Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Sun God and the Savior

The Sun God and the Savior: The Christianization of the Nahua and Totonac in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 664
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Sun God and the Savior
    Book Description:

    The first English translation ofGuy Stresser-Péan'stour-de-force presents two decades of fieldwork in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico, where native pre-Hispanic pagan beliefs blended with traditional Catholic evangelization from the sixteenth century and the more recent intrusion of modernism.The Indians of the Sierra Norte de Puebla are deeply devoted to Christianity, but their devotion is seamlessly combined with pagan customs, resulting in a hybrid belief system that is not wholly indigenous, yet not wholly Christian. The syncretism practiced here has led the Totonac and Nahua people to identify Christ with the Sun God, a belief expressed symbolically in ritual practices such as the Dance of the Voladores.Spanning the four centuries from the earliest systematic campaign against Nahua ritual practices - Zumárraga's idolatry trials of 1536-1540 - to the twentieth century, Stresser-Péan contextualizes Nahua and Totonac ritual practices as a series of responses to Christian evangelization and the social reproduction of traditional ritual practices.The Sun God and the Savioris a monumental work on the ethnographic and historical knowledge of the peoples of the Sierra Norte.

    eISBN: 978-0-87081-986-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xvii-xxvi)
    Alfredo López Austin

    There are landscapes that enrapture travelers, and many of them are located in the Eastern Sierra Madre of Mexico. From the towering rim of the Central Highlands, one enters a continuous landscape of mountains alternating with escarpments, deep ravines, narrow valleys, and uneven riverbeds descending to the coastal plain, crossing it and flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The territory is composed of “mountainous steps separating the coasts from the highlands,” as described by Bernardo García Martínez (1987: 26). Mountain ranges form enormous drops battered by winds from the ocean’s surface; the rocky slopes receive the load released by the...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxvii-xxxii)
  6. 1 Converting the Indians in Sixteenth-Century Central Mexico to Christianity
    (pp. 1-24)

    Anyone interested in Mexico’s religious problems must rely on classic works, one of the most important of which is Robert Ricard’s indispensable book La“conquête spirituelle” du Mexique,first published in Paris in 1933 and in English asThe Spiritual Conquest of Mexicoin 1966. With great erudition the author examines the historical process through which the first missionaries devoted themselves to the task of converting the Indians of Mexico—particularly during the first half of the sixteenth century—based on extremely rich resources including manuscripts, architecture, sculpture, painting, engraving, and pictographs of the time. However, most texts were by...

  7. 2 From Spiritual Conquest to Parish Administration in Colonial Central Mexico
    (pp. 25-36)

    The first years of Indian conversion established almost unanimous devotion within Central Mexico, according to Motolinía’s description (1858) of the Indians as totally Christianized by 1530 to 1540. He characterized the Indians as entirely submissive and devoted to the missionaries. This optimistic view may have been fairly close to reality for a part of Central Mexico, for most of the Indians in that region seemed to have lived in a general atmosphere of fervor and devotion. Such circumstances led Fray Martín de Valencia and his companions to believe their dream of a kingdom of God on earth had come true....

  8. 3 A Trilingual, Traditionalist Indigenous Area in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 37-52)

    The small area I studied in 1980 and 1990 is located in the northern part of the state of Puebla extending to the northwest into a neighboring section of the state of Hidalgo. It is a very uneven, mountainous, rainy region. In former times it was covered with forests of pine, oak, alders, liquidambar, and beeches (Alcántara and Luna 2001). Basically, it constitutes the northern half of the municipality of Huauchinango, the western end of the large municipality of Xicotepec, and extends to the small municipalities of Naupan, Pahuatlán, and Chila-Honey. My research area also includes the western part of...

  9. 4 Introduction of Christianity in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 53-62)

    In the Sierra Norte de Puebla region, Christianity was introduced by Franciscan missionaries who founded one monastery in Tulancingo in 1527 or 1528 and another a few years later in Zacatlán. Fray Juan Padilla later left the monastery of Tulancingo, which he had just founded, to evangelize the neighboring Sierra. He preached in Nahuatl beginning in Acaxochitlán and moving on to Huauchinango. Although we lack precise data, we know that in 1532 he arrived in Matlatlán and baptized the local cacique. TheCodex de Xicotepec(1995) seems to show that in 1527 that town still had a pagan temple in...

  10. 5 Local Religious Crises in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
    (pp. 63-80)

    Over the course of three centuries of colonial history, the small region of study, along with its immediate neighboring areas, went through six religious crises. These crises reveal something about the evolution of the local Indians’ state of mind in the period between the Spanish conquest and the War of Independence. In this chapter I discuss the first five crises, while the sixth is presented in Chapter 6.

    In September 1537 a Nahua Indian named Mixcoatl, born in Chiauhtla near Texcoco, was condemned in Mexico by the Inquisition Tribunal. His crime was that he fought actively and openly against the...

  11. 6 The Tutotepec Otomí Rebellion, 1766–1769
    (pp. 81-128)

    The bishop of Puebla, the archbishop of Mexico, and Viceroy Marquis de Croix were disturbed by the sedition of the Tutotepec Otomís, which affected fifteen villages in 1769. William B. Taylor briefly described the events in his bookDrinking, Homicide and Rebellion in Colonial Mexican Villages(1979: 124–125) and in the Spanish edition (1987: 187–188), as did Serge Gruzinski inLa guerra de las imágenes(1994: 194–195). The Otomí revolt is known through a document in the Mexican national archives, the Archivo General de la Nación (Sección de lo Criminal, volume 308, exp. 1), especially through six...

  12. 7 Contemporary Traditions in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 129-146)

    By the end of the sixteenth century, the Indians in my sector of study must all have been baptized, married in the church, and included in the annual cycle of Christian public worship. However, one can also conclude that they had a particular worldview influenced by traditions of pre-Hispanic origin and that their concerns were different from those of their Spanish-speaking contemporaries. The result was a set of practices and beliefs formed and organized soon after the conquest, some of which continue more or less openly to this day. These practices and beliefs are inspired by health problems, fear of...

  13. 8 Sacred Drums, Teponaztli, and Idols from the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 147-178)

    Abundant data from the pre-Hispanic period show that in most of the cultural area of Mesoamerica, ritual music included the use of a pair of sacred drums. The male element of the pair was represented by a vertical drum with a single membrane, calledhuehuetlortlalpan huehuetlin Nahuatl, while the feminine element was represented by a xylophone-like drum with two vibrating surfaces, calledteponaztliin Nahuatl.

    The Sierra Norte de Puebla is probably the only area where these pairs of drums are still used and honored, preserving both their religious and their social value. In the Pre-Columbian period the...

  14. 9 Traditional Indigenous Festivities in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 179-212)

    The ceremonies described in this chapter were undoubtedly practiced in the past in all the villages of my region of study, but during the past fifty or sixty years they have been abandoned almost everywhere. They were calledaltepeilhuitlin Nahuatl andchuchut sipij catani’in Totonac, in other words, village or town festivity. The most famous festivity in the region was that of the Nahuas of Xicotepec, where traces of the ancient ritual remain to this day. I will describe it first because of its importance and exceptional character. Then I will describe the festivity of the Totonacs of Tepetzintla,...

  15. 10 Elements and Accessories of Traditional Native Ceremonies
    (pp. 213-234)

    In the traditional Indian mentality, every gift implies reciprocity.Do ut des.Thus, people owe everything to the “masters” of the world in which they live: life itself, their nourishment, the air they breathe, the light and heat from the sun, and so forth. Humans are perpetually demanding, even if only to preserve the universe as it was made for them. They must present themselves in a state of purity and with offerings of food and drink. However, for those offerings to be agreeable, they should be made in an atmosphere of beauty and joy, accompanied by flowers, music, prayers,...

  16. 11 Christian Festivities in the Villages of the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 235-254)

    The Catholic Church has a ritual sequence of festivities normally held during the course of each year. The application of a certain sequence had been established in Spain by the beginning of the sixteenth century, before the conquest of Mexico. The liturgical year begins with the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of November. However, for simplicity’s sake, I shall present the list of festivities practiced each year by the Indians of the Sierra Norte de Puebla, from January 1 to December 31.

    In Mexico, the beginning of the year gives rise to rejoicing and to ceremonies that are...

  17. 12 Dances That Originated in the Pre-Hispanic Period
    (pp. 255-324)

    In the region of study, numerous ancient documents confirm the existence of two aerial dances of pre-Hispanic origin: the Dance of the Volador and the Dance of the Fire Macaws, or Guacamayas (Red Macaw) (also called Dance of the Motzincuepani in Nahuatl, or Dance of the “Somersaulters”). A third dance, that of the Tejoneros, formerly called Dance of the Green Woodpeckers, is known to us through information from the twentieth century. Its character of a partly aerial dance and other details seem to indicate that it, too, is of pre-Hispanic origins.

    The Dance of the Volador and the Dance of...

  18. 13 Dances That Originated during the Colonial Period
    (pp. 325-350)

    The War of Reconquest against the Moors bloodied Spain for almost eight centuries during the Middle Ages. It inspired theChanson de Gesteas well as tales of knighthood. All across Europe it gave birth to popular theatrical performances representing the combat between Moors and Christians, which usually ended in the conversion of the Moors to Christianity (Foster 1960: 22). These spectacles were introduced in Mexico by the conquerors, for both themselves and the local Spanish public, as shown by the great festivities held in Mexico in 1538 and in Tlaxcala in 1539, discussed by Robert Ricard (1933: 224).


  19. 14 Holders of Indigenous Wisdom
    (pp. 351-372)

    Most of the Indians in the sector of study reported that one or several wise and erudite men, generally elders whose authority was highly respected, maintained the old traditions in many villages around Huauchinango. Their prestige came, above all else, from their understanding of matters related to religious traditions. In Nahuatl they were calledtlamatque, “those who know” (tlamatinimein Classical Nahuatl), and in Totonac they were calledc’atzina, a word derived from the verbc’atzi, which means “to know” or “to foresee” (Aschmann 1973: 15). In Otomí they were calledbãdi(orpãti; alsobandiorpanti), meaning “he...

  20. 15 Relics of the Mesoamerican Calendar in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 373-416)

    Among the cultural elements Paul Kirchhoff (1943) considered as defining Mesoamerican civilization, one of the most important is the use of a specific calendar shared, for the most part, by the people of that civilization. Historical facts gathered about the vocabulary of that ancient calendar from around twenty indigenous languages of Mexico and Guatemala suggest the existence of a core unity, despite regional variations of secondary importance. The only known, essentially complete version of the calendar is that of the ancient Aztecs and their Nahuatl-speaking neighbors from Central Mexico. The complete Mesoamerican calendar is structured by the combined use of...

  21. 16 Beliefs about the Formation and the End of the World
    (pp. 417-460)

    The indigenous people of the cultural area of Mesoamerica have always had a fundamental interest in their historical or mythical past. In pre-Hispanic times, remembrance of the past was maintained primarily through oral tradition, although it was aided by pictographic manuscripts called codices orlienzos. Several of these manuscripts, which originated in the Central Mexican Highlands and in the Mixtec region of the modern-day state of Oaxaca, have survived to the present. After the Spanish conquest, these precious memories of the past were sometimes transcribed into Latin characters by the Indians (mostly Nahuas from Central Mexico), who had been taught...

  22. 17 Cosmology: The World in the Eyes of the Indians of the Sierra de Puebla
    (pp. 461-484)

    The missionaries who converted the Indians of Mexico were cultivated men of the Renaissance. They vaguely knew that the earth was round, or rather spherical, in shape. The ancient Greeks had established that idea well before the present era. It had inspired the voyages of Christopher Columbus and had been demonstrated in 1523 by the voyage of Magellan around the world. However, they were unaware that the earth turned on its own axis and also around the sun, for these ideas were not published by Copernicus until 1543 and were not admitted by the Catholic Church until the end of...

  23. 18 The Souls of Beings and Things
    (pp. 485-512)

    In 1980, Alfredo López Austin published a two-volume work entitledCuerpo humano e ideologíaon the human soul and its relationship to the body. In the work he examined all aspects of this complex subject based on data from the sixteenth century and from diverse colonial and ethnographic sources. My discussion will draw heavily on this fundamental work and the countless references cited therein.

    Today, the notion that each individual possesses three souls is still alive in the Sierra de Puebla. To understand this system, it is necessary to examine pre-Hispanic concepts of the soul elucidated in colonial sources. First...

  24. 19 Supernatural Beings in the Beliefs and Religious Practices of Indians in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 513-544)

    Sybille de Pury-Toumi (1992: 62–73) has shown that sixteenth-century missionaries encountered difficulties in finding the proper terms to translate the essential concepts of the Christian doctrine, such as God, Holy Ghost, Trinity, and so forth.

    The Creed of the Catholic Church prescribes above all the worship of a single God in three forms: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Although it is fairly abstract, the concept of the Holy Trinity has had an impact among the Indians. Trinidad (“Trinity”) has become widespread as a baptismal name in the Sierra Norte de Puebla, as well as in the...

  25. 20 The Non-Syncretic Religion of the Last Nahuas of Central Mexico
    (pp. 545-562)

    Robert Ricard (1933: 330) has insisted that the evangelizing priests of the sixteenth century concentrated their efforts in Central Mexico—that is, in the Valley of Mexico and the Puebla-Tlaxcala highlands, spreading to the west (to Michoacán and Jalisco) and the southeast (to Oaxaca). These regions, which were considered “essential,” shared a temperate climate, easy communication, a dense, highly urbanized population, and widespread use of the Nahuatl language. In 1523–1524 they were taken under the wing of a large number of well-organized priests, who were consumed by an admirable zeal and had the support of civil authorities in founding...

  26. 21 Religious Syncretism among Today’s Indians in the Sierra Norte de Puebla
    (pp. 563-572)

    When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Indians of Central Mexico were largely urbanized and culturally unified. Their evangelization began in 1524, barely three years after the conquest of Mexico-Tlatelolco—a bloody conquest that must have left an atmosphere of lasting hatred, aggravated by the excesses committed by the conquerors. We know from a reliable source that at the end of 1524, when Cortés left for Honduras, a large number of Indians harbored the hope that an uprising would allow them to massacre the Spaniards. Therefore, the Franciscans were compelled to take veritable combat measures from the start, such as...

  27. Bibliography
    (pp. 573-598)
  28. Index
    (pp. 599-628)