfth "round table" of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología was held in Cholula, Mexico. During the conference, which was titled "Religion in Mesoamerica," ninety-six scholars presented papers, most of which were later published in a volume (1972) and were the seeds of new full investigations. Discussion at the conference centered on a perennial question in Mesoamerican studies: is "Mesoamerican religion" one religious system or many? On one side of the argument were Alfonso Caso and Jiménez Moreno, who posited the unity of the Mesoamerican religions. On the other side was George Kubler, who argued for a Mesoamerican co-tradition following Bennet's 1948 proposal for Peruvian co-tradition. The problem of methodology was raised again during the conference by Kubler's critical voice against the validity of using modern ethnological analogies explaining prehispanic religion. In fact, Kubler was against using even sixteenth century colonial analogies to interpret prehispanic religion explaining older Mesoamerican cultures. He proposed instead Panowsky's principle of disjunction.

Modern Mesoamerican ethnographic studies have proven a unity of Mesoamerican culture, including cosmovision and religion. In 1973 the first Round table of Palenque organized by Merle Green took place and has continued to the present publishing the proceedings, which are the results of important studies.

From the late 1970s, new discoveries in the fields of Mesoamerican ethnography, archaeology and Maya epigraphy have led to an increasing amount of research dealing with the religious systems of Mesoamerica. It includes new types of theoretical trends, such as Marxist, structuralist, cognitive anthropology, symbolic anthropology, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and the scientific study of religion. The increase in publication is so vast that it is impossible to mention all the names involved, therefore only the most significant will be noted.

Eva Hunt, in her book The Transformation of the Hummingbird: Cultural Roots of a Zinacantecan Mythical Poem (1977), claims to employ the social-scientific theories of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim (18581917), Sigmund Freud (18561939), Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Victor Turneramong othersas tools of interpretation. She interprets a modern Maya-Zinacantecan poem in light of its antecedents in Mesoamerican mythology. She concludes that Mesoamerican religion is of a type characteristic of agrarian states, and that it is based upon an agrarian paradigm of space and time.

Other authors who wrote important books on mayense groups include Gary Gossen, Los chamulas en el mundo del sol (1979), and Evon Z. Vogt, Ofrenda para los dioses (1983).

Alfredo López Austin has contributed many new ideas to the field of Mesoamerican religions. His book Cuerpo humano e ideología (1980) examines Nahuatl concepts concerning the human body (of which the soul was considered a part) from within a frame constructed through an understanding of the society from which these concepts arose. López Austin's interpretations of what he calls "soul entities" represent a new kind of reading of ancient Mesoamerican religious thought. He has also put forward the hypothesis of a "hard nucleus" of Mesoamerican culture, a complex of ideas quite resistant to change, but with a dynamic cultural unity which admitted cultural variations, and is followed by almost all Mexican Mesoamericanists.

In his publications Los mitos del tlacuache (1990) and Tamoanchan (1993), he studies cosmic typology and its significance, the foundation of Mesoamerican mythology from prehispanic times to the present, and proposes an archetype of vegetable type with concepts concerning vegetation and the life and death cycle, which emphasizes the preeminent role of maize.

López Austin also develops cosmological conceptions of the duality of the mythic Tamoanchan and Tlalocan. For him Tamoanchan is the great cosmic tree situated in the center of the universe, which sinks its roots into the underworld and extends its foliage into heaven. Through its two intertwisted trunks, in a helicoidal form, run the streams of opposite forces which, in their struggle, produce time.

A number of scholars, including Michael Graulich, Doris Heyden, Johanna Broda and Yolotl González, have explored the diversity and complexity of Mesoamerican mythologies. Graulich believes that a fundamental pattern in mythology follows the transgressions of the gods and their expulsion from paradise, resulting in human strategies of sacrifice in order to return, in some symbolic or actual way, to a glorious world. Doris Heyden's work has shown how plants, caves, and stones were understood to be imbued with mythic powers and thereby became substances that enabled commoners and elites alike to participate in the worlds of the gods. González Torres shows us how myths of sacrifice not only served as models for ritual sacrifice but also functioned to weave political authority and hegemony together with religious power and prestige. Broda has given special importance to rituals, above all to agricultural rituals and to hills as models of the universe and as axis mundi the center of the world. She sees in all these a reflection of the observation of nature and the cosmos.

Among the many authors who have written about the religion of the Mayans is Mercedes de la Garza, whose methodological approach is the science of religion. She considers Maya religion as a cultural phenomenon by itself, leaving behind interpretations of archeology and other disciplines. Her books include: El universo sagrado de la serpiente en el mundo maya (1984) and Sueño y alucinación en el mundo nahuatl y maya (1999).

Other authors who have written about Maya religion, are Karl A. Taube, The Major Gods of Yucatan (1992), Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings (1989), and David Freidel, Linda Schelle, and Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path (1993). The authors of these books analyze through iconography and epigraphy sacrificial practices and the development of Maya religion and cosmology. Since the 1990s, epigraphic discoveries of David Stuart and Stephen Houston on supernatural domains and spiritual essences have added to the religious knowledge of the Classic Maya.

Types of Study

The study of Mesoamerican religions has been the domain of archaeologists, ethnologists, art historians, historians of religion, and sociologists. Most of the literature has been published in anthropological journals, such as American Anthropologist (Washington, D.C., 1899), Anthropos (Salzburg, 19061979), Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (Berlin, 1869), Anales del Museo Nacional (Mexico City, 18771945), Estudios de cultura náhuatl (1959), Estudios de cultura maya (1962), Tlalocan (1943) and many other magazines. A newer one is Arqueología (1993), which has articles on Mexican anthropology and history superbly illustrated, with religion occupying an important place. There have been other articles on "Mexican gods," "sacrifice," "rituals" and so on, written by specialists on the particular subjects.

Several museums in Mexico, the United States, Europe, and Asia have held exhibitions of prehispanic objects, most of which are religious, having been found in burial sites and ceremonial centers. These exhibitions have added to the knowledge and the diffusion of prehispanic culture and religion. The most relevant have been: "The Blood of Kings," Forth Worth, Tex. (1986); "Aztec, the World of Moctezuma," Denver, Colo. (1992); "Teotihuacan. Art from the City of Gods," San Francisco (1993); "Gods of Ancient Mexico," Mexico City (19951996); "The Mayans," Venice and Mexico City (1999); "A Trip Through the Land of the Gods," Amsterdam (2000); and "Aztecs," London (2002) Berlin (2003) and Washington (2004).

Some exhibitions' catalogues reprint material already discussed in other publications, while others offer new research and become texts in their own right.

There are articles written by different scholars about Mesoamerican religion in encyclopedias of world mythologies or religion (Larousse World Mythology, 1988, Man and His Gods, 1971) or general histories of religion, like Francisco Diez de Velasco's Introducción a la Historia de las Religiones (2002). Dictionaries of Mesoamerican religion have also been published, including: Yolotl González's 1991 Diccionario de Mitología y Religión mesoamericana and Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube's 1993 The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico.

Many research and educational institutions, especially in Mexico, are doing research on Mesoamerican religion, including: the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) with its different museums and regional centers; several research institutes of the National Autonomous University (UNAM); and many other universities and educational centers. The French Center for Latin American Studies (CEMCA), the Italian Mission Italiana and the Polish Center for Latin American Studies have produced books like J Gallinier's La mitad del mundo en la cosmovisión otomí (1990); Guillaume Olivier's 1997 Moquerie et metamorphosis d'un dieu azteque. Tezcatlipoca (Mockeries and Metamorphoses of an Aztec God: Tezcatlipoca, in English); Anne-Marie Vié-Wohrer's 1999 Xipe Totec, Notre Seigneur l'Ecorché; Italo Signorini and Alessandro Lupo's Los ejes de la vida, alma, cuerpo y enfermedad entre los nahuas serranos (1989); Lupo's La Tierra nos escucha (1995); and Andrez Wiercinski's Tlillan Tlapallan. Estudio de la religión mesoamericana (1998).

Alcina Frank has written "Dioses zapotecas," 1972, and El temazcal (Mesoamerican steam bath), 1999. Rivera Dorado wrote Religión maya (1986).

The study of Mesoamerican religions received a major stimulus from the stunning discoveries made in downtown Mexico City by Proyecto Templo Mayor between 1979 and 1985. Led by Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, this truly multidisciplinary excavation uncovered the primary religio-political shrine of the Aztec Empire. The dig uncovered seven complete rebuildings of the Great Temple. Most amazing were the excavations of over 115 ritual caches buried by the Aztecs at key religious cermonies between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among the many important works written about these discoveries is Leonardo López Luján's excellent synthesis "Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtittlan." This is one part of Templo Mayor studies developed in a twenty-year collaboration between Eduardo Matos and Davíd Carrasco, who set up the Mesoamerican Archive at the University of Colorado in 1984. Together they have organized important investigations of archeological, ethnohistorical and ideological analysis of sacred space, urban plans and ceremonial practices in ancient Mesoamerica. At Harvard University's Peabody Museum, the archive, in collaboration with the University Press of Colorado, launched a series "Mesoamerican Worlds" which has published results in books, including To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes (1991). Carrasco is the author of Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centeres and was the editor-in-chief of the three-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Culture (1999).

Mesoamerican religion is a topicand sometimes main themeof numerous meetings of institutions and associations, including: Americanists Congress, American Anthropological Association, Dumbarton Oaks Foundation, and recently, the International Congress of the History of Religion.

The Instituto de Investigaciones antropológicas de la UNAM and the Sociedad mexicana de Estudios de la Religión A.C. organized three coloquia under the name of Historia de la Religión en Mesoamérica y áreas afines. Its proceedings were published by Barbro Dahlgren in 1987, 1990, and 1993.

Recent years have seen an explosion of ethnohistorical and interpretive publications. Significant work has been performed by art historians who have developed a new grasp on the iconographic traditions relating religiosity to politics and art styles. Especially important are the works by Doris Heyden, George Kubler, H. B. Nicholson, Esther Pasztory, Richard Townsend, Elizabeth Boone and Carmen Aguilera. The growing community of Mesoamerican scholars who have developed intensive dialogues among themselves has resulted in a loss of interest in cross-cultural analysis between Mesoamerica and other parts of the world. This is due in part to the recent discrediting of the diffusionist approach of earlier scholars. It may be that in time, new comparative studies will result in useful tools for developing broader views for the rise and complexity of state societies. While historical interpretations of myths continue to dominate the scholarship, a small but potent series of publications drawing on the structuralist approach continue to contribute to our understanding of religion an ideology.

The problem of myth and history has continued to engage scholars such as López Austin, González Torres, Enrique Florescano, Davíd Carrasco and H. B. Nicholson, particularly in regard to the Toltec tradition. Carrasco (Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire ) and Florescano (Quetzalcoatl y los mitos fundadores de Mesoamérica ) argue, in different ways, that Teotihuacan either stimulated the idea of Tollan in the minds of Mesoamerican people, or was the original Tollan. In a recent celebrated publication, H. B. Nicholson (Topiltzin quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs ) outlines the possibility of some degree of historicity in the Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl of Tollan tale. Others, including López Austin and López Luján, emphasize that Quetzalcoatl and Tollan were understood primarily as mythic sites and figures.

Due in part to the leadership of Anthony Aveni, Franz Tichy, Johanna Broda, S. Milbrath and Y. González, Mesoamericanists have placed an increasing emphasis on astronomical alignments, appearances and patterns in their interpretations of Mesoamerican religions and societies. New fields of study, including archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy, have emerged as a result of their publications, and a series of productive conferences in Mexico, the United States and Europe have taken place.

Other studies explore the relationships between energy, man, and the cosmos in ancient and modern Mesoamerican thought. These concepts have been associated with the concept of mana. Several authors have linked these concepts with hot (positive) and cold (negative) energy which circulates between the underworld, earth and the supraworld through cosmic trees, and also with the acute consciousness of entropywhich, according to Christian Duverger in his La fleur létale: Économie du sacrifice aztèque (1979), characterized the thought of the Aztec.

Concepts about the relation of man to nature and the cosmos present in beliefs, symbols, and rituals permeate almost all Mesoamerican research. Important also has been the research about religious specialists: rezanderos (shamans and healers) and graniceros (diviners and witches).

For a long time, the main task for all scholars studying Mesoamerican traditions has been to gather all available ethnohistorical and ethnographic material and to attempt, on the basis of this evidence, to reconstruct the different aspects of Mesoamerican cultures, including their religious systems. This reconstruction continues, as new archaeological and ethnographic discoveries are constantly providing new data. New ethnological studies have shown that it is possible to use knowledge of modern Indian religions to help interpret data concerning pre-Conquest religion, and vice-versa. It shows the unity and continuity of Mesoamerican cosmovision, in spite of the superimposition of Catholicism, which has led to the syncretic religion that has been called "popular religion" and has become a wide field of study. One of the most prolific writers on this field is Félix Baez Jorge, the author of Los oficios de las diosas (1988), Las voces del agua (1992), La parentela de María (1994), and Nahuales and Santos (1998). Also important is James Dow, author of Santos y Supervivenicas (1974), Giménez Gilberto (1978), Cultura Popular y religión en Anahuac, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán (1986), and Zongolica: encuentro de Dioses y Santos Patronos.

Isabel Kelly (1961), Isabel Lagarriga (1975) and Silvia Ortiz Echaniz (1991) have studied the "espiritualismo trinitario mariano," a widespread popular religion which gives great importance to spiritual healing.

The role of religion and identity consciousness has also become an important aspect of study, linked to nativism and revival religions. One area in particular has received scholarly attention, resulting in three powerful publications: The contemporary religious practice in communities near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala have been effectively studied by Robert Carlsen (War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town ), Vincent Stanzione (Rituals of Sacrifice: Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun, a Journey Through the Tz'Utujil Maya World of Santiago Atitlan ) and Nathaniel Tarn and Martin Prechtel, (Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlan ).

Indian symbolic reelaboration of Christian stories and calendric festivals like the celebration of the Holy Cross in May and the day of the death in November, as well as the carnival and Holy Week, sanctuaries, pilgrimages, religious dances and the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe, so strongly linked to Mexican identity, have produced a number of investigations (De la Maza 1981, Nebel 1992, Noguez 1993). Since the 1980s there has been a rapid spread of Protestantism in Mesoamerican communities, especially among the mayense groups of Mexico and Guatemala. This, and the influence of the Catholic Liberation movement, has greatly changed the cosmovision of the different ethnic groups and has led to much religious conflict.

Also appearing are revival and nativist movements, formed mostly by non-Indians, influenced by New Age ideas and pan Indian movements. They try to revive an idealized Aztec religion, denying the practice of human sacrifice. They have adopted as one of their main rituals the "concheros" or Aztec dance and claim that the main archaeological sites are their places of worship, charged with the sacredness of "their ancestors," especially in the equinoxes and the solstices. Some groups have adopted the North American Lakota dance of the sun as their most important ritual. These revivalist religious movements are spreading rapidly throughout Mexico, among the Mexican Americans, and even in Europe. There is also a group of priests, who after the Second Vatican Council (19621965), where it was decided that the people had cultural and religious rights, have followed what they call the Indian theology. They argue that the Indians have had their own theology since prehispanic times and that now there should be a dialogue between the Christian theology and the religiosity of the Indian populations.

See Also

Calendars, article on Mesoamerican Calendars.


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