Grizzly Gods in Mexican religion

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The prisoners are led by a priest through a cheering crowd of commoners towards the towering, 40 m high pyramid. When they reach the platform on top of the pyramid, the procession is greeted by more priests draped in embroidered garments, wearing crowns of long and colourful parrot feathers. One after another, the captives are bent over the black sacrifice stone. Their blue-painted bodies glisten in the sun. While four priests hold them down at their ankles and wrists, the fifth one cuts out the heart in a few quick movements, using a black, dagger-like obsidian knife. Offering the still beating heart to the gods he hopes to please them and thus ensure good harvests as well as military victories. The cheering and roaring of the crowds below has now reached its climax.

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It is the third movie we have to watch on the first class bus between Monterrey and Zacatecas. Different from the first two action flicks we saw, this one at least offers something of an introduction into the bloody religious rituals of the Aztecs.

The grizzly Aztec empire

The last of the great Mesoamerican cultures, which was still strong when the European explorers arrived in Mexico, the Aztec empire stretched from the Gulf coast to the Pacific. Its capital was in Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City. The Aztecs may not have known metal weapons, but they had a very elaborate religious system. Their gods, for whom they built huge pyramids, demanded numerous human sacrifices. According to some Spanish sources, 20,000 (or even more) people were ritually killed in a single festivity lasting of four days.

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While this is clearly an exaggeration by the victorious Europeans trying to discredit the indigenous religions (the German scholar Wolfgang Haberland once calculated that at most 2180 people could possibly be killed in this way within four days), their fierce heritage may have made the Aztecs more susceptible to the new faith spread by the Spanish missionaries. The Jesuits and other priests brought images of the dying Christ, nailed onto the cross as well as depictions of martyrs carrying their torture tools.

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Grizzly Christian gods

This worked much better than in China, where the early missionaries, as Jonathan D. Spence describes in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, had to revert to the gentler image of the Virgin Mary: the refined, Confucian Chinese upper-class was horrified by the grizzly images of Christ and the martyrs.

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“Look over there!” The girl is showing her friend a depiction of the flagellation of Christ. After both taking a closer look, they stroll along the aisle towards the altar. Depositing their ice-cream sundaes on one of the church benches, they take photos of each other in the cathedral of Zacatecas. Like the other colonial churches we have visited in Mexico, it is cluttered with pompous saints, most of whom we don’t recognise because they hold different insignia than they do in Europe. Images of the crucified Christ are very realistic, often with human hair, and usually splattered with blood. On the other hand, he is almost always dressed in a short embroidered skirt. Could it be that the usual loin-cloth, which we assume he also wears under the skirt, is perceived as indecent? As might be tampons without applicator? We couldn’t even find them in the capital.

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The young woman sitting on the lap of her boyfriend playfully nibbles at his earlobe, while he is fondling her belly. Several other couples around us also use the warm weather for some outdoor hugging in the Alameda Park. Deya, who grew up in Mexico City, rolls her eyes: “People practically have sex on a Sunday afternoon on a park bench…” These public displays of affection do not fit with the conservative image we had of catholic Mexico.

We are making our way south now, to the fabulous ruins of the Maya, and will keep you posted.

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