Native American Religions – Part one

Richard Williams Brooks – USA

[The following article is from the Theosophical Encyclopedia, edited by Philip S. Harris, Vicente R. Hao Chin, Jr., and Richard W. Brooks (Quezon City, Philippines: Theosophical Publishing House, 2006), pp. 25-32.]

American Religions, Native [Part 1, pp. 25-29]

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Those who romanticize the religious traditions of the natives of North America (often called American Indian or Amerind) identify them as ecological, involving a profound reverence for nature. Although true, it is overly simplistic. Certainly, the theme of appreciation — even reverence — for nature was an important aspect of the religious ideas of the natives of North America, but other than that there are considerable variations in their beliefs. And the religions of the natives of Central and South America — especially of the highly developed Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec, Mayan, Aztec, and Inca civilizations — differ significantly from them. Most of the religions of the Americas existed only in oral traditions, since very few of the tribes had a written language. There may have been as many as 600 different languages in North America, 300 more in Central America, and 1400 in South America, of which more than two-thirds have become extinct since the arrival of the Europeans. Even those which had a literature, such as the Mixtecs, Mayas, and Aztecs, lost much of it when it was destroyed by Spanish conquerors.

It is common to classify Native American customs, mode of life, social structure, and religious beliefs according to 15 geographic areas which differ significantly in climate, vegetation, terrain, and availability of food. The usual order of listing of them is: arctic, subarctic, northeast (or eastern woodlands), southeast, plains (or prairies), plateau, northwest coast, great basin, California, southwest, middle America (or Mesoamerica), Caribbean, Andes, tropical forest, and South American marginal. Differences in religion tend to be associated with these different general areas. For purposes of this encyclopedia, there will be a four-fold division: North America, Central America, South America, and Maya. Only the Māyā and Inca receive any extensive discussion in early theosophical writings. Recently, there have been theosophical publications concerning the natives of North America, but even those do not explore the religious ideas theosophically. This article shall cover the Central American and North American Indian Religions.

It is hypothesized by some anthropologists that humans migrated to the Americas as long as 35,000 years ago by way of the Bering Straits during the glacial period because the ice mass covering North America had caused the ocean levels to recede significantly, affording a solid land bridge where there are now a chain of islands (the Aleutians). The theosophical view, as articulated by Blavatsky, suggests that the migration came westward much earlier from Europe and northern Africa (IU I:552), since she claims similarities between ideas among “the Mexican Indians” (presumably Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs) and the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians in the use of the tau (IU II:254; cf. I:555, 572), the name of their priests (IU I:556; SD II:213), some religious ideas (IU I:551, 553-4, 557-60), and certain taboos relating to fire, which either came from or spread to other areas, such as the Sioux in the plains of North America (IU I:248). And there is the obvious similarity between the pyramids of Egypt and those in Mexico and Central America. But she also states that there was a direct contact between the American continent and the Euro-African continent during the Atlantean period (IU I:558; SD II:407 fn) and that the ideographs used by the “Red Indians,” i.e., the hieroglyphics used by Olmecs, Mixtecs, Toltecs, and Mayans, are related to Senzar, the sacred language of the Atlanteans (SD II:439). She claims that “man has lived in America at least 50,000 years ago” (CW II:335). That would mean the ancestors of those people migrated to what are now the Americas millennia ago mainly by land. Probably both theories are correct, the native tribes of North America coming eastward from Asia as descendants of the “Nagas, the Serpents of Wisdom” (SD II:182), and the more highly developed Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations coming westward from what was then Atlantis. This would account for the difference in their ideas as well as the great difference in the levels of their civilization. There is archeological and linguistic evidence that the Aztecs migrated into Mexico from North America. They, then, would represent an intermixing of the two streams, since they obviously got much of their culture from the older Mayan civilization.

The name “Indian” for the natives of the Americas is derived from Christopher Columbus’ belief that he had discovered a western sea route to the “Indies” (which, to Europeans at that time, included India, China, Japan, and the Malay archipelago) when he landed, in 1492, first on Watling Island in the Bahamas and subsequently on Cuba and Hispañola, then in his second expedition also on the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica in 1493, then also on Trinidad on his third expedition in 1498, and finally also on the coast of Central America on his fourth expedition in 1502. Obviously, the natives themselves did not, until recently, adopt that name. In fact, in North America, some of the tribal names translate as “human being” (e.g., Anishnabe, Inuit, Dene, or Numuna, the first being the name the Ojibwa and Chippewa had for themselves; the last being the name the Comanches had for themselves). “Lenape” (sometimes called the Delaware) means “genuine people” and “Lenni Lenape,” another name they called themselves, means “really genuine people.” In Central and South America, many of the civilizations were named after an area in which remains of their culture were discovered. Specific articles, therefore, will follow the current practice of naming.

It is commonplace in theosophical literature to find an essential unity underlying all the various religions of the world. Blavatsky says of the caves of Ellora in western India and the temples found in the Deccan of India as well as temples at Chichén Itzá in the Mexican Yucatán or at Copán in Guatamala, “They present such features of resemblance that it seems impossible to escape the conviction that they were built by peoples moved by the same religious ideas, and that had reached an equal level of highest civilization in arts and sciences” (IU I:561). And she adds that even if they were not racially or culturally connected, they were “at least of the same religion — the one taught in the oldest Mysteries” (ibid., 567) because, she says, “There never was, nor can there be more than one universal religion; for there can be but one truth concerning God. Like an immense chain whose upper end, the alpha, remains invisibly emanating from a Deity — in statu abscondito with every primitive theology — it encircles our globe in every direction; it leaves not even the darkest corner unvisited, before the other end, the omega, turns back on its way to be again received where it first emanated. On this divine chain was strung the exoteric symbology of every people. Their variety of form is powerless to affect their substance, and under their diverse ideal types of the universe of matter, symbolizing its vivifying principles, the uncorrupted immaterial image of the spirit of being guiding them is the same” (IU I:560).

The specific articles referred to above attempt to point out parallels with theosophy wherever possible since one does find hints of esoteric ideas — mystery teachings — in the myths of many of the ancient cultures of the Americas. Yet, it is also obvious that some of the tribes and civilizations had religious views, as well as practices such as human sacrifice and cannibalism, significantly different from theosophy and unrelated to any mystery teachings or esoteric ideas.

Native Central Mayan Religions

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The earliest natives of Mexico and Central America of which we have any knowledge were the Olmecs (“Rubber People”), whose name seems to have been given to them because that area is where people later learned to tap the trees for making rubber. They are sometimes called the La Venta culture after the site in Mexico where remains of their civilization were first discovered. Evidence suggests that their territory extended from central Mexico to El Salvador, with its cultural center primarily in the coastal areas of southern Veracruz and Tabasco. Their empire and culture lasted at least from 1200 BCE to 300 CE. Although they possessed hieroglyphic writing, an accurate calendar, and exquisite sculpture and gem carving, little is known about their religious beliefs. They carved huge stone heads, presumably anthropomorphic representations of their gods, weighing up to 36,000 pounds (16,300 kg.) which they transported more than 50 miles (80 km.) to their present locations. Carvings show the sun, carrying a child in the form of a jaguar (perhaps representing the planet Venus), emerging from the mouth of a giant animal which represents the earth. They constructed pyramids for ceremonial purposes and also as burial sites of important persons, since skeletal remains and funerary objects have been found in rooms under the pyramids. Since these practices are also found in Mayan culture, it has been assumed that the Mayans adopted at least some of the Olmec beliefs. There is also evidence that Mayan culture was influenced, probably at a later time, by invasions from areas around present-day Mexico City, i.e., from the Toltecs and early Aztecs. The Mayans, in turn, also influenced the Aztecs.

Following the Olmecs was the Izapan culture located along the western side of what is now Guatemala. Since Izapan writing and stone monuments are similar to those of the Mayas, it is assumed that they were the immediate antecedents of Mayan culture, which emerged around the fourth century in the Chiapas province of Mexico and adjoining area of Guatemala, whose name is the modern form of the Nahuatl word “Cuautemallan” or “place of many trees.”

Another Mexican culture, the Mixtec (pronounced “Mish-tek”), lived in Oaxaca, Puebla, and part of Guerrero in southwest Mexico. Their origin is obscure. They were probably influenced by Olmecs and flourished prior to arrival in their area of the Toltecs. They had extended periods of warfare with their rivals, the Zapotecs, as well as with the Aztecs, before they were subjugated by the Spanish. Little is known of their religious beliefs and neither the Mixtecs nor Zapotecs are mentioned in theosophical literature. The religious pantheon of the Zapotecs was headed by the rain god Cosijo who is represented iconographically by a combination of an earth-jaguar and a sky-serpent, symbols common to many of the Mesoamerican cultures. Possibly they have an esoteric significance, the jaguar, a stealthy predator, representing the impermanence of the physical world and the serpent, often associated with the occult force known in Sanskrit as kundalinī (literally “serpentine”), representing the permanence of the spiritual.

The Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs, whose name means “master builders,” flourished in central Mexico and the Yucatan between the 10th and 13th centuries. Their early history is obscure, but they seem to have had links with the Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Their religion centered around Quetzalcoatl (lit. “serpent with feathers of the quetzal bird”), who was a god of civilization identified with the planet Venus and wind. He is depicted in iconography with what appear to be rattles on his tail, so must have been considered a feathered rattlesnake. He represented forces of goodness and light and was pitted against Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking Mirror”), a deity associated with the night sky, moon, and stars, and who represented the forces of darkness, evil, and destruction. One myth has Tezcatlipoca driving Quetzalcoatl out of the Toltec capital city of Tula (in central Mexico), whereupon the latter wandered for many years until he reached his homeland on the east coast of the country. According to one version of the myth he was consumed by fire there, rising in the sky to become the planet Venus; according to another version he sailed off to a mythical land with a promise to return. Blavatsky notes that it was common among ancient cultures to represent “wisdom and immortality” as a serpent (IU I:553), which would indicate that there is an esoteric interpretation of the Quetzalcoatl myth. Since the snake was, as noted above, mythologically associated with the sky (symbolizing a heavenly or spiritual state of consciousness), it was depicted as bird-like, i.e., feathered. What his association with a rattlesnake might indicate, however, is not at all clear.

Toltec ceremonies included a sacred ball game (tlatchli), which the Mayans and Aztecs also played, sun worship, and human sacrifice. It is believed by anthropologists that the name Quetzalcoatl was originally the name of a Toltec ruler, but Blavatsky suggests that the influence is the reverse, rulers and priests often taking the name of their deity (IU I:550). C. A. Burland (Montezuma: Lord of the Aztecs, 1973, pp. 23-4) supports the latter claim, the first Toltec ruler taking the name of the god, followed later by eight others who did the same. The Toltecs went into decline in the 13th century as a result of invasions by the Chichimecs who, in turn, were then conquered by the Aztecs. There is only passing mention in early theosophical literature (cf. IU I:552) of the Toltecs and their ancient urban center, Tula, which includes impressive pyramidal structures, one of which is dedicated to Quetzalcoatl. The Chichimecs are not mentioned at all.

The Mayan civilization does have several references in theosophical literature and deserves a separate entry along with its principle text Popul Vuh or “Council Book,” so it will not be detailed here. See Mayan Religion.

The term Aztec was applied to the last of the great empires of Mexico by a Spanish historian, Francisco Xavier Clavijero, in the 18th century. The Aztecs called themselves Mexíca (pronounced “Me-shee-ka”) who around 1100-1160 CE migrated into the area of central Mexico from a place they called Aztlán, which gives us the word “Aztec.” It is from their name for themselves that the word Mexico (pronounced “Mey-hi-co”) is derived. Convention, however, now dictates that we refer to them as Aztecs. Our knowledge of them is based on a few codices written in hieroglyphics, post-conquest copies of lost manuscripts (many of which were burned as “works of the devil” by priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadores), and a verbal tradition. Unfortunately, there are inconsistencies between these sources so reconstructing their religious beliefs must be considered somewhat tentative. And the post-conquest writings were done by people familiar with the Old Testament, so they often attempted, quite improbably, to connect the Aztecs with one of the lost tribes of Israel (cf. J. Eric S. Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Mayan Civilization, 2nd ed. 1966, p. 33, who attributes the claim to an eccentric Englishman, Lord Kingsborough [Antiquities of Mexico, 1831]; cf. also Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: a History, 1974, p. 9, who quotes a Spanish historian).

The chief deity of the Aztecs was the war god Huitzilopochtli (“Blue [or Southern] Hummingbird”), who is said to have guided them, by communicating in dreams with their priests, during their migration from Aztlán into central Mexico. Huitzilopochtli, who is also a sun god reborn every morning from the womb of his mother the earth goddess Coatlicue (“Serpent-Skirted,” also known as Tonantzin, “Our Mother”), is depicted in iconography as hideous. The Aztecs propitiated him with human sacrifices, usually enemies captured in war. There is a temple dedicated to him at the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán (lit. “Beside Cactus Rock”) which the Columbia Encyclopedia extols as “a great architectural achievement of pre-Columbian America.” Later Aztecs associated Huitzilopochtli with the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl. Huitzilopochtli is indirectly associated with rain, since the Aztecs noted that the hummingbird (huitzilin) makes its appearance there in the rainy season. But they also had a rain god, Tlaloc, to whom human sacrifices (especially of young children) were performed; his sister (or wife), Coyalxauhque (“Jade-Skirted”), was the goddess of water. Xiuhtecuhtli ( the Fire God who was “Lord of Life”) was thought to bring the soul into existence. There were many other gods as well, one of which was another sun god, Tonatiuh (lit. “The Sun”), whose face appears in the center of the famous Aztec Stone; surrounding him are four panels representing the four previous “creations” of the world, which were destroyed by jaguars (symbolic of earth and represented by Tezcatlipoca, god of night), wind (represented by Ehécatl, sometimes associated with Quetzalcoatl), fire (represented by Chalchiuhtlicue), and water (represented by Tlaloc, god of rain), in other words one each of the four classical elements. In fact, the Aztecs, like the Mayans, identified gods and goddesses which presided over all aspects of their lives. As in Hinduism, they often appear as couples, “based on the ever-present Mexican principle of duality,” as Davies puts it (op. cit., p. 143). The highest of these, the original creator pair residing in a remote heaven called Omeyocan (“Two-Place”), were Omecihuatl (“Two-Lord”) and Omecihuatl (“Two- Lady”). Little more than lip-service was given them. A male god whose name suggests a duality was Ometochtli (“Two Rabbit”), god of the sacred intoxicating drink pulque, made from the agave fruit; he is also associated with the moon, since Aztecs, like Hindus, perceived the shadows on the full moon to form the shape of a rabbit. Somewhat related to the idea of a life-death duality are Tlazolteotl (“Goddess of Extrusion [or Emission]”) who was associated with birth, sexual pleasure, and evacuation, to whom people would make confession at the end of their lives, and Mictlantecuhtil (“Lord of the Place of Death”) who ruled the underworld and is depicted as a skeleton.

The Aztec priests believed in both magic and prophesy. Their “sacred book of fate,” as Burland terms it (op. cit., p. 50), was the Teoamoxtli which priests alone could read and which they consulted on all important occasions. Priestly education for boys was at a special school called calmecac, and involved rigorous training not only in liturgics and study of the sacred mythology, but also masochistic ordeals that would prepare them to endure hardships, since the religious students had to accompany soldiers into battle to carry spears, war clubs, and other equipment. On certain ritual occasions, priests would purify the altar with their own blood by piercing their bodies and tongues with bone awls and agave spines. Postulants had to go out at night to catch scorpions and poisonous spiders, roast them, and then grind the results into a black powder which priests spread over their bodies; it contained a substance which deadened pain and produced a state of euphoria during ritual performances. Aztec priests, unlike Mayan priests, were celibate.

Aztec mythology claimed that the world has undergone five “creations,” the first four being destroyed by jaguars (symbolic of earth), a hurricane (wind), volcanic eruptions (fire), and a flood (water), the four elements represented in the Aztec Stone. If one identifies these as analogous to the theosophical idea of the Root Races, the Aztec notion that we are in the fifth of those “creations” is essentially the same as one finds in The Secret Doctrine. It also suggests that the Aztecs, unlike the Mayans, thought of themselves as post-Atlantean. Flood myths, of course, are common to many cultures around the world and may be interpreted either allegorically as signifying being overwhelmed by psychic experiences during the Fourth Root Race, with the result that the intellect now prevails in the Fifth Root Race, or else as literally referring to an actual flood which occurred when the island of Poseidonis, the last remnant of the continent of Atlantis, sank about 12,000 years ago (SD II:765). The Aztecs believed the fifth “creation” will end with earthquakes. In order to forestall that catastrophe, they believed, human victims had to be sacrificed at certain important festivals and their hearts cut out and offered to the appropriate god.

The Aztecs cremated their dead (cf. Davies, p. 58, 151), as do the Hindus, unlike the Mayans who buried their dead (cf. Thompson, p. 68 ff). But since the Aztecs propitiated a god of the underworld, they (like the Mayans) obviously believed in a kind of life after death, which Blavatsky says is in the form of a “living spirit” (yuli) which issues from the body through the mouth or head at the moment of bodily death (CW II:171-2). Blavatsky cites a claim that they, like other pre-Spanish Mexicans, “believed in numerous spirit-abodes, into one of which the shades of innocent children were placed until final disposal; into another, situated in the sun, ascended the valiant souls of heroes, while the hideous spectres of incorrigible sinners were sentenced to wander and despair in subterranean caves, held in the bonds of the earth-atmosphere, unwilling and unable to liberate themselves. They passed their time in communicating with mortals, and frightening those who could see them” (IU I:313).

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Central American religious practices for modern man to understand is that of human sacrifice, especially of young children. It is easy for us to see it as barbaric. And from a theosophical point of view it is — or is, at the very least, misguided. But one must put it in the context of the fact that Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese immolated servants and slaves in the tombs of royalty, devout Catholics burned at the stake people they considered heretics, and contemporary devout Muslims “martyr” themselves in acts of terrorism against “infidels.” And, as Davies points out, “It is probably not incorrect to maintain that [sacrificial victims] were offered at times to Huitzilopochtli as the sun, but, in the main, the victims tended themselves to become the god to whom they would be sacrificed. … In a sense, therefore, they died as the god, not for the god. … The personification of the god by the victim helps explain the apparent lack of resistance to being sacrificed” (Davies, p. 171). In fact, the victim was often first honored as a “son of the sun” and then dressed in clothing associated with the deity, sometimes even made to perform actions identified with the deity, before being ceremonially killed. It was believed, then, that this action not only propitiated the deity, but also helped maintain the natural order (keep the sun rising, bring rain, forestall the eventual earthquake that is to destroy our present “creation,” etc.). It also guaranteed the victim a place in a delightful paradise, as depicted in Aztec frescoes. It must, however, also be noted that human sacrifices became more barbaric and numerous following the four-year famine of 1450-1454; wars with neighboring city-states were often waged merely for the purpose of capturing men to be sacrificed, sometimes 500 or even 1000 at a time (cf. Davies, pp. 96-8, 163, 167, 169, 218), and even willing sacrificial victims were drugged beforehand with pulque (cf. Davies, p. 101).

Despite their practice of human sacrifice, Blavatsky points out the fact that, “the Aztecs appeared in more than one way to have resembled the ancient Egyptians in civilization and refinement. Among both peoples magic or the arcane natural philosophy was cultivated to the highest degree” (IU I:560). As for “natural philosophy,” they, like other cultures which preceded them in Mexico and Central America, had a considerable knowledge of astronomy and a more accurate calendar (both solar, based on 365 days, and ceremonial, based on 260 days divided into 20 weeks of 13 days each) than their Spanish conquerors (cf. IU I:11). As for “magic,” the only indication of that in scholarly sources is the claim that the priests received frequent instructions in their dreams from Huitzilopochtli. Aztec priests enjoyed considerable social status, practically on a par with the nobility; the ruler himself was, in fact, of the priestly class. In addition to conducting rites, priests were educators and also warriors. One of their functions was to march at the head of the regular troops, carrying images of their gods on their backs, and blow shell horns to signal the attack (Davies, p. 187).

The Aztecs (along with other Mesoamericans), as can be seen in their iconography, conceived of their gods in anthropomorphic (as well as zoomorphic) ways, thus when the Spanish conquistadores arrived on the shores of Mexico in 1519 they were greeted as gods. Some even considered Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl returned from the sea (cf. Davies, pp. 237, 239-40) and reported such to the Aztec ruler Mohtecuzomatzin or Moctezuma (usually anglicized “Montezuma”). Although ambivalent that this white-faced man at the head of his small white-faced army was really Quetzalcoatl, when Cortés finally entered the capital city Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma, dressed in regal splendor, greeted him as if he were the god returning to his “own land” (Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Bernal Díaz Chronicles, p. 138; cited in Davies, p. 255). Whether he really believed that, however, is doubtful (cf. Davies, pp. 258-261). In any event, Moctezuma could hardly have foreseen that the Aztecs and their neighbors were soon to be conquered by the Spanish, the images of their gods destroyed, and their people converted, often forcibly, to Catholicism (Davies, pp. 300-1). Nevertheless, priests called “daykeepers” (ajq’ij) still maintain some of the old religious traditions, though without human sacrifice.

End of Part One, to be continued.

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