Mesoamerican Religions: Pre-Columbian Religions

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Through several millennia and up to the present, complex forms of indigenous belief and ritual have developed in Mesoamerica, the area between North America proper and the southern portion of isthmic Central America. The term Mesoamerica, whose connotation is at once geographical and cultural, is used to designate the area where these distinctive forms of high culture existed. There, through a long process of cultural transformation, periods of rise, fall, and recovery occurred. On the eve of the Spanish invasion (1519), Mesoamerica embraced what are now the central and southern parts of Mexico, as well as the nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and some portions of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

Distinctive forms of social organization began to develop in this area from, at the latest, the end of the second millennium bce. Parallel to these social and economic structures, various forms of religion also flourished. Most contemporary researchers agree that Mesoamerican religion, and the Mesoamerican high cultures in general, developed without any significant influence from the civilizations of Asia, Europe, and Africa. But whereas it is generally accepted that the various forms of high culture that appeared in Mesoamerica shared the same indigenous origin, a divergence of opinions exists regarding the question of how the various religious manifestations are ultimately interrelated.

According to some scholars (e.g., Bernal, 1969; Caso, 1971; Joralemon, 1971, 1976; Léon-Portilla, 1968; Nicholson, 1972, 1976), there was only one religious substratum, which came to realize itself in what are the distinct varieties of beliefs and cults of peoples such as the Maya, the builders of Teotihuacan, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Toltec, the Aztec, and others. A different opinion (maintained by, among others, George Kubler [1967, 1970]) postulates the existence of various religious traditions in ancient Mesoamerica. Those adhering to this view nonetheless admit to reciprocal forms of influence and even to various kinds of indigenous religious syncretism.

This essay on pre-Columbian religions postulates the existence of what is essentially a single religious tradition in Mesoamerica, without, however, minimizing the regional differences or any changes that have altered the continuity of various elements of what can be labeled "Mesoamerican religion" (Carrasco, 1990).

The assertion about the existence of a single religious tradition rests on various kinds of evidence:

  1. All over Mesoamerica there were identical calendrical systems which guided the functioning of religious rituals in function of which religious rituals were performed.
  2. The Mesoamerican pantheon included a number of deities that were universally worshiped, including the supreme Dual God, Our Father our Mother; an Old God known also as God of Fire; a Rain god; a Young God of Maize; Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan, god and priest; a Monster of the Earth; and others. The gods also had calendrical names.
  3. Rituals performed included various kinds of offerings such as animals, flowers, food and human sacrifices.
  4. Self-sacrifice also played an important role.
  5. There was a complex priestly hierarchy.
  6. The temples were built in a basically similar architectural pattern, truncated pyramids with sanctuaries on top.
  7. Recorded texts show the existence of a similar worldview, which included the sequence of several cosmic ages and spatial symbols such as cosmic trees, birds, colors, and deities.

Earliest Religious Manifestations

Because of lack of evidence, scholarship does not extend back to the religious concerns of the earliest inhabitants of Mesoamerica (c. 25,000 bce). Nevertheless, some archaeological findings show that the early hunter-gatherers had at least some metaphysical or religious preoccupations. Reference can be made to their rock art: paintings and petroglyphs, some of which date to about 10,000 bce, several of which suggest religious or magical forms of propitiation through hunting, fishing, and gathering.

Objects that are more obviously religious in function date only from 2500 to 1500 bce, when the earliest village-type settlements appeared in Mesoamerica. By that time, after a slow process of plant domestication that probably began around 6000 bce, new forms of society began to develop. It had taken several millennia for the hunter-gatherers to become settled in the first small Mesoamerican villages. In the evolution of Mesoamerican culture, what has come to be known as the Early Formative period had commenced.

Those living during this period employed an ensemble of objects indicative of their beliefs about the afterlife, and of their need to make offerings to their deities. At different sites throughout Mesoamerica (especially in the Central Highlands, the Oaxaca area, and the Yucatán Peninsula), many female clay figurines have been found in what were the agricultural fields. Scholars hypothesize that these figurines were placed in the fields to propitiate the gods and ensure the fertility of crops. Burials in places close to the villages (as in Asia, Africa, and Europe) also appear, with a large proportion of the human remains belonging to children or young people. These burial places are accompanied by offerings such as vestiges of food and pieces of ceramics.

Olmec High Culture

Villages of agriculturists and potters, who evidently were already concerned with the afterlife and with "sacred" fertility, became gradually more numerous in Mesoamerica, with the villages established in hospitable environments experiencing significant population growth. Among these, the communities in the area near the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of the Mexican state of Veracruz and neighboring Tabasco underwent extraordinary changes around 1200 bce. Archaeological findings in the centers now called Tres Zapotes, La Venta, and San Lorenzo reveal that a high culture was already developing and, with it, a strong religious tradition.

Olman (land of rubber), the abode of the Olmec, with its large buildings mainly serving religious purposes, stands out as the first high culture in Mesoamerica. The center of La Venta, with its mud-plastered pyramids, its semicylindrical and circular mounds, carved stone altars, tombs, stelae, and many sculptures, anticipates the more complex ensembles of religious structures that proliferated centuries later in Mesoamerica. The central part of La Venta, built on a small island in a swampy area sixteen kilometers from the point where the Tonala River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, was no doubt sacred space to the Olmec. The agriculturist villagers who had settled in the vicinity of La Venta were already developing new economic, social, political, and religious institutions. Although many villagers continued their subsistence activitiesespecially agriculture and fishingothers specialized in various crafts and arts, commercial endeavors, the defense of the group, andof particular significance-the cult of the gods. Government at this point was most likely left to those who knew how to worship the gods.

Olmec religious iconography

Olmec religious representations have been described as "biologically impossible" (Joralemon, 1976, p. 33). Human and animal features are combined in these representations in a great variety of forms. Early researchers pointed out the omnipresence of a jaguarlike god, who seemingly had the highest rank in the Olmec pantheon. One early hypothesis stated that the main traits of what later became the prominent Mesoamerican rain god derived from these jaguarlike representations.

A more ample and precise approach to Olmec iconography has led Peter D. Joralemon (1971, 1976) and Michael D. Coe (1972, 1973) to express the opinion that the variety of presentations of the jaguarlike god portray distinct, though closely associated, divine beings. A number of divine identities integrate various animal and human attributes. The animal features most frequently used in combination with the basically human-shaped face are a jaguar's nose, spots, and mighty forearms, as well as a bird's wings, a serpent's body, and a caiman's teeth. Thus, one finds beings that might be described as a human-jaguar, a jaguar-bird, a bird-jaguar-caiman, a bird-jaguar-serpent, a jaguar-caiman-fish, a human-bird-serpent, a bird-caiman-serpent, and a bird-mammal-caiman (Joralemon, 1976, pp. 3337).

Iconographic comparisons between representations of these kinds and other religious Mesoamerican effigies from the Classic (c. 250900 ce) and the Postclassic periods (c. 9001519 ce) reveal that the nucleus of the Mesoamerican pantheon was already developing in the Olmec epoch. One god is sometimes represented as a kind of dragon, frequently featuring a jaguar's face, a pug nose, a caiman's teeth, and a snarling, open, cavernous mouth with fangs projecting from the upper jaw, a flaming eyebrow, various serpentine attributes, and at times a hand/paw/wing linked to the occipital region. Other, more abstract, motifs include crossed-band designs in the eyes, crossed bands and a dotted bracket, four dots and a bar, and the symbols for raindrops and maize.

This god, probably the supreme Olmec deity, was worshiped in his many guises, as the power related to fertility, rain, lightning, earth, fire, and water. In him, various forms of dualityan essential feature in the Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerican universe in both its divine and human aspectscan be anticipated. Prototypes of other gods that were later worshiped among the Maya, as well as the peoples of the central highlands and those of Oaxaca, can also be identified in the Olmec pantheon. Among these are the Maize God, the One Who Rules in the Heavens, the Old Lord (protector of the sacred domestic hearth), and the Serpent, who has birdlike attributes and is a prototype of the Feathered Serpent.

Other researchers have recognized that, in additon to emphasizing the appearance of the omnipresent Olmec god as a kind of a dragon with a jaguar's face, it must also be identified by its equally visible serpentine traits. Román Piña Chan summarizes such an interpretation:

We can say that during the period of maximum Olmec development they gave birth to new religious concepts: [] rattle snake representations, or bird-serpents, that began to symbolize the god of rain or celestial water. (Piña Chan, 1982, p. 194)

Chan and others have recognized that the god with serpentine traits is the antecedent of Tlaloc, the rain god of the central plateau, known also as Chac among the Maya, and as Cocijo among the Zapotec of Oaxaca. It can be asserted that iconographic studies support this view.

The Olmec thought of their gods as endowed with interchangeable traits and attributes. Thus, a kind of continuum existed in the sphere of the divine, as if the ensemble of all the godlike forms was essentially a mere manifestation of the same supreme reality. This distinctive character of the divinerepresented through ensembles of symbols, often shifting from one godlike countenance to anotherperdured, as will be seen, in the religious tradition of Mesoamerica. That continuity, subject to variations of time and space, did, however, undergo innovations and other kinds of change. One important change derived from the relationship that was to develop between the perception of the universe of the divine and the art and science of measuring periods of time (i.e., the development of calendrical computations).

Origins of the calendar

The earliest evidence of calendrical computationsinscriptions discovered in places influenced by Olmec culturealso conveys other related information. Of prime importance is the indication that the political and social order was not only closely linked to the universe of the divine, but was also conceived in terms of the measurement of timeall of whose moments are bearers of destiny. In the Stelae of the Dancers (a stele [pl. stelae] is an engraved upright stone slab), at Monte Albán I (epoch I) in Oaxaca (c. 600 bce), where Olmec influence is present, the human figures, described "as an expression of political and ritual power" (Marcus, 1976, p. 127), are accompanied by hieroglyphs denoting names of persons (probably both human and divine), place names, and dates.

The calendar was doubtless the result of assiduous astronomical observation. Its early diffusion throughout various parts of Mesoamerica implies an old origin (probably 1000900 bce) for this calendar that later came to determine all divine and human activities. Humans are represented in several Olmec monuments, such as the Basalt Altar 4 in La Venta, as emerging from the mouth or cave of the supreme "dragon" deity, signifying humankind's birth into a universe where time moves in sacred rhythms. The recurring Olmec symbolsquadruple and quintuple patternings (indicative of the four corners and the center of the earth), stylized maize plants, and other motifsseem to reveal that a prototype of what became the classic Mesoamerican image of sacred space had been developed as far back as Olmec times.

Maya Religion

Olmec civilization acted as a ferment of many cultural transformations. Archaeological research has identified the traces of its ample diffusion. In addition to the numerous sites excavated in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz-Tabasco, many villages of the Early Formative type in the Central Plateauin the western region along the Pacific coast in Oaxacaand in the land of the Maya, show evidence of having undergone processes of rapid change. (The Maya territories include the Yucatán Peninsula and parts of the present-day Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.)

Antecedents of cultural grandeur

Some notable findings have highlighted the processes that culminated in the grandeur of Maya high culture. These findings reveal that a preoccupation with the sacred cycles of time resulted in extraordinary achievements as early as several decades bce. One of the findings is Stele 2 of Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico, where a date corresponding to December 9, 36 bce is expressed in what modern researchers describe as the calendar's Long Count (see below). Two other inscriptions, registered in the same Long Count, have been found in places closer to the ancient Olmec heartland, one on Stele C at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz (31 bce), and the other on the Tuxtla (Veracruz) Statuette (162 ce). The deeply rooted Mesoamerican tradition of measuring the flow of time, a tradition whose oldest vestiges appear in Monte Albán I, Oaxaca (c. 600 bce), became more sophisticated around 200 to 100 bce with the complexities and extreme precision of the Long Count. To understand its functioning and multiple religious connotations, one needs to be familiar with two basic systemsthe 365-day solar calendar and the 260-day countdescribed later in this article.

Other vestiges that have been unearthed point to cultural changes that were taking place during this period, called the Late Formative. In the Pacific plains of the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas and in adjacent parts of Guatemala, several centers boasted impressive religious buildings, temples, altars, stelae with bas-reliefs, and a few calendrical inscriptions. Archaeologists rightly consider these centers to be the immediate antecedents of Maya culture. The centers of Izapa, Abaj Takalik, and El Baúl contain monuments that are outstanding. Stele 2 at Abaj Takalik contains a carved image of a celestial god and an inscription of a date, which, though partly illegible, is expressed in the system of the Long Count. In El Baúl, other calendrical instriptions correspond to the year 36 ce. Maya cultureone of the variants of Mesoamerican civilizationwas about to be born.

Stele 5 of Izapa in Chiapas is particularly remarkable; in it a vertical image of the world is represented. One sees in it the cosmic tree of the center, and at its sides, the figures of Our Father and Our Mother, as they appear on pages 75 to 76 of the Maya Codex Tro-Cortesiano. In the stele, two feathered serpents surround the scene, which at its bottom shows the terrestrial waters and at its top the celestial ones. This stele, as well as others from the same center and from nearby sites, provides a glimpse at the beginnings of what was to become the vision of the world and of the supreme deity in Maya culture.

Chronology and sources

A Classic period (c. 250900 ce) and a Postclassic period (c. 9001519 ce) have been distinguished in the cultural development of the Maya. The most magnificent of their religious and urban centers flourished during the Classic period: Tikal, Uaxactún, and Piedras Negras in Guatemala; Copán and Quiriquá in Honduras; Nakum in Belize; Yaxchilán, Palenque, and Bonampak' in what is now the Mexican state of Chiapas; and Dzibililchaltún, Cobá, Kabáh, Labná, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Río Bec, and others in the Yucatán Peninsula. At these sites, sophisticated forms of spiritual development emerged. Even Diego de Landa, the Spanish friar who in the sixteenth century set fire to many of the written records of the Maya, could not refrain from remarking on "the number, the grandeur, and the beauty of their buildings" (Landa, trans. Tozzer, 1941, p. 170), especially those devoted to the cult of their gods. Besides Maya architecturewhich included among its techniques the corbel vaultalso deserving of special mention is their sculpture, mural painting, and bas-relief carving on stone stelae, stairways, lintels, panels, and plaques of jade. On them, thousands of hieroglyphic inscriptions have been found, some related to the universe of the gods and others having more mundane historical content. These inscriptions at times accompany carved images of gods as well as of rulers and other dignitaries.

To compensate for the obscurities that still surround the spiritual achievements of the Classic period, one has to look for whatever is indicative of a cultural continuity in the Postclassic. From the latter period, three pre-Columbian booksor codicessurvive; and, even more significantly, a considerable number of indigenous testimonies, in Yucatec-Maya, Quiché-Maya, and other linguistic variants, have come down to us in early transcriptions done by Maya priests or sages who survived the Spanish conquest and learned to use the Roman alphabet. Among these testimonies, the Popol Vuh (The Book of counsel) of the Quiché-Maya, the several Chilam Balam books of the Yucatec-Maya, and the Book of Songs of Dzitbalche (from the Yucatán) stand out as conveyers of the religious wisdom of this remarkable people.

The Maya image of the world

To approach the core of the religious worldview of the Classic Maya, one has to analyze an ensemble of elementssome with antecedents in the Olmec culture, yet enriched and often transformed. The most significant of these elements include the Mayan image of the earth and universe, their calendrical concerns and ideas about time, and the ultimate meaning of the divine and of humans within their spatial and temporal universe.

In several Classic monuments, as well as in Postclassic books and other representations, the surface of the earth is conceived as being the back of a huge caiman with saurian, ophidian, and feline attributes that sometimes resemble those of the so-called Olmec Dragon. The monstrous creature is surrounded by vast waters. In Palenque, in the Tablet of the Cross and the Tablet of the Foliated Cross, cosmic trees rise from the earth monster. In some representations, one sees a double-headed serpent in the sky. The creature also appears with other attributes of the Olmec Dragon, such as crossed bands and various celestial symbols. The double-headed serpent covers and embraces the earth. It was this celestial serpent that, dividing the terrestrial monster into two parts, activated this universe and introduced life on earth. Thus, a primeval duality presides over and gives rise to the universe.

The surface of the earth, as in the case of the Olmec prototype, is distributed into four quadrants that converge at a central point: the navel of the world. One finds in Classic inscriptions and Postclassic codices hieroglyphs for each of the world quadrants and their associated colors. Cosmic trees and deities reside in the "red east," "white north," "black west," "yellow south," and "green central point." Above and below the surface of the earth are thirteen heavens and nine underworld levels, where thirteen celestial gods and nine "lords of the night" have their respective abodes.

Maya deities

The comparative study of religious iconography, the contents of the three extant Pre-Columbian Maya codices, and the relatively numerous texts of diverse origin within this culture allow us to surmise that the idea of a divine duality was deeply rooted in Mesoamerican thought since at least the Classic period, if not since the Olmec. The Dual God resides in the uppermost of the celestial levels. In the Popol Vuh of the Quiché-Maya, he-she is addressed both as E Quahalom (Begetter of Children) and as E Alom (Conceiver of Children). In the first of the Songs of Dzitbalche appears the following reference to the father-mother god:

The little yellowbird, and also the cuckoo, and there is the mockingbird, they all delight the heart, the creatures of the Father, god, so likewise the Mother, such as the little turtle dove (Edmonson, 1982, p. 176)

Our Father Our Mother has other names as well. There is evidence to identify him-her with the Postclassic Itzamná (Lizard House), the name probably referring to the primeval celestial and terrestrial being of monstrous countenance, whose house is the universe. This supreme creator-god is invoked at times with the feminine prefix Ix-, as in Ix Hun Itzam Na. To him-herthat is, to the "begetter-conceiver of children"the Maya ultimately attributed the creation of the earth, heavens, sun, moon, plants, animals, and, of course, humans. As in the case of the Olmec nuclear deity, traits of caiman, bird, serpent, and jaguar can be perceived at times in the god's iconography.

The quadruple patterning expressed in certain Olmec monuments proliferated in Maya religious representations. The divine duality, "begetting and conceiving" children, develops a quadruple beingthe various ensembles of gods that have to do with the four quadrants of the universe. The Red Itzamná appears in the East, the White in the North, the Black in the West, and the Yellow in the South. Other quadruple sets are the four Bacabs, supporters of the sky at the four corners of the world; the four Chacs, gods of rain; the four Pahuatuns, deities of wind; the four Chicchans (Owners of Thunder), godlike giant snakes; and the four Balams (Tigers), protectors of the cultivated fields.

Divine reality also permeates the upperworld and underworld levels. Itzamná is at once a celestial, a terrestrial, and an underworld god. The Oxlahum-ti-ku (thirteen gods) rule in the thirteen heavens, and the Bolom-ti-ku (nine gods) preside over the nine inferior levels.

Prominent in the Maya pantheon is Kin, the sun god, who, wandering above, creates the day and the cycles of time. When he reaches his home in the West, he enters the fangs of the earth monster and journeys through the obscure regions of the underworld to reappear in the East, from the same monster's fangs. Although the sun god himself cannot be considered the supreme deity of the Maya, his frequent association with the worlds above and below, with the four quadrants of the world, and with all the calendar's periods makes him a multifaceted god with innumerable religious connotations. He is often related to Itzamná as a celestial deity, and also to Yum Kimil (Lord of Death) who abides in the netherworld, the region visited at night by the sun god disguised as a jaguar. The abode of Yum Kimil is also the place to which most of the dead go. Only a few deadchosen by the Chacs, the gods of rainattain a sort of paradise, a place of pleasure situated in one of the heavens. It is not clear whether those who go to the abode of the lord of death are to remain there forever, are eventually reduced to nothing, or if, after a period of purification, they are transferred to the celestial paradise.

Other gods worshiped by the Maya include the moon goddess Ixchel (another title of the mother goddess, often described as wife of the sun god). The "great star" (Venus), whose heliacal risings and conjunctions were of great interest to Maya skywatchers, received at times the calendrical name 1 Ahau (1 Lord), but it was also associated with five other celestial gods, whose identification implies the assimilation of cultural elements in the Postclassic from the Central Plateau of Mexico. There also appear to have been patron gods of specific occupational groups, such as merchants, hunters, fishermen, cacao growers, medicine men, ball players, poets, and musicians.

With regard to the "feathered serpent god," a distinction has to be made. On the one hand, serpent representationsin association with bird's elements such as plumage, or with traits belonging to other animals such as the caiman or jaguarhad been extremely frequent since the early Classic period. As previously mentioned, these complex figuressometimes described as celestial dragons, earth monsters, cosmic lizards, and so forthare representations of gods like the Chicchan serpents, deities of rain, or of the multifaceted Itzamná. On the other hand, the idea of a particular god and culture hero, Kukulcan, corresponding to central Mexico's Quetzalcoatl (Quetzal-Feathered Serpent), was borrowed from that subarea in the Postclassic.

Priests and forms of worship

The existence of a priesthood, and of the many sacred sites and monuments reserved for the various kinds of cult, imposed a canon to be observed in the communication with the universe of the divine. The chiefs, halach uinicoob (true men), could perform some religious ceremonies; but for the most part, the cult of the gods was the duty of the priests. Above them was a class of high priests, who in Postclassic texts were named "rattlesnake-tobacco lords" and "rattlesnake-deer lords." These priests were in custody of the ancient religious wisdom, the books and the calendrical computations. They were considered prophets and acted in the most important ceremonies. Of a lower rank were the ah kinoob, the priests whose title can be translated as "those of the sun." Their duty was to interpret the calendrical signs, to direct the feast-day celebrations, and to "read" the destinies of humans. To some of the ah kinoob fell the performance of offerings and sacrifices, including human sacrifices.

Bearers of the rain god's name were the chac priests, assistants in the sacrifices and other ceremonies. The lowest rank was occupied by the ah men (performers, prayer makers), who were concerned mostly with the local forms of cult. Women who lived close to the sacred buildings assisted the priests in their duties.

Obviously, great differences existed between the ceremonies performed in the important religious centers and those that took place at a more modest level in a village or at home. Most ceremonies were preceded by different forms of fasting and continence. Thus, the gods would be appeased by their acceptance of what people were expected to offer as payment for what they had received from the gods. A recurrent beliefnot only among the Maya but also in other Mesoamerican subareaswas that, in a primeval time, "when there was still night," the gods entered into an agreement with humans: humans could not subsist without the constant support of the gods; but the gods themselves needed to be worshiped and to receive offerings.

The Maya practiced autosacrifice in various forms, as can be observed in multiple representations of both Classic and Postclassic monuments. Most often, blood was offered by passing a cord or a blade of grass through the tongue, the penis, or some other part of the body. Offerings of animals (quail, parrots, iguanas, opossums, turtles) and of all sorts of plants or plant and animal products (copal, flowers, cacao, rubber, honey) were also frequent.

Human sacrifice was performed following various rituals. The most frequent form required opening the breast of the victim to offer his or her heart to the god. Other kinds of human sacrifice included shooting arrows at a victim tied to a frame of wood, beheading, and throwing the victimusually a young girl or childinto a cenote (Maya, dz'onot, a natural deposit of water in places where the limestone surface has caved in) or into a lake, as in certain sites in Guatemala. Human sacrificesnever so numerous among the Maya as they became among the Aztecwere performed during the sacred feasts to repay the gods with the most precious offering: the life-giving blood.

A considerable number of prayers in the Maya languages have been preserved. Among them one can distinguish sacred hymns (hymns of intercession, praise, or thanks) from those accompanying a sacrifice and from those to be chanted in a domestic ceremony.

Religion and the calendar

The calendar provided the Maya with a frame of mathematical precision, a basis for understanding and predicting events in the universe. Thus, all the sacred duties of the prieststhe ceremonies, sacrifices, and invocationswere not performed at random but followed established cycles. Observation of the celestial bodies and of whatever is born and grows on the earth demonstrated that beings undergo cyclical changes. The Maya believed that if humans succeeded in discovering and measuring the cyclical rhythms of the universe, they would adapt themselves to favorable situations and escape adverse ones. The belief that the gods and their sacred forces are essentially related to the cyclical appearances and intervals of the celestial bodieswhich are their manifestationsled the sages to conclude that the realm of the divine was ruled by a complex variety of cycles.

The Maya saw the manifestations or arrivals of the gods in these cycles; all the deities were thought of as being endowed with calendrical presences, and so the gods were given their respective calendrical names. As for humans, the divine presences along the counts of time could not be meaningless: they brought fate, favorable or adverse, and all dates had therefore to be scrutinized to discover the destinies they carried. This probably explains why calendrical and religious concerns became so inseparable for the Maya.

The calendar systems they employed were not a Maya invention (although they added new forms of precision to these systems). Two forms of count were at the base of the complexities of all Mesoamerican calendars. One count is that of the solar year, computed for practical purposes as having 365 days and subject to various forms of adjustment or correction. The other count, specifically Mesoamerican, is the cycle of 260 days. In it a sequence of numbers from 1 to 13 is employed. A series of 20 day names, each expressed by its respective hieroglyph, is the other essential element of the calendar.

The solar-year count and the 260-day count meshed to make it possible to give a date not only within a year, but also within a 52-year cycle, as well as in the so-called Long Count. To represent the calendar's internal structures and forms of correlation is to represent the precise mechanism that provided the norm for the order of feasts, rites, and sacrifices; astrological wisdom; economic, agricultural, and commercial enterprises; and social and political obligations. This mechanism was also the key to understanding a universe in which divine forcesthe gods themselves and the destinies they wroughtbecame manifest cycle after cycle.

The 260-day count places the numbers 1 to 13 on a series of 20 day names, whose meanings in the Maya languages are related to various deities and other sacred realities. The 20 days have the following names and associations: Imix (the earth monster); Ik ("Wind" or "Life," associated with the rain god); Akbal ("Darkness," associated with the jaguar-faced nocturnal sun god); Kan ("Ripeness," the sign of the god of young maize); Chicchan (the celestial serpent); Cimi ("Death," associated with the god of the underworld); Manik ("Hand," the day name of the god of hunting); Lamat (day name of the lord of the "great star," Venus); Muluc (symbolized by jade and water, evokes the Chacs, gods of rain); Oc (represented by a dog's head, which guides the sun through the underworld); Chuen (the monkey god, the patron of knowledge and the arts); Eb (represented by a face with a prominent jaw; related to the god who sends drizzles and mists); Ben ("Descending," the day name of the god who fosters the growth of the maize stalk); Ix (a variant of the jaguarlike sun god); Men (associated with the aged moon goddess); Cib (related to the four Bacabs, supporters of the sky); Caban ("Earthquake," associated with the god/goddess of the earth); Etz'nab ("Obsidian Blade," linked to human sacrifice); Cauac (day name of the celestial dragon deities); and Ahau ("Lord," the radiant presence of the sun god).

During the first 13-day "week" of the 260-day cycle, the numbers 1 through 13 are prefixed to the first 13 day names. At this point, the series of numbers begins again at 1, so that, for example, Ik, whose number is 2 during the first week, has the number 9 prefixed to it during the second week, 3 during the third week, and so on. The cycle begins to repeat itself after 260 (20 × 13) days. In this 260-day count, one also distinguishes 4 groups of 65 days, each of which is broken into 5 "weeks" of 13 days (each presided over by a particular god).

The solar count of the haab, or year, is divided into 18 groupsuinals, or "months"of 20 days each (18 × 20 = 360), to which 5 uayebs (ominous days) are added at the end of the cycle. These 18 "months" of 20 days and the 5 final days are the span of time along which the 260-day count develops. The intermeshing of the two counts implies that in each solar year there will be a repetition in the 260-day combination of numbers and day names in 105 instances (365 260 = 105). As the number and the day name together form the basic element to express a date, the way to distinguish between such repetitions is by specifying the position of the days in the different 18 months of 20 days of the solar count.

Thus, if the day 13 Ahau (13 Lord) is repeated within a 365-day solar count, one can distinguish two different dates by noting the day to which it corresponds in the series of the 18 months. For example, 13 Ahau, 18 Tzec (the day 13 Ahau is related to the 18th day of the month of Tzec ) is different from 13 Ahau, 18 Cumhu (the day 13 Ahau is related to the 18th day of the month of Cumhu ).

The number of possible different interlockings of the two counts comprises 18,980 expressions of the day name, number, and position within the month. Such a number of differently named days integrates a Calendar Round, a cycle of 52 years. Each of these 18,890 calendric combinations was designated as the bearer of a distinct divine presence and destiny, obviously not of that many different gods, but of a complex diversification of their influencesfavorable or adversesuccessively oriented towards one of the four quadrants of the world.

The Long Count System

But the Maya, like some of their predecessors who were exposed to Olmec influence, could also compute any date in terms of the Long Count, in which a fixed date, corresponding to a day in the year 3133 bce (probably representing the beginning of the present cosmic age), was taken as the point of departure. The end of the Long Count's cycle will occur on a date equivalent to December 24, 2011. The Long Count was conceived to express dates in terms of elapsed time, or kin (a word that has cognates throughout the Maya family of languages and that means "sun, sun god, day, time, cosmic age"). Periods within the Long Count were reckoned in accordance with Mesoamerican counting systems, which employed base 20. These periods, each of which had its presiding deity, were registered in columns of hieroglyphs, beginning with the largest cycle, as follows:

Baktun (7,200 days × 20 = 144,000 days) Katun (360 days × 20 = 7,200 days) Tun (20 days × 18 = 360 days) Uinal (20 days) Kin (1 day)

By means of their dot, bar, and shellnumerical signs for 1, 5, and 0, respectivelythe Maya indicated how many baktuns, katuns, tuns, uinals, and kins had, at a given moment, elapsed since the beginning of the present cosmic age. The date was finally correlated with the meshed system of the 365-day solar calendar and the 260-day count, which thus became adjusted to the astronomical year.

Besides these precise forms of calendar, the Maya developed other systems devised to measure different celestial cycles, such as those of the "great star" and of the moon. The inscriptions on Maya stelae allow us to understand some of the main reasons for their astronomical and calendrical endeavors. To the Maya, dates conveyed not only the presence of one god on any given day, but also the sum total of the divine forces "becoming" and acting in the universe. The deities of the numbers, of the day names, of the periods within the 260-day count, of the uinal s (or months of the year), and of the divisions within a 52-year cycleas well as of the many other cycles within the Long Count systemconverged at any given moment and exerted their influences, intrinsically coloring and affecting human and earthly realities.

Through color symbolism and indications like those of the "directional hieroglyphs of the years," one can identify the cosmic regions (quadrants of horizontal space and also celestial and inferior levels) to which specific cycles and gods address their influence. For the Maya, space separated from the cycles of time would have been meaningless. When the cycles are finally completed, the consequence will be the end of life on earth, the death of the sun, the absence of the gods, and an ominous return to primeval darkness.

The priests known as ah kinoob (those of the sun and of the destinies) whose duty was to recognize and anticipate the divine presences, as well as their beneficial or dangerous influences, were consulted by rich and poor alike. Thanks to special rites and sacrifices, favorable destinies could be discovered that would neutralize the influence of adverse fates. In this way one escaped fatalism, and a door was opened to reflection and righteous behavior. The wisdom of the calendar was indeed the key to penetrating the mysterious rhythms of what exists and becomes. This probably explains why the priests were also interested in the computation of dates in the distant past. On Stele F of Quirigua is inscribed a date, 1 Ahau, 18 Yaxkin, that corresponds to a day 91,683,930 years in the past!

In the Postclassic period, the Long Count fell into oblivion and the simplified system of the Count of the Katuns (13 periods of 20 years) was introduced. The destinies of the katuns remained an object of concern and a source of prophetic announcements. In spite of the Spanish Conquest, the burning of the ancient books, and the efforts of Christian missionaries, elements of the ancient worldview and religion have survived among the contemporary Maya, as has been documented by the ethnographer Alfonso Villa Rojas (León-Portilla, 1973, pp. 113159).

Epigraphy and religion

For a long time, the reading of the Maya inscriptions in monuments, codices, and other objects was limited (for the most part) to the calendar's registrations and the names of some gods and feasts. In the 1950s the Russian Yuri Knorosov made a basic contribution that opened the entrance into the realm of Maya inscriptions. In opposition to the opinion of well-known scholars such as Günter Zimermann and J. Eric S. Thompson, who insisted upon the ideographic nature of Maya writing, Knorosov asserted its basically phonetic character.

Knorosov's Rosetta Stone was found in Friar Diego de Landa's Relación de Yucatán, where a supposed Maya alphabet was included. Knorosov carefully analyzed de Landa's work and reached the conclusion that, far from dealing with an alphabet, he was confronted with a syllabary. Further research led him to identify a large number of syllables as well as glyphic markers of morphological relations (Coe, 1992).

Following Knorosov's steps, a growing number of Mayists, including American, Mexican, and European scholars, have advanced in deciphering a writing that for centuries remained a mystery. As a result, readings of many inscriptions have been achieved that provide a better understanding of the religion and history of the Maya. Whereas in the past it was thought that most of the inscriptions were of calendrical and astronomical nature, today it is recognized that they provide first-hand information on the dynasties of the rulers and their deeds, and on their relations with the gods and the realm of the beyond.

Linda Schele, Mary Ellen Miller, and David Freidel have made substantial contributions in this respect. Their books, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (1986), and A Forest of Kings : The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (1990), offer readings that have unveiled the dynastic sequences of those who ruled in a good number of Maya centers. With respect to the religion, these authors have revealed the various ways in which the Maya conceived of the relationship of their Ahauob (lords or rulers), and the people in general, with the universe of the gods and ultimate realities.

The readings of hundreds of inscriptions and the iconographic approaches to the inscriptions' accompanying imagery carved into panels, lintels, stelae, and other monuments and objectsas well as the unveiling of the architectural planning of the temples, palaces, and ballcourts situated close to great plazashas led to a better understand of how the Maya maintained the relationship between the rulers and the universe of the gods.

Cerros, an important Maya center near the mouth of a river that empties into the Bay of Chetumal in the southern part of the Yucatán Peninsula, appears as one of the earlier sites where, kinship having been formally established, new religious symbols and rites were introduced. Pyramids were erected on broad platforms; a stairway was built to reach the summit of the temple; and below, in the open space of the great plaza, the people would attend the rituals performed on top of the pyramid. There, the ahau, or high ruler, would proceed towards the front door of the templehe was about to leave earthly space to penetrate the realm of the divine.

A ritual represented in several monuments, that of self-bloodletting was practiced by the ahau. The imagery and inscriptions carved in dintel 25 from a temple of Yaxchilan in Chiapas illustrate the performance and meaning of such ritual. One sees there a kneeling noblewoman, Lady Xoc. She holds in her hands obsidean lancets, a spine, and bloodied paper. She is looking upwards, contemplating the vision of a great serpent; she is having a revelation. Lady Xoc is recalled in the lintel in commemoration of the accession to the throne of Yaxchilan of the Lord Shield Jaguar.

Scenes like this one of self-bloodletting are not rare in several Maya centers. These scenes represent the ritual by which nobles would pay the gods for their creation and accession to a throne from which they were destined to rule in permanent communion with the gods.

Among other forms of representation of the relation of the ahauob with the gods, there is one in which a perdurable life for the rulers is asserted and parallels are established between the rulers and the deities. This is the case with a carved panel from temple 14 of Palenque. Its imagery includes the effigy of Chan Bahlum dancing after his victory over the Lords of Xibalbá (the underworld). His mother, Lady Ahpo-Hell, welcomes him, lifting an image of the god Ah Bolon Tzacab, a primordial deity that has been described as the Maya equivalent to the Nahua god Tezcatlipoca.

The inscription on the left side of the panel registers the date in which the tablet was erected: a day 9 Ik and the month 10 Mol, corresponding to November 6, 705 ce. Lord Chan Bahlum had died three years before. On the right side, the inscription correlates the event represented with happenings that took place in a previous cosmic age, more than nine hundred thousand years before. The mother of Chan Bahlum, also represented in the tablet, "is likened to Moon Goddess" (Schele and Miller, 1986, p. 272).

Those who rulethe ahauob are likened to the gods, and it is on them that the people depend. The ahauob are in communion with the Otherworld, and this is why their memory shall be kept. Rulership and royal dynasties were thus forever linked to the ritual and beliefs of the Maya.

Zapotec and Mixtec Religious Variants

Mountain ranges that encompass several valleys, as well as the slopes that lead to the Pacific plains in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, have been the ancestral abode of the Zapotec, Mixtec, and other indigenous peoples. The Zapotec reached their cultural zenith in the Classic period, whereas the Mixtec achieved hegemony during the Postclassic period. Although linguistically different, the Zapotec and the Mixtec were culturally akin. Olmec culture had influenced the Zapotec since the Middle Formative period.

Zapotec religion

From 200 to 800 ce, the Zapotec developed forms of urban life and built magnificent religious buildings in their towns (Monte Albán, Yagul, Zaachila). Their sacred spaces included large plazas around which the temple-pyramids, altars, ball courts, and other religious monuments were raised.

Mainly through what has been discovered in subterranean tombs near the temples, reliable information can be offered about Zapotec gods and other beliefs. In paintings preserved on the walls of the tombs, prominent members of the Zapotec pantheon appear, accompanied at times by inscriptions. Potteryurns in particularalso tell about the attributes of the Zapotec gods and their ideas of the afterlife.

As in the case of the Maya, a supreme dual god, Pitao Cozaana-Pitao Cochaana, presided over all realities, divine and human. Addressed as a single god, he-she was Pije-Tao (Lord of Time), principle of all that exists. Godly beings often appear with the symbolic attributes of the serpent, bird, caiman, and jaguarmotifs also familiar to the Olmec and Maya. Cocijo, the rain god, also had a quadruple form of presence in the world. Pitao Cozobi was the god of maize.

Zapotec writing (since its early beginnings in Monte Albán 1, c. 600 bce) appears to be the source of the forms of script later developed by the Mixtec and transmitted to the groups of central Mexico. The study of Zapotec writing reveals their calendrical concern.

Zapotec pottery urns, used mostly as containers of water, were placed near the dead in the tombs. Most of the urns include the molded representation of a godoften the rain god Cocijo. The headdress of the god conveys his emblem, in which the combined traits of serpent, jaguar, and bird are often visible.

It is known that the Zapotec of the Classic period believed in a supreme dual god. They also worshiped several deities revered in other Mesoamerican areas. The Zapotec were so much concerned with death that they placed their dignitaries' remains in sumptuous tombs close to their temples. The Zapotec also knew about time computations.

Mixtec religion

The Mixtec founded new towns, and they conquered and rebuilt places (c. 1000 ce) in which the Zapotec had ruled. The Mixtec were great artists, excelling in the production of metal objects, many of which bear religious connotations. Several Mixtec books of religious and historical content have survived. These books constitute one of the most precious sources of the cultural history of a Mesoamerican subarea.

In the Mixtec books known as Codex Selden and Codex Gómez de Orozco, an image of the Mixtec worldview is offered. It is a worldview that closely corresponds to that of the Maya: the earth is represented by the monstrous animal with traits of caiman, serpent, and jaguar; below it is the underworld; while above the earth nine levels of the upperworld (not thirteen as in the Maya worldview) are represented. The sun and the moon and the stars are there. The dual god, with the symbols of time and of his-her day names, resides on the uppermost level.

According to other traditions, this dual god caused the earth to rise out of the waters. Later he-she built a beautiful place on the top of a large rock. The children he-she engendered and conceived are the gods of the various quadrants of the worldthe gods of rain and wind, gods of maize, and so on. According to Mixtec belief, the earth and the sun had been destroyed several times; the Mixtec believed the gods waged combat in a celestial ball court. (This is represented in a gold pectoral found with other religious objects in Tomb 7 within the sacred space of Monte Albán, the site that had been built by the Zapotec but that was later conquered by the Mixtec).

Another extraordinary Mixtec book, known as Codex Vindobonensis, conveys the beliefs of this people about their origins in the present cosmic age. They had come from a place called Yuta Tnoho (River of the Lineages). There they were born from a cosmic tree. The Mixtec calendar systems corresponded to the 260-day count and the 365-day solar year computed by the Zapotec and the Maya. (Caso, 1965, pp. 948961).


As in the Maya and Oaxaca areas, some Early Formativetype villages in the Central Plateau experienced important changes. Places like El Arbolillo, Zacatenco, Tlatilco, Cuicuilco, and others received the ferment of Olmec influence. Special areas began to be reserved for religious purposes; temple pyramids and round platforms were built. Clay images of the fire god Huehueteotl (Old God), who much later was also worshiped by the Aztec, have been dated to the Late Formative period (c. 500 bce).

In Tlapacoya, not far from where Teotihuacan was to be established, another important Late Formative center flourished (c. 300100 bce). Here, temple pyramids, tombs, and mural paintings anticipate, in many respects, what was to be the grandeur of Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan ("the place where one becomes deified") marks the Classic period's climax in the Central Plateau. Archaeological research has revealed that it was here that whatever is implied by the idea of a city became a reality. It took several centuries (100500 ce) for generations of priests and sages to conceive, realize, modify, enlarge, and enrich the city, which probably was planned to last forever. Beside the two great pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Palace of the Quetzalpapalotl (quetzal butterflies), many other enclosures, palaces, schools, markets, and other buildings have been unearthed. Large suburbs, where members of the Teotihuacan community had their homes, surrounded the religious and administrative center. The pyramids and palaces were decorated with murals. Gods in the forms of human beings, fantastic serpents, birds, caimans, lizards, and jaguars, as well as flowers, plants, priests, and even complex scenessuch as a depiction of Tlalocan, the paradise of the rain godwere represented in the paintings.

Teotihuacan was the capital of a large stateperhaps an empirethe vestiges of whose cultural influence have been found in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and the Guatemalan highlands. According to annals preserved by the Aztec, "In Teotihuacan orders were given, and the chiefdom was established. Those who were the chiefs were the sages, the ones who knew secret things, who preserved old traditions" (from Codex Matritense, trans. Léon-Portilla, folio 192r).

The inhabitants of Teotihuacan worshiped several deities whose iconography is similar to that of gods later revered by other groups in central Mexico: the Toltec (9001050 ce), the Acolhua, and the Aztec (12001519 ce). The Aztec called these gods by the following names: Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue, god and goddess of the waters, who together constitute one aspect of divine duality; Quetzalcoatl (Quetzal-Feathered Serpent); Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god; Xochipilli (The One of the Flowery Lineage); Xipe Totec (Our Lord the Flayed One); Itztlacoliuhqui (Stone Knife), whose traits resemble those of the Toltec and Aztec god Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror); Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the god of the morning star, and Xolotl, the god of the evening star, who were also aspects of the divine duality; and Yacatecuhtli, the god of merchants (Caso, 1966; Séjourné, 1966).

In addition to these gods, a large number of other symbols and a few hieroglyphs identified in the mural paintings, sculptures, and ceramics persisted in the corresponding Toltec and Aztec ensemble of religious expressions.

Although some researchers have dismissed the validity of comparing iconographic symbols of one culture with those of another culture from a subsequent epoch, the evidence supporting a common Mesoamerican religious tradition, and the fact that one is not dealing with isolated cases of iconographic similarity but rather with ensembles of symbols, seem valid reasons for rejecting the skepticism of those who deny this cultural interrelation. Archaeological finds have shown that Teotihuacan actually influenced Toltec and Aztec cultures, which the religious iconographic similarities are obvious.

It is reasonable to assert that the arrangement of sacred space at Teotihuacan, and the gods worshiped there, was prototypical for the future religious development of central Mexico. In part because of the relative abundance of the Postclassic historical testimonies of Toltec and Aztec cultures, scholars now have a better understanding of Teotihuacan symbols.

Aztec consciousness of Teotihuacan as the ultimate source of their own culture led Aztec to see the sacred space of the Place Where One Becomes Deified as a kind of primordial site, where, in illo tempore, the Fifth Sun (the present cosmic age) had its beginning. An Aztec text that describes the four previous Suns, or cosmic ages, and their successive violent destructions says about the fifth and new age, "This Sun, its day name is 4-Movement. This is our Sun, the one in which we now live. And here is its sign, how the Sun fell into the fire, into the divine hearth, there at Teotihuacan" (from Annals of Cuauhtitlan, trans. Léon-Portilla, folio 77).

The Aztec myth about the beginning of the Fifth Sun at Teotihuacan tells how the gods met there to discuss the remaking of the sun and moon, and of human beings and their sustenance. "When there was still night," the text relates, the gods gathered for four days around the divine hearth at Teotihuacan to determine which god would cast himself into the fire and thus become transformed into the sun. There were two candidates, the arrogant Tecuciztecatl (Lord of the Conch Shells) and the modest Nanahuatzin (The Pimply One). Tecuciztecatl made four attempts to throw himself into the flames, but each time he backed away in fear. Then it was Nanahuatzin's turn to try. Closing his eyes, he courageously hurled himself into the fire, was consumed, and finally appeared transformed as the sun. Tecuciztecatl, fearful and too late, was only able to achieve transformation into the lesser celestial body, the moon.

To the surprise of the other gods, the sun and moon did not move. The way to solve this problem was through sacrifice. To give the sun energy, the gods sacrificed themselves, offering their blood, a primeval act that had to be reenacted by humansfor it is only through the bloody sacrifice that the sun and life exist; only through the sacrifice of human blood could existence be prolonged. With their own blood, human beings had to repay the divine sacrifice that had prevented the cataclysms that put an end to previous suns. Here was the seed that later flowered as the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice.

Quetzalcoatl and Toltec Religion

It appears that Teotihuacan came to a sudden, and still unexplained, end around 650 ce. Its collapse, however, did not mean the death of high culture in Mesoamerica. From among those cultures that inherited numerous cultural elements from the Classic glory of Teotihuacan, the city of Tula stands out. Tula is about eighty kilometers north of Mexico City. Its name, Tula, means "large town, metropolis," which is what the Toltec, following the advice of their high priest Quetzalcoatl, actually built.

Quetzalcoatl, a legendary figure, was believed to have been a king who derived his name from that of the "feathered serpent god," in whose representations two of the pan-Mesoamerican iconographic elementsthe serpent and the plumage of the quetzalbecame integrated. It is said that Quetzalcoatl, while still young, retired to Huapalcalco, a village not far from Teotihuacan, to devote himself to meditation. He was taken there by the Toltec to serve as their ruler and high priest.

Native books attribute to him whatever is good and great. He induced his people to worship benevolent supreme dual god, Ometeotl. This same god was also invoked as the Precious Feathered Serpent or Precious Feathered Twins. Both meanings are actually implied by the term Quetzalcoatl, at once the name of the god and that of his priest. The original Toltec text says,

And it is told, it is said,
That Quetzalcoatl invoked, took as his God,
The One in the uppermost heaven:
She of the starry skirt,
He whose radiance envelops things;
Lady of Our Flesh,
Lord of Our Flesh;
She who is clothed in black,
He who is clothed in red;
She who endows the earth with solidity,
He who covers it with cotton.
And thus it was known
That toward the heavens was his plea directed,
Toward the place of duality,
Above the nine levels of Heaven. (from Annals of Cuauhtitlan, trans. Léon-Portilla, folio 4, 1995)

The dual god Ometeotlwho in the night covers his-her feminine aspect with a skirt of stars, but who during the day reveals himself as the sun, the greatest of the light-giving stars-appears also as the Lord and Lady of Our Flesh, as he-she who vests himself-herself in black and red (colors symbolizing wisdom), and, at the same time, as the one who gives stability to the earth. Thus the priest taught the Toltec how to draw near to Ometeotl-Quetzalcoatl, the god who dwells in the uppermost heaven:

The Toltec were solicitous of the things of God; they had but one God; they held him to be their only God; they invoked him; they made supplications to him; his name was Quetzalcoatl. The guardian of their God, their priest, his name was also Quetzalcoatl. And they were so respectful of the things of God that everything that the priest Quetzalcoatl told them they did, and they did not depart from it. He persuaded them; he taught them: This one God, Quetzalcoatl is his name. He demands nothing except serpents, except butterflies, which you must offer to him, which you must sacrifice to him. (from Codex Matritense, trans. Léon-Portilla, folio 179r.)

The Toltec understood the doctrine of Quetzalcoatl. Under his guidance they were able to relate the idea of the dual god with the ancient image of the world and the destiny of man on earth. Codex Matritense is clear on this point:

The Toltec knew that the heavens are many; they said that there are thirteen divisions, one upon the other. There abides, there lives the True God and his Consort. The Heavenly God is called the Lord of Duality, and his Consort is called Lady of Duality, Heavenly Lady. Which means: He is king, he is lord over the thirteen heavens. Thence we receive our life, we men. Thence falls our destiny when the child is conceived, when he is placed in the womb. His fate comes to him there. It is sent by the God of Duality. (From Codex Matritense, trans. Léon-Portilla, folio 175v)

The golden age of the Toltec produced all sorts of achievements: palaces and temples were built; many towns and peoples accepted the rule of Quetzalcoatl. Only some enemiesmost likely religious adversariesattempted to bring about the downfall of that age. Some texts speak of the appearance of one named Tezcatlipoca, the Smoking Mirror, a god who came to Tula to force Quetzalcoatl to abandon his city and his followers. According to these accounts, the departure of the wise priest precipitated the ruin of Tula. Other texts speak of two different critical moments. The first was that of the flight of Quetzalcoatl. Although tragic, it did not bring about the complete downfall of Tula. The second crisis took place several decades later. Huemac was the king ruling at that time. His forced departure and death, around 1150, marked the total collapse of Tula. The ruin of the Toltec also meant a diffusion of their culture and religious ideas among various peoples, some distant from Tula. The existence of the Toltec is recorded in annals such as those of the Mixtec of Oaxaca and the Maya of Yucatán and Guatemala.

Henry B. Nicholson has written an excellent volume on Quetzalcoatl. Originally written as a Ph.D. dissertation and presented at Harvard University in 1957, this work has retained its value as "the most thoroungh and insightful analysis of a large part of Mesoamerican ensemble of primary sources ever done in a single volume" (Carrasco and Matos Moctezuma, 2001, VI). It was revised by Nicholson and published in 2001 as Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl. The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs.

Nicholson analyzes a large number of primary sources from Central Mexico (Nahuatl and non-Nahuatl); from Oaxaca (Mixtec and Zapotec); and from Chiapas and Guatemala, Tabasco-Campeche, as well as the Yucatán (Maya); and he elaborates on interpretations of the data presented. One can assert that his book, although by now several decades old, remains a fresh and relevant approach to the complexities surrounding the figure of Quetzalcoatl, a subject that in many forms permeates Mesoamerican religion and ethnohistory.

While Quetzalcoatl is an extremely important figure in the history of Mesoamerica, he has been the subject of several divergent interpretations (see Nicholson 2000 and Carrasco 2003).

On the one hand, attending to the meaning of his name, "Feathered Serpent," it can be inferred that he was worshipped in Teotihuacan since the Classic period. There, at the so-called Temple of Quetzalcoatl, one can see heads of serpents with quetzal feathers.

Quetzalcoatl was also the name of a prominent priest and sage, portentously conceived by his mother, who lived in Tula-Xicocotitlan in the ninth century. A legendary figure, he had taken his name from that of the "feathered-serpent god" and became the ruler and guide of the Toltec.

The Aztec Religious Variant

By the end of the thirteenth century ce, new chiefdoms existed in central Mexico. Some were the result of a renaissance in towns of Toltec or Teotihuacan origin. Others were new entities made up of the cultures of semibarbarian groups from the north (the so-called Chichimecs) and the remnants of Toltec civilization.

At the same time, other peoples made themselves present in the Central Plateau. Their language was Nahuatl, the same that the Toltec had spoken. The various Nahuatlan groupsamong them the Aztec, or Mexicahad been living in northern outposts, on the frontier of Mesoamerica. In the Nahuatlan texts they repeat, "Now we are coming back from the north" The Aztec return (or, as it is often described, their "pilgrimage") was a difficult enterprise. They had to overcome many hardships until finally they were settled (c. 1325 ce) on the island of Tenochtitlan (in the lake that then covered a large part of the Valley of Mexico). It took the Aztec a century to initiate the period of their greatness in Mesoamerica.

Cultural and religious heritages

The Aztec's worldview, beliefs, and cultural forms, which by the time of Aztec hegemony were already fully integrated as elements of their own culture, had diverse origins. The Aztec preserved ancient traditions that were the common inheritance of many peoples of Mesoamerica, such as the worship of the "Old God," Huehueteotl, who had been revered since several hundred years before the beginning of the common era. Other beliefs and practices were probably derived from the cultures that had flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, such as the veneration of Xipe Totec ("Our lord the flayed one"), a god of fertility.

Some deities, such as Tlaloc, Chac, or Cocijo (different names of the rain god, whose presence in Mesoamerica since the Classic period is amply manifested in the archaeological evidence), also became members of the Aztec pantheon. So did the two Toltec gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. Besides individual gods and ensembles of gods, Aztec culture incorporated the old Mesoamerican spatial image of the world, with its four quadrants, central point, and upperworld and underworld levels (as well as the symbolic meanings attached to these divisions), and it integrated the solar calendar, the 260-day count, and the Mesoamerican system of writing.

To this heritage, the Aztec's own beliefs must be added. Among these are the Aztec patron gods Huitzilopochtli (Hummingbird of the South, or Hummingbird of the Left) and Coatlicue (She of the Skirt of Serpents).

Consciousness of divine destiny

Aztec accounts speak of the place in the north from which they had come, Aztlán Chicomoztoc (The Place of the Herons, or The Place of the Seven Caves). There they had been oppressed by a dominant people. One day, the "portentous god," Tezcatlipoca, spoke to the Aztec high priest, Huitzilopochtli. Tezcatlipoca offered to liberate the Aztec from their rulers. He would lead them to a place where they could enjoy freedom and from which they would extend themselves as conquerors into the four quadrants of the world. This he would do if the Aztec promised to be his vassals and to have him as their tutelary god. The Aztec then began their march to their promised land. On the way, Huitzilopochtli died, but the spirit and power of Tezcatlipoca entered into Huitzilopochtli's bones, and from that moment on the god and the priest were one person. When the Aztec, in their search for their predestined land, arrived at Coatepec (Mountain of the Serpent), they learned that the mother goddess Coatlicue was present there and that their own god Huitzilopochtli was to be miraculously reborn as Coatlicue's son. Huitzilopochtli's birth occurred at the precise moment when another goddess, Coyolxauhqui (She of the Face Painted with Rattles), was about to kill Coatlicue because of the offense Coatlicue had caused her and her four hundred brothers, the Warriors of the South, when it became known that Coatlicue was inexplicably pregnant. As Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers were climbing Coatepec, Huitzilopochtli was born to Coatlicue, and he immediately used his weapon, the Fire Snake, to hurt Coyolxauqui and to cut off her head. He then pursued the Warriors of the South, driving them off the top of the mountain and destroying them. Huitzilopochtli stripped the four hundred brothers of their belongings and made them part of his own destiny. Later, when the Aztec had established themselves on the island of México-Tenochtitlan, they constructed their main temple (the so-called Templo Mayor) to Huitzilopochtli in the form of the mountain Coatepec, and there they ritually reenacted Huitzilopochtli's portentous birth. A representation of the goddess Coatlicue stood near Huitzilopochtli's shrine on top of this "pyramid mountain," as did representations of the beheaded goddess Coyolxauhqui, the Fire Snake, and the four hundred Warriors of the South. The gods' primeval confrontation was reenacted on the feast of Panquetzaliztli (When the Flags are Raised). Objects found during the excavations of the Templo Mayor (Great Temple), undertaken from 1979 through 1990, have corroborated the native texts: all of the symbols of the Mountain of the Serpent and the story of Huitzilopochtli's birth have been recovered from the temple site.

Tributary wars and the reenactment of the sacrifice at Teotihuacan

The Aztec knew the story of the sacrifice at Teotihuacan, where the gods gave their blood and lives to strengthen the "Giver of Life" (the sun) whose movement was enabled by the sacrifice. The Aztec, believing they had to imitate the gods, took on the mission of continuing to provide the sun with vital energy. They deemed themselves called to offer the sun that same precious liquid that the gods had shed, and they obtained it from human sacrifice.

As if hypnotized by the mystery of blood, the Aztec proclaimed themselves the chosen People of the Sun. Ceremonial warfarethe principal manner of obtaining victims for the sacrificebecame the dominant activity in the Aztec's social, religious, and national life. Thus, they developed what can be described as a mystical imperialism: they devoted themselves to conquest in their effort to maintain the life of the sun and to keep the age of 4 Movement alive. The theme of war in Aztec visual art and in Aztec literature is everywhere linked to that of national greatness. In the primeval myth of Teotihuacan, mention is also made of the eagle and the ocelot (or jaguar), who were present at the divine hearth into which the gods had hurled themselves. Eagles and ocelots therefore became the symbols of warriors.

Fire, which had blazed in the hearth at Teotihuacan, and water, without which nothing green grows on earth, were strangely linked in the minds of the priests. Jointly, fire and water conveyed the idea of the mystical warfare that makes the life of the universe possible. Atl/tlachinolli (water/fire), quauhtli/ocelotl (eagle/ocelot), mitl/chimalli (arrow/shield), yaoxochitl/xochiaoctli (flowery wars/flowery liquor), quauhtli/nochtli (eagle/prickly pear, or the sun/the red heart): these are some of the binary forms of symbolic expression that recur in Aztec hymns, chants, and discourses and echo the Aztec's official worldview:

From where the eagles rest, From where the ocelots are exalted, The Sun is invoked. Like a shield that descends, So does the Sun set. In Mexico night is falling, War rages on all sides. O Giver of Life! War draws near, Proud of ifself Is the city of México-Tenochtitlan. Here no one fears to die in war. This is our glory. This your command, O Giver of Life! (Cantares Mexicanos, trans. by León-Portilla, fol. 19 v.)

Divine duality

Paintings and ideograms in some of the native books corroborate what is proclaimed in the songs of the Aztec warriors. Again, binary forms of expressioncaptains' headdresses in the forms of eagles and ocelots, the hieroglyphs for fire and water coupled, and so onappear consistently related to the universe of the gods, who are essentially dual entities.

Below, in the abode of the dead, reign Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, the god and goddess of that region. On the surface of the earth is Our Father-Our Mother, who is at once the Old Lord, He-She of the Yellow Face, and Creator of Fire. And above, in the various celestial levels, other dual divine manifestations exist: Tlaloc and Chalchiuhtlicue (god and goddess of rain and of the terrestrial waters); the precious twins Quetzalcoatl and Cihuacoatl (the feathered serpent and the female serpent); Tezcatlipoca and Tezcatlanextia (the mirror that obscures things and the mirror that makes them brilliant); and, above all other deities, the dual god Ometeotl, a supreme being endowed with both male and female countenances.

In both Aztec and Maya religion, the Dual God, in an unfolding of his-her own being, gave birth to four sons, who are primordial divine forces. In Aztec thought these are known as the four TezcatlipocasWhite, Black, Red, and Bluewho presided over the successive cosmic ages. Their actions connoted confrontations between opposing forces as well as diverse kinds of alteration and becoming. Tezcatlipoca sometimes appears as the adversary of Tlaloc, at other times of Quetzalcoatl. Tezcatlipoca also often becomes identified with other deitiesas in the story related above of Huitzilopochtli's transformation.

An iconographic analysis of the Aztec gods confirms that they shared the attribute of "divine becoming"that is, of procession through a series of transformations. There are representations in which this "divine becoming" is evident, where, for example, Tlaloc, the rain god, is portrayed as if he were Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the god of the morning star; Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death; or Xochipilli, the god of dance and song. This "becoming" of the gods was linked to the Aztec canon of religious celebrations. Abundant information about the feasts along the 365-day calendar can be found in several of the indigenous texts: the Borbonicus, Matritense, Florentine, Magliabecchianus, Tudela, Ixtlilxochitl, Telleriano-Remensis, and Vaticanus A codices.

Sacrifice and other rites

Penance, abstinence, and the offering of a variety of animals and vegetables were frequent in Aztec celebrations. Intonation of sacred hymns was accompanied by music and dances. More than any other Mesoamerican people, the Aztec practiced human sacrifice during their celebrations. A sort of perpetual drama developed in which the primeval events were reenacted, with the victims playing the roles of the gods who in illo tempore offered their blood to make life on earth possible. The forms of human sacrifice were similar to those that had been practiced by the Maya. The largest number of sacrifices took place at the Templo Mayor at the center of México-Tenochtitlan.


Some manners of dying promised glorious destinies: death in battle, death while trying to take captives, the death of a sacrificial victim, and the death of a woman in childbirth (while bearing a future warrior). To die in any of these ways meant that one would travel, after death, to the House of the Sun, to be his-her companion in the heavens. Persons chosen by the rain god for a special kind of death (by drowning, being struck by lightning, or through a serious disease such as dropsy) were destined to enjoy Tlalocan, the rain god's paradise. Others of the dead were said to go to Mictlan (the place of the dead), which was also known as Ximoayan (the place of the fleshless) and Tocempopolihuiyan (our common destination, where we lose ourselves).

Doubt and skepticism

In contrast to the officially accepted beliefs, there are some indigenous texts from the Aztec epoch in which doubts are expressed. A conviction that the mystery that surrounds human existence will never be completely unveiled appears again and again in these compositions. These beautiful poems, written by the sages (tlamatinime, "those who know something"), at times convey pessimism and even a sort of natural skepticism. Their core question seems to be whether or not it is possible to say true words about the beyond, the universe of the gods, or one's survival of death. The following example is eloquent:

Even if we offer the Giver of Life Jade and precious ointments, If with offering of necklaces You are invoked, With the strength of the eagle and the jaguar, With the force of the warriors, It may be that on earth No one speaks of truth. (from Cantares Mexicanos, trans. by Léon-Portilla, folio 13r)

The contrast between the official religious militarism of the Aztec and the questionings of these sages seems to reflect the vitality of the spiritual world of Mesoamerica.

The Templo Mayor

Testimonies that encompass the history of a single monument are seldom found in the available Mesoamerican sources. In the case of the Aztec Templo Mayor, a good number of testimonies permit the interpretation of the many symbols incorporated into it during its successive enlargements. The testimonies include pictorial manuscripts of indigenous provenance, some of them produced a few decades after the destruction of the temple as a consequence of the Spanish Conquest. There are, as well, texts in Nahuatl derived from the native orality and put in written form by means of the Latin alphabet by Nahua scribes. To this, one has to add descriptions in Spanish done by several friars and others interested in the subject.

Among the testimonies thus produced are descriptions of the Templo Mayor; of its various buildings; of the sacrifices and ceremonies held therein; of the sacred hymns that were entoned and the prayers that were recited; and, in sum, copious references about what the temple was and how it functioned as the most important precinct dedicated to the cult of the Aztec gods.

It can be asserted that the Templo Mayor was conceived as a plastic representation of the Coatepetl or "Mountain of the Serpent," situated near Tulathe ancient Toltec metropoliswhere the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli was born. His shrine was built on top of the pyramid. Close to it, a sculpture of Huitzilopochtli's mother, the goddess Coatlicue, was placed. At the botton of the same pyramid the Aztec placed the effigy of Coyolxauhqui, the rebel sister of Huitzilopochtli. She appeared beheaded and dismembered by her brother who, once born, resisted her attack and killed her with his invincible weapon, the Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent). A stone sculpture of the Xiuhcoatl stood near the shrine of Huitzilopochtli. This complex of symbols, repeated in each enlargement of the temple, corresponds to what is proclaimed in a Nahuatl hymn that recalls the birth of Huitzilopochtli.

The Aztec reenacted Huitzilopochtli's portentous birth on the feast of Panquetzaliztli (Raising of Banners). A young warrior representing Huitzilopochtli carried his image, and he would have to fight in front of the temple against Coyolxauhqui and her allies. The young warrior's victory symbolized the triumph of the Sun against the forces of the night.

A shrine dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain god, was placed on top of the twin pyramid close to that of Huitzilopochtli (both pyramids were built on a common platform to symbolize divine dualism). Tlaloc, although called by various names, was a universally worshiped god in Mesoamerica. By placing his adoratory side by side with that of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec were proclaiming at once their veneration to their own tutelary god and also to the one omnipresent in Mesoamerica, known as Tlaloc in central Mexico.

The sources that describe the rituals performed in the temple along the eighteen groups, or "months," of twenty days demonstrate that Aztec religious beliefs and practices somehow centered upon two temporal axes. One was that of Tonalco, "the time of the heat and the Sun"; the other was Xopan, "the time of verdor," when water abounds. In both periods, however, Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc were present, intertwined with several gods and goddesses with which they were associated. During Tonalco, the dry and hot season, Tlaloc and Chalchuihtlicue (the goddess of the terrestrial waters), as well as their servants, the Tlaloques, and the gods related to maize, were asked to protect the people against eventual famines. Sacrifices, including those of adults and babies, were performed in the main temple.

When the feast of Tlaxochimaco ("flowers are given") took place in the ninth "month," people went to the fields looking for flowers to celebrate the god Huitzilopochtli. Banquets, music, and dances were held in his honor. Tlaxochimaco marked the beginning of the second half the year. In the following monthsand already in the rainy seasononce again Huitzilopochli, Tlaloc, and the gods of maize, salt, and fire, as well as Tonantzin (Our Mother), invoked under various names, entered the temporal and spatial scene of the Templo Mayor. Then and there the Aztec asked for abundant harvests and would practice the sacrifices that could propitiate them.

The great temple of Mexico, Tenochtitlan had become not only an extraordinary architectural monument and precinct, as its surviving vestiges indicate; it was also a living stage where a sort of perpetual drama was played out by the Aztec. These were a people who thought of themselves as "chosen" by the primordial sacrifice of the gods and who, therefore, had to repay them in a similar form to foster the existence of their present cosmic era.

In The Aztec Templo Mayor, a Visualization (2001), Antonio Serrato-Combe presents computer-generated, three-dimensional color imagery of Tenochititlan, conceived to explore the architectural configuration of the main temple and its whole precinct. The author describes his method in the book as a "digital modeling process," and the book adds interesting contributions to what is known about the largest and most important sacred monument in Aztec Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerican Sacred Literature

Mention has been made of the available archaelogical and documentary sources for the study of Mesoamerican religion. One must also take into consideration the material that is properly labeled "Mesoamerican sacred literature." Notwithstanding the many destructions and consequences of the Conquest, indigenous texts do exist that can be considered part of a corpus of Mesoamerican sacred literature.

A clear distinction can be made pertaining to these texts that allow the corpus to be divided into two eras: (1) those works of a pre-Spanish provenance; and (2) those texts produced after the Conquest, either as transcriptions of older testimonies or as surviving documentary manifestations of native religiosity.

The works clearly of a pre-Spanish provenance include inscriptions in monuments excavated by archaeologists, mainly from the Maya area, and some of the fifteen extant codices or "books" (i.e., those of religious content, such as codices from Central Mexico known as Borgia, Vaticanus B, Cospi, Fejérváry-Máyer, and Laud; those from the Maya known as Dresden, Tro-Cortesiano, Paris; and those from the Mixtec of Oaxaca, such as Vindobonensis.

Transcriptions from older documents or from the oral tradition, produced after the conquest, include the Quiché Popol Vuh, or Book of Council; the Maya Books of the Chilam Balamob; the Nahua Huehuehtlahtolli, or Testimonies of the Ancient Word (the conveyors of the moral discourses, as well as the expression of the wisdom of the elders); and the collections of Mexican Songs, manuscripts preserved at the National Library of Mexico and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection of the University of Texas at Austin. The surviving documentary manifestations of native religiosity encompass texts like those collected in the seventeenth century by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón in what is today the State of Guerrero.

In this corpus of Mesoamerican sacred literature one finds testimonies on the pre-Columbian religious beliefs and practices (feasts, sacrifices, and offerings); on the relationship of the gods and rituals with the calendrical computations; and on prophetic ennunciations, incantations, moral precepts, prayers, hymns, and a variety of songs and poetry.

After the Conquest

The Spanish Conquest, which, in the case of the Aztec, was completed in 1521, brought with it the burning of native libraries, the demolition of temples, and the annihilation of whatever appeared to the conquistadors to be "idolatrous." Nevertheless, neither the Conquest nor the zealous activity of some Christian missionaries who followed in its wake succeeded in completely erasing all of the ancient traditions. It is extraordinary to discover that contemporary Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, Nahuatl, and other groups keep remembrances of the old mythic traditions as part of their lore.

Studies of contemporary Mesoamericans' worldviews and religious attitudes reveals that Christianity and indigenous Mesoamerican traditions have combined to form several kinds of syncretistic systems. Whereas in some cases a Christianized paganism has developed, in others one can see that new forms of Christianity, embedded in an indigenous Mesoamerican world of symbols, have been born.

Syncretism is present among contemporary Indians and other peoples in Mexico who reinterpret the Christian dogma of the Holy Trinity partially through indigenous conceptions. For instance, instead of speaking of the Trinity or the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, people refer to Our Father Jesus and Our Mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in an implicit reference to the dual supreme god, Our Father, Our Mother. Another example of syncretism in religious practices is provided by contemporary acts of self-sacrifice that follow the admonition "to pay" for what the gods have done for us in the creation of various forms of life. Today such practices of self-sacrifice or repayment to the gods are performed in pilgrimages to sanctuaries such as those of Chalma, Talpa, Tepeyac and others, as well as in determined Christian feasts.

See Also

Aztec Religion; Calendars, article on Mesoamerican Calendars; Human Sacrifice, article on Aztec Rites; Maya Religion; Olmec Religion; Quetzalcoatl.


Annals of Cuauhtitlan. In Codice Chimalpopoca, edited by Primo Feliciano Velázquez. Mexico City, 1995. Nahuatl text and Spanish translation. A basic source of Mesoamerican indigenous tradition; includes important references to religious beliefs and practices.

Bernal, Ignacio. The Olmec World. Berkeley, Calif., 1969. A readable account of the archaeological findings in the Olmec area.

Broda, Johanna, Davíd Carrasco, and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. The Great Temple of Tenochtitlan: Center and Periphery in the Aztec World. Berkeley, Calif., 1987.

Cantares Mexicanos (Collection of Mexican Songs). A sixteenth-century manuscript that includes a large number of compositions, in Nahuatl, of pre-Columbian origin. It is preserved at the Biblioteca Nacional de México in Mexico City. Translations of some of these songs appear in Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, edited by Miguel Léon-Portilla. Norman, Okla., 1969.

Carrasco Davíd, Religions of Mesoamerica: Cosmovision and Ceremonial Centers, San Francisco, Calif., 1990. A lucid discussion of the core aspects of religion in Mesoamerica.

Carrasco Davíd. Quetzalcoatl and the Irony of Empire: Myths and Proprecies in the Aztec Tradicion. Rev. ed. Norman, Okla., 2000.

Carrasco, Pedro. "Pagan Rituals and Beliefs among the Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico." Anthropological Records 20 (1960): 87117. Discusses Christian and pagan elements in contemporary religious ceremonies of this indigenous group.

Caso, Alfonso. "Zapotec Writing and Calendar." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope et al., vol. 3. Austin, Tex., 1965. A concise, well-documented presentation of religious inscriptions of the Zapotec.

Caso, Alfonso. "Mixtec Writing and Calendar." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope et al., vol. 3. Austin, Tex., 1965. A valuable complement to the previously listed article.

Caso, Alfonso. "Dioses y signos Teotihuacanos." In Teotihuacan onceava mesa redonda, vol. 1. Mexico City, 1966. Well-researched study on the gods worshiped at Teotihuacan.

Caso, Alfonso. "Religión o religiones mesoamericanos?" In Verhandlungen des XXXVIII Amerikanistenkongresses, vol. 3. Excellent synthesis of the evidence that supports the existence of one religious tradition common to the various Mesoamerican groups.

Codex Maggliabecchianus, XIII: Manuscrit mexicain post-Colombien de la Bibilothèque Nationale de Florence (1904). Graz, Austria, 1970. Contains summaries in English and Spanish. Codex Matritense. 3 vols. Madrid, Spain, 19051907. Nahuatl texts of the Indian informants of Fray Bernardo de Sahagún (sixteenth century). A classic collection of texts of the indigenous tradition, extremely rich in religious materials, including sacred hymns, speeches, and descriptions of feasts and sacrifices.

Coe, Michael D. America's First Civilization. New York, 1968. Excellent introduction to the study of Olmec culture.

Coe, Michael D. "The Iconology of Olmec Art." In The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture (an anthology of conference papers, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). New York, 1973. Summary and lucid discussion of the meaning of Olmec religious art.

Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. New York, 1992. The story of the deciphering of Maya writing.

Edmonson, Munro S., ed. and trans. The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. New Orleans, La., 1971. An excellent introduction and English version of this classic of sacred Mesoamerican literature.

Edmonson, Munro S. "The Songs of Dzitbalché: A Literary Commentary." In Tlalocan: A Journal of Source Materials on the Native Cultures of Mexico 9 (1982): 173208. A new translation of, and commentary, on these sacred Maya compositions.

Glass, John B. "A Survey of Native American Pictorial Manuscripts." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope et al., vol. 14. Austin, Tex., 1975. A comprehensive guide to these primary sources for the study of Mesoamerican cultures.

Joralemon, Peter D. A Study of Olmec Iconography. Washington, D.C., 1971. A pioneer interpretation of the religious iconography of the Olmec.

Joralemon, Peter D. "The Olmec Dragon: A Study in Pre-Columbian Iconography." In Origins of Religious Art and Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica, edited by Henry B. Nicholson. Los Angeles, 1976.

Kubler, George. The Iconography of the Art of Teotihuacan. Washington, D.C., 1967. Objects to the idea of a single Mesoamerican "cotradition."

Kubler, George. "Period, Style, and Meaning in Ancient American Art." New Literary History 1 (1970): 127144. Adds arguments in support of the point of view expressed in the previously listed paper.

Landa, Diego de. Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan. Trans. and ed., with notes, by A. M. Tozzer. Cambridge, Mass., 1941. The best critical edition of this sixteenth-century classic study of Maya culture and religion.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel. Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind. Norman, Okla., 1963. A study of the Aztec worldview about ultimate reality; includes numerous Nahuatl texts from the indigenous pre-Columbian tradition.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel. "The Ethnohistorical Records for the Huey Teocalli of Tenochtitlan." In The Aztec Templo Mayor, edited by Elizabeth Hill Boone, Washington, D.C., 1983. Registers the main sources for the study of the symbolism embedded in the Templo Mayor.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel. Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. Norman, Okla., 1969. An introduction to the extant texts of the Aztec, Maya, Mixtec, Otomí, and other Mesoamerican groups.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel. Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya. Boston, 1973. An ethnohistorical approach to Maya religion and worldview with an emphasis on the Mayan concern for time.

Léon-Portilla, Miguel, ed. Native Mesoamerican Spirituality: Ancient Myths, Discourses, Stories, Doctrines, Hymns, Poems from the Aztec, Yucatec Quiche-Maya, and Other Sacred Traditions. New York, 1980. An annotated anthology, with commentary of texts from the pre-Columbian traditions.

Nicholson, Henry B. "Religion in Pre-Hispanic Central Mexico." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope et al., vol. 10. Austin, Tex., 1971. A classification of the principal cult themes and deity complexes.

Nicholson, Henry B. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs. Boulder, Colo., 2001. Comprehensive descriptions of the sources on Quetzalcoatl and an interpretation of them.

Norman, V. Garth Izapa Sculpture, part 2. Provo, Utah, 1976. Includes a careful description of Stele 5. Piña Chán, Román. Los Olmecas antiguos. Mexico, 1982. A comprehensive approach to Olmec culture by a distinguished archaeologist.

Sahagún, (Fray) Bernardino de. Historia de los cosas de la Nueva España (compiled 15691582; first published 1820). Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 vols. Santa Fe, N. Mex., 19501982. Vivid descriptions of temples, rituals, paraphernalia, and mythology can be found in several of this work's volumes, especially volumes 2 and 3.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. New York, 1985. This and the following book offer readings of a large number of inscriptions.

Schele, Linda, and Davin Freidel. A Forest of Kings : The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York, 1990.

Serrato-Combe, Antonio, The Aztec Templo Mayor: A Vizualization. Salt Lake, Utah, 2001.

Thompson, J. Eric S. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Norman, Okla., 1960. A basic work for the study of Maya symbols and inscriptions.

Thompson, J. Eric S. Maya History and Religion. Norman, Okla., 1970. An ethnohistorical approach in which a large number of sources are analyzed by a great scholar who devoted his life to research on the Maya.

Valliant, George C., ed. A Sacred Almanac of the Aztecs. New York, 1940. Translation of Codex Borbonicus: Manuscrit mexicaine de la bibilothèque du Palais Bourbon, edited by Jules Theodore Ernest Hamy (Paris, 1899).

Miguel LÉon-Portilla (1987 and 2005)