A Dialog on Aztec and Maya Religion

from World-L <world-l@ubvm.cc.buffalo.edu>
July, 1995

Message-ID: <28JUL95.11332772.0016.MUSIC@MSUMUSIK.MURSUKY.EDU>
Date: Fri, 28 Jul 1995 10:29:35 CST
Sender: World-L - Forum on non-Eurocentric world history <WORLD-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu>
Subject: Maya/Aztec/Christian sacrifice

Date: Wed, 26 Jul 1995 12:12:58 -0500 (EST)
From: "J.David Parker" <PARKER.D@fs.newcomb.wlu.edu>

A number of issues:

Not being an expert on the Maya or the Aztecs, I would welcome comment from someone who is. I thought there were some substantial differences between the Maya and the Aztecs. I had the impression that Maya kings rather than ordinary people bore the brunt of atonement practices. Among the Aztecs, however, I thought the burden fell on warriors--either "home grown" or of neighboring city-states. If I am correct, then there are greater similarities between the Maya and Christians than between the Aztecs and Christians, since the Maya kings, say, were using thorns on themselves.

For Christians, Jesus was sacrificed by authorities who humiliated him with a crown of thorns and other mistreatment. Aztec authorities likewise took the lives of the "vehicles of atonement" (I hesitate to call them victims, since--at least to begin with or in some cases-- the man sacrificed apparently consented) but did not humiliate them.

It seems to me, then, that Christians and Maya share the view that it is appropriate for the high and mighty to suffer for their people, although Christians are ambivalent about this since we think it a great shame that someone "perfect" should have been brought to grief on behalf of the "wicked."

Aztecs and Christians are alike in that both assign important roles to the authorities, but for Christians the authorities are without virtue, and the one person described as instrumental in the sacrifice--Judas Iscariot--is vilified for all time. Among the Aztecs, the authorities acted as priests in the temple in Jerusalem had in Old Testament times--they carried out the sacrifices with no loss of virtue, and certainly without ignominy.

I must confess that is seems at least as logical to me to extend deference to both the priest and the lamb he sacrifices as it does to damn the priest and praise the lamb.

However, before rattling on about all this, it would be good to know if I have my facts straight.


J. David Parker Washington & Lee, History Lexington VA 24450

Phone: 703 463-8780 H: 463-4046
FAX 703 463-8945

Message-ID: <28JUL95.11325646.0016.MUSIC@MSUMUSIK.MURSUKY.EDU>
Date: Fri, 28 Jul 1995 10:29:12 CST
Sender: World-L - Forum on non-Eurocentric world history <WORLD-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu>
Subject: Maza/Aztec/Christian Sacrifice

Date: Thu, 27 Jul 1995 07:07:09 -0500 (EST)

From: "J.David Parker" <PARKER.D@fs.newcomb.wlu.edu>


You are correct. Some Christian groups (and certainly Roman Catholics) believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist BECOME the body and blood of Jesus Christ. They are not symbols, they are new substances that have been miraculously tranformed.


Message-ID: <28JUL95.11306878.0016.MUSIC@MSUMUSIK.MURSUKY.EDU>
Date: Fri, 28 Jul 1995 10:28:09 CST
Sender: World-L - Forum on non-Eurocentric world history <WORLD-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu>
Subject: Maya/Aztec Sacrice (was Time-life segment)

Date: Tue, 25 Jul 1995 11:22:06 -0600 (CST)
From: Bill Schell, A28443F <A28443F@MSUMUSIK.MURSUKY.EDU>

Jackie Kent writes:

"The National Geographic video, which I use in my classes, is matter of fact and straightforward on the bloodletting of Mayan royalty. The Time-Life segment emphasized the word "sacrifice" whenever talking of this. With the connotation of the word sacrifice, it made the entire issue much darker than was necessary." rhaps

As J. David Parker later noted as part of this discussion, sacrifice is a word deeply entrenched in christian though and possessing largely positive connotations. Therefore it cannot be that the use of the word alone is prejudicial. Jackie, however, feels that it "perpetuates

a cultural misunderstanding -- applying twentieth century western values to a civilization with its own values in a time when those values were not commonplace in many places of the world, including Europe... (and) that it is important that we help (our students) understand that the he practices of these civilizations were not considered wrong to the people themselves."

I think that there is ample evidence that a great many Mayans and most of those under Aztec rule did, in fact, consider human sacrifice (or at least the scale upon which it was practiced) to be wrong (or at least unjust). The latest evidence suggests that the Maya collapse was not due to environmental factors, but to a decision by the common folk (who bore the burden of sacrifical demands) to vote with their feet to avoid the honor of meeting their ancestors heart/head in hand. The defeat of the Aztec empire was a direct result of the violent displacement of a legitimate god who required no human sacrifice (Quetzalcoatl) and the substitution by the Aztec warrior elite of a voracious consumer of human hearts Huitzilopochtli) as an instrument of state terror producing a systemic weakeness exploited by the other peoples of Mexico to rid themselves of their hated overlords. The virtues and vices of the Spaniards is a debate I do not care to enter, but with regard to the question of blood sacrifice in Christianity raised by David, I think that there is a signifcant difference between having a god die for you and you dying for your god (as the Jefferson Airplane once sang "I'd rather have my country die for me"). Also, in the symbolic consumption of the flesh and blood of god-made-man, and the actual consumption of (say) your neighbor. One thing is certain -- sacr ifice always has great moral resonance, for those who buy into the "hegomonic program" (as we say in the ed-biz). With regard to the order of the presentation -- to show the bloody side of the Maya first would certainly have prejudiced the viewer against all of the great achievements of their great civilization.

Bill Schell
History Dept
Murray State University
MURRAY, KY 42071

phone: (502) 762-6572
fax: (502) 762-3424

Message-ID: <WORLD-L%95072812442178@UBVM.CC.BUFFALO.EDU>
Date: Fri, 28 Jul 1995 11:24:05 CDT
Sender: World-L - Forum on non-Eurocentric world history <WORLD-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu>
From: Morris Simon <MSIMON@UA1VM.UA.EDU>
Subject: Re: Maya/Aztec Sacrifice (was Time-Life Segment on Mayas)

On Fri, 28 Jul 1995 10:28:32 CST A28443F said:

From: thh1@cornell.edu (Tom Holloway)

. . . <OMITTED TEXT>. . . .

More specifically to the comparisons Bill questions: as I understand the doctrine of transubstantiation in certain Christian theological circles, the eucharist involves consumption not of wine and bread intended to represent or symbolize the flesh and blood of God/the Son of Man, but the Real Thing. If I'm wrong on this, I'd like to be corrected by someone "into it" more than I confess to being.

Transubstantiation was first introduced into Christian doctrine during the 12th century as an explanation of Christ's "Real Presence" in the Eucharest. The doctrine was debated by scholastic theologians (many of neo-Platonic bent) for more than 200 years. It finally became official Roman Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Needless to say, the doctrine increased the power of the Roman clergy, without whom the mystical process could not occur; no priest, no Eucharist. Thus it became one of the major philosphical and liturgical differences in the Reformation, with most Protestant scholars rejecting transubstantiation and other mystical phenomena (such as the sacrament of Penance) which required the special powers of an ordained priest.

It is interesting to me that such doctrines as these were introduced into non-western philosophical and religious systems by Catholic missionaries at critical culture change points and blended in sycretist fashion with traditional magic and ritual. The form of the Eucharest in many Native American and African cultures, for example, reflects local interpretations of transubstantiation which are congruent with local understandings of magical practices, witchcraft and sorcery. And many reactions to the imposition of Christian doctrine during colonial periods have had roots in these symbolic mixtures of western and non-western mystical elements.

Morris Simon <msimon@ua1vm.ua.edu>
International Studies Program, Stillman College

Message-ID: <301AD68A@smtpgate.unipissing.ca>
Date: Sat, 29 Jul 1995 17:41:00 PDT
Sender: World-L - Forum on non-Eurocentric world history <WORLD-L@UBVM.cc.buffalo.edu>
Subject: Sacrifice and the depicition of others

Nice to see some activity on this list after a hiatus.

There have been some pretty perceptive comments. I would like to agree with a couple of points.

  1. We do interpret all past history in terms of our view of the present and our present values. We do make heroes and villains of the people of the past in terms they might not understand at all, to satisfy present needs. This is particularly true when we give a quick and necessarily superficial account of an entire exotic civilization, as Time-Life editors or lecturers in introductory courses are forced to do.
  2. When we contrast the past or people in a different culture to ourselves, we do run the danger of seeing ourselves as the standard of rationality and humanity, a position we in fact do not hold. It is hard in a quick view of "the other" to devote the appropriate time and energy to counteracting this easy assumption of superiority. It becomes more complicated by the fact that some subtlety is necessary. Beating people over the head with the sins of our own culture (and thus implying or more than implying that some "other" is far more spiritual and humane, often without evidence); this is what gave "political correctness" a bad name.
  3. It is inappropriate to hold ourselves up uncritically as a great standard of humanity and rationality. It is also inappropriate to hold non-Western civilizations up inappropriately as the standards of same. Long ago I read Prescott's *Conquest of Mexico* and I was really impressed by how revolting the Aztecs were, how much their subjects hated them, and how willing the subjects were to work with the Spaniards to overthrow the overlords. Whatever the crimes of the Spanish conquerors, such factors should not be overlooked. Building false utopias in the distance is dishonest. One should not exculpate Stalin because one hates Hitler, or vice versa.

Steve Muhlberger
Nipissing University
North Bay, Ontario, CANADA

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