How to Create a Religion 

Tlacaelel figures out how to build an empire

I am a lover of history and therefore am prone to read any and everything concerned with the vast subject. I also have an Audible account and absolutely cannot wait each month until my new, “free” credit drops (is it really free if I have to pay $14.95 for a subscription that STILL charges me for each book? But back to my post). So this month I chose the book 1491 by Charles C. Mann, a historical and anthropological study of the people of the America’s prior to Columbus’s so called discovery.  A fascinating book that provides so much new insight on the ancient civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. If you’re a fan of Native American history then you need to read this book.

As I was listening to the book, the author tells the story of a man named Tlacaelel who built the Mexica people into the mighty Aztec Empire. Interestingly enough when I was in 7th grade I did my final history report on the Aztec Empire. My sister had just returned from a missions trip (see story about my religious upbringing) to Mexico and I figured I could use some of the souvenirs she brought back as props. I honestly had little interest in Aztec history, but I had to turn in the subject of my project the next day and her maracas just spoke to me. Had I tried a little harder in my studies I would have stumbled upon this story and perhaps my journey of questioning god and religion would have started a lot earlier. You’re bored now and wondering if I’ll get to the point so I’ll keep you in suspense no longer.

Tlacaelel was the nephew of the Aztec king Itzcoatl and is most likely the most influential person in Aztec history. He is responsible for creating schools, a military, and a judicial system; as well as, redesigning the economic and social construct of the Mexica tribe, later to become the Aztec Empire. But in my opinion the most incredible thing Tlacaelel did was to change the thinking of the Mexica people by literally rewriting their history and religion. He realized that the defeated past of the Mexica people could only hold them back, so he persuaded the tribes leaders to burn their history. Once this was done Tlacaelel presented a new history, with a conquerors perspective, and with this history a new religion.

In his religion Tlacaelel told the Mexica people that they were the chosen defenders of the cosmos and their god, Huitzilopochtli. He explained that Huitzilopochtli was in constant danger of dying if he were not regularly quenched with the blood of men. If the god died, so did the Sun (some versions have the god as the Sun) and if the Sun died then so did all of mankind. It was the duty of the Mexica to insure the safety of humanity by supplying the god with daily human sacrifices. And in order to obtain these many sacrifices, the Mexica must conquer as many lands and people as possible. Tlacaelel was literally using religion to establish an imperialist state, and it worked. The Aztecs became the greatest civilization in Mesoamerican history. And while they were certainly no less brutal and bloodthirsty than their 15th century European counterparts, that’s not saying much. As Europeans crowded their town squares for a public and gory execution, the Aztecs flocked to their pyramid temples for human sacrifices. After one particular battle, it is said that the Aztec king Ahuitzotl sacrificed over 20,000 prisoners of war. It’s astounding what religion can motivate us to do.

But what I found so shocking about this story was that is was so transparent. While we can point to countless times in history when a person/persons have used religion to gain what they want, we cannot often find the origins of a religion so clearly detailed. And certainly not when those origins paint such a negative light on the beginning of that religion. Perhaps peoples ability to ignore this blatant political creation of religion plays more to our entitlement than to our love for all things holy. Had someone so crudely pointed out that Christianity had started this way the outcry would be endless. Yet the history of a “savage” people is not one that particularly moves us or motivates us to delve into the history of our own beliefs.

Just as Tlacaelel created a religion befitting his people, so all religion has been created. And just as his religion ultimately led to the suffering and discrimination of so many, so has all religion. It is sad that such a brilliant man chose such a rudimentary idea to stimulate the growth of his people. But then how many world leaders have been and continue to fall prey to the same thinking? I hope you have enjoyed this brief insight as much as I have and I strongly encourage you to look up the origins of your own faith (if you are not a faithless heathen like I am). I will periodically post the origins of different religions through history to build upon the truth.

-H

Resources : 1491 by Charles C. Mann :/:  www.aztec.com :/:  http://www.gmsdk12.org/Downloads/Tlacaelel.pdf

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