When Europeans first arrived in the New World it was a profoundly strange moment. As far as the people of Europe were concerned they had a good understanding of world history both from the Bible and the variety of Classical Greek and Roman histories that had survived the ages. Encountering new continents chock full of people set of very real intellectual conundrums!
Out of this chaos we have real tragedies. Upwards of 60% of Native American populations died simply from exposure to measles and small pox. Some of these deaths occurred before indigenous populations even met a European explorer as the diseases spread even faster than human foot travel. The subsequent colonial occupation so further tragedies in the forms of forced labor, torture, and more.
Yet out of this unexpected encounter between two worlds we also see numerous oddities. Europeans struggled to understand the cultures of North and South America, but especially those cultures that made up Mesoamerica (modern day Mexico and Central America). The Maya had strange fascinations with time and astronomy that the Spanish could barely fathom. And the Aztec, well their interest in bloodletting and “strange” deities drew more than a small amount of European attention.
In the rush to condemn Aztec religion as pagan idolatry many mistakes and misinterpretations were made. These misinterpretations lay the ground work for today’s popular views of the Aztec as bloodthirsty and savage. One of my favorite examples of this phenomena can be seen in the image below published by Thomas Gage in 1720.
Gage sought to describe the strange new world of the Americas in his book Le Voyage de Thomas Gage. This book featured illustrations both of Gage’s travels and the histories of the people he encountered. The image below represents Gage’s understanding of the inner sanctum of the Aztec’s most sacred temple, which we know of today as the Templo Mayor.
What is remarkable about this image is how it in every way reflects European ideas about paganism and in no way shape or form resembles Aztec religious ideologies! The central cult figure clearly represents a form of chimera such as those prized in ancient Greek and Roman religious stories. Yet, such figures are rare at best in Mesoamerican religion.
The roots of our modern perceptions run deep. We must plumb them if we wish to understand our own oddities!