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The Fall of a Barbaric Religion

The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe is located in Mexico City, a huge metropolis with a population of twenty million inhabitants. This enormous city stands in a mountainous valley (2240 meters above sea level) surrounded by peaks reaching heights of 6000 meters above sea level. Three huge lakes with numerous islands were situated there.

The Aztecs settled in this valley in the first half of the fourteenth century — on an island near the western shores of Lake Texcoco. Here they founded their capital city, Tenochtitlan. The city-state developed very quickly as its inhabitants destroyed the neighboring tribes with great ruthlessness and cruelty. Thus the Aztecs became lords and masters of the entire region, having built their powerful state and civilization on the blood of tens of thousands of people.

It is estimated that in 1519, when the Spanish forces of Hernando Cortes took Mexico, the thirty-eight provinces of this country had a population of about ten million Indians. The capital city of Tenochtitlan alone (now Mexico City) numbered two hundred thousand inhabitants. The sight of the city amazed the Spaniards. The Aztecs had developed a high civilization, although they were behind in some areas of knowledge. The wheel, the laws of physics, and the arched vault, for example, were unknown to them. They fostered a genuine cult of astrology, magic and numerous superstitions. Specializing in this domain was a ruling caste of priests, who practiced magic. It was precisely these priest-magicians (or shamans) who created one of the world’s most appalling barbaric religions in which the powers of darkness were clearly at work. The Aztecs strove to appease a host of gods and goddesses who for them personified the forces of nature: the sun, moon, rain, wind, fire, etc. They built hundreds of temple complexes — pyramids on which they offered endless human sacrifice. This was the only way, they believed, of ensuring the sunrise, rainfall, of warding off disease, hunger and other misfortunes.

The Aztecs regarded themselves as “people of the sun,” that is, the chosen people of the insatiable god Huizilopochtli. They felt compelled to feed their gods human blood. The victims were mostly slaves and prisoners of war. In 1487 the main temple in the very center of the city of Tenochtitlan was completed. Built in the shape of a double pyramid, it was dedicated to the Huizilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloco. In the course of four days during the dedication festivities, some twenty thousand prisoners of war were slaughtered in a ritual sacrifice. Using a stone knife, the longhaired priests would cut open the live victim’s breast, tear out the beating heart and raise it up to the sun in a gesture of propitiatory offering. A specimen of Aztec iconography survives depicting this gruesome ritual. Since their gods required thousands of victims, the Aztecs invented their so-called “flower wars,” which involved rounding up people from other tribes. These victims were then sacrificed every month to their most important god — the “feathered snake.”

The Aztecs devised still more grisly methods of human sacrifice. M. Meyer and W. Sherman relate in their book, The Course of Mexican History, how in the early fourteenth century the Aztecs fought as mercenaries for Coxcox, ruler of the city of Culhuacan on the southern shores of the lake. When they took the nearby city of Xochimilco, they sent Coxcox eight thousand human ears as proof of their victory. Coxcox agreed to let his daughter become an Aztec goddess. Without his knowledge, the princess was skinned alive and offered up as a sacrifice. Later the Aztecs invited Coxcox to a banquet in her honor. To his horror, he noticed that one of the dancers about to entertain him was “dressed” in his daughter’s skin. Coxcox fell into a rage, gathered his army and put the barbarians to flight. The Aztecs often flayed people alive while offering human sacrifices to the god Xipe Totek. Cannibalism crowned the ritual barbarity of the Aztecs. They ate human flesh, regarding it as a divine ritual and a supreme, genuinely royal distinction. During a banquet in 1519, as a gesture of his special hospitality, the Aztec king Montezuma offered Cortes and his Spaniards dishes prepared from human hearts.

The Aztecs believed that the satisfaction of the gods depended on the degree of pain inflicted on the sacrificial victims. In times of drought they sacrificed children to the rain god Tlaloco. Before putting them to death, they ripped out their fingernails in order to elicit the greatest flow of tears, for it was only with children’s tears that they could prevail on the god to send down the desired rain.

The barbaric religion and civilization of the Aztecs was destroyed in 1519-1520 by a small army of Spanish knights (550 men and 16 horses) led by Captain Hernando Cortes. The Spaniards landed on the Yucatan Peninsula and began advancing along the coast. Having had enough of the Aztecs’ bloody terror and rule, Indian tribes joined with the Spaniards, resolving to take the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. News of the approaching white soldiers on horseback threw the superstitious Aztecs into a panic. King Montezuma was especially terrified, as he believed in the prophecies concerning the year 1519, which was supposed to see the return of the legendary god-king. Cortes entered Tenochtitlan on November 8, 1519, and was hailed by the king as the expected god. The Spaniards were put up in the most beautiful palaces. After staying there for six months, Cortes set out for the Vera Cruz coast to crush a rebellion mounted by the troops of Narvaez. He left behind him in Tenochtitlan a garrison of 140 soldiers. Cortes crushed his enemy and the defeated troops subsequently agreed to join forces with him. Meanwhile in Tenochtitlan the Aztecs had incited an uprising against the Spanish garrison. When Cortes reached the capital, a fierce battle was in progress. On June 30, 1520, under the cover of night, the Spaniards began withdrawing from the city. Only a remnant of the garrison managed to escape alive. The rest either perished in battle or were sacrificed to the gods in the Aztec temples. After this defeat, Cortes regrouped his army and, in May of 1520, having increased the strength of his force by some one hundred thousand Indian confederates, laid siege to the Aztec capital. After a series of fierce battles Tenochtitlan was taken on 13 August 1521.

One of the first decisions of the conquistadors was to raze the gruesome temples of the Aztec gods. On the site of the largest temple to the “feathered snake” would stand the church of Santiago de Tlaltelolco. Catholic missionaries began arriving. Before long they were erecting Catholic churches, schools, orphanages and hospitals. However, the pagan customs of the land remained deeply rooted among the indigenous people and the number of converts to Catholicism remained relatively small. The situation remained essentially unchanged until 1531, when Our Lady began appearing on the hill of Tepeyac.  

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