Tlaxcalan Religion

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TLAXCALAN RELIGION . What is in the early twenty-first century the Mexican state of Tlaxcala occupies roughly the same territory as the old pre-Hispanic Tlaxcalan confederacy, an alliance of several indigenous principalities independent of the so-called Aztec empire. Its inhabitants were Nahuatl-speaking Indians, and they were the main allies of Hernán Cortés in the Spanish conquest of Mexico from 1519 to 1522. Present-day Tlaxcala is located on the western fringes of the central Mexican highlands. It is the smallest state in the nation, with a population of slightly more than 600,000. Although less than 15 percent of the population still speaks Nahuatl, the ethnic and somatic composition of Tlaxcala is predominantly Indian, and there persists a strong identification with the Indian past.

Pre-Hispanic Background

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico in 1519 they found a polytheistic religion widespread throughout the area that in the twentieth century came to be known archaeologically and ethnologically as Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica exhibited a rather high degree of cultural uniformity, and in no cultural domain was this more true than in the realm of religion. Thus, Tlaxcalan polytheism was a variant of a pan-Mesoamerican religion, minimally different from, say, Méxica-Aztec, Huastec, Tarascan, Zapotec, or even Maya polytheism.

The main characteristics of Tlaxcalan polytheism were seven:

  1. A highly diversified and specialized pantheon, in which hundreds of patron gods and goddesses relating to nearly every human activity, natural phenomenon, or social grouping were arranged in a somewhat hierarchical order
  2. A complex and extensive ritual and ceremonial yearly cycle regulated by the calendrical system
  3. A sophisticated cosmology and theology centered on the origins and nature of the gods, the creation of humans and the universe, the regulation of humanity's relationship to the gods, the disposition of the dead, and afterlife
  4. A religious ideology that emphasized pragmatism in the relationship between humanity and the supernatural at the expense of values and morality, which were almost exclusively an aspect of the social structure in operation
  5. An extensive and well-organized priesthood in charge of the administration of religion and several ancillary aspects of the social structure
  6. A tremendous emphasis on human sacrifices to the gods and a significant degree of ritual cannibalism
  7. A pronounced concern with bloodshed and the dead, and a cult of the dead approaching ancestor worship

Tlaxcalan religion pervaded every significant cultural domain of the confederacy: society, economy, polity, administration, and the military. Indeed, religion was the driving force of Tlaxcalan culture. In many distinct ways, however, Tlaxcalan religion was not that different from Old World polytheistic systems such as those of the Indo-Europeans and the Chinese: the gods were made in the image of humans, and they exhibited the foibles, virtues, and vices of human beings; the gods were hierarchically arranged in an organized pantheon; the social structure of the gods mirrored that of humans, with whom they interacted in a variety of ways; and religion was essentially a pragmatic ritualistic system regulating the relationship between humans and the supernatural.

Syncretic Development

Tlaxcala was one of the first regions of the continental New World to be subject to systematic efforts to convert its inhabitants. In 1524, the task of indoctrinating the Indian population in the ritual, ceremonial, and theological practices of Roman Catholicism was assigned to the Franciscan friars. For nearly a century the Tlaxcalans were under the religious leadership of the Franciscans. During the second decade of the seventeenth century, the Franciscans were replaced by secular priests and clerics, who continued the catechization of the Indian population. By the end of the seventeenth century, Tlaxcalan Indian Catholicism had essentially crystallized into what it is in the early twenty-first century.

The context of conversion and indoctrination to Catholicism in Tlaxcala can be characterized as "guided syncretism," a policy that the Franciscans consciously followed for two principal reasons: first, to convert the Indians rapidly; and, second, to soften the impact of forced conversion and thus make the new religion more palatable to the masses of the Indian population. This policy of conversion was greatly facilitated by the symbolic, ritual, ceremonial, and formal similarities between the lengthy roster of Catholic saints and the highly diversified Tlaxcalan pantheon. As early as the turn of the seventeenth century, the Tlaxcalan Indians were already practicing a syncretic kind of Catholicism. This was partly the result of the Franciscans' efforts in fostering identifications between the interacting religious traditions, particularly between Tlaxcalan gods and Catholic saints. The same process is evident in the emergence of local (community) religious hierarchies, in which such pre-Hispanic institutions as the priestly houses (calmecac ) and people's houses (telpochcalli ) came to interact with such similar Catholic institutions as stewardships (mayordomías ) and sodalities (cofradías ). The syncretic process undergone by Tlaxcalan religion from 1524 until approximately the last quarter of the seventeenth century permanently marked Indian Catholicism, and to a lesser extent all rural and urban Catholicism throughout the region.

Contemporary Tlaxcalan Religion

Contemporary Tlaxcalan Catholicism is centered on several institutions: the cult of the saints, the cult of the dead, the mayordomía system, the ayuntamiento religioso (local religious hierarchy), and the magico-symbolic system. It may be characterized as primarily a type of folk religion; that is, its ritual and ceremonial complex is markedly different from the national Catholic religion of Mexico and is carried on by the barrios (quasi-socioreligious units), hermandades (brotherhoods), cofradías, and other religious institutions of a syncretic nature. The single most important institution in the administration of Tlaxcalan religion is the república eclesiástica (ecclesiastic republic), which includes all annually elected officials of the numerous stewardships and the local hierarchy.

One fundamental aspect of Tlaxcalan religion remains unchanged: The present-day folk Catholicism retains the essentially pragmatic and ritualistic character of pre-Hispanic polytheism. The supernatural belief system has one general, predominant aim: to make the individual and the collective world of social existence safe and secure by the proper propitiation of all supernatural forces, regardless of the structural means employed. The relationship between humans and the supernatural, then, is characterized by pragmatic and rather selfish motives for which the individual and the group pay dearly in terms of time and economic and social resources.

Finally, there is a significant magical component to Tlaxcalan religion. It coexists side by side with folk Catholicism and is regulated by the same belief system. Although the practice of magic sometimes merges with folk Catholicism and is part of the syncretic complex, more often it forms a separate system. Witchcraft, sorcery, soul loss, and belief in a series of anthropomorphic or animistic supernaturals constitute the bulk of the magical component. All these practices are of pre-Hispanic origin, but they do contain elements of European and even African witchcraft and sorcery, some of which became syncretized independently of Catholicism.


Pre-Hispanic Polytheism

Carrasco, Pedro. "La sociedad mexicana antes de la Conquista." In Historia general de México, vol. 1, edited by Bernardo García Martínez. Mexico City, 1976.

López Austin, Alfredo. Hombre Dios: Religión y política en el mundo náhuatl. Mexico City, 1973.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las 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.

Syncretic Development

Gibson, Charles. Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century. New Haven, Conn., 1952.

Nutini, Hugo G., and Betty Bell. Ritual Kinship, vol. 1, The Structure and Historical Development of the Compadrazgo System in Rural Tlaxcala. Princeton, N. J. 1980.

Contemporary Folk Catholicism

Nutini, Hugo G. San Bernardino Contla: Marriage and Family Structure in a Tlaxcalan Municipio. Pittsburgh, 1968.

Nutini, Hugo G. Ritual Kinship, vol. 2, Ideological and Structural Integration of the Compadrazgo System in Rural Tlaxcala. Princeton, N. J., 1984.

Nutini, Hugo G., and Barry L. Isaac. "Ideology and the Sacro-Symbolic Functions of Compadrazgo in Santa María Belén Azitzimititlán, Tlaxcala, Mexico." Uomo: Società, tradizione, sviluppo 1 (1977): 81120.

Hugo G. Nutini (1987 and 2005)