Nahuatl Religion

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NAHUATL RELIGION . The speakers of Nahuatl dialects compose the largest group of indigenous people in Mexico. Numbering about 800,000, they live primarily in the Federal District and the states of México, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Guerrero, Veracruz, and San Luis Potosí. Smaller populations can be found in Jalisco, Nayarit, Oaxaca, and Tabasco. The proportion of Nahuatl speakers in central Mexico is declining, but their absolute number is fairly stable and is augmented by millions of Spanish-speaking villagers who preserve elements of Nahuatl heritage. Among both these groups, remnants of pre-Hispanic Nahuatl religion persist in combination with a Catholicism that retains much of the character of its sixteenth-century Hispanic origins.

Folk Catholicism in most Nahuatl villages is more than a superficial veneer on a pre-Hispanic substratum; it constitutes the very meaning of village life. Social solidarity is expressed in terms of spiritual kinship, that is, as godparenthood and ritual commensality. Godparenthood is associated not only with the sacraments of baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage but also with many nonsacramental events ranging from the blessing of dwellings, stores, tractors, and trucks to curing ceremonies and graduation from sixth grade. Baptism, the other sacraments, and blessings sanctify persons and objects and so recruit them into the spiritual family (i.e., the village or neighborhood conceptualized as a sacred community).

Life within the spiritual family is symbolized by the fiesta, which bears an obvious similarity to the Eucharist and the agape (love feast) of early Christians. The fiesta, or ritual meal, consists of three coursesrice, turkey in mole sauce, and beansaccompanied by alcoholic beverages. Fiestas honor the patron saints of neighborhoods and villages and mark the sacramental rites of passage. The festivities occasion momentary conviviality, and their preparation promotes enduring amity by requiring villagers to give generously of their time and resources for the benefit of others. The familial symbolism and sentiments associated with the fiesta system come into sharp focus during the Christmas-Candlemas season, at which time festivities center on the Holy Familythe Christ Child, Mary, and Joseph.

On or about the third of May, fiestas are held to honor mountainside crosses that protect communities and neighborhoods during the rainy season. In a weather-working cult in northern Morelos, crosses are associated with San Miguel Arcángel, four lightning-hurling saints, and groups of "rain dwarfs" (awaque ). The weather-working shamans hold their own ceremonies at mountainside shrines at the beginning of May and again in early November, or roughly at the start and the end of the rainy season.

In contrast to the saints and members of the Holy Family are many evil and Adamic beings who threaten the villagers. Some of these beings are satirized by dancers at carnivals and fairs, where the Devil may be represented by a figure in a red suit with horns. In apparitions, the Devil may appear as a Spanish gentleman, or hacendado, mounted on horseback. Other sinister beings include Death; goblins (the spirits of unbaptized children) who offer women bribes for sexual favors; were-animals called naguales, who molest drunkards and women on unlit paths after nightfall; La Llorona, also known as La Malinche, a sirenlike apparition who aborted or murdered her children after being abandoned by a lover who is sometimes identified as the Spanish conqueror Cortés; witches who cause illness and poverty, and who suck blood from children's necks; Water Snake and Little Bull, two supernatural animals that bring forth crop-damaging winds and rain; and harmful spirits called ehecame ("winds") or los aires. Ehecame cause paralysis, tics and twitches, neuralgia, loss of sensation, skin disorders, and other afflictions. Witches use a technique called aire echado ("thrown air") in which dirt from a grave containing a tonalli, or shadow-soul, is mixed with other ingredients and hurled against the victim's house.

Ehecame can also cause susto ("fright"), an emotional reaction that affects the shadow-soul of a living person and results in depression, insomnia, and loss of appetite. The parts of the shadow-soul are dispersed throughout the bloodstream, but in response to fright they retreat toward the heart or leave the body. In some communities the shadow-soul fragments are likened to animals or are said to take animal form when outside the body. Persons with weak natures are more vulnerable than others to fright-illness.

Fright-illness and various other beliefs indicate that persons having strongeven taintednatures enjoy more protection against evil than do persons with weak or sensitive natures. Indeed, nature as well as spirit is seen as a necessary and inevitable part of a person's total makeup. Thus Nahuatl rituals repeatedly express the place of evil and nature in the overall scheme of things. Ritual impersonations of La Malinche, Cortés, Huehuenches ("old ones"), Tenanchis (the grandmothers of the Christ Child), and the figures of the bull and the deer testify to the importance of the Adamic. In mock bull slayings and deer hunts, the killer/hunter assumes a role analogous to that of the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve. The Tenanchis appear during the Christmas-Candlemas season as enticing, tempting figures suggestive of Eve. Huehuenches dance during Carnival, also evoking the Adamic, but in more sinister fashion: as Herod's agents they are enemies of the Christ Child. In some communities the struggle between the forces of good and evil is dramatized during local fairs by mock battles between "Christians" and "Moors."

The Nahuatl ritual complex thus includes various vestiges of the pre-Hispanic pantheon, but its basic armature is nonetheless recognizably Catholic: Eve and, through her, Adam are deceived by the serpent and so denied immortality, but they generate natural life; by contrast, Christ is killed by the agents of the devil, yet his death offers spiritual immortality. The appeal of these conceptual polarities for Nahuatl villagers may be grounded in the realities and contradictions of peasant existence. The villagers subscribe to spiritual values, but the exigencies of daily life continually remind them of the importance of nature and the ever-present problem of evil.


For a classic ethnographic monograph on a Nahuatl community with information on religion, see William Madsen's The Virgin's Children (Austin, 1960). Hugo G. Nutini and Betty Bell provide a comprehensive description of godparenthood in Ritual Kinship: The Structure and Historical Development of the Compadrazgo System in Rural Tlaxcala (Princeton, 1980). An authoritative treatment of ancient and contemporary Nahuatl conceptions of the soul and related issues can be found in Alfredo López Austin's Cuerpo humano e ideología: Las concepciones de los antiguos nahuas (Mexico City, 1980). Donald Cordry's Mexican Masks (Austin, 1980) illustrates and interprets ritual masks and costumes from various areas, including the Nahuatl region.

New Sources

Alcina Frank, José. Mitos y literatura azteca (Aztec myths and literature). Madrid, 1989.

Burkhart, Louise M. "A Nahuatl Religious Drama of c. 1590." In Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 7 (1991): 153171.

Burkhart, Louise M. "The Aesthetic of Paradise in Nahuatl Devotional Literature." Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (1992): 89109.

History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca. Translated by John Bierhorst. Tucson, 1992.

Neumann, Franke J. "Experience of Time in Nahuatl Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44 (1976): 255263.

John M. Ingham (1987)

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Nahuatl Religion

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