Aztecs, Canaanites, and Human Evil

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Chris Du-Pond

I grew up in Mexico and I have been a Christian for 22 years. I have frequent interactions with skeptics and Christian Spanish-speakers alike in the United States. Sooner or later the question of the eternal destiny of the unevangelized Aztecs comes up: if Christ is the only way to God, what happened to the Aztecs? If God is just, did he provide a way for them to be saved? Why did God allow the conquistadors to commit genocide on such a rich culture?

These are poignant questions that deserve fair answers. In this document I will argue that in fact God provided a way for the Aztecs, and other pre-Columbian cultures to be saved, but it is unlikely that they responded favorably to God’s natural revelation given the similarity of their sin with that of the ancient Canaanites.

The Unevangelized Aztecs

The Aztec empire flourished and peaked between the years 1480 and 1500 AD under the rule of Ahuitzotl, the eighth Aztec ruler. It is estimated that by the year 1519 AD the Aztecs ruled over 25 million people.[1] The capital of the empire, Tenochtitlan (current Mexico City) had a population of 200,000 by conservative estimates.[2] During the same timeframe, London had a population of 40,000 and Paris, 65,000.[3] When the Spaniards arrived to the city of Tenochtitlan, built in the middle of Lake Texcoco, they were just amazed. They equaled their experience to walking into a dream.

The Aztecs had no access to Christianity until the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortéz in 1519 AD. Salvation appeared beyond access to prior generations of Native Americans. Jesus claimed to be the only path to God (Jn. 14:6); however we see that Jesus, the Word, “was in the beginning with God.”[4] Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, has existed eternally as part of the Godhead and “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.”[5] We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that God’s power and deity are revealed in the “creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”[6] God has written moral laws in the human heart[7] and nations are responsible to this natural revelation. God is ready to extend mercy and salvation[8] to those who respond properly to his moral code. Thus, Jesus, as the everlasting “Logos,” was accessible to all before his incarnation and so was God’s salvation offer (Gal. 2:7). Dr. William Lane Craig explains this fact clearly:

This is not to say that people can be saved apart from Christ. Rather it is to say that the benefits of Christ’s atoning death could be applied to people without their conscious knowledge of Christ. Such persons would be similar to certain people mentioned in the Old Testament like Job and Melchizedek, who had no conscious knowledge of Christ and were not even members of the covenant family of Israel and yet clearly enjoyed a personal relationship with God. Similarly, there could be modern-day Jobs living among that percentage of the world’s population which has yet to hear the Gospel of Christ.[9]

But the Aztecs were under the influence of sin, suppressed God’s truth,[10] and “did not honor him as God or give thanks to him as God…and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”[11] They failed even to measure up to this lower standard of natural revelation. The question is: what was the magnitude of the Aztec sin?

Before I start, I have to say that it gives me no joy to enunciate the horrors of my cultural heritage, but unless we understand the magnitude of sin we can’t understand human nature. I am proud to have been raised in such a rich and beautiful culture, but all nations have a dark side and the Mexicas[12] were no exception. After all, they were fallen humans as we are.

I am also sure that many of my fellow Mexicans would object to most of the lines that follow because the magnitude of the Aztec’s depravity tends to be drowned and minimized in magic and mysticism in scholarly and social circles. Unless we take a good look in the mirror of our decadent past, we cannot make progress towards higher levels of morality and to the true knowledge of God. It is in that spirit and after prayerful consideration that I submit the rest of this document to the reader.

Sexual Depravity

Polygamy was widely accepted in Aztec culture, especially practiced within royalty circles and nobility. Nezahualilli, ruler of the neighboring city of Texcoco, possessed 2000 wives and 144 children.[13] Huitzilihuitl (1391-1415 AD), second Aztec Tlatoani (emperor), ruled for 24 years and used polygamy to extend his circle of influence within the nobility and to exert power with rival states with arranged marriages. Polygamy, however, seems to be a later phenomenon in Aztec society.[14]

Adultery was not accepted by the bulk of the Aztecs and, in fact, they had laws against it. If the offending party was a man, the law tended to be very lenient, but for a female adulterer the punishment was severe, including death by stoning or strangulation.[15] Even with laws to regulate it within the commoners, adultery in the clergy and nobility were rampant.

In the pantheon of Aztec gods, Xochipili was the patron of male homosexuality and male prostitution. There are numerous early eyewitness accounts of homosexuality embedded in the Aztec culture. Bernal Díaz del Castillo accompanied Hernán Cortés during the conquest of Mexico and described numerous male prostitutes and unmarried priests engaging in homosexual acts.[16] The emperor himself, Moctezuma, the sun god, was seen practicing sodomy with young warriors to be sacrificed after a “juego de pelota.”[17] In his first letter to Emperor Charles V, Cortés wrote that the Indians of Mexico “are all sodomites and have no remorse to that abominable sin.”[18]

Child Sacrifice

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590) traveled to México in 1529 (eight years after the fall of Tenochtitlan) and spent over fifty years in Mexico studying the language and culture of the Aztecs as a missionary. In his published work, Sahagún describes gruesome accounts of child sacrifice.[19] The Aztec year was divided by 20 months. In 18 of those months a different kind of human sacrifice was performed. During the first month (the driest of the season), the Aztecs sacrificed children to Tlaloc—the god of rain and water. They believed that the tears of children would secure abundant rain for the rest of the year. The parents would dress up the child to be sacrificed in ceremonial clothes and jewelry before placing them in a sacrificial stone called techcatl. The child was held down by two priests by the legs, and two by the head or arms. An obsidian or flint knife was hammered down through his gut or ribcage to extract the small beating heart to be offered to Tlaloc. If the child was not crying before the sacrifice, they pulled some of their fingernails to ensure an abundance of tears. The lifeless body was tossed down, cut to pieces and prepared to be cooked and eaten. These children were typically between three and six years old.[20]

After describing the Aztec child sacrifice above, Sahagún laments:

I believe not that a heart exists so hard, that, after hearing such a cruel, inhumane, brutal, and devilish account like the one above written, would not be moved to pity and tears, horror and despair; and certainly it is deplorable and horrible, to see our human nature get to such a profound, degenerate and shameful state, that parents, by suggestion of the devil, would kill and eat their own children (thinking that in such act, they offend no one) but rather believing that they perform a great service to their gods.[21]

In his third letter to Charles V, Cortés writes how he came across “many sacks of maize and roasted babies which the enemy carried as provisions.”[22] During his stay in Cholula, near Mexico City, Cortés  witnessed how the natives prepared to wage war by sacrificing ten children, aged three (five of them girls) to their god, Quetzalcoatl, the “Feathered Serpent.”[23]

These early accounts were initially dismissed by Mexican scholars as “exaggerated” and to be “inventions” of the Spaniards to justify their brutal colonization, but many of these facts have been supported by archeological research. In 2007, 24 skeletons of children were discovered in the Toltec city of Tula showing signs of decapitation. The Aztecs were deeply influenced by the Toltecs and their deities, including the god Tlaloc to which most child sacrifices were dedicated.[24] In 1980 a group of Mexican archeologists, led by Leonardo Lopez Lujan, discovered the skeletal remains of 42 children (aged two to six) offered to pluvial deities.[25] In 2005, Lopez discovered a sacrificed child (aged five, sex unknown) to Huitzilopochtli, the sun god of war, by heart extraction in the “Templo Mayor,” at the heart of the remains of Tenochtitlan.[26]

Human Sacrifice and Cannibalism

Human sacrifice and cannibalism of adults in Aztec culture are established facts, attested by early eyewitness accounts and supported by archeological evidence as well. The variety and magnitude of human sacrifice is too broad to be covered in essay format, but a glimpse will suffice to illustrate the point.

The Aztecs believed that the sun god, Huitzilopoztli, required blood so that the sun would come out each day. Ritual cannibalism frequently ensued. Sacrifices were not limited to men but included all ages and sexes. The frequency and number of sacrifices is hotly debated, but we know that 18 out of the 20 months of the Aztec calendar included some type human sacrifice. This was not a rare or infrequent event. We also know that some Spaniards were sacrificed after being captured, as recounted by eyewitness Bernal Diaz, as they retreated with Cortéz from Tenochtitlan after an Aztec uprising:

We heard them play the drums of [Huitzilopochtli] and many other shells and horns and instruments like trumpets, and the sound was terrifying, and we all looked toward the lofty pyramid…and saw our comrades…forced up the steps…

We saw them place plumes on their heads and fans in their hands and forced them to dance before [Huitzilopochtli] and after they had danced they immediately placed them on their backs on some rather narrow stones…and with some knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to their idols.

They kicked the bodies down the steps, and the Indian butchers waiting below cut off their arms and legs and flayed the skin off their faces and prepared it like clove leather with the beards still on…and the flesh they ate in chilmole.[27]

[T]he bellies and entrails they threw to the tigers, lions and snakes they kept in the house of beasts. As they made the sacrifices, a squadron of warriors suddenly fell upon us shouting: “see the way you are all going to die.” [T]hen they threw roasted legs of Indians and the arms of our soldiers and yelled: “Eat the flesh of these teules [Indians] and of your brothers, for we already had our fill.”[28]

This type of chilling account is not unique, and even if human sacrifice is a worldwide phenomenon, the Aztecs seemed to have taken this practice to superlative levels. According to Spanish accounts, king Ahutzotl sacrificed between 14,000 and 80,400 prisoners in 1487 AD during the dedication of the Great Temple to Huitzilopochtli; all in just four days. Using the lower estimate, this is equivalent to five men killed every two minutes for 96 hours straight! It took four teams of butchers to complete the blood-bath that permanently tainted red the façade of the “Templo Mayor” pyramid.[29]

Women were not exempt from sacrificial duty. According to Sahagún, they were sacrificed to the goddess Xilonen by decapitation followed by heart extraction and finally flayed so the skin could be worn by a noble.[30] Aztecs sacrificed men to the fire god Xiuchtecutli in a particularly gruesome manner: the men’s bodies were tainted yellow and red and dressed with feathers. Before the sacrifice, the top of their scalps was cut and kept as a relic. A large pyre encircled by stones was lit until only red-hot coals and ash remained. The men were sprayed with incense, and then thrown into the burning coals alive. Once their bodies were “scorched and covered with blisters” in agonizing pain, but still alive, they were pulled out of the pool of coals and finally taken to a sacrificial stone where their beating hearts to be extracted.[31]

Early accounts of cannibalism from Diaz, Sahagún, Cortez, and others are undeniable and confirmed by archeology. “[E]very day,” wrote Diaz, the Aztecs “sacrificed three or four or five Indians in front of us, offering their hearts to the idols, smearing their blood on the walls, cutting off their legs, arms and muscles as butchers do in our country, and they eat them like beef that is brought from the butcheries in our country.”[32] Similar accounts abound in early Spanish eyewitness writings confirmed by archeology.

Idolatry

The list of Aztec deities includes more than 1000 idols. It is interesting to note that worshiping in the Aztec cult was not geared towards moral improvement but as means to coerce the gods to obtain favor. Along with the practice of human sacrifice, the long list of Aztec ceremonies included bloodletting of earlobes, legs and genitals; dances wearing the skins of flayed victims, and burning offerings of snakes and other animals.[33]

During the second month of the Aztec calendar, some of the blood from human sacrifices was collected to taint the mouth of different idols symbolizing their satisfaction with the sacrifice.[34]

Many of the rites involved imitation of mythical accounts: Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the gods Mixcoatl and Coatlique, was dismembered and decapitated by her brother Huitzilopochtli. Scholars believe that the destruction of Coyotxauhqui mirrors the traditional rite of human sacrifice given that, at the foot of the “Templo Mayor,” where most of the sacrifices took place, resided a large stone with a carved image of the goddess were the carnage of bodies was received to be dismembered.

They Knew Better

Could it be that the Aztecs’ behavior is justified since they simply had a different perspective of life and culture? I think not. In a 2009 article in Philosophia Christi, Dr. Clay Jones convincingly argues that God’s command to destroy the Canaanites was capital punishment due to their depravity.[35] He lists the following Canaanite sins that ultimately warranted divine judgment: idolatry, incest, adultery, child sacrifice, homosexuality and bestiality. This list is very similar to that of the Aztecs: idolatry, homosexuality, child and human sacrifice, torture, cannibalism, polygamy, and adultery. This speaks volumes of the human common denominator: unimaginable potential for evil.

But, are we to think that the Aztecs did not have an objective sense of morality? Maybe they just did not know any better? After all, it could be argued that they could not have a sense of the monotheistic God of the Bible. I disagree; they knew exactly what they were doing. People stop being moral relativists as soon as they suffer evil, pain and suffering of their own. We can know how people really feel about morality from their reactions: according to the very eminent historian David Carrasco, the Aztecs accompanied the killing of children with loud wailing (from the parents and family to drown the child’s cries), and the priests considered it a grim, dirty business. Aztecs avoided the places of child sacrifice whenever they could.[36] This is very revealing. Offering children in sacrifice was not a joyous occasion, thus the wailing, mourning, and avoidance of sacrificial places. A mother’s protective instinct is hard to overcome in spite of deep moral corruption.

We also have strong evidence of monotheistic beliefs in ancient Mexico. All men have the potential to recognize the God of all creation in nature as indicated in Romans 1. The Aztecs were no exception. Netzahualcoyotl (1402-1472) was a poet, ruler and philosopher in the eastern side of Lake Texcoco, near Tenchtitlan. He conceived of a single invisible deity that he called Tloque Nahuaque, favored monotheistic ideas, and despised human sacrifice.[37] He was a brilliant and fair ruler. In fact he raised a temple in honor of Tloque with no idols and no sacrifices. In his poetry he refers to Tloque as “invisible as the night and untouchable as the wind,” mentions concepts such as “true words,” and the enigma of facing “The Giver of Life.” Netzahualcoyotl asks desperate rhetorical questions in his abundant poetry seeking to unravel the mystery of this nameless “Supreme Judge”:

Only there, in the lap of the heavens

You invent your word

You, Giver of life!

What will you decide?

Will you not be content here?

Will you hide your fame and glory from earth?

What will you decide?

Where will we go?[38]

It is easy to empathize with that deep longing that stone idols could not fulfill. Even if the purity of Netzahualcoyotl’s monotheism has been questioned by some scholars, there is no doubt about his strong tendencies to worship a single Creator of the Universe. There are many other pre-Columbian references to monotheistic worship in Mesoamerica. What is clear is that, not only the Aztecs, but all humans have been given enough grace to identify God Almighty through creation. Unfortunately, in light of the evidence we have analyzed above, the grand majority of the Aztecs did not act with moral responsibility to God, but instead “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.”[39] If there is one thing we have in common in all ages with all men is this: we know when we have done evil. The Aztecs were no exception. They certainly knew!

Conclusion

The similarities between the Aztec and Canaanite sins are striking. I don’t know the mind of God, but it seems very plausible to me that the elimination of the Aztec culture, just as the Canaanites, was capital punishment (using yet another fallen and corrupt race such as the Spanish conquistadors). Many more analogies can be drawn that I leave the reader to discover. But God is merciful and there may have been a few pre-Columbians, like Netzahualcoyotl, that responded properly to God’s natural revelation and found salvation just as Job and Melchizedek did.

But here is what we can know: fast forward 500 years, and as I look in the mirror of my ancestors, I see myself and today’s society reflected: sodomy, genocide, incest, pornography, abortion (child sacrifice), idolatry, selfishness, materialism, prostitution, sex trafficking, pedophilia, etc. Is our list of sins really that different from that of the Aztecs or the Canaanites? Are we so blind and arrogant to believe we are better? We often ask God to intervene and take away the evil from the world without realizing that sometimes he does: God eliminated evil by passing judgment on the Canaanites; he likely did it with the Aztecs; I think we are next in line unless we repent from the depravity, sin and evil in our lives. We need to take a look back 2000 years ago and ponder on the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth for our sake: the only sacrifice approved by God and capable of cleaning all the sin and blood from our past, present, and future.

[1] Helen Dwyer and Mary Stout, Aztec History and Culture (New York, NY: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2013), 40.

[2] Manuel Aguilar Moreno, Handbook to the Life in the Aztec World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), 94.

[3] Terence Wise, The Conquistadores (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1980), 16.

[4] Jn. 1:2. All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[5] Jn. 1:3.

[6] Rom. 1:20.

[7] Rom. 2:15.

[8] Rom. 2:7.

[9] William Lane Craig, “How Can Christ Be the Only Way to God?” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/how-can-christ-be-the-only-way-to-god (accessed March 23, 2013).

[10] Rom. 1:18.

[11] Rom. 1:21-23.

[12] Mexica or Mexikatl is another designation for the Aztec ethnic group.

[13] Moreno, Life in the Aztec World, 352.

[14] Dirk R. Van Tuerenhout, The Aztecs: New Perspectives (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 40.

[15] Moreno, Life in the Aztec World, 390.

[16] James Neil, The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies (North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2009), 26.

[17] The Aztecs practiced a ritual ball game called “tlachtli”. In a variant of the game, the losing team was decapitated and their blood was offered as a sacrifice to their idols (usually the sun god Huitzilopochtli). There is also evidence that their skulls were used as balls. Moreno, Life in the Aztec World, 153.

[18] Neil, Same-Sex Relations in Human Societies, 26.

[19] Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España, ed. Ángel Ma. Garibay (México: Editorial Porrúa, 2006), 83-193.

[20] Sahagún, Historia General, 87-88.

[21] Ibid., 88.

[22] Hernán Cortés, Letters from Mexico, Anthony Padgen, Trans. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 245 (emphasis added).

[23] Leonardo Lopez Lujan, “Huitzilopochtli y El Sacrificio de Niños en el Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlan,” http://www.mesoweb.com/about/articles/Huitzilopochtli.pdf (accessed April 24th 2013).

[24] Stefan Anitei, “Mass Child Sacrifice Made by the Aztecs’ Predecessors,” http://news.softpedia.com/news/Mass-Child-Sacrifice-Executed-by-the-Aztecs-039-Predecessors-57263.shtml (accessed April 24th 2013).

[25] Lopez, “Huitzilopochtli y El Sacrificio,” 2013.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Chilmole is chile sauce.

[28] Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Trans. Janet Burke, (Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012), 414.

[29] Victor Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2001), 194.

[30] Sahagún, Historia General, 138.

[31] Ibid., 146.

[32] Díaz, The Conquest of New Spain, 93.

[33] The Aztecs accompanied these acts with ritual meals, cannibalism, and drunkenness. Sahagún, Historia General, 87-193.

[34] Ibid., 92.

[35] Clay Jones, “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites,” http://www.clayjones.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/We-Dont-Hate-Sin-PC-article.pdf (accessed May 13th 2013).

[36] David Carrasco, City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000), 196-7 (emphasis added).

[37] Miguel León Portilla, Filosofía Náhuatl Estudiada en Sus Fuentes, Tenth Edition (México: Ediciones UNAM, 2006), 44.

[38] Martha L. Canfield, Literatura Hispanoamericana: Historia y Antología (Milano, Italy: Ulrico Hoepli Editore, 2009), 45.

[39] Rom. 1:23-24.

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