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Mesoamerican Religions: Postclassic Cultures


This entry is devoted to a summary of the religious patterns of the leading peoples of that portion of the Mesoamerican area cotradition located west of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the Postclassic period (c. 9001521 ce). Western Mesoamerica was a complex mosaic of linguistic-ethnic groups organized into various polities, but certain ones stand out most prominently: the Aztec, Tarascan, Otomí, Huastec, Totonac, Mixtec, and Zapotec. Although those who spoke the same language normally shared most cultural characteristics, including religious-ritual patterns, rarely were they unified politically. The more advanced groups were organized into what can be called city-states. Occasionally an especially powerful one of these, usually confederated with others, embarked on an imperialistic course, extending its military and political control over a wide area. The earliest well-documented empire of this type, one that may have dominated much of central Mexico, was that of the Toltec, so named from their capital, Tollan (or Tula), north of the Basin of Mexico. The flowering of the Toltec empire appears to have been essentially coterminous with the Early Postclassic period (c. 9001200 ce). Coverage will begin with a concise review of what is known concerning Toltec religion.

Toltec Religion

At the time of the Conquest, many traditions were extant concerning the Toltec, the prestigious political and cultural predecessors of the Aztec. Whereas they emphasized dynastic themes primarily, they occasionally included some references to religious-ritual aspects. Together with the archaeological evidence, they provide a picture, however incomplete, of a rich religious tradition directly ancestral to that which prevailed in central Mexico at the time of the Conquest.

Many Aztec deities were anticipated in the Toltec pantheon. The most prominent was Quetzalcoatl, symbolized by a rattlesnake covered with feathers. In Aztec religious ideology this deity particularly expressed creativity and fertility, with emphasis on the vivifying and fructifying role of the wind (or breath), Ehécatl, which Quetzalcoatl bore as an additional appellation. The fusion of snake and bird in his icon can be interpreted as the creative coupling of earth and sky. The Toltec concept of Quetzalcoatl was probably similar, but the situation is complicated by the merging of the supernatural personage with a Toltec ruler, Topiltzin, apparently a particular devotee of the god, whose name he also carried as a title. A rich corpus of traditional narratives surrounded this remarkable figure, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, who was the archetype of the Toltec and Aztec priesthood and credited with introducing autosacrificial rituals into the cult. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl was forced to abandon Tollan, persecuted by the omnipotent, capricious god of gods, Tezcatlipoca. Moving down to the Gulf Coast with a band of followers, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl died and was cremated, and his soul ascended into heaven and became the Morning Star. He was considered to have been the founder of all "legitimate" political power in central Mexico, and the rulers of Mexico Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, claimed direct dynastic descent from himwith the expectation that he would some day return to reclaim his royal dignity.

Other Toltec deities mentioned in the traditions include the androgynous creative deity with various names, among them Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatl; Xipe Totec, who expressed the concept of fertility in a macabre fashion as his devotees ritually donned the skins of sacrificed human victims; Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina, a major earth and fertility goddess whose cult was reputedly introduced from the Huastec; and Tlaloc, the ancient, preeminent rain and fertility deity. Archaeological evidence confirms the importance of these supernaturals in the Toltec pantheon and indicates the presence of various others: the pulque (octli) gods, as well as Mayahuel, the female personification of the maguey plant, the source of the intoxicating beverage pulque; the Venus deity, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, closely related to Quetzalcoatl; the hunting and war deity, Mixcoatl; Itzpapalotl, another earth and fertility goddess allied to Mixcoatl; and, possibly, the old fire god, Xiuhtecuhtli-Huehueteotl. The Toltec pantheon probably included many other deities not mentioned in the traditions or evidenced by archaeological remains, and it is likely that at the time of the Conquest most were still propitiated in some form in central Mexico.

Toltec ceremonialism was probably similar to the overall system prevailing in the Late Postclassic, especially as regards the calendrically regulated ritual. It is virtually certain that the two basic Mesoamerican calendric cycles, the 260-day (13 × 20) divinatory cycle, called the tonalpohualli by the Aztec, and the 365-day (18 × 20 + 5) vague solar year (xihuitl), were well established by Toltec times and possibly much earlier. Most of the names employed for the twenty day-signs and apparently at least ten of the eighteen twenty-day periods, the "months," were the same as those used in the Aztec system. The major Toltec public ceremonies were undoubtedly geared to the eighteen months and followed the same basic ritual patterns as those current at the time of the invasion of Spanish forces under Hernán Cortés.

Archaeological evidence at Tula (ancient Tollan) and other Toltec-influenced sites, such as Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, demonstrates that Toltec religious architecture was essentially similar to that of the Late Postclassic. Basic continuities are manifest, especially in the forms of the temples and other sacred structures such as skull-racks (Nah., tzompantli ) and small platform altars (Nah., momoztli ). Certain specific Toltec traits, exemplified by chacmools, the reclining anthropomorphic images positioned in the vestibules of shrines, and reliefs of files of warriors decorating the faces of stone benches (banquettes) along the walls of rooms in structures adjoining the temples, were closely replicated in Aztec sacred architecture, most notably in the Templo Mayor precinct of the imperial capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlán.

After a series of disasters, the Toltec hegemony collapsed, probably in the late twelfth or during the thirteenth century, and barbarous newcomers, collectively known as the Chichimec, flowed in from the north. In the mid-fourteenth century a powerful new Basin of Mexico city-state, Azcapotzalco, arose. Under a remarkably vigorous ruler, Tezozomoc, the Tepanec, as the people of Azcapotzalco were called, established a central Mexican imperial system on the Toltec model. However, it did not long survive the death of Tezozomoc in 1426, and by 1434 the final pre-Hispanic political order emerged in central Mexico. This was headed by two former tributaries of Azcapotzalco, Mexico-Tenochtitlan and Tezcoco, joined, as a junior partner, by Tlacopan, an erstwhile ally of, and of the same Tepanec affiliation as, Azcapotzalco. This so-called Triple Alliance generated great military power and by the time of the Conquest dominated much of western Mesoamerica. Most of the leading ethnic-linguistic groups within this area had fallen completely or partially under its sway. The Tarascan of Michoacán, however, successfully maintained their independence and ruled a sizable empire of their own in western Mexico. Most of the Huastec-speaking communities, in the northeastern sector of Mesoamerica, also remained beyond Triple Alliance control.

Aztec Religion

The following summary applies primarily to the Nahuatl-speaking communities of the Basin of Mexico and adjoining territory, whose culture is traditionally labeled "Aztec," although fundamentally similar religious systems prevailed over a much more extensive area. Following this overview of the Aztec religious-ritual system, what is known concerning the religions of the major non-Nahuatl-speaking groups will be summarized, emphasizing aspects that appear to have been especially distinctive to each particular group.

Cosmogony and cosmology

Four great cosmic eras, or "suns," were believed to have preceded the present age. The inhabitants of each era were destroyed at that era's endwith the exception of single pairs that survived to perpetuate the speciesby different kinds of cataclysmic destructions: respectively, swarms of ferocious jaguars, hurricanes, rains of fire, and a devastating deluge. The first era was assigned to the earth, the second to the air or wind, the third to fire, and the fourth to water. Different deities presided over each, and each age was also ascribed to one of the four cardinal directions and to its symbolic color. The last era, the Fifth Sun, was to be terminated, with the annihilation of humanity, by shattering earthquakes.

At the commencement of this final period, two major creative deities, Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, dispersed the waters of the great flood and raised the sky, thus creating a new earth. Fire was next produced, followed by a fresh human generation. Quetzalcoatl traveled to the underworld, Mictlan, to obtain from its ruler, Mictlantecuhtli, the bones and ashes of previous human beings. With them the assembled gods created the primeval human pair, for whom they also provided sustenance (above all, maize). A new sun and moon were next created by the cremation in a great hearth at Teotihuacán of two gods, one a diseased but courageous pauper and the other wealthy but cowardly, who were thereby transformed into, respectively, the orbs of day and night. The gods then sacrificed themselves to provide food and drink (hearts and blood) for the rising sun. But the sun's terrible sustenance had to be supplied constantly to satisfy his insatiable appetite and unquenchable thirst. War, for the purpose of obtaining victims for sacrifice, was therefore institutedand this perpetual obligation was laid on humankind.

The earth was conceived by the Aztec in a schematized geographic fashion and mystically and metaphorically as well. In the first conception the earth was visualized as a quadrilateral landmass surrounded by ocean. From its center four quadrants extended out to the varicolored cardinal directions, which, with the center, played a very important cosmological role as a basic principle of organization of numerous supernaturalistic concepts. At each direction stood a sacred tree upon which perched a sacred bird. In the fashion of Atlanteans, four deities supported the lowest heaven at each cardinal point. In the second terrestrial image, the earth was conceived both as a huge crocodilian monster, the cipactli, and as a gigantic, crouching, toadlike creature with snapping "mouths" at its elbows and knees and a gaping, teeth-studded mouth, called Tlaltecuhtli, which devoured the hearts and blood of sacrificed victims and the souls of the dead in general. Both creatures were apparently conceived as floating on the all-encompassing universal sea.

There was also a comparable vertical organization of the universe. The heavens were conceived as a series of superposed varicolored tiers to which various deities and certain natural phenomena were assigned. The commonest scheme featured thirteen celestial layers and nine subterrestrial levels.


A crowded pantheon of individualized, essentially anthropomorphic deities was believed to control the various spheres of the universe. Almost every major natural and human activity was embodied in at least one supernatural personality. This plethora of deities was organized around a few fundamental cult themes. Within each theme can be discerned "deity complexes," clusters of deities expressing various aspects of what amount to subthemes. Three major themes stand out: (1) celestial creativity and divine paternalism; (2) rain-moisture-agricultural fertility; (3) war, sacrifice, and the sanguinary nourishment of the sun and earth. Included within the first theme were such important deities as Ometeotl (Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatl or Tonacatecuhtli/Tonacacihuatl), the androgynous creative deity; Tezcatlipoca, the omnipotent "supreme god"; and Xiuhtecuhtli Huehueteotl, the old god of fire. Prominent within the second theme were Tlaloc, the paramount fertility deity and producer of rain; Ehécatl Quetzalcoatl, the wind god; Centeotl Chicomecoatl, the maize deity (with both male and female aspects); the octli (pulque) deity, Ometochtli, who had many individualized avatars, each with its own name; Teteoinnan Tlazolteotl, the earth mother, with many aspects; and Xipe Totec, the gruesome "flayed god." The third theme featured Tonatiuh, the solar deity; Huitzilopochtli, the special patron of Mexico Tenochtitlán, who had strong martial associations; Mixcoatl Camaxtli, the Chichimec hunting and war god; Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the god of the planet Venus; and Mictlantecuhtli, the death god. Many minor deities presided over various crafts and occupations, the most important of which was Yacatecuhtli, the merchant deity. A major, protean god who defies neat categorization was Quetzalcoatl, whose creative function especially stands out and, as indicated, with whom a semilegendary Toltec ruler was inextricably entwined.


The ritual system was intricate, variegated, and often highly theatrical. Some of the Spanish missionary ethnographers, influenced by Christian ceremonialism, divided the public, calendrically regulated rituals into those that were "fixed" (geared to the xi-huitl, the 365-day vague solar year) and those that were "movable" (geared to the tonalpohualli, the 260-day divinatory cycle). The eighteen "fixed" ceremonies, which were normally celebrated at the end of each "month," or twenty-day period, together constituted the most important series of rituals in the whole system, closely linked to the annual agricultural cycle. Many were primarily concerned with fertility promotion and involved the propitiation of deities that most explicitly expressed this theme. The "movable" tonalpohualli -geared ceremonies were generally more modest in scope, but some were quite impressive, especially that which occurred on the day 4 Ollin dedicated to the Sun, which featured a strict fast and ritual bloodletting by the whole community. The sacrifice of war captives and condemned slaves and ritual cannibalism often, but not invariably, accompanied these major ceremonies. There were numerous other significant ritual occasions: key events in the life cycle of the individual, dedications of new structures and monuments, before and after battles, triumphs, investitures (especially royal coronations), and the like. There was also considerable daily domestic ritualism, centered on the hearth fire and the household oratory. Many ceremonies were also conducted in the fields by the cultivators.

The profession of the full-time, specialized priest, teopixqui ("keeper of the god"), was highly important. Practitioners were numerous and well-organized, with formal, hierarchic ranking. Much sacerdotal duty also devolved on "rotational priests" who served successive shifts for particular periods of time. Priests usually lived together, practicing sexual abstinence, in a monastic establishment (calmecac) in the temple compound. They were obligated to perform a rigorous daily round of offertory, sacrificial, and penitential exercises. Religious activities were focused on the temple (teocalli) and the sacred precinct, usually walled, within which it was situated. These precincts also contained the priestly dormitories and schools, sacred pools for purificatory bathing, skull racks, platform altars, courts for the ritual ball game, giant braziers for perpetual fires, gardens and artificial forests, arsenals, and so on. The typical teocalli consisted of a solid, staged substructure with a balustraded stairway on one side. At the top was the shrine containing the imageof stone, wood, or clayof the deity to whom the temple was dedicated. The space between the door of the shrine and the head of the stairs was the usual position for the sacrificial stone.

As indicated, the calendric cycles were intimately interconnected with the ritual system. The most basic cycle, the tonalpohualli, a permutation cycle of twenty days and thirteen numbers (totaling 260 days), was employed largely for divinatory purposes. Each day, which possessed an inherent favorable or unfavorable augury, was patronized by deities in two series, one of thirteen ("lords of the day") and one of nine ("lords of the night"), plus the thirteen "sacred birds." The days were also grouped into various divisions; the most common arrangement consisted of twenty periods of thirteen-day "weeks," each of which was patronized, as a unit, by a deity or deity pair. These complex batteries of influences, for good or evil, were carefully taken into account by the diviners (tonalpouhque), particularly when "casting the horoscope" of the newborn child on the basis of the day of his or her birth.

No sharp division existed between the religious-ritual system that served the community as a whole and that was administered by the formally organized, professional priesthood and the more private system dominated by procedures usually defined as magical and practiced by "magicians" and diviners or, as anthropologists usually prefer to call them, shamans. Aztec shamanism was richly developed. Often neglected in general treatments of Aztec religion, its importance deserves special emphasis.

The most generic term for shaman was nahualli, also applied to his "disguise," usually a kind of animal familiar into which he could transform himself. The power of the nahualli could be used for beneficial or harmful ends. The malevolent practitioner employed a variety of techniques to inflict harm on his victim, including the application of sympathetic magic to destroy the victim by burning his effigy. One of the most important activities of the benevolent shaman was divination. Aside from calendric divination, mentioned above, various techniques were employed: scattering maize kernels and beans, knotting and unknotting cords, scrying by peering into a liquid or an obsidian mirror, and so on. Divining by ingesting various hallucinogens was also practiced. Divination to ascertain the cause of disease was important in curing, which usually involved magical procedures, although many genuinely efficacious empirical therapeutic techniques were also employed. Both the intrusive-harmful-object and soul-loss concepts of illness were recognized.

Various illusionistic tricks were performed on occasion, such as animating wood images, burning structures without actually damaging them, and the shaman's dismembering himself, also without inflicting real harm. Interpreting omens, auguries, and dreams was another important function of the nanahualtin, who were frequently consulted at times of crisis. A famous example occurred after the arrival of Cortés, when a bewildered Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Moctezuma II), the ruler of Mexico Tenochtitlan, turned to the diviners in desperation in an unsuccessful attempt to understand the implications of the sudden appearance of these strange newcomers on the shore of his empire.

The Spanish missionaries were generally successful in eliminating the established native priesthoods, but the individualistic practitioners of magic managed to carry on their activities with little interference. Their repertoire was actually enriched by their adoption of various congenial European magical practices. In the less-acculturated Mexican Indian communities of today, the basically indigenous shamanistic tradition still thrives.

Tarascan Religion

The Tarascan-speakers, the Purepecha, centered in the modern state of Michoacán in the area around Lake Pátzcuaro, were a numerous and vigorous people who, contemporaneously with the rise of the Triple Alliance empire in central Mexico, built up a smaller but still sizable dominion in western Mexico that effectively blocked Aztec expansion in that direction. Pre-Hispanic western Mexico shared most fundamental Mesoamerican culture patterns but often expressed them in a distinctive fashion. The Tarascan religious-ritual system, which is only incompletely known, was typical in this respect. Compared to that of the Aztec, it appears to have been somewhat less elaborated, with a smaller pantheon and a simpler ceremonialism.

The most important deity seems to have been Curicaueri, the special patron of the Tarascan royal house. Curicaueri was connected with fire, the sun, and warfare, and he was symbolized by the eagle and a flint sacrificial knife. The Tarascan ruler was apparently considered to be his incarnation. Urendecuaucara, the god of the planet Venus, was also of some importance. Other significant members of the pantheon included a deity of pulque, a god related to the Aztec Xipe Totec, and a death god, in addition to numerous lesser deities, among them various local patrons. Two goddesses stand out: Xaratanga, an important fertility deity linked with Curicaueri, and Cuerauaperi, the old earth-mother goddess, seemingly cognate with the Aztec Teteoinnan Tlazolteotl (flaying and skin-wearing rituals were common to both cults).

The Tarascan priesthood was well organized, with a hierarchy of various specialists headed by an influential high priest. Like Aztec priests, the Tarascan priests wore badges of office and carried gourd vessels for tobacco pellets, but unlike Aztec priests they were not celibate. Shamanism was also well developed, and divination by scrying (peering into a liquid surface or a mirror) was of special importance. Tarascan temples (yacatas), consisting of straw-roofed shrines atop massive, partly circular, staged substructures, were sometimes large and elaborate (e.g., the five major temples at Tzintzuntzan, the imperial capital). Sacred images of both wood and stone (and often portable) represented the major deities.

The ceremonial system featured fire rituals. In each temple was a perpetual fire, and even the ruler was obligated to cut and collect wood for these sacred fires. The principal ceremonies, during which the most prominent deities were propitiated, were geared to the standard Mesoamerican annual calendar (18 × 20 + 5 = 365). The basic ritual patterns appear to have been quite similar to those of other Mesoamerican groups, featuring abundant offerings, human and animal sacrifices, and dancing.

OtomÍ Religion

After the dominant Nahuatl-speakers, the Otomí constituted the most important group in central Mexico. Their center of gravity lay northwest of the Basin of Mexico, but they were also numerous, interdigitated with the Nahuatl-speakers, in the Basin itself. While Otomí were much deprecated, and considered backward rustics by Nahuatl-speakers, there actually seems to have been no sharp cultural division between the two groups. Their religious-ritual systems were quite similar, although that of the Otomí did exhibit some distinctive features. They clearly shared most of the leading deities of the pantheons of their Nahuatl-speaking neighbors.

A particularly important Otomí cult revolved around a fire-death god who bore various namesOtontecuhtli ("lord of the Otomí"), Xocotl, and Cuecuexand who was merged with Xiuhtecuhtli Huehueteotl, the standard fire god of the Nahuatl-speakers. He was especially important in the cult of the Tepanec, who from their capital at Azcapotzalco had dominated a large area of central Mexico before the rise of the Triple Alliance. Indeed, Otontecuhtli was considered to have been the divine ancestor of the Tepanec, among whom the Otomian ethnic element was very strong. His particular annual ceremony featured various rituals surrounding the erection of a tall pine pole at the top of which was affixed a special, mortuary version of the god's image formed of amaranth seed dough. Boys scrambled up this pole on ropes, competing to be first in grabbing the image. Both the Otomí- and Nahuatl-speakers called this ceremony the Great Feast of the Dead. It was also designated Xocotlhuetzi ("Xocotl falls") by the Nahuatl-speakers, who had widely adopted it. An integral part of this ceremony was the sacrifice of a victim who was first roasted on glowing coals, then dispatched by the usual heart extraction method.

One source ascribes even greater importance among the Otomí to another deity named Yocippa. He can apparently be identified with Mixcoatl-Camaxtli of the Nahuatl-speakers, who was especially associated with the more nomadic, hunting lifestyle of the Chichimec, with whom some of the less sedentary Otomí were connected. His special annual feast probably can be equated with Quecholli, dedicated by the Aztec to Mixcoatl Camaxtli, which involved camping out in the fields and hunting and sacrificing deer and other game animals Chichimec-style. In the cult of the major Otomí center of Xaltocan in the northern Basin of Mexico, during the fourteenth century a significant imperial capital in its own right before its conquest by Azcapotzalco, a lunar goddess was preeminent. Lunar deities also appear to have been important in the northeast Otomí-speaking region.

The overall Otomí ritual system was essentially similar to that of the Nahuatl-speakers. It also featured human and animal sacrifice, autosacrifice, incensing with copal and rubber, vigils, fasts, dancing, processions, chanting, and so on. Their calendric systems, including both the 260- and 365-day cycles, were also basically the same.

Huastec Religion

The Huastec occupied the northeast corner of Mesoamerica, mainly in northern Veracruz, southern Tamaulipas, and eastern San Luis Potosí. They spoke a language of the Mayan family, although their territory was separated from that of the other Mayan-speakers by a considerable distance. The Huastec were regarded by the Aztec as possessing numerous exotic traits: head deformation, filed teeth, tattooing, exaggerated nasal septum perforation for insertion of ornaments, yellow and red hair dying, no loincloths worn by males, tendency to drunkenness and general lewdness, and a reputation as great sorcerers, especially illusionists. Nahuatl-speakers had encroached on their territory, and some of their southernmost communities had been subjected to Triple Alliance imperial control. Most, however, were still independentand often in conflict with each otherat the time of the Conquest.

Huastec religion is not well documented, but it appears to have been as richly developed as most Mesoamerican systems. The pantheon must be largely reconstructed from Aztec sources that refer to various deities associated with the Huasteca and that were represented wearing Huastec costume and ornamentation. The clearest example is Tlazolteotl Ixcuina, a licentious earth-fertility goddess, who was regularly portrayed with costume elements and insignia of Huastec type. It has been suggested that her alternate name, Ixcuina, may actually be a Huastec word meaning "lady of the cotton," a substance with which Tlazolteotl was intimately associated and that flourished in the hot, humid lowlands of the Huasteca. Flaying rituals were important in her cult, and these also seem to have been an element in the Huastec ceremonial complex (possibly also reflecting the presence of a version of Xipe Totec).

Another important deity with strong Huasteca connections, both iconographically and in tradition, was the wind and fertility deity, Ehécatl Quetzalcoatl. The numerous pulque deities, with the common calendric name Ome Tochtli (2 Rabbit), were more connected in Aztec sources with the area south of the Basin of Mexico, centered on Morelos. But in the Codex Borgia group of ritual-divinatory pictorials, which probably originated in southern Puebla, western Oaxaca, or Veracruz, these deities typically display Huastec insignia. The alcoholic tendency attributed to the Huastec would support this connection. It is further evidenced by the survival in modern Huastec communities of the ancient deity of earth and thunder, Mam, also considered to be the god of drunkenness. Another Aztec deity, Mixcoatl, usually ascribed to the Chichimec, the barbaric hunting peoples of the north, was also frequently depicted with patently Huastec features. Some version of this god, therefore, probably also figured in the Huastec pantheon.

Archaeological remains from the Huasteca, including engraved shell ornaments, stone images and reliefs, and wall paintings, evidence the presence of other deities, including a death god, whose identifications often remain obscure. Archaeological evidence also indicates that Huastec temples were often circular in form, both the staged substructures and the shrines on top of them. These have sometimes been connected with round temples dedicated to Ehécatl Quetzalcoatl, whose Huastec iconographic affiliations I have mentioned above.

The Huastec ritual system is barely known, but human sacrifice and autosacrifice are well attested both ethnohistorically and archaeologically. The modern survival of the Volador, or Flying Pole ceremony, indicates its ancient importance. There is also archaeological evidence for the existence of the 260-day divinatory cycle, while one colonial source lists a few apparent Huastec names for the eighteen twenty-day periods of the 365-day annual cycle. It seems likely, therefore, that, as elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the major Huastec ceremonies were geared to these cycles, but no further data are available.

Totonac Religion

The speakers of Totonac, a language unrelated to Nahuatl but perhaps remotely related to the Mixe-Zoquean and Mayan linguistic families centered farther to the east, occupied the lowland tropical area of central Veracruz, extending into the high mountains edging the Mesa Central to the west. At the time of the Conquest their principal community was Zempoala (Cempoallan) near the coast, the first large Mesoamerican urban center visited by the Europeans, a few days after Cortés's landing farther south near the present city of Veracruz. Zempoala and most of the other Totonac-speaking towns had been conquered by the Triple Alliance some years earlier. Totonac culture patterns were basically Mesoamerican, reflecting strong influence from their Nahuatl-speaking neighbors and conquerors, but the Totonac also exhibited various distinctive features, some of which they shared with their northern Gulf Coast neighbors, the Huastec.

The rather thin amount of knowledge of pre-Hispanic Totonac religion derives from the incompletely known archaeology of the area and, especially, from a lost account, apparently written by the young page reportedly left at Zempoala by Cortés in August 1519 to learn Totonac. Preserved in part in three later missionary chronicles, this source describes a Totonac trinity of deities: the Sun, Chichini; his wife, the great mother-fertility goddess; and their son, who was expected to return at some future time as a kind of redeemer. The goddess might have been a version of Tlazolteotl-Ixcuina, known to have been important in the cults of the Gulf Coast groups, perhaps merged with the maize goddess. The son might be identified with the youthful male maize deity called Centeotl by the Nahuatl-speakers. Some Christian influence here seems obvious, but the basic nature of these deities might have been accurately reported with the possible exception of the redeemer aspect of the son. From archaeological evidence, principally at Zempoala, the cults of other deities are discernible, including those of Ehécatl Quetzalcoatl and Xochipilli Macuilxochitl. The latter, the Aztec young god of flowers, dancing, music, and sensuality in general, also had solar associations and overlapped with Centeotl. Undoubtedly the Totonac pantheon was much more extensive than this, but more specific information is lacking.

The early Spanish account mentioned provides some interesting information on the Totonac priesthood. A hierarchy of six major priests is described whose attire and functions were essentially similar to those of Aztec priests. Lesser religious functionaries assisted them, particularly in tending the sacred fires. The priests also instructed children between the ages of six and nine in the tenets of the religious-ritual system. The importance of two elderly penitent "monks," dedicated to the cult of the "great goddess," is stressed. Consulted regularly by the other priests as oracles, they lived in a retreat on a mountaintop, spending most of their time painting ritual books.

The same source describes various aspects of Totonac ritual, including incensing, fasting, circumcision, human sacrifice, autosacrifice involving the passing of straws through a perforation in the tongue, ritual cannibalism, confession of sins to a priest, and child sacrifice followed by the ingestion, "like the sacrament of communion," of a concoction of rubber and seeds mixed with the young victims' blood. The Totonac calendar appears to have been typically Mesoamerican. Although the key early account speaks of only three major ceremonies annually, all of which featured human sacrifice on a limited scale and ritual cannibalism, there is evidence that the usual round of eighteen principal ceremonies was celebrated at twenty-day intervals. The importance of the Volador ceremony is known from modern survivals. Archaeological evidence, especially at the site of Zempoala, demonstrates that Totonac temples were basically similar to those of the Aztec. The sacred images they contained seem to have usually been carved of wood. No specimens survive.

Mixtec Religion

The speakers of Mixtec, a language remotely related to Otomí and closely allied to Zapotec, occupied an extensive region centered in western Oaxaca. Generally characterized by a very broken topography, the Mixteca featured numerous small city-states, politically autonomous but closely linked by an intricate network of dynastic marital alliances, a basically common language, and a shared religious ideology. Although it has recently been claimed by some scholars that the Mixtec religious-ritual system might have been quite different from that which prevailed in central Mexico, it appears to have been similar in most fundamental features. The influence of the adjacent Nahuatl-speakers to the north was very strong in late pre-Hispanic times, and most of the Mixtec city-states were tributary to the Triple Alliance at the time of the Conquest.

No systematic account of pre-Hispanic Mixtec religion is available, but its basic outlines can be reconstructed from a variety of sources. Among these are an unusual wealth of pictorial histories that include much material relevant to the Mixtec pantheon, ritual system, cosmogony, and cosmology. What is known of Mixtec versions of their beginnings indicates that cosmogonical concepts were intertwined with dynastic origins and ritualized community foundations throughout the four quarters of the Mixteca. A "celestial prologue" to Mixtec royal history involved the creation by a primordial demiurge male-female pair (probably corresponding to the Aztec Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatl) of a culture hero, apparently also conceived in twin form, who iconographically and functionally closely resembles Ehécatl Quetzalcoatl of the Nahuatl-speakers. Descending from the celestial realm, he presided over dynastic and community initiations and consecrations and was apparently considered to have been the divine ancestor of Mixtec royalty. Other dynastic ancestors were believed to have emerged from a cosmic tree near the northern Mixtec community of Yutatnoho/Apohuallan (Apoala).

These semidivine ancestral heroes, as in the Nahuatl-speaking world, interacted closely with various deities, and no sharp line can be drawn between gods and men at this stage. Although it has been suggested that the central Mexican concept of deity, teotl, does not conform to its putative Mixtec equivalent, ñuhu, the two concepts were probably not dissimilar. In any case, the pictorial iconography of Mixtec supernaturalism was quite close to that of central Mexico. Costume elements and insignia of personages often bear striking resemblance to those of recognized Aztec deities. Each major Mixtec community appears to have had a special patron deity or deities, and the names (mostly calendric) of many of these are known. More than in any other Mesoamerican pantheonic system, the Mixtec supernaturals were designated, both in the texts and pictorially, by their calendric names. Only in part do they agree with their central Mexican counterparts. A number of their verbal names are also known, such as Dzahui, name of the basic rain and fertility deity, cognate with the Aztec Tlaloc.

Mixtec ceremonialism was richly developed, particularly that revolving around "sacred bundles." Human sacrifice and autosacrifice were a regular part of propitiatory ritual. Here too the Volador ceremony was important, as was the ceremonial ball game played in formal I-shaped courts. The widespread cult of Xipe Totec, featuring flaying rituals, was well established in the Mixteca, including its attendant ceremony, the "gladiatorial sacrifice," wherein the victim perished in ceremonial combat. As elsewhere, much of the ritual was calendrically regulated. Mixtec temples were often represented in the pictorials and were very similar to those of central Mexico. The holiest shrine of all, the Mixtecaseat of a far-famed oraclewas located on a mountain top near Ñuudeco/Achiotlan in the heart of the Mixteca Altawith a subsidiary shrine in a cave in the valley of Yodzocahi/Yanhuitlan to the north.

The Mixtec priesthood was well organized and influential. Candidates were ordinarily recruited when quite young from the ranks of the nobility and underwent a rigorous training for at least a full year as novices. All future rulers received this same sacerdotal education, also being required to serve their yearlong novitiate. Following their training, most future priests apparently returned to secular life and married until called to their term of office, during which they usually served a particular deity and were required to be strictly celibate. Maintained by the rulers and constantly consulted by them, in control of all "higher education," they exerted great power in their communities. Shamanism was also well developed. Mixtec practitioners of magic and sorcery particularly specialized in calendric divination but also employed many other techniques, sometimes aided by ingestion of hallucinogens.

Zapotec Religion

The Zapotec-speakers occupied an area of considerable ecological diversity in the eastern portion of Oaxaca. Like the Mixtec, who were close cultural and linguistic relatives, the Zapotec were not politically unified. In the Valley of Oaxaca, Zaachila/Teozapotlan dominated a wide area, and its political offshoot, Daniguibedji/Tehuantepec controlled much of the southern Isthmus of Tehuantepec. At the time of the Conquest most of the major Zapotec communities were tributary to the Triple Alliance.

The Zapotec heritage was an ancient one. Most students believe that the great Classic period (c. 100700 ce) civilization of Monte Albán was mainly the creation of Zapotec-speakers. By the time of the Conquest, Zapotec supernaturalism was typically Mesoamerican in its richness and complexity. As in the case of the Mixtec, it has recently been suggested that the Zapotec lacked the concept of individualized anthropomorphic deities. It seems likely, however, that Zapotec religious concepts were not that different from those of other advanced Mesoamerican cultures. A large number of Zapotec names for what the Spaniards, at least, regarded as dioses (Span., "gods") were recorded in various colonial textual sources. Some appear to have been appellations and general designations of godhead rather than proper names in the usual sense.

A typically Mesoamerican abstract, creative godhead was of considerable importance, known by various appellations: Coquixee, or Coquixilla ("lord of the beginning"), Piyetao ("great spirit"), and others, described in 1578 by Fray Juan de Córdova as the "god without end and without beginning, so they called him without knowing whom," and "god of whom they said that he was the creator of all things and was himself uncreated." Overlapping this deity was Pitao Cozaana (procreator) with an apparent female counterpart, Pitao Huichana (procreatrix). This Zapotec creative power was obviously cognate with a similar concept among the Nahuatl-speakers, known, among other titles and appellations, as Tloque Nahuaque ("master of the near and the adjacent"), Ipalnemoani ("he through whom one lives"), and Ometeotl ("dual deity").

The fertility theme, as usual, received special emphasis and was expressed by various supernatural personalities. Standing out was Cocijo ("lightning"), the fundamental male fertility and rain deity, cognate with the Aztec Tlaloc and the Mixtec Dzahui, along with Pitao Cozobi, a deity of maize and foodstuffs in general, cognate with the Aztec Centeotl. Pitao Xicala (Pecala), "god of desire and dreams," would also seem to fit in this category; he has been equated with the Aztec Xochipilli-Macuilxochitl.

Apparently a widely venerated deity, sometimes even stated to have been the principal Zapotec god, was Pitao Pezelao, lord of death and the underworld. This deity was especially connected with the greatest of the Zapotec oracular shrines, Liobaa/Mictlan (Mitla), which provided a ritual focal point for the Zapotec communities in and adjacent to the Valley of Oaxaca. This god was also closely connected with the veneration of royal ancestors, whose tombs were prominently featured at Liobaa. The macabre Aztec "flayed god," Xipe Totec, whose cult was virtually pan-Mesoamerican but was especially connected with the Oaxaca-Guerrero area, clearly played a role of some importance in Zapotec religion, although the local sources provide scant information. Many more names of ostensible Zapotec deities are extant, but their importance and precise functions are obscure. As was common throughout Mesoamerica, each community featured a special supernatural patron or patrons, including, at times, deified ancestors. These were sometimes important, widely venerated deities; in other cases their cults were apparently only local. As in the Mixteca, they were often designated by calendric names.

Zapotec ceremonialism seems to have displayed virtually all known major Mesoamerican ritual patterns, including human sacrifice and its attendant ritual cannibalism. Oracular sanctuaries, often in caves, were important. In addition to that at Liobaa, one famous cave was situated on an island called in colonial times Laguna de San Dionisio, east of Daniguibedji/Tehuantepec, the capital of the Isthmus Zapotec. Here the deity venerated as "the soul and heart of the kingdom" appears to have been an earth god, perhaps known as Pitao Xoo, and related to Tepeyolotl of the Nahuatl-speakers. The professional priesthood played an influential role in Zapotec society; it was headed by a high priest, uijatao ("great seer"), assisted by lesser functionaries: copa pitao ("guardians of the deities"), ueza eche ("sacrificers"), and pizana (or vigaña, "young or student priests"). Shamanistic diviners called colanij were also important, particularly in calendric divination. As elsewhere, much of Zapotec ritual was calendrically regulated, particularly the vital pancommunity fertility-promoting ceremonies geared to the annual agricultural cycle.

Concluding Remarks

This capsule survey of the religious-ritual systems of the major western Mesoamerican groups in the Postclassic period reveals that they all displayed numerous fundamental ideological and ceremonial similarities in spite of expectable regional differences in gods' names and ritual emphasis. The importance throughout western Mesoamerica of the two basic calendric mechanisms, the 260- and 365-day cycles, in ceremonial regulation and in divination, deserves special emphasis as a common ideological structure linking the various subregions. The question arises, therefore, as to whether one is dealing here with a single fundamental religious-ritual system with numerous regional variants or with various essentially independent systems that happened to share, due largely to historical contacts, most basic features. One way of addressing this question is to ask whether Aztec, Tarascan, Otomí, Huastec, Totonac, Mixtec, and Zapotec priests, if brought together (assuming an effective method of linguistic communication) to compare notes could adequately understand each others' cultic systems. The evidence appears to indicate that the similarities would have far outweighed the differences and that they might well have had no difficulty in basic comprehension. If this view is valid, the religions of these groups could be likened to an essentially common language divided into a number of mutually intelligible dialectsall of which would underscore the fundamental cultural unity of the Mesoamerican area co-tradition.

See Also

Aztec Religion; Human Sacrifice, article on Aztec Rites; Toltec Religion.


Alcalá, Jerónimo de. Relación de las ceremonias y rictos y boblación y gobernación de lost Indios de la provincia de Mechuacan, coordinated by Moises Franco Mendoza. Morelia, Mexico, 2000. The best edition of the prime sixteenth-century source on Tarascan history and culture, with essays by leading ethnohistorians and color photoreproductions of all of the illustrations in the manuscript (Escorial, Madrid, c. IV.5). It contains virtually all that is known about pre-Hispanic Tarascan religion.

Alcina Franch, José. "Los dioses del panteón Zapoteco." Anales de antropología 9 (1972): 943. A useful summary and discussion of the principal deities of the Zapotec-speaking peoples of eastern Oaxaca derived from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ethnohistorical sources.

Beyer, Hermann. "Shell Ornament Sets from the Huasteca, Mexico." In Tulane University, Middle American Research Institute, publication no. 5, pp. 155216. New Orleans, 1934. A scholarly study of a series of shell ornaments from the Huasteca that feature what appear to be representations of deities, which are perceptively discussed in relation to their iconography in the ritual-divinatory pictorial manuscripts of central Mexico and in the Codex Borgia group.

Carrasco Pizana, Pedro. Los Otomíes: Cultura e historia prehispánica de los pueblos mesoamericanos de habla otomiana (1950). Reprint, Mexico City, 1979. A thorough, well-documented survey of the late pre-Hispanic and Conquest period culture of the Otomí speakers of central Mexico that includes an excellent section on the religious-ritual system.

Caso, Alfonso. The Aztecs: People of the Sun. Norman, Okla., 1958. A very useful, well-illustrated, popular summary of Aztec religion.

Caso, Alfonso. "Religión o religiones Mesoamericanas?" In Verhandlungen des XXXVIII. Internationalen Amerikanistenkongresses, Stuttgart-München, 12. bis 18. August 1968, vol. 3, pp. 189200. Stuttgart, 1971. After a broad comparative survey of the religious-ritual systems of the major peoples of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, the author concludes that one fundamental religion (rather than various religions) prevailed in this area cotradition.

Dahlgren de Jordán, Barbro. La Mixteca: Su cultura e historia prehispánicas. Mexico City, 1954. The most comprehensive treatment of late pre-Hispanic and Conquest period Mixtec culture, based on ethnohistorical sources, both textual and pictorial. It includes an extensive section on religion.

Jansen, Maarten. Huisi Tacu: Estudio interpretativo de un libro Mixteco antiguo, Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus 1. 2 vols. Amsterdam, 1982. A significant study of Mixtec cosmogony, cosmology, and ritual patterns, focusing on the obverse of one of the most important of the pre-Hispanic Mixtec pictorial screenfold histories. It includes pertinent observations on Mixtec religion in general.

Krickeberg, Walter. Los Totonaca: Contribución a la etnografía histórica de la América Central. Translated from German by Porfirio Aguirre. Mexico City, 1933. A comprehensive account of the culture of the late pre-Hispanic and Conquest period Totonac, derived largely from ethnohistorical sources. A major section of the book is devoted to the religious-ritual system.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Norman, Okla., 1963. A broad survey of Aztec religious ideology, based on relevant primary textual and pictorial sources and stressing the more philosophical aspects.

Marcus, Joyce. "Zapotec Religion." In The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations, edited by Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus, pp. 345351. New York, 1983. A concise summary of Zapotec religion. Marcus suggests that individualized anthropomorphic deities were lacking in the Zapotec pantheon.

Mateos Higuera, Salvador. Enciclopedia gráfica del México antiguo, I: Los dioses supremos; IIIII; Los dioses creadores; IV: Los dioses menores. Mexico City, 19921994. Encyclopedic overview of the religious pantheon of the peoples of Late Postclassic Central Mexico. Profusely illlustrated in color with depictions of deities and ceremonies in the native tradition pre-Hispanic and early colonial periods, plus drawings of stone carvings of prominent gods and goddesses.

Meade, Joaquín. La Huasteca: Época antigua. Mexico City, 1942. The most comprehensive available treatment of the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Huastec. It includes considerable material on the religious aspect.

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London, 1993. Scholarly, well-illustrated catalog of the major deities, rituals, and religious concepts of the Mesoamerican peoples.

Nicholson, H. B. "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, edited by Robert Wauchope, Gordon F. Ekholm, and Ignacio Bernal, pp. 395441. Austin, 1971. A concise overview of the Conquest period Aztec and Otomí religious-ritual systems, based on primary textual and pictorial sources. It includes a proposed typology of the complex Aztec pantheon.

Nicholson, H. B. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The One and Future Lord of the Toltecs. Boulder, Colo., 2001. Detailed summary and analysis of the numerious primary accounts of the rise and fall of the most prominent ruler of legend-thronged Tollan, who was merged with the major wind/creator deity, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl, and was expected to return to reclaim his royal dignity.

Olivier, Guilhem. Moqueries et metamorphoses d'un dieu aztéque: Tezcatlipoca, le "Siegner au miroir fumant." Paris, 1997. Wide-ranging analysis and interpretation of the protean, paramount deity of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Cental Mexico at the time of the Conquest.

Pohl, John. "The Lintel Paintings of Mitla and the Function of the Mitla Palaces." In Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol, edited by Jeff Karl Kowalski, pp. 176197. New York, 1999. Comprehensive interpretationbuilding on the pioneer effort of Eduard Selerof the fragmentary wall paintings, in a variant of the Mixteca-Puebla style, decorating the stone buildings of this paramount Zapotec oracular shrine. Views them as a blend of the cosmographical biography of the dynastically interrelated polities of the "easter Nahua" (Puebla-Tlaxcala, La Mixteca, and Zapotecapan).

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (compiled 15581569; first published 1830). Paleography and English translation by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, "Monographs of the School of American Research," no. 14, parts 113, Santa Fe, N.Mex., 19501982, plus revised editions of parts 2 (1970), 3 (1981), 4 (1978), and 13 1975).

Seler, Eduard. "The Wall Paintings of Mitla." Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 28 (1904): 242324. The first adequate reproduction and interpretation of the wall paintings of the great Zapotec sanctuary in the valley of Oaxaca. It includes the pioneer scholarly account of Zapotec deities and religious conceptions.

Seler, Eduard. Eduard Seler, Collected Works in Mesoamerican Lingusitics and Archaeology. English Translations of German Papers from Gessamelte Abhandlunger zur Amerikanischen Sprach und Alterthumskunde, translated by Theodore Gutman; edited by Frank Comparato. Culver City and Lancaster, Calif., 19001998. Vol. IV, pp. 366.

Spores, Ronald. "Mixtec Religion." In The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations, edited by Kent V. Flannery and Joyce Marcus, pp. 342345. New York, 1983. A concise summary of Conquest period Mixtec religion by a leading Mesoamerican ethnohistorian-archaeologist specializing in this area.

Stresser-Péan, Guy. "Ancient Sources on the Huasteca." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 11, edited by Robert Wauchope, Gordon F. Ekholm, and Ignacio Bernal, pp. 582602. Austin, 1971. A well-documented account of what is known concerning Conquest period Huastec culture, including a brief but informative treatment of the religious-ritual system.

H. B. Nicholson (1987 and 2005)

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